The castle is located in what was once the very volatile border area between England and Scotland. Not only did the English and Scots fight, but the area was frequently attacked by Vikings. The castle was built in 1550, around the time that Lindisfarne Priory went out of use, and stones from the priory were used as building material. It is very small by the usual standards, and was more of a fort. The castle sits on the highest point of the island, a whinstone hill called Beblowe. Lindisfarne's position in the North Sea made it vulnerable to attack from Scots and Norsemen, and by Tudor times it was clear there was a need for a stronger fortification, although obviously, by this time, the Norsemen were no longer a danger. This resulted in the creation of the fort on Beblowe Crag between 1570 and 1572 which forms the basis of the present castle. After Henry VIII suppressed the priory, his troops used the remains as a naval store. In 1542 Henry VIII ordered the Earl of Rutland to fortify the site against possible Scottish invasion. By December 1547, Ralph Cleisbye, Captain of the fort, had guns including; a wheel mounted demi-culverin; 2 brass sakers; a falcon; and another fixed demi-culverin. However, Beblowe Crag itself was not fortified until 1549 and Sir Richard Lee saw only a decayed platform and turf rampart there in 1565. Elizabeth I then had work carried out on the fort, strengthening it and providing gun platforms for the new developments in artillery technology. When James I came to power in England, he combined the Scottish and English thrones, and the need for the castle declined. At this time the castle was still garrisoned from Berwick and protected the small Lindisfarne Harbour. In the eighteenth century the castle was occupied briefly by Jacobite rebels, but was quickly recaptured by soldiers from Berwick who imprisoned the rebels; they dug their way out and hid for nine days close to nearby Bamburgh Castle before making good their escape.
In later years the castle was used as a coastguard look-out and became something of a tourist attraction. Charles Rennie Mackintosh made a sketch of the old fort in 1901. In 1901, it became the property of Edward Hudson, a publishing magnate and the owner of Country Life magazine. He had it refurbished in the Arts and Crafts style by Sir Edwin Lutyens. It is said that Hudson and the architect came across the building while touring Northumberland and climbed over the wall to explore inside.
The walled garden, which had originally been the garrison's vegetable plot, was designed by Lutyens' long-time friend and collaborator, Gertrude Jekyll between 1906 and 1912. It is some distance away from the castle itself. Between 2002 and 2006 it was restored to Jekyll's original planting plan which is now held in the Reef Collection at the University of California, Berkeley. The castle, garden and nearby lime kilns have been in the care of the National Trust since 1944 and are open to visitors.
Lutyens used upturned disused boats (herring busses) as sheds. In 2005, two of the boats were destroyed by arson. They were replaced in 2006 and the third boat has now been renovated by the National Trust. The replacement of the two burned boats by two new boat sheds features on a DVD Diary of an Island. The Spanish architect Enric Miralles used Lutyens' upturned herring busses as an inspiration for his design of the Scottish Parliament Building in Edinburgh. The castle was closed for major renovation and restoration works from November 2016 to April 2018.
** – Castle Layout – **
Castle entrance. The entrance to the castle is quite dramatic and involves a steep climb around the rocky base. Lutyens' original slope was unprotected by either rails or fences in an attempt to emphasise the exposed nature of the site. When the future George V and Queen Mary visited in 1908, it is said they were alarmed by the slope and the cobbled surface.
Once inside the castle, the entrance hall is sectioned off by large stone pillars, somewhat reminiscent of a church nave with the dark reddish-brown of the stone contrasting with the whitewashed plasterwork. The space is completed by a bare stone floor.
The kitchen is almost as bare, and is dominated by a large stone fireplace. Here, as at Castle Drogo, Lutyens uses the space in interesting ways. Throughout the castle, he has used stone, brick, slate and wood to create simple forms, and uses textures to demonstrate a rustic, spartan life-style. Despite being a castle it remains a homely space where the human scale is room size, but with incongruous architectural elements. In the scullery there is a tiny window over a stone sink surrounded by the mechanism used to operate the portcullis.
After descending to the dining room one is inside the remnants of the Tudor fort. The vaults here and in the adjacent ship room are entirely functional as they support the gun battery above. The wide chimney-piece contains an old bread-oven; here Lutyens has emphasised the age of the room with Neo-Gothic traceried windows framed by curtains which swing out to lie flat along the wall. One of the end walls is painted a rich Prussian blue, which contrasts with the herring-bone patterned red-brick floor.
Next door is the ship room where a green wall fulfils a similar role. The furniture is in keeping, with much dark wood in the tables and cabinets. The few upholstered chairs and sofas have now faded to gentle tones. The largest bedroom, the east, is bright and airy and again has curtains on pull-out poles. The long gallery was a new space created by Lutyens, intended to echo the grand galleries of Elizabethan and Jacobean houses. The scale is much smaller, but again the use of exposed stone arches and oak beams provides a grand yet rustic feel.
Further on, an upper gallery has a raised platform at one end. From here an oak door leads onto the upper battery with its views along the coastline. The music room at the castle was used by Guilhermina Suggia, and a cello is left in the room today to mark her frequent visits.
Lindisfarne – also known as Holy Island – is one of the most important centres of early English Christianity. Irish monks settled here in AD 635 and the monastery became the centre of a major saint’s cult celebrating its bishop, Cuthbert. The masterpiece now known as the Lindisfarne Gospels was created here in the early 8th century. The ruins now visible are those of a 12th-century priory, which claimed direct descent from the early monastery.
Lindisfarne is intimately connected with the history of Christianity in Britain. In 635 the Northumbrian king, Oswald (reigned 634–42), summoned an Irish monk named Aidan from Iona – the island-monastery off the south-west coast of what is now Scotland – to be bishop of his kingdom. Oswald granted Aidan and his companions the small tidal island of Lindisfarne on which to found a monastery.
Following the general collapse of Roman military rule in the early 5th century, Britain had fragmented into numerous small kingdoms, many ruled by Anglo-Saxon warlords. By the 7th century Oswald’s Northumbrian kingdom dominated Britain. Northumbria consisted of two parts: Deira, centred on the old Roman city of York, and Bernicia further north. Oswald’s accession in 634 focused Northumbrian power in Bernicia, around the royal palaces at Yeavering, Mælmin (Milfield) and Bamburgh.
Oswald’s gift of Lindisfarne, 6 miles up the coast from Bamburgh, to the monks from Iona enabled them to establish a monastery and a bishopric in the political heart of the Northumbrian kingdom. The ultimate success of the monks’ mission, together with the long-term wealth of their monastery, was founded on their proximity to the royal dynasty of Bernicia.
Sometime in the 670s a monk named Cuthbert joined the monastery at Lindisfarne. He eventually became Lindisfarne’s greatest monk-bishop, and the most important saint in northern England in the Middle Ages.
As prior of Lindisfarne, Cuthbert reformed the monks’ way of life to conform to the religious practices of Rome rather than Ireland. This caused bitterness, and he decided to retire and live as a hermit. He lived at first on an island (now called St Cuthbert’s Isle) just offshore, but later moved across the sea to the more remote island of Inner Farne.
On the insistence of the king, however, Cuthbert was made a bishop in 685. His new duties brought him back into the world of kings and nobles, but he acquired a considerable reputation as a pastor, seer and healer.
Cuthbert died on 20th March 687 and was buried in a stone coffin inside the main church on Lindisfarne. Eleven years later the monks opened his tomb. To their delight they discovered that Cuthbert’s body had not decayed, but was ‘incorrupt’ – a sure sign, they argued, of his purity and saintliness. His remains were elevated to a coffin-shrine at ground level, and this marked the beginnings of the cult of St Cuthbert, which was to alter the course of Lindisfarne’s history.
Miracles were soon reported at St Cuthbert’s shrine and Lindisfarne was quickly established as the major pilgrimage centre in Northumbria. As a result, the monastery grew in power and wealth, attracting grants of land from kings and nobles as well as gifts of money and precious objects. The cult of St Cuthbert also consolidated the monastery’s reputation as a centre of Christian learning. One of the results was the production in about 710–25 of the masterpiece of early medieval art known today as the Lindisfarne Gospels.
At some point in the early 8th century, the famous illuminated manuscript known as the Lindisfarne Gospels, an illustrated Latin copy of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, was made probably at Lindisfarne and the artist was possibly Eadfrith, who later became Bishop of Lindisfarne. Sometime in the second half of the 10th century a monk named Aldred added an Anglo-Saxon (Old English) gloss to the Latin text, producing the earliest surviving Old English copies of the Gospels. Aldred attributed the original to Eadfrith (bishop 698–721). The Gospels were written with a good hand, but it is the illustrations done in an insular style containing a fusion of Celtic, Germanic and Roman elements that are truly outstanding.
According to Aldred, Eadfrith's successor Æthelwald was responsible for pressing and binding it and then it was covered with a fine metal case made by a hermit called Billfrith. The Lindisfarne Gospels now reside in the British Library in London, somewhat to the annoyance of some Northumbrians.
On 8 June 793 Lindisfarne suffered a devastating raid by Viking pirates – their first significant attack in western Europe. The raid caused horror across the continent. Alcuin, a York scholar working at the court of King Charlemagne in Francia, wrote to the Northumbrian king and the bishop of Lindisfarne:
In response to the threat of Viking raids, the documentary sources say that the Lindisfarne monks retreated inland to Norham during the 830s and that in 875 the decision was made to leave Lindisfarne for good. After seven years of wandering, the community – carrying St Cuthbert’s coffin and the treasures of Lindisfarne – settled at Chester-le-Street, building a church in the middle of the old Roman fort.
A Christian community survived at Lindisfarne, however. At least 23 carved stones found here date from the late 8th to the late 10th centuries, showing that the Christian burial ground remained in use throughout the period of instability when Viking armies ravaged Anglo-Saxon Northumbria.
In 995 St Cuthbert’s relics were moved again and eventually enshrined at Durham, where they remain. The prosperity of the Durham monastic community was based on its ability to attract pilgrims to the shrine.
In 1069–70 the Durham monks returned briefly to Lindisfarne with St Cuthbert’s relics to escape the ‘harrying of the North’ by the armies of William the Conqueror, which sought to suppress northern resistance to the Norman Conquest.
This brief return prefigured the establishment of a permanent cell, or outpost, of the Durham community on Lindisfarne. Its purpose was to reaffirm the link between Anglo-Norman Durham and Anglo-Saxon Lindisfarne, and to establish the right of the Norman monks of Durham to be the guardians of St Cuthbert’s legacy.
The precise date of the foundation of the new cell on Lindisfarne is uncertain, but by 1122 a Durham monk called Edward was active there. The earliest surviving reference to a full-scale community of monks is in a document dated 1172. The church, which was built by about 1150, contained a cenotaph (an empty tomb) marking the spot where, according to tradition, Cuthbert’s body had been buried. Although his relics were by then in Durham, the place of his primary shrine on Lindisfarne was still a sacred spot which attracted pilgrims. Initially there were probably only a few monks here, with numbers rising to about ten during the 13th century. Lindisfarne was staffed by monks from Durham, with each monk staying for two or three years before returning to the mother-house.
During the 12th century the Scottish kings had been major benefactors of the Benedictine monks at Lindisfarne, but after Edward I’s invasion of Scotland in 1296, the borders were transformed from a region of relative peace and prosperity into a war zone. This inevitably affected Lindisfarne. The monks were obliged to fortify the priory but worried that they did not have the means to prevent it from falling into enemy hands. In 1385 they petitioned Richard II to dismantle the fortifications because they could not afford to pay for a garrison of soldiers to man them.
Despite the insecurities caused by border warfare, life at Lindisfarne was comfortable for the monks who remained. Extensive building work gave the community more privacy than before, and suggests that the monks were looked after by many servants.
In 1537 the priory was closed on the orders of the commissioners of Henry VIII (r.1509–47), one of the 200 or so smaller religious houses that were the first to be suppressed. The buildings of the priory were not dismantled at the Reformation, probably because (like Durham itself) they proved useful to the Crown’s defence strategy in the north. In 1542–5 three earth-and-timber defences were built around the harbour to the east of the priory. At the same time, an ambitious plan was proposed for extensive outer defences.
By the later 18th century the by now ruinous remains had become a popular tourist attraction for antiquarians and artists. Drawings and descriptions of the priory show that until about 1780 the church survived virtually intact. By the 1820s, however, the central tower and south aisle had collapsed.
A local landowner, Mr Selby, acquired the site in the early 19th century, and consolidated the remains. Despite his efforts, the west front collapsed in the 1850s. Sir William Crossman excavated the monastic buildings in the late 19th century, and in the early 20th century the church was excavated and the walls were consolidated.
The lime kilns at Castle Point on Holy Island are among the largest, most complex and best preserved lime kilns in Northumberland. These kilns produced quick lime for a variety of uses such as agricultural fertilizer, mortar for buildings and whitewash.
Visitors have been bringing dogs for walkies on Holy Island for years. There are two well-trodden paths across the Castle field that lead towards the Jekyll Garden as well as the road around the north of the Castle itself. The paths both eventually lead you out of the field and on to the path to the east shore of the Island. The road will take you to the Lime Kilns and Headland.
To help make sure that visitors, dogs and wildlife get along please keep your dogs on their leads while in the field and garden. Sadly dogs - except assistance dogs - are not permitted in the Castle. You can find more information about taking your dog for a walk on the Northumberland Coast in a leaflet produced in partnership with the Northumberland Coast AONB, Northumberland County Council, and The Kennel Club. Taking your dog to the Northumberland Coast (PDF).
** – Gertrude Jekyll Garden – **
Arts and Crafts garden designer, writer and artist Gertrude Jekyll created this small walled garden in 1911 alongside Edwin Lutyens: it still creates wonderful colour and scent every year in July and August.
Jekyll was a friend and frequent collaborator of Edwin Lutyens, who'd transformed the Castle into a holiday home: he called Jekyll 'Bumps'. Using the site of a vegetable patch which once provided the soldiers in the Castle with food, Jekyll designed a garden - with a dropped wall on the Castle side - that would flourish into a riot of colour in the summer for Edward Hudson's guests to admire from the Castle. The combination of hardy annuals, colourful perennials and heritage vegetables provide glorious sights and scents in the summer and a leafy, sheltered oasis all year round.
The original planting scheme by Gertrude Jekyll was restored by the Trust in 2003. With a geometric layout of paths and beds, the garden is always interesting to look round, but here are some things to look out for:
** – Facilities – **
Limited toilet facilities at Castle. Public toilet on Lower Battery inside Castle. Second public toilet available on first floor. Access to castle by foot is up steep cobbled ramp. There is a National Trust shop on the main street in the village along with other pubs and cafes.
There are Baby-changing facilities and the site is Breastfeeding friendly. Hip-carriers and slings may be borrowed and there are free lockers for storage available. There is an area to leave pushchairs available.
The priory has 5 steps at the entrance but they do have one wheelchair for loan. Assistance and guide dogs are welcome. There are sculptures to touch and tapes of Celtic and medieval music in museum for the visually impared. Click here for the National Trust access statement in full. We must stress that the causeway is flooded at high tide, please check the times of crossing here.
Location : Holy Island, Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northumberland, TD15 2SH
Transport: Berwick-on-Tweed (National Rail) then bus or Woody's Taxi. Bus: 477 service from Berwick-upon-Tweed train station, with connecting buses at Beal to and from Newcastle. Times vary with season and tides. Woody's Taxis also run a shuttle service to the Castle from the Island car park
Opening Times Castle: Opening times vary due to tides, either 10:00 to 15:00 or 12:00 to 17:00
Opening Times Priory: Opening times vary due to tides, either 10:00 to 16:00 or 12:00 to 17:00
Tickets Castle: Adults £9.00 Children £4.50
Tickets Priory: Adults £7.20 Concessions £6.50 Children (5 - 17) £4.30
Tel: 01289 389244