Northumbria, Mayo Abbey in Co. Mayo

Article from Mayo Abbey Parish Magazine 1995

In October, 1994, a group from Mayo Abbey travelled to North Eastern England and visited Whitby, Jarrow, Lindisfarne and Durham.

These centres were among the most important in the ancient Kingdom of Northumbria and are directly and indirectly connected with the foundation of the seventh century monastic settlement in Mayo Abbey, which became known throughout Christendom as "Mayo of the Saxons".


Whitby is a seaside town on the North-Eastern coast of Yorkshire. It is a sea port and holiday resort with a population in the region of 14,000. A Monastery was built in Whitby in 657 AD. on the bleak eastern cliff top. It became a foundation for both men and women and its first Abbess was St. Hilda, who was a daughter of the then King of Northumbria, King Oswy.

It was the setting for the famous Synod of Whitby, in 664 AD., where St. Colman's defence of the Celtic tradition and practice of Faith was rejected. Following this defeat, Colman withdrew from Northumbria and eventually founded the monastery at Mayo Abbey.

Whitby also has many historical connections with the sea. It was an important port in Roman times and continued so down through the centuries.

In later times it became a major centre for the whaling industry. Captain Cook learned his sea-faring skills here and two of the vessels used for his perilous voyages of discovery were built here. There are several maritime museums in the town. A more modern claim to fame is that the Whitby area is the setting for the T.V. series "Heartbeat."

A Roman meteorlogical station stands beside the Abbey ruins on the Eastern cliff top, overlooking the town and port, which is still used today. Close by is an Anglican graveyard which features in Bram Stoker's gothic novel, "Dracula", as the final resting place of the blood-thirsty Count!

The Mediaeval Abbey of Whitby was built between 1220 and 1320 AD. The ruins still standing are very extensive and well preserved. The site is very exposed and wind swept and one can easily imagine how austere the life of the inhabitants of the Abbey must have been.

The site is owned, maintained, and staffed by English Heritage. It was excavated by archaeologists in the 1920's and the site of the 7th. Century Abbey has been clearly identified. However, most of it was then covered over with a car park.


Jarrow is part of the vast urban and industrial region of Tyneside, which also includes Newcastle, Gateshead, North Shields and South Shields. It is an area of industrial decline and is eligible for European Structural Funds.

It is here that The Venerable Bede spent his life (673 - 735 AD.). He wrote many books during his lifetime, the most noteworthy being "The Ecclesiastical History of the English People" - the first history of the English Church. It is in this work that the foundation and early development of Mayo Abbey is recorded.

The Monastic Parish Church of St. Paul is the Anglican Parish Church which is in everyday use. The Chancel is part of the original Saxon monastery built in 681 AD. by Benedict Biscop.

This was the first monastery to be built of stone in Britain and it is therefore of immense importance.

The adjoining monastic ruins were excavated between 1963 and 1978 under the direction of Professor Rosemary Cramp. Three different layers (periods) of building have been found and are shown at ground level using three different types of stone-pattern. There is an exhibition of artifacts from the archaeological excavations inside the church, together with a bookshop/souvenir stall. The monastic site is under the guardianship of English Heritage.

Beside the monastic site and church is Jarrow Hall, a 170 years old Georgian mansion situated in an area of parkland. Purchased and restored in 1979 by St. Paul's Jarrow Development Trust, it houses The Bede Monastery Museum. It offers facilities for temporary exhibitions, day courses, and workshops, and it has an educational programme which caters for 15,000 school children per year, employing two full-time teachers.

It also houses a coffee shop and a bookshop/tourist information centre. The exhibition contains many artifacts from the archaeological excavations, facsimiles of books crafted by Bede and other monks at the monastery, models of the monastery, and an audio/visual interpretation of Bede's life, which is now ten years old.

Beside Jarrow Hall is "Bede's World", a massive a development project involving the construction of a living Anglo-Saxon farm and very elaborate museum buildings on a plot of industrial wasteland which was once an oil tank "farm." The total cost of the project is in the region of £3,500,000 - 70% of this money is coming from E.U. Structural Funds and £1,000,000 is being raised by St. Paul's Jarrow Development Trust.

At the time of our visit work had been in progress for more than a year. The farm-scape had been put in place and there were some animals on the compound. The first phase of the museum building was also under construction. (The project was subsequently opened in May, 1995.)

Holy Island - Lindisfarne

Holy Island - Lindisfarne, is situated off the North Eastern coast of Northumberland, within twenty miles of the Scottish border. It is approached from the mainland across a three mile causeway at low tide. The island is a natural beauty-spot, a bird sanctuary and wildlife reserve and attracts in the region of 250,000 visitors each year. There is a small village on the leeward side which has remained unspoiled, despite the large influx of tourists each year.

It contains a number of small hotels and cafés as well as two gift shops which sell locally produced goods and "Lindisfarne Mead". On the Eastern side is a 16th Century Castle built by Henry VIII. The Farne islands are to be seen off the coast, while Bamburgh Castle forms the backdrop to the south, on the mainland. The ruins of the mediaeval Priory are accessed on foot through the village and the grounds of the Anglican Church.

St. Aiden came to Northumbria and founded a monastery on Lindisfarne in the year 635 AD. The island was chosen as the site for a monastic settlement because it was adjacent to Bamburgh, the home of the Northumbrian King Oswald, who had invited the Saint to his Kingdom from Iona. The island was also secluded, but offered easy access to the mainland at low tide. The monastery quickly became a centre of learning and many boys from the local nobility became monks there.

In 660 AD. St. Colman was appointed Bishop of Lindisfarne. After his defeat at Whitby, he withdrew from the island to Iona, taking with him many of these Saxon monks and monks of Irish extraction. They eventually founded the monastery at Mayo Abbey.

He was succeeded by St. Cuthbert, who was given the job of reorganising the monastery to the "Roman" practice following the withdrawal of the main body of monks. He later became a hermit on the nearby Inner Farne island. During his lifetime he performed many miracles, and after his death in 687 AD. he was venerated as a Saint. In 698 his body was exhumed and it was found to be incorrupt.

It was then enshrined in an over ground coffin. This coffin is still in existence and, together with other precious objects associated with the saint, is on display at Durham Cathedral, his final resting place.

The Lindisfarne Gospels were written in his honour at this time, chiefly by a monk called Eadfrith. The miracles that occurred at St. Cuthbert's shrine soon established Lindisfarne as THE major pilgrimage centre of Northumbria, causing the monastery to grow in power and wealth.

Adversity befell the community towards the latter part of the eighth century. The monastery was raided by Vikings and the monks sought refuge on the mainland, taking with them St. Cuthbert's coffin and relics. They first settled at Northam, on the Tweed but this also proved to be insecure. At one point they attempted to cross to Ireland but were turned back by a storm, and in 883 they settled at Chester-le-Street, sixty miles south of Holy Island. They finally moved to Durham about 995.

In 1104 a Norman Cathedral was built at Durham as a shrine to the saint. There followed a great resurgence in devotion to St. Cuthbert which eventually led to the re-establishment of a Priory on Holy Island. The building was a smaller version of Durham Cathedral and it remained in use for more than four centuries until its dissolution c.1538.

To this very day the island has remained a place of pilgrimage for both the Catholic and Anglican Faiths. St. Cuthbert and St. Bede are still venerated as two of the greatest Saints of the English Church.

St. Mary's Anglican Church stands at the end of the village, close to the sea shore. Like St. Paul's at Jarrow, the chancel of St. Mary's Church is early Saxon (c.900 AD.). The main body of the church was built over the succeeding centuries and this is apparent in the many differing styles of architecture used in its construction. There is a tasteful display on the Lindisfarne Gospels in the church, which includes facsimiles of them and a copy of the Book of Kells, which has Northumbrian connections.

For the past ten years, the Anglican authorities have allowed Catholic Priests to celebrate Mass in the church for pilgrimages and on special occasions. This concession was first granted to Mr. Bernard Connelly, the organiser of our tour. Fr. Roland Connelly, Bernard's brother, celebrated Mass for us, which was served by the Anglican Rector, Rev. David Adam. It was a very moving experience for all of us from Mayo Abbey - one felt as if a circle had been completed after many centuries.

The Priory ruin is situated beside St. Mary's Church. It is owned and controlled by English Heritage. It dates from c.1100 AD. and is very extensive, covering an area in the region of three to four acres. It has an aura of sacredness and it is very easy to understand why it has been a place of pilgrimage for many centuries. It is well interpreted with many multilingual, weather-proof displays placed through the site showing plans and views of the Priory in its original state.

Several archaeological investigations have been carried out on the site during this century - the most recent was supervised by Professor Rosemary Cramp. Despite this, no trace of the site of the original Saxon foundation has been found, though it is thought to be situated under the Mediaeval ruins. The only artifact from the Saxon period on display at the Priory is the base of a high cross.


Durham Cathedral was built 1104 AD. as a shrine to St. Cuthbert and is his final resting place. His body is enshrined at the rear of the high altar and no other burial was allowed within the precincts of the Cathedral. It is situated in the centre of the city of Durham on a hill which is encompassed on three sides by a river. This was the main reason for choosing the site, as it closely resembled the island situation of Lindisfarne.

The Cathedral is one of the architectural treasures of Western Europe and represents the pinacle of the Romanesque period. At a later time the Galilee chapel was built onto the Cathedral and the body of St. Bede was enshrined there.

For many centuries Durham was the residence of the Prince Bishops, who were very powerful leaders both in Church and State. At the Dissolution of the monasteries in 1536/38 the Bishop of Durham converted immediately to the Reformed Church.

Thus Cathedral and related monastic buildings were saved and today are the only remaining "unbroken" example of a mediaeval monastic settlement in Britain.

by Joe Brett

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