Gosforth Northumbria Whirlwind (Part 2)
Updated: Nov 12, 2022
I will pick up our adventure in the area of Newcastle from where we left off last time. If you didn’t read part 1, you can catch up with it on my website at this link: https://www.vjvphd.com/post/gosforth-northumbria-whirlwind-part-1
Following our satisfying visit to Newcastle cathedral, we promptly jumped in the car and zoomed north for an unplanned adventure. We hadn’t realized how close this site was, but when our tour guide Mike Duffy mentioned it was only about an hour away, we thought it was worth trying for.
After a luxurious scenic drive through gorgeous autumn foliage in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), we made our way to a small parking lot situated on the Holy Island. Yep, the Holy Island, aka Lindisfarne. The name Holy Island was its name in the 11th century when it appeared in Latin as Insula Sacra.
The phrase combining the two terms—The Holy Island of Lindisfarne—has been used more frequently in recent times, particularly when the island is promoted as a tourist or pilgrim destination (and which I rather prefer).
What is Lindisfarne? Lindisfarne is a tidal island off the northeast coast of England measuring 3 miles from east to west and 1.5 miles from north to south, comprising approximately 1,000 acres at high tide. It is accessible at low tide via a modern causeway (paved) and an ancient pilgrims' path nearly a mile long that runs across sand and mudflats and which are covered in water during high tide. As of March 2011, the island boasted a population of 180 residents.
Just like our trips to Mont St. Michel in France and St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall, one must check the tide tables and travel the causeway when the tide is OUT… and be sure to depart the island before the tide comes IN (or risk finding a submerged vehicle).
Despite all signs and warnings, about one vehicle per month gets stranded on the causeway. Here’s a 4:04 video showing what it’s like when the tide comes in… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pMvwgGBy-4o
We had three goals on the island: first, to visit the Heritage Center; second, to visit the Lindisfarne Priory ruins; and third, to visit Lindisfarne Castle (which bears essentially no relationship to the other two sites, go figure). Astonishingly, we managed to fit in all three (albeit at the expense of lingering, reading all the signage, browsing the gift shop, or climbing an inviting lookout tower situated near the shoreline).
Personally, I think we could have easily skipped the Heritage Center, but Robin was determined (his “J” was activated!). And to be fair, we both greatly enjoyed the orientation film we saw inside. But there was simply no time for the interactive exhibits, which was disappointing, since we both love going down rabbit holes.
Next we had to choose whether to visit the priory ruins or the castle next. The priory won out (and we made the right decision).
The story of Lindisfarne Priory begins in 634 AD, when King Oswald invited Bishop Aidan from Ireland to teach the Christian faith in his kingdom so they would learn the message of Christianity.
Thus, Aidan and 12 other monks arrived in Northumbria in 635 AD to set up the first religious foundation on Holy Island.
English Heritage manages the property, so we flashed our membership cards and waltzed right in. We entered a nice little museum featuring many Anglo-Saxon carved stones that were found during excavations. Some of these are grave markers carrying the name of a man or woman written in capital letters, while others are written in runes.
One 9th century gravestone is known as the Viking Domesday stone (below), and it depicts a troop of seven uniformed warriors brandishing Viking-style battle-axes and swords, while the other side features a symbolic depiction of Domesday, when Christ is said to return and sit in judgment on the sins of mankind.
The survival of the fine carving on these stones implies these grave markers were buried below ground rather than exposed to the elements.
Returning outside once more, we ambled down a path where we spotted a dramatic statue of Saint Aidan and couldn’t resist taking a closer look.
Aidan’s arrival on Lindisfarne was the beginning of what has been called “the Golden Age of Northumbria,” and Aidan and his successors created a mecca for advanced learning—to the point where Northumbria was described as “the Star in the North,” and travelers 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 a warm welcome awaited them once they arrived. A Northumbrian Renaissance flourished here long before the Italian Renaissance began.
Aidan and his monks lived a simple life on the island. The huts they lived in and the communal buildings they used were constructed 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. He is also credited with encouraging education for girls and women, and Abbess Hilda of Whitby (prioress of Whitby Abbey), a notable female figure in the early history of Christianity, was one of the beneficiaries of his teaching.
Attached by a causeway to the mainland yet cut off twice each day by the tides, Lindisfarne is in the world, but not of it, as early Christians strived to be. This made it a natural location for anyone seeking to live a contemplative life, and Christianity and spirituality have been nurtured on Holy Island for nearly 1400 years.
Next, we entered the ancient priory ruins. Lindisfarne Priory is the origin of Christianity’s spread across the north of England.
Now these priory ruins are confusing because they date from the 11th century, and are not the original priory from the 7th century, which is what visitors like us are surely hoping to see. But the original priory was located where the ancient parish church stands today (we’ll see that in a moment).
This priory—the ruins anyway—are from a newer priory that was founded by Benedictine monks around the time the Durham monks returned briefly to Lindisfarne with Saint Cuthbert’s relics to escape the armies of William the Conqueror, as I told you about last week.
Reconstruction showing how the new priory may have looked between the 11th and 13th centuries. © Historic England
This new priory was intended to be a miniature version of Durham Cathedral, and it was designed and built by the same masons who worked on that project. Constructed in the late 11th century, this resemblance was intended to create a visual connection between Durham, where Cuthbert’s body had come to rest, and Lindisfarne island, where he lived and died.
A cenotaph (empty tomb) placed on the site of the old shrine provided a focus for medieval pilgrims. But the priory suffered from the Dissolution of the Monasteries during the Reformation in 1537 and slowly fell into ruins.
But let’s talk about that first priory—Aidan’s priory—founded so long ago. It was famously raided by Vikings in 793 AD.
It seems the first few months of that year was plagued by worrisome omens. Anglo-Saxon writers in northern England described how “immense whirlwinds, flashes of lightning and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air.” They thought these aerial phenomena were portents of imminent disaster.
Sure enough, a great famine followed after. But the worst was yet to come. On June 8, it was recorded that “heathen men came and miserably destroyed God’s church on Lindisfarne, with plunder and slaughter.”
These were the Vikings, who took the island unawares and laid waste to much of it, plundering and destroying the religious centers while so doing.
Whatever it was that brought about the raid on Lindisfarne, it was only the beginning of “greater suffering.” Viking raids increased in frequency around the coast of Britain, Ireland, and Francia. By 850 AD foreign armies were wintering in England, and by 870 the Viking conquest of accessible Anglo-Saxon kingdoms was underway, with Adrian’s priory being merely one of their earliest conquests.
On our way departing the priory ruins, we took a sharp detour and headed into the ancient parish church next door: the church of St. Mary the Virgin, its construction dating from between 1180 and 1300 AD.
As I mentioned, it stands on the same site where the wooden church that was initially built by St. Aidan in 635 AD once stood. It is the oldest building on the island with a roof on it and is still in active use for worship as a parish church today.
Various alterations were made to the building over the centuries. Following the Reformation, the church slipped into disrepair, but fortunately a restoration was performed in 1860.
It was nice enough, although it didn’t hold a candle to some remarkable churches we’ve visited. BUT in the rear stands a large wooden sculpture titled “The Journey,” depicting the carrying of Saint Cuthbert’s coffin from Lindisfarne to Durham following those Viking raids. I found it quite affecting (this is my “affected” face).
Robin narrated a 1:07 video exploration of it here: https://youtu.be/geACmSV1JGk
Next, we rushed off to explore Lindisfarne Castle in the remaining time we had on the island. It dominates the view, and catches the eye whenever it is visible.
It took quite a hike to get there! I was glad to be wearing my black “abominable snowman” coat—a coat I bought on sale at Tesco last spring that we lugged around in the car for months until, finally—it was coat time! (I was also lucky to have my handy-dandy Tesco gloves I also bought on sale that incorporate the first electronics “fingertip” I’ve used that actually works on my device.)
We marched speedily down the coast for about 20 minutes, praying we would make it in time. And make it we did, with 10 whole minutes to spare.
Lindisfarne Castle is a National Trust property, and since Robin and I have benefited so much from our English Heritage membership, we decided to invest in a National Trust membership too. Naturally we had to sit and fill out all the forms (which gave Robin a much-needed respite from the speed walk along the coast and up the steep hill), and then—at last!—we were inside the castle.
The story of the castle is an interesting one. Lindisfarne Castle was built in the mid-1500s atop a volcanic plug known as Beblowe Crag using stones borrowed (okay, robbed) from Lindisfarne Priory. This Tudor fort was intended to protect the north of England from incursions by the Scots.
The castle lost its strategic importance in 1603 when the threat from the Scots lessened. By the end of the 19th century, Lindisfarne Castle had fallen into disrepair. Enter Edward Hudson, the founder of Country Life magazine, who initiated the trend of buying houses on Holy Island, fixing them up, and turning them into holiday homes. Hudson arrived on Holy Island in 1901 as part of a scouting expedition to survey properties he might feature in his magazine. Hudson set his heart on acquiring and renovating this disheveled castle, and eventually he converted the property into an Edwardian country house by 1903.
He was proud of his little castle with its spanking new portcullis, and he threw lavish parties there. Amongst his celebrity guests were King George V and Queen Mary (when they were still Prince & Princess of Wales).
The village was often abuzz with news of celebrity arrivals.
In 1921 Hudson sold Lindisfarne Castle to a stockbroker, who sold it to a merchant banker, who then donated it to the National Trust in 1944.
We decided to treat the castle as if it were a haunted house for Halloween… This seemed fitting since its doleful isolation made it suitable for such a purpose, not to overlook the eerie sounds of wind whistling through the empty fireplaces and the sense of ghosts all around.
We were amused by signage scattered about displaying quotes by individuals describing the castle with dour phrases such as, “silent intervals becoming ghostly and frightening,” or, “desolate and forbidden…,” or “very dark, with nowhere to sit, and nothing but stone.” We’ve never seen a tourist property portrayed in this dry and disparaging fashion before by its caretakers. It was eccentrically hilarious.
We ventured out onto the patio and captured some images facing back toward where we had just been: the ruined priory and Saint Cuthbert’s tiny islet, with fishing boats moored just offshore.
Like Lindisfarne, Saint Cuthbert’s Island is a tiny tidal islet only accessible from Holy Island at low tide, and is said to be where Saint Cuthbert came for peace and quiet from the busy priory. Remains of a chapel or monk's cell have been found there, and the wooden cross depicts the site of his former house.
Upon departing the castle, we encountered three odd sheds, which Robin explained were made from old upturned fishing boats, and are considered to be one of the symbols of Holy Island.
Next, we picked our way down the hillside and made our way back along the coast to depart this desolate archipelago. Robin hustled us along at a brisk pace, wanting to be sure to make our getaway before our car was drowned. I felt a bit like Indiana Jones as we raced for safety to the mainland.
In the name of schadenfreude, here’s a 3:06 video of people who weren’t so lucky in beating the incoming tide during their exit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cP6nlIJpZ8o
Overall, we were charmed by the tranquility and fascinating elements of history featured on this special little piece of land that isn’t quite an island. Beyond the practicalities of a freshwater source and green pasture, the isolation of the tides that make Lindisfarne an island twice a day, the sounds of wildlife, and the constant breaking waves all betoken the divinity of the Creator.
We spent another hour on the road making our way back down south before returning to greet Belle, enjoy a delicious dinner prepared by Robin, and snuggle down under the homeowner’s unicorn sheets for one last sleep in the city of Newcastle.
The next morning was our final opportunity to “gosforth” locally in Newcastle, and we made the most of it! We continued on the theme of Lindisfarne by visiting the Laing Art Gallery to view the outstanding Lindisfarne Gospels. Normally this museum is a hotbed of Pre-Raphaelite artworks, but those have been temporarily displaced by an exhibition that includes the Lindisfarne Gospels, which we felt fortunate to see, and which coincidentally built atop the sites we had visited on the two days previous.
The Lindisfarne Gospels comprise one of the world’s great books—a breathtaking artwork and symbol of faith—considered to be the most spectacular manuscript to survive from Anglo-Saxon England and a masterpiece of early medieval art. These are beautifully and intricately illuminated copies of the four gospels recounting the life and teachings of Christ made by Eadfrith, the Bishop of Lindisfarne, “for God and Saint Cuthbert.”
Scholars estimate the manuscript was produced sometime between Cuthbert's death in 687 and Eadfrith's death in 721.
The manuscript was produced in a scriptorium in the monastery of Lindisfarne and took approximately 10 years to create, perhaps in parallel with the timespan of Cuthbert resting in his coffin before first being exhumed.
It is without question one of the best surviving examples of traditional Celtic calligraphy and illustration. The Lindisfarne Gospels were made when the monks were beginning in earnest to promote the cult of Saint Cuthbert. One of the most beautiful and intricate manuscripts ever produced, it shows how this period was anything but a “dark age.”
The Lindisfarne Gospels assimilate spiritual and cultural influences of Ireland, Rome, and the Germanic world of the Anglo-Saxons. The Lindisfarne Gospels are not an example of "isolated genius... in an otherwise dark age": other Gospel books were produced during the same time period and geographic area with qualities similar to the Lindisfarne Gospels.
These Gospels would have been displayed on the high altar—like a shrine of sacred text—exhibited alongside the coffin containing Saint Cuthbert’s body, and it was surely placed there by Eadfrith for ceremonial purposes, intended to promote and celebrate the Christian religion and amplify the Word of God.
Christianity is a religion of the book. The artistry of Celtic and Germanic peoples, developed through the mediums of metalwork, wood, and stone, was now brought to bear on book production, and the impact on books was immense. Words burst across the page in exuberant decoration, becoming images of the divine. At a time when fear of idolatry was prevalent in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, sacred calligraphy flourished. The West took its cue from the words of Pope Gregory: “in images the illiterate read.”
A glimpse of the book could change the lives of pilgrims, given how such relics were famous for their powers of healing body and soul. They symbolized hope and a foretaste of a better existence to come.
A huge range of individual pigments were used in the manuscript, with colors derived from natural animal, vegetable, and mineral sources. Gold is used in only a couple of small details. While some colors were obtained from local sources, others were imported from the Mediterranean. The medium used to bind the colors was primarily egg white, with fish glue perhaps used in a few places. Its pages are vellum, and evidence reveals the vellum was made using roughly 150 calf skins.
As part of the Anglo-Saxon art tradition, the manuscript reveals a love of riddles and surprise, shown through the pattern and interlace in the meticulously designed pages. Many of the patterns used for the Lindisfarne Gospels date to before the Christian period. A strong presence of Celtic, Germanic, and Irish art styles can be seen. The spiral style and "knot work" evident on the designed pages are influenced by Celtic art.
One of the most characteristic styles in the manuscript is the zoomorphic style (adopted from Germanic art) and is revealed through an extensive use of interlaced animal and bird patterns throughout the book. The birds appearing in the manuscript may have been inspired by Eadfrith's own observations of wildlife in Lindisfarne. The geometric design motifs are also of Germanic influence, and appear throughout the manuscript.
The “carpet pages” (pages of pure decoration) exemplify Eadfrith's use of geometrical ornamentation. Each carpet page contains a different image of a cross (called a “cross-carpet page”), emphasizing the importance of the Christian religion and of ecumenical relationships between churches. These pages of ornamentation display motifs that were familiar from metalwork and jewelry that pair alongside bird and animal decoration.
Eadfrith acquired knowledge from, and was influenced by, other artistic styles, showing how he had "eclectic taste." While many non-Christian artistic influences appear within the manuscript, the patterns were intended to comprise religious motifs and ideas.
When the monastic community took Cuthbert's body and fled Lindisfarne around 875, they also carried away other relics and books, including the Lindisfarne Gospels. The book remains in remarkable condition and the text is complete and undamaged. However, the original binding of the manuscript was destroyed.
In a delightful tale, which ought to be true even if it is not, the gospel was lost overboard when the monks crossed the Irish Sea. As the monks despaired, a vision of Cuthbert appeared before them and told them where to find the book.
It was found on the shore three days later, in the exact spot foretold by Cuthbert, entirely intact save for some minor staining from the seawater. Ever since then, in the inventories of Durham and Lindisfarne, this volume was known as Liber S. Cuthberti qui demersus est in mare (“the book of St Cuthbert that fell into the sea”).
When the volume was later analyzed, it was found marked with stains that seem likely to be from saltwater, so this romantic tale contains at least a kernel of truth.
The Venerable Bede explained how each of the four Evangelists was represented by their own symbol in the Gospels: Matthew was the man, representing the human Christ; Mark was the lion, symbolizing the triumphant Christ of the Resurrection; Luke was the calf, symbolizing the sacrificial victim of the Crucifixion; and John was the eagle, symbolizing Christ's second coming.
A collective term for the symbols of the four Evangelists is the Tetramorphs.
As an aside, I’m personally fascinated by the tetramorphs and how Keirsey related the four apostles to the four temperaments in his typology.
After Henry VIII ordered the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539, the manuscript was separated from the priory. In the early 17th century the Lindisfarne Gospels were owned by Sir Robert Cotton (1571–1631), and in 1753 they became part of the founding collections of the British Museum. If you feel inspired, you can view a sample of 35 pages scanned online here: https://www.bl.uk/turning-the-pages/?id=fdbcc772-3e21-468d-8ca1-9c192f0f939c&type=book
Robin had never heard of the Lindisfarne Gospels before this trip… he was mesmerized.
I had heard of them, and held them in the same regard as The Book of Kells (also on my bouquet list btw), but that famous book came much later. It was numinous to be in the same room with it. In general, I am enthralled by early Christian imagery, and as the UK Daily News asserts, “Everyone should see the Lindisfarne Gospels at least once.”
After enjoying the Lindisfarne Gospels exhibition, we went meandering through the rest of the museum and nosed out the few Pre-Raphaelites still on view, such as these Burne-Jones stained glass windows.
From that delightful museum we hightailed it to our next museum. On the way we encountered the towering Grey’s Monument (133 feet high). Charles Grey was the namesake for Earl Grey tea, so we felt he deserved our attention, however briefly.
We rushed down the hill from there and slid into the amazing Great North Museum (free admission!), which featured an impressive display of Roman artifacts that had been recovered from Hadrian’s Wall, including carved effigies of the god Mithras. This encounter was on the heels of our visit to the Mithraeum in London, so we found it most exciting. (See my blog entry about that visit here: https://www.vjvphd.com/post/i-m-reporting-from-bugs-bottom)
Mithraism was a mystery cult that flourished among Roman soldiers during the first three centuries of the Christian Era. The god Mithras was supposedly born from the “cosmic egg” and single-handedly killed a bull, thereby proving his power, and these carvings represent those events.
Most legends of Mithras’s birth tell of his birth from the living rock, but an alternate story of his birth from the Cosmic Egg myth was also known (and recited by C.G. Jung). The carved egg (above) is decorated with the signs of the Zodiac, and is the earliest depiction in Britain of these astrological signs as we know them today.
Mithras was a god who glorified fighting, so he appealed to military men in particular who developed a secret society to worship him, and women were not allowed. Unfortunately, due to its secrecy, no written records of the inner workings of Mithraism are to be found—only hearsay reports from third parties.
I could have spent a lot more time in this museum, but time was fleeting—we had to get back and tidy things up in readiness for the next day’s departure. We also wanted to lavish some love on Belle so she would feel spoiled and happy.
The next morning, on our way out of town, we stopped briefly at a remnant of Hadrian’s wall.
So who was Hadrian, and why did he need a wall?
Hadrian's Wall is an old defensive fortification of the Roman province of Britannia that was begun during the reign of the emperor Hadrian. Running a total of 73 miles and requiring 10 years to complete, the wall cuts from sea to sea across the entire width of what is now northern England, and the Venerable Bede recorded the wall as standing 12 feet high.
The best-known frontier of the entire Roman Empire, this is the largest Roman archaeological feature in Britain and is regarded as a British cultural icon. Furthermore, Hadrian's Wall is one of Britain's major ancient tourist attractions and was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.
Hadrian's Wall was most likely planned before Hadrian's visit to Britain in 122 AD in accordance with his wish to keep "intact the empire," which had been imposed on him via "divine instruction." It is surely a monument to extraverted thinking.