The Sack of Lindisfarne

If  a single event has come to represent one of the most turbulent and violent periods in British history it is the Sack of Lindisfarne. In 793, the Holy Island of Lindisfarne was attacked by Viking raiders. It was a merciless and intense attack that saw many monks put to the sword and treasures of the monastery carried away. This was only the start; the sack of Lindisfarne is taken by some to be the start of the sustained Danish invasion of England.

It came after a season of terrifying portents and unsettling rumours. The Archbishop of Canterbury wrote to his son of “the thick infestations of wicked men in the provinces of the Angles and Gaul”. Across the Irish Sea, native settlers of islands off the coast of Ireland had returned to the mainland “for the sake of the thieving Norsemen”.

Lindisfarne Castle on Holy island By matthew Hunt (originally posted to Flickr as Holly Island 11) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Some of the rulers of the kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy were better informed and thus more prepared. King Offa, the King of Mercia, complimented his western dyke against the Welsh with a series of defences along the eastern seaboard. Mercia’s relative security ensured that softer targets, such as Northumbria, were prime targets for Viking raids.

Another sign of trouble coming from across the waters occurred in another of the seven kingdoms. In the Wessex town of Portland, Beaduheard, the reeve of Dorchester, and his men met the company of three Norse long boats. The reeve assumed they were merchants and berated them for failing to pay taxes. The Viking response was instant and violent; the unfortunate official was put to the sword. This became the first such incident to be recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

“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.”

Norsemen making a landing

It is clear that the attack on Lindisfarne is far from the first Viking raid on the British Isles. But worse was to come. The weather had been awful across northern England resulting in a poor harvest. By 793 a famine had set in, reducing the people to abject despair. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that the worse was still to come, noting that there:

“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.”

This gives only a sense of the horror that was to descend on Lindisfarne. The monks had gathered to celebrate the feast of St Médard. Médard was a churchman who had made a brave stand against the heathens. There could be no such stand on Lindisfarne without divine intervention. None came, and a more detailed account of what happened next is found in Simeon’s History of the Church of Durham:

“They came … to the church of Lindisfarne, and laid all waste with dreadful havoc, trod with unhallowed feet the holy places, dug up the altars and carried off all the treasures of the holy church. Some of the brethren they killed; some they carried off in chains; many they cast out, naked and loaded with insults; some they drowned in the sea.”

The impact on the Anglo-Saxon and clerical psyche was profound. Although Anglo-Saxon society could be as violent as its Norse and Danish equivalents, the Anglo-Saxons had a profound respect for the church and churchmen. This wasn’t shared by the heathen Vikings, who instead saw abbeys, monasteries and churches as rich and poorly defended targets.

As noted above, the raid was recorded in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle. Similar raids were mentioned in the Annals of Ulster, records kept at the monastery of Iona, the Historia Regnum and in the writings of Alcuin, a monk and scholar living at the court of Charlemagne.

Ruins of Lindisfarne - painting by Thomas Girtin 1798 [Public Domain]

Alcuin was moved to quote from the Bible, using a prophecy from the book of Jeremiah: “Then the Lord said unto me, Out of the north an evil shall break forth on all the inhabitants of the land”. His views on the attackers were more strident:

“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.”

As for Lindisfarne, its exposed position directly in the path of the Viking longships eventually made its continued use impossible. The surviving monks would regroup and pack what little remained of their possessions, relics and books and headed for the relative safety of Durham.