Norse Raid Lindisfarne Monastery

The raid of Lindisfarne by Vikings foreshadowed large-scale Scandinavian migrations that permanently altered the culture and politics of the British Isles.

Summary of Event

On June 7, 793, three ships beached on the small island of Lindisfarne, a few hundred meters off the east coast of northern Northumbria, just south of modern England’s border with Scotland. A band of warriors, about one hundred strong, disembarked and attacked the monastery at the southern tip of the island. They looted the church and surrounding buildings, killed the old monks who had not fled, and captured the young for slavery. Packing the booty and captives into their ships, they sailed back in the direction whence they had come, the north. [kw]Norse Raid Lindisfarne Monastery (June 7, 793)
[kw]Lindisfarne Monastery, Norse Raid (June 7, 793)
[kw]Monastery, Norse Raid Lindisfarne (June 7, 793)
Lindisfarne;Viking raid on
England;Viking raids on
England;June 7, 793: Norse Raid Lindisfarne Monastery[0790]
Religion;June 7, 793: Norse Raid Lindisfarne Monastery[0790]
Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;June 7, 793: Norse Raid Lindisfarne Monastery[0790]
Ethelred I

Nothing else definite is known about the Lindisfarne raid from the fragmentary records that survived this turbulent period in Anglo-Saxon England. Its immediate effects, however, are well attested. Contemporaries, especially churchmen, reacted with shock and outrage at the sacrilege to the Lindisfarne monastery, one of England’s wealthiest and most distinguished religious institutions, where Saint Cuthbert, a patron saint of the Anglo-Saxons, lay buried. They blamed “heathen northmen” who were taking advantage of the moral and political degeneration of the northern English kingdom of Northumbria Northumbria and worried that more such piratical bands might follow. The worries were well founded. Although probably not the first appearance of northern marauders, the Lindisfarne incident traditionally begins a period of escalating raiding and then large-scale invasion of the British Isles and western France. Scholars called this period the Scandinavian migration age, the Viking age, or, as Anglo-Saxons thought of it, the Viking terror. Vikings;migration into England
Migrations;Vikings to England

An artist’s rendition of Vikings come ashore at Lindisfarne island off Northumberland in northeastern England.

(Library of Congress)

Based on archaeological evidence and histories written late in the Anglo-Saxon period (450-1066), scholars have conjectured further details about the Lindisfarne raid. Originally from southern Norway, the raiders operated out of a base in the Orkney Islands, north of Scotland. They called themselves v’kingar (or vikingar), an Old Norse word of obscure origin. To the English they were “northmen” or “shipmen,” names that immediately became synonymous with pirates. These pirates were probably berserkers (an ancient Scandinavian term), members of a pagan warrior cult known for their battle frenzy. In fact, although they might fight like madmen, they were raiders who planned their attacks carefully based on information gathered from traveling merchants: a Viking band typically sought a wealthy monastery easily accessible from the sea; they preferred to hunt in areas in which the local rulers were weak or fighting among one another; and they tried to maximize their profits by plundering during church festivals when people thronged together and were not on their guard. The Vikings carried away anything that could be resold, but gold, silver, and slaves were their chief goals. Travel by sea;Vikings

The monks of the Lindisfarne monastery were far from helpless. A mixture of Anglo-Saxons, Irish, and British Celts, they frequently came from the warrior class themselves, performed hard physical labor farming the monastery’s holdings, and were almost certainly capable of mounting a spirited defense. Yet, even though outnumbering the Vikings, they stood little chance. The northmen wielded swords, axes, and pikes with devastating skill as they charged, all the while shouting a blood-chilling berserker battle cry that was famous for unnerving opponents. Moreover, the monks were almost certainly caught by surprise, thanks to the Viking longship. The finest vessel in northern waters during the early Middle Ages, the longship could be rowed or sailed swiftly, and because it had a shallow draft and a strong keel, its crew could run the vessel aground close to shore to discharge warriors and horses for a quick assault into the hinterland.

According to local tradition, the Vikings landed on the north side of the island and charged across farm fields, routing the monks as they went, to the monastery grounds. There, they found two churches, a guest house, and a dormitory, all surrounded by an earthen wall. The monastery’s considerable wealth consisted primarily of adornments for the main church. The Vikings took chalices, candelabra, crucifixes, and other ritual objects, made of silver and often having inlaid gold and amber, and stripped the golden ornamentation from the altar and holy books. Yet the destruction, while great, was not complete. The Lindisfarne Gospels, an ornately decorated vellum manuscript similar to the Book of Kells, survived, as did the remains of Saint Cuthbert, Cuthbert, Saint the single most valuable possession to the monastery. Most significantly, the monastery remained in operation.

The names of the Vikings are lost to history, and there is no indication that Anglo-Saxons Anglo-Saxons[Anglo Saxons];Vikings and tried to identify them. What mattered, especially to ecclesiastical leaders, was that the raiders were pagans. That pagans could succeed in robbing and killing servants of God was horrifying and ominous. The most outspoken about the danger was Alcuin Alcuin , an adviser to Charlemagne Charlemagne , king of the Franks. Alcuin had been born in Northumbria and trained in monasteries there. He viewed the attack on his homeland as a sign of moral and political corruption. In a series of letters, he suggested to Higbald Higbald , the bishop in charge of Lindisfarne, that monastic discipline had slipped and darkly hinted that some monks must have secretly sinned and brought on God’s displeasure. The Vikings performed God’s punishment. Alcuin also upbraided the Northumbrian king, Ethelred I Ethelred I (Northumbrian king)[Ethelred 01 (Northumbrian king) , accusing him of self-indulgent habits and lack of valor. To Alcuin’s great disgust, the raid went entirely unpunished. The anonymous writers of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entries for 793 also saw the raid as a moral portent, along with famine, strange flashes of lightning, and fiery dragons reportedly seen the same year.

Whatever the moral conditions of Northumbria, Alcuin was right that the kingdom was weak. Once the strongest kingdom of England, it had degenerated during the previous one hundred years because of infighting among claimants to the throne. The feuding had left the coasts undefended, as the Vikings surely knew. Alcuin vaguely promised Bishop Higbald military help from Charlemagne, but the Frankish king soon had Viking troubles of his own. Viking attacks on trading ports in Frisia (now in the Netherlands) and France prompted Charlemagne to build a coastal fleet and harbor defenses. In Northumbria, Ethelred seemed to have taken no such measures. Yet in Mercia, the kingdom to the south, King Offa Offa (Mercian king) was already preparing coastal defenses in 792.

In any case, the Vikings soon shifted their hunting grounds. After 800, raids on England declined, and those on the west coast of Scotland and on Ireland dramatically increased, as the Norse sea raiders took advantage of the incessant feuds that obsessed Celtic kings. Vikings repeatedly plundered the monastery founded by the Irish saint Columba at Iona, an island establishment as prestigious as Lindisfarne. Soon the northmen were raiding far inland, and in 841 they established a permanent town, Dublin, to support their trade in slaves and stolen goods.


Historians have cited a variety of social and political causes for the sudden outburst of Scandinavian raiders in the late eighth century. Population pressure and political instability in parts of Norway probably supplied the main impetus for warrior bands to seek their fortune in the rich Christian islands to the south, and improvements in weaponry and the longship gave the Vikings considerable tactical advantage. When northmen returned to England, they did so in army-sized invasions. Following 865, they began to settle the areas that they had conquered and eventually controlled most of northern England, permanently affecting the political balance, social structure, legal system, language, and arts of England. Overall, the Scandinavian migration age should not be seen in isolation. It was the last in a series of Germanic migrations, including that of the Angles and Saxons to Britain in the fifth century, that spread tribes throughout Europe after the dissolution of the Roman Empire.

Further Reading

  • Farrell, R. T., ed. The Vikings. London: Phillimore, 1982. A collection of articles by scholars considering the causes of the Viking Age, the Viking image, Vikings in the British Isles, and northern art, history, and literature.
  • Haywood, John. The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Vikings. New York: Viking Press, 1995. An illustrated look at the history of the Vikings, their origins, and their infamous raids. Includes a time line, color maps, a bibliography, and an index.
  • Jones, Gwyn. A History of the Vikings. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984. The most comprehensive and readable treatment available, describing Scandinavian history and culture from prehistoric times to 1066. The Lindisfarne raid receives brief attention.
  • Logan, F. Donald. The Vikings in History. 2d ed. New York: Routledge, 1992. A general history of the Vikings, with one chapter devoted to the raids on the British Isles. Helpful illustrations and maps.
  • Loyn, H. R. The Vikings in Britain. Rev. ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1995. The author devotes three chapters to the early raids and subsequent large-scale invasions of England by Scandinavians. A highly regarded history of the Viking Age.
  • Marsden, John. The Fury of the Northmen: Saints, Shrines, and Sea-Raiders in the Viking Age, A.D. 793-878. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. Details Viking depredations on monasteries, particularly Lindisfarne, quoting medieval sources extensively. Views the Vikings as barbarian pirates and the monasteries as repositories of civilization.
  • O’Sullivan, Deirdre, and Robert Young. Book of Lindisfarne: Holy Island. London: B. T. Batsford, 1995. A look at Lindisfarne monastery as an archaeological site. Includes illustrations and maps.