Short Biography of St Aidan
Birth date unknown, but he would have been about 30-40 years old when he volunteered to lead the second mission to the Northumbrians. He would have had to have completed his training, and been comparatively senior to have been chosen to lead the mission with the rank of bishop. This indicates a birth date of around 600AD.
Studied as a monk at Iona, in the Irish tradition, set up by St Columba.
Became Abbot of Lindisfarne in 635AD
Died at Bamburgh on 31st August 651AD
The first Ionan mission to Northumbria was at the invitation of King Oswald, and led by Corman (otherwise Austerior). He returned to Iona, to report failure. His view was that the Northumbrians were incapable of conversion.
Aidan presented himself with 12 monks to King Oswald at Bamburgh in 635AD. It is possible that Aidan and Oswald knew each other. Oswald, one of the sons of the pagan King Aethelfrith, had been sent for refuge to Iona when his father had been defeated and killed by Edwin in 616AD He is quite likely to have been a contemporary of Aidan at the monastery. Oswald allowed him to choose the site of the monastery. Aidan chose Lindisfarne, a very pragmatic choice as it was reasonably accessible, and close to the King at his royal capital. The island may well have been uninhabited. Certainly there is no trace of a lay community until the 9th century.
The first church was made of wood, now believed to be under the eastern nave of the present parish church, St Mary’s. Simple wooden huts clustered around it in what is now the churchyard, housed the monks.
Aidan founded a school at Lindisfarne for English boys. It seems he had realised the need to “anglicise” the clergy. The school prospered and many future saints passed through its doors. The syllabus would have been heavily weighted in favour of bible studies, and copying the bible itself. From this the magnificent Lindisfarne Gospels grew some years later. Bede reports that as gifts to the church increased, Aidan used some of the money to buy children out of slavery. It seems likely that a few ended up in the monastery school. However all sorts of people joined the school.
At first, Aidan spoke no English, and so he preached in Irish, with King Oswald translating for him. This would have done no harm, as it emphasised the royal connection and approval. Later he learned English, but Bede states that still he had an accent. His favoured method of preaching was to walk around from place to place and talking to people he met on the road. The carrying of weapons was forbidden, so there was some personal risk in travelling unarmed in strange places, when nearly everyone else was armed. Again Bede reports that the monks were generally welcomed because they asked nothing for themselves.
To become a saint, it is necessary to be associated with at least three miracles. These are St Aidan’s miracles.
A. Oswald’s arm
Aidan was present at an Easter feast with King Oswald. Oswald decided to give the whole meal away to the poor, much to Aidan’s delight. He seized the King’s right hand and said “may this hand never perish”. After Oswald’s death in battle his right arm and hand did not decay. Bede reports that in his time the hand was kept in the church in Bamburgh.
B. Saving Bamburgh from Penda’s fire
While Aidan was on retreat on Inner Farne, King Penda of Mercia laid siege to Bamburgh. He ordered a fire to be lit around the wooden walls. Aidan could see what would happen when the prevailing wind would carry the flames to the town. Aidan prayed; “Lord, see what evil Penda is doing”. The wind changed and the flames were blown back on the attackers, who then abandoned the siege.
C.Pouring oil upon the water
When Princess Eanflaed of Kent was engaged to be married to King Oswiu, a priest who was sent to escort her to Northumbria by sea was afraid of storms and came to Aidan for reassurance. Aidan told him there would be a storm and gave him a little bottle of oil which he was told to pour on the sea during the storm. The monk did so and the sea calmed.
Aidan’s block of wood
Aidan died at Bamburgh leaning against a post supporting an awning erected for him at his little wooden church. The church was later burned down in another attack by Penda of Mercia, but the post against which Aidan had leant did not burn, so it was built into the next church. That church also burned down, but again the piece of wood did not burn. It was then placed as a pillar inside the next church. People used to chip bits of wood off the pillar as they were considered to have healing powers. Later still, part of this pillar was built into the ceiling of the present church, as a beam over the font, and is reputed to remain there to this day. If you visit Bamburgh church (just opposite the RNLI Museum), buy the little history of the church, which points out the position of the beam.
Aidan’s contribution to Christianity
There is no surviving account of the life of Aidan, but a number of stories have come down to us from Bede and other accounts written about those who were taught in his monastery. We know that he preferred to walk rather than ride when travelling round his extensive bishopric. This would have puzzled the people of the time. Aidan was a bishop, and therefore of high rank. But on the other hand he walked like ordinary people. Oswine, a king who ruled after Oswald, gave him an excellent horse to make his life easier. Aidan very soon gave the horse to a beggar. The king was dismayed, and offered him horses of lesser quality to give to beggars, if that was required. Aidan replied “Surely this son of a mare is not dearer to you than that son of God?” The king thought about this and then agreed that Aidan was right.
A considerable number of pupils from Aidan’s school became saints themselves, notably;
Eata (described by Bede as “the gentlest and simplest of men”. Eata was Abbot of Melrose when St Cuthbert was accepted into the monastery there.
Cedd, who evangelised in Mercia and Essex, eventually becoming Bishop of the East Saxons.
Chad, who studied later in Ireland and became Abbot of Lastingham, was consecrated Bishop of York, during the extended absence of Bishop Wilfrid, and then moved by Archbishop Theodore to be the Bishop of the Mercians and of Lindsey.
Wilfrid, who travelled to Rome and returned to lead the “Roman party” at the Synod of Whitby in 664AD. In many ways he was a brilliant man and he eventually became Bishop of York, but had a very difficult relationship with King Oswiu. He was exiled on more than one occasion. Unlike Aidan, Wilfrid believed that the church’s power should be seen and demonstrated ostentatiously. Nevertheless Wilfrid’s influence on 7th century religious affairs in England, and beyond, was significant.
The night Aidan died a teenage boy watching over sheep not far from Melrose reported seeing a vision of Aidan ascending into heaven. Shortly after, the boy asked for permission to join the monastery at Melrose. His name was Cuthbert, later St Cuthbert, the most famous saint in Northern England, whose tomb is now in Durham Cathedral.
Interestingly, Aidan seems to have encouraged women to become nuns and to be educated. He encouraged Hild and Heiu to become abbesses. Hild became one of the most powerful women in medieval Europe.
Thus we have an impression of Aidan, as a humble man, not given to ostentation, and an educator with the common touch. He also had great foresight, and was a good judge of people. His success in evangelising the dominant Anglo Saxon kingdom of the time had a profound effect on the spread of Christianity in the whole of England. Bede was certainly impressed. This was his opinion:
"Aidan cultivated peace and love, purity and humility: he was above anger and greed, and despised pride and conceit; he set himself to keep and teach the laws of God, and was diligent in study and prayer. He used his priestly authority to keep the proud and the powerful in check; he tenderly comforted the sick; he relieved and protected the poor."
The story of Holy Island; Tristram K.; Canterbury Press, 2009.
Bede: The Ecclesiastical History of the English People; Mclure J. and Collins R.(eds); Oxford World’s Classics Press 1994.
Bede’s Life of St Cuthbert; from the Age of Bede; Penguin Classics; Farmer D.H. (ed.) 1965
Lindisfarne: The Cradle Island; Magnusson M. Tempus Publishing, 1984.
Words and pictures: Lancelot Robson - 31.08.2012