Isolation has been for many of us an unwelcome facet of life recently, yet in the medieval world it was a precious commodity. Those who took up the religious life often detached themselves, both physically and emotionally, from what they saw as the corruption of the world around them. It was only through isolation and communing with the nature that they could reconnect with God.
Many were inspired by the example of early medieval holy men like St Cuthbert, a native of the Kingdom of Northumbria that in the seventh and eighth centuries was the most powerful kingdom in the British Isles. Its cultural legacy has led historians to refer to it as a ‘golden age’ and its success was due to its holy men and the landscape that imbued their spirituality. It is a legacy that still resonates to this day.
Christianity began to lay its roots in Northumbria following the conversion of King Edwin around 626/7. His successor King Oswald invited Aidan, a monk from Iona in western Scotland, to found a monastery on the island of Lindisfarne. Despite the dominance of the Roman church, the influence of the Celtic church in Northumbria was strong, primarily through its links with Aidan and the monastery of Iona where King Oswald had been brought up. Having evolved outside the Roman imperium, Irish religious institutions lacked a centralised authority, fostering instead a more individual outlook. The first monks at Lindisfarne saw the religious life as one of self-fulfilment rather than community – the word monk, after all, came from the Greek word monos meaning ‘alone’. Individuals would often remove themselves to the Farne Islands to live in complete solitude. This outlook led to further monasteries being founded in Northumbria in coastal locations that promoted such isolation, like Jarrow, Tynemouth and Coquet Island.
This Celtic spirit set within a Roman framework resulted in a fusion of spiritual cultures that led to some of the defining monuments of the whole medieval period. Chief amongst these was the art of illumination, imported from Celtic monasteries and refined by the monks at Lindisfarne resulting in the exquisite Lindisfarne Gospels. Not for nothing has the artistic tradition that developed in Northumbria come to be known as Insular Art, taken from the Latin insula meaning ‘island’. A monument to Northumbria’s literary achievements survives in the work of Bede, an eighth century monk from Jarrow located at the mouth of the River Tyne. Northumbrian clergymen also had a lasting impact on mainland Europe. St Wilfrid was particularly active in the early conversion of pagan tribes in Frisia, modern-day Holland, whilst St Willibrord later baptised Pippin the Short, king of the Franks, and Alcuin of York became chief advisor to Charlemange.
The religious communities established in Northumbria were almost extinguished as a result of the Viking invasions but witnessed a revival under the Normans especially in the veneration of figures from the Northumbrian golden age. The decades following the Norman Conquest witnessed the re-founding of religious houses in Northumbria with links to such figures as St Cuthbert, whose shrine at Durham is still to be found in one of the most magnificent Romanesque cathedrals of the Norman period.
In a time when it was widely believed that divine power could be transferred through worldly objects, religious centres that housed the relics of these holy men became beacons for pilgrims for and wide and thus institutions of power and influence in their own right. Before the Norman Conquest Bamburgh was the home of the forearm of St Oswald, a favourite saint of the medieval warrior elite. The bones of another king St Oswiu, at Tynemouth Priory, were held in great regard by William II, whose ships had once been on the receiving end of one of the saint’s intercessions. Aidan also attracted pilgrims to the monastery at Lindisfarne that he had founded and where he was buried.
But few could compare with the cult of St Cuthbert. He had lived the ascetic life in the greatest traditions of the Celtic monastic movement and eventually retired to a hermitage on the Farne Islands where he lived a life of solitude and contemplation. Reluctantly elevated to lead the community at Lindisfarne his preference for going off amongst the dunes to be alone with his prayers was held up as an example of Christian humility par excellence. His body became a holy relic and following the sacking of Lindisfarne by the Vikings it was carried by the monks to the mainland and eventually laid to rest at Durham. His shrine became one of the most important places of pilgrimages, rivalled only by that of Thomas Beckett at Canterbury.
Another ingredient in the success of religious institutions in Northumbria was the landscape itself, providing holy men and pilgrims alike with a wilderness that aided spiritual contemplation. Indeed, it is no coincidence that so many of the important monastic foundations in Northumbria are to be found on the coast. When the powerful religious orders of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, such as the Benedictines, went searching for locations to found monasteries they simply chose sites that had already been settled in the time of the kingdom of Northumbria, like Lindisfarne, Jarrow, Coquet and Tynemouth. Few others would have braved a landscape that offered little protection from the sea winds that blew across the islands at Coquet or Farne, and the high bluffs above the great rivers of Tyne and Wear.
This was a landscape that allowed people to escape physically from the corruption of the material world and reconnect spiritually with the purity and beauty of God-made nature. This is exemplified in a tale told by Bede in his Life of St Cuthbert in which the saint is dried by a pair of otters following a nocturnal dip in the sea. St Cuthbert is even credited with instituting laws governing the protection of the local sea birds on the Farne Islands that have ensured the survival of the colonies to this day.
In walking the landscape of the Northumbrian coast today, dotted with hermitages, cells and monastic ruins, it is possible to tap into a spirituality that comes from a solitude that inspired people to take up the religious life here. In the modern world we often talk about ‘getting away from it all’, recognising, like the holy men of Northumbria once did, that connecting with something can sometimes only be achieved through isolation. Perhaps, in that sense, we are not so far removed from them as might think.