S. AIDAN, a man of saintly, zealous, prudent, and heroic life, was the first and greatest Bishop of Lindisfarne. Little is known of his childhood. A glimpse of his youth or early manhood is found in the Life of S. Columba, which refers to Aidan's reception into the community of Hy (Iona), the mother of Lindisfarne. On a certain Wednesday, we are told, a young man of comely appearance and gentle manners reached the Island of Saints, after a stormy and perilous voyage, and at once sought the presence of Columba, the chief of that little colony of monks, prostrated himself, craved the good man's blessing, and humbly desired to be admitted into the community, and he was duly received.
At Iona a friendship sprang up between Aidan and Oswald, son of Ethelfrid, the late King of Bernicia and Deira, who had been sent by Donald IV., King of the Picts, to whose court he and his brothers fled after the victory of Redwald, King of the South Saxons to be baptised and brought up in the Christian Faith.
Fergna was Abbot of Hy when Oswald arrived, and he placed him under the care of Aidan, who acted as his instructor, not only in faith and morals, but also in secular studies. Aidan soon discovered Oswald's aspirations after the recovery of his kingdom his elder brother, Eanfrid the apostate, had been slain by Cadwallon, and he (Aidan) laboured assiduously to make him a good soldier of Christ, so that if, in God's good providence, he ever attained his hopes and rights he might be serviceable in the propagation of the Faith amongst his subjects.
The time came at length. Oswald, grown to manhood, marched with a small force into Bernicia to meet Cadwallon, the Welsh pagan, who was encamped on the heights overlooking the Tyne in the neighbourhood of Hexham. Oswald had entered Bernicia trusting in the help of God. He received an assurance of this in a dream in which the blessed Columba appeared to him and promised him victory. Oswald on his part made a vow that if he gained his father's throne he would do his utmost for the conversion of the people.
Before the battle a cross was erected on the field, and Oswald called upon his followers to bend their knees, and with one voice beseech the Lord Almighty, the Living and the True, to defend them by His mercy from their fierce and proud enemy, for He knew that they had undertaken a just war. After prayer, as the day dawned, they joined battle with their enemies.
Cadwallon had an immense force, which he boasted to be irresistible. He was at a disadvantage so far as the ground was concerned, whereas Oswald and his small army had chosen a good position, protected on the north and west by steep, rocky banks, and on the south by a barrier left by the Romans. Cadwallon was utterly routed and fled southwards, followed by Oswald's victorious soldiers, who caught him and slew him at Deniseburn (Rowley Burn), a tributary of the Devil's Water.
This important battle (635) was called the Battle of Heavenfelth (Heaven's Field), and in later times the field became a place of devotion. S. Oswald's chapel was built upon the spot where the banner-cross had been erected by the King, and the monks of Hexham used to go on the day before the anniversary of Oswald's death, to spend the night in prayer, and to recite the office with many psalms, "pro salute animae ejus." The next day they offered the holy oblation. The monks of Durham kept his memory green by their processions three times a year, in which they carried a figure of the King in silver gilt, and on one side of their conventual seal was a representation of the King's head.
To return. Oswald, having gained his kingdom, and driven out or subdued the pagans, remembered his vow and sent to his old home, Iona, for missionaries to teach his subjects the Christian Faith. Iona cheerfully responded to his appeal, and sent Gorman, who found the people so stubborn, independent, and indifferent, that he lost heart and returned to Iona in despair.
When Gorman related his failure to the brethren S. Aidan was amongst them, and gently rebuked him:"It seems to me, brother, that you have been harder than was meet with your ignorant hearers, and have not, according to the teaching of the Apostles, offered them first the milk of gentle teaching, till, being gradually nourished by the Divine Word, they had become capable of receiving more perfect instruction, and of fulfilling the higher precepts of God." Aidan's speech decided the future. The brethren knew that he was the best man for the work, and it was quickly agreed that the mission should not be abandoned, but that Aidan should be ordained for the work. Undoubtedly there were many difficulties, yet few missions had better auspices, for the King was ready to help and to further the work by every possible means. A patient, persevering and prudent evangelist, who would not look for immediate results, but be content to sow that others might reap, was needed for the undertaking, and S. Aidan was unquestionably the right man for the work. His discretion, tact, patience, and resoluteness proved that the choice was a wise one. Gorman's retreat, therefore, proved to be a good thing for the Church.
The conduct of the Community of Iona with regard to Gorman is a great contrast with that of S. Gregory with respect to Augustine of Canterbury, who lost heart when he heard of the savage manners of the Saxons, and returned to Rome to be released from his enterprise. The Blessed Gregory was not the man to accept excuses or to send substitutes, for being of noble and heroic spirit himself, he desired his disciples and followers to be the same. Through his firmness the Roman mission to Kent was not abandoned. Still, amongst many who have turned back from arduous duties and perils may be found the names of great and earnest men. S. Mark the Evangelist left S. Paul at Perga in Pamphilia and returned to Jerusalem; Theonus, the last British Bishop (erroneously called Archbishop) of London, lost heart and fled ; Mellitus also fled from London, and Justus from Rochester,believing that it was better to return to their own country,where they could serve God in peace and quietness, rather than remain amongst apostate barbarians ; S. Palladius conducted an apparently un-successful mission to Ireland, was unable to remain in the country, and died on his way back to Rome ; S. Willebrord quitted Heligoland in despair; S. Milles, Bishop of Susa, found the people of the city so incorrigible, and his presence the cause of so much dissension that he left and denounced Divine vengeance upon it; the holy Wigbert left Friesland after working there two years without any prospect of success; Friedrich, a Saxon prelate, after five years' opposition by the Scalds (pagan minstrels) gave up his work in Iceland in despair ; and the great Francis Xavier, thinking it impossible to make converts in India, left the country in disgust. Time would fail to tell of others. Yet men love to dwell upon the work of those who amid many discouragements have toiled on, like James the Deacon, who remained amongst the Northumbrians after Paulinus had hurried away with the Church treasures and Queen Ethelburga and her children into Kent.
To return to S. Aidan. He received a hearty welcome on his arrival in Bernicia from his old friend and pupil, King Oswald. The Bishop began his work in down-right earnest. Close by the King's residence was a small island, which the King gladly assigned to Aidan and his community.
The Celtic monks preferred islands over which, if possible, they had exclusive rights, and large enough to provide them with food for themselves, pasturage for their cattle, and were close to the mainland. Monks became deeply attached to their island homes, and memories fondly clustered around those sacred spots where their golden days were spent. The sons of Iona, of Lindisfarne, of Lerins, and of a thousand other seagirt "cities" tell the same story. To leave them was a severe trial to many, though they bravely responded to the call of duty and the commands of their superiors to start new missions or to undertake special work in the Church, or in their last hours when taking farewell of the brethren. The apostrophe of S. Caesarius to Lerins typically expresses their feelings and emotions:
" happy isle, blessed solitude, in which the majesty of our Redeemer makes every day new conquests and where such victories are won over Satan ! Thrice happy isle, which little as she is produces so numerous an offspring for heaven ! It is she who nourishes all those illustrious monks who are sent into all the provinces as bishops. When they arrive they are children, when they go out they are fathers. She receives them in the condition of recruits, she makes them kings. She teaches all her happy inhabitants to fly towards the sublime heights of Christ upon the wings of humility and charity. That tender and noble mother, that nurse of good men, opened her arms to one love : but while so many others owe heaven to her teaching, the hardness of my heart has prevented her from accomplishing her task in me" (quoted in Montalembert's Monks of the West).
S. Aidan's first work on taking possession of Lindisfarne would be to build a "city," i. e. a monastery. This "city" would most probably be built after the style of Iona, for the Celtic monks were very conservative, and "swore" by Columba and Iona. It may not be out of place to give a short description of a Celtic monastery, which represented a village consisting of huts of wicker-work and clay. The abbot's cell was built on an eminence as a mark of respect. Apart from this were the cells of the brethren, and close by the church with its "side-house" or sacristy, the refectory, the library ; then guest chambers, and outside the enclosure, cow-byre, mill, granary and outhouses. The ecclesiastical cities were surrounded by ramparts which served as boundary lines, and also for protection against enemies and wild beasts. In this they followed an old custom of surrounding the home of every chieftain's family with a similar defence (cf. Insula SS. et D. p. 94). Harbour provision was also made for craft.
Aidan formed a "school" in his monastery, and received lads to be educated, some of whom he had redeemed from slavery. He was wise and far-seeing in adopting a custom long practised in the Church in different parts of the world. From the days of schools in the provinces, especially by bishops like Anschar, who founded the first Christian school on the barbarian shores of Schleswig in order that he might train Danish lads purchased from the savage population, and Gregory the Great, who is recorded to have directed a priest named Candidus, manager of the papal patrimony in Gaul, to buy English lads of seventeen or eighteen to be educated as missionaries to work amongst their own countrymen. The number of lads in these schools was sometimes restricted to twelve, as at Lindisfarne. It must have been a source of great happiness to the devoted monks to watch the growth and development of spiritual power in their young disciples as it is to watch the opening of some choice bud in the beautiful spring-time. Some of Aidan's scholars became famous in the Church, especially Chad, Cedda, Eata, and Boisil. Heieu received her habit from Aidan.
It is customary to speak of S. Aidan as "the True Apostle of England." If contrasted with Augustine of Canterbury, this may be correct, for the work of the Celtic mission was more enduring, more wide-spreading, than the Roman. But neither S. Augustine nor S. Aidan worked on virgin soil, missionaries preceded them, though the records of their work are meagre, and to some extent fabulous: in Northumbria S. Paulinus and the faithful and courageous James the Deacon; and in Kent the mysterious Luidhard, and wandering Galilean bishops. It was the same in the case of S. Columba others had worked before him in that part of "Scotland," and amongst them S. Ninian, S. Palladius (with his fellow-labourers, S. Ternan and S. Serf), S. Mungo (or Kentigern), and others, many of whom fled to Mona and Albania (the Isle of Man and the southern part of Scotland) during the Diocletian persecution ; but Columba and his monks did the greatest work. In like manner S. Patrick is called the Apostle of Ireland although others laboured there long before his birth.
S. Aidan's work at Lindisfarne would most probably be moulded on the discipline and practice of the mother-house of Iona a round of work, study, and prayer, with frequent journeys to the mainland for the purpose of evangelisation.
A pleasing picture is that of S. Aidan in his white tunic, over which was thrown a rough mantle and hood of wool of the natural colour, preaching to the Northumbrians in the presence of the King who acted as interpreter a good picture for an artist "Church and State." The Venerable Bede tells us that
"The King listened gladly and humbly to the admonitions of the Bishop in all things, and with great diligence took measures for building up and extending the Church of Christ in his kingdom ; and the fair sight might often be seen of the prelate, who had but an imperfect knowledge of English, preaching in his own tongue, and the King, who in his long exile had perfectly learned the language of the Scots, explaining the heavenly Word to his officers and servants. Thenceforward every day numbers of the Scots began to come into Britain, and to preach the word of faith with great devotion, and, as many as were graced with the priestly function, to minister the grace of baptism in the provinces over which King Oswald ruled. Churches were everywhere built, and multitudes gladly flocked to hear the word : endowments were granted by the munificence of the King ; and the children of the English, along with their elders, were instructed by their Scottish teachers in the precepts and observances of monastic discipline."
The story of King Oswald and Aidan in this work has a parallel in the life of one of the first of Icelandic Christians, Thorwald Kodransson, who after travelling in Saxony and making friends with the Bishop, Friedrich, was baptised by him ; and whom he persuaded to return to Iceland in order to preach to his people. The Bishop preached in German, and Thorwald turned all his words into Icelandic. Their labours, however, were not very successful, and the Bishop, like Gorman, Aidan's predecessor, returned home dispirited, and Thorwald, after making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, entered a Russian monastery, where he died.
" He set forth before his hearers the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the expulsion of our first parents from Paradise, adding many exhortations to seek a heavenly inheritance. He recounted the righteousness of Noah, the faith of Abraham, the examples of the patriarchs, and the miracles of Moses, applying them all with a view to the welfare of souls. He drew a comparison between the fortitude of kings and that of the champions of Christian warfare who, clothed in the armour of Christ, wage an unceasing contest with vice. He showed how the visions of the prophets were applied by them to the correction of morals and the confirming of faith. Passing on to the mysteries of the Old Testament he came to the joyful tidings of the mercy of Christ, his language rising in sublimity as he felt the greatness of his theme. As he then descanted on the miracles of the Gospel and the mysteries of the Passion and Resurrection, his glowing eloquence overcame his hearers ; they burst into tears, and an eager longing for heaven filled their hearts."
Although S. Aidan failed not in his duty towards the King and his people he was always ready to serve them he loved retirement and solitude. A frequent guest at court and a staunch friend of the King, yet he knew that retirement was more suitable to progress in the spiritual life. Like S. Columbanus, who had a loving friend in Clotaire, with whom he sometimes resided amid the pomp of the Merovingian palace, he loved solitude best. Aidan, after dining at court, would hasten back to study and prayer. In these duties Aidan was most systematic. At times he would separate himself altogether from his brethren and visit Fame island, about two miles from the royal city of Bamburgh, a spot more especially associated with the names of SS. Cuthbert, Felgeld, Bartholomew, Elwin, and other anchorites, for devotional exercises.
The proximity of Lindisfarne to Bamburgh, the frequent visits of the brethren to the court and their influence with the King, were important and advantageous in Church work generally. The Druids had for long resided at the residences of kings, and exercised great power in national affairs. They "taught the youth astronomy, and much about the nature of things and the immortal gods." Why should not Christian priests supplant them? and having obtained the favour and support of princes, convert them? It is remarkable that the recorded "collisions" between Druidism and Christianity are very few. The Christians at times displayed great tact in dealing with the Druids, for instead of totally demolishing their " sacred " places they pursued the far more prudent course of taking possession of them. This practice had been recommended by many wise and prudent Churchmen. S. Gregory directed the attention of Augustine of Canterbury to the same principle with respect to the temples of the Roman deities which had been most successful in the city of Rome itself.
Another advantage of being connected with the court was the influence to be gained over the people. The Irish monks generally endeavoured to convert the clan or sept through the example of the chief. The conversion of Ireland and the growth of monasticism was due in a great measure to the reorganisation of the clan or sept on a religious footing ("Ireland," Story of the Nations, 39-41). The same course seems to have been adopted by pagan missionaries. The Mahometans also tried to convert princes before the people. The Bulgarian Mahometans were the first to send ambassadors to Vladimir with the offer of their Faith (Muravieff, Hist. Russian Ch. p. 11).
S. Aidan was " fruitful in good works." His whole life was a sweet oblation to God. His disciples and biographers have loved to dwell upon his loving deeds and wise words. God was glorified in His saint. " It was the highest commendation of his doctrine," says Bede (Eccl. Hist. iii. 5), "with all men, that he taught no otherwise than he and his followers had lived ; for he neither sought nor loved anything of this world, but delighted in distributing immediately among the poor whatsoever was given him by the kings or rich men of the world. He was wont to traverse both town and country on foot, never on horseback unless compelled by some urgent necessity ; and wherever in his way he saw any, either rich or poor, he invited them, if infidels, to embrace the mystery of the Faith ; or if they were believers to strengthen them in the Faith, and to stir them up by words and actions to alms and good works. His course of life was so different from the slothfulness of our times, that all those who bore him company, whether they were shorn monks or laymen, were employed in meditation, that is, either in reading the Scriptures or learning psalms. This was the daily employment of himself and all that were with him wheresoever they went ; and if it happened, which was but seldom, that he was invited to eat with the King, he went with one or two clerks, and having taken a small repast, made haste to be gone with them, either to read or write. At that time many religious men and women, stirred up by his example, adopted the custom of fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays till the ninth hour throughout the year, except during the fifty days after Easter. He never gave money to the powerful men of the world, but only meat, if he happened to entertain them ; and, on the contrary, whatsoever gifts of money he received from the rich, he either distributed them, as has been said, to the use of the poor, or bestowed them in ransoming such as had been wrongfully sold for slaves. Moreover he afterwards made many of those he had ransomed his disciples, and after having taught and instructed them, advanced them to the order of priesthood."
Bede also gives a portrait of the people after their conversion :
" Whenever a clergyman or monk came, he was received by all with joy as a servant of God ; and when any one was travelling on his way they would run up to him and bowing down would be glad to be signed by his hand or blessed by his prayer. They gave diligent attention to the words of exhortation which they heard from him, and on Sundays flocked with great eagerness to the churches or monasteries to hear the Word of God. If any priest happened to come into a village, the inhabitants presently gathering together were solicitous to hear from him the words of life ; nor did the priests or other ecclesiastics frequent the villages on any other account than to preach, visit the sick, and take care of souls ; and so free were they from any degree of the bane of avarice, that no one would receive lands or possessions for building monasteries unless compelled to it by the secular power" (Bede, E. H. iii. c. 26).
King Oswald caught the spirit of S. Aidan, and his faith was demonstrated in good works. On a certain Easter Day, when a rich repast was set before the King, and which had just been blessed by Aidan, his almoner announced a crowd of beggars from all parts who were asking alms. Oswald immediately commanded them to carry out to the poor the meat that had been set before him, and cut in pieces the silver dish and divide it among them. Aidan seized the King's hand with joy, and exclaimed, "May this hand never grow old!" Nor did it see corruption, for after being severed from his body by his cruel vanquisher, it was placed in a silver shrine in the church at Bamburgh. This right hand of Oswald was known to the Celts as "Oswald Fairhand" (Llanguryn, or Lamngwyn = Whitehand), because it had been specially blessed by Bishop Aidan.
There is a similar story told in the Life of S. Benedict respecting a hermit at Sublacus on the feast of Easter, 427. Nor is it improbable that the practice of the Emperor Constantine the Great as regards Easter Day was known to Oswald and to Aidan. Indeed, as one reads of the planting of Oswald's Cross at Heavenfield, of his vow, and his princely chanties, the thought of Constantine is frequently suggested. There is another link, for the first reputed Christian Emperor was born and saluted as imperator at York (Eboracum), the land over which Oswald then ruled.
Celtic zeal generally displayed itself in the building of churches and monasteries as centres of religious teaching and evangelisation. S. Aidan was not a whit behind others. Besides Lindisfarne other houses owe their origin or foundation to S. Aidan and his monks, amongst them being Coldingham, Melrose, Gateshead, and Hartlepool.
Whilst Aidan and his community were gaining converts in Bernicia, other men reared on the same holy ground, with the same examples of zeal and holiness, were working in other parts. Ireland was spreading light in many dark places. Her missionaries were to be found not only near " home," but over the seas amongst the Swiss, the Burgundians, the Italians, the Franconians, and the Frieslanders. Ireland was one grand seminary, and sent forth hundreds of fervent and zealous men to plant the Cross in heathen lands. A holy emulation existed amongst her sons for this grand work. They were earnest, self-sacrificing, and dreaded not the perils of unknown lands. They penetrated where Caesar's legions had not. Although the pages of history unfold a long roll of these illustrious, self-sacrificing heralds of the Cross, glisten with their noble deeds, and glow with their heroic charity, hundreds of these spiritual heroes have no earthly record, their names will be found in the Book of Life !
To return to King Oswald. During a visit to the Court of Cynegils, King of Wessex, for the purpose of asking the hand of his daughter in marriage, he, together with Bishop Birinus, led him to the laver of Regeneration.
Oswald reigned only eight years. The old enemy of the Northumbrians, the heathen Penda, an ally of Cadwallon, who had lost territory during Oswald's reign, determined to strike for its recovery, and he was successful. Oswald, the Bretwalda, was overcome and slain at Maserfield, August 5, 642, in the thirty-eighth year of his age. Thus died the wise and sagacious king fighting for God and country truly king and martyr. As he had lived a life of prayer and communion with God, so at his death, for then he prayed for his soldiers who fell in battle with him : " God be merciful to the souls of those who are giving up their lives around me."
The savage Penda caused the head and arms of Oswald to be cut off and fixed upon stakes. The body and dismembered parts were afterwards recovered and reverently cared for. In S. Peter's Church in Bamburgh they found a temporary resting-place ; subsequently the trunk was removed to Bardney by Oswald's niece, Osthryd ; the head was removed to Lindisfarne, and later it was placed in S. Cuthbert's coffin ; the right hand was stolen from the silver reliquary at Bamburgh and taken to Peterborough ; Colman also carried some into Ireland when he left Lindisfarne. Miracles are said to have been performed on the spot where Oswald fell whilst the stakes and splinters of them were reputed to possess virtuous powers.
Great indeed must have been Aldan's sorrow when he heard that his friend and benefactor had been slain and his body so outraged.
Oswald's brother, Oswy, succeeded to the throne of Bernicia. He had been a refugee amongst the Picts and had also been cared for by the brethren of Iona. He was a man of humble and pious manners, and showed every kindness to Aidan and his community. Moreover he was zealous in the propagation of the Faith, though in later days his life was marred by the great crime below mentioned. Penda, who had slain at least five Christian kings, marched into Bernicia against Oswy, and attempted to destroy Batnburgh. Having demolished the wooden buildings in the vicinity of the royal fortress he piled planks, reeds, and such combustible material against the gates of the castle and set them on fire. S. Aidan beheld the smoke and flames from Fame, and prayed that Penda's efforts might be futile "Behold, Lord, how great mischief Penda does!" then the wind changed, and drove back the flames upon those who kindled them, some of whom were hurt and the rest so frightened that they abandoned their attempt, and soon afterwards retired south.
In Oswy's reign Bernicia was separated from Deira which was ruled by Oswin, the son of Osric. The two princes lived amiably and peaceably for some time, but disputes arising they prepared for war. As Oswy's army far outnumbered Oswin's he resolved to disband his men and await a more favourable time. With only one attendant (Tondhere) he retired to Ingetlingum (Gilling) near Richmond, and dwelt with the treacherous Hunwald, who betrayed him and his faithful attendant. Both were murdered by Ethelwin, Oswy's steward, acting under his master's orders, August 20, 651.
S. Aidan survived the death of King Oswin only twelve days. The blessed bishop was staying at the King's country house near Bamburgh, and was so suddenly seized with an attack of sickness that a tent had to be hastily stretched against the western wall of the little timber church. With his head leaning upon a log which formed one of the buttresses he fell asleep, August 31, 651.
This event was made known to Cuthbert afterwards to be monk of Melrose, and in later times a successor of S. Aidan in a vision, when he was a shepherd on the Lammermuir hills. Whilst others were sleeping Cuthbert was watching and praying. He beheld a bright light, and a company of angels bearing a spirit of surpassing brightness. He awoke his companions, and told them what he had seen. Next morning it was found that the beloved Aidan had passed from the scene of his arduous labours into the paradise of God there to learn more of His Love, to increase in holiness, to intercede for the Church on earth, and especially for the mission at Lindisfarne.
The body of S. Aidan was temporarily buried in the cemetery at Lindisfarne, but was afterwards translated to the new church of S. Peter at Bamburgh.
Dr. Johnson, when beholding the ruins of Iona, the mother of Lindisfarne, and probably thinking of the last words of the Founder (S. Columba), to the effect that Iona would be held in honour far and near, exclaimed : " Illustrious island, which was once the luminary of the Caledonian regions, when savage clans and roving barbarians derived the benefits of knowledge and the blessings of religion. . . . That man is little to be envied whose patriotism would not gain force on the plains of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer amid the ruins of Iona ! " May not these words be repeated when gazing upon the ruins of Lindisfarne ? Oh to God that someone would come forward and rebuild them, that once again they may send forth labourers, filled with the holy enthusiasm of S. Aidan, into the wide mission field !
Rev. George Miles, The Bishops of Lindisfarne, Hexham, Chester-le-Street and Durham, A.D. 635 - 1020- Being an Introduction to the Ecclesiastical History of Northumbria (London, 1898), 13-36.
Content Copyright © Omnium Sanctorum Hiberniae 2012-2015. All rights reserved.