Monday, January 23, 2017

Lindisfarne Attack: Dawn of the Viking Age

Grave Marker 'The Viking Raider Stone' (Sourse: English Heritage)
As the monks of Lindisfarne lived out their pious lifestyle in a June day in 793, a group of Scandinavians desperate for riches and plunder rushed into their shores and dashed into their monastery and into history. Explore what happened in Lindisfarne at the dawn of the Viking Age?

What is Lindisfarne for England?

Lindisfarne was a religious center in an island off the coast of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria (Modern day Northumberland) and known also as Holy Island. Established in 635 by the Irish monk Aidan under the patronage of the Northumbrian King Oswald, the monastery grew to a bishopric and center of Christian activity.

It hosted great monks and priest such as late 7th century Bishop Cuthbert, a reformer monk known as a great preacher and healer.  His incorrupted corpse elevated him to the status of Saint and earned him a shrine within the monastery.
The incorrupt body of Cuthbert
from Bede's Life of Cuthbert

The shrine then attracted pilgrims, some of which reported miracles that brought more to come. The monastery grew rich as a result.

Besides St. Cuthbert, Lindisfarne also welcomed St. Bede who wrote the Ecclesiastical History of the English People. The Lindisfarne monks also created in the 8th century the Lindisfarne Gospel, a great masterpiece of Medieval and Anglo-Saxon England.

Thus, the Lindisfarne Monastery was rich both in wealth, culture, and history. But the first of the 3 – wealth – and its lack of defense made it an easy prey for a scourge coming from the frozen lands of Scandinavia.

Rise of the Vikings

The Vikings were a talented and ferocious people from Scandinavia. In the Medieval Ages, temperature rose for few degrees, resulting to longer period for growing crops and higher agricultural production. It then supported an increase in population among the Vikings. Later, however, food production failed to catch up with population growth, hence, overpopulation set in. Vikings fought each other for land and food. Others desperate for survival then thought of seeking their fortunes overseas. Ventures that brought them indeed wealth at the expense of Europe.

With their longships, designed to sail in both strong seas and shallow rivers, and excellent navigational skills, the Vikings set out to meet their destiny, and Lindisfarne tragically witnessed this meeting in 793.

The Attack on Lindisfarne

Northumbrians suffered hardships in 793. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle stated “fiery dragons” flew across the sky. Most interpreted it as a comet, which in medieval times, believed to be an omen for a great change if not bad luck. True enough, terrible things began happening. Famine and hunger befallen the Kingdom. And then, a part of this difficulty, emerged the Vikings.

On June 8, 793, as the monks of Lindisfarne went to their everyday routine, Viking longships appeared in the horizon. The monks had no idea of their business until large men bearing axes, swords, and shields disembarked and charged the wealthy monastery. The defenseless monastery gave in easily, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle described what followed, “The raiding of heathen men miserably devastated God's church in Lindisfarne Island by looting and slaughter.”

Medieval English Historian Simeon of Durham also wrote in the History of the Kings of England:
“The pagans from the northern regions came with a naval force to Britain like stinging hornets and spread on all sides like fearful wolves, robbed, tore and slaughtered not only beasts of burden, sheep, and oxen, but even priests and deacons, and companies of monks and nuns. 
And they came to the church at Lindisfarne, laid everything waste with grievous plundering, trampled the holy places, with polluted steps, dug up the altars and seized all the treasures of the holy church. They killed some of the brothers, took some away with them in fetters, many they drove out, naked and loaded with insults, some they drowned in the sea.”
English chronicles and histories described the attack as utterly barbaric. The Vikings murdered men and women indiscriminately, plundered wealth rapaciously, and desecrated icons blasphemously.

Those who survived had their lives in the hands of the Vikings. Some, as the description stated, drowned, while others enslaved or made hostage for ransom.

The events in Lindisfarne spread to England as well as the continent. In particular, a Northumbrian monk Alcuin, working for Charlemagne, raged on the attack.

Alcuin’s Reaction
Alcuin (In the middle)
Alcuin worked as an important counsel in Charlemagne’s court in Aachen, the center of the Holy Roman Empire. He worked to improve education and spur cultural revitalization in Europe. He heard the news of the attack on Lindisfarne and wrote 2 letters, one for King Ethelred of Northumbria and another for Bishop Higbald of Lindisfarne.

His letters showed his shock over the attack of the Vikings. He described the attack:
“Behold, the church of St. Cuthbert spattered with the blood of the priests of God, despoiled of all its ornaments; a place more venerable than all in Britain is given as a prey to pagan peoples.”
To the Bishop of Lindisfarne he offered a phrase of prayer for the people of Northumbria, writing "O Lord, spare thy people and do not give the Gentiles thine inheritance, to prevent the heathen say, 'Where is the God of the Christians?'”

Alcuin used the attacked on Lindisfarne as a call for the king and clerics of Northumbria as a reason for the need to change their way of life. He interpreted the attack on Lindisfarne as a punishment from God for the vanity and corruption that prevailed in the Kingdom. Hence, in both of his letter, he advised a return to moral life as means to protect the Kingdom from another such brutal incident.

His advice, however, even followed did not prevent the onslaught that later came to Northumbria, the whole of British Isles, and the rest of Europe.

Aftermath of the Attack on Lindisfarne

Lindisfarne community survived from the attack of the Vikings. Nevertheless as decades pass, the danger of Viking attacks forced them to leave the island. Only in the 11th century when Lindisfarne religious community started to return.

Meanwhile, Lindisfarne was the earliest attack of Vikings in Europe. More raids followed in England, and then the whole continent. Europe, starting to recover the glory of Roman civilization, stumbled upon the Viking Age. The magnitude of the Viking raids intensified, attacking major cities like Paris, Hamburg, Seville. Kings lost wealth and prestige in the hands of the Vikings. Their attacks and brutality earned them notoriety for the next 4 centuries. Fear only dissipated in 1066, when Viking King Harald Hardrada fell with his army in the Battle of Stamford Bridge, marking the end of the Viking age.

Summing Up

The Lindisfarne attack went into world history as the earliest attack of the Vikings in Europe. The brutality and violence only demonstrated Europe’s faith in the hands of the Vikings. For about 400 years, hundreds up to thousands of Viking attacks followed and Europe once again plunged into crisis because of them. Lindisfarne was only the first among many victims of the Vikings.

See also:

“Alcuin, Letter to Higbald (793).” Viking Sources in Translation. Accessed on January 19, 2017. URL:

“Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: Peterborough Manuscript.” Viking Sources in Translation. Accessed on January 19, 2017. URL:

“History of Lindisfarne Priory.” English Heritage. Accessed on January 19, 2017. URL:

Ferugon, Robert. The Vikings. New York, New York: Penguin, 2009.

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