In the January of 793, Danish Vikings attacked the small island of Lindisfarne, off the coast of Northumberland. They came early in the morning, attacking the monastery there, killing many of the monks, enslaving others, looting their gold and jewels and sacking the surrounding lands.
The Anglo Saxon Chronicles, which recorded much of life during the period, says that in 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.”
These chronicles, though broadly accurate in their recordings, are often prone to literary exaggeration, though; something that modern day films and fiction have continued to do when it comes to Viking behaviour. Although films and books like to paint the raid of Lindisfarne abbey as a complete sacking of the island, it is unlikely it was that extreme. Vikings were clever and sensible. They planned their raids carefully with a mind to leaving enough resources behind so that, after enough time had passed, they could revisit the area and profit from it again. Vikings were far from the mindless savages that they are sometimes portrayed to be.
The attack on Lindisfarne was only the beginning of a larger campaign to increase lands and resources. Raids on the British mainland continued in 794, when Viking ships attacked the monastery of Jarrow in Northumbria, and again in 795 when they targeted the Scottish island monastery of Iona, as well as various sites in Ireland. These raids were not as successful as the one on Lindisfarne as the weather was against them. The raid on Iona suffered particularly, with many Vikings lost to storms. After this setback it was not until 835 that such a large Viking force returned to Britain. This time hundreds of ships crossed the ocean and then rode up the country’s rivers. It was a tactic they copied across Europe, with France and Russia becoming similarly lucrative targets.
The Vikings originally came from the Scandinavian countries of Denmark, Norway and Sweden. The name doesn’t refer to them as a race, but more to a calling or way of life. A Viking was someone who joined an expedition expressly for the purpose of raiding others for personal gain. The Old Norse phrase fara i viking (“to go on expedition”) meant piracy and robbery. However, even though Vikings may have begun as pirates, they soon realised that the resources and minerals available in Britain and across much of Europe was worthy of a more organised attack strategy.
In time, the Vikings changed from opportunist raiders to armies who were ready to become localised communities and join and rule the resident population. The Viking incursions, which included further raids and subsequent settling, continued to hit the British coast until 1066. The attacks ended when the Norwegian king, Harald Hardrada (1046-1066) defeated the English king Harold Godwinson in 1066, a fact which contributed significantly to William the Conqueror’s Norman victory over King Harold at The Battle of Hastings later the same year.
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.