Viking Age

Viking age started with the attack in 793 on Lindisfarne (Holy Island) off the coast of Northumberland. The monastery at Lindisfarne was the most important Christian centre in the Northumbrian realm. This incident signalled the beginning of the Viking Age in Europe and caused vibrations across English Christendom.

The invasion of Lindisfarne, which occurred at the end of the eighth century, was not the first Viking foray into the British Isles. In its entry for the year 787, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes the arrival of “three ships of Northmen” on the shore of Wessex, a group of strangers who swiftly murdered the local reeve when he attempted to bring them to the king. In addition, a Kentish charter from 792 suggests that the kingdom of Mercia had taken defensive measures against “pagan seafarers.” However, the invasion of Lindisfarne in 793 was the first known Viking raid in England and Europe in general, and the unusual occurrences accompanying it indicate its significance. In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the year’s events are recorded as follows:

Even though the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle claims that the raid happened in January, it is now widely believed that the date must have been June 8. Reported the evidence from other sources and the fact that spring is a more favourable season for coastal raids, it seems likely that the given date is a clerical error. The narrative of the attack is brief—the chronicler mentions only that the church was demolished, possessions were stolen, and blood was spilt—but the previous hunger and ominous indicators indicate the severity of the invasion from the Anglo-Saxon viewpoint. Several other mediaeval texts, including the 12th-century chronicle Historia Regum (History of Kings), often credited to Simeon of Durham, provide more detail on the incident. The source asserts that the pagan invaders “devastated everything with savage pillage, trampled the sacred places with unclean steps, dug up the altars, and plundered all of the holy church’s wealth.” He continues to explain how they carried away several of the monastic brothers in chains and drowned others at sea. Alcuin, a Northumbrian scholar who lived in the Frankish realm and taught Charlemagne’s children, also discusses the attack. In letters to the king of Northumbria and the bishop of Lindisfarne, Alcuin describes the event as a catastrophe without precedent. He recalls how the church was “spattered with the blood of the priests of God, despoiled of all its ornaments” and how the pagan culprits “trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like trash in the street.”

The accounts reveal that the event was scary to English Christians because of the immense violence committed and because a heathen tribe damaged a Christian sanctuary. Alcuin’s letters and the Historia Regum represent the raid as heresy, an assault that polluted a sacred site. Indeed, in conquering the island of Lindisfarne, the Vikings were striking at the core of Anglo-Saxon Christianity. The monastery and bishopric at Lindisfarne had been built in the mid-7th century by an Irish monk called Aidan. He was invited to Northumbria by King Oswald to renew the Christian mission in the North. Lindisfarne became the focus of a highly successful conversion effort, a base from which Aidan would go to the mainland to preach the Christian religion and create new missionary outposts. The island eventually became a centre of pilgrimage because its monastery contained the relics of St. Cuthbert, who was chosen bishop of Lindisfarne in 685. Cuthbert was a renowned seer and healer in his day, and after his death, numerous miracles were claimed at his shrine’s location, making the island a favourite destination for the devout. As the monastery rose in significance, it also increased in power and riches, receiving gifts from royal figures and grants of land. By the time of the raid, it housed many priceless liturgical artefacts.

The significance of Lindisfarne to Christians made the attack such a catastrophe. Alcuin requested an explanation of how a group of pagans effectively demolished a site that a saint should have protected. In his writings, he concludes that the wickedness of the people must be why God did not save them, but he makes no particular accusation. A few years prior, the Northumbrian monarch Aelfwald was murdered by a group of conspirators led by the nobleman Sicga, who committed himself in February of the same year as the Viking invasion. Thus, the kingdom’s recent past includes regicide and suicide, and it is conceivable that Alcuin referenced these occurrences when he perceived the attack as divine vengeance.

The attack on the monastery of Lindisfarne is frequently recognised as the beginning of the Viking Age in Europe. In the following years, the Vikings raided several other monasteries in the British Isles, notably the monastery at Jarrow (also in Northumbria) and the renowned monastery at Iona in the Hebrides. Monasteries were easy targets for invaders because of their isolation, lack of defence, and plenty of material goods. These early attackers were likely Norwegians who crossed the North Sea directly, and their attacks were brief hit-and-run operations. By the middle of the ninth century, however, Danish-dominated Viking forces had conquered entire kingdoms in England. In addition, Scandinavian troops travelled over the European continent, from France to Russia, in search of new colonies. The Viking Age in Europe lasted until the middle of the eleventh century.

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