Aidan - Bishop of Lindisfarne

31 August (died 651)

together with Oswald, King and Martyr (died 5 August 642)

Simplicity, consistency and a way of relating to people in all walks of life are not just attributes of a saint, or only of a saint, but ones we can all aspire to develop. Aidan had these qualities in abundance, with an added holiness which marked him out as someone really special and made him particularly effective.

Towards the end of the 6th century there were constant battles between Celts and Anglo-Saxons, with the Celts being pushed north and west. Concerned about the spiritual health of England, the Pope sent Augustine in 597 to evangelise invading tribes - accompanied by Paulinus and others. Paulinus went to the north to the court of Edwin, king of Northumbria, but the mission faltered when Edwin was killed in battle by invaders from Wales and Queen Ethelburgh, with Paulinus fled south. However one of the young princes, Oswald, was sent to Iona to be educated, later returning to England and defeating the Welsh King, Cadwallon, in a battle near Hexham in 634 in the shadow of a cross he had erected on the field. Oswald was married to the daughter of the first Christian king of Wessex and, with other connections, came to exercise a degree of regal oversight over the other English kingdoms, giving him some claim to be the first monarch of all England (with Bamburgh as his capital!).

On becoming king Oswald, a pious man, asked Iona to send a missionary. Corman came but did not go down well, finding the English refused to listen to him. The community at Iona held a conference to work out what to do next. It is reported that Aidan was present and after listening intently said, “Brother, it seems to me that you were too severe on your ignorant hearers. You should have followed the practice of the Apostles, and begun by giving them the milk of simpler teaching, and gradually nourished them with the word of God.” The conference fell silent, with all eyes on Aidan and a sense that God was calling him to England. He was immediately consecrated bishop and sent with the blessing of the community to Oswald at Bamburgh in 635.

Oswald was to Aidan not only a patron but also a friend, and often acted as interpreter for him as Aidan, Irish by birth, was not fluent in English.

Aidan established a mission base on Lindisfarne, to train priests and missionaries (St Chad among them) and later set up other communities in the North East. (It was Aidan who made Hilda Abbess of Hartlepool and later of Whitby). The life was simple with things held in common and all surplus wealth given away. Teaching more by example than precept he travelled much, always on foot if possible, among the people of the area, speaking with all he met, high or low, Christian or heathen.

Aidan had an infectious holiness which enabled him to mix with all kinds of people and understand their world. According to Bede he and his followers lived as they taught and Aidan was ‘a man of remarkable gentleness, goodness and moderation, zealous for God’. But he was not a softie: ‘If wealthy people did wrong, he never kept silent out of respect or fear, but corrected them outspokenly… if the wealthy ever gave him gifts of money, he either distributed it to the poor or else used it to ransom any who had unjustly been sold as slaves. Many of those ransomed later became his disciples and after educating and training them he ordained them to the priesthood.’

It therefore came about that the first theological college in England included a large number of freed slaves - clearly able to understand the poor of the land. It was a time when the English church genuinely lived close to the people and mission was particularly effective, based on a simple monastic lifestyle and journeys among ordinary people. Later that closeness diminished as the church acquired more land, erected grand buildings and grew in power and influence.

When Oswald died he was succeeded by his cousin Oswin, also much loved by Aidan. Famously it was a gift from Oswin which caused a slight problem. It was a fine horse, one of the best from the royal stables which Aidan instantly gave away to a poor man. Oswin complained the had he known what would happen to it he would have given one of his worst horses. To this Aidan is said to have replied’ “What are you saying, Your Majesty? Is this child of a mare more valuable to you than this child of God?” Soon after this incident Oswin was assassinated and Aidan died - some think of grief - eleven days later on 31st August 651 having served 16 years as bishop. He was buried on Lindisfarne.

The significance of Aidan’s ministry lies less in what he did than the kind of person he was, holding clearly and firmly to a life modelled on the desert fathers and exemplifying what we now describe as the Celtic tradition in Christianity. The differences between this and the ‘Roman’ tradition was described (and perhaps rather overstated) by Magnus Magnusson:

Celtic monks lived in conspicuous poverty; Roman monks lived well. Celtic monks were unworldly, Roman monks were worldly. Celtic bishops practised humility, Roman bishops paraded pomp. Celtic bishops were ministers of their flocks, Roman bishops were monarchs of their dioceses. Celtic clergymen said, 'Do as I do', and hoped to be followed; Roman clergymen said. 'Do as I say'. and expected to be obeyed.

Jim McLean
© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 9th August 2002