Archives at Lindisfarne

Nick Lewis, House steward Nick Lewis House steward

I was doing some archival work recently and it got me thinking about what we know – and don’t know – about the castle. When I first started at Lindisfarne I got a tour from an experienced volunteer and while it was fascinating, the story felt a little thin given the 450+ year history of the place. I began to look into the story of the place and it quickly became clear there was a lot more to uncover.

The first thing I noticed was that the guidebook was semi-sacred, that was where all information came from. On one hand, that was great in that it should mean everyone was getting the same information (they weren’t!) but on the other hand it did mean there was a feeling of finality – that we’d drawn a line in 1920 and the story was set in stone. As a place of such antiquity Holy Island has of course had an awful lot written about it over the centuries, but the castle tends to just get a passing mention from scholars in the 18th and 19th centuries. For greater detail you have to go direct to the archives themselves and the National Archives in both London and Edinburgh along with local archives have a great deal of primary material about the castle. Some very significant records reside in unexpected places, such as the Survey of Berwick and Holy Island by Martin Beckman in 1683. Beckman was commissioned by the Lord High Admiral the Earl of Dartmouth and the Earl’s papers are now in the Staffordshire County Record Office.

Most of these records are no digitised, so require either a visit to view in person or photography to be carried out at a cost. However one of the biggest differences in the last 10-12 years for me has been just how much is available online. A hugely valuable resource is www.britishhistory.ac.uk which contains records such as the Calendar of Border Papers – stuffed-full of letters and documents from the castle’s formative days in the 16th century. Then there are the individual records on website like Find My Past. I have used these websites a lot but rarely to explore my own family history, usually to find out the stories of long-forgotten Victorian artillerymen!

Then there is the castle itself. How we read the castle is very important in how we tell its story. It is a real skill and is often best left to the professionals, but some things are easy to spot; joins in the walls where old repairs have been made, or bits have been filled in, or even where stones have been reused from other places.

The castle definitely has more secrets to tell, and I have a list of archival material not yet seen which will undoubtedly improve our knowledge of the place. That of course is the most important part, in order to look after the castle, we must first understand it.