Written and illustrated probably by Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne from 698 to 721, the Lindisfarne Gospels is amongst our greatest artistic, linguistic and religious treasures.
The book is a copy of the four Gospels included in the New Testament, together with other text traditionally included in medieval copies, such as letters of St Jerome appended as prefatory material. For full details of the text, see the catalogue description accompanying the digital images of the manuscripts.
Do we know who made this manuscript?
Medieval manuscripts were usually produced by a team of scribes and illustrators. The date and place of origin of the Lidisfarne Gospels have been much debated, as both are based on the interpretation of a colophon, or inscription, added at the same time as the English gloss near the end of the tenth century, and on the style of decoration of the text. The identifying inscription (see digitised image 17) was made by Aldred (fl. c. 970), Provost of the community at Chester-le-Street, about six miles north of Durham.
Eadrith, bishop of the Church of Lindisfarne, he, in the beginning, wrote this book for God and St Cuthbert and – generally – for all the saints who are on the island. And Ethiluald [Æthelwald, Oethilwald], bishop of the Lindisfarne-islanders [acceded by 731, died in 737 or 740], bound and covered it without, as he well knew how to do. And Billfrith the anchorite [fl. 750 x 800], he forged the ornaments which are on the outside and bedecked it with gold and with gems and also with gilded silver – pure wealth. And I, Aldred, unworthy and most wretched priest [born of Alfred, Aldred I am called; the outstanding son of a good woman I speak], with the help of God and St Cuthbert wrote a gloss above it in English.
Translated by Gameson, From Holy Island (2013), p. 93.
Eadfrith’s superb skill is evident in the opening pages of each Gospel. A painting of the Gospel's author is followed by an intricately patterned ‘carpet’ page. Each carpet page has a cross pattern embedded in its design. It seems likely that these pages were designed to serve as a sort of interior treasure binding to ornament each Gospel as a mirror of the ornate exterior one that once was ‘bedecked with gold and gems’, according to the colophon.
Next in each Gospel is the ‘incipit’ page, that is, the page on which the text begins, in which the initial letters of the text are elaborated with interlacing and spiral patterns reminiscent of Anglo-Saxon jewellery and enamel work. Others involved in the production of the book are mentioned by name (Aethilwald the binder and Billfrith, the creator of what was originally a treasure case or binding of jewels and precious metals).
Like most medieval Christian manuscripts, the Lindisfarne Gospels was written in Latin. However, around 970, when it was owned by the Minster of Chester-le-Street, Aldred, the Provost, added an Old English translation beneath the original Latin. This is the oldest surviving version of the Gospels in any form of English.
Why is this manuscript important?
Apart from its intrinsic value as a remarkable survival of an ancient and astonishingly beautiful work of art, the manuscript displays a unique combination of artistic styles that reflects a crucial period in England's history.
Christianity first came to Britain under the Romans, but subsequent waves of invasion by non-Christian Saxons, Angles, and Vikings drove the faith to the fringes of the British Isles. The country was gradually re-converted from 597, after St Augustine arrived from Rome to convert the pagan 'Angles into angels'.
Religious differences between the indigenous 'Celtic' Church and the new 'Roman' Church were settled at the Synod of Whitby in 664. In the manuscript, native Celtic and Anglo-Saxon elements blend with Roman, Coptic and Eastern traditions to create a sublimely unified artistic vision of the cultural melting pot of Northumbria in the seventh and eighth centuries.
The Lindisfarne Gospels, and others like it, helped define the growing sense of 'Englishness' - a spirit of consolidated by the Venerable Bede, the historian monk, in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed in 731.
How did the manuscript come to the British Library?
The Lindisfarne Gospels formed part of the famous collection of manuscripts formed by the antiquary Sir Robert Bruce Cotton (b. 1571, d. 1631). The Cotton library was inherited and augmented by Sir Robert’s son, Sir Thomas Cotton (d. 1662), and grandson, Sir John Cotton (d. 1702). Sir John negotiated the transfer of the collection to the nation at his death, as confirmed in 1701 by Act of Parliament (12 & 13 William III, c. 7). This Act states that the library was to ‘be kept and preserved ... for Publick Use and Advantage’, and that it should ‘not be sold, or otherwise disposed of’. This was the first time that the British nation became responsible for a collection of books or manuscripts, an important stage towards the creation of a national, public library.
In 1753, the Cotton library formed one of the foundation collections of the newly-established British Museum. Sir John Cotton is therefore regarded as the first benefactor of the British Museum (and hence of the British Library).
How can I see more of this book?
The entire manuscript is available digitally on Digitised Manuscripts.
We have also created a digital version of the Lindisfarne Gospels using our award-winning Turning the Pages™.
- Full title:
- An Anglo-Saxon gospel-book (‘The Lindisfarne Gospels’)
- c. 715–20, Lindisfarne Priory on Lindisdarne Holy Island
- Manuscript / Illuminated manuscript
- Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne [scribe and illustrator] , Ethiluald, bishop of the Lindisfarne-islanders [Binder] , Aldred, Provosot of Chester-le-Street [Old English gloss] , Billfrith the anchorite [golds and silversmith]
- Usage terms:
- Public Domain
- Held by:
- British Library
- Cotton MS Nero D IV
- Article by:
- British Library
Study magnificent hand-painted books and manuscripts from the many faiths and religions of the world.
- Article by:
- Christina Duffy
- Clauses and content
One of the four surviving 1215 Magna Carta manuscripts was burnt in the Ashburnham House fire of 1731. Then a failed restoration attempt in the 1830s rendered much of its text illegible. In the charter’s 800th anniversary year, Dr Christina Duffy explains how a new scientific technique known as ‘multispectral imaging’ has revealed text thought to have been lost forever.
- Article by:
- Simon Armitage
- Myths, monsters and the imagination, Heroes and heroines
Simon Armitage explores Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and reflects on how he approached his own translation of the poem.