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Lindisfarne: The Island of the Travelers from Lindsey
If Vikings, manuscripts, and anything medieval is your thing, then you’re going to want to visit Lindisfarne, England’s “Holy Island” not too far from Northumberland.
Two Old English Chronicles—Parker and Peterborough—record the name of the island as Lindisfarena, literally “the travelers from Lindsey.” The Kingdom of Linnuis (Lindsey) was a petty Anglo-Saxon kingdom located between the Humber and the Wash Rivers that was later absorbed into Northumbria, around the seventh century A.D. Its inhabitants may have traveled to the island in question and could be the source of its name. (The scenario seems plausible … although I won’t get into the linguistics of the Old English: after all, what’s in a name?)
Either way, the island appears in a lot of medieval literature, including the Historia Brittonum. Here it is called Medcaut, an Old Welsh designation that may derive from the Latin Medicata Insula, “Healing Island”—perhaps a reference to the island’s legendary abundance of medicinal herbs. But the Holy Island is probably most well-known for the infamous Viking raid that took place there on June 8, 793, the date also taken as the beginning of the “Viking Age.” The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles describe the Norse raiders as the epitome of evil, bringing with them storms, whirlwinds, and all manner of hellish beasts, not the least of which were fiery dragons who burnt the sky with their breath.
Interlude: A Rant
If you, like me, have studied medieval literature in any capacity, then you are probably (like me) saddened when you read accounts that demonize the Norsemen. The chroniclers who wrote about the raid on Lindisfarne are probably partially to blame for the historic perception of Norsemen as barbarians whose only interest was raping and pillaging. They did rape and pillage but they also did a lot more than that—spreading their culture, art, architecture ... and wanderlust.
Things to Do in Lindisfarne
Besides the small castle on the island, the ruins of the Lindisfarne Monastery—devastated in 793—are there, too, in the care of English Heritage. Unfortunately the Lindisfarne Gospels, an illuminated Latin manuscript whose original cover was destroyed in the raid, is not on the island, which is a pretty big deal for those of you who want to get the full Lindisfarne experience. Lindisfarne was a hotbed of religious activity: founded by the Irish St. Aidan in the 630s A.D., Lindisfarne not only became the base for Christian evangelicals in the north of England but also saw the life and miracles of St. Cuthbert, who later became its bishop. More importantly, the Lindisfarne Gospels were probably completed at the monastery. This manuscript might contain some of the best examples of Insular art, a hybrid religious art that combines elements of Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, and Roman artistic styles. A monk added an Old English gloss to the Latin text later, providing the earliest extant Gospel manuscript in Old English. (If you’re in the UK you should go to the British Library anyway, where you can see the manuscript.)
In addition, there are lots of gardens at Lindisfarne, monuments, and historic buildings; in fact, the island has become a center for retreat after the revival of Celtic Christianity in the area. You can also visit the garden that Gertrude Jekyll, an influential artist, writer, and garden designer who created hundreds of gardens throughout Europe, the U.K., and the U.S., designed for the owner and publisher of Country Life magazine.
Fun fact: Did you know Lindisfarne Island is one the “Seven Natural Wonders” of the North? Well, it is, and the Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve preserves over 300 species of bird on the island … which is also the setting of Roman Polanski’s 1966 film Cul-de-Sac.
There are a lot of neat accommodation options both on the island and nearby. Try staying in one of the historic inns or bed and breakfasts there: I personally have my eye set on The Open Gate Retreat, which features a basement chapel for religious retreat activities. If you’re lucky you might escape indoctrination into a New Age religious group that will want you to do something crazy, like survive in a lobster cage or join ’70s folk/rock group Lindisfarne.