The Parish Church of Saint Mary the Virgin on Holy Island is thought to stand on the spot where St Aidan founded the first small church around 634AD. Bede wrote of the old church that it was a thatched affair, built with old oak and unsuitable for Abbot or Bishop. A later stone church was built, and eventually the Priory that now stands in skeletal splendour against the sky.
There has been a place of Christian worship on this spot for some fourteen hundred years. Within the fabric of the chancel parts of the original seventh-century stone building remain, making it the oldest structure on the island to still bear a roof. St Cuthbert would have prayed here.
The little church served the community of monastery and islanders during the height of the golden age of Northumbria, when the Lindisfarne Gospels were created… the fabulously and meticulously illuminated manuscripts that still survive today, the cover in almost pristine condition, each page a masterpiece of art and detail… a work of dedication and faith.
The manuscripts were produced around 700AD… the exact date uncertain, given how long they would have taken to craft. It is thought they were made in commemoration of St Cuthbert by Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne from 698 and until his death in 721. Today a replica is displayed in the church and the carpets before the altars are designed as copies from the pages.
The church and monastery continued until the Viking raids began on 8th June 793AD. The raids continued and the monastery was abandoned in 875, leaving, it is thought, only a small community of monks on the island. The relics of St Cuthbert were taken to safety. When the saint had died, his coffin had been opened nine years later and his body found to be incorrupt. The relics were revered.
Today a statue called The Journey, by Fenwick Lawson, stands in the aisle, remembering the long and varied story of Cuthbert’s travels after death. When his coffin was opened again in 1104 a book was found… a tiny Gospel of John, measuring only three-and-a-half by five inches. The book is now in the British Library… the oldest surviving Western book in its original binding.
There were also vestments placed in the tomb by King Æthelstan who ruled from 927 to 939AD, made from rare Byzantine silk and embroidered with what has been called a ‘nature goddess’ pattern. These too still survive.
Most of the current building dates to the twelfth century. The Benedictine monks of Durham began to rebuild the church around 1120 and continued into the 1200s. It is a lovely old place, gently restored in 1860 with oak and pine lending further warmth to the glow of the stone.
There is light and colour from stained glass and paintings echoing the earlier work. Many of the windows understandably bear scenes with fishermen and boats. The island owes its daily living to the sea. The light was red gold on the stones of church and priory, flaring like a beacon as we left to head up to the Heugh, a high point overlooking St Cuthbert’s little island, to watch the sun as it sank towards dusk.