Áedán (Aidan) (d. 651), founder and first bishop of Lindisfarne, was effectively ruler of the church of Northumbria from c.635 till his death. The mission of Paulinus from Canterbury (begun in 625) was superficially successful, culminating in the establishment of an episcopal see at York, but was largely abandoned on the death in 633 of King Edwin of Northumbria. When King Oswald, on his accession in 633/4, wished to restore Christianity in his kingdom after the devastation and disruption following the death of King Edwin, he turned not to Canterbury but to Iona, where he himself had probably received baptism during his youth in exile. Áedán was the second missionary sent by the Iona community to Northumbria, but he was sent as bishop, which was apparently not the case with his unsuccessful predecessor. The first generation proper of the Northumbrian church was ruled by Irish monk-bishops appointed by Iona: Áedán (c.635–51) and his successors, Fínán (qv) (652–61) and Colmán (qv). Even after that hegemony ended with the synod of Whitby (664), Irish influence remained strong.
There is no early or independent Life of Áedán and almost all that is known of him comes from Bede's ‘Historia ecclesiastica’ written in 731. For modern readers Bede's depiction is credible as the miraculous element in it is noticeably restrained. The somewhat idealised account provides an attractive (and instructive) portrait of a missionary bishop and pastor who insisted on Scripture study for himself and his companions, both clerical and lay, and wholeheartedly lived, as well as taught, the gospel message. Bede presents Áedán as charitable to the point of simplicity – he once gave a fine horse, a gift of King Oswine of Deira, to a beggar. The account features a moving vignette suggesting the stark austerity and radical poverty of the island monastery of Lindisfarne at the time of the departure of Bishop Colmán and his community after the synod of Whitby: the community had little in the way of buildings or goods beyond the bare necessities of a spartan regime. Behind Lindisfarne lay Iona. The Columban tradition, which Bede seems to have admired and respected (its position on the Easter controversy apart), inspired these communities and formed their members. Bede's comparatively impartial testimony to the spirit of Áedán and the Irish mission in Northumbria is a valuable supplement to the more personal testimony of Adomnán (qv) in relation to Colum Cille (qv) and Iona.
It is clear that Áedán's reputation for genuine sanctity made a profound impact on his contemporaries. As attested by Bede, he personally had a lasting influence on the church in Northumbria, and elsewhere in England through the Irish and English clergy trained or appointed by him and his immediate successors. For example, his missionary activity must have provided inspiration for Boisil (qv) and Cuthbert at Melrose. He also exercised a crucial influence on Hild of Whitby. For Bede, Áedán instituted an apostolic age, he and his successors setting standards for priests, religious, and laity that later generations did not always achieve. Yet Bede does not credit him with founding churches other than Lindisfarne and (incidentally) the unnamed churches on royal estates such as that where he died: these were his mission stations. This, however, may have been due more to the character of Bede's narrative which avoided hagiographical tradition than to the historical reality.
Áedán died 31 August (afterwards his feast-day) at a village on a royal estate near Bamburgh, leaning, it was said, against an external buttress at the west end of his wooden church, which was thereafter venerated as a relic. He was buried in the monastic cemetery at Lindisfarne, but his remains were later translated to the right side of the altar of Fínán's new church. When Bishop Colmán left Northumbria in the aftermath of the synod of Whitby (subsequently to found Inishbofin and Mayo) he took some of Áedán's bones with him.
In his obit in the Irish annals, Áedán is ‘bishop of the Saxons’ (AU 651.1; Ann. Tig. 191; Ann. Rosc. §121; Chron. Scot. 648; cf. Ann. Clon. 648), the entries presumably ultimately deriving from Bede. In the Irish calendars, he is bishop of Inis Medcóit – Lindisfarne (Mart. Óeng. 31 Aug. and notes; Mart. Tall. 31 Aug., Mart. Don. 31 Aug.). The Irish tradition, however, seems both hesitant and questionable – John Colgan (qv) indeed suggests that he is Liber's son Aidan, who is mentioned in Adomnán's ‘Vita Columbae’ (iii, 19), attempting to identify him by historical deduction rather than tradition.