In 793AD, Vikings attacked Lindisfarne. Here's why it was so shocking

The first large-scale raid on Britain was said to usher in the 'Viking Age'. Why did this attack matter so much – and what happened next?

Lindisfarne Castle on Holy Island, Northumberland. In 793AD a monastery stood on Lindisfarne – which, whilst sacred, was filled with tempting treasures and wealth to ‘heathen raiders’.  

 

Photograph by Michael Hatfield / Alamy
By Alec Marsh
Published 21 Jun 2022, 07:39 BST

Certain dates in world history live on, as Franklin D Roosevelt put it, in infamy; the attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December, 1941, being one of them, and more recently, the horror of the attacks on the World Trade Centre and elsewhere on September 11, 2001.

One such day was the 8 June, 793. That was the day the Vikings attacked the monastery at Lindisfarne, a coastal island in Northumbria (present-day Northumberland) in the North East of England. While the numerical loss of life was lower than in later attacks, the incursion was on a scale and of a nature that shocked the world. Monks were put to the sword, precious religious artefacts stolen, and the church’s shrine of St Cuthbert defiled. The first raid of its kind, the event would kick-start what is now known as the Viking age.

(Five things to learn from new documentary The Vikings: Rise and Fall.)

’Fierce robbery and slaughter’

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us simply that ‘the woeful inroads of heathen men destroyed God’s church in Lindisfarne island by fierce robbery and slaughter’. Writing in the next century, the chronicler Symeon of Durham wrote: ‘They miserably ravaged and pillaged everything. They trod the holy things under their polluted feet, they dug down the altars, and plundered all the treasures of the church. Some of the brethren they slew, some they carried off with them in chains, the greater number they stripped naked, insulted, and cast out of doors, and some they drowned in the sea.’

The statue of St Aidan that stands at Lindisfarne. Aidan founded the monastery on the island of Lindisfarne in 635AD.

Photograph by James King-Holmes / Alamy

Within weeks of the atrocity, a man called Alcuin, a senior adviser to Charlemagne – the most powerful man in Europe – was writing to the king of Northumbria to express his shock and horror at the attack. ‘Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race, nor was it thought that such an inroad from the sea could be made,’ Alcuin declared. ‘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.’

The monastery at Lindisfarne was highly prized – and not just by Alcuin, who was from York – because it was the very place from which Christianity had been re-established in the North of England. It was there, 150 years before, that St Aiden had founded a religious community with a group of monks from Iona at the behest of the Northumbrian king. And then there was the later bishop of Lindisfarne, St Cuthbert, who by the 790s had come to be regarded by the Anglo-Saxons as ‘almost like the English nation saint’, according to the historian and broadcaster Michael Wood, author of In Search of the Dark Ages. And that in part explains the shock the attack caused. Among the community’s many treasures were the Lindisfarne Gospels, an illuminated manuscript made in 710s that is today hailed as one of the greatest literary treasures of the medieval world. (What are the most valuable printed texts?)

Alcuin is received by Charlemagne, c.780, in 18th century depiction by Jean-Victor Schnetz.

Photograph by Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy

More than monks

But Lindisfarne wasn’t just of religious importance, says Dr David Petts, associate professor at the department for archaeology at Durham University. By the 790s the community of Lindisfarne on Holy Island was also an economic and political powerhouse. ‘Sometimes it’s framed as a remote island monastery with lots of monks staring mistily into the middle distance,’ says Petts. ‘But actually what’s clear from the archaeology and the history is it’s a socking great big organisation; it’s exploiting the seawaters around it, it’s got massive estates on the mainland – it’s probably the biggest population centre north of York in the early medieval world.’

With perhaps as many as 400 people living there – of which half were monks and lay-brothers, with tenants and craftsmen forming the remainder, this island community was huge by the standards of rural Anglo-Saxon England, says Petts, who has excavated on Lindisfarne over the past seven years. It was also wealthy, with a landholding stretching some 15 to 20 miles north along the coast to Berwick-upon-Tweed. What’s more, over the preceding century and more the monks of this royal monastery had had plenty of time to accumulate their riches. (These are the most spectacular Viking artefacts.)

Posts in the tide mark the pilgrim's way to Lindisfarne by the holy path.

Photograph by Andrew Ray / Alamy

As well as offering a tempting target in its own right, Lindisfarne’s exposed position was made worse by the state of Northumbria – itself in the grip of a protracted political upheaval. Just five years before the attack the king of Northumbria was murdered; regicide, heir-murder, betrayal and complex successions were a feature of the landscape of the time. ‘What you’ve really got is this period of about five years of absolutely horrendous plotting and counter plotting, of murders of kings and royal families,’ says Wood. ‘You’d hardly got a chance of staying alive very long judging by the internal politics – and that’s the moment that the Viking attack on Lindisfarne happens.’

And that’s no coincidence, because the Vikings almost certainly had a very good idea of what was going on – after all they had been sailing up and down these coasts, buying and selling goods, for some time already. For evidence, Petts points to bone isotope evidence in burials, pre-793 from Bamburgh, a royal castle just down the coast from Lindisfarne, as evidence of prior Scandinavian presence. ‘These are people who know this landscape, this seascape, the social world,’ he says. ‘They’re not just people who just set out one day from Oslo and rowed west till they hit something. They understand this North Sea world.’

A Viking Trojan horse

For a guide as to what may have happened that day we can look at an incident that took place just a few years before in Wessex in 788, when three Viking ships landed in Portland. The local official, the reeve, went to check them in: ‘The reeve rode thither and tried to compel them to go to the royal manor, for he did not know what they were,’ recorded the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, ‘and then they slew him.’

Left: Top:

A watercolour depicts the attack on Lindisfarne, showing the raiders stealing bounty and slaves. The attack was used by the church to emphasise the need to be devout, with the Viking attackers an ideal vehicle to depict the wrath of God. 

Photograph by Niday Picture Library / Alamy
Right: Bottom:

An 1857 engraving gives a similarly brutal view of the attack. The sacred ground of the monastery protected it from native raids; such boundaries were not respected by those for whom Christianity meant little. 

From John Cassell's Illustrated History of England, Vol. I

Petts thinks it’s likely that the Lindisfarne attack was similarly a landing by a handful of three or four ships – giving us a total number of perhaps 100 Viking warriors in all to mount the attack. But rather like the poor reeve galloping out to meet the ships at Portland, the monks at Lindisfarne probably didn’t know what was coming. ‘I don’t think they’re looking at these striped sails on the horizon, panicking,’ says Petts. ‘It was much more Trojan horse. They turn up and once they’re on the island they get the swords out.’ As a result, the archaeologist adds: ‘The monks might not have realised until the last moment that they’re raiders not traders.’

According to Peter Heather, professor of medieval history at King’s College, London, the raid on Lindisfarne signals a critical juncture in the emergence of the Vikings on to the world stage. Up to that point, the Scandinavians had been involved in cross-Channel trade mainly through the supply furs and sourcing of slaves – the former were bound for the Carolingian court at Aachen, or sold to Anglo-Saxon nobility, the latter destined for the major European slave markets.

Physical evidence for the raid at Lindisfarne is scarce but this stone – uncovered at the priory on the island – is believed to depict the atrocity. It has since been named the 'Domesday Stone' or 'Viking raider stone' and is on display at English Heritage's Lindisfarne Priory museum. 

Courtesy of English Heritage

However like most primary producers the Vikings earned the smallest portion for their efforts. ‘Eventually it dawns on them that the way to make the most cash out of this activity is to cut out the middle man and get directly involved,’ says Heather, who is co-writing a book about the rise of Viking naval power with Professor Jan Bill, the curator of the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo. Once across the Channel, the Vikings’ involvement in trading quickly progresses to raiding. ‘I suspect that they’re simultaneous,’ he says. ‘They don’t have differentiated types of ship yet. Later on you could tell if someone’s a raider or a trader by what type of ship they had.’

Indeed even before they decided to steal from their would-be customers, there was in any event their stock in trade: slaves. ‘They’re slave traders,’ notes Heather. ‘Where the hell do you get slaves from? Someone’s raiding… this is not a peaceful process.’

“They turn up and once they’re on the island they get the swords out... The monks might not have realised until the last moment that they’re raiders not traders.”

Dr David Petts

From the sources we know that the Vikings left Lindisfarne with slaves (Alcuin tried to raise ransoms to have them released). But first and foremost the Viking raiders landing that day wanted silver – because back home in Scandinavia, this would buy them land and pay for dowries for marriage, and buy them status. Unsurprisingly monastic centres like Lindisfarne became prime candidates to feed the Viking demand for silver: a year later the Northmen plundered the Benedictine abbey at Jarrow; a year after that they looted the abbey at Iona on the West Coast of Scotland. Not for nothing, as Petts notes, are Viking graves in the west of Norway one of best sources of medieval reliquaries.

Yet, despite the rhetoric, the attack of 793 did not destroy the monastery at Lindisfarne. Among the survivors was the illuminated Lindisfarne Gospels. The religious community survived too. In 875, as Viking attacks intensified, most of the monks and the remains of St Cuthbert were removed and taken to safety – but the religious house endured. As did Cuthbert’s importance.

From the ashes of attack

A hundred years on, in the 890s, the Vikings had conquered Northumbria (as well as all the land in the east of England), and the West Saxons held out against them alone among the old Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, albeit by the skin of their teeth. At this point, says Michael Wood, the records of the northern chroniclers were integrated into Wessex’s chronicles, preserving them under Alfred’s eye in Winchester. ‘By then everybody understood that these attacks were massive existential threats, so in writing them up a century later their significance was absolutely clear,’ he says.

Vikings: The Rise and Fall – Watch the Trailer
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Moreover, there’s evidence that West Saxon kings from Alfred onwards viewed St Cuthbert as their patron, underlining Lindisfarne’s continued importance. ‘They had a story – and the story existed very early, it’s not a later fiction,’ says Wood, ‘that Cuthbert had appeared to Alfred the Great in a vision and promised him that if his family stayed firm they would in the end be kings of England.’ Which they were – and they kept St Cuthbert close to them, too.

So it’s hardly surprising that the fateful day in June 793 has been remembered, even if it wasn’t the first attack. For as well as the killing of the reeve in Wessex there is evidence of Viking attacks in Kent as early as 753. ‘When you piece together the picture of Viking attacks right across the British Isles you probably guess that this was a low-level condition of war that existed throughout what we used to call the Dark Ages,’ says Wood, ‘and that the ante really gets upped by Lindisfarne because it’s such a devastating attack on such as important place.’

And that, coupled with having a Northumbrian scholar, Alcuin, at the court of Charlemagne in Aachen, also ensured it was never forgotten. ‘It’s the first really noisy, high profile, piece of damage that the Vikings do,’ says Heather.

But not the last. Before the Vikings had had their day in the mid-1100s, they created a lot more noise, but Lindisfarne shouts louder than the rest. ‘It was the first attack in the north,’ says David Petts. ‘It’s such a surprise. It’s a bolt from the blue.’

Alec Marsh is a journalist and author of the Drabble & Harris books. Vikings: The Rise and Fall starts on the National Geographic Channel on 21 June. Find out more here. 

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