When the Romans left Britain, Christianity went with them and Anglo Saxon England reverted back to its pagan roots, or at least it did up here in Northumbria.
The Kingdom of Northumbria didn’t even exist until around 604 AD when Æthelfrith combined the two existing kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira, and although these ‘Dark Ages’ are not always easy to follow, we do know that when Æthelfrith was killed in battle his four children were sent to the island of Iona off the West Coast of Scotland.
Iona was in the Kingdom of Dalriada, which covered an area equivalent to parts of today’s Western Scotland and North-Eastern Ireland, and it was to Iona that the Celtic monk Columba came when he was exiled from his native Ireland.
Columba founded a monastery on the island around 563 AD and was made a saint for his work in evangelizing Scotland, and before I go any further, I have to mention the fact that Iona is another extremely spiritual place to come, in much the same way that Lindisfarne is.
Why I mention all this is because Oswald, one of Æthelfrith’s four children who went to Iona, became King of Northumbria in 634 AD. (Technically speaking, he was King of Bernicia and Deira but I’m trying to keep this as simple as possible).
Regardless, his upbringing on the island must have had a profound effect on him because as soon as he became king, he asked the monks of Iona to send over a missionary to help him convert his newly acquired kingdom back into Christianity – and the monk they sent was Aidan, and like St. Columba, he was also originally from Ireland.
Aidan chose Lindisfarne as the spiritual home for him and his monks, not just for its peaceful, secluded location, but also because of its proximity to Bamburgh Castle, the home of King Oswald.
Aidan had obviously been a good choice because his empathy with the local population, especially the poor, made him an extremely popular figure. He became revered throughout Northumberland and built churches, monasteries and schools, and in so doing converted the area back into Christianity.
One of the churches he built was at Bamburgh (on the site of the present St. Aidan’s) and it was here that he died on 31st August 651 AD.
The ‘exact spot’ where he died has become a site of pilgrimage, but of course the church that stands here now looks quite different to Aidan’s wooden structure, even though it still looks much the same as it did back in the 13th century.
St. Aidan was buried under the abbey he founded at Lindisfarne, and the impact that he had on people remains to this day. August 31st is celebrated as the feast day for the ‘Apostle of Northumbria’ as he became known.
As for King Oswald, it was probably inevitable that he would die on the battlefield, (which he did at the Battle of Maserfield in c641) but according to that great historian, the Venerable Bede, he was a man of prayer right to the very end – and to many he was also regarded as a saint.
Aidan was by no means the last saint, in fact over the next 250 years there were nine associated with Lindisfarne, the most famous being St. Cuthbert.
On the very night that St. Aidan died, the seventeen year old Cuthbert was tending a flock of sheep in the Lammermuir Hills, and according to Bede, “he saw a stream of light from the sky….in the midst of this the choir of the heavenly host descended to the earth, and taking with them, without delay a soul of exceeding brightness”.
When Cuthbert realised that this phenomenon occurred at the same time as Aidan’s death it was enough for him to pack up sheep farming and join Aidan’s nearby monastery at Melrose.
His monastic life brought him to Lindisfarne, where he lived as a hermit on what is now called St. Cuthbert’s Isle.
When he realised that it wasn’t remote enough, he followed in Aidan’s footsteps out to the Farne Islands, where for the next nine years he lived in isolation in a cell on Inner Farne.
Inner Farne wasn’t only a remote place, but supposedly a dangerous one as well, full of evil spirits: Cuthbert’s solitude was not just a lonely one, but also a personal battle with the devil himself, and he had another battle to contend with when he was asked to become Bishop. At first, King Ecgfrith offered him the chance to become Bishop of Hexham which he declined, but when the opportunity arose to become Bishop of Lindisfarne the temptation was too great and he somewhat reluctantly agreed. It meant, of course, that he had to leave his hermitage on the Farnes and join his flock on Lindisfarne.
The pull of Inner Farne eventually brought him back to the island when he realised that he was dying, and on March 20th 687 AD he died in the place that meant so much to him. His body was immediately brought back to Lindisfarne and was buried the same day.
The story of St. Cuthbert doesn’t really end there because he left a legacy for generations to come. Like any self-respecting saint, he possessed miraculous powers which enhanced his reputation even more and became a legend in his own lifetime, but his death brought an even greater awareness of his powers, and in my next post I’ll be recounting some of the events that made him “probably the most popular saint in England prior to the death of Thomas Beckett”.