The sack of Lindisfarne: the age of Vikings raids on monastic houses

As briefly discussed in an earlier post, the first recorded Viking raid on a monastic house in Europe occurred on June 8, 793, when Viking raiders sacked the monastery of Lindisfarne on the Northumbrian coast (Lindsey) of Britain: the monastery was burned, its treasures pillaged, and its monks either killed or enslaved.  

The Christian world was shocked by the desecration of Lindisfarne yet Alcuin (Albinus; 735-804) - a deacon of Saxon roots and among the most learned men of his day - viewed the attack as divine judgment for the sins of Northumbrian rulers and the weaknesses of their churches. 
Although Alcuin knew King Æthelred I and welcomed his restoration to Northumbrian rule (Æthelred ruled from 774-779, when he was exiled, and again from 790-796, when he was murdered), he had no respect for his behavior as a king. In 791, Æthelred killed Ælf and Ælfwine:  æthelings (princes) and sons of King Ælfwold (779-788), the king in whose favor Æthelred was deposed. The following year, in 792, King Æthelred I killed Osred II: the deposed and tonsured King of Northumbria (788-790) in order to shore up his power in his kingdom and eliminate any opposition to his rule. Given the bloody path King Æthelred I carved in the preceding years, Alcuin viewed the sack of Linidsfarne by Northmen in 793 as the beginning of judgements that were about to fall on Northumbria as a result of the violence, contempt of justice, and evil lives of its rulers.
 Wanting to warn King Æthelred I of the looming Viking threat, Alcuin wrote him a letter: 

Lo, it is nearly 350 years that we and our fathers have inhabited this lovely land, and never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race, nor was it thought that such an inroad from the sea could be made. Behold the church of St Cuthbert [Lindisfarne, which held the Saint’s relics] spattered with the blood of the priests of God, despoiled of all its ornaments; a place more venerable than all in Britain is given as a prey to pagan peoples. And where first after the departure of St Paulinus from York [in c. AD 634] the Christian religion in our race took its rise, there misery and calamity have begun. Who does not fear this? Who does not lament this as if his country were captured?

These would be prophetic words: after seventy-three years and numerous attacks and devastations later, Alcuin’s “patria” - (country - the land of the Northumbrian Angles) - would collapse in the face of the onslaught of the Great Heathen Army of the norsemen, making York the center of power for a Scandinavian dynasty for almost a century after Northumbria’s fall.



Since the major objective of a norse pirate was to acquire loot, monasteries like Lindisfarne - stocked with riches (relics, gold, books, etc.) created or donated for the glory of God - were easy and profitable targets for Viking raids. In addition to monastic treasures, medieval monasteries also often served as banks, offering a “safe deposit” facilities to local lords because, in an otherwise violent Christian society, ecclesiastical strongrooms enjoyed immunity from attack and theft… at least when Christian thieves were concerned.

Yet Vikings didn’t stop at merely acquiring things: there was money to be made in the trade of people. Raiders seized monastic tenants (including peasants that merely lived on the ecclesiastical lands) to sell into slavery and even made money through ransom payments for high-status captives or cult ecclesiastical objects like gospel books and reliquaries. Scandinavian raiders also seized corn and livestock from ecclesiastical estates, picking the ecclesiastical estates clean of everything of any value. 


The organization of early medieval monasteries and bishoprics - which lay at the centers of great estates - depended on church lords and their entourage for their administration. By driving off (or killing) a bishop and his household from his see, or an abbot and his monks from a monastery, the Northmen thereby dealt a serious blow to the agrarian organization of the area. 
The impact of Norse raids on monasteries can’t be underestimated: as a result of the Viking raids at the beginning of the 9th century, Northumbrian coinage temporarily collapses.