Founding of Lindisfarne and Creation of the Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The founding of Lindisfarne and the creation of the Book of Kells established a monastic community that in turn became the inspirational source for much of the religious, educational, and cultural renewal of the Dark Ages in Europe.

Summary of Event

Since its settlement before the seventh century, the small island of Lindisfarne, located a mile off the northeast coast of England Christianity;England England;Christianity , has been accessible from the mainland only by a causeway exposed at low tide. The monastic community first established on “Holy Island” in 635 was one of the key sites of the encounter between two different Christian missions to pagan Saxon England during the 600’. [kw]Founding of Lindisfarne and Creation of the Book of Kells (635-800) [kw]Lindisfarne and Creation of the Book of Kells, Founding of (635-800) [kw]Book of Kells, Founding of Lindisfarne and Creation of the (635-800) [kw]Kells, Founding of Lindisfarne and Creation of the Book of (635-800) Lindisfarne Book of Kells Ireland;635-800: Founding of Lindisfarne and Creation of the Book of Kells[0350] England;635-800: Founding of Lindisfarne and Creation of the Book of Kells[0350] Cultural and intellectual history;635-800: Founding of Lindisfarne and Creation of the Book of Kells[0350] Literature;635-800: Founding of Lindisfarne and Creation of the Book of Kells[0350] Religion;635-800: Founding of Lindisfarne and Creation of the Book of Kells[0350] Columba, Saint Oswald Aidan, Saint Colman, Saint Cuthbert, Saint

The establishment of Lindesfarne’s monastery can best be understood within the historical context of the Roman settlement of Britain. The withdrawal of Roman troops from Celtic Britain in the early fifth century allowed the successful colonization of Britain by invading Germanic peoples from the northern European mainland, isolating the indigenous Celts in the “fringes” of Wales, Ireland, and Scotland. Those Celts Celtic Christianity Christianity;Celtic who had been Christianized were largely cut off from regular intercourse with the continental Church under the authority of Rome. Nevertheless, the vibrancy of the Irish church during the 500’s is evidenced by its fame for scholarship, by the evangelizing missions back to the Continent by people such as Saint Columbanus, and by the number of admired founders of monastic communities. One of these was Saint Columba Columba, Saint , born of Irish nobility, who journeyed across the Irish Sea in the 560’s to establish a monastic community on the tiny island of Iona off the western coast of Scotland.

The several tribal kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxon invaders engaged in their own jockeying for power. In the rivalry between two northern kingdoms, for instance, Æthelfrith of Bernicia Æthelfrith of Bernicia (Northumbrian king) forced Edwin of Deira into exile in the early 600’s and became sole overlord over a combined Northumbria Northumbria . After Æthelfrith’s death in battle in 616, Edwin Edwin (Northumbrian king) regained power and forced Æthelfrith’s two sons Oswald Oswald (Northumbrian king) and Oswy into exile among the Irish and Scottish peoples to the northwest.

Into the context of this tribal rivalry, a new evangelistic mission arrived in southeastern England in 597, sent by Pope Gregory the Great Gregory the Great and led by an Italian monk named Augustine. After converting the Kentish king Æthelbert and establishing a bishopric at Canterbury, Augustine Augustine of Canterbury and his successors sent missions northward during the early seventh century to other Saxon kingdoms. Paulinus’s mission to Edwin’s Northumbria in 625 is described in considerable detail by the monk and scholar, Saint Bede the Venerable Bede the Venerable, Saint , on whose work Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Bede) (731; Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 1723) every account of the period depends.

When the now-converted Edwin was defeated in 633 by Cædwalla (also known as Cædwallon), king of the Welsh Britons, Æthelfrith’s exiled sons Oswald and Oswy returned to reestablish their family’s overlordship in Northumbria. Yet Oswald and Oswy had themselves been converted by the Irish Christians among whom they had lived in exile, in all likelihood under the influence of the Irish mission on Iona, whose founder Columba had died in the year of Augustine’s arrival at Canterbury. Soon after establishing his authority in Northumbria, Oswald invited the Ionan church to send a mission to oversee the evangelization of his kingdom. From Iona came Saint Aidan, Aidan, Saint to whom Oswald gave the island of Lindisfarne as a base of operations.

The half century following the founding of Lindisfarne in fact saw a complex web of Christian enterprise moving in all directions throughout Britain, and involving people from Augustine’s Roman mission, from Ireland or the indigenous Welsh church directly, and from the Irish mission based at Lindisfarne. Nevertheless, historians commonly identify Lindisfarne as the most influential center of ecclesiastical influence through the 660’, even as the church throughout Britain became increasingly aware of the importance of bringing itself into conformity with the Church of Rome.

In 664, a church counsel was called at Whitby Whitby, Synod of (664) to address the main points of conflict between the Irish and Roman “camps.” Underlying issues involved the differences between the Irish monastic system of church government and the Roman diocesan system. Yet one of the critical sticking points concerned different means of calculating the date of Easter Easter, date of . The resolution of these matters in favor of Roman custom represented a watershed moment of reorientation toward Catholic unity with the continental Church. Nevertheless, respect for the virtues and piety of the Irish tradition remained strong.

To be sure, there occurred among Irish diehards a reorientation back toward Ireland Ireland;Christianity Christianity;Ireland . Saint Colman Colman, Saint , the abbot of Lindisfarne and leading spokesperson for the defeated Irish position, resigned his abbacy and led a group of monks (some of whom were certainly English) to Ireland to establish a new community at Mayo. Ireland remained a pilgrimage direction for many who found Irish scholarship preeminent. Thus the Irish church was invested with significant new vibrancy during the 700’s in large part through the intercourse sought by Saxon converts. The threads of mutual influence become so difficult to separate as to warrant the modern term “Hiberno-Saxon.” For example, the Celtic elements in the products of the Lindisfarne scriptorium clearly demonstrate Irish influence, yet the brilliant synthesis of Celtic, Germanic, Mediterranean, and even Coptic elements found in the Lindisfarne Gospels also influenced the design of later Irish manuscripts.

Lindisfarne became the northern Irish pole of an axis reaching southward to the developing family of monasteries under Roman influence, including those established in 674 and 682 by Saint Benedict Biscop Benedict Biscop, Saint only thirty miles down the coast at Wearmouth and Jarrow. Clearly the monasteries collaborated collegially with one another. Lindisfarne also continued as the eastern pole of an axis oriented westward toward Iona and the family of monastic communities throughout Ireland. This axis accounts for Lindisfarne’s connection with the problematic second subject of this entry: the Book of Kells, the most famous of the surviving Hiberno-Saxon gospel books whose unfathomable intricacy of ornamentation marks it as one of Ireland’s national treasures.

Although datable to somewhere around 800, the Book of Kells remains a mystery text. Where was it made, and by whom? The longest surviving tradition associates the book with Columba and Iona, although it is clearly of later provenance than the sixth century. Most scholars accept the likely relevance of the fact that Iona was attacked by Viking raiders in the late 700’s (as were the Northumbrian monasteries) and that a band of Ionan monks seeking refuge established a daughter house at Kells in County Meath. By the eleventh century, the gospel book that became known as the Book of Kells was associated with this monastery. Many questions remain. It is possible that it was created by the monks there, or it may have been created at the scriptorium at Iona and then brought with the monks escaping the Vikings. Another theory claims that it was begun at Iona and completed at Kells. One of the most controversial yet respected arguments suggests that it was produced at Lindisfarne or at one of the northern English monasteries but was at some point brought back to Kells, which an Irish faction might have considered to be its proper keeping-place.


Bede, who spent his entire life at Jarrow, was invited by the Lindisfarne community to compose the biography of its most illustrious saint, Cuthbert Cuthbert, Saint . The elaborately illuminated gospel books, of which the Lindisfarne Gospels is the most splendid survivor, clearly represent a synthesis—both textual and artistic—of sources from Irish tradition and from the continental scholarship imported by Benedict Biscop and other leading seventh century churchmen such as Wilfrid and Archbishop Theodore. In turn, Lindisfarne influenced the production of such manuscripts as the Codex Amiatinus, a complete Bible sent to Italy in 718 as a gift to the pope from Wearmouth and Jarrow, and for centuries supposed to be of Italian, not Northumbrian, origin.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blair, Peter Hunter. The World of Bede. 2d ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990. While focusing on Bede, this eminent historian of Saxon England provides the layperson with an overview of the entire Hiberno-Saxon world.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, Michelle P. The Lindisfarne Gospels: Society, Spirituality, and the Scribe. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003. This study provides a good overview of the early illuminated gospel books. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">De Hamel, Christopher. A History of Illuminated Manuscripts. London: Phaidon, 1994. The chapter “Books for Missionaries” emphasizes the intended uses of the splendid illuminated gospel books such as the Book of Kells.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mayr-Harting, Henry. The Coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England. 3d ed. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991. Oriented toward the general reader, this study includes the Irish and Mediterranean influences on early English Christianity.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Meehan, Bernard. The “Book of Kells”: An Illustrated Introduction to the Manuscript in Trinity College, Dublin. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1994. This richly illustrated popular guide is written by one of the foremost contemporary Kells scholars.

Categories: History