Saxon Treasures, Viking Raids and Norman Houses of God

Lindisfarne Priory

Lindisfarne - Saxon Treasures, Viking Raids and Norman Houses of God

Following on from my previous post, The Saints of Lindisfarne, I want to expand on the impact that these saints, particularly St. Cuthbert, had.

St. Cuthbert had been laid to rest in Lindisfarne priory in March 687 AD, but eleven years later to the day, the monks exhumed his body to ‘elevate’ his remains in order for pilgrims to be as close as possible to the saint and his special powers.

Expecting to find just bones and dust in a small casket, the monks discovered a completely undecayed body, and so quickly made a wooden reliquary coffin which they placed on the floor of the church above the spot where he had been buried: Another miracle it would seem.

The enshrinement of St. Cuthbert appears to be the reason for the creation of the Lindisfarne Gospels, probably the most cherished illuminated book in the Anglo-Saxon world.

A 10th century inscription at the end of the original text states that the manuscript was made ‘in honour of God and St. Cuthbert’ by Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne.

Incipit Page for Matthew ©British-Library
Incipit Page for Matthew ©British-Library
Incipit Page for Mark ©British-Library
Incipit Page for Mark ©British-Library

The book was made between 715 and 720 AD and consisted of more than 250 leaves of vellum recording the four Gospels in Latin.

Another monk, Aldred, translated the Latin script into Old English, which can be seen between the lines of text. Translated sometime between 950 and 960 AD, this is the oldest surviving translation of the Gospels into English.

The opening pages of each Gospel (known as incipit pages) are the most decorative, but there are also five ‘Carpet Pages’ that are almost as decorative but with little or no text.

Page from the Book of Luke (Note the translation in between the lines) ©British-Library
Page from the Book of Luke (Note the translation in between the lines) ©British-Library
Carpet Page ©British-Library
Carpet Page ©British-Library

Pens made from feathers were used to create the manuscripts which combined a mixture of soot and egg whites for the black ink and plants and mineral pigments for the colours.

The make-up of some of the pages are quite extraordinary. For example, over 10,000 drops of red lead were used to form the initial page of St. Luke’s Gospel: I’m not sure that I’d want to spend a night down the pub with whoever counted that lot.

Incipit Page for Luke ©British-Library
Incipit Page for Luke ©British-Library
How many red dots are there? ©British-Library
How many red dots are there? ©British-Library

The original cover was made out of leather by Ethelwald, Eadfrith’s successor as Bishop, and then sometime around the middle of the 8th century an outer covering of gold with silver and gemstones was added by a relatively unknown saint who went by the name of Billfrith the Anchorite.

The original cover hasn’t survived but a replacement was added in the 19th century by Bishop Maltby of Durham and based on the book’s carpet pages.

Close-up Detail of a page from St. Matthew ©British-Library
Close-up Detail of a page from St. Matthew ©British-Library
19th Century Front Cover ©British-Library
19th Century Front Cover ©British-Library

The book is so valuable that it is safely looked after in the British Library, but if you can’t get there, a selection of pages are available to view online (http://www.bl.uk/turning-the-pages/). The copyright of all the individual images of the book that I’ve included here belong to the British Library.

Lindisfarne has its own digital version in the Lindisfarne Centre which is also worth a visit.

Having seen some of these pages, both online and in real life, I can see how the phrase “The patience of a saint” came about.

Digital Copy of the Gospels in the Lindisfarne Centre
Digital Copy of the Gospels in the Lindisfarne Centre

The peaceful and artistic lifestyle of the monks came to an abrupt end on the 8th of June 793 AD when the Vikings attacked Lindisfarne. It’s been said that this invasion was the first Viking incursion into Britain, and although that’s not strictly true, it’s generally regarded as such.

Lindisfarne’s treasures would have been known to the Vikings, and they would have also known that the island was unprotected, so where better for the Vikings to start expanding their territory?

The fearsome reputation of the Vikings seems to be well-founded if the attack on Lindisfarne is anything to go by – they murdered and pillaged the community as well as setting fire to the priory, and although the monks survived the assault, they feared more attacks and in 875 AD they packed up St. Cuthbert’s body, along with other relics and treasures, and headed for the mainland, abandoning Lindisfarne to the elements.

Several stories exist, some more fanciful than others, as to how the monks and St. Cuthbert’s body ended up at Durham, but there’s no disputing the fact that they did.

St. Cuthbert’s body was housed in a simple temporary structure to begin with, and then a sturdier wooden affair, but when the Vikings lost their final battle on English soil at Stamford Bridge in September 1066, it was only 19 days before England had a new leader – William the Conqueror.

William’s vision for his new kingdom included building grand religious buildings as well as castles, and the remains of St. Cuthbert were given a final resting place in a new stone church that was to become Durham Cathedral.

This magnificent building deserves a completely separate article to itself, but suffice it to say that Cuthbert’s relics are still here along with the heart of King (St) Oswald and the remains of the Venerable Bede.

Durham Cathedral
Durham Cathedral

The Cathedral became the home of Benedictine monks who were infatuated with their patron saint whose relics they were custodians of, so much so, that at the beginning of the 12th century they began rebuilding the priory at Lindisfarne in Cuthbert’s memory.

The new priory bore quite a few resemblances to Durham Cathedral and was completed around the middle of the century.

The priory church has a wonderful weathered look to it thanks to the use of local red sandstone. The richness of the colour and the carved markings have obviously suffered from the elements that constantly batter this remote coastline, but the ‘Rainbow Arch’ which was one of the supports for the central tower still remains.

The adjacent monastic buildings were built a hundred years later out of a different greyer stone.

Norman Arches under the Rainbow Arch at Lindisfarne Priory
Norman Arches under the Rainbow Arch at Lindisfarne Priory
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Even though the priory was in disputed territory during the Middle Ages, it managed to survive the border wars between England and Scotland – but not Henry VIII’s war with the Pope, and was dissolved in 1537.

Talking of survivors, if those of you who have been reading this and the previous post have managed to survive this far, then it’s just possible that you may begin to understand how important these saints and their religion were, and why Holy Island was – and still is –  such a spiritual place to come.

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9 thoughts on “Saxon Treasures, Viking Raids and Norman Houses of God

  1. Stuart Templeton

    The Gospels are absolutely stunning – I can’t imagine the patience those monks had in writing those – amazing work. Another great post as always Malc – I really really want to go back to Northumberland now!

    Reply
  2. toonsarah

    Another excellent write-up on one of my favourite places. You seem to have had good weather for your photos of the Priory ruins 🙂 I’m a little surprised the British Library allows use of the images from the Gospels but very pleased that they do as they greatly enhance your text. It’s worth remembering that their on-going accommodation in BL isn’t too popular with many in the north east who have campaigned for them to ‘come home’ (a bit like the Elgin Marbles) – if not to Lindisfarne, which probably doesn’t have the right conditions for appropriate archival storage and protection, at least to Durham.

    Reply
    1. Easymalc Post author

      Thanks Sarah. It’s an old chestnut about where things of antiquity should belong, and of course there are good arguments on both sides.
      The Online version of the Gospels have only a limited number of pages that can be copied, but at least they are some of the more interesting ones.
      As for the fine weather at Lindisfarne (and elsewhere for that matter), I tend to have a different approach to most people about how to give myself the best chances of getting some decent pictures

      Reply
  3. Easymalc Post author

    The North Wales door may have shut for now, but the Northumberland door is wide open. I feel another quest coming on 🙂

    Reply
    1. Alli Templeton

      Sorry Malc, my WordPress account didn’t tell me you’d replied to my comment so I thought maybe you’d gone away for a few days after all.

      You’re right, of course, I’ve come to the conclusion that I have to do more quests. The huge, castle-shaped hole North Wales has left me with will have to be filled. It’s just a question of balancing it with the last and highest level modules I have to do now until the degree is over. So I’m chewing over ideas now. One thing I do know is that there will be another of some kind. And Northumberland will have to be on the list – your posts have reminded me of this… 🙂

      Reply
      1. Easymalc Post author

        No problem Alli. Whatever your next project/quest will be, I’m sure it will be another good one 😉

        Reply
  4. Alli Templeton

    Loved this, Malc. Lindisfarne Priory is one of my favourite places too. I love it’s location and the unique feel of the place, not just of the later rebuild but there’s a real sense of the earlier monastery that was raided in 793 and St Cuthbert’s remains. It’s all still there. Wonderful stuff, and the longing for Northumberland is growing now… 🙂

    Reply

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