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Ancient Diocese and Monastery of Lindisfarne

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The island of Lindisfarne lies some two miles off the Northumberland coast, nine and one-half miles southeast of the border-town of Berwick. Its length is about three miles and its breadth about one and one-half. At low water it is joined to the mainland. Twice each day it is accessible by means of a three-mile track from Beal across the sands. The wet and plashy road is indicated by wooden posts. This island is now usually called Holy Island, a designation dating back to the eleventh century. Lindisfarne is famous for being the mother-church and religious capital of Northumbria, for here St. Aidan , a Columban monk-bishop from Iona, founded his see in 635. The resemblance of Lindisfarne to the island whence St. Aidan came has obtained for it the title of the Iona of England. Aidan's mission was started at the request of King Oswald, who had been educated by the Celtic monk, and who then resided on the mainland at the royal fortress of Bamborough. Holy Isle became the center of great missionary activity and also the episcopal seat of sixteen successive bishops. The influence of these spiritual leaders was considerable, owing in great measure to the patronage afforded by kings such as St. Oswald. Not only did St. Aidan fix his see here, but he also established a monastic community, thus conforming himself, as Bede says, to the practice of St. Augustine at Canterbury (Hist. eccl., IV, xxvii). From this monastery were founded all the churches between Edinburgh and the Humber, as well as several others in the great midland district and in the country of the East Angles. Among the holy and famous men educated in Lindisfarne were St. Ceadda (Chad) of Lichfield and his brothers Cedd, Cynibill, Caelin, also St. Egbert, St. Edilhun, St. Ethelwin, St. Oswy the King, and the four bishops of the Middle Angles: Diuma, Cellach, Trumhere, and Jaruman. Bishop Eata was one of the native Northumbrian boys whom Aidan had taken to Lindisfarne "to be instructed in Christ". St. Adamnan visited the monastery, and St. Wilfrid received his early training there. The original buildings were probably of wood. We gain some notion of their unpretending character from the fact that St. Finan, Aidan's successor, found it necessary to reconstruct the church so as to make it more worthy of the see. This he did after the Irish fashion, using hewn oak with a roof of reeds. A later bishop, Eadbert, removed the reeds and substituted sheets of lead. This modest structure was dedicated by Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury in honour of St. Peter, and within it, on the right side of the altar, reposed the body of St. Aidan. Portions of this primitive cathedral existed in 1082, when they disappeared to make room for a more elaborate and lasting edifice. Owing probably to a desire to guard against irregularities, such as had taken place at Coldingham, entrance to the church was not permitted to women. For the latter a special church was provided, called the Green Church form its situation in a green meadow. This exclusion of women was for a time observed at Durham.

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Lindisfarne owes much of its glory to St. Cuthbert , who ruled its church for two years, and whose incorrupt body was there venerated during two centuries. In 793 the Danes invaded the island, pillaged the church, and slaughtered or drowned the monks. In 875 they returned, bent on further destruction, but the monks had fled, bearing with them St. Cuthbert's shrine. This took place during the episcopate of Bishop Eardulf, who was the last to rule the see of Lindisfarne. The half ruined church, however, gave temporary shelter to the relics of St. Cuthbert at the time when William the Conqueror was engaged in subduing Northumbria, but the see was never re-established there. It was fixed for a time at Chester-le-Street by Eardulf, and in 995 transferred to Durham. Here it remained till the change of religion in the sixteenth century. The Anglican succession, however, still continues. When the hierarchy was restored to England by Pius IX in 1850, this venerable Catholic bishopric was refounded under the title of Hexham and Newcastle.

The ecclesiastical ruins on Holy Island date from the eleventh century. By a charter of 1082 Bishop Carileph bestowed the church of Lindisfarne on the Benedictines, whom he had brought to Durham from Wearmouth and Jarrow; and for them he began the Norman church the remains of which still exist. His successor, Bishop Flambard, completed the work, the architect being a monk from Durham named "XX"dward. The succession of priors and monks was always appointed by the mother-church of Durham, and their yearly accounts were rendered to the same parent-house. From these statements, still extant, we gather that in its best days the priory income was equal to about 1200 pounds of present money. During the priorate of Thomas Sparke (1536) the house was dissolved, and at his death, in 1571, the property passed into the hands of the Dean and Chapter of Durham. Since 1613 the site of the priory has belonged to the crown. The church, under the invocation of St. Cuthbert, was a copy of Durham Cathedral on a small scale. The similarity is especially observable in the voluted and chevroned columns of the nave. Its length was 150 feet. The tower was still standing in 1728. A pilgrimage, consisting of 3000 persons, crossed the sands to Holy Island in 1887 -- the twelfth centenary of St. Cuthbert's death. The following is a list of the Bishops of Lindisfarne, with dates of accession :

  • Aidan, 635;
  • Finan, 652;
  • Colman, 661;
  • Tuda, 664;
    (For fourteen years Lindisfarne was included in Diocese of York under Chad and Wilfrid.)
  • Eata, 678;
  • Cutbert, 685;
  • Eadbert, 688;
  • Eadfrid, 698;
  • Ethelwold, 724;
  • Cynewulf, 740;
  • Higbald, 780;
  • Egbert, 803;
  • Heathored, 821;
  • Ecgred, 830;
  • Eanbert, 845;
  • Eardulf, 854.
  • The book called the "Lindisfarne Gospels" ("St. Cuthbert's Gospels " or the "Durham Book") is still preserved in the British Museum Library (Cotton manuscript, Nero D. iv). This copy must not be confounded with a small copy of St. John's Gospel found in St. Cuthbert's coffin in 1104, and now at Stonyhurst. The former was written at Lindisfarne by Eadfrid "in honour of St. Cuthbert " about 700. It consists of 258 leaves of thick vellum, 13 1/2 X 9 7/8 inches, and contains the Four Gospels in the Latin of St. Jerome's Version, written in double columns with an interlinear Saxon gloss -- the earliest form of the Gospels in English. It also contains St. Jerome's Epistle to Pope Damasus , his Prefaces, the Eusebian Canons, arguments of each Gospel, and "Capitula", or headings of the lessons. The glossator, Aldred, states that the ornamentation was the work of Ethelwold (724-740), and that the precious metal cover was made by Bilfrid (Billfrith) the anchorite. It is written in a splendid uncial hand, and adorned with intricate patterns, consisting of interlaced ribbons, spiral lines, and geometrical knots, terminating sometimes in heads of birds and beasts. The intervening spaces are filled with red dots in various designs. Before each Gospel is a representation of the Evangelist. A table of festivals with special lessons seems to indicate that this manuscript was copied from one used at a church in Naples. (For a fuller treatment of the origin of the manuscript, see Dom Chapman's "Early History of the Vulgate Gospels ", where he gives a slightly different view of the subject.) The book remained at Lindisfarne till the flight of the monks, about 878, when it was carried away together with the relics. During the attempted passage to Ireland, it fell into the sea, but was miracuously recovered after four days. In 995 it was brought to Durham, and afterwards replaced in Lindisfarne, when the church there was rebuilt. For the space of 100 years it was lost sight of. In 1623 it was in the possession of Robert Bowyer, clerk to the House of Commons. He disposed of it to Sir Robert Cotton, whence it passed to the British Museum. Traces of its immersion in the sea have been detected by experts. Its present precious binding was a gift of Bishop Maltby. The codex was edited by Stevenson and Waring (1854-65), and by Skeat (1887).

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