Is this St Aidan’s first church on Holy Island?

The archaeological excavations on The Heugh on Holy Island.
The archaeological excavations on The Heugh on Holy Island.

Archaeologists have made exciting new discoveries which may well have turned a long-held belief about Holy Island on its head.

Many in academic and ecclesiastical circles have long maintained that the close linear arrangement of the Parish Church of St Mary’s with the Priory church is evidence of the original locations of the two Anglo-Saxon churches on the Island.

This close linear relation is evidenced at other early Northumbrian monasteries such as Hexham and Jarrow.

Until this summer, the assumption has been that the original Anglo-Saxon churches stood down in the shelter a high rocky ridge known as of the Heugh in the area now occupied by the Parish Church and the Priory.

But excavations during the last four weeks up on the Heugh suggest a very different configuration. The excavation has revealed the stone foundations of a small rectangular building with a chancel type configuration at the east end.

The crude and unmortared walls, very simple window arches and positioning of a possible alter stone all suggest an early date which has led to speculation that this is a church building which could date from the seventh century.

Richard Carlton, director of The Archaeological Practice, who is running the National Lottery-funded Peregrini Lindisfarne community archaeology project, said: “This second year of investigation on the Heugh has exceeded all my expectations.

“And with work still to be done to revisit the watch tower structure identified last year and work in the Lantern Chapel building there is potential for the Heugh to yield more of its secrets.”

Excavations last year further west on the Heugh revealed a massive foundation wall that archaeologists are now speculating is a foundation for a watch tower. The Venerable Bede, in his Life of St Cuthbert, made reference to a signal from Inner Farne being seen from the watch tower on Holy Island to mark the death of the saint.

Sara Rushton, conservation manager at Northumberland County Council, said: “This latest discovery of a potential church building on the Heugh cements Holy Island as one of the most significant early medieval sites in Britain.

“It is incredible to think that we have uncovered two very significant buildings associated with the early Christian foundation of the priory that provide tangible links to both St Aidan and St Cuthbert.”

Known as the Cradle of Christianity, it was on Holy Island that St Aidan established a monastery in AD635 and set out to convert the pagan Northumbrians.

The monastery developed into an international centre of learning and craftsmanship and it was during this Golden Age of Northumbria that exquisite items such as the Lindisfarne Gospels were produced. All this came to a crashing end with the arrival of the Vikings in the late eighth century.

On Tuesday, Rev Paul Collins, Vicar of Holy Island, held a Eucharist service at the newly-discovered church.