One of the key sites in Viking history, Lindisfarne Priory on Holy Island, now has a new museum, with never-before-seen exhibits on display.

The place where the first devastating Viking raid took place in the UK in 793 CE, Lindisfarne is forever linked with the island monastery that was one of England's holiest shrines. 

"The line between this world and the next feels blurred at Lindisfarne," Priory Site Manager Sophie Howard tells The Viking Herald. 

"This was where the Celtic clergy could leave behind one realm and connect with another."

Rare finds over the causeway

Now given a contemporary overhaul, the museum at Lindisfarne, also called Holy Island, contains several rare exhibits. 

Access to the site in a windswept corner of northeast England is across a causeway at the mercy of sea tides. 

For this reason, strict visiting times are given. The island's relative inaccessibility would have been one of its main attractions to the monks who settled there. 

"The new center tells the story of early Christianity in England," says Sophie. 

"We wanted to do justice to Lindisfarne's heritage, offering visitors a clearer idea of what went on here, and its significance."

Stripping out the original space, Sophie and her team have created a new main viewing area, with higher ceilings, state-of-the-art display cases, and information panels, allowing the museum to present a number of artifacts unearthed in more recent digs. 

They now have the space to bring out other items from storage without having to replace old favorites. 

The so-called Viking Domesday stone is on display for the first time. Photo: Courtesy of the Lindisfarne Museum

Highlights include a necklace made from salmon vertebrae, thought to be Britain's earliest known rosary beads, and fragments of textiles identified as some of the earliest examples of knitting ever found in Europe. 

There's also an Anglo-Saxon glass gaming counter in attractive colors and 21 name stones inscribed in runic and Latin texts as grave markers. 

With specific reference to the Norse invasion, another grave marker now on display, referred to as the Viking Domesday stone, depicts seven armed men brandishing swords and axes. Dating back to the ninth century, it has never been put on show before. 

Also presented, somewhat ominously, is a spearhead thought to have been carved as protection against a potential Viking raid. 

The ruins of the priory building you see today are not what was left after 793. These date from the 1100s, when Norman monks from Durham Cathedral founded a new community here. 

By then, the island's link with Christianity went back half a millennium.

Oswald, Aidan, and Cuthbert

In 635 CE, Northumbrian king Oswald summoned an Irish monk, Aidan, from another island monastery off the coast of Scotland to be the bishop of his kingdom. 

Then Britain's most powerful ruler, Oswald granted Aidan and his fellow monks the small tidal island of Lindisfarne for them to continue worshipping as they had done in Scotland.

Three decades later, a monk named Cuthbert joined the fraternity and became prior of Lindisfarne. He encouraged a closer religious connection with Rome rather than Ireland, the subsequent rancor forcing him to live as a hermit near Lindisfarne. 

He was reburied there a century before the Viking raid, his coffin a place of pilgrimage for the many Christians who now followed his teachings.

As outlined by historian Marc Morris in his book The Anglo-Saxons – A History of the Beginnings of England 400-1066, the Vikings knew what they were destroying when they set upon Holy Island, not just attacking the monastery for its many riches but laying waste to Christianity itself.

"The effects were felt right the way across Europe," says Sophie, who goes on to describe the priory as it would have looked back centuries ago: "The building would have been painted in bright colors. We know this from analysis of the pigmentation discovered in the stone".

The museum at Lindisfarne has been given a contemporary overhaul. Photo: Courtesy of the Lindisfarne Museum

The most dramatic feature of the ruined priory is its Rainbow Arch, which survived the collapse of the tower above it some two centuries ago. Carvings feature on the west doorway.

Two modern-day features have also been added to complement the collection: a monument to St Cuthbert, carved by sculptor Russ Coleman from a local basalt boulder, inset with Frosterly marble, called Feather Star Mantle, and a large-scale, mixed-media artwork created by Olivia Lomenech-Gill, illustrator on the recent fantasy film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Inspired by the wooden refuge box on the Holy Island causeway, and the poem about it by Katrina Porteous, it explores the notion of sanctuary. 

"You can sit and listen to the poet herself reciting her poem," says Sophie. 

"From April, we will also open a trail illustrated by Olivia's artwork for families to follow, allowing them to explore the island's wildlife."

Lindisfarne Priory, Church Lane, Holy Island, Berwick-upon-Tweed TD15 2RX. Access information here. Safe crossing times here. Accommodation available at the Coastguard's Cottage.

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