Aidan of Lindisfarne – A Seventh-Century Door-to-Door Missionary

Aidan of Lindisfarne – A Seventh-Century Door-to-Door Missionary

Thanks to the literary mastery of the Venerable Bede, the history of the Christianization of England is filled with memorable stories of valiant kings, praying queens, and wonder-working saints. But it’s also studded with lesser-known characters who simply persisted day after day in spreading the gospel. One of these is Aidan of Lindisfarne.

A Field White to Harvest

            Christianity first arrived in England, as in other parts of the known world, through the personal testimony of Christian travelers, merchants, and soldiers. This work of personal evangelization was so effective that, in the second century, Tertullian could say that Christianity had reached even “the haunts of the Britons - inaccessible to the Romans, but subjugated to Christ.”[1]

            Yet, as in other nations, Christianity in Britain spread slowly, often mixed with traditional religions and recent heresies. The main impetus for the establishment of missions in that region came from Pope Gregory the Great. According to Bede, Gregory was so struck by the looks of some Anglo-Saxon slave boys that he determined (with a famous play-on-words) that the Angles looked like angels, therefore fitting “to be coheirs with the angels m heaven.”[2]

            Following the common practice of evangelizing rulers (who could mandate the observance of Christianity in their regions), in 596 Gregory sent a first team of missionaries, led by Augustine of Canterbury, to Kent, where King Ethelberg had already been primed by his Merovingian wife Bertha.[3]

            Faced with the pope’s exhortation to accept Christianity, Ethelberg shared the same concerns of most kings of his day: Is the Christian God really the only true God? If so, will my people accept my conversion or rise against me for exchanging the security of our traditional religion for a gospel that, although good, is still news?

            Many kings replied yes to the first question after some personal victories in battle. Ethelbert, instead, observed the missionaries until their message and example and the reception of his own people allowed him to answer affirmatively to both questions.

            The conversion of other British kings followed. Ethelbert influenced King Edwin of Northumbria by giving him his daughter Ethelburga in marriage. Edwin accepted Christianity in 628 but, when he died in battle five years later, his kingdom reverted into paganism.

Aidan’s Calling

            This is where Aidan came in. He was an Irish monk living in a monastery on the Scottish island of Iona – a man, according to Bede, “of singular gentleness, piety, and moderation.”[4] Founded in 563 by Columbanus, the monastery had been a lively center of Christianity. In the early days of Edwin’s rule, it had also become a refuge for the royal brothers Oswald and Oswiu, who did the safest thing for most noblemen in line for the throne – they fled from a king who might choose to eliminate competition.

            During their twenty years at the monastery, the brothers were converted to Christianity. Then, after Edwin died, Oswald returned to Northumbria to take over the throne. Seeing how quickly the people were returning to their idols, Oswald asked the monastery in Iona to send him a missionary to bring back the gospel message. The monastery sent Corman, a rather impatient monk who gave up quickly, finding the English “intractable ... and of a stubborn and barbarous disposition.”[5]

            At the meeting that followed Corman’s return to Iona, Aidan suggested that Corman might have been expecting too much of new converts. Impressed by his wise speech, the other monks agreed that he was the ideal candidate for the task. Anointed bishop, Aidan left for Northumbria.

            It proved to be a good choice. Happy with the bishop’s impressive results, Oswald gave him the island of Lindisfarne as the location for a monastery (and, later, a school for the training of new clergymen).

            Lindisfarne was a hybrid between an island and a promontory, since it was joined to the mainland twice a day when the sea retracted and became an island twice a day, during high tide. From there, Aidan often retreated to the more isolated Farne Island to pray.

            Still only a couple of miles away from Bamburgh Castle, on one occasion Aidan was able to see the building on fire and pray until the wind changed direction, attacking the Mercian enemies who had caused the fire.

Aidan’s Mission and Ministry

            According to Bede, Aidan had a great influence on Oswald, who, “humbly and willingly in all things giving ear to his admonitions, industriously applied himself to build up and extend the Church of Christ in his kingdom.” In fact, initially, while Aidan was still learning to speak English, Oswald, who had learned the Scottish language during his exile, became his interpreter. He also gave Aidan access to his royal houses, where the bishop could rest during his missionary travels, and recommended Aidan to other rulers in the area. By these efforts, Oswald played an important part in the conversion of others, including the West Saxon king Cynegils.

            Occasionally attending the royal dinners, Aidan exhibited moderation and apparently taught Oswald some lessons in charity - so much that, on one Easter Sunday, the king felt convicted to share some of his abundance with the poor who were begging outside his doors. In fact, he even ordered that the silver dish that held the food be broken and divided among them, presumably so they could sell the valuable pieces of metal. Aidan showed his approval by grasping the king’s hand with the words, “May this hand never decay!”[6] (Because of this saying, after Oswald’s death, the church at Bamburg kept the king’s arm as a relic).

            Aidan is however most famous for his missionary work. Aidan worked many miles every day, going from house to house and talking “to any whomsoever he saw, whether rich or poor, and call upon them, if infidels, to receive the mystery of the faith, or, if they were believers, strengthen them in the faith, and stir them up by words and actions to giving of alms and the performance of good works.”[7] Probably, walking allowed him more time with the people.

            When Oswald’s half-brother Oswin, who became king over part of Northumbria after Oswald's death, gave Aidan a well-fitted royal horse, the bishop gifted it to the first beggar he met. To the stunned king, he replied, “What do you say, O king? Is that son of a mare more dear to you than that son of God?”[8] Deeply convicted, Oswin promised that he would never again question any of Aidan’s charitable donations – which included the redemption of slaves.

            Oswin, who reigned over the other portion of Northumbria, was also assisting Aidan, contributing to the conversion of the Mercian prince Peada and arranging for four monks from Lindisfarne to bring the gospel to Peada’s subjects.

            In spite of his obvious admiration for Aidan, Bede rebukes him for keeping the Ionian calendar (rather than the Roman) regarding the date of Easter. Yet, Bede says, “this in him I do approve, that in keeping his Easter he believed, worshipped, and taught exactly what we do, namely the redemption of the human race through the Passion, Resurrection and Ascension into heaven of the Man Jesus Christ, the Mediator between God and man.”

            Aidan died from an illness on 31 August 651, inside a tent pitched next to a church – his body leaning against a post of the building. He had been a bishop seventeen years. While not as famous as other bishops, he was instrumental to the growth of Christianity in England. Among the people affected by his ministry was Hilda, the well-known abbess of Whitby.

[1] Tertullian, An Answer to the Jews, chapter 6.

[2] Bede, Bede's Ecclesiastical History of England, ed. by A. M. Sellar, London: George Bell and Sons, 1907, 82

[3] See Simonetta Carr, “Medieval Brides,” Cloud of Witnesses, Place for Truth,

[4] Bede, Bede's Ecclesiastical History, 139

[5] Ibid., 146

[6] Ibid., 147

[7] Ibid., 144

[8] Ibid., 166


Simonetta Carr