When I was significantly younger, basically half of the age I have today, and went to Ireland with my best friend, there was a recurring joke among people we met to let out ”terrified” yelps or saying to something to the effect that they would go down fighting, both reactions caused by us being “Vikings”, and we happily played along, stating that we were back for some more plundering and pillage, as the vanguards clearly hadn´t quite gotten the job done.
This post is however not about Ireland, or benign “Vikings” like myself and my friend, but about the time when it became obvious that Vikings was going to pose a serious threat to the British Isles in what is widely acknowledged as the first Viking attack in England and the start of the Viking era; the raid of Lindisfarne on June 8, in the year 793.
It is documented what happened, in the words of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle;
“Her wæron reðe forebecna cumene ofer Norðhymbra land, ⁊ þæt folc earmlic bregdon, þæt wæron ormete þodenas ligrescas, fyrenne dracan wæron gesewene on þam lifte fleogende. Þam tacnum sona fyligde mycel hunger, ⁊ litel æfter þam, þæs ilcan geares on .vi. Idus Ianuarii, earmlice hæþenra manna hergunc adilegode Godes cyrican in Lindisfarnaee þurh hreaflac mansliht”
“In this year fierce, foreboding omens came over the land of the Northumbrians, and the wretched people shook; there were excessive whirlwinds, lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the sky. These signs were followed by great famine, and a little after those, that same year on 6th ides of January, the ravaging of wretched heathen people destroyed God’s church at Lindisfarne.”
It seems strange of course that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle state the Vikings as arriving in January when it´s generally accepted that it took place in June, and the conditions for sailing the sea in the, for Vikings, traditional long ships would be more favourable, but according to Michael Swanton, historian, archaeological metallurgist, architectural historian specialising in Old English literature and the Anglo-Saxon period (among many other things), is an error in the original document.
Also a Northumbrian scholar at Charlemagne´s court, Alcuin, was horrified: “Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race … The heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the streets”.
The Vikings, or Northmen as they are called in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, or again, Danes, as they are often known was not necessarily of one nationality and most likely had no allegiance between the groups. “Danes” should not automatically be taken as people from Denmark (not least as none of the national states as we now know them existed at the time), but raiding Danes consisted of people from the countries around the Baltic sea, indeed what is now Denmark, but also Sweden and the areas which today form the Baltic states.
But back to what happened on that fateful day of June 8, 793; Lindisfarne was just outside the coast of the mainland, and not unlikely it was a surprise to the raiding Vikings that a wealthy monastery was located in such an isolated and vulnerable area.
But Lindisfarne was also at the heart of the Northumbrian kingdom, and its monasteries was known for its books and arts. This may not have been objects valued by the Vikings, as books was not a commodity known to the people of the north. Not that they didn´t record their stories – even though many of them went on through oral tradition – we still find the tales of particularly worthy people carved into stones, the special Scandinavian runes.
Plundering, burning and killing the monks inhabiting the monastery of Lindisfarne, as well as terrifying everyone that managed to stay alive, the Viking was seen by representatives of the church sent by God, punishing the people struck down by the violent men from the north, something which maybe can be seen as slightly ironic, as the church and its wealth would continue to draw the Vikings attention in the years to come.
After the attack on Lindisfarne, the previously mentioned Alcuin who himself was a monk as most scholars of the time, took the opportunity to write to the Northumbrian king Ethelred as well as the Bishop of Lindisfarne where he urged them to, in the future “consider the dress, the way of wearing the hair, the luxurious habits of the princes and people”, just in case “this unaccustomed and unheard-of evil was merited by some unheard-of evil practice…” One can only say that victim blaming clearly isn´t a modern phenomenon.
The monastery of Lindisfarne did recover from this attack, but the raids would continue, all over England as well as Scotland – where Iona was attacked in 794, 802, 806 and 825. In the unlikely event Alcuin was on to something in his accusations, the monastery of St Columba had really aggravated God.
The Viking World – James Graham Campbell and David Wilson
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – Michael Swanton
A History of Britain 3000BC – AD1603 – Simon Schama