Monday, August 1, 2016

The Christians Are Coming! (The islands of Iona and Lindisfarne)

by Matthew Harffy

The early seventh century was a time of military and religious upheaval in Britain. The different rulers of the small kingdoms across the island vied for supremacy, and violence and death were never far away. Unsurprisingly, most kings of the day died in battle and few reigned for more than a few years at best, some only for months before meeting their bloody ends.

Holderness cross
By portableantiquities [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

As Angles, Saxons and Britons fought for the land, so different religions battled for the souls of the populace. Christianity resurged on the island, pushing the older religions back into the darkest recesses of mountain valleys and deep forests. By the middle of the century Christianity had been adopted by most of the nations of Britain (or at least by their nobles and royal families). From the south came missionaries sent from Rome; Europeans such as Augustus, Paulinus, Birinus and Felix. From the north came a different flavour of Christianity, not Roman in background, but Irish.

The story of this northern Christianity is one of two islands. Iona in the west and Lindisfarne in the east.

Iona Abbey Scotland - seen from ferry
By Jan Smith from Brisbane, Australia (First glimpse of Iona) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Iona became the centre of the Irish Christian mission in the sixth century when Colm Cille (more commonly known as Columba), an Irish noble, was exiled. He settled on the small island of Iona, which was probably known as Hii at the time and almost certainly gaining its modern name from a transcription error of Ioua Insula (“Island of the yews”) to Iona sometime in the thirteenth century. Iona was then part of the Irish kingdom of Dál Riata and Columba was given it as a base for him and his brethren of monks from whence to preach to the people of Dál Riata and the Picts.

The mission was very successful and Iona became a Christian stronghold in the northwest of the British Isles. The expansion from the west to the east coast came as a result of another exiled noble taking up residence in Iona. This time it was Oswald, the offspring of Æthelfrith, the king of Northumbria.

In 633, after spending his formative years on Iona, Oswald, son of Æthelfrith, was presented the opportunity to take back the throne that had been his father’s. His father’s killer, Edwin, had in turn been slain by an alliance of Penda of Mercia and Cadwallon of Gwynedd. Oswald brought a warband south and confronted Cadwallon near Hadrian’s Wall. Before the battle, Oswald ordered a great cross to be erected and had his men kneel and pray to God for victory.

In the ensuing battle, Oswald’s warhost crushed Cadwallon’s force, slaying the Welsh king and cementing Oswald as the ruler of Northumbria. Christ had granted Oswald victory, and he vowed to bring Christ to the people.

Beach at low tide, Holy Island, Northumberland - - 1231059
Christine Matthews [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

As soon as he was settled on his new throne, Oswald sent to Iona for a bishop to guide his pagan people to Christ. The brethren of Iona eventually sent Aidan, a gentle and patient man who believed in engaging all people, even slaves, in discourse about Christ. He set up a monastery on the island of Lindisfarne, also known now as Holy Island. From that tidal island base, which in many ways mirrored Iona in the west, Aidan set about bringing Christianity to Northumbria.

Aidan travelled the land, founding churches and monasteries throughout the north, and Lindisfarne became famous as a place of religious teaching and great learning. And all the while, the bishops of Lindisfarne worked alongside the kings of Northumbria to bring the word of Christ to a land that had all but forgotten that religion after the Romans had left the island some two centuries before.

Statue of St Aidan, Lindisfarne Priory
By mattphotos (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Oswald was followed on the throne by his brother Oswiu, who continued to champion Christianity and was responsible for convening the Synod of Whitby in 664. The Synod is important, for it was there that the two competing forms of the faith – Roman and Irish – were debated and one chosen. Such intricacies as the way monks' hair should be tonsured and how the date of Easter should be calculated were discussed. It might not sound like much, but the ramifications of the decision were far-reaching. The Roman way was decided upon, which ultimately saw Lindisfarne, with its Irish roots, fall out of favour.

It was still a place of great learning, however, and the following decades would see the creation of wonderful treasures such as the Lindisfarne Gospels. This period of cultural flowering is known as the Golden Age of Northumbria. Monks sought peaceful meditation of the will of God, praying and working diligently over beautiful manuscripts that would become famous all over the known world. For a hundred years or more the island of Lindisfarne was a beacon of education and culture.

St. Matthew - Lindisfarne Gospels (710-721), f.25v - BL Cotton MS Nero D IV
St. Matthew - Lindisfarne Gospels (710-721), f.25v - BL Cotton MS Nero D IV, via Wikimedia Commons

Little did those scholarly scribes know that one day Northmen would descend upon their island retreat, smashing the peace and tranquillity in a welter of blood. For one of the things that Lindisfarne is now famous for is that, in 793, it became the location of the first recorded Viking raid in Britain. Those treasures that were so well-known to be guarded only by peaceful monks proved too much temptation to raiders from across the North Sea.

But for those decades in the seventh and eighth centuries, Lindisfarne was a centre of learning and wisdom that saw Northumbria become one of the most important kingdoms of Britain, whose influence was felt across the continent.


Matthew Harffy is the author of the Bernicia Chronicles, a series of novels set in seventh century Britain. The first of the series, The Serpent Sword, was published by Aria, an imprint of Head of Zeus on 1st June 2016. The sequel, The Cross and The Curse was released on 1st August 2016. Book three, Blood and Blade, is due for publication in December 2016.

The Serpent Sword and The Cross and the Curse are available on Amazon, Kobo, Google Play, and all good online bookstores.

Blood and Blade is available for pre-order on Amazon and all good online bookstores.

Twitter: @MatthewHarffy


  1. A terrific piece, Matthew. Great stuff, These places are well worth a visit and favourites of mine. Great writing.

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    1. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment, Kimberley.

  3. Great article, I really enjoyed that. Although, it should be mentioned that Christianity in the sub roman was very much the professed religion of the Welsh (It's the Age of Saints in Wales after all). Penda was a pagan, but Cadwallon was very much a christian, although Bede liked to gloss over that fact (unsurprising given Bede's patriotic bias). There were enough Welsh Bishops to have a synod with Augustine when he arrived in Canterbury.

    Prof Wendy Davies has done some amazing work into the Llandaff charters showing religious endowments and celtic christian hierarchy surviving from the Roman into the early medieval in Wales. I think there is very much an argument for continuity of faith amongst the lower strata of even pagan Anglo society before Augustine.There's certainly evidence of continuity of worship in St Alban's from at least the 5th, and place names with Eccles implies more continuity from the Roman.

    I guess it depends upon how much population displacement was caused by the arrival of the saxons and just how many people arrived in the 5th/6th migration - Gildas says loads on both counts, but DNA evidence is really challenging that depiction. We could be looking at a mass of christian anglo-britons with a pagan Anglo-saxon aristocracy imposed on top.

    I loved Serpent Sword btw and very much looking forward to reading the new one!

    1. Bede did not deny that Cadwallon was a Christian. He said as much, he was simply horrified that a Christian King would wage war on and kill his fellow Christians and Bede's heroes like Edwin and Oswald.

    2. In regards to the DNA, the evidence seems to be conflicting. I have heard of genetic studies that sugggest a large percentage of Germanic/Saxon DNA in the English population, especially that of 'lowland' England.

    3. With regard to the dna evidence, the lower estimates for germanic markers come in at under 20% (Sykes) whilst upper limits from Weale are at around 40% - with local variations that are higher of course. That still leaves a dark age population with between 60-80+% brittonic markers.Even today brittonic markers are the dominant genetic trait in England.

      And my point about Bede is not that he denied Cadwallon's christianity, but that he glosses over the high regard he was held in by the other christian nations in the heptarchy, because it did not suit his northumbrian narrative.

    4. Thanks for the stimulating discussion. My portrayal of religion (and may other things in my novels) is necessarily simplified and simplistic. Partly due to not wanting to get bogged down in nitty-gritty details, and partly due to not being an expert! :-)

  4. Fascinating, well researched article. Love this period! Thanks, Matthew. :-)

  5. Great piece. I am doing some work on the ninth century at the moment. Its interesting that whilst some historians try to deny or downplay the negative impact of the Viking raids, the sourse I am reading says there was certainly a large decline in the output and quality of English manuscripts at this time. 50 years before the birth of Alfred, England was producing some of the greatest scholars in Europe, like Alcuin of York. Half a century later, there were complaints that priests barely knew their Latin

    1. Thanks. It is interesting to downplay the impact of the Viking raids. I imagine that not only did they destroy and steal much of value, but also there must have been fewer people willing to become monks and sit in monasteries scribbling away waiting for the dreaded heathen Norsemen to fall upon them like rabid wolves!

  6. Great post Matthew! I'm so glad I'm still writing in mid-fifth century Britain, although differences are already emerging. Sourcing research from religious documents and modern archaeology certainly throws up inconsistencies and makes the writer's role more challenging! Hoping to get to your series soon.

    1. Thanks, Elaine. Good luck with the research and the writing!


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