Lindisfarne is situated off the Northumberland coast in the north east of England, just a few miles south of the border with Scotland. The island is linked to the mainland by a causeway which twice a day is covered by the tide.

Aidan organized the building the first monastery at Lindisfarne in 635. Aidan and his monks came from the Irish monastery of Iona and with the support of King Oswald worked as missionaries among the English living in Northumbria. In their monastery they set up the first known school in this area. Lindisfarne became known for its skill in Christian art of which the Lindisfarne Gospels are the most important surviving example.

Cuthbert became prior of Lindisfarne in 676. During this period Lindisfarne became known for its skill in producing illuminated books. When Cuthbert died in 687 the magnificent Lindisfarne Gospels book was made for the occasion. Lindisfarne, because it had been the home of St. Aidan and St. Cuthbert, was visited by pilgrims and it was claimed was responsible for several miracles.

In 999 attacks by the Danes resulted in the monks of Lindisfarne moving the body of St. Cuthbert and their sacred relics to Durham where it became a popular place with pilgrims.

The first monastery on Lindisfarne was built of wood. The Normans built a more substantial monastery in the 12th century. The monastery was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1536.

Cuthbert is said to have worked many miracles, and on one occasion stilled a tempest. In early youth he was a shepherd, and it was while tending his sheep by night that he had the vision which resulted in his adopting the religious life. He became Prior of Lindisfame, and in 685 was Bishop of the island. Two years later he died. In accordance with his wish his body was wrapped in a linen cloth given him by the Abbess Yeoca, and buried in a stone coffin, the gift of the Abbot Cudda. After the lapse of eleven years the monks wished to remove his relics to a reliquary above ground, and obtained the consent of Bishop Eadbert to their plan. On opening the stone coffin, however, the body was found in such a wonderful state of preservation that the monks hastened to inform the bishop, who directed that a fresh garment should be placed on the saint's body.

Your guide to the Viking raid of Lindisfarne in AD 793

On 8 June AD 793, the peaceful and remote monastic community of Lindisfarne Priory suffered a surprise Viking raid. It wasn’t to be a one-off, but proved just the beginning of a period of conquest and expansion by the Scandinavian warriors.

Known as Holy Island, Lindisfarne is a tidal island off the coast of Northumberland. A monastery was founded here in AD 634 by Saint Aidan at the request of King Oswald of Northumbria. It became a renowned base for Christianity in the north of England and attracted monks from communities such as Iona. The beautiful illuminated manuscripts known as The Lindisfarne Gospels were created here, and the remains of St Cuthbert were buried within.

Monasteries were often established on islands to keep them away from the political interference of the mainland and give the community a sense of isolation. This, though, made them incredibly vulnerable. As well as being undefended, the priory at Lindisfarne was full of valuable treasures used in religious ceremonies and so proved to be a fortunate choice for the raiders, showing them what wealth could be found across the sea.

The Vikings – who until now had not ventured far beyond their homes in Scandinavia – looted all the relics they could find and brutally murdered monks living on the island. It was such an unexpected attack that the inhabitants had no time to prepare a defence or call for aid from the mainland.

The assault sent shock waves across the Christian world. Lindisfarne was described by Alcuin of York, a scholar at the court of Charlemagne, as the most ‘venerable’ site in all of Britain. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded: “Heathen men made lamentable havoc in the church of God in Holy-island, by rapine and slaughter.”

Alcuin wrote an account of the attack: “Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race… The heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the streets.”

Though this wasn’t the first Viking raid on Britain – one of the king’s officials had been killed by marauding Vikings in Wessex a few years previously – it was the first one to make such an impact across Europe, showing that these pagan warriors were a dangerous threat. Lindisfarne was eventually abandoned, until the late 11th century when a Norman priory was built. Following their invasion of the island, the Vikings conquered much of the north of England and incorporated it into the Danelaw – the name given to the Viking-conquered regions of Anglo- Saxon England.

Lindisfarne - History

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The Anglo-Saxon chroniclers suggest that he did perhaps have recent sordid events in mind. On 23 September 788, the nobleman Sicga had led a group of conspirators who murdered King Ælfwald of Northumbria. Another chronicle records that in February 793 Sicga had ‘perished by his own hand’. But on 23 April his body was carried to the island of Lindisfarne for burial.

So a man who was both a regicide and had committed suicide had been buried there just six weeks before the Viking pirates struck. Was this the ‘great guilt’ Alcuin referred to? Clearly he thought that the pagan raids were an act of holy vengeance on a sinful people.

The Lindisfarne Gospels

A famous illuminated manuscript created around 700 AD, the Lindisfarne Gospels is a historical marvel which demonstrates Anglo-Saxon art, culture and religious expression.

The creation of the text occurred on Lindisfarne around 1300 years ago and has since become famous for its beauty, ornate detail and design.

More commonly referred to as Holy Island, Lindisfarne was settled by Aidan and a group of Irish monks who had been invited to establish a monastic community there by King Oswald of Northumberland. They would come to develop, influence and represent the Celtic and religious traditions of the day.

The island itself, which lies only sixty miles away from the hustle and bustle of Newcastle, can at times of high tide be completely cut off from the mainland.

On this rugged and beautiful coastline, the evolution of Christianity in Northumbria developed, with King Oswald of Northumberland wishing the people to embrace the faith, letting go of the more pagan customs which had dominated.

St. Aidan

Over time, the island of Lindisfarne was to have sixteen bishops, the first of whom was Aidan, whilst the most famous was Cuthbert. St Cuthbert was born in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria, today’s Scotland in a time when the conversion to Christianity was taking place.

It was said that Cuthbert found his calling after seeing a vision on the night that St Aidan, the founding father of Lindisfarne, died.

He would spend the rest of his life serving the church as a monk and a bishop. Whilst at Lindisfarne he played an important role in the evolution of monks’ practices. He would live the rest of his days out in solitude as a hermit before passing away in 687.

Eleven years later, when monks opened his tomb they were said to be astounded that his remains were untouched by decay. It was at this time, that his reputation grew. St Cuthbert’s shrine brought an increase in power, funding and popularity to the monastery. Lindisfarne was firmly on the map as a site of pilgrimage and epicentre of Christianity in the region.

St Cuthbert’s body showing no signs of decay.

St Cuthbert is referred to as the patron saint of Northumbria with a feast day held in his honour.

Since the time of its founding with St Aidan, Lindisfarne had become an important focal point for Celtic Christianity, however this peace and tranquillity was not to last. After its initial settlement, Lindisfarne was plundered by the marauding Vikings in 793, the group sacking the church and killing several monks.

After continued fears for their safety, the monks eventually made the choice to flee with the body of St Cuthbert, relics and books, one of them being the Lindisfarne Gospels.

As they fled to Durham in 995, the Holy Island was left to rack and ruin for almost two hundred years until William the Conqueror forced the monks to return once more to the solitude of the island.

The passing of Viking and Norman conquests eventually allowed the priory to be re-established with a small castle later being built on the island. The heyday of the island however had long since passed with the times of St Cuthbert and the monastery’s place in Christian history and culture.

It was around the early 700’s that an artistic masterpiece was produced, known as the Lindisfarne Gospels, containing a copy of the Gospels according to the four disciples, recounting the life of Jesus Christ.

The manuscript is an ornate representation of Anglo-Saxon craftsmanship which in itself belies the multitude of cultural and religious influences which contributed to its beauty. The Latin gospel text is presented with calligraphy and elaborate carpet pages, described as such due to the designs being reminiscent of Persian carpet design.

Carpet page, Gospel of St Matthew

The use of carpet pages is typical of the form of illuminated manuscript represented by the Lindisfarne Gospels and can be found in other texts such as the Book of Kells and Book of Durrow. These beautiful pages are filled with decorative, geometric patterns and ornate, complex, colourful and often symmetrical motifs. It has been said that the inspiration could be taken from oriental, eastern textile or even Roman mosaic design and form.

These elaborate Coptic-inspired carpet pages form the incipit pages before each Gospel. There are also artistic depictions of the four Evangelists which take inspiration from more Italian imagery.

Meanwhile, the metalwork features swirling patterns and design representing the strong Celtic artist traditions of Britain at the time. Interwoven patterns draw on monastic, artistic and cultural traditions, all contributing to the beauty of the text.

The Lindisfarne Gospels, with its elements of artistry from other cultures, is therefore even more noteworthy, not only as an item of Celtic and local Northumbrian heritage but as a representation of early multiculturalism.

John The Evangelist, Lindisfarne Gospels

This was a time of great change in the world with religious forms of expression changing and great shifts in behavioural patterns. As people travelled and expanded their horizons, cross-cultural connections were being formed, making this early medieval period a time of cosmopolitanism.

Moreover, there are historic references to the Celtic church and its relationship with Egypt, most notably in a letter written by the English monk Alcuin to Charlemagne in which he described the Celtic Culdees (Christian community) as Children of Egypt (pueri Egyptiaci). Therefore the works of Lindisfarne and others like it reflect the inspiration that Celtic monasticism took from a wide array of styles combining influences from far flung places such as Rome and Egypt.

The manuscript itself would have likely been used for ceremony and aside from its early binding being lost during Viking raids, the Lindisfarne Gospels has remained largely intact.

With much mystery about the origins of such a creation it is believed that the man responsible for such a work of genius was Bishop Eadfrith whilst two others, Brother Aethilwold and hermit Billfrith the Anchorite contributed to much of the binding and encasing of the book in metalwork and jewels.

“Eadfrith bishop of the Church of Lindisfarne
He, in the beginning, wrote this book for God and
St Cuthbert and generally for all the holy folk
who are on the island.
And Æthilwald bishop of the Lindisfarne-islanders,
bound and covered it without, as he well knew how to do.
And Billfrith the anchorite, he forged the
ornaments which are on the outside and
bedecked it with gold and with gems and
also with gilded silver-pure wealth.”

These words are taken from the priest Aldred who was responsible for adding later additions to the manuscript in the tenth century.

The artistic traditions represented by the monks on Lindisfarne point to the moment of conception for an exciting period of medieval English art which brought with it artistic cultural influences from the east combined with Celtic iconography of the British Isles.

Lindisfarne Gospels

Moreover, the Lindisfarne production of the gospel book in a spiritual and religious context also represented a great feat of dedication, perseverance, piety and devotion. The devout belief in the word of God and the importance of disseminating his message is yet another element of significance.

The beautiful text after its completion was faced with continued challenges and went on a vast journey across the British Isles with monks searching for a place of safety.

By the time of William the Conqueror, the Lindisfarne Gospels had found a new home in Durham Cathedral alongside the shrine of St Cuthbert. This resting place however was not to last as many centuries later, with the introduction of the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII, the book was taken to the Tower of London.

Two centuries on, the Gospels manuscript was in the personal ownership of a collector called Sir Robert Cotton who, after his death, left the nation this wonderful artifact at the British Museum.

Eventually by the late twentieth century, after a new binding was commissioned, the book found its final resting place, not in Northumberland but in the British Library where it is carefully housed today.

Wherever it may be housed, the Lindisfarne Gospel is not bound by geography for it is a treasure of a period of history, of a time, culture and peoples which shall be admired for many more centuries to come.

Jessica Brain is a freelance writer specialising in history. Based in Kent and a lover of all things historical.

Where did the Lindisfarne Vikings come from?

Wait, didn't the Chronicle reference Danish people? As told by a Viking researcher on the Life in Norway Show, Danes or Danish was a catch-call term and not necessarily used to refer to people from what we now know as Denmark.

It it believed that earlier raids may have been made from what we know today as Denmark, but the raid on Lindisdarne could have been conducted by raiders from what we know of today as Norway, or Denmark.

That's because in Alcuin’s letter to Higbald, he writes that the raid was a product of, “a voyage not thought possible.” We know that people from Denmark had already been to the British Isles, so the implication is that the Lindisfarne crews travelled from much farther away.

The Lindisfarne Gospels

The Lindisfarne Gospels, c. 700 (Northumbria), 340 x 250 mm (British Library, Cotton MS Nero D IV) © 2019 British Library, used by permission Speakers: Dr. Kathleen Doyle, Lead Curator, Illuminated manuscripts, British Library and Dr. Steven Zucker

A medieval monk takes up a quill pen, fashioned from a goose feather, and dips it into a rich, black ink made from soot. Seated on a wooden chair in the scriptorium of Lindisfarne, an island off the coast of Northumberland in England, he stares hard at the words from a manuscript made in Italy. This book is his exemplar, the codex (a bound book, made from sheets of paper or parchment) from which he is to copy the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Lindisfarne Gospels, St. Matthew (detail), Second Initial Page, f.29, early 8th century (British Library)

For about the next six years, he will copy this Latin. He will illuminate the gospel text with a weave of fantastic images— snakes that twist themselves into knots or birds, their curvaceous and overlapping forms creating the illusion of a third dimension into which a viewer can lose him or herself in meditative contemplation.

Lindisfarne Gospels, John’s cross-carpet page, folio 210v. (British Library)

The book is a spectacular example of Insular or Hiberno-Saxon art—works produced in the British Isles between 500-900 C.E., a time of devastating invasions and political upheavals. Monks read from it during rituals at their Lindisfarne Priory on Holy Island, a Christian community that safeguarded the shrine of St Cuthbert, a bishop who died in 687 and whose relics were thought to have curative and miracle-working powers.

A Northumbrian monk, very likely the bishop Eadfrith, illuminated the codex in the early 8th century. Two-hundred and fifty-nine written and recorded leaves include full-page portraits of each evangelist highly ornamental “cross-carpet” pages, each of which features a large cross set against a background of ordered and yet teeming ornamentation and the Gospels themselves, each introduced by an historiated initial. The codex also includes sixteen pages of canon tables set in arcades. Here correlating passages from each evangelist are set side-by-side, enabling a reader to compare narrations.

In 635 C.E. Christian monks from the Scottish island of Iona built a priory in Lindisfarne. More than a hundred and fifty years later, in 793, Vikings from the north attacked and pillaged the monastery, but survivors managed to transport the Gospels safely to Durham, a town on the Northumbrian coast about 75 miles west of its original location.

We glean this information from the manuscript itself, thanks to Aldred, a 10th-century priest from a priory at Durham. Aldred’s colophon—an inscription that relays information about the book’s production—informs us that Eadfrith, a bishop of Lindisfarne in 698 who died in 721, created the manuscript to honor God and St. Cuthbert. Aldred also inscribed a vernacular translation between the lines of the Latin text, creating the earliest known Gospels written in a form of English.

Lindisfarne Gospels, St Matthew, Cross-Carpet page, f.26v (British Library)

Matthew’s cross-carpet page exemplifies Eadfrith’s exuberance and genius. A mesmerizing series of repetitive knots and spirals is dominated by a centrally-located cross. One can imagine devout monks losing themselves in the swirls and eddies of color during meditative contemplation of its patterns.

Compositionally, Eadfrith stacked wine-glass shapes horizontally and vertically against his intricate weave of knots. On closer inspection many of these knots reveal themselves as snake-like creatures curling in and around tubular forms, mouths clamping down on their bodies. Chameleon-like, their bodies change colors: sapphire blue here, verdigris green there, and sandy gold in between. The sanctity of the cross, outlined in red with arms outstretched and pressing against the page edges, stabilizes the background’s gyrating activity and turns the repetitive energy into a meditative force.

Lindisfarne Gospels, St Luke, incipit page, f.139 (British Library)

Likewise, Luke’s incipit (incipit: it begins) page teems with animal life, spiraled forms, and swirling vortexes. In many cases Eadfrith’s characteristic knots reveal themselves as snakes that move stealthily along the confines of a letter’s boundaries.

Blue pin-wheeled shapes rotate in repetitive circles, caught in the vortex of a large Q that forms Luke’s opening sentence—Quoniam quidem multi conati sunt ordinare narrationem. (Translation: As many have taken it in hand to set forth in order.)

Lindisfarne Gospels, St Luke, incipit page, f.139 (British Library)

Birds also abound. One knot enclosed in a tall rectangle on the far right unravels into a blue heron’s chest shaped like a large comma. Eadfrith repeats this shape vertically down the column, cleverly twisting the comma into a cat’s forepaw at the bottom. The feline, who has just consumed the eight birds that stretch vertically up from its head, presses off this appendage acrobatically to turn its body 90 degrees it ends up staring at the words RENARRATIONEM (part of the phrase -re narrationem).

Eadfrith also has added a host of tiny red dots that envelop words, except when they don’t—the letters “NIAM” of “quoniam” are composed of the vellum itself, the negative space now asserting itself as four letters.

Lindesfarne Gospels, St. Luke, portrait page (137v) (British Library)

Luke’s incipit page is in marked contrast to his straightforward portrait page. Here Eadfrith seats the curly-haired, bearded evangelist on a red-cushioned stool against an unornamented background. Luke holds a quill in his right hand, poised to write words on a scroll unfurling from his lap. His feet hover above a tray supported by red legs. He wears a purple robe streaked with red, one that we can easily imagine on a late fourth or fifth century Roman philosopher. The gold halo behind Luke’s head indicates his divinity. Above his halo flies a blue-winged calf, its two eyes turned toward the viewer with its body in profile. The bovine clasps a green parallelogram between two forelegs, a reference to the Gospel.

According to the historian Bede from the nearby monastery in Monkwearmouth (d. 735), this calf, or ox, symbolizes Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Bede assigns symbols for the other three evangelists as well, which Eadfrith duly includes in their respective portraits: Matthew’s is a man, suggesting the human aspect of Christ Mark’s the lion, symbolizing the triumphant and divine Christ of the Resurrection and John’s the eagle, referring to Christ’s second coming.

Lindisfarne Gospels, John’s cross-carpet page, folio 210v. (British Library)

A dense interplay of stacked birds teem underneath the crosses of the carpet page that opens John’s Gospel. One bird, situated in the upper left-hand quadrant, has blue-and-pink stripes in contrast to others that sport registers of feathers. Stripes had a negative association to the medieval mind, appearing chaotic and disordered. The insane wore stripes, as did prostitutes, criminals, jugglers, sorcerers, and hangmen. Might Eadfrith be warning his viewers that evil lurks hidden in the most unlikely of places? Or was Eadfrith himself practicing humility in avoiding perfection?

All in all, the variety and splendor of the Lindisfarne Gospels are such that even in reproduction, its images astound. Artistic expression and inspired execution make this codex a high point of early medieval art.

A History of The Lindisfarne Gospels

The Lindisfarne Gospels are an illustrated medieval manuscript created by a monk called Eadfrith who lived on the Island of Lindisfarne, England, in the eighth century.

The Gospels were created at Lindisfarne Priory by a monk living at the Island’s abbey. In the eighth century, when the Gospels were created, Christianity was in the process of becoming the dominant religion in the north of England. Already, Lindisfarne was established as a holy place, and home to the shrine of the revered Saint Cuthbert, who died in 687. Pilgrims visited the shrine regularly and it was reputed to be the site of miracles.

The Creation of the Lindisfarne Gospels

The Lindisfarne Gospels are a particularly important medieval manuscript because they were created by just one man, in contrast to the majority of manuscripts of the time, which were created by a team of scribes in a monastery’s scriptorium.

The Gospels are a work of art, highly illustrated with colours made using animal, vegetable and mineral pigments, which created rich, vivid shades. The opening pages of the Gospels are particularly striking, with elaborately patterned first letters, which have Anglo-Saxon designs.

A tenth-century inscription at the end of the Gospels states that the work was created in honour of God and St Cuthbert, by Eadfrith. A leather binding for the book was created by Eadfrith’s successor Ethelwald.

The Author of the Lindisfarne Gospels

The Gospels are believed to have been written by a monk called Eadfrith, who was Bishop of Lindisfarne between 698 and 721AD. Unusually, he worked along on the Gospels, and the work was left unfinished at his death in 721.

The work is made up of 250 pages of parchment of vellum, and the Gospels are presented in Latin, with a tenth century Anglo-Saxon translation written between the lines of the original work. Each Gospel is characterised by a detailed illustration of the relevant evangelist.

In working on the design of the Gospels, Eadfrith was influenced by the wide and varied cultural influences which existed in Northumbria during this turbulent period of its history. His work has echoes of Celtic, Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Roman and Eastern traditions, all of which had influenced the region’s history by this point.

Where are the Lindisfarne Gospels Kept?

The Lindisfarne Gospels are kept at the British Museum in London, England as part of the collection of Sir Robert Cotton. The Gospels are remarkably well preserved considering their age. Originally, the Gospels were used at Lindisfarne Priory and were covered by a highly-jewelled leather binding, made by Billfrith the Anchorite. This cover was lost during Viking raids on the Island and a replacement was made in the mid-nineteenth century. A modern facsimile copy of the Gospels can be seen at Durham Cathedral.

The Natural History of Lindisfarne

Sand Dunes cover the northern parts of Lindisfarne and these hold their own specific secrets. Rich findings, indeed, for those who will enjoy the search. This sandy wilderness is home to wealth of unusual and, largely, unexpected wild flowers and insects. Many plants of Arctic origin occur, here, at sea level and it is worth visiting the area in order to see these if nothing else. Other parts of the island have plants that have escaped from such diverse places as New Zealand, Kew and some which have probably been cultivated for medicinal purposes by the Monks of Medieval times, if not earlier.

Although the Island was originally designated as a Nature Reserve for its Flora, its bird life continues to draw keen ornithologists throughout the year, for there is always something of interest to be found around our shoreline. Visited briefly hundreds of birds during both the Spring and Autumn migration periods, the species visiting and remaining with us throughout the Winter are probably the most important. Those that come to the shoreline, geese, duck, waders and the occasional rare Northern Gull are largely from the Arctic and occur sometimes in numbers which are staggering. There is tightly controlled Wild-Fowling. Bird-watching is best at Lindisfarne outside the main tourist season of the Summer months, when accommodation is also more readily available.

The local Geology is complex but there are exposures of rock-types which are superb. Mainly sedimentary from the Lower Carboniferous Period, there are coal seams on the shore, the end of that time is dramatically seen at the South of Lindisfarne where the dolerite of the Whin Sill was intruded. Beblowe Crag upon which Lindisfarne castle stands, the Farnes and Hadrian's Wall are part of the same period of igneous activity. The much more recent Ice Ages have clearly left their mark too for many rocky outcrops throughout the Island are plastered with boulder clay. Lindisfarne is clearly a member of the Farne Island Group but may itself consist of two Islands linked by wind-blown sand.

Finally, the Marine Life is immensely rich. Seaweeds are represented by a surprisingly high number of forms and the Fauna of the inter-tidal zones is phenomenal and is, as yet, not adequately explored. Happily, the shore line is now being preserved, for we may still find the longest animal in Britain, Northern Octopus, Pipe Fish, Fifteen-Spined Stickleback and a considerable range of unexpected marine Shellfish. Offshore, we have large numbers of North Atlantic Grey Seals and, becoming more resident recently, several hundred Common Seals on the muddy waters between the island and the Mainland.

Visits for Natural History should be selected according to Seasons as well as for what it is intended to seek. In Summer one may discover some rare orchids. Autumn brings the vast numbers of wading birds, seeduck and geese. Many birds from the nearby Cheviot uplands come to the shores and grasslands of the Island to spend the Winter, returning to breed in the mountains with the return of Spring.

A stay on Lindisfarne will allow for both Painting or Photography. Should the latter option be selected, please bring a good supply of film and be prepared to use it. The wild life is a part of our Island's heritage and we hope you will share and enjoy what you find on your first and what almost certainly will become subsequent visits.

Holy Island

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Holy Island, also called Lindisfarne, historic small island (2 sq mi [5 sq km]) in the west North Sea, 2 mi (3 km) from the English Northumberland coast (in which county it is included), linked to the mainland by a causeway at low tide. It is administratively part of Berwick-upon-Tweed district.

Holy Island’s importance as a religious centre dates from ad 635, when the ecclesiastic St. Aidan established a church and monastery there with the aim of converting the Northumbrians. The Lindisfarne Gospels (produced on the island and now housed in the British Museum) are fine examples of 7th-century illuminated manuscripts. The threat of Danish raids caused the monastery to be abandoned in 875, and the monks fled inland with the body of St. Cuthbert (the sixth bishop), eventually settling at what became the inland cathedral city of Durham. The prior and convent of Durham refounded the monastery in 1082, and it was garrisoned at the end of the 16th century.

The village of Lindisfarne, in the fertile southwest corner of the island, grew up around the monastery and is now a tourist centre. It has coast guard and lifeboat stations. Pop. (latest census) 190.

Watch the video: Invasion to the Lindisfarne monastery S01 EP02