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Is this St Aidan’s first church on Holy Island?

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Is this St Aidan's First Church on Holy Island Jessica Turner

The remote and beautiful Holy Island of Lindisfarne holds a special place in history. Known as the ‘Cradle of Christianity’ in the North East, it was here that St Aidan established a monastery in AD635 and set out to convert the pagan Northumbrians. The monastery developed into an international centre of learning and craftsmanship and it was during this Golden Age of Northumbria that exquisite items such as the Lindisfarne Gospels were produced. All this came to a crashing end with the arrival of the Vikings in the late 8th Century. Archaeologists working for the National Lottery funded Peregrini Lindisfarne Community Archaeology project have made exciting new discoveries which may well have turned a long held belief about Holy Island on its head.

Many in academic and ecclesiastical circles have long maintained that the close linear arrangement of the the Parish Church of St Marys with the Priory church is evidence of the original locations of the two Anglo-Saxon churches on Holy Island. This close linear relation is evidenced at other early Northumbrian monasteries such as Hexham and Jarrow.

The Venerable Bede, writing in c.731, records that St Aidan arrived in Northumbria from St. Columba’s monastery on Iona in 635AD at the request of King Oswald and was gifted the Holy Island of Lindisfarne to establish his own monastery. The parallels between the islands of Iona and Lindisfarne are remarkable and it is easy to understand how this was a suitable location for Aidan to evangelise and convert the Northumbrians, especially given the close visual relationship between the island and the royal court of Oswald at Bamburgh. Contemporary historical sources refer to at least two churches on Lindisfarne, a small timber one built by Aidan and later one built by Finian which was dedicated to St. Peter.

Until this summer the assumption has been that the original Anglo-Saxon churches stood down in the shelter a high rocky ridge known as of the Heugh in the area now occupied by the Parish Church and the Priory. But excavations during the last four weeks up on the Heugh suggest a very different configuration. The excavation has revealed the stone foundations of a small rectangular building with a chancel type configuration at the east end.

The  crude and unmortared walls, very simple window arches and positioning of a possible alter stone all suggest an an early date  which has led to speculation that this is a church building which could date from the 7th century.

Richard Carlton, the director of The Archaeological Practice running the community archaeology dig on behalf of the Peregrini Lindisfarne HLF Landscape Partnership Scheme said “This second  year of investigation on the Heugh has exceeded all my expectation. And with work still to be done to revisit the watch tower structure identified last year and work in the Lantern Chapel building there is potential for the Heugh to yield more of it’s secrets”. Excavations last year further west on the Heugh revealed a massive foundation wall that archaeologist are now speculating is a foundation for a ‘watch tower’. The Venerable Bede, in his ‘Life of St. Cuthbert’, made reference to a signal from Inner Farne being seen from the watch tower on Holy Island to mark the death of St Cuthbert.

Sara Rushton, the Conservation Manager at Northumberland County Council said “This latest discovery of a potential church building on the Heugh cements Holy Island as one of the most significant early medieval sites in Britain. It is incredible to think that we have uncovered two very significant buildings associated with the early Christian foundation of the priory that  provide tangible links to both St. Aidan and St. Cuthbert”.

The monastic tradition on Iona, where Aidan came from, was much more dispersed than the patterns that developed at Hexham and Jarrow. The Irish monastic tradition was for small chapels and ‘turas’ type buildings defining the monastic precinct. The scatter configuration of buildings on Heugh certainly seems to have parallels with Iona where there were at least six chapels and this new discovery could be one of a number of chapels within the monastic complex. In addition the close visual relation between the buildings on the Heugh and the castle at Bamburgh, which the priory does not have, is significant and supports the early date.

The Peregrini Lindisfarne project is a Landscape Partnership Project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) thanks to National Lottery players and has been developed to conserve, enhance and celebrate the natural and cultural heritage of Holy Island and the wider shoreside landscape.

Cllr John Riddle, portfolio holder for Planning who host the Peregrini Lindisfarne HLF project commented that “Community participation is at the heart of the Peregrini project and this Community Archaeology has been a brilliant opportunity for people to get hands-on experience of absolutely fantastic archaeology which illustrates how wonderful the cultural heritage of our beautiful county is”.

Ivor Crowther, Head of HLF North East, said: “The North East is full of incredible heritage and this find shows that there is still so many stories left to discover. Thanks to money raised by National Lottery players we’re delighted to support this project which is putting communities at the heart of celebrating the history of their landscape and creating strong partnerships to ensure its bright future.”

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