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A brief History of the Lindisfarne Priory, St Cuthbert and The Gospels
The establishment of the Priory and life of St Cuthbert

In the year 635 AD, the island of Lindisfarne was given to St Aidan of Iona by the Anglo-Saxon King Oswald to become a base for Christianity in the North East. St Aidan had already established the Christian centre on Iona from his homeland of Ireland and now, with fellow Irish monks he would work to establish another centre off the Northumbria coast. In the same year, close to the river Tweed, a man was born who would later have great influence on the Lindisfarne community and be the inspiration for the creation of the Gospels. His name was Cuthbert.

It is thought that when he was born, Cuthberts parents had become recent converts from the old pagan ways to the new faith of Christianity, possibly due to the work of St Aidan or to the efforts of Paulinus who had led an earlier mission to Northumbria from the south of the country. Although the mission of Paulinus was short lived, he created many coverts. Certainly, from what we know, Cuthbert was serious about his faith from an early age and may have been brought up as a Christian from birth. Because he had spent  time as a teenager serving in the local army, was able to ride a horse and had been brought up for some years by a foster mother, some have concluded that he may have been from noble origins. He is said to have lived an austere life and enjoyed physical work from early days.
Cuthberts life as a monk began in 651 when he joined the monastery at Melrose and was trained in the Irish tradition. He was said to have been a good novice and to have possessed a friendly disposition with attention to detail which is upheld by the fact that when the Melrose monastery obtained some land near Ripon and built a daughter house, Cuthbert was selected to become its guest master.
But now politics were about to play their role in the Monastic traditions of the north east. In the south of England, monks sent from Rome by Pope Gregory the Great and led by Augustine of Canterbury were seeking to influence the lands further north. The Roman traditions differed from the Irish Celtic traditions of St Aidan and as one expanded south and the other north they would meet and problems would arise. In Northumbria, the 'moment of truth' came in 664 when King Oswy married a Kent queen and the two Christian disciplines came head to head. A Synod was called at Whitby to decide which of the two conflicting customs should be followed and Rome won. The Lindisfarne community was split, with the Irish monks withdrawing to Iona and the English monks remaining on the island.
It was in this time and circumstances that Cuthbert came to Lindisfarne aged around 30. Eata, Abbot of Melrose was in overall charge of the island community and he appointed Cuthbert as his deputy and Prior. Cuthbert was faced with the task of rebuilding a split and demoralised community. Originally very unpopular, he eventually succeeded by his own faith, discipline and high standards and the monastery on Lindisfarne came together under his guidance.
It was at this time that many of the legends surrounding Cuthbert's life started to emerge. These varied, some unfavourable suggesting hostility to women and a jealous and possessive wielding of his power - no doubt started by those opposed to his appointment. On the other side of the coin, supported by the writings of Bede who narrated eye witness accounts, he was a good listener, kind and generous to all gods creatures, fair in his dealings with either sex and possessed a natural gift of healing troubled minds and bodies. This last factor, above all else, established his reputation and the Island as a place of pilgrimage.

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Over the next 12 years as Prior and Healer, Cuthbert's reputation grew. Sick and ailing people would cross the sands to Lindisfarne in the hope of receiving the benefits of Cuthbert's healing touch. Bede writes that no-one had to take home the burden they came with. This may have raised some conflicts in Cuthberts soul. He had chosen to dedicate his life to God and as such, traditions at the time upheld the life of the Hermit to be the ultimate vocation for a man with his convictions.
This may have been difficult for a man of so many responsibilities, but Cuthbert elected to try the life of the Hermit and moved to a smaller island just off Lindisfarne to live alone. Access to this island was too easy - you can walk over at low tide, so in 676 he moved to the island of Inner Farne where his followers had built him a hut and chapel. This was only accessible by boat and proved to be a good compromise as people wishing to be healed could still visit, but much of the time he was left to his own devotions and the company of Eider Ducks and other birds and sea creatures.
You have to admire a man who will willingly accept such a life. It must have been cold and damp for most of the time, but the winds and weather of a stormy winter night must have tested his resolve.
This move held other perils at the time, for the island was said to be infested with devils and no-one had been brave enough to live there alone. But Bede tells us that Cuthbert's faith and spirit won the day and the devil and his allies were said to have fled the island, leaving Cuthbert triumphantly in charge for God.
For eight years, Cuthbert lived the solitary life of the hermit, but this was not to last. In 684 a new bishop was needed and Cuthbert was elected. The King and church dignitaries travelled to Inner Farne to prevail upon Cuthbert to take up this new role and responsibility. Against his own inclinations, he agreed and was consecrated at York in 685. With his natural enthusiasm and dedication he took on his new role following the example of St Aidan.
As a leader of the church community he was expected to be available so he travelled throughout the region extensively, bringing word of the gospels to unbelievers and supporting and strengthening the will of those already converted.

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His influence spread as far as Carlisle and the Scottish Borders and lowlands as well as throughout the Kingdom of Northumbria. Much of his travel was on horseback or on foot. He played a pivotal role in the spread of Christianity in the north.
Yet, still, he found time for his brothers on Lindisfarne and for practising his natural gift for healing the sick. He was fast establishing his reputation as a saint and inspired many others to follow his example in the future.
But this was not to last for long. He felt, within himself, that he did not have long to live and after around two years he resigned his Bishopric and retired to Lindisfarne to spend his last Christmas in the company of his fellow monks on the island he had come to love.
In the new year, and what was to be the last few months of his life, he retired to his hermitage on the tiny island of Inner Farne. His fellow monks on Lindisfarne kept a close eye on him but became concerned when in March the islands were cut off by rough seas.
When they were eventually able to cross to Inner Farne they found him alive but weak with very little food and close to exhaustion. He was able to give his last instructions to the monks and receive Holy Communion before he died in their arms. An eye witness account was given to Bede by a monk, Herefrith, who later became Abbot of Lindisfarne.
The following day a boat arrived from Holy Island and carried his body back. Cuthbert was buried on the 20th of March 687 in a grave to the right of the altar in the church of St Peter on Lindisfarne.
Thus ended the life of a very special man and with his death began a new chapter in the story of Holy Island. Cuthbert, it had been decided was no mere mortal - he was a true Saint and the church made the decision to elevate him to that status after a suitable period of preparation.
In those days, before official canonisation by the church, it was traditional for the physical remains of a Saint to be exhumed when the body had decomposed. The skeletal remains or 'relics' were raised or 'elevated' and re buried in a new shrine above ground to be closer to pilgrims. A suitable period of time needed to pass to allow the flesh to decompose and it was decided that 11 years would be needed before the elevation of St Cuthbert. The date was set for 20th March 698.

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The Lindisfarne Gospels
Thanks to Cuthbert's reputation for healing, Lindisfarne had already become a place of pilgrimage and his death enhanced the island as a place of healing. Reports of miracles surrounding his tomb added to the growing reputation and there was a well established 'Pilgrims way' across the sand from the mainland. This ancient route is still marked by posts, and the start on the mainland side can be seen alongside the modern causeway.
As part of the preparations for the elevation of Cuthbert it was decided to create a special book of the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and this book was to be made on the island by monks of the Priory.
The principal work was done by a monk called Eadfrith whom experts have worked out was responsible for all the text and illustrations with the exceptions of the 'rubrics'   (the red titles), done by an unknown fellow monk, and the addition of a 'gloss' (translation into English) that was added over the main Latin text in fine print, many years later by a priest called Aldred in Chester-Le-Street.
Eadfrith laboured two years to complete this work 'in honour of God and St Cuthbert'. He was a skilled scribe and artist. He create a book of great beauty that has survived 1300 years.
The book was made from parchment - soaked, scraped, stretched and smoothed calf skin. - and has over 530 pages. The overall construction is made by individual folded sheets of parchment that each make up 2 leaves giving 4 pages. Four sheets were grouped to make up 16 pages known as 'gatherings' and these were written on or painted before being bound together to make the complete book. The Lindisfarne Gospels has 33 'gatherings' and some extra leaves.
The parchment for the Lindisfarne Gospels was meticulously prepared from the skins of more than 130 calves and is of particularly high quality.

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To keep his handwriting neat and straight, Eadfrith first had to mark his pages with lines that would not be visible on the finished page. He did this by making two columns of pinpricks down the right and left sides of each page, each prick about 10mm apart.
These he then joined by ruling across the page with a metal tool with two sharp points about 3mm apart which left a fine double score on the surface within which he would place his text. He also scored two margin lines on the left of each page and another on the right. He wrote in two columns with 24 or 25 lines to each page.
In this way he was able to construct the text neatly and regularly, making it easier to read. Pens were made from quill feathers or reeds, cut fine or coarse depending on the need. Ink was made by mixing soot, glue and water. From beginning to end everything about the book had to be made from scratch and was probably all made on the island.
Eadfrith also 'illuminated' or illustrated the book himself. Again all the tools and paints needed to be made from scratch and he has incorporated 45 different colours in his work.
Many of the pigments that made up the colours were rare and costly, needing to be imported onto the island as they were not locally available.
Some pigments were made from minerals like Lapis Lazuli to form ultramarine or copper to form green. Some were from plants. Some from animal sources. Each colour would be made by grinding the raw ingredient into a fine powder and mixing it with egg white. Batches did not last long once mixed and it is a testament to Eadfrith's skills that he was able to mix many consistent batches of each colour. Experts have stated that they believe Eadfrith to be a better illuminator than those working on the famous Great Book of Kells, which has not survived so well over time. Looking at the copy of the Gospels, above, one can see the finesse of his work and variation of colours and how well it has survived centuries of handling, travel and exposure to the elements. 
Eadfrith was never known to have written or painted anything else and this books stands as his sole legacy to future generations. Shortly after completion he was elected Bishop of Lindisfarne, perhaps partly out of respect for his dedication and skill.
When Eadfrith had done his work on the book it was passed to another monk, Ethelwald, who was a skilled leather worker and he made its bindings. A colleague and friend of his, Billfrith then added gold and precious stones to the cover, but these have not survived.
In 875 the priory was abandoned due to frequent raids by Vikings. Life for the monks had become impossible and they fled with the book and the body of St. Cuthbert and all else they could carry. Later a translation in English would be added to the Gospel by Aldred, who also added a 'colophon' or note at the end of the book giving details of how it was made. The Lindisfarne Gospels now lie behind glass in the British Library.
The monastery on Lindisfarne had been subject to Viking raids since 793 when it was first attacked and plundered. When they left in 875, times must have seemed desperate for the remaining monks. The Priory had survived over 70 years of raids but finally succumbed and what was left behind decayed and disappeared over the following 200 years until the priory was re- founded in 1082, after the Normans had brought some law and order to the British Isle by eradicating or unifying various factions under their rule. St Peters.JPG (67878 bytes)
The island was then known as Holy Island and it became a centre for the cult of St Cuthbert. The church of St Peters and Priory buildings were rebuilt and the remains of these are what can be seen today. One year later in 1083 the church gave the monks on the island an ultimation. They must either leave or join the Benedictine order and become sister house to Durham.
This meant another change to the basis of the culture and philosophy behind the priory and its traditions. What had started as an Irish Celtic Christian household was now being asked to step further from its origins and roots. Those who were against this were obliged to leave, those in favour - or at least prepared to compromise - stayed on.
The Priory continued on Lindisfarne for another 450 or so years with the numbers of resident monks rising and falling over years. In 1122 the Church of St Mary's was built outside the Priory to accommodate the increasing number of pilgrims and the monks were able to reclaim some of the solitude their calling required.
Much of the turmoil of political struggles on the mainland passed the island by, but in the late 1290's, after King Edward Ist invaded Scotland in 1296, the whole region erupted into war, raiding, counter raiding and turmoil. The monastery survived that, and the ambitions of succeeding English and Scottish Kings, but Good King Hal, King Henry VIII was the final straw. His ambitions required the breaking of Papal power in England and thus the reformation of the church under his own control
The dissolution of the monasteries meant the church was much denuded of power and wealth and needed to consolidate its remaining resources under the will and control of a new master. In 1536 the last remaining monks left Lindisfarne and returned to their mother house in Durham. 900 years of monastic occupation had come to an end.
Not much time was to pass before the Island had new and less 'environmentally friendly' masters. In 1549 Lindisfarne Castle was built and the power of government was seen as a clear and ominous statement against the skyline. 

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Both Castle and Priory still exist alongside each other but the Priory fell to ruin under the hand of man and forces of nature.

Both can be visited today
 
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