Blood on the altar: the Viking raid on Lindisfarne

The northern diaspora we call the age of the Vikings is testament to the mobility of early medieval Europe. So too is the fact that the most contemporary account we have of the viking raid on Lindisfarne of 8 June 793 comes from the court of Charlemagne in faraway Aachen.

Alcuin, a Northumbrian monk and scholar in Charlemagne’s service wrote several letters and a verse lament on the subject over the months following the assault. Shock courses through all of them. “The distress of your suffering fills me daily with deep grief,” he wrote to Higbald, the bishop of Lindisfarne. “Heathens desecrated God’s sanctuaries, and poured the blood of saints within the compass of the altar, destroyed the house of our hope, trampled the bodies of saints in God’s temple like animal dung in the street.”

Precisely what happened isn’t known. Looking back, both Alcuin himself and the writer of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle remembered portents in the weather: bloody rain over the minster in York during Lent; sheets of light rushing through the air, whirlwinds, fiery dragons in the firmament. Then there were the words of the prophet, Jeremiah: “Out of the north an evil shall break forth upon all the inhabitants of the land.”

But it seems clear the vikings took the monks by surprise. No-one thought, Alcuin said, “such an incursion from the sea could be made”. The raiders dug up the altar and stole the church’s treasures, a later source tells us, killing some of the monks, stripping others naked, drowning some in the sea. Some, including children, they took back to their boats in chains, perhaps to ransom, perhaps to sell into slavery.

It wasn’t simply the violence that shocked. It was also the target of the attack. The polities of early medieval western Europe were to a large extent shaped by monastic learning; those in Northumbria were among its most powerful engines; Lindisfarne was Northumbria’s jewel. Founded around 635 by the Irish monk Áedán from the community on Iona, Lindisfarne was at the heart of the north’s Christian regeneration.

The house developed a reputation for austere devotion and spiritual excellence that would be embodied by one of Áedán’s successors, St Cuthbert, one of the most beloved of English saints. After the raid, St Cuthbert’s body and his monks went on a 200-year-long peregrenation around the north – including extended stays at Chester-le-Street and Ripon – before finding a home at Durham. His shrine remained a major site of pilgrimage until Thomas Cromwell’s men destroyed it, like the Vikings before them, seeing only the worth of gold and rare stones.

This piece first appeared in the June 2021 issue of History Today.

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