Did the Viking Age Really Start on 8 June 793 AD?
“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”.
With these words, Alcuin of York, a Northumbrian scholar serving King Charlemagne of the Franks and Lombards described the surprising and brutal attack in June 793 on the church of St Cuthbert on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne.
The brutal Viking raid sent a shockwave through England and the rest of Christian Europe.
The 8th of June is according to the Annals of Lindisfarne the exact date when Vikings raided the Holy Island. Consequently, the Viking Age is defined to have started on this date, maybe at sunrise so that the raiders could sneak into the Northumbrian island under cover of dusk.
But is this really the exact date when Vikings became Vikings? Of course not, but the date marks a deep sword stab into the midst of the heart of the Christian Anglo-Saxon England.
These men from the fjords represented a new and uncontrollable threat, and the attack clearly demonstrated that the English kings (and other European kings) were more or less unable to protect their own people, even priests and monks, facing these brutal raiders.
Year 805 AD, Yorkshire, England: Imagine, you wake up in the morning and you see this Norseman waiting outside your door. (Illustration by: Stian Dahlslett)
The Vikings did not start to be Vikings in the year 793. The Viking Age started long before and followed the development of keels and sails until their longships easily could cross the North Sea and other open waters.
The Oseberg ship (built around 820-834) is the first proof of sailing ships in Scandinavia, but it is likely that this type of vessels were built as early as the mid 700’s.
Three Ships of Northmen
The attack on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, just off the Northumbrian coast in northeast England, was not the first on the British Isles. In the year 789, three ships of Northmen who had landed on the coast of Wessex, killed the king’s reeve (chief magistrate) sent out to bring the strangers to the West Saxon court.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports:
During the reign of King Beorhtric 789 – 802], there came for the first time three ships of Northmen and then the reeve rode to them and wished to force them to the king’s residence, for he did not know what they were; and they slew him .
The Vikings did not leave their written version of events. Nor do the later sagas tell anything about their eight century raids.
However, the assault on the Holy Island was something new and represented a great threat because the pagans attacked the sacred heart of the Northumbrian kingdom and dishonored the very place where the Christian religion started on the British Isles.
This was the holy island where Cuthbert (c. 634 – 687) had been bishop, the man who after his death became one of the most important medieval saints of Northern England.
A carved stone found on the island, known as the “Doomsday Stone”, could represent the Viking attack on Lindisfarne. (Photo: english-heritage.org.uk)
As soon as the shocking news reached Alcuin serving at the Charlemagne’s court, he wrote to Higbald, bishop of Lindisfarne:
The church of St Cuthbert is spattered with the blood of the priests of God, stripped of all its furnishing, exposed to the plundering of pagans, a place more sacred than any in Britain .
The raid on Lindisfarne made the Englishmen understand that their lives would never be the same again, and the start of the Viking Age is therefore set to the “dark date” of the attack, i.e. 8 June 793.
However, if the Vikings had got the opportunity to describe themselves, they probably would have said something like: “We come from the north and honor Odin, Thor, Freyr, and our ancestors. Feel free to call us heathens or Vikings, but we have always been, and always will be free men from the north”.
Furthermore, the Viking Age did not come to an end at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25 September 1066, a date determined by today’s historians and archaeologists.
But, this is quite a different story.
Top image: They came from the fjords of Western Norway, and when they left, only silence could be heard. (Illustrating photo from “Trace” Viking movie, by Markus Dahlslett).