Aidan the Irish Missionary


(Holy Island and Bamburgh in Northumberland).

Off the storm-beaten Northumbrian coast, some eight miles/13km south of Berwick-upon-Tweed, there is an island just over three miles/4.8km long, separated from the mainland at high tide by a stretch of shallow sea, but at low tide joined to it by a fine sweep of hard sand across which a line of stakes, marks a safe route for pedestrians whilst a metal road now takes vehicles across to the island. It is now known as Holy Island, but in ancient days it was called Lindisfarne, and Bede tells us that in those days it was connected with the mainland at low tide just as it now is.

The mainland hereabouts presents a far-reaching vista of wild and rolling country, so swept by the east winds from the sea that the trees are all bent to the west; and down by the water`s edge there are spray-soaked and marshy lands where coarse grass grows and sea-birds and wild duck abound.

Facing eastwards, you have this low island in front of you, running out at its north end into a spit of sandy hummocks called the Snook, and at the other end rising to Beblowe Rock, near which are houses of the village and the bare ruins of the famous monastery of mediaeval times.

Away ti your right, that is to say to the south, behind a ridge of high ground, lies Budle Bay, and beyond it Bamburgh Castle crowns a rocky mound at the edge of the waves; while out to sea lies the cluster of little islets, known as the Farne Islands, on the easternmost of which stands the Longstone Lighthouse, the scene in 1838 of the exploits  of Grace Darling, who lies in Bamburgh`s bleak churchyard.

This weather-beaten stretch of coast, with its storm-swept islands, deserves to be better known than it is; for here our forefathers from over the seas who founded the Kingdom of Northumbria, once the greatest of the English realms in England, first established themselves upon our soil.

Bamburgh was called Dinguardi by the British tribe of the Brigantes who inhabited this region in Roman times, and under that name it passed into the hands of the invaders, becoming , in547 A.D., the chief stronghold and royal residence if Ida, the first English King of Bernicia, the northern half of what would become Northumbria. Ida`s grandson, King Aethelfrith, however, turned the fortress over to his wife, Queen Bebba, and it then came to be known as Beddanburgh, “Bebba`s Castle,” which has now been contracted into the name Bamburgh; but after that lady`s death it became the sovereign`s residence again, and so remained for at least another century.

The King of Northumbria from 634 to 642 A.D., was the famous Oswald, afterwards martyr and saint of whom was spoken of in the previous chapter; and it will be recalled that at the beginning of his reign he invited the Irish monks who lived on the island of Iona, off the Ross of mull on the east coast of Dal Riata (later Scotland ), to send a missionary to him to effect the conversion of those of his subjects who still worshipped the old gods. In 635 or 636 A.D., Aidan arrived, but he was not the first who was Bishop Corman, he returned in abject failure to Iona and reported the Northumbrians were too stubborn to be converted, Aidan suggested a more gentle approach to this and was thus sent to Northumbria, to eventually be the `Apostle of the English`. He was given the island of Lindisfarne, upon which to found a monastery. Aidan was presently made Bishop of Northumbria, and the sweetness of his character, his humility and his many Christian virtues, are recorded by Bede in glowing terms. Nothing now remains of the buildings which this gentle old Irishman erected on the island, for the ruins there, which in summer time attract many visitors across the sands at low tide, are solely those of the later monastery; yet the story of Aidan`s life is not wholly forgotten.

There are many tales told of him, but of these the most characteristic, perhaps, is that which relates how King Oswy, who was his devoted friend, had made a present of a very fine horse to Aidan, who, however, had given it to the first needy traveller he had met on the road, for, says Bede, “he was a great friend to the poor and was the father of the wretched.” Oswy, naturally enough, was annoyed, and, shortly afterwards when Aidan had come to dine with him, asked him why he had thus given away so valuable a horse, to which Aidan ingenuously replied that the giving of happiness to one of God`s children was surely more important than retaining the King`s gift.

When dinner was served, Aidan quietly took his place at the table, but the King, much put out, stood for a while warming himself by the fire and thinking over what the bishop had said. Then suddenly he ungirt his sword – for he had just come in from hunting – and hastening over to the table, threw himself on his knees before Aidan and asked forgiveness for having shown annoyance.

Aidan was very much moved, and presently he sank into a deep melancholy, the tears coming into his eyes. His chaplain, speaking to him in his own language, which Oswy did not understand, asked him why he was so sad, to which he replied: “Because I know that the King will not live long; for I never before saw so humble a King, and I conclude therefore that he will soon be taken away from this life, since the nation is not worthy of such a ruler.

One of the tales tells how once at Easter he was sitting in the banquet-hall at Bamburgh as the guest of King Oswald, and the feast was about to begin, when an official came in to report that there were many beggars outside who had not received the King`s alms; whereupon Oswald , emulating the Irishman`s reckless generosity, at once ordered the food on the table to be sent out to them, and further commanded that the silver dish before him should be cut into pieces and distributed amongst them. At this the tender-hearted Aidan, moved to tears, grasped the King`s hand and exclaimed: “May this hand never perish!”

A few yeas later, as related previously, Oswald was killed in battle, while fighting against the still heathen king Penda of Mercia, and the hand which had been so bountiful was struck from his body. It was taken afterwards from the field, and was placed in a silver casket which was still preserved in the church of Bamburgh in the Eighth Century, when Bede saw it. Simeon of Durham, too, writing about 1100 A.D., tell us that “on the top of Bamburgh hill is an exceedingly fine church in which is a costly and beautiful shrine, wherein, wrapped in a pall, lies the incorruptible hand of St. Oswald, the King.”

After Oswald`s death Aidan spent much of his time living as a hermit on the largest Farne Islands which rises from the sea  in front of Bamburgh, at a distance of some two miles/3.2km from the coast. He was here in 642 A.D., when Penda attacked the royal castle, and attempted to burn it down by setting fire to a huge pile of wood and straw heaped up on the side of the hill from which the wind was blowing. From his island Aidan swathe flames rising, and passionately prayed that Penda`s plans should come to naught, whereupon, it is said, the wind changed its direction, and the smoke and fire only served to throw the invaders` camp into confusion.

If you walk inland from Bamburgh Castle through the picturesque little village, you will come presently to the parish church which bears the name of St. Aidan. On the site of this building there once stood a wooden church where Aidan used sometimes to officiate; and he died, in August 651 A.D., in a little chamber built on to its west wall. At the moment of his death he was leaning against a beam which served to strengthen the wall; and a short time afterwards, when Penda made another raid on the place and burnt down this church, it so happened that this beam was not consumed. Later, a new church which had been erected was also burnt down, but again the same beam survived; and therefore, when a third church was built, the beam was set up inside in the place of honour, and Bede naively tells us that chips of it soaked in water and swallowed had often healed the sick.

Aidan was buried in his monastery on the island of Lindisfarne, and was succeeded by Finan, who, in his turn was followed by Colman; and it was this Colman who was the protagonist of the Celtic priests at the Synod of Whitby, of which will be told of in the next chapter. In another chapter, too, the story of St. Cuthbert, an Englishman, must be revealed, who in his day was Bishop of Lindisfarne, and in 687 A.D., died as a hermit on that same island where Aidan, his Irish predecessor, had also lived alone.

To add to this there are no fragments at Bamburgh of any building of this age, with the exception of a sundial which you may see if you go down into the crypt of the parish church, there has been archaeological digs around the site which  has tentatively revealed the Anglo-Saxon past.  The historic and romantic site of the royal residence on the hill, the earliest known home of an English king in England, is now occupied by the mediaeval castle which has been completely renovated, without much antiquarian taste or understanding, it is now open to visitors and can be used for functions. It is magnet so to speak for visitors who come in droves in the summer.

Nor are there any fragments left on Holy Island; but in the British Museum you may see a copy of the Gospels, written and illuminated by Eadfrith, who was made Bishop of Lindisfarne in 698 A.D.  The work is distinctly Celtic in character, but shows strong English influence, and is far plainer than some of the grotesquely beautiful Irish manuscripts of the period. It is a lonely relic of those far-off days when Englishmen and Irishmen, apparently unconscious of any racial animosities, endeavoured together, after their own lights, to raise the new realm of England to the level and to the ideal of the true Christian state.