It was an event that shook the Christian world to its core. So traumatic was its destruction that historians have agreed it should mark the official beginning of the Viking Age, even though it was not the first violence the British Isles experienced at the hands of the Vikings. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records ‘terrible portents’ to the events at Lindisfarne in 793 A.D. Located on Holy Island in the far north of England, it is written that the monastery saw powerful storms on the eve of the Vikings’ arrival.
Who attacked Lindisfarne?
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle notes,
“793. Here terrible portents came about over the land of Northumbria, and miserably frightened the people: these were immense flashes of lightning,and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine immediately followed these signs; and a little after that in the same year on 8 January the raiding of heathen men miserably devastated God’s church in Lindisfarne island by looting and slaughter.”
The speed at which the Vikings are said to have arrived caught the monks completely by surprise. Reconstructions in past years have estimated that on a clear day a ship might only be seen as far as 18 nautical miles, a little over an hour’s journey for a longship with the wind at its back. If the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is to be believed, the Vikings neither arrived on a clear day nor did the monks appear to have had an hour to flee.
Wrote the monk Alcuin, a leading theologian of his day, of the event:
“We and our fathers have now lived in this fair land for nearly three hundred and fifty 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 St. 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.”
Alcuin’s description certainly lends to the idea that the clergy at Lindisfarne did little to flee their attackers. It may have been that the Vikings arrived so suddenly that they had no time to prepare at all. Yet for all the descriptions we have of the destruction caused at Lindisfarne, we have little in the way of a description of the men who carried out the raid, other than ‘heathen’ or ‘pagan’. Who were the men who raided the island? Where did they come from?
Were the Vikings at Lindisfarne from Norway?
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle lists an entry from the year 787 A.D., six years before Lindisfarne, in which ‘Danes’ arrived at the port of Portland. It describes a brief encounter in which the port authority was killed for attempting to levy a tax on the heathens. The chronicler Aethelweard further expounded on the events of that day, and mentions the men introduced themselves as being from the Hordaland region of Norway.
“A.D. 787. This year King Bertric took Edburga the daughter of Offa to wife. And in his days came first three ships of the Northmen from the land of robbers. The reve then rode thereto, and would drive them to the king’s town; for he knew not what they were; and there was he slain. These were the first ships of the Danish men that sought the land of the English nation.”
Aethelweard’s account tells us that Vikings from the Norway region had, at this time, the ability to sail from Norway to Southern England. It certainly contradicts Alcuin’s assertion of, “Such a voyage was not thought possible.” The account is also evidence that the Vikings of Norway were interested in and traveling to the British Isles, and so it is not a long leap to say that it is likely that the attackers at Lindisfarne may have been from Norway, not Denmark. Unfortunately, we cannot know for sure. The raiders at Lindisfarne did not introduce themselves as they had done in Portland.
Were the Vikings at Lindisfarne from Denmark?
There is one brief chapter in history that may lend itself to helping us understand who the first raiders were and, roughly, why they attacked. In 792 A.D. Emperor Charlemagne moved to suppress a Saxon rebellion under the leadership of a man named Widukind. His action was decisive and bloody. The Royal Frankish Annals tell us that during the battle at the confluence of the Aller and Weser rivers, the Franks captured 4,500 Saxon prisoners. As a means to send a message to the rest of the region, Charlemagne ordered the prisoners be baptized in the river. There, the priests recited their benedictions as the Frankish soldiers held their victims underwater until they drowned.
The event, known as the “The Massacre of Verden” was perfectly in line with Charlemagne’s tactics to subdue pagan tribes. However, Widukind, the leader of the Saxons, was brother in law to the king of the Danes, Sigfred. News of the massacre undoubtedly reached the Danish court, and word of Charlemagne’s acts of violence would have spread across Scandinavia. It was yet another brutal, violent display of power by the Carolingians, the latest in a long series spanning decades.
From what historians can tell from the sources, Danish raids along the coast of Frisia intensified almost immediately, leading to an infamous raid on Dorestad, to which Charlemagne supposedly bore witness, if we are to believe the account given by the chronicler Einhart in his work, Two Lives of Charlemagne. The very next year, the attack on Lindisfarne occurred, and what happened there has led some to believe that there was a direct connection between the two events. A source about the attack by the twelfth century English chronicler, Simeon of Durham, who drew from a lost Northumbrian annals, described the events at Lindisfarne thusly:
“And they came to the church at Lindisfarne, laid everything to waste with grievous plundering, trampled the holy places with polluted steps, dug up the altars and seized all the treasure of the holy church. They killed some of the brothers, took some away with them in fetters, many they drove out, naked and loaded with insults, some they drowned in the sea…“
Some historians have taken this last passage to mean that the Vikings purposefully took priests to the water to drown them in order to make the point that they were retaliating against the encroachment of Christendom on Denmark. Other historians have disputed this as mere coincidence. If true, it might mean that the men who attacked Lindisfarne were from Denmark, not Norway. They would have begun their raids in Frisia and then made the leap across the channel and up the coast.
So, Who Attacked Lindisfarne???
Although there is some evidence to suggest it was either Danes or Norwegians who attacked Lindisfarne, it is impossible to know for sure. It just as easily could have been a church conspiracy – an inside job – to incriminate the ‘heathens’ for a barbaric act to spur greater efforts to convert Scandinavia. One could say that Alcuin’s inconsistency, such as his assertion that, “Such a voyage was not thought possible,” despite knowing that Norwegians had already visited Portland, point to a cover-up and overt effort to demonize the men from the ‘North’. Perhaps Alcuin, who was in exile in Charlemagne’s court at the time, was the architect of a political hit job, and Lindisfarne was actually sacked by Frankish raiders under his orders – all so he could convince Charlemagne of the need to invade Jutland.
Of course, the ‘inside job’ narrative is ridiculous, but it’s useful insofar as it showcases the nature of the study of the Vikings. We don’t actually know all that much about the Vikings and many of the major events that marked that time period, and even well-documented and ubiquitous events are based on extremely light evidence and few primary sources. Therefore, in answer to the question of who attacked Lindisfarne, all we can really say is it was probably Norwegians, maybe Danes, but ultimately we do not, and cannot, know for sure.