English Churches - Ruined Abbeys

Lindisfarne Priory, Holy Island


One of the most important centres of early Christianity in Anglo-Saxon England


Holy Island is located just off the coast of Northumberland overlooking a natural harbour. In AD 634 Oswald, King of Northumbria, granted the island to the church and a monastic community led by St Aidan with monks from Iona established a monastery here, which played a key part in the spread of Christianity across northern England. There were two small wooden churches with domestic and service accommodation, surrounded by a ditch and bank.
 
Aidan was succeeded by Cuthbert in 670 and the monastery rapidly became a centre of Christian learning. The Lindisfarne Gospels were written here in early 700s. At its peak, there were probably about 30 monks along with novices and lay people. After Cuthbert’s death, his body was enshrined before the high altar and Lindisfarne became an important pilgrimage centre. The growing wealth of the monastery made it a target for Viking raids. The last Danish raid in 875 led to its abandonment when the monks left, taking St Cuthbert’s body and other precious relicts including the Lindisfarne Gospels, with them. A small Christian community seems to have survived on Lindisfarne as fragments of C8-C10th Carved crosses have been found and are on display in the museum.

After the Norman invasion, Lindisfarne Priory was re-founded in 1070, by a group of Benedictine monks from Durham Cathedral. Work began on a splendid stone church in 1120 using locally quarried stone, over the spot they believed St Cuthbert had been buried. A cenotaph marked the spot. The original church had a small chancel apse but this was later extended to form a rectangular chancel. Once the Priory Church was completed, work began on the monastic buildings, with a courtyard with the domestic buildings to the south of the church and the Prior’s House in the south east corner. A plan of the site can be found here and it might have looked like this.

Monks from Durham served here on rotation. At its height in the late 1200s Lindisfarne Priory was home to perhaps 10 monks, a prior and was  supported by a large number of servants.

Lindisfarne was never a wealthy monastery. C14th border raids on the local area from Scotland led to a drop in tithes and land rents from estates on the mainland. The number of monks fell to four.

The monastery was fortified by building a defensive wall and tower, forming an outer and inner courtyard.  Battlements were built round the top of the church and towers and arrow slits added. Extra protection was provided by a barbican on the gateway between inner and outer courtyard. The outer courtyard served a similar function to the outer bailey of a traditional castle.

After the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII in 1534, the priory and its estates passed into the possession of the crown. The island was taken into Crown ownership. The buildings were used as storehouses for the fort (now the site of the Castle) built to protect the harbour. They finally fell into disuse in the C17th when the lead was stripped from the church roof and the central tower collapsed, leaving the iconic Rainbow arch, one of the ribs of the vaulted ceiling. Villagers used the stone for building stone. By the late C18th the ruins were becoming a popular attraction for both artists and antiquarians. The west front collapsed in the 1850s and was carefully reconstructed at the crown’s expense. The site has been in the care of English Heritage since 1984 and is one of the most visited sites in the country.

The ruins of the priory along with St Mary’s Church, dominate the south side of the village.

Lindisfarne Priory, Holy Island

On the lawn in front of the priory church is a carving of St Cuthbert.

Lindisfarne Priory, Holy Island

Lindisfarne Priory, Holy Island

The west front with its two flanking towers and carved arches around the west door would have been an impressive site for pilgrims. The south tower stands to nearly its original height. The battlements along the top of the wall with the arrow slits were added in the C14th.

Lindisfarne Priory, Holy Island

Lindisfarne Priory, Holy Island

The north wall and part of the arcade still stand to nearly their original height. Only the lower parts of the walls survive on the south side. The base of some of the nave columns can be seen in the grass.

Lindisfarne Priory, Holy Island

The transept walls are still standing. Although the central tower collapsed, one of the vault ribs still survives, forming the iconic and much photographed ‘Rainbow Arch’. Little remains of the chancel apart from the north wall and the the empty east window.

Lindisfarne Priory, Holy Island

Lindisfarne Priory, Holy Island

Only low walls are left of the courtyard and domestic buildings between the church and the prior’s lodging. 

Lindisfarne Priory, Holy Island

Its tall chimney stack still stands but the rest is now an empty shell. This was built after the church using a different stone. The grey colour contrasts with the red of the church building.

Lindisfarne Priory, Holy Island

There is little left of the barbican between the inner and outer courtyards. This is now a grassy space with the foundations of the guest hall and stables along the outer wall. The C14th defensive wall on the west side of the courtyard still stands.

Lindisfarne Priory, Holy Island

The lookout tower on the rocky outcrop beyond the priory ruins has a good view down onto  the outer courtyard with the remains of guest house along the wall and the the barbican separating the inner and outer courtyards.

Lindisfarne Priory, Holy Island

There is a small museum in the Visitor centre which has a collection of Anglo Saxon stonework and crosses and other artefacts from the site.

The Priory and Museum are open daily throughout the year. The nearest post code is TD15 2RX and the grid reference is NU 126418.

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