Lindisfarne, 22nd December 2019.
It is gone eight o’clock in the morning on this least-light day of late December, the winter solstice. I am standing on the whinstone ridge above Holy Island harbour, waiting for the sunrise. The Heugh, as the ridge is known, is at the landward edge of the Island, with a narrow rocky beach immediately below. The sea stretches away towards the shadowy outline of the mainland three miles distant. It is slack water; the still time between high and low tide, when the tide has risen to its fullest extent but not yet turned, the current running neither forward or back, though the surface of the water is in constant wind-driven rippling motion. The sun is no more yet than a rim of gold above a cloud bar on the horizon, leaving the water metallic dark with just a shiver of light across it. It is bitingly cold. I look eastwards to Inner Farne and think of Cuthbert in his stone cell. His island is no more than a charcoal smudge on the horizon, with the low outlines of the smaller skerries tagging behind it.
A couple of years ago an excavation up here on the Heugh uncovered the foundations of a Saxon church, built by the monks some fourteen hundred years ago. Standing beside it today, the centuries seem as nothing. What I see is what they saw. The sea, the rising sun, the distant outline of the mainland. Time here is of no consequence. Holy Island is often overwhelmed with tourists and cars and coachloads of day trippers who swamp the view. But today in the winter cold I am alone and can look with Saxon eyes.
There is a constant rustle of waves on the shore below me. I hear the eerie calls of seals pulled out on distant sandbanks; a white seal pup has been washed up on the rocks and he bares his teeth to warn me off. I hope his kin will return for him. Behind me, the clouds above the churchyard have turned pink. The gold layer above the cloud grows more and more intense till at last the first burning crescent of the sun lifts into the sky. A sudden ladder of light is thrown down across the darkness of the sea.
I feel the wind pick up. Out to sea, the current shifts in the channel and the tide starts to run. The year’s tide has turned. The slow journey back towards the light has begun.
It was this sense of no-distance between ourselves and a saint of such apparent ancientness that first inspired me to write my Cuthbert novel series. The places most closely associated with him, at Old Melrose, Lindisfarne and Inner Farne, are all relatively pristine despite the pressures of mass tourism. His landscape and ours are not so different. Most of all, though, what struck me was the miracle that we should still have Cuthbert’s body, his coffin, some of his possessions, the great masterpiece of the Lindisfarne Gospels; a physical presence that has been preserved by his people through unimaginable vicissitudes. When I delved into the history of the Cuthbert Community, I discovered some extraordinary stories, buried in little-read translations of old manuscripts. I felt they had to be told. This second novel of the series, Place of Repose: St Cuthbert’s Last Journey, is set in one of these periods of extreme jeopardy, when the Community were forced to flee the Danes in the tenth century.
The first incursion of the Vikings on to Lindisfarne was in midwinter, January 793. The raid sent shockwaves through Christendom. The great scholar Alcuin wrote:
‘Lo, it is nearly 350 years that we and our fathers inhabited this most lovely land, and never before has such a terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race, nor was it thought possible that such an inroad from the sea could be made. Behold, the church of St Cuthbert spattered with the blood of the priests of God, despoiled of all its ornaments; a place more venerable than all in Britain is given as a prey to pagan peoples…’
Alcuin was an adviser to Charlemagne, but he doesn’t refer to Charlemagne’s own military strategies. Some historians speculate that the raid on Lindisfarne was in part a revenge attack for Charlemagne’s brutal massacre at Verden, where 4,500 pagan rebels were forcibly baptised and then beheaded. The Vikings did not have a monopoly on religious violence in the ninth century.
In the decades that followed, the Danish assault on Northumbria changed. Opportunistic raids turned into full-scale invasion. The Northumbrian kings were defeated by the Great Army of the Danes, and York became Jorvik, the centre of a Scandinavian trading empire. A few years later, in 875, a Northumbrian revolt against their new overlords brought a Danish fleet into the Tyne. They intended to wipe out all resistance and their first action was to torch the convent at Tynemouth. The monks of Lindisfarne decided, finally, that it was time to leave.
They took with them their most precious treasures; the coffin containing the uncorrupt body of St Cuthbert and the Lindisfarne Gospels that had been composed in his honour. It was symbolic that they took the Word with them. Christianity was a religion of the book; the Danes’ pagan culture was non-literate. The destruction of the Northumbrian monasteries spelled the end of literacy in the kingdom.
For seven years the Lindisfarne monks were without a home. The great monasteries of Northumbria – Hexham, Carlisle, Ripon – were destroyed one after the other. The epic story of the monks’ wanderings in search of a safe refuge seems to have become an oral tradition of the Community handed down through the generations. It was not recorded till two hundred years later, when the Community had passed through yet another seismic change following the Norman Conquest. Symeon, a member of the new Benedictine monastery at Durham, wrote the History of the Church at Durham which contains the only known account of the seven-year flight.
It is an enthralling and astonishing story, full of unexpected twists and miraculous moments. In researching the novel I explored the little that is known of the history of the period. It revealed inconsistencies in Symeon’s narrative, both to do with time and place. It was clear that over the decades the collective memory had faltered or deviated, and some creative reconstruction was necessary to fill the gaps. Essentially, though, it seems unarguable that the exile pushed the Community to its limits. Symeon tells us that eventually all dropped away, save for the bishop, the abbot and the seven men who had carried the coffin from Lindisfarne.
‘They had resolved as long as they lived they would never abandon it’, Symeon tells us. He continues:
‘It is the boast of many people in the province of the Northumbrians that they are descended from one of these men, for they pride themselves on the faithful service which their ancestors rendered to St Cuthbert. When the others dropped off, they alone continued with this great treasure, and as all things seemed against them, they underwent many hardships, nor could they devise any plan by which they might extricate themselves or lighten the pressure of these calamities.’
Place of Repose is the story of the seven men and their journey, and of the saint who was their guide and companion. I hope you enjoy it.