The year 793 is normally seen by scholars as the dawn of the “Viking Age” in Europe, a time of wide-ranging pillaging, conquest and empire-building by the fierce warriors of the north.
The turning point came on 8 June of that year when the Vikings launched an attack on the wealthy and unprotected monastery-island of Lindisfarne. Though it was not technically the first raid on the British Isles (that had taken place in 787), it marked the first time the northmen had sent shivers of fear throughout the Kingdom of Northumbria, England and wider Europe.
A punishment from God?
The Lindisfarne raid took place during the time normally known as the “Dark Ages” but Europe was already well into the process of emerging from the ashes of Rome. Charlemagne’s powerful and enlightened rule covered much of continental Europe, and he respected and shared contact with the formidable English King Offa of Mercia.
The Vikings’ sudden attack on Lindisfarne was not, therefore, just another spasm of violence in a barbaric and lawless era, but a genuinely shocking and unexpected event.
The raid did not actually strike England but the northern Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria, which stretched from the Humber river to the lowlands of modern Scotland. With unfriendly neighbours to the north and a new power centre to the south, Northumbria was a tough place to control where the rulers had to be capable warriors.
The king of Northumbria at that time, Aethelred I, had just returned from exile to forcibly retake the throne and, after the Viking attack, Charlemagne’s favourite scholar and theologian – Alcuin of York – wrote a stern letter to Aethelred blaming him and the depravities of his court for this divine punishment from the north.
The emergence of the Vikings
While Christianity gradually tempered the population of western Europe, the inhabitants of Sweden, Norway and Denmark were still fierce pagan warriors and raiders, who, up until 793, had largely expended their energy fighting each other.
Several factors have been suggested for the Vikings’ sudden emergence from obscurity in the late 8th century, including overpopulation on the barren Danish mainland, growing horizons as the new and international Islamic world expanded and took trade to the farthest corners of the earth, and new technology that allowed them to cross large bodies of water safely.
In all likelihood it was a combination of many of these factors, but some advance in technology was certainly required to make it possible. All sea travel in the ancient world had been confined to coastal waters and the relatively calm Mediterranean, and crossing and navigating large bodies of water such as the North Sea would have previously been too dangerous to attempt.
Despite their reputation as primitive and savage raiders, the Vikings enjoyed superior naval technology to anyone else at the time, giving them a permanent edge at sea and an ability to strike wherever they liked without warning.
Rich and easy pickings
In 793, however, none of this was known to the inhabitants of Lindisfarne Island, where a priory founded by the Irish Saint Aiden had existed peacefully since 634. By the time of the raid, it was the centre of Christianity in Northumbria, and a rich and widely-visited site.
The fact that the Vikings chose to attack Lindisfarne demonstrates either extraordinary luck or surprisingly good information and careful planning. Not only was it stuffed with riches used in the religious ceremonies, but it was almost completely undefended and far enough off the coast to ensure that it would be easy prey for seaborne attackers before any help could arrive.
Even if the Vikings had enjoyed prior information about Lindisfarne, the raiders must have been amazed at such rich and easy pickings.
What happened next is predictable and probably best-described by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – a collection of annals created in the late 9th century that chronicled the history of the Anglo-Saxons:
“793 AD. This year came dreadful fore-warnings over the land of the Northumbrians, terrifying the people most woefully: these were immense sheets of light rushing through the air, and whirlwinds, and fiery dragons flying across the firmament. These tremendous tokens were soon followed by a great famine: and not long after, on the sixth day before the ides of January in the same year, the harrowing inroads of heathen men made lamentable havoc in the church of God in Holy-island, by rapine and slaughter.”
A very gloomy picture indeed.
The outcome of the raid
Presumably some of the monks tried to resist, or to prevent the seizure of their books and treasure, for Alcuin confirms that they met a grisly end:
“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.”
We know less today about the fate of the Vikings but it is unlikely that the thin, cold and untrained monks could have caused them much harm. For the Northmen, the raid was most significant in that it set a precedent, showing them and their eager companions back home that wealth, slaves and glory were to be found across the sea.
In the coming centuries, the Vikings would raid as far as Kiev, Constantinople, Paris and most coastal places in between. But England and Northumbria would suffer in particular.
The latter ceased to exist in 866 when it fell to an army of Danes, and many place names along the north-east coast of England (such as York and Skegness) still show the marked effect of their rule, which lasted in York until 957.
Norse rule of the islands of Scotland would continue for much longer, with native speakers of Norwegian in Scotland lasting well into the 18th century. The attack on Lindisfarne started an era that played an immense role in shaping the culture of the British Isles and much of mainland Europe.