Located off the northeast coast of England in the county of Northumberland, the Holy Island of Lindisfarne is a cold, wet and lonely island. Yet, while it might not seem like much at first glance, Holy Island is a tranquil and peaceful place, one that has a unique history and legends that stretch back into the very earliest days of Britain itself.
The history of the island truly begins in 634 when Saint Aidan founded the famous monastery on the island. Aidan had been sent at the request of King Oswald, monarch of the then independent kingdom of Northumbria, to replace his first choice, Corman, who was unable to quell the Anglo Saxon natives. Aiden had the experience of island life, being sent from Iona off the west coast of Scotland. He chose the location for its tranquillity and closeness to the Northumbrian capital at Bamburgh.
The monastery flourished in Aiden’s lifetime as he preached the gospel throughout Northumbria. There were donations of land and money, churches were established, and the children of the newly faithful flocked to take holy orders. The Venerable Bede tells of how Aiden became noted for his charity and faith, his monastery becoming a centre of learning and evangelism during the age. He would remain at the monastery until he died in 651
It is upon his death that we find one of the earliest legends surrounding the island, with a shepherd recanting how near Melrose Abbey in the Scottish Lammermuir Hills he witnessed a vision of Aiden’s soul ascending to Heaven. Upon learning that Aiden had died at the exact same moment he’d seen the visitation, the shepherd immediately joined the monastery. This shepherd, Cuthbert, eventually rose to be Prior of Lindisfarne and would often spend his days in quiet contemplation on a rocky outcrop that now bears his name, Cuthbert’s Island.
Cuthbert himself would inspire his own legends, with some saying that while he spent his days either in solitude or dealing out holy advice to all who would seek his counsel, at night, he would stand in the sea, waist-deep in the water with only sea otters offering him warmth. Cuthbert would become Bishop of Lindisfarne and eventually a saint, being the patron saint of Northumbria.
The monastery would go on to produce nine saints in all and evangelise large parts of England to the extent that it is sometimes called the birthplace of English Christianity. The monastery was also home to one of the great treasures of Anglo-Saxon England, The Lindisfarne Gospels.
Considered priceless, The Lindisfarne Gospels is an illuminated copy of the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Written in Latin, the book originated in the early 8th century and was possibly created by Eadfrith, the future Bishop of Lindisfarne. The book is considered one of the finest works in Britain and a unique example of Hiberno-Saxon or Insular art.
Over 100 years after his death in 875, the island was attacked by Vikings, and the monks carried away Cuthbert’s remains for safekeeping. These monks wandered for generations, protecting the body of the saint before settling in Chester-le-Street in County Durham and then founding a church in Durham itself. In 1827, the grave was opened, revealing the true extent of the riches that had been bestowed upon Lindisfarne. The inner coffin was incised wood, the only surviving example of decorated wood to survive from the period. Inside was a pectoral cross made of gold and inset with garnets. Other artefacts included the magnificent St Cuthbert Gospel, a silver-covered travelling alter and an extremely rare ivory comb, with elephant ivory being highly expensive during Cuthbert’s time.
Before the 875 attacks, the island was the scene of one of the first significant raids on England by the Vikings in 793. This raid is often considered to be the beginning of the Viking era on British shores. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a late 9th-century collection that tells the history of Britain, written under Alfred the Great in Wessex, tells of a year of foreboding. There had apparently been signs and omens of the coming catastrophe throughout the previous months with “excessive whirlwinds, lightning, and fiery dragons [being] seen flying in the sky” around the Holy Island. As the coming of the Vikings drew nearer, “these signs were followed by great famine” before on the “6th ides of January”, the Vikings plundered and destroyed the church.
In 835, the Vikings attacked the Isle of Sheppy in Kent, their influence spreading north. By 866 the Danes had taken York, and by 873 they moved to invade Northumbria, conquering the kingdom in 875. After the fall of Northumbria and the fleeing of the monks, Lindisfarne was abandoned for over 200 years. In 1093, Benedictine monks restablished the monastery. It was these monks who named the land “Holy Island” in tribute to those who had fallen to the pagan Danes. The sanctuary would stand until 1536 and the Dissolution of the Monasteries under King Henry VIII, the buildings then being utilised as a naval storehouse. The land was eventually transferred to the Crown.
In 1542, Henry ordered the Earl of Rutland to fortify the island against a possible Scottish invasion, and a fort was constructed, with cannon and armaments shipped to Lindisfarne. Elizabeth I subsequently strengthened the fortifications and provided new gun platforms. By the time of English and Scottish unification, the fort had already ceased to be functional. During the Jacobite rising of 1715, Lancelot Errington, a local sympathiser, noted that the garrison was mostly absent. Approaching with his nephew, the two quickly overpowered the three soldiers that were present and captured the entire island for the Scots. Standing as an embarrassment for the Crown, 100 men were soon dispatched to recapture the island. Lancelot and his nephew fled. Captured at Berwick, the duo continued to embarrass their captors by tunnelling out of jail and promptly escaping. They were subsequently pardoned, and Lancelot became an innkeeper.
Like the monastery before it, the castle too has its own legends. Perhaps most famously, the ghost of Saint Cuthbert being said to haunt the ruins of the fortification near where the abbey once stood. His spirit can be seen at night when the moon is full, and the tide covers the causeway to the mainland.
“Perhaps the most famous appearance of this ghost, if not the best authenticated, is the occasion when it was seen by Alfred the Great, who was a fugitive at the time. The saintly ghost indicated that all would be well and that Alfred would one day sit on the throne of England, and so it came to pass.”
Peter Underwood, The Haunted Isle
The reports of sightings of Cuthbert are recorded almost since his death, a monk named Reginald of Durham reporting an apparition in the 12th century.
“In the early morning light, before the day’s activities began, he was seen coming out of the ‘old church’, that is, St Mary’s (which would have been used for worship in the meantime), and processing with other vested priests and monks of old into the new building. There Cuthbert celebrated Mass to dedicate the priory, before the ghostly procession returned to the old church, went inside to divest and duly disappeared.”
David Adam, The Holy Island of Lindisfarne
Alongside Cuthbert, a ghost of Royalist soldier haunts the castle itself, having been killed during a Roundhead attack during the English Civil War. Other phantom monks walk the land, some seemingly attempting to cross the causeway, others perhaps victims of the Viking raids.
Equally, the apparitions are not limited to humans. While black demon dogs are a staple of British folklore, believed to be a portent of death and doom, Lindisfarne is said to be home to a rarer white dog. This phantom dog leaps from the castle ruins at people, making unearthly distances before slinking back into the shadows. While it might be imagined that these white dogs represent an opposite to the evil of the black hounds, that is not the case, with white dogs often said to be even more dangerous than their black counterparts.
With a timeline that stretches back before Great Britain itself, it is little wonder that the Holy Island of Lindisfarne has generated all manner of legends over many centuries of activity. Comprising a variety of ghostly tales, religious miracles and traditional British folklore, the rich mythology of the island is only trumped by the even richer history. Famed as one of the cornerstones of British religious development, Lindisfarne tells a story of Anglo-Saxon paganism, Vikings, Christians and how exactly the united island of Britain came to be.
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