Saint Aidan was well-travelled, and something of a pioneer. He journeyed from his native Ireland to Iona on the west coast of Scotland before he famously accepted king Oswald of Northumbria’s invitation to convert the pagan English to the new faith. But the Irishman’s journey in death was every bit as remarkable as the one he made in life.
Bede reports that he fell ill outside his monastic cell in Bamburgh, thought to be the site of the present village church that still bears his name. A tent was erected against the western wall, perhaps because moving him would have hastened his end. He died on the 31st of August 651, just eleven days after his beloved king Oswin had been treacherously put to death by Oswald’s brother and successor Oswiu. It was the fiery vision of the Irishman’s soul being taken up to heaven that is said to have inspired Cuthbert – watching sheep in the Lammermuir Hills at the time – to take holy orders.
Aidan was said to be leaning against the wooden prop or buttress supporting the building from the outside when he breathed his last. This contact relic is associated with several miracles and is traditionally identified with a y-shaped beam high up on the ceiling of the baptistry in St Aidan’s Church. An ornate shrine designed by the appropriately-named Donald Buttress, Surveyor Emeritus of Westminster Abbey, and dedicated by Dr John Sentamu, then the Archbishop of York, in August 2013, is said to mark the place where Aidan died.
Behind the shrine a stained glass window shows Aidan’s final moments beside the wall of the early church. The banner reads “Quies Aidani” (Aidan at Peace). Above, an angel with open arms prepares to welcome him into the kingdom of heaven, and below this is a tiny window with Latin text which, translated into English, reads: “Not far from here, Aidan first Bishop of Lindisfarne, fell asleep in Christ”
His body was then taken to Lindisfarne, presumably by means of the ‘Pilgrim’s Way’ – a route that only becomes passable at low tide and is marked out today by a row of larch poles. He was buried in the ‘cemetery of the brothers’, probably somewhere in the area of the later Norman Priory.
His earthly remains did not stay at rest for long. He was then was moved to St Peter’s (possibly on the site of St Mary’s) when the new church was built. According to Bede’s Ecclesiastical History (EH), he was buried on the right side of the altar “with the honour due to so great a bishop” (III.17). But Aidan’s start was already on the wane, while Cuthbert’s was on the rise. The latter’s perceived superiority was demonstrated by his “translation” (the removal of holy objects from one location to another) to a more conspicuous place within the same church, in a stone sarcophagus. He was interred with various luxury objects, including a gold and garnet cross and an ivory comb to which more items were added in the years following his death. Cuthbert’s body was famously said to have been found ‘incorrupt’, a sure sign of sanctity. It went on to became the locus of one of the most lavish and popular shrines in medieval England – Durham Cathedral.
A bone to pick
The fate of Aidan’s corpse could not have been more different. His remains were disturbed and broken up following the defeat of the ‘Irish’ faction at the Synod of Whitby in 664AD. This was a formal debate convened to resolve a bitter ecclesiastical spilt over when Easter should be celebrated and how monks should cut their hair, among other things. When king Oswiu ruled in favour of the Roman side on this controversial issue, many of the Irish missionaries were understandably aggrieved. Afterall, it was they who had worked so hard to re–establish Christianity in the region. Seeing that “his teachings were rejected and his principles despised” (EH III.26), Colmán – the then bishop of Lindisfarne and chief spokesman for the Irish faction – resigned his post and returned to Ireland with those who wished to preserve the Celtic traditions.
He disinterred Aidan’s body and took part of his remains back to Iona. Bede does not tell us which body parts were removed, only that Colmán took “some of the bones”, directing that the rest of the saint should be interred in the sanctuary of the island’s church on Lindisfarne (EH III.26). While not unprecedented, the partitioning of Aidan’s skeleton represented a break with tradition and was carried out in defiance of strict ecclesiastical protocols. The division and disturbance of the bodies of martyrs and other saints was generally frowned upon. The Irish believed that a body should be buried intact at its ‘place of resurrection’, the area to which God calls the person in life and from which they will be raised again on the last day.
Why then did Colmán take this unusual step? It was perhaps a reflection of the community’s love and veneration for Aidan that they did not wish to be parted from their founding father. On some level, it may also have been a measure of their anger and disgust at the decisions made at Whitby. Did departing monks feel that the Northumbrian establishment would be undeserving custodians of Aidan’s relics but dared not take the entire body for fear of provoking the king’s anger or that of the Lindisfarne community? Alan Thacker, writing in ‘Membra Disjecta: the Division of the Body and the Diffusion of the Cult’, has noted that the move was not necessarily connected with a desire to see the bones enshrined in a worthy new resting-place. He adds that, according to early Irish cannons, the permissible reasons for relocating a body were to reunite someone with his family or, in the case of martyrs, when persecution threatened or the burial place was “vexed by the society of evil-doers”.
Another explanation (the most likely in my view) is that part of Aidan was offered as a negotiated settlement, a parting gift intended as a conciliatory gesture and in recognition of all that the Irish had contributed. As we will see, the corporeal relics of saints were highly–prized and were used in the consecration of new ecclesiastical foundations.
It is thought the departing monks may have dropped anchor in the in the north of Ireland en route to the Hebrides. Tradition connects St Aidan with the medieval church and holy well at Tamlaghtard [C 678 315] north of Limavady, County Derry, an obvious stopping-off point on the sea road. Local historians claim part of his remains were buried here, on the Magilligan peninsula, as a ‘thank you’ to the congregation for their loyal service. The grave of Aidan is said to lie under the gable of the medieval ruin on the site of a Columban monastery.
No trace of the original timber building survives, but writing in his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837), Samuel Lewis writes:
“In the year 584, St. Columbkill founded a monastery here, which afterwards acquired great wealth and celebrity, and became so preeminent among the other monastic foundations of this saint, that it obtained the title of the Throne or shrine of St Columba; kings, princes, prelates, and other men of eminence, repaired thither to close their days in its recesses, and the remains of many others were brought hither for interment: the most remarkable of the latter were those of St Aidan, Bishop of Lindisfarne, which were raised by Colman, one of his successors, and buried here in a tomb of hewn stone that still exists near the eastern window of the old parish church; near which is also a fine well, called Tubberaspug-Aidan, the Well of Bishop Aidan.”
According to tradition, the monks of Lindisfarne were travelling from Northumbria, presumably sailing from the Solway Coast, when they made landfall in Derry. Some doubt has been cast on this connection amid claims the church was originally known as Teampall Chadáin or ‘St Cadan’s Church (St Cadan was a follower of St Patrick). It has been claimed that, through similarity in pronunciation this, the name was altered to St Aidan’s. But local historians and officers on the local borough council specialising in tourism have assured me that that the area’s historic links to St Aidan are well-documented and generally accepted. The earliest remains of a church at St Aidan’s date back to the thirteenth century but an ancient holy well indicates that this may have been a religious site of some antiquity, possibly stretching back onto pre-Christian times.
The island of the white cow
The annals report that Colmán and his followers travelled from Iona to the ‘Island of the White Cow’, known in Irish as Inishboffin, off the coast of Galway where he founded a monastery in 668AD.
In an article on the early history of Mayo, Vera Orschel argues that it was “very likely” that some portion of Aidan’s bones were deposited on the island. And William Henry Grattan Flood went even further in the Irish Ecclesiastical Record and suggested that the “chief ornament” of the new foundation established in 668AD was the reliquary of Aidan of Lindisfarne (4th Series Vol. XXI, No.474, June 1907). Perhaps it took the form of a ‘house’ shrine like the famous Monymusk Reliquary now in the National Museum of Scotland. The Irishman may have bequeathed more than his remains to Mayo, and medieval scholar John Bannerman has suggested that an Aidan mentioned in the promulgation of an influential ‘Law of Saints’ was none other than Aidan of Lindisfarne.
But the influence of his legal code and these holy relics were not able to bring lasting harmony to Colmán’s monastery. Cracks began to show in the relationship between the English and Irish monks as they had on Lindisfarne a few years earlier. The reason for the rift, according to Bede, was “because the Irish, in summer time when the harvest had to be gathered in, left the monastery and wandered about, scattering into various places with which they were familiar; then when winter came, they returned and expected to have a share in the things the English had provided” (EH IV.4).
The most uncharitable reading of this text is that the Irish contingent were behaving like freeloaders, but the truth is that we do not know their motivations. They may have been taking the island’s livestock to fresh pastures, visiting relatives on the mainland or even wandering the countryside to preach, just as their spiritual mentor Aidan had done.
Mayo of the English
Whatever its cause, the aftermath of the disagreement was sufficiently serious for Colmán to find the English monks new monastic digs on the mainland. He secured land from a nobleman who made it a condition of sale that the monks who settled there should pray for him. And it would make sense if some of Aidan’s bones were taken here too, possibly to consecrate the new altar.
The place known as Mag nEo (‘Mayo’, meaning ‘plane of yew trees’) soon became an English enclave known as Mag nEo na Sachsan (‘Mayo of the Saxons’). The monastery flourished in the centuries to come, with Bede describing how it had grown large from modest beginnings. (EH IV.4). It was said that a Saxon called Gerald became its first abbot and that Adomnán, Columba’s biographer, also came here. There were as many as one hundred Saxon monks based in the monastery even in the early days of the foundation, with Bede and the Irish chronicles attesting to its importance. Mayo became an episcopal see, a seat of learning for more than a thousand years and may even have had dependent satellite churches. Little remains today in Mayo Abbey [M 264 795] – a small village between Claremorris and Castlebar – to indicate its former status.
The monks of Inishbofin and Mayo almost certainly commemorated Aidan of Lindisfarne but this cult left only the faintest of traces. The historic parish of Kilfian in Mayo may go back to Cill Aodháin, meaning ‘Aidan’s Church’. Perhaps it was here in Mayo that he finally received the appreciation he deserved, and his ideals flourishing among his spiritual descendants. I like to believe that his remains became the focus of renewed veneration in the very land where his bones were formed.
Later, the English emigrated to Ireland in large numbers, drawn by its reputation for learning and discipline and the legends of its wonder-working saints. Mayo of the Saxons was only one of several English colony foundations, evidence perhaps of the esteem in which Aidan continued to be held by his spiritual heirs.
Bones of contention
But what of Aidan’s bones left behind on Lindisfarne? Some of these were almost certainly interred with those of Cuthbert and Oswald. Early sources cited the claim that they were placed inside Saint Cuthbert’s coffin when the monks fled Lindisfarne under the shadow of Danish attacks. And they are listed again as bones in the earliest Durham inventories from the twelfth century, while another list from the fourteenth mentions remains, including his head (“caput sci Aydani”) set in a jewel-encrusted reliquary, though no physical remains of this lavish container have ever been found.
In his celebrated article ‘St Oswald’s Heads’, Richard N. Bailey at least admits the possibility – however remote – that the severed head of the king may have become confused with that of Aidan inside Cuthbert’s coffin: that they may have “exchanged identity” in transit. The picture is certainly a confused one. A jumble of crumbling and disarticulated bones was found in the tomb during the most recent investigation, not all of which belonged to Cuthbert. Drawing definitive conclusions about ‘who’s who’ is a challenge even for the experts – and, on some level, these relics must remain bones of contention.
Reporting on the 1899 reopening of Cuthbert’s tomb, The Northern Echo gives an impression of the muddled picture greeting contemporary observers. The reporter describes a “large number of other bones, including those of a child” alongside the “relics of other saints.” But given Oswald’s violent death, any mix up between his head and that of Aidan – assuming the Irishman’s skull is (or, indeed, ever was) – inside Cuthbert’s tomb – seems unlikely at best. The contemporary newspaper report adds:
“Among these [other bones] was the frontal bone of a large skull, of which one half of the forehead had been cut away, apparently by the stroke of a sharp sword. This, there can be little doubt, is a portion of the skull of King Oswald, whose head, after he had been killed in battle, was ultimately deposited in the shrine of St Cuthbert.”
It is highly likely that bones (though we cannot be sure which ones) belonging to Aidan shared some, if not all, of Cuthbert’s posthumous adventures along with the head of St Oswald. The monks of Glastonbury later obtained some supposed relics of Aidan, and his feast appears in early Wessex calendars, providing the main evidence for his cult in the age of Bede:
“And both living and departed, he [Aidan] did many miracles; and his bones are half in Scotland, half in Glastonbury in St Mary’s monastery.”
Entry from a late eleventh-century ecclesiastical calendar translated by Michael Swanson in Anglo-Saxon Prose (1993).
Sadly, we cannot test the veracity of these claims or the authenticity and provenance of the Glastonbury relics. On 24th May 1184 (St Urban’s Day) a devastating fire swept through Glastonbury Abbey. Much of the priceless books and sacred relics were lost. Many of these had been housed in the ‘Old Church’ which William of Malmesbury, writing in the 1120s, had described as containing countless relics and reliquaries. According to the Glastonbury Conservation Society, a group of relics was found within the high altar when it was opened in 1902. They consisted of a small altar stone and fourteen relics of saints with a seventeenth-century vellum document giving details of their origin. The holy objects were moved to the altar in the side chapel and survived the bombing of the church in 1940. They were last recorded there in 1967, but have since vanished.
Portions of Aidan’s body may have ended up on Iona, in Durham Cathedral, and various sites in Ireland and at Glastonbury. It is also possible that some of his bones were deposited at one or more religious foundations across northern England and southern Scotland during the seven-year peregrinations of the monks of Lindisfarne with the coffin of St Cuthbert. There is even a rather odd claim that Aidan was buried “With honour and due reverence in the city of Winchester”. This is recorded in the foundation chronicle of the Scots Monastery in Regensburg, Germany, entitled Libellus de Fundacione Ecclesie Consecrati Petri. The story – which seems unlikely at best – may have arrived with the Irish monks who founded the monastery in the eleventh century. It may also have been popularised – possibly even invented – by the German Welf family who were connected through marriage with southern England (Dagmar Ó Riain-Raedel, in Oswald, Northumbrian King to European Saint, p.228). Unfortunately, no known relics of Aidan have survived the ravages of time or the vicissitudes of fortune.
The dearth of physical evidence should not surprise us. Even in the early medieval period, corporeal relics had to be guarded night and day. Such was their value, that body-snatchers were known steal them to add to the prestige of their own rival religious foundations. Relics also disappeared or were destroyed during the looting and iconoclasm of the Reformation. Aidan’s cult appears to have been actively supressed following the Synod of Whitby. Theodore of Tarsus, Archbishop of Canterbury from 668 to 690, issued strict instructions that people were not to pray for the souls of ‘heretics’, or even venerate a devout heretic’s remains. Writing in her account of the Christianisation of the Anglo-Saxons, Marilyn Dunn has suggested that this clause may refer specifically to the parts of Aidan that remained on Lindisfarne. In such a context, we may have to accept the likelihood that his relics are forever lost. However, Aidan’s legacy is tangible in other ways, not least in his successful re-establishment of Christianity in the north and in the respect and affection he continues to command among those who know his story.