The Vikings are coming!
 
By: Nick Attwood MA

"AD. 793. 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." Entry for the year 793 in the Anglo Saxon chronicle.

793 is predominantly used as the starting point of ‘viking’ history in British schools and colleges today; although it was not the first time that raiders from the seas had landed in Britain, it was their most significant visit in the eighth century.

Six years before Lindisfarne was raided the Anglo Saxon Chronicle’s records for A.D. 787. that "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."

Undeniably barbaric and savage in its execution it never fails to capture the imagination. Thus 793 provided the perfect dramatic entrance into the fascinating history of the Viking empires and particularly their role in British history. Especially for school children the thought of such a sudden and brutal attack is fascinating, particularly when they come to see the priory and imagine just how powerful an impact that raid would have had on such a remote and peaceful community. Blood-thirsty warriors tearing up Christians and carrying prisoners off to their fierce-looking ships during daring raids are the ‘best bits’ about history lessons at school- the more blood the better it seems. The 793 raid on Lindisfarne should not however be confined to school curricula and treated as just another revision topic or reference point to be forgotten as soon as the exams are over. A terrible day for Lindisfarne it may have been, but nevertheless a very important one, and it also serves as an excellent introduction to a fascinating people and their ‘period’ in European history.
The raid on Lindisfarne took place at a time when things could not have been worse according to the Anglo Saxon chronicle. One might ask then, why was everything so nasty in Northumbria at the end of the eighth century? The explanation seemed to be, simply, that the Northumbrians brought it upon themselves. One of the champions of this particular point of view was the scholar Alcuin - In a letter to the bishop Higbald of Lindisfarne not long after the attack he writes:

"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 it 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 (735-804) is relied on heavily as a source for the late eighth century. He was hand-picked to serve as an advisor to the emperor Charlemagne and invited to act as head of his palace school having established a reputation as being one of Europe’s primary scholars. Alcuin was perfectly placed to observe the unfolding of the later eighth century and was a contemporary source for the early stages of a "Viking age."

One might think that this was the last thing anyone would want to hear and certainly the last thing anyone who’s kinsman had been slaughtered or taken in the attack would want to consider- but it was by no means a malicious letter and neither was it meant to be a cynical review or an exercise in eighth century propaganda. (It should be noted however that Alcuin was a long way from Northumbria when he sent this letter.)
The logic behind this thinking was that for something this bad to happen to arguably the holiest site in eighth century Britain, then the local community had to have done something very bad themselves in order to evoke the wrath of God. A quick glance through the Anglo Saxon chronicle’s entries for the years preceding 793 is a catalogue of a series of very un-Christian behaviour. One could be forgiven for thinking that they had strayed into the pages of Richard III or maybe Macbeth; usurpers, murders and political assassination were the order of the day, even hairstyles and fashion sense had become reckless and unholy apparently.

"Consider carefully, brothers, and examine diligently, lest perchance this unaccustomed and un-heard of evil was merited by some unheard-of evil practice... Consider the dress, the way of wearing the hair, the luxurious habits of the princes and people." Alcuin to bishop Higbald of Lindisfarne (780-803)

By 793 enough was enough. Certainly for Alcuin, (who was a bit of a square after all) what happened next should not have been such a terrible surprise. In 793 it seemed that discipline meted out by God had a new face, in fact it spoke a new language and favoured a new form of transport and all of this scared the living daylights out of the Anglo Saxons.
These Viking raiders fitted the bill very well for anyone in the eighth century casting around for a hellish and bloody band of people - reportedly bringing the punishment of God down on the heads of wayward Christians. I would however humbly submit at this point an anecdote for some of the popular beliefs that surround the raiders of 793 and their Viking kinsmen.
Not a single raider would have been seen that day to have been sporting a lovely pair of horns on either side of their helmet; neither would these raiders have been hell-bent on destroying absolutely everything and anybody that they could find; and there was certainly neither time nor inclination for scribbling down the phrase "A furore Normanorum, libera nos Domine" (From the fury of the north-men, God deliver us.)
Firstly, horns on one’s helmet are completely and utterly useless in combat. They offer no protection and any impact upon them would jar the helmeted head severely and the best that they could expect from this would be cricked neck. Add to this the matter of the rigging and the large square sail of a ship filled with warriors and perhaps slaves and you will almost certainly become entangled in something or have someone’s eye out!
The image of a mindless barbarian should also be addressed. There should be no attempt to deny that the raiders did inflict terrible slaughter and injury on many people and that there were certainly many deaths on Lindisfarne that day. It would however be inaccurate to suggest that these raiders lacked any purpose other than complete devastation of Lindisfarne and all those within the community. One interpretation of the timing of this raid might suggest that it was a much more organised affair rather than a lucky strike. Sailing right across the North Sea and arriving at Lindisfarne first time in the middle of January is somewhat hard to believe. It is possible that they may have launched from further North along the coast. Having gathered what information they could about Lindisfarne they could then plan a more articulate attack. It is also possible then that they knew of Lindisfarne’s wealth, the size of the community there and the nature of that community - monasteries were popular targets as they were seldom well defended by their location or by other means and they often possessed items of great value usually as part of their religious ceremony.

The ides of January is the 11th of January according to the Roman calendar and at this time of year the weather conditions and light levels would not have lent themselves to a foreign sea-borne raiding party.

This scenario would thus indicate that there was order and reason in the way the raid was carried out. Furthermore to literally bleed Lindisfarne dry at the first instance would prevent any future chances of collecting either more plunder or slaves on a return visit. Lindisfarne showed that Vikings had a flare for organised crime. They were far from the mindless savages that they are sometimes portrayed as, and the crew that reached Lindisfarne in 793 were only the beginnings of something much larger and only displayed a fraction of their potential.
Vikings from Norway and Denmark came in greater numbers across the sea after 793 but I doubt that even with the increase in frequency the impact of a Viking raid was diluted or ever came to be an acceptable occurrence. The Anglo Saxons feared the Vikings but there is no evidence to suggest that this fear was popularly expressed with the slogan "A furore normanorum, libera nos domine." It might be considered as a case of falsifying the evidence; we can assume that the Anglo Saxons were terrified of these invaders and this phrase sounds exactly like the sort of thing they would be saying at the time. I humbly suggest that this style of assumptive or estimated history be avoided at all cost, especially when it is expressed as factual evidence.
Encouraging those who are interested in history to think for themselves and apply theories and possibilities from their own ideas is essential to an enjoyment of any historical study or investigation. Thus to assume that during the 793 raid, members of the Lindisfarne community had the time and opportunity, or even the inclination to mutter this Latin phrase is an assumption based on little or no evidence. It would also be steering too close to even more manufactured myths about the Vikings for my liking anyway.
AD 793 is well worth remembering then. It was a bad day for Lindisfarne and Northumbria but it was good day to be a Viking raider. It also serves as a good launch pad into Viking history. I would urge anyone with the opportunity to go and stand by the priory on Lindisfarne and imagine for themselves what it would have been like there in 793 - for the home side (the Lindisfarne community) and for the visitors (Viking raiders). For a comprehensive history on the Vikings, their origins, their impact, how they sailed here and elsewhere - I would definitely start with a brilliant book called ‘Viking Empires’, a collective work by professors Frederik Pedersen, Angelo Forte and Richard Oram.
Finally, please forget any unhappy memories about history lessons at school at the hands of bland and uninspired teachers. Avoid the unscrupulous and hastily produced ‘reconstructed’ history programs that are allowed to abound unchecked on television - unless you are viewing them purely for entertainment value. History has far more to offer you than this. There are hundreds of very good books on Viking history, fantastic museums, plenty of courses at universities and colleges and most importantly your children or grandchildren. If you want to learn from someone who is inspired, excited and has as a very good basic knowledge of Viking history - pull your son, grandson or nephew away from the TV or Xbox - before they reach about 11 years old preferably - and ask them how the Vikings got here, where they settled and for extra effect how they went about dispatching their prisoners.


Nick Attwood MA

 

Many visiting historians liken the Viking attack on Lindisfarne to the attrocity of the '911' terrorist attack on the New York trade centre - or even worse. Let us hope that 1200 years of history does not soften the lessons learned. Our thanks to N. Attwood MA for putting this article together for us.

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Updated: September 2006