On this date in 793 Vikings sacked the monastery on Lindisfarne Island off the coast of Northumbria beginning a period of around 70 years when Norse warriors routinely pillaged monasteries along Britain’s and Ireland’s coastlines. Vikings had actually landed on Portland Isle, off the south coast of the kingdom of Wessex, in 789 and had killed the port’s reeve, but this event is not counted as a full blooded raid by historians. Lindisfarne was; kicking off a series of Norse raids, that were not invasions because the Norsemen simply plundered and left. This state of affairs changed in 866 when Viking troops conquered York and settled there, beginning a 200 year period of Norse control of various parts of Britain until Duke William of Normandy, himself a descendant of Vikings, moved into England and put a stop to further conquests from Scandinavia.
The monastery of Lindisfarne was founded by Irish monk Saint Aidan, who had been sent from Iona off the west coast of Scotland to Northumbria at the request of King Oswald. The priory was founded before the end of 634 and Aidan remained there until his death in 651. The priory remained the only seat of a bishopric in Northumbria for nearly 30 years. Finian (bishop 651–661) built a timber church “suitable for a bishop’s seat.” Bede however was critical of the fact that the church was not built of stone but only of hewn oak thatched with reeds. A later bishop, Eadbert removed the thatch and covered both walls and roof in lead.
Lindisfarne became the base for Christian evangelism in the North of England and also sent a successful mission to Mercia. Monks from the Irish community of Iona settled on the island. Northumbria’s patron saint, Saint Cuthbert, was a monk and later abbot of the monastery, and his miracles and life are recorded by Bede. Cuthbert later became Bishop of Lindisfarne. An anonymous life of Cuthbert written at Lindisfarne is the oldest extant piece of English historical writing. From its reference to “Aldfrith, who now reigns peacefully” it must date to between 685 and 704. Cuthbert was buried there, but his remains were later translated to Durham Cathedral (along with the relics of Saint Eadfrith of Lindisfarne). Eadberht of Lindisfarne, the next bishop (and saint) was buried in the place from which Cuthbert’s body was exhumed earlier the same year when the priory was abandoned in the late 9th century.
Cuthbert’s body was carried with the monks, eventually settling in Chester-le-Street before a final move to Durham. The saint’s shrine was the major pilgrimage center for much of the region until its destruction by Henry VIII’s commissioners in 1539 or 1540. The grave was preserved however and when opened in 1827 yielded a number of remarkable artefacts dating back to Lindisfarne. The inner (of three) coffins was of incised wood, the only decorated wood to survive from the period. It shows Jesus surrounded by the Four Evangelists. Within the coffin was a pectoral cross, 2.5” across, made of gold and mounted with garnets and intricate tracery. There was a comb made of elephant ivory, a rare and expensive item in Northern England. Also inside was an embossed silver covered travelling altar. All were contemporary with the original burial on the island. When the body was placed in the shrine in 1104 other items were removed: a paten, scissors and a chalice of gold and onyx. Most remarkable of all was a gospel (known as the St Cuthbert Gospel or Stonyhurst Gospel from its association with the college). The manuscript is in an early, probably original, binding beautifully decorated with deeply embossed leather.
Following Finian’s death, Colman became Bishop of Lindisfarne. Up to this point the Northumbrian (and later Mercian) churches had looked to Lindisfarne as the mother church. There were significant liturgical and theological differences with the fledgling Roman party based at Canterbury. The Synod of Whitby in 663 changed this. Allegiance switched southwards to Canterbury and thence to Rome. Colman departed his see for Iona and Lindisfarne ceased to be of such major importance.
In 735 the northern ecclesiastical province of England was established with the archbishopric at York. There were only three bishops under York: Hexham, Lindisfarne and Whithorn whereas Canterbury had the twelve envisaged by St. Augustine. The Diocese of York encompassed roughly the modern counties of Yorkshire and Lancashire. Hexham covered County Durham and the southern part of Northumberland up to the River Coquet and eastwards into the Pennines. Whithorn covered most of Dumfries and Galloway region west of Dumfries itself. The remainder, Cumbria, northern Northumbria, Lothian and much of the Kingdom of Strathclyde formed the diocese of Lindisfarne.
At some point in the early 8th century, the famous illuminated manuscript known as the Lindisfarne Gospels, an illustrated Latin copy of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, was made probably at Lindisfarne and the artist was possibly Eadfrith, who later became Bishop of Lindisfarne. Some time in the second half of the 10th century a monk named Aldred added an Anglo-Saxon gloss to the Latin text, producing the earliest surviving Old English copies of the Gospels. Aldred attributed the original to Eadfrith (bishop 698–721). The Gospels were written with a good hand, but it is the illustrations done in an insular style containing a fusion of Celtic, Germanic and Roman elements that are outstanding. According to Aldred, Eadfrith’s successor Æthelwald was responsible for pressing and binding it and then it was covered with a fine metal case made by a hermit called Billfrith.
The 793 Viking raid on Lindisfarne caused consternation throughout the Christian west and is now often taken as the beginning of the Viking Age. The D and E versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle record:
Her wæron reðe forebecna cumene ofer Norðhymbra land, þæt folc earmlic bregdon, þæt wæron ormete þodenas ligrescas, fyrenne dracan wæron gesewene on þam lifte fleogende. Þam tacnum sona fyligde mycel hunger, litel æfter þam, þæs ilcan geares on .vi. Idus Ianuarii, earmlice hæþenra manna hergunc adilegode Godes cyrican in Lindisfarnaee þurh hreaflac mansliht.
In this year fierce, foreboding omens came over the land of the Northumbrians, and the wretched people shook; there were excessive whirlwinds, lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the sky. These signs were followed by great famine, and a little after those, that same year on 6th [day before the] ides of January, the ravaging of wretched heathen people destroyed God’s church at Lindisfarne.
The generally accepted date for the Viking raid on Lindisfarne is in fact 8 June. Historian Michael Swanton writes: “vi id Ianr, presumably [is] an error for vi id Iun (8 June) which is the date given by the Annals of Lindisfarne, when better sailing weather would favour coastal raids.”
Alcuin, a Northumbrian scholar in Charlemagne’s court at the time, 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.
As the English became more settled inland they lost interest in defending the coastline. Many monasteries were established on islands, peninsulas, river mouths and cliffs because these isolated communities were less susceptible to interference and the politics of the heartland. This isolation and lack of defenses left the wealthy monastic communities completely open to and defenseless against raids from the sea.
The first Norse raids on the English northeastern coast, unsettling as they were, were not followed up. The main body of Norse raiders soon passed north around Scotland. The 9th century invasions came from the Danes from around the entrance to the Baltic. The first Danish raids into England were in the Isle of Sheppey, Kent during 835 and from there their influence spread north. During this period religious art continued to flourish on Lindisfarne.
The monks of Lindisfarne were legendary for their production of mead, a drink made from fermenting honey that has a long and storied history throughout Europe. You can get various styles of mead produced on Lindisfarne these days, but the recipe is a modern one. No old recipes exist. Let’s skirt that problem by making chicken in mead, a variant of chicken in wine or beer.
© Chicken in Mead
1 3-4 lb chicken, cut into 8 serving pieces
1 onion, peeled and chopped
1 bottle mead
1 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
salt and pepper
1 tbsp butter (or olive oil)
Dredge the chicken pieces in flour by placing about one-half cup of flour seasoned with salt and pepper to taste in a heavy brown paper bag along with the chicken pieces. Fold the top over tightly, leaving air in the bag. Shake vigorously for 30 seconds, then open the bag and remove the dredge chicken pieces to a rack.
Melt the butter in a heavy skillet over medium-high heat and add the onion. Cook until soft and then add the chicken pieces, a few at a time, and sauté until golden on all sides.
If possible, make one layer of the golden chicken pieces in the skillet and cover with mead. Add the parsley, bring to a simmer and cook covered for 15 minutes. Uncover and turn the heat to high. Let the mead reduce until it forms a thick glaze. Turn the chicken pieces around in the glaze to cover and serve.