The Castle and Priory

Two icons of two very different eras on Holy Island © Catherine Atkinson

Two icons of two very different eras on Holy Island

The Dissolution of the Monasteries was a hugely important event in English and ultimately world history. For us on Holy Island it was similarly momentous: put basically, for the Castle to exist, the Priory had to go.

For many centuries going way back to the days of Aidan and Cuthbert, Holy Island had been the cradle of English Christianity. This religious community, the monastic site with the village that developed around it, flourished through the Middle Ages under the wing of its owner the Bishop of Durham. The Island was largely missed out of State affairs on the mainland and so there were no medieval military buildings constructed here. As soon as Henry VIII took over the monastic property, all that changed.

By dispossessing the Church of its property on Lindisfarne, Henry also took away its influence over the Island. It may be cynical to say but it is rather convenient that the overthrow of Lindisfarne Priory suddenly provided Henry with a deep water harbour and safe haven within a few hours sail of the Scottish border. Building a fortification on Holy Island would be vital to protect this anchorage, but it also had wider strategic value. Berwick upon Tweed itself had only come into English hands in 1482 having changed hands 13 times since 1147. Henry wanted an outpost nearby if the Scots took the town again.

Building began in the 1550s and continued sporadically until 1570 using stone from the Priory buildings. However, even by 1603 the Castle wasn’t quite finished. Long after Elizabeth died, governors and captains petitioned London for money to repair and rebuild parts of the building.

Archaeological work in the 1990s revealed several phases of work at the Castle, and identified many blocks as being from the Priory; some were even properly dressed or covered in ornate carvings – all were used simply as building stone. This practice would have continued well into the late 19th-century, before the Ministry of Works took over the Priory.