Roman settlements in Britain were sparse near Hadrian’s Wall as the area was subject to continuous raids from Scots and Picts. When the Romans departed, the invading Germanic Angles and Saxons conquered the Celtic kingdoms of Deira and Bernicia, and established the Kingdom of Northumbria. In the early 7th century CE, King Oswald of Northumbria invited Irish monks from Iona to Christianize his people and the troublesome Scots and Picts. Saint Aiden established a priory off the coast on a small windswept tidal island in the North Sea named Lindisfarne.
The Priory of Lindisfarne quickly became the center of Christian evangelism in the north of England and present day Scotland. After a long and fulfilling life spreading Chrisianity, Lindisfarne’s greatest bishop, Saint Cuthbert, became the patron saint of Northumbria. Linidisfarne soon was known as the “Holy Island of Lindisfarne” and its greatest treasure was the “Gospels of Linidisfarne”, an immaculate illuminated manuscript of the four canonical gospels of the Christian New Testament. The Christian settlements of the north of England lived in peace and prosperity for decades. The isolated farmsteads and river communities lived far from the cutthroat politics of the Anglo, Saxon, and Jute rulers further south in the much more populated southern portion of Northumbria, Mercia, and Wessex. That all changed at the end of the 8th century, when the first invaders from Scandinavia appeared on English soil: the Norse.
The Norse, known colloquially as Northmen or “Vikings” (from the Old English word “wicing” or “pirate”) had first appeared on English shores in 789 CE in Wessex where they killed a sheriff who was sent to bring the newcomers to the local magistrate. The Wessex killing wasn’t officially a raid, as the Norse ships from Norway were a trade expedition blown off course. The first raid occurred four years later in Northumbria.
Three Viking longboats appeared in the spring of 793 in the river valleys of the northern Northumbria where they found wealthy, prosperous, and most importantly, unarmed inhabitants. The surprised Angle farmers and townsmen quickly informed the equally surprised raiders that the most lucrative and undefended settlement was an island inhabited mostly by peaceful monks, Lindisfarne.
On 8 June 793 CE, the three Viking longships descended upon the island. The “ravaging of wretched heathen men destroyed God’s church at Lindisfarne”. They “came to the church at Lindisfarne, laid everything to waste with grievous plundering, trampled the holy places with polluted steps, dug up the altars and seized all the treasure of the holy church. They killed some of the brothers, took some away with them in fetters, many they drove out, naked and loaded with insults, some they drowned in the sea…” A contemporary Northumbrian scholar wrote, “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.” The Viking raiders had destroyed “a place more sacred than any in Britain”.
The Christian world was shocked; the Viking Age had begun.