Twice each day, for several hours at a time, the island of Lindisfarne is cut off from the English mainland by the tides of the North Sea.
That was music to the ears of a group of seventh-century monks from the Scottish island of Iona, when King Oswald of Northumbria invited them to establish a monastery there. The monks’ Irish-born leader, Aidan, accompanied Oswald on his missionary journeys throughout Northumbria, preaching to encourage the spread of Christianity.
The monastery that the future St. Aidan and his fellow monks founded in 635 was abandoned in the 9th century as a result of Viking harassment, but its ruins remain significant for two reasons. First, it was the home of two saints. Second, it was the place where the Lindisfarne Gospels, the oldest surviving English version of the gospels and the finest surviving illuminated English manuscript of the Middle Ages, were created. No wonder the monks christened Lindisfarne Insula Sacra, or “Holy Island.”
In 685, Aidan was succeeded by a monk named Cuthbert, who traded a reclusive life on Inner Farne, an island south of Lindisfarne, not only to lead the monastic community, but also to minister to the Northumbrians. His intense faith and powerful prayers earned him a reputation as a miracle-worker and led to his canonization after his death. Cuthbert is said to have tamed the island’s resident eider ducks by feeding barley to them; now, they are known locally as “Cuddy’s ducks” because of their association with Cuthbert. Otters swam around Cuthbert as he prayed while standing in the sea, so he is often portrayed with an otter curled around his leg to keep it warm.
After Cuthbert died in 687, a Lindisfarne monk named Eadfrith created a magnificent illuminated manuscript in his honor. He carefully wrote the text of the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in Latin, skillfully embellishing it with intricate plait and knot work and fret and key patterns. Interlaced birds with elongated bodies, legs and tails are said to have been inspired by the many birds that flock to Lindisfarne, particularly cormorants. Elaborate spiral patterns are thought to have inspired Anglo-Saxon ornamental pieces like the Tara Brooch and the Ardagh Chalice, now at the National Museum of Ireland. In some places, the manuscript remains partially unfinished, suggesting Eadfrith’s work was ended prematurely by his death in 721. Around 970, a priest named Aldred added an Anglo-Saxon translation in red ink beneath the original Latin. On the last leaf of the colophon, he wrote that Ethelwald, bishop of Lindisfarne, created the cover, while a hermit named Billfrith adorned the cover with gold, gems and silver-gilt ornaments.
In the years that followed, pilgrims walked a simply marked route over the sandy, muddy stretch between the island and the mainland to see this historic priory. We continued that tradition, but relied on the Mountain Goat Mercedes to safely see us across before sitting down to the fish and chips lunch I’d been dreaming about at The Barn at Beal.
Our first stop was the ruins of Lindisfarne Priory, an 11th-century Benedictine church, which Sir Walter Scott described in his Marmion. Its zigzag-ornamented arches and chevron-carved pillars bear a very strong resemblance to Durham Cathedral.
But our second stop — a place dramatically perched high atop a crag — was the real reason I had come to Lindisfarne.
Edward Hudson, the founder of Country Life magazine, bought Lindisfarne’s 16th-century castle in 1902 for a holiday home and asked his favorite architect, Edwin Landseer Lutyens, to restore it. Best known for designing the Cenotaph in Whitehall and Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House at Windsor Castle, Lutyens was known for his simple, elegant designs, his attention to detail, and his imaginative use of strong colors and contrasting textures.
Lutyens preserved the castle’s exterior, but completely transformed its interior. Inspired by the simplicity of 17th-century Dutch interiors, Lutyens converted vaulted chambers and old gunpowder magazines into austere, but beautifully designed, living rooms linked by dramatic arched corridors and spiraling stairways. He whitewashed the walls and laid herringbone-patterned brick floors. He expressed his love of strong colors by painting some surfaces with a vibrant Prussian blue or the greenish-blue hue of a duck’s egg.
Throughout his career, Lutyens designed the furniture and fittings that went into his creations. At Lindisfarne Castle, Lutyens selected 17th-century English and Flemish oak pieces and commissioned Arts and Crafts artisans to make decorative pieces to complement them. He designed distinctive wooden door latches…
He created Gothic-style recessed casement windows with hinged rods, so that a curtain could swing away from the window and not block the light. He even designed a backpack to carry the firewood that would heat the castle’s cold stone rooms.
Lutyens also built a gallery in part of the castle’s upper battery. Hudson invited noted musicians to play there for his guests and opened the windows during concerts so that island residents sitting at the base of the castle crag could listen to the music. 64-year-old Hudson was so taken by one of those musicians, a 33-year-old Portuguese cellist named Madame Guilhermina Suggia, that he proposed to her in 1918 and bought her a 1717 Stradivarius cello as an engagement gift. Although the wedding never happened, she continued to visit Hudson at the castle for several years, and he remembered her in his will.
Famous people who visited Hudson at Lindisfarne Castle include authors J.M. Barrie, Sigfried Sassoon and Lytton Strachey, as well as the future King George V and Queen Mary. When the royal couple visited, Mary couldn’t bear walking on the steep, herringbone-patterned cobbled walks leading up to the castle because they hurt her feet. When the tide started to rise, George became anxious to leave, in spite of his background as a sailor.
In 1911, Gertrude Jekyll, the renowned English garden designer who collaborated with Lutyens on projects for 30 years, transformed an old sheep pen at the castle into a walled flower and vegetable garden. The National Trust used Jekyll’s original planting plans to recreate a garden with beds of gladiolas, roses, hollyhocks, sweet peas, fuchsias, sunflowers, anemones, espalier fruit trees, spinach, lettuce, carrots, peas, beans and potatoes.
Lutyens and Hudson were so charmed by their creation that they chose the castle for the setting of a series of photographs of Lutyens’ children that were taken by Charles Latham, who often took the photographs published in Country Life. Latham posed the children in the manner of 17th-century Dutch interiors painted by Johannes Vermeer.
For more on Lindisfarne, see A Naturalist on Lindisfarne, by Richard Perry; Lindisfarne: The Cradle Island, by Magnus Magnusson; and English Heritage Book of Lindisfarne Holy Island, by Deirdre O’ Sullivan and Robert Young.
The Lindisfarne Gospels are now in the collection of the British Museum. To discover more about them, read The Lindisfarne Gospels, by Janet Backhouse, and From Holy Island to Durham: The Contexts and Meanings of the Lindisfarne Gospels, by Richard Gameson, which was published to accompany the Durham University Palace Green Library’s 2013 exhibition, Lindisfarne Gospels Durham: One Amazing Book, One Incredible Journey. There is a special feature in the British Library’s Online Gallery on the world of the Lindisfarne Gospels. The library has also created a digital version of the book. Reading the British Library’s “Treasures in Focus” series of books includes one on the Lindisfarne Gospels, I discovered that there are thousands of dots on some pages of the manuscript; each one represents a prayer.
To discover more about Lindisfarne Castle, Sir Edwin Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll, see “Country Homes & Gardens Old & New: Lindisfarne Castle, Northumberland, A Residence of Mr. Edward Hudson,” an article on pages 830 to 842 of the June 7, 1913 issue of Country Life; Lindisfarne Castle, a guidebook published by the National Trust; Sir Edwin Lutyens: Designing in the English Tradition, by Elizabeth Wilhide; The Architect and His Wife: A Life of Edwin Lutyens, by Jane Ridley; Gardens of a Golden Afternoon: The Story of a Partnership: Edwin Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll, by Jane Brown; Gertrude Jekyll, by Sally Festing; and Gertrude Jekyll at Munstead Wood, by Judith B. Tankard and Martin A. Wood. Jenny Uglow also mentions them in her A Little History of British Gardening. Lindisfarne Castle also made an appearance in Roman Polanski’s film, Macbeth.