Holy Island in the Ocean of the Egyptian Desert

Off the coast island of Lindisfarne was a major stop on our way through the historic region of Northumbria (modern-day County Northumberland). To reach the island, we needed to cross the causeway that twice a day is covered by the tide. We had checked the tide table before our arrival, as at high tide, the causeway is completely submerged underwater, and the island is cut off. At high tides. it is also possible to reach the island but only using a ferry. 

On the following day, we also took a ferry to land on the island. However, at the high tide, almost everything is closed and the island along with its inhabitants seems to fall asleep. At that time, it was difficult to visit its monuments so crossing the causeway is necessary if you are, like us, interested in its history and outstanding remnants of its turbulent past. The island is also accessible on foot, like once for hermits and pilgrims. It takes about two hours to walk to the Island from the causeway. The Pilgrims route is about 5 kilometers long but not advisable at dusk or in poor weather conditions.

Remnants of the Holy Island

Lindisfarne is today a part of the Northumberland Coast, which is said to be an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The island is situated in the north-east of England, just a few kilometers south of the border with Scotland. Lindisfarne Island, also known as the Holy Island since the Norman times, played an important role in the religious life of England, and it was one of the most significant centers of early English Christianity. The ruins now visible on the island belong to the twelfth-century Priory that claims direct descent from the early monastery. There is also a twelfth-century church dedicated to Saint Mary, and the picturesque silhouette of Lindisfarne Castle, built in the sixteenth century for defensive reasons. The island is relatively small; it measures almost 5 kilometres wide (W-E), and 3 kilometres long (N-S), with hardly 180 inhabitants. This number, however, grows during summer with incoming visitors, especially when the tide is out. Already in June, one can observe a growing number of cars and coaches crossing the causeway.

Monks and Kings

In ancient Celtic times, the island was called by the native Britons Medcaut or Insula Medicata, in Latin, which possibly stands for ‘healing island’, whereas the later name ‘Lindisfarne’ may have derived from the name of a people, called Lindissi or Lincolnshire. Back in the sixth century A.D., the island was long home to religious people, known as the Culdees, who were members of ascetic Christian monastic and eremitical communities of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England. Apart from the hermites, there were also native residents, who are known as Islanders. The earliest settlement in the area of Lindisfarne was made by King Ida of the Anglians, one of the predecessors of the Anglo-Saxons. The settlement existed in the sixth century on the other side of the bay from the island. Following the general collapse of the Roman Empire in the fifth century, Britain had fragmented into seven kingdoms, many ruled by Anglo-Saxon warlords, such as descendants of King Ida, who governed Northumbria. Apart from the Kingdom of Northumbria, there were regions of Wessex, Mercia, East England, Essex, Kent and Sussex.


In 547, Ida the ‘Flame-bearer’ seized the Britain Coastal Fortress, later known as Bebbanburg Castle, and founded a kingdom called Bernicia. His grandson Æthelfrith brought the neighbouring Anglian realm of Deira under his domination around 604 AD., creating the unified Kingdom of Northumbria, with the citadel Bebbanburg, the modern-day Bamburgh Castle. Perhaps, the most famous of the kings of Northumbria was Æthelfrith’s son, Saint Oswald.  As Bede the Venerable writes, when Æthelfrith was killed in battle in 617 by a rival king, Oswald fled north to seek sanctuary with the Irish of Dalriada. After 17 years, he returned to the Kingdom and retook the throne by force.

Between the East and West

After Saint Columba established the religious center and the island monastery of Iona, in the Kingdom of Dalriada, in 563, (modern-day Argyll), Columba’s family of monasteries came to include Derry, Durrow, and Kells in Ireland, and out of Iona – Lindisfarne, with its own foundtations in England, such as Melrose. On his return from Iona, King Oswald had brought with him Irish monks of the Columban Church, who converted pagan Northumbria’s Anglo-Saxons. Consequently, the conversion was not limited to just a royal household, as it was practiced by missionaries sent to the British Isles by the Roman Church from 597. Eventually, in 635AD. the monastery on the Island of Lindisfarne was founded by Saint Aidan from Iona and his companions to become an important center of medieval Christianity.


The successor to Lindisfarne bishopric was Saint Cuthbert, who had become inspired by Saint Aidan’s life and followed a monastic conduct of the Hiberno-Scottish Church, with a particular taste for emulating the eremitic traditions of the early monks of the eastern and Egyptian deserts. The latter lived like hermits but still were part of monastic communities, which was in contrast with the communal living in Western monasticism. Living in such isolated places as Iona or Lindisfarne (not to mention Skellig Michael), where the former is an island and the second is cut off by tides, Celtic hermits visibly followed the way of Egyptian Fathers’ withdrawing to the desert. As a nominant scholar says, Celtic monks had replaced the desert with the ocean …

Hermit-Like Saint Cuthbert

After Saint Cuthbert’s death, in 687 A.D., miracles attributed to him caused Lindisfarne to become a place of pilgrimage, and the monastery acquired great wealth and status. The cult of Saint Cuthbert also consolidated the monastery’s reputation as a center of Christian learning.  One of the results was the production of the early medieval masterpiece of an illuminated book,  now known as the Lindisfarne Gospels, which were created on the island in the early eighth century. 

Even today, the Holy Island is famous for its two great Bishops, Saint Aidan, who came together with his followers from Iona, invited by King Oswald, in the seventh century, and Saint Cuthbert, who first came to Lindisfarne as a prior in the 70s of the seventh century. Saint Aidan remained the Bishop of Lindisfarne until he died in 651 A.D., and his death had an impact on young Cuthbert, who according to a legend, saw the soul of Saint Aidan being taken by angels to heaven. It was the very moment when he decided to become a monk.

On the Verge of the Viking Age

The growing wealth of the monastery at the end of the seventh century and throughout the eighth century invited some unwanted visitors.


Vikings came to Lindisfarne in 793 in what was the first major attack on Europe. People from Britain had encountered the Vikings yet before their massive raid on Lindisfarne. Yet, it was the first major attack and it was shocking not only in the brutality of it but also the fact that it took place in the heart of Christian Northumbria. Many monks were killed or enslaved, and the event is often regarded as the beginning of the Viking Age.

An Oasis in the Modern World

With its ancient associations, the Castle, and Priory ruins, Lindisfarne remains today a holy site and place of pilgrimage for many. The island is a thriving community with a busy harbour, shops, hotels, and inns. There is much to see on the island: birdwatching, fishing, golf, painting, photography, and, of course, history are just some of the activities to be enjoyed on the Holy Island today.

Featured image: The view of the Holy Island with the charming silhouette of Lindisfarne Castle from the 16th century. Photo by Felipe Almeida. Copyright©Archaeotravel. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.


Brown, M.P., 2004. Painted Labyrinth. The World of the Lindisfarne Gospels. London: The British Library.

Simpson, D. ‘Lindisfarne. Island and causeway’, in England’s North East. (bit.ly/4bpDlVo; accessed 27th June, 2024).



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