On 8 June AD 793, the peaceful and remote monastic community of Lindisfarne Priory suffered a surprise Viking raid. It wasn’t to be a one-off, but proved just the beginning of a period of conquest and expansion by the Scandinavian warriors.
Known as Holy Island, Lindisfarne is a tidal island off the coast of Northumberland. A monastery was founded here in AD 634 by Saint Aidan at the request of King Oswald of Northumbria. It became a renowned base for Christianity in the north of England and attracted monks from communities such as Iona. The beautiful illuminated manuscripts known as The Lindisfarne Gospels were created here, and the remains of St Cuthbert were buried within.
Monasteries were often established on islands to keep them away from the political interference of the mainland and give the community a sense of isolation. This, though, made them incredibly vulnerable. As well as being undefended, the priory at Lindisfarne was full of valuable treasures used in religious ceremonies and so proved to be a fortunate choice for the raiders, showing them what wealth could be found across the sea.
The Vikings – who until now had not ventured far beyond their homes in Scandinavia – looted all the relics they could find and brutally murdered monks living on the island. It was such an unexpected attack that the inhabitants had no time to prepare a defence or call for aid from the mainland.
The assault sent shock waves across the Christian world. Lindisfarne was described by Alcuin of York, a scholar at the court of Charlemagne, as the most ‘venerable’ site in all of Britain. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded: “Heathen men made lamentable havoc in the church of God in Holy-island, by rapine and slaughter.”
Alcuin wrote an account of the attack: “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.”
Though this wasn’t the first Viking raid on Britain – one of the king’s officials had been killed by marauding Vikings in Wessex a few years previously – it was the first one to make such an impact across Europe, showing that these pagan warriors were a dangerous threat. Lindisfarne was eventually abandoned, until the late 11th century when a Norman priory was built. Following their invasion of the island, the Vikings conquered much of the north of England and incorporated it into the Danelaw – the name given to the Viking-conquered regions of Anglo- Saxon England.
This article first appeared in the June 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed