St Aidan's Church stands on the north side of Church Street as it heads away from the centre of Bamburgh towards Belford. It is fairly unmissable in its own right, but for anyone needing further directions, it stands almost opposite the RNLI's Grace Darling Museum. The church enjoys a superb location offering broad sea views, and equally good views of Bamburgh Castle, with whose story its own is closely entwined.
From the outside, St Aidan's Church can appear slightly oddly proportioned. The nave has a lower roofline than the chancel, and the chancel is also unusually long when compared to the length of the nave. There is no doubt whatsoever that the chancel was regarded by its builders as the most important part of the church.
The interior of the church is wonderful, but it is worth first taking a stroll around the churchyard. The west side of this is dominated by the very grand memorial to Grace Darling, whose story we tell on our feature about Bamburgh. The memorial was intended to be large enough to be seen by passing mariners out at sea, and it probably succeeds. The memorial you see today was erected in 1895. An earlier memorial erected in 1844, two years after Grace Darling's death, was badly damaged in a storm in 1885.
The reclining statue of Grace used on the original memorial was given a more sheltered home in the north aisle of the church. Meanwhile, the gravestone marking the burial place of Grace Darling, her parents and her brother and sister, can be found a short distance south of the memorial. While in the graveyard it is worth looking out for a gravestone near the main entrance to the church bearing a skull and crossbones. We've seen this referred to as a pirate's grave. It seems more likely to have been the grave of a Scot: such symbols of mortality are common on post-Reformation Scottish gravestones in an era in which the symbol of the cross was seen as unduly "papist".
You can tell a lot about a church from the feeling it gives you as you enter. St Aidan's Church conveys a sense of great serenity and of great antiquity. On passing through the door you find yourself in the broad south aisle, beyond which is the nave and the rather narrower north aisle. An unusually small chancel arch gives access to the unusually large chancel, which as a result feels quite separate from the nave. The focal point of the church is, of course, at the east end of the chancel, where you find the high altar (there is also a nave altar at the east end of the nave) and the magnificent carved reredos. Close by is the reclining effigy of a knight thought to date from about 1325.
Also within the chancel is a memorial marking the spot where St Aidan died in 651. Up to this point you have been exploring a church whose main standing components were built in the decades either side of 1200 (the chancel, the tower and parts of the nave); the 1300s (the transepts and the south aisle); and the 1400s (the north aisle). But realising that the founder of the church died here not far short of fourteen centuries ago really brings home just how ancient the story of the church actually is.
Christianity had briefly gained a foothold in Northumbria in the 620s, but it really flourished after the accession to the crown of Northumbria of King Oswald (later St Oswald) in 634. He had spent much of his youth in exile in what is now Argyll and had converted to the distinctive brand of Celtic Christianity which had taken root there after initial development in Ireland. Oswald wanted his subjects to share his religion, and asked the centre of the Celtic Church, the monastery on Iona, to provide a suitable bishop to oversee the conversion of Northumbria. The man they sent to serve as bishop was Aidan, later St Aidan, who from 635 spent 17 years in Northumbria working alongside monks he brought in from Iona to establish a monastery on the island of Lindisfarne, granted to them by King Oswald.
Aidan also built a wooden church in Oswald's capital, Bamburgh, and this is believed to have stood on the site of the chancel of the later church. By 1100 this early wooden church had probably been replaced in stone. The income from St Aidan's Church was awarded in 1121 by King Henry I to the Augustinian Canons of Nostell Priory in Yorkshire. This led to some conflict with the Bishop of Durham, who felt had had a claim to the church, but this seems to have been resolved by 1170, when work began to completely rebuild whatever had stood here before. The work on rebuilding the church seems to have continued until about 1230.
After the Reformation, St Aidan's continued as a parish church, though it seems to have been in a poor state of repair by 1600. It was subsequently restored, and the centuries since have seen fairly frequent rounds of repair, usually funded by the notable families who have resided in Bamburgh Castle, especially the Forsters. The last major round of restoration took place in 1895, which left the church very much as you see it today.