Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne, Bishop, Confessor

August 31

Today is the feast day of Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne.  Ora pro nobis. 

Aidan was a monk of Irish descent on the island of Iona. During the struggles for the kingship of Northumbria, two sons of the king found refuge in Iona. (2)

When the younger of these Oswald eventually became king in 634, he invited the monks of Iona to send a mission to evangelise Northumbria. Aidan made his headquarters at Lindisfarne. With the aid of the king as interpreter he was very successful in his mission. (2)

It must have been late in the year AD 635 when Aidan arrived from Iona. King Oswald, at once, assigned him, as his episcopal see, Lindisfarne (alias Holy Island), off the Northumberland coast, a few miles north of his own rocky fortress of Bamburgh. Here the bishop made his home, to which he loved to retire from time to time, for the sake of private prayer and solitude; but his active work was done on the mainland, where he ever found a ready and willing helper in the King. So the two worked hand-in-hand in the spread of Christianity, much as Edwin and Paulinus had done before them. Bede has given us a graphic sketch of their labours:

“The King, humbly and willingly giving ear to the Bishop’s admonitions, most industriously applied himself to build and extend the Church of Christ in his kingdom; and when the Bishop, who did not perfectly understand the English tongue, preached the Gospel, it was most delightful to see the King himself interpreting the Word of God to his commanders and ministers; for he had perfectly learned the language of the Scots during his long banishment. From that time, many from the region of the Scots came daily into Britain, and with great devotion preached the Word of Faith to those provinces of the English over which King Oswald reigned, and those among them who had received priest’s orders administered to the believers the grace of baptism. Churches were built in several places; the people joyfully flocked together to hear the Word; possessions and lands were given of the King’s bounty to build monasteries; the younger English were, by their Scottish masters, instructed; and there were greater care and attention bestowed upon the rules and observance of regular discipline.” (1)

S. Aidan’s first work on taking possession of Lindisfarne would be to build a “city,” i. e. a monastery. This “city” would most probably be built after the style of Iona, for the Celtic monks were very conservative, and “swore” by Columba and Iona. It may not be out of place to give a short description of a Celtic monastery, which represented a village consisting of huts of wicker-work and clay. The abbot’s cell was built on an eminence as a mark of respect. Apart from this were the cells of the brethren, and close by the church with its  “side-house” or sacristy, the refectory, the library ; then guest chambers, and outside the enclosure, cow-byre, mill, granary and outhouses. The ecclesiastical cities were surrounded by ramparts which served as boundary lines, and also for protection against enemies and wild beasts. In this they followed an old custom of surrounding the home of every chieftain’s family with a similar defence (cf. Insula SS. et D. p. 94). Harbour provision was also made for craft.

Aidan formed a “school” in his monastery, and received lads to be educated, some of whom he had redeemed from slavery. He was wise and far-seeing in adopting a custom long practised in the Church in different parts of the world. From the days of schools in the provinces, especially by bishops like Anschar, who founded the first Christian school on the barbarian shores of Schleswig in order that he might train Danish lads purchased from the savage population, and Gregory the Great, who is recorded to have directed a priest named Candidus, manager of the papal patrimony in Gaul, to buy English lads of seventeen or eighteen to be educated as missionaries to work amongst their own countrymen. The number of lads in these schools was sometimes restricted to twelve, as at Lindisfarne. It must have been a source of great happiness to the devoted monks to watch the growth and development of spiritual power in their young disciples as it is to watch the opening of some choice bud in the beautiful spring-time. Some of Aidan’s scholars became famous in the Church, especially Chad, Cedda, Eata, and Boisil. Heieu received her habit from Aidan. (7)

When Oswald died in 642, Aidan received continued support from King Oswine of Deira and the two became close friends.  As such, the monk’s ministry continued relatively unchanged until the rise of pagan hostilities in 651.   At that time, a pagan army attacked Bamburgh and attempted to set its walls ablaze.   According to legend, Aidan saw the black smoke from his cell at Lindisfarne Abbey, immediately recognised its cause and knelt in prayer for the fate of the city.   Miraculously, the winds abruptly reversed their course, blowing the conflagration towards the enemy, which convinced them that the capital city was defended by potent spiritual forces.   Around this time, Oswine was betrayed and murdered.   Two weeks later Aidan died, on 31 August 651.   He had become ill while on one of his incessant missionary tours and died leaning against the wall of the local church.   As Baring-Gould poetically summarises: “It was a death which became a soldier of the faith upon his own fit field of battle.”

After his death, Aidan’s body was buried at Lindisfarne, beneath the abbey that he had helped found.   Though his popularity waned in the coming years, “in the 11th century Glastonbury monks obtained some supposed relics of Aidan through their influence Aidan’s feast appears in the early Wessex calendars, which provide the main evidence for his cult after the age of Bede.” (5)

St. Aidan has been proposed as a patron saint for the entire United Kingdom because of his Irish origins, his Scottish monasticism and his mission to the Anglo-Saxons of northern England. (8)

Image: Monastic Chapel 1920, Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, New York (9)

Research by REGINA Staff


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