Saint Mary's Parish Church stands at the south west corner of Lindisfarne village on the tidal Holy Island of Lindisfarne. In some ways the church is dominated by the ruins, immediately to its east, of Lindisfarne Priory. The two share a common heritage and although St Mary's was for many centuries less important than its neighbour, it can now lay claim to standing on a site in use for Christian worship for some 1,400 years.
The background to the arrival of Christianity on Lindisfarne in is set out on our Lindisfarne Priory feature. Suffice it to say here that when Bishop Aidan, later St Aidan, established his monastery on the island in 635, he built at its heart two wooden churches a short distance apart, which shared a common east-west axis. Tradition has it that the "greater" more easterly church was dedicated to St Peter, and served as the monastic church, while the more westerly was dedicated to St Mary, and may have served the wider community which grew up around the monastery on the island.
This first St Mary's Church would have seen Cuthbert become Bishop of Lindisfarne; and would have stood here when the Lindisfarne Gospels were being created in the neighbouring monastery in the early 700s. It would also have been standing here on 8 June 793 when the Vikings made their first devastating raid on Lindisfarne.
More raids led to the abandonment of the monastery. The monks finally left in 875, taking St Cuthbert's relics with them. There is however evidence, in the form of burial stones, that suggests that although the early monastery was abandoned, a Christian community remained on the island during the centuries that followed. It is an attractive thought that this community might have continued to worship in a church on the site of St Aidan's original St Mary's: and there is evidence within the building of stonework (above the chancel arch) that probably dates back to before the Norman conquest.
In the 1120s the Norman Benedictine community at Durham began to build the imposing church of Lindisfarne Priory, just to the east of St Mary's. Once this was complete, in about 1150, work began on the complex of domestic and service buildings to its south. It seems likely that the latter half of the 1100s also saw work begin to rebuild and expand the Saxon stone church that probably already stood to the west. Further work in the 1200s resulted in a building largely recognisable as the St Mary's Church you can see and visit today.
The most obvious relic of the early phase of Christianity on Holy Island is the Petting Stone. This is a large, heavily weathered and approximately square socketed stone which stands a few yards to the east of St Mary's Church. This obviously served as the base for a large stone cross and it is thought likely to date back to before the establishment of Lindisfarne Priory: and could well have stood here before the first monastery was abandoned in 875.
The interior of St Mary's Church carries a sense of great peace and antiquity. It is also considerably larger than it appears from the outside: perhaps because St Mary's appears rather diminutive when compared with the ruins of the priory church. You enter via the porch that leads into the south aisle, and first time visitors, especially if on their own, can find what awaits inside a bit of a shock. The south aisle is home to "The Journey", a magnificent elm sculpture by Fenwick Lawson carved largely with a chainsaw. This depicts six rather larger than life hooded monks, carrying a coffin towards the entrance. It represents the journey undertaken by the monks of Lindisfarne, carrying St Cuthbert's coffin, after they left the island in 875 and before the community finally settled in Durham in 995.
Lindisfarne Priory was closed on the orders of King Henry VIII's commissioners in 1537 and eventually became the ruin you see today. St Mary's Church carried on as a reformed parish church. While much of the structure dates back to well before the Reformation, many of the fixtures and fittings are more recent. The east end of the church is glorious, and comes complete with three beautiful stained glass windows which, like most of the stained glass in the church, is Victorian in date. The reredos behind the high altar carries depictions of a number of saints associated with Iona (where Aidan had come from to found the monastery on Lindisfarne) or with Lindisfarne itself.
The oldest grave marker we saw outside the church is dated 1686, though one set into the north wall of the sanctuary has been dated to the 1100s and is carved with a mitre, a sword and a cross, an unusual mix of symbols.