Born in Ireland
Died 651. Also known as Aeda or Áedán (in old Irish).
Saint Aidan is said to have been a disciple of Saint Senan (f.d. March 8) on Scattery Island, but nothing else is known with certainty of his early life before he became a monk of Iona.
He was well received by King Oswald, who had lived in exile among the Irish monks of Iona and had requested monks to evangelize his kingdom. The first missionary, Corman, was unsuccessful because of the roughness of his methods, so Aidan was sent to replace him. Oswald bestowed the isle of Lindisfarne (Holy Island) on Aidan for his episcopal seat and his diocese reached from the Forth to the Humber.
By his actions he showed that he neither sought nor loved the things of this world; the presents which were given to him by the king or other rich men he distributed among the poor. He rarely attended the king at table, and never without taking with him one or two of his clergy, and always afterwards made haste to get away and back to his work.
The centre of his activity was Lindisfarne, off the coast of Northumberland, between Berwick and Bamburgh. Here he established a monastery under the Rule of Saint Columcille; it was not improperly been called the English Iona, for from it the paganism of Northumbria was gradually dispelled and barbarian customs undermined. The community was not allowed to accumulate wealth; surpluses were applied to the needs of the poor and the manumission of slaves. From Lindisfarne Aidan made journeys on foot throughout the diocese, visiting his flock and establishing missionary centres.
Aidan’s apostolate was advanced by numerous miracles according to Saint Bede, who wrote his biography. It was also aided by the fact that Aidan preached in Irish and the king provided the translation. Saint Aidan took to this monastery 12 English boys to be raised there, and he was indefatigable in tending to the welfare of children and slaves, for the manumission of many of whom he paid from alms bestowed on him.
The great king Saint Oswald assisted his bishop in every possible way until his death in battle against the pagan King Penda in 642. A beautiful story preserved by Saint Bede tells that Oswald was sitting at dinner one Easter day, Saint Aidan at his side, when he was told a great crowd of poor people were seeking alms at the gate. Taking a massive silver dish, he loaded it with meat from his own table and ordered it distributed amongst the poor, and ordered the silver dish to be broken in fragments, and those too distributed to them. Aidan, Bede says, took hold of the king’s right hand, saying “Let this hand never decay!” His blessing was fulfilled. After Oswald’s death his incorrupt right arm was preserved as a sacred relic.
Oswald’s successor, Saint Oswin, also supported Aidan’s apostolate and when in 651, Oswin was murdered in Gilling, Aidan survived him only 11 days. He died at the royal castle of Bamburgh, which he used as a missionary centre, leaning against a wall of the church where a tent had been erected to shelter him. He was first buried in the cemetery of Lindisfarne, but when the new church of Saint Peter was finished, his body was translated into the sanctuary.
The monks of Lindisfarne, fleeing repeated Viking attacks, abandoned their holy island in 875, taking with them the relics of St. Oswald and St. Aidan packed into the coffin containing St. Cuthbert’s uncorrupted body. For over 100 years the monks wandered, settling here and there, and founding churches. In 995, fearing another attack from Danish raiders, the monks again fled with their precious relics. According to legend, when the monks approached the town of Durham the coffin began to grow heavy and one of the monks had a dream in which Cuthbert said his body would finally rest at ‘Dunholme’. None of the monks knew of such a place but, inquiring of local villagers, overheard two women speaking about a lost cow which was said to have strayed into ‘the Dunholme’. Investigated by the monks, this turned out to be a wooded promontory in a loop above the River Wear, which is where Durham cathedral now stands.