Britain’s earliest known prayer bead necklace now on display at Lindisfarne

Britain’s earliest known prayer bead necklace and a recently discovered Anglo-Saxon glass gaming counter are just a few of the treasures now on display at Lindisfarne Priory. The priory and its museum re-opened earlier this year with several additions, including a new monument in the priory ruins marking the spot of the original shrine to St Cuthbert, northern England’s most revered saint.

Also known as Holy Island, Lindisfarne is one of the most important centres of early English Christianity. Having close links to the early medieval Northumbrian kings and its connection to St Cuthbert brought great wealth to the monastery, and a new museum display at Lindisfarne Priory gives a glimpse into three significant phases of the site’s history: its founding and the cult of St Cuthbert, the horrors of Viking attacks, and the 12th-century medieval monastery.

Anglo-Saxon glass gaming counter, now on display at Lindisfarne – photo courtesy English Heritage

A number of remarkable artefacts on display for the first time include a necklace made from salmon vertebrae; recently found on a skeleton from Lindisfarne and dating to the 8th or 9th century, the incredible discovery has been revealed to be Britain’s earliest known prayer bead necklace. An Anglo-Saxon glass gaming counter, 21 unique name stones many inscribed with both runic and Latin text (used to identify the dead) found on or close to the priory site, and a spearhead (perhaps used for protection against Viking raiders) tell the early history of the site, while fragments of a knitted woollen sleeved waistcoat, dating to the 17th century and identified as one of the earliest surviving examples of knitting in Europe, highlights the use of the monastery beyond its suppression in 1537 and the enduring significance of Lindisfarne.

“Lindisfarne was and has remained a site of huge international significance, not only in its influences on the practices of Christianity in England, but also as the site of the first significant attack by Viking pirates in western Europe,” says Susan Harrison, English Heritage’s North Collections Curator. “The wealth of artefacts we have now been able to put on display in the museum is truly astounding, from the famous Viking raider stone perhaps commemorating that first attack, to recently excavated items, like Britain’s first prayer beads, never before on display.


“The beautiful new monument to St Cuthbert also adds the final layer to the story, grounding his memory within the ruins of the priory and marking the spot that monks, in the early 1100s, believed to be his original burial place and where they may have sited their own shrine.”

The museum at Lindisfarne – photo courtesy English Heritage

Sometime in the 670s, a monk named Cuthbert joined the monastery at Lindisfarne. He eventually became Lindisfarne’s greatest monk-bishop, and the most important saint in northern England in the Middle Ages. Cuthbert died on 20 March 687 and was buried in a stone coffin inside the main church on Lindisfarne. Eleven years later the monks opened his tomb and discovered that his body had not decayed – a sure sign, they argued, of his saintliness. Miracles were soon reported at St Cuthbert’s shrine and Lindisfarne was quickly established as the major pilgrimage centre in Northumbria; one of the results being the production in about 700 of the masterpiece of early medieval art known today as the Lindisfarne Gospels.

After a number of Viking raids, St Cuthbert’s coffin was removed from Lindisfarne and eventually buried in Durham Cathedral. As no evidence of his original shrine survives, English Heritage has commissioned a new monument, designed by sculptor Russ Coleman, to mark where the saint’s original burial place and the site of the miracles may have been located. Made from a large basalt boulder found locally, the monument in inset with Frosterley marble as a nod to the grave slab that marks St Cuthbert’s final resting place at Durham. Sitting on a Swaledale fossil plinth, which was found in the region and contains sea creature fossils, the monument stands within the ruins of the 12th-century priory, which claims direct descent from the early monastery.

The new St Cuthbert Monument – photo courtesy English Heritage

Elsewhere in the museum, new commissions include a newly recorded audio poem, ‘The Refuge Box’ by Katrina Porteous, which features a clip of a rescue in the waters between the mainland and Holy Island. Artist Olivia Lomenech-Gill (illustrator of J. K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) has also contributed an artistic response to Lindisfarne with an original artwork inspired by the history of the site and ‘The Refuge Box’ as well as illustrating six birds and beasts inspired by the animal artistry of the Lindisfarne Gospels for a new family trail.


To learn more about Lindisfarne and its museum, please visit the English Heritage website.