Visiting Lindisfarne Priory
Lindisfarne Priory is located on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne in North Northumberland, just south of the English border with Scotland. The nearest train station is Berwick-upon-Tweed, which is on the line between London, Newcastle and Edinburgh. You can get to Holy Island by public transport, drive over the causeway to the island when the tide is low, or walk the ancient Pilgrim’s Way across the sands.
To get across to the island safely, make sure you educate yourself about causeway and tides in our visitor information pages.
Once on the island, park in the main car park (to your left, as soon as you reach the island, Pay and Display). From here it’s a five minutes walk to Lindisfarne Priory: simply walk across the village towards the parish church.
Lindisfarne Priory and museum opening times and prices
Lindisfarne Priory is managed by English Heritage, which also runs a museum and shop on location. If you arrive when the priory ruins are closed, you can still get a good view of them from the outside and from above (climb to the Heugh observation point, where you can view the entire set of ruins).
Opening times vary by day according to tides. You can check the opening times for your desired date on the English Heritage site.
Advanced booking is recommended to avoid disappointment.
Cost (updated Aug 2021):
Adult: £8.70 (£7.90 without donation)
Concessions: £7.90 (£7.10 without donation)
Child: £5.20 (£4.70 without donation)
Family (2 adults, up to 3 children): £22.60 (£20.50 without donation)
Family (1 adult, up to 3 children): £13.90 (£12.60 without donation)
There are no accessible toilets on site, access to the priory ruins includes five steps and a fairly steep slope inside the ruins area. Full access details can be found the the English Heritage website.
Visiting the Priory with dogs
Dogs on leads are welcome in the Priory Ruins. They are not allowed inside the museum (except guide dogs).
Staying on Holy Island when you visit
To fully experience Holy Island, you should stay overnight, and feel first-hand the solitude of this ‘thin place’ when the tide is in, and all other day visitors are forced to leave. Then the island projects an eerie sense of its history and stories, the beauty of wild beaches and big skies. Belvue Guesthouse is within walking distance of all island attractions and offers a great base to explore the island.
History of Lindisfarne Priory: Saints by the Sea
What inspired the foundation of Lindisfarne Priory here, in a remote place surrounded by the cold grey waters of the North Sea?
“Tales, marvellous tales, of ships and stars and isles where good men rest…” These words of the poet James Elroy Flecker may not have been about Lindisfarne, yet they provide the perfect introduction to one of the most important stories in the history of this Holy Island.
Saint Aidan: “A man of outstanding gentleness, holiness and moderation”
Attached by a causeway to the mainland yet cut off twice each day by the tides, Lindisfarne was in the world, but not of it, as early Christians strived to be. This made it a natural location for anyone seeking the contemplative life, and Christianity and spirituality have been nurtured here on Holy Island for nearly fourteen hundred years. The story of Lindisfarne Priory begins in 634 CE, when King Oswald of Northumbria invited Bishop Aidan from Ireland to teach the Christian faith in his kingdom. Aidan and twelve other monks arrived in Northumbria in 635 to set up the first religious foundation on Holy Island.
The Venerable Bede, author of “A History of the English Church and People” records that King Oswald created the diocese, or See of Lindisfarne for Aidan “at his own request”. Aidan had previously been a monk on Iona, the centre for Celtic Christianity founded by St Columba in the 6th century. His work there had been largely with the Scots, Picts and Irish, and his native language was Irish. Bede notes that King Oswald himself was able to interpret the teachings of Aidan for the Anglo-Saxon nobles, as Oswald “had perfect command of the Scottish tongue”. The terms Scottish and Irish were used interchangeably at this time, as there was no distinction between the two culturally. The ability to speak more than one language has always been a valuable skill, and it was certainly needed on multi-lingual Lindisfarne, with visitors and correspondence arriving from all over the civilised – and uncivilised! – world.
Northumbria, the “Star in the North”
Aidan’s arrival on Lindisfarne was the beginning of what has been called “the Golden Age of Northumbria”. Although in later medieval and modern times Northumbria would begin to seem like a remote and mysterious place, in the time of Saint Aidan and his successor Saint Cuthbert it was a centre of advanced learning. The Anglo-Saxon scholar Geoffrey Hindley has described Northumbria as “The Star in the North”, and travellers made their way there by sea and land to study, to teach and to create beautiful works of art. They may have been buffeted by cold winds along the way, but just like today, a warm welcome awaited them once they arrived. The Northumbrian Renaissance was flourishing long before the Italian Renaissance began.
Christianity had been established in Britain in late Roman times, but when the Anglo-Saxons began to raid, and eventually to settle on the British mainland, they brought their own religious beliefs and gods. As far as Christian Britons were concerned, this was a reversion to pagan beliefs which needed to be abandoned. Christianity was established and beginning to flourish in Ireland by the fifth century CE, and some of the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy, including members of King Oswald’s own family, had already converted to the new religion after meeting and conversing with monks from Iona and other Christian centres. Choosing a bishop from Ireland who was well-educated in the traditions of the Celtic Church was an obvious decision for an Anglo-Saxon ruler like Oswald, who wanted his people to learn about the message of Christianity.
Early Christianity on Lindisfarne
Aidan and his monks lived a simple life on the island. The huts they lived in, and the communal buildings they used were not massive foundations of stone, but made of simple natural materials such as wood, earth and thatch. Their real wealth lay in their learning, and that was a treasure indeed. Aidan set up a school on Lindisfarne, teaching people to read, to write and to produce beautiful illustrated books. It is thanks to Aidan’s devotion to literacy and learning that magnificent volumes such as the Lindisfarne Gospels would later be produced in the region. He is also credited with encouraging education for girls and women, although not at the monastery of Lindisfarne itself. Abbess Hilda of Whitby, one of the most famous women in the early history of Christianity, was one of the beneficiaries of his teaching.
Aidan quickly mastered the Anglian language, and his openness and gentleness endeared him to all he met. On his travels around the region he entered the halls of the powerful and the huts of the lowly, treating both rich and poor alike. One story recounts that the king gave him a horse because he was concerned about Aidan walking so many miles into remote places where his life might even be in danger. Aidan, however, who wanted no worldly wealth, passed the horse on to a beggar. This is a tale that’s told of several saints, though perhaps Aidan set the trend!
Saint Cuthbert, Aidan’s heir
Aidan died on August 31st 651 CE, beloved and sanctified by the people of Northumbria. At the time of his death, a young lad of sixteen called Cuthbert was guarding flocks up in the hills when he saw a bright light come down from the sky and then rise back up again. Cuthbert was from a well-off family and would have been familiar with the monastery at Lindisfarne as well as the fortress of Bamburgh, the seat of power of the kings of Bernicia and Northumbria. He believed he had witnessed a soul being taken up to heaven, and this became a decisive moment in his own life. Cuthbert’s natural path would otherwise most likely have been a warlike one, as was appropriate for the son of a noble family. Now, he would take the way of religion and follow Aidan.
The monastery at Melrose had also been founded by Aidan, and Cuthbert was to spend the next thirteen years of his life in prayer and study here and at a new monastic foundation at Ripon. Eventually, Cuthbert became Prior of Melrose, which meant he was now second in authority after the Abbot. Cuthbert’s name is still as important today in this part of Scotland as it is in neighbouring Northumberland. His work involved ministering to the people of the surrounding area and he soon gained a reputation as a miracle worker. However, if Cuthbert had hoped for a life of quiet contemplation spent studying and worshipping God, he was destined to live in changing times for the early Church. Even his body would not find lasting peace for centuries after his death.
The Celtic and Roman traditions
In fact, Cuthbert’s lifetime was dominated by one of the greatest religious debates of all time: whether authority over the newly founded and expanding Christian Church in Britain should come from the Irish (Celtic) tradition or the continental (Roman) tradition. One of the major themes of this debate was about setting the date of Easter, which was the greatest religious festival of the year at that time. Another contentious issue related to the monkish tonsure, in other words how the monks should ritually clip their hair as a sign of their devotion to God.
At the Synod of Whitby in 664 it was decided that in future the Church would come under the customs of Rome. The great Abbess Hilda had spoken for the Celtic tradition, as did Colmán, Bishop of Northumbria. The Roman tradition, associated with the churchman Wilfrid and Agilbert, a Frankish bishop, prevailed. In future the practices of Rome would be adopted by the Northumbrian church. Cuthbert is often presented as a kind of moderator, who was able to bring together the two sides to a certain extent.
Retreat to Lindisfarne and sainthood
Cuthbert accepted and adopted the Roman customs and continued to perform his ministry to the people of Northumbria. After a while he was drawn to the contemplative life, living in a place that is now known as St Cuthbert’s Cave, before moving to the island of Inner Farne off the coast of Northumberland. He reluctantly accepted the position of Bishop of Hexham, but soon returned to his island retreat. Here he lived briefly among his other flock, the wild seabirds of the island, before his death. Cuthbert is often credited with being the originator of the concept of the nature reserve or animal sanctuary and it’s true that many tales of his miracles involved wild animals and birds. Eider ducks are known locally as “Cuddy’s ducks”, after an affectionate name for the saint. Even on his island he wasn’t always at peace, though; people would sail out to speak with him and ask him for advice, and so some days the water would be covered with the vessels of visitors beseeching his help.
Cuthbert died on his beloved island on 20 March 687 and was brought back to Lindisfarne for burial. Although it sounds a little odd now, the monks decided to keep his body for some years in a stone coffin below ground so that they could eventually inter the bones in a reliquary. After eleven years, the body of the sanctified Cuthbert was discovered to be miraculously whole, so he was elevated above ground in a shrine that was the focal point of his influential cult.
Ship-borne raiders – The Viking invasions of Lindisfarne
Then came the strangest twist of fate of all. After weeks of portents such as lightning, whirlwinds and dragons apparently fighting in the sky, on 8th June AD 793 disaster fell on the monastic community of Lindisfarne. Raiders from the north had sailed across the wild sea, “The Old Grey Widow-Maker” as the Danes called it. “Never before has such terror appeared in Britain,” wrote the Northumbrian monk Alcuin. This wasn’t the last time it would happen. When Northumbria was finally taken by the Danes in 875 the monks fled, taking Cuthbert’s body with them in a wooden coffin. Along with the body, the monks carried some personal relics such as his cross and even his own comb. Stopping at Chester-le-Street and at Ripon, it would be over a century before Saint Cuthbert could really rest in peace. The story is that when the monks set down his coffin at Durham, it could not be lifted again.
Foundations in stone and a lasting spiritual legacy
The Norman invasion brought a revival of the fortunes of Lindisfarne Priory, as well as for the relics of Saint Cuthbert. A magnificent cathedral was planned to replace the simple shrine in Durham which his remains rested, as well as the establishment of a new stone Benedictine Priory on the island of Lindisfarne. This priory, the remains of which can still be seen today, did not occupy precisely the same site of the earlier religious foundation. Although Lindisfarne Priory has gone, Durham Cathedral is not only one of the most magnificent religious buildings in Britain, but in the world.
What’s more, the shattered remnants of Lindisfarne Priory also have a dramatic story to tell, although their destruction was not the result of Viking raids. Sadly, this damage was carried out during the Reformation, during the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
However, despite the best attempts of Henry VIII and his followers to throw out the old and bring in the new, the spirit of Cuthbert and Lindisfarne Priory prevailed. Aidan and Cuthbert are still remembered and spoken of with affection today by visitors and locals alike. After all, it’s these saintly men – and an occasional wise king or two – that we can thank for the tranquillity and fantastic wildlife of this special little piece of land that isn’t quite an island. And when all is said and done, that is also one of the things that makes Lindisfarne rather special.
Visit Lindisfarne – in the footsteps of Ragnar Lothbrok and the monk Athelstan (for fans of the TV series)
We’ll have to accept: the story of both characters from the TV series Vikings is fictional. The Monk Athelstan is entirely made up, and Ragnar Lothbrok may have existed but is not associated with the sacking of Lindisfarne. The Abbot in the Vikings episode is called “Father Cuthbert”, although Cuthbert died over 100 years before the events taking place in the episode.
However, the very enjoyable series opens in 793 A.D. with the raid on Lindisfarne monastery. This Viking attack on Lindisfarne was very real, and its effects have had a profound effect on the monks of Lindisfarne in this important centre of learning and transcription (see historical section above).