Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Lindesfarn: "Saint Cuthbert's Holy Isle"



Lindesfarn, or, as it is more generally called, Holy Island, is situated upon the east coast of Northumberland, about midway between Berwick and North Sunderland, and though comparatively unknown to the tourist, possesses much historical and antiquarian interest deserving of a better acquaintance. Hallowed as the spot where Aidan, the apostle of the North, founded his first monastic retreat, and where St. Cuthbert performed most of his miracles, it has been poetically immortalised by Sir Walter Scott in “Marmion,”—nowhere is his influence over the imagination more powerfully exemplified than by the involuntary homage rendered by the primitive race of islanders, to whom the tragedy of Constance’s trials and entombment has become a matter of tradition; for even at this day the little fisher lads drop their shrill voices, and point, with half-averted eye, to Constance’s tomb, now—

Burst open to the sea winds’ sweep,—

and tell how her death-shriek still startles the echoes of the ruined abbey, mingling with the war of the tempest, and that not a man in the island will put to sea if the “white men” have appeared.

Bede calls Lindesfarn a semi-island, as upon the north-west the sands are left dry by the receding tide, forming a communication with the mainland, of some four miles in distance, which, although safe enough at the ebb tide, and with a guide, directly the flow sets in becomes buried with quicksands: these, too, are of such a deceptive character, that it is impossible to guard against them, except by being in time,—a fact impressed strongly on my memory, in consequence of having, on one occasion, literally to ride for my life, the sands quaking at every step; and even, after having got past the danger in this sense, the tide rising with such rapidity that my saddle-flaps were deep in the salt water long before I gained the landing-place at Beal: thus bidding fair to test the possible truth of the legend, telling how a certain Alice Foster, mounted upon a famous roan mare, once swam the Taw to reach the death-bed of her husband.

Yet dangerous as these sands undoubtedly are, accidents seldom occurred: three only happened during the years I lived near the island; two resulting in death, and one in which the late Mr. Trevillian was obliged to leave his phaeton and horses to their fate, himself narrowly escaping on foot. The safest plan of crossing is to go down to a point of land which forms the northern boundary of Bridle Bay, and there, hiring a boat, row across the narrow spit of water which here divides the island from the main.

The actual surface, though computed at 1000 acres, does not embrace more than half that quantity in cultivable land, the remainder consisting of sand hills covered with a short coarse bent. The village or town—(every collection of cottages, however miserable, is in the north a “toon”)—numbers a few fishermen’s huts, one or two lodging-houses, a couple of fish-stores and salting-houses, and also the manor-house and parsonage; the last being “Pastor’s” house in Miss Porter’s charming old novel.

Although the ruins of the abbey are the centre of attraction, the castle is wedded to many a romantic legend of war arising in the quarrelsome days of the Border raids: it bears the tell-tale signs of hard blows upon its time-worn walls; and every fisherman would be up in arms if the visitor took his departure without exploring the caves and wetting his lips at the miraculous wishing-well. Just at the foot of the heights crowned by the ruins, and some quarter of a mile below high-water mark, is a curious rock known as the Chair, or Workshop—

Where good St. Cuthbert toils to frame
The heaven-born beads that bear his name,

and whence the fishermen say that the chipping of his hammer may yet be heard, and when audible always portends a storm—the benevolent saint still keeping the advantage and safety of his friends in mind. The beads known as St. Cuthbert’s are Entrochi, and with many beautifully marked fossils abound in the limestone worked on the island.

The first special notice I can find of Lindesfarn is that in the reign of Oswald, when a Scottish monk named Aidan followed the footsteps of Paulinus, carrying out the good work so successfully that in seven days he made 15,000 converts, all of whom he baptised in the river Glen, at Yevering, one of the royal residences. Such signal success found many admirers in Scotland, and a number of Aidan’s old friends soon joined him, anxious to bear the heat and burthen of the day, or, if happily that was over, to share in the reward. These formed themselves into a brotherhood, and adopting the monastic rule of St. Colomba, established themselves on Lindesfarn on account of its retirement and safety, its proximity to the favourite residence of Oswald—Babbaun, now Bamburgh Castle,—and the solemnising effect produced by the contemplation of the “mysterious sea.”

A very primitive structure, erected with split oak and rushes, served as their home and place of worship, the foundation of the abbey being laid by St. Cuthbert, and “so mightily” improved by Eadbert and his successors that it attracted the rapacity of the Danes in 743, who, landing upon the peaceful little island, pillaged the abbey and murdered or drove the monks into the sea. Such a calamity filled the North with consternation, considering, as they had taught themselves to do, that the dead presence of the saint would preserve the place from desecration. After this the abbey did not regain its former magnificence until 830, when Egfrid being consecrated bishop, he devoted his fortune, talents, and time to its restoration, and thus again Lindesfarn began to rear its head as proudly as of yore.

When the remains of the saint were deposited at Chester-le-Street, the bishopric was transferred from the island, which, from that date, ceased to be an episcopal see, and is at the present day an archdeaconry in the see of Durham.

The inhabitants or islanders, as they prefer to be called, are direct descendants of the old Saxons, and though large and heavily built, the men are active and muscular.

The ruins of the abbey have been sadly neglected, and indeed ruthlessly dismembered to build the houses in the village. Yet sufficient still remains to prove its former magnificence, and the strength that, for twelve hundred years, resisted the ravages of wind and weather, turning its cheeks—

Like veteran worn, but unsubdued,

to meet the storms of generation after generation.

The ancient church was built in the cruciform style; the body and chancel are still standing; the other portions completely ruined, and in some parts level with the ground. The diversity of architecture renders it evident that the building must have been repaired and enlarged at different periods, as we find examples of every age, from the simplest description of early Saxon down to the graceful arches of Henry II.: it is plain that the square tower was erected long after the first building of the church; the pillars supporting the arches in the centre of the cross are clustered, with plain capitals, each forming a corner of the great tower, the south wall of which, about fifty feet high, is standing. This tower once formed, as in most cathedrals, what is termed a lanthorn; and, from the angles, arches were sprung, crossing diagonally, to form a canopy roof. The bows of one arch still remain, and though so light and delicate in its workmanship, and so beautifully hollowed upon its pillars as to give the idea that a breath would over-turn it, I have often heard my father say, that climbing across it was one of his boyhood’s feats.

The fragments of offices belonging to the abbey are scattered over a space of nearly five acres, and especially about the rocky eminence upon which these buildings stand, round the edge of which the grey walls still cling, fretted and worn by the spray of centuries, and awakening many a wild remembrance of former times, forcing upon the mind the instability of man’s greatest works. The rocks and sea are there in all the wild beauty they wore twelve hundred years ago, when the walls of the wealthy abbey rose proudly above them. Where are those walls now? Crumbled, broken and dismantled.

This world is all a fleeting show,
For man’s illusion given.
The smiles of joy, the tears of woe,
Deceitful shine, deceitful flow;
There’s nothing true but Heaven.

Isabella Fenton.