On a clear day, a Viking longship at sea could be seen some 18 nautical miles away. With a favourable wind, that distance could be covered in about an hour – which was perhaps all the time that the monks at Lindisfarne had to prepare themselves against attack on one fateful day in 793. This was the raid that signalled the start of the violence associated with the onset of the Viking age.
“We and our fathers have now lived in this fair land for nearly 350 years, and never before has such an atrocity been seen in Britain as we have now suffered at the hands of a pagan people. Such a voyage was not thought possible. The church of Saint Cuthbert is spattered with the blood of the priests of God, stripped of all its furnishings, exposed to the plundering of pagans – a place more sacred than any in Britain.”
The extract is from a letter, written in the wake of the attack, to King Æthelred of Northumbria by Alcuin. Alcuin had been a monk in York before accepting an invitation in 781 to join Charlemagne at his court in Aachen, where he became the Frankish king’s leading spiritual advisor.
Historians have been inclined to take Alcuin’s astonishment at the raid at face value, and supposed the Vikings to be a wholly unknown quantity. Yet in the same letter Alcuin rebuked Æthelred and his courtiers for aping the fashions of the heathens: “Consider the luxurious dress, hair and behaviour of leaders and people,” he urged the king. “See how you have wanted to copy the pagan way of cutting hair and beards. Are not these the people whose terror threatens us, yet you want to copy their hair?”
The obvious conclusion is that, at the time of the raid, the Northumbrians were already familiar with their Norwegian visitors. What was new was the violence.
Lindisfarne turned out to be the start of a wave of similar attacks on monasteries in northern Britain. Alcuin, with his local knowledge, warned the religious communities at nearby Wearmouth and Jarrow to be on their guard: “You live by the sea from whence this plague first came.”
In 794, Vikings “ravaged in Northumbria, and plundered Ecgfrith’s monastery at Donemuthan”. The 12th‑century historian Symeon of Durham identified this as the monastery at Jarrow, and reported that its protector, Saint Cuthbert, had not let the heathens go unpunished, “for their chief was killed by the English… And these things befell them rightly, for they had gravely injured those who had not injured them.”
Shetland and Orkney were probably overrun during this first wave of violence, and the indigenous population of Picts wiped out so swiftly that local place names and the names of natural phenomena such as rivers and mountains vanished, to be replaced by Scandinavian names.
Ireland and the Western Isles of Scotland suffered, too. The Annals of Ulster report the burning in 795 of the monastery at Rechru, and the Isle of Skye “overwhelmed and laid waste”. Iona was attacked for a first time in 795 and again in 802. In a third raid in 806 the monastery was torched and the community of 68 wiped out. Work started the following year on a safe refuge for the revived community at Kells in Ireland.
Best form of defence
Why was there such hatred in the attacks, and why did they start in 793, rather than 743, or 843? To look for a triggering event we need to examine the political situation in northern Europe at the time.
At the commencement of the Viking age, the major political powers in the world were Byzantium in the east; the Muslims, whose expansion had taken them as far as Turkistan and Asia Minor to create an Islamic barrier between the northern and southern hemispheres; and the Franks, who had become the dominant tribe among the successor states after the fall of the Roman empire in the west.
Charlemagne became sole ruler of the Franks in 771. He took seriously the missionary obligations imposed on him by his position as the most powerful ruler in western Christendom, and expended a huge amount of energy on the subjugation of the heathen Saxons on his north-east border. In 772, his forces crossed into Saxon territory and destroyed Irminsul, the sacred tree that was their most holy totem. In 779, Widukind, the Saxon leader, was defeated in battle at Bocholt and Saxony taken over and divided into missionary districts. Charlemagne himself presided over a number of mass baptisms.
In 782, his armies forcibly baptised and then executed 4,500 Saxon captives at Verden, on the banks of the river Aller. Campaigns of enforced resettlement followed, but resistance continued until a final insurrection was put down in 804. By this time Charlemagne had already been rewarded for his missionary activities by Pope Leo III who in Rome in AD 800 crowned him imperator – emperor not of a geographical area nor even of a collection of peoples but of the abstract conception of Christendom as a single community.
With their physical subjugation complete, the cultural subjugation of the Saxons followed. Death was the penalty for eating meat during Lent; death for cremating the dead in accordance with heathen rites; death for rejecting baptism.
Several times, in the course of the campaign of resistance, Widukind sought refuge across the border with his brother-in-law Sigfrid, a Danish king. News of Charlemagne’s depredations, and in particular the Verden massacre, must have travelled like a shock wave through Danish territory and beyond.
How should the heathen Scandinavians react to the threat? For, whether they knew it or not, they were on Alcuin’s list of peoples to be converted. In 789 he wrote to a friend working among the Saxons: “Tell me, is there any hope of our converting the Danes?”
The question for the Vikings was: should they simply wait for Charlemagne’s armies to arrive and set about the task? Or should they fight to defend their culture?
A military campaign against the might of Frankish Christendom was out of the question. However, the Christian monasteries – such as Lindisfarne – dotted around the rim of northern Europe were symbolically important and, in the parlance of modern terrorist warfare, ‘soft targets’. So, with an indifference to the humanity of their victims as complete as that of Charlemagne’s towards the Saxons, these first Viking raiders were able to set off on a punishing series of attacks in the grip of a no-holds-barred rage directed at Christian ‘others’.
The Christian annalists who documented Viking violence insistently saw the conflict as a battle between religious cultures. A century after the first attack on Lindisfarne, Asser, in his biography of Alfred the Great, continued to refer to the much larger bands of Vikings who had by now established themselves along the eastern seaboard of England as “the pagans” (pagani), and to their victims as “Christians” (christiani).
Clash of faiths
Attacks such as those mounted by Vikings were almost impossible to defend against, and long before Asser’s time the raiders had discovered how easy it was to plunder what was probably the richest country in western Europe. In 851 a fleet of 350 ships sailed up the Thames to attack London and Canterbury then, instead of sailing home, spent the winter encamped at Thanet. It was a prelude to the arrival in 865 of what the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle called the “Great Heathen Army” – a force that, after 15 years of warring against the demoralised kingdoms of Northumbria, Wessex, Mercia and East Anglia, had gained control of England from York down to East Anglia.
By 927 much of the lost territory had been regained by the Wessex king Alfred the Great, his son Edward and grandson Æthelstan, but by that time the achievements of the Great Heathen Army had became part of the cultural history of young Viking males.
Large-scale Viking violence returned to England during the reign of King Æthelred in the 990s, under the Dane, Swein Forkbeard, and the Norwegian, Olaf Tryggvason. The policy of the ‘danegeld’ – protection money paid in return for being left alone – was practised with a punishing regularity. It was with wealth gained in this fashion that the Viking Olaf Tryggvason financed his successful bid for the crown of Norway in 995.
In 1012 the archbishop of Canterbury was captured and, when the ransom demanded for him was not forthcoming, was murdered for the sport of a drunken group of men under the Viking earl Thorkell the Tall. They pelted him with bones, stones, blocks of wood and the skulls of cattle before finishing him off with the flat of an axe.
The loss of its spiritual head brought the faltering Anglo-Saxon monarchy to its knees, and within two years a Danish king, Swein Forkbeard, was on the throne of England. By 1028 Swein’s son Cnut was ruler of a North Sea empire that included Denmark (with Skåne in Sweden), Norway, and all England.
In name, at least, the heathens were now Christians but their pride in themselves as conquering warriors remained strong. A poem in praise of Cnut – composed by his Icelandic court poet, Sigvat – invoked the memory of the Northumbrian king Ælla of York, defeated in battle by Ivar the Boneless during the first surge of the Great Heathen Army: “And Ivar, who dwelt in York, carved the eagle on Ælla’s back.”
Remarkably, Cnut’s triumphs figured in Sigvat’s literary imagination as the successful resolution of a conflict that had been going on for over 150 years, beginning as a series of gestures of cultural self-defence and soon after developing into dreams of conquest.
Alcuin had foreseen the ultimate consequences of the first Viking raid of 793 with visionary precision. “Who does not fear this?” he asked King Æthelred of Northumbria. “Who does not lament this as if his country were captured?” In his distress, he was overlooking the fact that the Vikings were only doing what his own Saxon forefathers had done to the Britons and Celts of the kingdoms of England some three and a half centuries earlier, conquering “this fair land” by the same means – violence – as the Vikings.
Cnut was unlucky with his sons, and Danish rule in England lasted less than 30 years. Fifteen years on and the memories of King Cnut and his North Sea empire were all but wiped out by the greater drama of Duke William of Normandy’s conquest of 1066.
Robert Ferguson has been a leading scholar and exponent of Scandinavian culture and history for over 30 years. He lives in Oslo and on the Isle of Cumbrae.
Three other explanations for Viking violence
Faster ships, internal strife and new trade links may also have helped trigger the raids
Technological advances that encouraged piracy
Poverty and overpopulation
In his history On the Customs and Deeds of the First Norman Dukes (995–1015), Dudo of Saint-Quentin wrote that, in former times in the Scandinavian homelands, quarrels over land and property were resolved by “the drawing of lots”. Losers were condemned to a life abroad where “by fighting they can gain themselves countries”.