We have written before about bishop-turned-saint Aidan’s famous interaction with king-turned-saint Oswald previously, but we’d like to share a little bit more about Aidan because he features so prominently in the history of Northumbria, and especially our little corner of it.
Aidan was an Irish monk educated on Iona in the traditions of Celtic Christianity that had taken root in Ireland. He was actually the second missionary sent to Northumbria at King Oswald’s request, as the first was deemed too strict toward his congregation. Oswald tasked him with returning the Northumbrians to Christianity, after a period where many had turned back to paganism. He founded the monastery on Lindisfarne, but frequently walked the kingdom preaching to regular folk and engaging in acts of charity. We have a nice account of his life as bishop from the Venerable Bede in his Ecclesiastical History, who lavishes him with praise and yet can’t seem to let go that Aidan calculated Easter the Celtic—and therefore “wrong”—way. Truly Bede brings it up multiple times as this embarrassing con of an otherwise perfectly Christian life. Many miracles are associated with him, but there are two especially dramatic ones that took place right here in Bamburgh.
The first miracle involved the pagan Mercian king, Penda, who marched on Bamburgh in the mid-7th century. On the road to the city, he dismantled villages and appropriated their timber as kindling. His troops piled the wood around the walls of the city and castle, lighting them and stoking them until the smoke rose high into the sky. From one of the Farne Islands where he lived as a hermit late in life, Aidan saw the unfurling smoke and feverishly prayed. The winds suddenly changed, blowing the embers back onto Penda’s army. They fled, fearing what seemed to be the power of the Christian god that stopped their attempt to subdue Northumbria.
The second miracle involves the small church now known as St. Aidan’s down in the village. The structure now is Norman, but it stands where the Anglo-Saxon church would have stood. Aidan was staying in a tent beside an outside wall beam of the church, and when he fell ill and died, his body was found leaning against it. The church since that time in 651AD has been razed by multiple fires, but each time the flames do not affect the beam. The church that stands today has what might be the miraculous beam, as well as a small, unobtrusive shrine dedicated to the Irish monk.
These miracles both involve fire, a fairly common fear in any society with many timber-built structures, but makes for an interesting coincidence for a man whose name means “little fire” in Irish.