Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Aidan (d.651)

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AIDAN, Saint (d. 651), was the first bishop of Lindisfarne. Oswald, who became king of Northumbria in 635, had been converted to Christianity during his exile at the monastery of Hii or Iona. His first duty as king was to repulse the heathen Welsh. His success enabled him to persuade his people to accept the christian faith. He summoned missionaries from the monastery of Hii, which had been founded by the Irish monk Columba. The monks of Hii sent a bishop of austere temper, who was soon dispirited by the obstinacy of the Northumbrian people. He returned to Hii and reported his ill success. The monks sat in silence, which was broken by one of the brethren, Aidan. ‘Were you not too severe,’ he said, ‘to unlearned hearers? Did you not feed them with meat instead of milk?’ All agreed that Aidan should be sent to Northumbria as bishop. He set out at the end of 635.

Aidan was the founder of the Northumbrian church. He was the fast friend of King Oswald, who acted as his interpreter when he began to preach at the court, and the thegns heard him gladly. Faithful to the traditions of his youth, Aidan chose as the seat of his church the island of Lindisfarne, which in some measure reproduced the features of Iona. It lies off the Northumbrian coast, to which it is joined at low tide by an expanse of two miles of wet sands; at high tide it becomes an island. As it was close to the royal vill of Bamborough, Aidan could vary a monastic life with missionary journeys to the mainland, and frequent intercourse with the king. Monks from Iona flocked to Lindisfarne, and thence carried monastic civilisation along the Tweed, where Boisil founded the monastery of Old Melrose. The zeal of Oswald and the piety of Aidan went hand in hand. Churches were built, and the Northumbrian folk flocked to hear the new teachers. The personal characters of Oswald and Aidan were the chief means of commending Christianity to the people. Aidan taught no otherwise than he lived, and impressed his own standard upon his followers. The gifts which he received from the king and his thegns were at once distributed amongst the poor. He had no care for worldly pleasures, but spent his time in study and in preaching. His life was simple: he traversed the country on foot, and preached to every one whom he met (Bede, Hist. Eccles. lib. iii. cap. 5). His friendship with King Oswald continued unbroken. One Easter day Aidan sat at dinner with Oswald, when the royal almoner came in to say that he had not enough to satisfy all the needy. Oswald ordered the food to be taken from his own table, and his silver dish to be broken in pieces and distributed. Aidan seized the outstretched hand of the king and blessed him, saying, ‘May this hand never perish!’ When Oswald fell in battle against the heathen Penda in 642, his right hand and arm were found severed from his body, and men said that through Aidan's blessing they remained uncorrupted, and were a relic of the church of York.

Oswald's defeat by the heathen king of Mercia threatened to sweep away Northumbrian Christianity. Deira, under Oswini, submitted to Penda; but Bernicia under Oswiu, Oswald's brother, still made resistance. Penda ravaged the land and laid siege to the rocky fortress of Bamborough. Finding it impregnable by assault, he gathered all the wood and straw of the neighbourhood to the foot of the rock, and, waiting for a favourable wind, fired it. The sparks would easily have set on fire the wattled houses of the little town. Aidan, from his retirement in a hermitage on the isle of Farne, just opposite Bamborough, saw the cloud of smoke arise. ‘See, Lord,’ he cried in an agony of prayer, ‘what evil Penda is doing.’ His prayer was heard. The wind changed, and the smoke and flames were blown back on the besiegers. Their plan failed, and Bamborough was saved.

In these years of trouble in Bernicia, Aidan found more scope for his missionary activity in the Deiran kingdom, where he exercised over King Oswini the same spell as had charmed Oswald. Oswini gave Aidan a valuable horse to aid him in his journeys. Soon afterwards Aidan met a poor man who asked for alms; having nothing else to give him, he gave him the horse. Oswini, when next they met, gently chid him for his unthinking charity. ‘Is the foal of a mare,’ said Aidan, ‘more valuable in your eyes than the Son of God?’ Oswini stood by the fire and reflected; presently he fell at Aidan's feet and asked pardon for his thoughtless speech. Aidan raised him, but sat in deep sorrow. When asked the cause, he answered, ‘I grieve because I know that so humble a king is too good to live long.’ Aidan's prediction was soon verified. Oswiu had regained the Bernician kingdom, and longed to unite again under himself the dominions of Oswald. He marched against Oswini, who was murdered by a treacherous thegn. Aidan's heart was broken when he heard of his friend's death. He only survived him twelve days, and died on 31 Aug. 651. When he felt that death was approaching, he had a hut built against the west wall of the church of Bamborough. There he died, leaning against a post which had been erected to buttress the wooden wall. On the night on which he died, a shepherd lad, Cuthbert, as he watched his sheep on the Lammermoor hills, saw stars falling from the sky. When he heard the news of Aidan's death, he recognised them as angels bearing heavenward Aidan's soul. Moved by the marvel, he entered Boisil's monastery of Melrose.

The body of Aidan was buried at Lindisfarne, and was afterwards translated to the right side of the high altar. When, after the synod of Whitby in 664, the Columban Church was defeated by the Church of Rome, Bishop Colman departed to Iona. He carried with him part of the bones of Aidan, and left only a portion for the ungrateful land which had forsaken Aidan's ritual (Bede, H. E. iii. c. 26).

[The authority for Aidan is Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica, book iii. chaps. 5–17; but see also Vita Cuthberti, iv. Subsequent writers have merely amplified Bede. Of modern writers see Bright, Early English Church History; and Green, The Making of England.]

M. C.