Known as Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne, Aidan the Apostle of Northumbria (died 651), was the founder and first bishop of the monastery on the island of Lindisfarne in England. A Christian missionary, he is credited with restoring Christianity to Northumbria. Aidan is the Anglicised form of the original Old Irish Aodhán. In 2008, he was proposed as a possible patron saint of the United Kingdom.
An Irishman, possibly born in Connacht, Aidan was a monk at the monastery on the Island of Iona in Scotland.
The Roman Empire had spread Christianity into Britain, but due to the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain, Anglo-Saxon paganism was now the dominant religion. Oswald of Northumbria and his brothers lived among the Gaels of Dál Riata as princes in exile since their banishment by a rival royal house in 616 AD. Oswald may have visited the island monastery of Iona, and certainly converted to Christianity and was baptized. In 634 he regained the kingship of Northumbria, and was determined to bring Christianity to the mostly pagan people there.
Owing to his past among the Gaels, he requested missionaries from Iona, the pre-eminent monastery of the Irish in what is now Scotland, rather than the Roman-backed mission in England. At first the monastery sent a new bishop named Cormán, but he met with no success and soon returned to Iona, reporting that the Northumbrians were too stubborn to be converted. Aidan criticised Cormán’s methods and was sent as a replacement in 635.
Aidan chose Lindisfarne, an island like Iona and close to the royal fortress of Bamburgh, as the seat of his diocese. King Oswald, who after his years of exile had a perfect command of Irish, often had to translate for Aidan and his monks, who did not speak English at first. When Oswald died in 642, Aidan received continued support from King Oswine of Deira and the two became close friends.
An inspired missionary, Aidan would walk from one village to another, politely conversing with the people he saw and slowly interesting them in Christianity. According to legend, the king gave Aidan a horse so that he wouldn’t have to walk, but Aidan gave the horse to a beggar. By patiently talking to the people on their own level Aidan and his monks slowly brought Christianity to the Northumbrian communities. Aidan also took in twelve English boys to train at the monastery, to ensure that the area’s future religious leadership would be English.
In 651 a pagan army, led by Penda, attacked Bamburgh and attempted to set its walls ablaze. According to legend, Aidan prayed for the city, after which the winds turned and blew the smoke and fire toward the enemy, repulsing them; hence his patronage for fire fighters.
Aidan was a member of the Irish branch of Christianity instead of the Latin branch, but his character and energy in missionary work won him the respect of Pope Honorius I and Felix of Dunwich.
Aidan’s friend Oswine of Deira was murdered in 651. Twelve days later Aidan died, on 31 August, in the 17th year of his episcopate. He had become ill while at the Bamburgh castle and died leaning against the buttress of a church on a royal estate near Bamburgh.
The monastery he founded grew and helped found churches and other monasteries throughout the area. It also became a centre of learning and a storehouse of scholarly knowledge. Saint Bede the Venerable would later write Aidan’s biography and describe the miracles attributed to him. Saint Aidan’s feast day is on 31 August.