Feast Day: 31 August
St Aidan, also known as Aidan of Lindisfarne and the Apostle of Northumbria, lived from about 590 until 31 August 651. He was an Irish monk and missionary who is said to have restored Christianity to Northumbria. In 635 he founded a monastic settlement on the tidal of Lindisfarne and served as its first bishop. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Little is known of St Aidan’s early life, except that he was of Irish descent and upbringing. He seems to have served from a young age at the monastery founded by St Columba on Iona. Roman Britain had been a Christian society by the time the Romans withdrew, but under the Anglo-Saxons it later reverted to paganism. The turning point came as a result of Oswald of Northumbria, later known as St Oswald, who had been in exile on Iona from the age of 12 in 616. Oswald was baptised as a Christian, and when he became King of Northumbria in 634 he invited monks from the monastery on Iona to help him convert his subjects to Christianity.
The mission was initially under the control of a bishop named Cormán, but his approach was seen as unsympathetic and he only succeeded in alienating those he was trying to convert. Cormán returned in failure to Iona in 635, and was replaced by Aidan. Aidan chose the island of Lindisfarne as his base, and founded a monastery there. He then set out, with his supporters, to walk the length and breadth of Northumbria. Over the years that followed he converted the Northumbrians though personal piety and the power of his example. Almost as an aside he was also responsible for founding the precurser to Melrose Abbey.
King Oswald died in 642, but by then the momentum towards conversion had become unstoppable and Aidan worked closely with Oswald’s successor, Oswine of Deira. Aidan died in 651. Twelve days before his death, Bamburgh Castle, within sight of Lindisfarne Monastery, had come under attack. It is said that Aidan saw the smoke from the fires and knelt in prayer. The wind immediately changed and the smoke miraculously blew back in the faces of the attackers, who withdrew as a result.
Aidan is said to have died in a spot now included within the structure of St Aidan’s Church in Bamburgh, and he was buried on Lindisfarne. St Aidan’s College at the University of Durham is named after him.