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North-easterly: Sidetracked by Saints

Few churches named after a saint have a historical claim to have been built by their namesake, but St Aidan’s church in Bamburgh is one of the few who have that right. The original church here was founded by St Aidan himself in 635, shortly after he was called to Bamburgh by King Oswald.

Aidan was a monk at the monastery on the island of Iona where Oswald had been raised as a boy. Aidan, like most of those who served at Iona, was Irish and, in the early part of his mission to Northumberland, King Oswald was obliged to act as his interpreter. King and monk shared a mission to bring their faith to the region and must have become close friends.

After Oswald’s death in battle at the hands of King Penda, the king was hailed as a saint and many miracles were attributed to his relics and the spot where he died. Bamburgh’s parish church has a chapel dedicated to Oswald as both king and saint, an over its altar is a gilded image of the king with his sister, St Æbbe, whose church we had seen just an hour earlier.

Aidan’s mission continued to receive royal support from Oswald’s successor, Oswine, and the saint’s manner led to these two also becoming friends. When, during his devotions at his new monastery on Holy Island, Aidan saw the smoke of battle rising from the walls in 651, the saint fell to his knees in prayer and exhortation… and, the story goes, the walls of the fortress escaped the flames unscathed.

Aidan was a visionary in more ways than one and walked through life in the footsteps of his faith. The Venerable Bede wrote of the saint that he never rode where he could walk, gave only hospitality to the wealthy, and all donations he received were given to the poor, used for housing and educating orphans and for freeing those sold into slavery. Winning the love and respect of all, from the lowliest to the highest, it is little wonder that he is venerated in this area…and especially at the church where he died.

He was buried at his monastery on Lindisfarne, the Holy Island, and although the shrine at Bamburgh stands empty, it is still filled with the light of the many candles that are lit beside it. The atmosphere of the church changes as you pass from nave to chancel and stand before the shrine.

There is a sense of coming into a holy place, quite unlike the feeling you usually experience in the quiet and reverential atmosphere of a church. Perhaps it is centuries of prayer that charges the very air and stone with the faith of the thousands who have paused here, acknowledging that whatever they hold in their hearts stems from One Light, no matter by what Name they know It.

The current church dates largely to the twelfth century. The capital of one pillar bears ornate Norman decoration and the style of the building shows its growth, with rounded Norman arches holding Victorian and modern stained glass beside the windows with later Gothic tracery.

The font is a modern affair, with a highly decorated and unusual cover, showing the offices performed by the priesthood. Whilst its stark colours may grate on modern sensibilities, this bright and ornate style would have been perfect for the early church. In a world where vivid dyes and colour were largely reserved for the wealthy, the churches offered a sacred spectacle to all with wall painted, glass and gilding. The glass in the church is truly spectacular, with a huge amount of windows casting jewelled light through the shadows.

Beneath the chancel is a crypt that now contains the remains of a hundred and ten skeletons recovered from the sand dunes below the castle. The Bowl Hill burial site dates back to St Aidan’s time and the people who were buried there may well have known both Oswald and St Aidan himself. They would certainly have known of the saint, and, had they lived after his death, have revered the spot where he died. The excavations spanned decades, and much has been learned from the remains of those who were laid to rest beneath the church.

One skeleton was that of a local man over sixty-five years old, while another of a similar age came from Scandinavia. One young woman was a seamstress and the wear on her teeth shows where she held the needle over the years…and perhaps bit the thread too. A child’s bones show that he was born in the Mediterranean area, and later spent time living in France, while another skeleton, that of a teenage boy, showed a sword cut had struck him from shoulder to knee.

I like the thought of them being laid to rest, with all due ceremony and respect, in a church they would have known fourteen hundred years ago…even though the stones we now see stones would not be placed there until long after they themselves had been forgotten. Later that weekend, we were present at another dig, quite by chance, and saw the first glimpses of the bones of Aidan’s brethren from the Lindisfarne monastery… and that was incredibly moving.

The chancel has an ornately carved reredos showing mainly Northumbrian saints, and is worthy of far more attention than we gave it. Our eyes were held, though, by a series of stunning windows from the Netherlands depicting the Twelve Apostles. The clear, vivid colours are incredibly rich and each window is striking.

Beneath their beauty is a very simple tomb, set into a niche in the wall. It bears the effigy of a Crusader Knight, possible a Templar, and beside him is a banner, the Beauséant… the black and white banner used by the Templars and donated by a modern chapter as a mark of respect for the unknown knight. The banner was used in battle and, in many ways, typifies the utter dedication of those militant monks who lived under its aegis. While one banner of the Order still flew on the battlefield, the Templars were expected to fight beneath it. When their own banners fell, they were to stand with the banners of the Christian Orders…and then any other banner of their faith. Only if all of them fell were they allowed to save their own lives…or they risked being expelled from the Order.

We, though, were obliged to ‘leave the field’, as time was getting on and our friends would be waiting for us… we were just glad to have had the time to visit this beautiful church.

7 thoughts on “North-easterly: Sidetracked by Saints”

    1. It was long thought that the crossed legs meant they were Crusader Knights or Knights Templar. That is disputed these days, and we are told instead that, especially on 13th and 14th century tombs, was a stylistic fashion. I’m not so sure it was that clear cut…


          1. Thanks for the link… fallacy perpetuated by myth, very human of us! 😉 It does seem odd to go through all that extra work in carving crossed legs without a compelling reason, though. 🙂


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