Lindisfarne Priory is located upon Holy Island just off the coast of Northumberland. It was established in AD 634 but, after devastating Viking raids in the late eighth century, the site was abandoned until it was re-founded by the Normans. Following the outbreak of the Wars of Scottish Independence, the site was lightly fortified.
In AD 634 Oswald, King of Northumbria summoned a monk called Aidan from the religious community at Iona to serve as the bishop of his Kingdom. Aidan was granted Lindisfarne, a small island just off the coast, to serve as the new religious centre. Over the next century, this community was instrumental in ensuring the introduction and spread of Christianity across northern England. However, on 8 June 793, Lindisfarne was raided by Vikings. The monks were slaughtered and the religious site desecrated. Attempts to re-establish the community were half hearted and by AD 830 the monks had moved their operations to Norham. In AD 875 they established a new religious centre within the abandoned ruins of Chester-le-Street Roman Fort.
In the late eleventh or early twelfth century, the monastery on Lindisfarne was re-established. Work started on the Priory church around 1120 and continued through to 1150. By the thirteenth century the community numbered around ten monks, with most on two or three year rotational detachments from the mother-house at Durham. The monastery prospered and acquired extensive estates on the mainland providing a source of both goods and income.
The outbreak of the Wars of Scottish Independence in 1296 had a profound impact on Lindisfarne. Almost immediately the community was hit financially as, prior to the hostilities, the Scottish Kings had been regular benefactors. The financial situation got worse after the decisive English defeat at the Battle of Bannockburn (1314) as Scottish forces raided into Northumberland with impunity. Whilst Lindisfarne itself was not sacked by Scottish forces, its estates on the mainland were devastated. Records suggest the collective annual income fell from £127 to just £21. Furthermore, in 1326 Lindisfarne Priory was attacked by William de Prendergast who emptied the Priory's food stocks - most likely as a reaction to his own estates being raided by the Scots.
The threat of raids prompted the fortification of Lindisfarne Priory. The buildings of the Inner Court were already less vulnerable to attack as they were built with thick stone walls and small windows. However, the east and west ranges were adapted to make them more defendable and a fortified gatehouse and barbican were added. The Priory Church was also modified with the addition of battlemented parapets. The Outer Court, which hosted the ancillary buildings and storerooms, was enclosed with a curtain wall topped with battlements.
Despite the upgraded defences, the devastation of the Priory’s mainland estates meant the monastery lacked sufficient funds to employ a garrison to defend the site. They received some protection from the Wardens of the East March but in 1385, fearful that the fortifications were more likely to make the Priory a target of an attack, they petitioned Richard II for permission to dismantle the defences. Their request was seemingly ignored.
In 1534 Henry VIII separated the Church of England from Papal authority. Lindisfarne Priory was assessed by his commissioners and closed in 1547 although the site remained in church ownership. It was leased to the Crown in the 1540s during which time four earth-and-timber fortifications were built to provide protection for the harbour from any attack. Later, between 1565 and 1571, Lindisfarne Castle was built on the site of one of these earlier fortifications. Throughout this period the Priory buildings were simply used as storerooms but, by the seventeenth century, had been abandoned. Material was removed from the structures at this time and the buildings drifted into ruin.
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Lindisfarne Priory is a superb example of a fortified monastic site.
Lindisfarne Priory Layout. The Inner Court of the Priory was relatively easy to fortify as the buildings were already sturdy stone built structures. However, the east and west ranges were expanded and a gatehouse, complete with barbican, was added. The Outer Court received a curtain wall topped with battlements.
Outer Court. This area hosted the ancillary buildings, livestock enclosures and guest lodgings. Prior to the fourteenth century, this area had no defences and probably contained the storerooms that were raided by William de Prendergast in 1326.
Curtain Wall. The fourteenth century curtain wall that protected the Outer Court.
Gatehouse and Barbican. The gatehouse provided access between Inner and Outer Courts.
Priory Church. The remains of the Priory church date from the early twelfth century.
Defences. The expanded east range can be seen right of centre. This building served as the Prior's Lodging but was completely rebuilt as part of the fortification of the site in the 1320s.
Lindisfarne Fortifications. Until the fortification of the Priory, there were no defensive sites on Holy Island. Following the Reformation, Henry VIII built blockhouses to protect the harbour. Lindisfarne Castle evolved from one of these.
Bamburgh Castle. The view across Lindisfarne harbour to Bamburgh Castle.
Lindisfarne Priory is located on Holy Island which is accessed via a causeway from the mainland. This access road floods at high tide but safe crossing times can be found on the English Heritage website. There is a central (pay and display) car park for visitors. The walk to the Priory is approximately 600 metres.
Car Park (Holy Island)