"Come to me, all who are weary and whose load is heavy - I will give you rest." - Matthew 11-28

Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne

Reverend Canon Kate Tristram
Statue of St.Aidan by Kathleen Parbury The First Recorded Inhabitant:
The first person whose name we know who lived here on the island was St.Aidan. He was not the first human being to live here or hereabouts: Middle Stone Age Man was here from about 8000BC and New Stone Age Man from 3000BC and they left some of their unwanted rubbish behind. During the Roman Empire Britons probably had a village here. They had a name for the Island: Medcaut - a Celtic word of unknown meaning. But in 635AD, when Aidan chose the Island for the site of his monastery, we moved from prehistory into history.
Aidan was an Irish monk from the monastery St.Columba had founded on the island of Iona. The Britons had been Christian before the Irish, since Britain, though not Ireland, was part of the Roman Empire. Some of the missionaries who first took the faith to Ireland were British: St.Patrick (the patron saint of Ireland) was the most famous but not the only one. But when the power of Rome declined the English (from North Germany) began to infiltrate into Britain and gradually turned it into England. These incoming English were pagans. Up here in the north the kingdom of Northumbria was largely created by the English warrior-leader Aethelfrith but when he was killed in battle (616AD) his children fled into exile and some of these children found their way to what is now South-West Scotland. Here they met the Irish monks of Iona and accepted the the Christian faith. Oswald, the second son of Aethelfrith, grew up determined to re-gain the throne of Northumbria and to let the pagans among his people hear about Christianity. In 633 he fought a successful battle and established himself as king, choosing Bamburgh, a natural outcrop of rock on the North-East coast, as his main fortress. He then invited the monks of Iona to send a mission and eventually Aidan arrived with 12 other monks and chose to settle on the island the English had renamed Lindisfarne.
Here Aidan established an Irish-type monastery of wooden buildings: a small church, small, circular dwelling huts, perhaps one larger building for communal purposes and in time, workshops etc as needed. Here the monks lived a life of prayer, study and austerity (although in this Aidan was said to be moderate - by Irish standards!). From here they went out on mission. First they needed to learn the English language and their English king, Oswald, who had learnt Irish in his boyhood in exile, helped them. Then they went out, using Aidan's only method as a missionary, which was to walk the lanes, talk to all the people he met and interest them in the faith if he could. His monks visited and revisited the villages where he sowed the seeds and in time local Christian communities were formed. One story tells that the king, worried that bishop Aidan would walk like a peasant, gave him a horse but Aidan gave it away to a beggar. He wanted to walk, to be on the same level as the people he met and no doubt to vary his approach when he discovered something of their background and attitudes.
Aidan had to ensure that his efforts did not die with himself and his Ionian monks. What was needed was an English leadership of the English church. He had to educate the next generation of leaders. Irish monks were very keen on Christian education, which required the new skills of book-learning, reading and writing and Latin - the language in which all the books they could obtain were written. Once the essentials of literacy had been grasped the expansion of mental horizons must have been amazing. Books could bridge the natural restrictions of time and space! They began with the 150 psalms (in Latin) and then went on to the four gospels (in Latin). These were the essentials; then they could master as much as their library offered and their minds could hold. Such education at this time could be obtained only in monastic schools. Aidan began with 12 boys, who of course would learn the practical work of being monks, priests and missionaries by observing and working with the older monks. It seems to have been a good system.
The monastery on the Island was for men and boys only. This was not true everywhere. As the Christian faith spread in England double monasteries became popular; under the rule of an Abbess monks and nuns, girls and boys, lived and worked in the same establishment, though not necessarily in close contact! But Lindisfarne was different in that it had been founded specifically to be the centre for mission. It would not have been appropriateto have nuns here, since they could not do the same work: public opinion at the time would not have understood or permitted women to walk the lanes and speak to people they did not know. Yet many of the nuns became very learned and their contribution to the success of the mission was great, for everywhere that Christianity spread books were required and many of these were copied by the nuns in their monasteries. Aidan himself had made sure that it was possible in Northumbria for women to become nuns if they so wished. He had "discovered" the woman who was to become the most famous Abbess of her day, Hild, who was to be in turn the Abbess of Hartlepool and Whitby. Her contribution to the church was great: at least five of her (male) students became bishops.
After 16 years as bishop Aidan died at Bamburgh in 651AD. We do not know his age. What he had achieved may not have been clear to him at death but subsequent history showed the strong foundations and lasting success of his mission. The missionaries trained in his school went out and worked for the conversion of much of Anglo-Saxon England.
Apostle of England:
We do not know who first brought Christianity to this country way back in the days of the Roman Empire. We have no obvious original apostle. Yet, if we must choose one man to be called Apostle of England it has to be claimed that Aidan is that man. "Apostle of Northumbria" he certainly was and we are proud to make our apostle known to a wider world.
Copyright © Kate Tristram