WAS LINDISFARNE A BRITTONIC NAVAL BASE IN THE AGE OF ARTHUR?

 

Lindisfarne-0198

Lindisfarne Castle, while only dating to the seventeenth century, overlies older Saxon and perhaps even Brittonic fortifications.

The “Holy Island” of Lindisfarne off the coast of northeastern England is notable for the great monastery established there in the early 7th century, as well as for its most famous expression of Medieval religious art, The Lindisfarne Gospel.[1]  Lindisfarne is also notable for suffering the first recorded Viking attack in 793 A.D., which was preceded, not surprisingly, by the sighting of ferocious dragons in the sky.[2] 

Vikings attack Lindisfarne

A Popular view of the Viking raid on Lindisfarne. via Wikimedia

 

Lindisfarne is not recognized by most modern scholars as having had any military associations tied to its early history, much less naval ones.  However, renewed archaeological interest in Lindisfarne’s early period, coupled with observations made a few years back by Professor Howard Williams, brings to mind some interesting possibilities, which in turn lead us to a suggest a new hypothesis regarding the island’s early history.  Whether this hypothesis will eventually be proven valid or not remains to be seen.

The earliest archaeological evidence of human habitation on Lindisfarne dates to the Late Neolithic era, consisting of a lone stone found out of context with cup-marks on it.  At that period the coastline around Lindisfarne would likely have been far different than from today and, in fact, may not have been an island at all.  Today the “Holy Isle” is a tidal island which can be accessed by land when the tide is out.  Lindisfarne’s relation to sea and shore has doubtless changed several times over the intervening millennia.  Of greater importance for our present concern is Lindisfarne’s geographic proximity to Bamburgh Castle, the royal capital of an Anglian dynasty during the Late Brittonic (or Early Saxon) Period. Lindisfarne was within eyesight of Bamburgh and the relationship between the Northern Anglian dynasty’s royal seat and the island was clearly one of long standing, both religiously and politically.

Bamburgh Castle from beadh Wikimedia 2006

Bamburgh Castle viewed from the beach is within direct eyesight of Lindisfarne. Before becoming an Anglian stronghold, it would have been under Brittonic control.

 

Throughout most of its history, Lindisfarne has been seen in the context of it as a holy place and monastic center.  But there is evidence that it has served a far more secular role in the past as well.  In 2001, the Time Team conducted brief three-day investigation of Lindisfarne, concentrating on sites referred to as “the Priory” and “the Palace.”  Most of their finds from this short survey were of post-Medieval date, but what they discovered was relevant to our present line of inquiry.  The “Palace,” it turns out, was a tavern with an adjacent brew-house and in all likelihood was part of a 16th century naval station.  Similarly, the “Priory” was probably a naval barracks, where definite evidence was found for it having been used to house military supplies, including solid shot for cannon.  The Time Team also uncovered evidence of an earthwork near The Priory, as well as a lost angular bulwark.  A nearby field, today dry land, would have been a tidal basin at that time and was probably a part of the sixteenth century naval station.  All in all, while the Time Team did find assorted Medieval finds (mostly shards of pottery) they determined that, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries at least, Lindisfarne was “the Portsmouth of the North.[3]

The geographic location of Lindisfarne in far northeastern England made it ideally suited as a place from which Elizabethan fleets might sail out to defend against incursions from both Scotland or from across the North Sea, or indict enemies sailing north from the English Channel; its strategic location would have made it equally useful as a naval base in earlier eras as well.  This fundamental geographic reality of Lindisfarne has not escaped the attention of other scholars, despite the dearth of written sources on the subject.  Professor Williams, in his essay, “Lindisfarne’s Landscape and Seascape,” points out that Lindisfarne’s natural harbor on the south shore, coupled with its proximity to the Angle fortress of Bamburgh, would have made it a “key maritime central place” in the seventh and eighth centuries.[4]

Lindisfarne Castle, while looking suitably Medieval to the modern eye, in fact only dates to the seventeenth century, but the castle is located on a large outcropping of rock with clear visibility for miles around and may well have had a genuine military installation atop it in ages past, now covered over or erased by later construction.

These inferences regarding Lindisfarne’s early military and naval importance, throw the infamous Viking attack on the “Holy Island” in an entirely new light.  To be sure, the pious monks with their silver and gold would have been easy targets for the wolves of the sea; but what if the Viking raid had a sound military purpose as well?  A swift, sudden attack on the main Saxon naval base of the north, putting their northern fleet to the torch while it sat at anchor helpless and unmanned, would in one bold blow have shattered Anglo-Saxon maritime defenses and exposed the entire eastern coast of England open to numerous smaller plunder raids.

Without the northern fleet to ward off even these lesser blows, larger Viking raids were inevitable.  The Danes, it should be remembered, invaded Britain from the northeast, of which the attack on Lindisfarne was the opening gambit.  For English chroniclers, steeped in the ethos of a warrior culture, it would have been far less humiliating to record the butchery of pious unarmed monks at the monastery and conveniently omit from their chronicle the fact that the pride of the Saxon navy had been caught unawares and butchered at anchor with sails furled.

Although the Viking raid in 793 may be the first detailed mention of Lindisfarne, we know that it was a thriving place long before that and that there may yet be archaeological evidence of it having had a military function long before the Viking Age.  A new archaeological investigation of Lindisfarne is currently being undertaken, and while only preliminary results are available, the Dig Ventures expedition has already uncovered some interesting finds.  The new expedition is specifically tasked with looking for “Early Medieval” finds, presumably those associated with the monastery established there by St. Aidan in 635.  Among the sites being investigated was a structure called the “Holy Island Heugh” where their first season uncovered the foundation of a massive 25m. wide wall.  The Heugh is a rocky spine of high ground which seemed to protect the monastery from storms coming out of the North Sea; Lindisfarne Castle is built along another such outcropping to the east.[5]  Among some of the small finds from the first season were numerous indicators of early maritime activity, although none specifically naval.[6]

Brian Hope-Taylor in 1962 had determined that the Heugh was scattered with buildings of an early date, so it was a logical site for the present-day excavators to investigate.  Opening a trench on the Heugh, the Dig Ventures team uncovered the massive 25 meter wall; its lack of mortar suggests to them a pre-Norman date, while its size and structure point to it being a tower.  Such a massive construction argues strongly for it being more than simply a “signal tower” and likely served a military purpose.[7]

The military installation on the Lindisfarne Heugh (if such it was) is thought to be of early Saxon date which, if proven true, strongly supports Professor Williams theory regarding Lindisfarne being a Bernician and then a Northumbrian naval base.  But Lindisfarne’s strategic value surely was not only appreciated by the Anglian kings of Benicia; before the area fell under their rule Lindisfarne would have been an important port in the Brittonic Period—an era popularly associated with the Arthurian post-Roman state.  Is there any evidence which can point to a pre-Saxon phase at Lindisfarne and nearby Bamburgh?

Towards the end of the sixth century, a war broke out between the newly established Kingdom of Bernicia, ruled by Theodoric, versus a coalition of Celtic British kings (and a few Irish as well) led by the famous (or infamous) Urien of Rheged.  Bamburgh was taken by a force of the Dalriada Scots, while British armies overran the rest of the upstart Saxon kingdom.  Overwhelmed by superior forces, Theodoric retreated to Ynys Metcaut—the Celtic British name for Lindisfarne.  Although, as with most events of the Brittonic Period, dating is fluid for this campaign the best estimate puts it sometime around AD 590.[8]

The Anglian dynasty of Bernicia would surely have fallen had not Urien been assassinated at the instigation of one of his own sub-kings.  As it was, the siege (or blockade, depending on the translation) of Ynys Metcaut lasted three days and three nights.  Nennius’ text is a bit obscure in this passage and it is not entirely certain whether the siege/blockade of Lindisfarne was raised due to Urien’s death or whether he was perhaps murdered later because of his failure to take the island citadel. In any case, it is clear from the passage that Ynys Metcaut was a military stronghold of some sort and the possibility that there was naval component to the siege is at least implied; whether Urien’s siege was raised by the timely arrival of a Saxon fleet is purely speculative but not unreasonable given the island’s history and geography.

Two ships at sea from Arthurian MS in British Library

Medieval Arthurian MS showing two sailing vessels at sea.

 

All this occurred in the late sixth century, after the unified Brittonic state of the fifth century had disintegrated into separate successor realms governed by competing Celtic warlords, with each seeking hegemony—both over each other and over the Saxon realms that also arose in this era.

Going farther back into the past of this region, when a Celtic Overking or Ameradaur still held sway over most of what had been the Roman diocese of Britannia, it is generally acknowledged that the first Germanic settlers did not come as conquerors, but had been settled as foederati under Octha, military auxiliaries recruited by the British Overking to defend the area against both Picts and less friendly Saxons who might come raiding across the North Sea. They initially replaced Cunedda’s warband of the southern Votadini, who had been dispatched to Wales to deal with the Irish threat there.  While the exact date of the settlement of the first Germanic federates is, again, a moot point, a date in the early to mid fifth century is not unreasonable.

Late Roman early Brittonic warriors & sailors

Late Roman/Early Brittonic Warriors and Sailors, such as might have garrisoned Dinas Guayardi and Ynys Metcaut in the fifth century.

 

It was not until the mid to late sixth century that Ida is believed to have moved north from the Anglian colony of Deira (the Celtic Deywr) and established, probably by force, his headquarters at the former Brittonic stronghold of Din (or Dinas) Guayardi—Bamburgh.[9]  Din Guayardi could well have begun as a Roman signal station in the fourth century or earlier; as a rocky outcropping which guarded the mouth of a river, it also made a natural location for a later Brittonic citadel.  It is believed to have been the capitol of the Brittonic kingdom of Bryneich from the late fifth into the mid sixth century, up until Ida’s revolt. If Lindisfarne was not already a naval base before Ida’s arrival, it would certainly have been so after.

Celtic Sailing Vessel based on Guernsey Ship, artist's reconstruction, Guernsey Museum

Artist’s reconstruction of the Guernsey Ship, a sailing vessel of Celtic style construction.

While the early history of Lindisfarne remains but dimly understood, the geography and topography of Lindisfarne, Ynys Metcaut, would not have changed radically between the late fifth and early seventh centuries, nor would the island’s strategic relationship to northern Britain have changed during that time.  The first garrison could have been Celtic British, superseded by a Saxon garrison in the employ of a local Romano-Celtic polity before Ida’s outright break with his Celtic neighbors.  In any case, the use of Lindisfarne as a naval base would have been the logical outcome of its location under both Brittonic and Anglian rule.

At the present time, despite its fame, its long history and successive archaeological surveys, the systematic investigation of Lindisfarne is just beginning.  Moreover, to date little or no underwater archaeology has been conducted around the island to supplement investigations on land.   While current investigations are concerned with the early Saxon period (largely with seventh century remains), which are scarce enough, one would hope excavators would keep their eyes—and minds—open for earlier Brittonic occupation levels.

We know the Brittonic period favored wooden architecture over stone, so the evidence in the ground may consist of little more than discolorations in the soil where post-holes once lay; it may also be that the post-Roman Brittonic occupation levels were scraped clean by successive construction and reconstruction on the island and that such evidence is absent entirely.  Still, excavators should be made aware of the possibility of their existence, as the subtle testimony of the soil can be easily overlooked or ignored, as it has been on many other sites in the past.

If it is proven that Lindisfarne possessed an early Saxon era naval installation, it inevitably follows that Lindisfarne would have served a similar role in the preceding era.  Reinvestigation of previous sites thought to have had no post-Roman occupation are more and more showing evidence of continuity from the Roman period onward; the whole concept of an “Anglo-Saxon Invasion” has been called into question by a growing number of scholars.[10]  Future careful investigations of the “Holy Island” may yet reveal that Lindisfarne had an as yet undocumented Brittonic Era presence and verify its use as a Dark Age naval base.

 

[1] Janet Backhouse, The Lindisfarne Gospels, (Oxford: Phaidon, 1981).

[2] Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, A.D. 793:

[3] “Holy Island, Lindisfarne” Time Team, S08, Ep09 (2001): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4v4E8zUWA1A

[4] Howard Williams, “Lindisfarne’s Landscape and Seascape,” Archaeodeath Blog, July 10, 2014: https://howardwilliamsblog.wordpress.com/2014/07/10/lindisfarne/comment-page-1/

[5] Dig Ventures. Site Diary: “Tools Down” June 27, 2016: https://digventures.com/lindisfarne/timeline/diary/site-diary-tools-down/

[6] Dig Ventures. Site Diary: “A Whale’s Tale” June 18th 2016: https://digventures.com/lindisfarne/timeline/diary/4339/

[7] “Archaeologist’s Find St. Cuthbert’s Tower” Berwick Advertiser, July 12, 2016: http://www.berwick-advertiser.co.uk/news/archaeologists-find-st-cuthbert-s-tower-1-4175447

[8] Nennius, Historia Brittonum, cap.63; the syntax of this passage is somewhat garbled; the way it is phrased makes it uncertain as to whether the Bernician King in question was Theodoric or Hussa. For the war and Urien in general, see John Morris, The Age of Arthur, (NY: Scribers, 1973), 232-237; also see Peter Marren, Battles of the Dark Ages, (Barnsley, UK: Pen & Sword, 1988), 60-61.

[9] Anglos-Saxon Chronicle, AD 547. All early dates in the ASC were assigned by later editors and for the fifth and sixth centuries are highly suspect.  For a discussion of the etymology of the place name Lindisfarne and the origin of the Saxon  presence in Bernicia, see Caitlin GreenLindisfarne, the Lindisfaran and the Origins of Anglos Saxon Northumbria” Britons and Anglos-Saxons, Lincolnshire AD 400-650 (Lincoln: History of Lincolnshire Committee, 2012), Chap. 6 235-265.  At least one scholar would put Ida’s revolt against his British overlords at 575; see Donald Henson, “The Early Kings of Bernicia” Academia.Edu (2008):

[10] Dr. Francis Pryor, in his Britain AD (BBC TV Channel 4, 2004), described it as “The Invasion That Never Was,” while other scholars, though more circumspect, also emphasize British continuity over discontinuity.  See, for example Howard Williams, “Forgetting the Britons in Victorian Anglo-Saxon Archaeology” in Nicholas Higham, Britons in Anglo-Saxon England, (Woodbridge, Boydell, 2007) Chapter 3, 27-41; Christopher A. Snyder, “A Gazetteer of Sub-Roman Britain (AD 400-600): The British sites.” Internet Archaeology, (3). (Council for British Archaeology, 1997).

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About Christopher Kiernan Coleman

I am a freelance author, historian and observor of events past, present and future. I received my bachelors degree at St. Anselm College and pursued my graduate work at the University of Chicago. I currently has six books in print, including one about Abraham Lincoln. My latest book in print is Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, published by University of Tennessee Press. I have also published numerous articles in the popular press as well as scholarly journals. I have additional book projects in progress, including one which looks at the origins of mechanized warfare and the roots of modern Islamic fundamentalist politics, as well as several projects dealing with Dark Age and Arthurian history and archaeology.
This entry was posted in Archaeology and History, Bernicia, British History, Dark Age Britain, Dark Age Navies, Dragons, Fifth Century AD Britain, King Arthur, LINDISFARNE, Nennius, Post Roman Britain, Sub Roman Britain, The Age of Arthur, The Brittonic Era and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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