Despite the attack filling the pages of medieval chronicles and records, it is a 9th-century CE stone sculpture, the Viking Domesday stone, that perhaps illustrates best the story of this bloody attack on the "Holy Island."
The Lindisfarne Priory
The island of Lindisfarne plays a central role in the early medieval history of Europe.
Despite its small size, the island was chosen as the location for a monastery, said to be founded by the Irish monk Saint Aidan in 634 CE.
For over 30 years, the Lindisfarne monastery was the only seat of a bishopric in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria.
However, despite (or perhaps because of) its importance, not everyone was happy with this "Holy Island."
The venerable Bede, that great chronicler of Anglo-Saxon history during the early 8th century CE, was said to be unhappy with the fact that the monastery was not built of solid stone.
Much to Bede's pleasure (a life lost to architecture apparently), it was eventually rebuilt by a bishop and then "small as it is...now we say also that it is a home...for it actually is so."
Over the course of the 8th century CE, the monastery (including the priory) became a literal island of Christianity in a sea of paganism.
The Christianization process of Anglo-Saxon England began in the early 7th century CE. The monastery was an important location for proselytizing the northeast of England, especially the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria.
The monastery became a center of learning, as the beautifully illustrated Lindisfarne Gospels attest to. These illuminated manuscripts were Latin copies of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and show that a skilled team of illuminators and calligraphers, as well as a solid knowledge of Latin, was evident in this outpost of English Christianity.
V-Day: June 8, 793 CE
The monastery soon became wealthy, with many benefactors, throughout the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, contributing rich finery and treasure to the island.
By the late 8th century CE, events in Scandinavia saw an explosion of "Vikings" (pirates/raiders) westward in search of loot.
The monastery on Lindisfarne sat cast adrift off the English mainland, therefore essentially unprotected, with only monks and other men of god residing there. On June 8, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle,
"In this year (793 CE)...the ravaging of wretched heathen men destroyed God's church at Lindisfarne."
The news of the raid spread exceptionally far for the times.
In the faraway court of Frankish king (later Emperor) Charles (or who we know today as Charlemagne, but he was, in 793 CE, maybe more like "Charles the Pretty, Pretty Good" - the Saxons were still running amok and the Carolingian Empire had been created yet), Alcuin of York, a Northumbrian scholar and priest, was disgusted when he heard the news of the raid and desecration of the monastery. Upon hearing of the bloody raid, he wrote that
"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 street.."
This was the epicenter of English Christianity, perhaps one the most important monasteries, at the time, in all of Northern Europe, and "...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."
Exactly how many people were hacked to death or enslaved on fateful June day in 793 is one of history's great mysteries, along with the exact amount of loot carried off by these "sea wolves."
It left such a lasting impression on the history of Northern Europe, however, that it was taken as a traditional start for a whole new historical epoch, the Age of Vikings.
For those living in the British Isles, this was merely a sign of things to come...
The place where the first devastating Viking raid took place in the UK in 793 CE, Lindisfarne is forever linked with the island monastery that was one of England's holiest shrines. Photo: Menno Schaefer / Shutterstock
Scarred for life, etched in stone
For the next half-century, the scene at Lindisfarne was repeated again and again throughout a multitude of coastal towns and communities dotted around Europe.
The raid not only left a deep psychological impression on the lucky few to survive chains or the sword on Lindisfarne but also an artistic one.
As Lindisfarne was a cultured place of learning, it should be no surprise that there has been a wealth of impressive art bequeathed to us from its heyday.
Aside from the written word, those that lived at Lindisfarne appeared to be just as handy with a chisel as with a quill.
The museum today now houses more than 51 grave markers dating from the late Anglo-Saxon period. Many were believed to have avoided destruction since they were buried in the years following the initial raid on Lindisfarne.
The most impressive grave marker of these, however, is dubbed the Viking Domesday stone. This grave marker, dating from the early 9th century CE, perhaps just a few years or decades after the 793 CE raid, depicts a violent and bloody attack by a group of armed men.
The weapons the armed men have raised, poised and waiting to slice, cut and thrust, look remarkably like Viking-style swords and battle axes. This grave marker is an apocalyptic vision of hell, a day of doom for all those on the island that must be forever remembered by those that survived.
Aside from being a beautiful piece of art, the Viking Domesday stone, perhaps, is the best example we have of a community coming to terms with a deadly and vicious trauma.
Whoever fashioned this elaborately carved grave marker has bequeathed to us one of the first, and most frightening, artistic impressions of a Viking raid in European history.
For such an art piece to be commissioned, a skilled mason would have been employed, meaning that this grave marker was a deliberate and calculated move, requiring coordination of time, resources, and motive.
Was the grave marker to be a permanent reminder to all those who lost their lives (or were forced to live at the beck and call of others) that June day in 793 CE?
Not for the first time in history, when words fall silent, art has the power to fill in the gaping void left unsaid.
Later events on Lindisfarne
For many contemporaries around Europe, there appeared no reason why this "Holy Island" should have been subjected to this lightning attack, this medieval blitzkrieg.
For one point of justification, we turn again to the writings of Alcuin. He wrote that the attack occurred because of a grave sin: a recent King of Northumbria had been murdered in a conspiracy, and his body laid to rest on the "Holy Island."
Was the Viking raid divine punishment for the fact that a "Holy Island" housed the body of a king murdered unjustly?
Despite the obvious riches, in treasure and flesh, that the initial Viking raid on Lindisfarne produced, there was an uneasy peace that followed for the island.
However, by the second half of the 9th century CE, the Viking raiders had progressed to invading and settling huge swathes of northern England.
The Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria fell in 866 CE. Though artwork was still being produced into the 870s CE, by the end of the decade, the monks had decided to flee, once and for all, for the safety of Durham.
The grave markers, including the Viking Domesday stone, may well have been buried as the holy inhabitants fled this island.
Today it takes pride of place in the collection of the Lindisfarne Priory Museum. This is surely one the most impressive, and visual, depictions of a historical, yet bloody, event.
We have today, in the Viking Domesday stone, what many historians believe to be an artistic impression, from the Anglo-Saxon world, of a Viking raid that kickstarted an era.
That is surely worth more than any of the treasure looted by those Vikings on that June day in 793 CE.
For more on the Viking raid on Lindisfarne, visit the English Heritage website here.
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