The Lindisfarne Raid


On June 8, 793 the Norse longships appeared suddenly on the shores of Lindisfarne where the Norse raiders pillaged the site for all its treasures, killing anyone who opposed (any one who was there and was not a member of the raiding party) them or represented Christianity. No one expected an attack from the ocean which had always protected Lindisfarne from invasion. The events of June 8, 793 would forever change the sense of security the ocean gave.

"793. In this year terrible portents appeared over Northumbria, which sorely affrighted the inhabitants: there were exceptional flashes of lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying through the air. A great famine followed hard upon these signs; and a little later in that same year, on the 8th June, the harrying of the heathen miserably destroyed God's church by rapine and slaughter. " - Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

The event that literally kicks off the Viking Age is often over looked by those who are within Forn Seđr. With the Viking Age came many changes to society, seafaring, trade and a unification of various tribes in Scandinavia under one King. The Viking Age also has shaped our laws, culture and for some altered their family line. The Viking Age ended under Harald Sigurdsson better remembered as Harald Hardrĺde when he was killed at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on September 25th 1066.

"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." - Alcuin

The raid on Lindisfarne, a tiny island off the coast of Northumbria in north east England, marks the beginning of series of raids and expansion that would spread from the north of Europe to Byzantium. Over the course of time between 793 and 1066 the world would come to know the term “Viking" and the fear that had become associated with the word would seize a vast majority of the known world.

Some would ask why Lindisfarne? A tiny island of what seems to have been on the surface of no military or trade importance. What made Lindisfarne a highly prized target to the Norse raiders is its vulnerability as it was one of the most revered monasteries in England housing the relics of the a former bishop Saint Cuthbert and the treasured Lindisfarne Gospels, which was a text containing the words of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John scribed in Latin with Anglo-Saxon translations. Having been established as a monastery in 635 AD, Lindisfarne had grown to become the central place in Christian England for education and religion. With large amounts of gold, silver and other precious commodities located at Lindisfarne, with relatively no protection it became a opportunity too good to miss.

This has established why Lindisfarne was likely selected for the target of the raid but why did the Norsemen leave Norway to raid what was the driving force behind this desire? There are many forces at work, the most obvious was to gain wealth to amalgamate power at home. On a single raid a Norse chieftain could capture enough treasure to expand his range of power, better arm his men and buy luxuries and commodities that would normally be unavailable. However it is not all about the gold lust, in Norway at this time there was no central king that ruled over the land, ruling was done by many different chieftains, some of which went to war against one another. In order to fund the war effort at home raiding parties would be sent out to Europe to bring back resources, gold and silver, this would allow the various parties to continue the war between them. None of this would not have been possible without the revolutionary design of the longship, with a shallow draft and wide berth it was the perfect ship for raiding on coastal towns and towns who thought they were safe inland as the longships were able to sail up many of the rivers of Europe. With this ship raiders could beach the ship and depart quickly making it impossible to know when and where a raid would occur until you seen the ships making landfall. With Norway feeling the squeeze from its population growth on limited land, it was time to begin colonization of other areas, raiding parties were soon followed by colonization parties. When a raid occurred the raiders instead of retreating to the sea instead established settlements. All of these factors contributed to the beginning of the Viking Age but it is the Lindisfarne raid that is recognized as the official beginning of the Viking Age as this was the first organized attack.

"In the same year the pagans from the northern regions came with a naval force to Britain like stinging hornets and spread on all sides like fearful wolves, robbed, tore and slaughtered not only beasts of burden, sheep and oxen, but even priests and deacons, and companies of monks and nuns. And they came to the church of Lindisfarne, laid everything waste with grievous plundering, trampled the holy places with polluted steps, dug up the altars and seized all the treasures 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. …" - Simeon of Durham

Lindisfarne was clearly the perfect raid, the Norse raiders made landfall without incident, they quickly subdued any opposition with minimum casualties and injures to their party and they were able to loot large amounts of gold, silver, precious stones and other valuable items. All of this without any serious opposition with a quick retreat to the sea and back to Norway. The reputation that Lindisfarne got the raiders was an added bonus, as it aided the raiders in other areas to simply demand a tribute on the thought that they may raid making it even easier to amass great wealth.

Although Simeon of Durham’s account is from second hand knowledge it help give the vivid imagery of Vikings that exists to this very day. The fear that swept over Europe following the Lindisfarne raid has not been seen since. Although a vivid image is portrayed by Simeon of Durham it has been proven to be historically accurate. The events of Lindisfarne were relatively no different than other raids conducted in British Isles, slaughtering cattle was a common practice as mentioned in the sagas numerous times as was the practice of thralldom. What the account of Simeon of Durham really shows insight too is the effectiveness of mind conditioning the church was able to do on the populace by adding vivid illustrative passages in such texts as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and in other sources of Christian writings like the letters of Alcuin.

This is further illustrated by the exploitation by monks and priests to use the raid on Lindisfarne by creating massive fear and in some cases hysteria in the populace of the British Isles and throughout Europe. How this was accomplished was through the use of fear the church was able to root deeper Christian belief by having the populace praying to their Christian god to be spared the fury of the Norsemen. The second most common method of exploitation of the events at Lindisfarne was that those who did not live a righteous lifestyle would be punished by the Christian god who would send the Northmen to raid their village / town. Using this method is illustrated very well in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle with deceptive imagery … the dragon over Northumbria was not a real dragon obviously but symbolism to the dragon prow of the Norse ships. But at this time dragons were a very real belief and this imagery of a dragon that could descend at any moment and devour you and all you know was a terrifying outcome to people living in the Medieval Europe. When combined with lightening and famine to the Medieval Europeans the Viking raiders would seem to be more supernatural in origin than Norsemen. By demonizing the Norsemen the Anglo-Saxons were able to unite more behind their king and the church as a single entity in their fear and hatred of their neighbours to the far north.

"Lo, it is nearly 350 years that we and our fathers have inhabited this most lovely land, and 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. 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." - Alcuin

Alcuin was residing with Charlemagne at the time of the Lindisfarne raid but it did not stop him from writing several letters detailing the events that occurred; the passage above is from his letter to Ćthelred the king of Northumbria. Alcuin took the opportunity of fear and panic to reshape the populace of the British Isles to become more Christian like through the manipulation of the fears of Kings throughout the British Isles. Alcuin does not limit the demonization of pagans to just those of the Northmen, he goes on to demonize all pagans, this is reinforced with the glorification of the slain priests at the Lindisfarne monastery and universalizing Britain as prey to Scandinavia. The goal of Alcuin’s letters was to generate more belief in the Christian god as illustrated in his letter to Higbald the bishop of Lindisfarne:

"...the calamity of your tribulation saddens me greatly every day, though I am absent; when the pagans desecrated the sanctuaries of God, and poured out the blood of saints around the altar, laid waste the house of our hope, trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the street.... What assurance is there for the churches of Britain, if St Cuthbert, with so great a number of saints, defends not its own? Either this is the beginning of greater tribulation, or else the sins of the inhabitants have called it upon them. Truly it has not happened by chance, but is a sign that it was well merited by someone. But now, you who are left, stand manfully, fight bravely, defend the camp of God." – Alcuin

In this letter it is not only clear what Alcuin’s intentions are as he glorifies Christianity and demonizes all of paganism in the same breathe. Unknowingly Alcuin has provided an insight to why the Anglo-Saxons thought were the reasons for the attack by the Norsemen. Alcuin strays from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in thinking the arrival of the Norsemen as being an omen for the end of the world, instead Alcuin sees their arrival as the Christian god’s retribution for the sinful lifestyle and unholy behavior of the Anglo-Saxons and their kings. It is clear Alcuin had no respect for king Ćthelred as Alcuin regarded the raid of Lindisfarne as the beginning of a series of punishments to be dealt to Northumbria by the Christian god.

What Alcuin seen as justice being served upon Northumbria by his god and the Anglo-Saxon chronicle saw as the end of the world, the Norsemen seen as an opportunity to expand and gain wealth, as the various un-united kingdoms of England and Europe were unable to single handedly stop the raids. This in turn lead to colonization in Normandy, northern England, Ireland and to islands such as Orkney, Shetland and the Hebrides and further west to the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Greenland and to the Atlantic coast of Canada 492 years before Columbus. In England the raids and subsequent colonization from 832 to 850 resulted in the Dane law being created in 866.

After the initial raid on Lindisfarne over the next five years it would be attacked again as well as Jarrow, Wales, Ireland, the Isle of Iona and the French islands of Aquitaine where the prayer:

"A furore Normannorum libera nos, Domine - From the fury of the Northmen deliver us, O Lord"

is said to have its origins.

Lindisfarne, once the crown jewel of Christian Europe lay in ruin by 875, when the monetary was no long inhabited. The once large island settlement of monks, priests and nuns had whittled away like the island’s coast line in the ocean tide to a handful of dedicated clergy. Tiring of the continuous raids by the Northmen the monks had moved further west, after seven years of running away from the Viking raiders the monks re-established a new place at Chesterle-street in 883. The remains of St. Cuthbert were carried to the new site as was the Lindisfarne gospels. To this very day Lindisfarne remains in ruins and stands as an example of the fear the Norsemen created in Europe.

by Noil

 


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