Back in 793 AD the Vikings made their first raid on Holy Island, and indeed their first recorded raid on the British isles, attacking the monastery on Lindisfarne.
Later that year, the scholar Alcuin wrote to Aethelred, King of Northumbria, saying that the raids were the fault of the sins of the population and its rulers, rather than the decision by a few Vikings to go out for a bit of looting and pillaging. Alcuin, who was originally from York but was writing from the safety of Charlemagne’s court at Aix-la-Chapelle, said
fornications, adulteries and incest have poured over the land, so that these sins have been committed with no shame and even against the handmaidens dedicated to God. What may I say about avarice, robbery, violent judgments? – when it is clearer than day how much these crimes have increased everywhere, and a despoiled people testifies to it.
Look at your trimming of beard and hair, in which you have wished to resemble the pagans.
The 793 raid was apparently not too devastating – although Bishop Aethelwald’s stone cross was broken, the Lindisfarne Gospels appear to have been undamaged, while the remains of St Cuthbert and the other important relics that were on Lindisfarne – which included the head of King Oswald and some of St Aidan’s bones – seem to have survived unscathed as well. A couple of generations later, however, in 875, with the Vikings by now occupying most of northern England south of the Tyne, and their leader Halfdan threatening to attack northwards, the monks decided that it would be better to move their treasures somewhere safer – St Cuthbert, on his deathbed, was reported to have said that, if the place appeared threatened, they should
take up my bones from the tomb and remove them from this spot.
The hunt for sanctuary saw the monks and their cargo of bones visiting many places from Cumbria to Yorkshire, with the lengthy anabasis eventually leading to the foundation of Durham Cathedral.
Pilgrims have been walking to Holy Island for centuries, and while St Cuthbert’s Way, the 100km walk from Melrose to Lindisfarne, is unlikely ever to rival the much longer St James’ Camino to Compostella, it is becoming increasing popular. The sight of Lindisfarne nestling along the Northumberland coast is one of the great views of the north, whether for a footsore pilgrim crossing the causeway at low tide, or from the railway line, a boat or a car. As Walter Scott, passing by from the sea, noted:
As to the port the galley flew,
Higher and higher rose to view
The castle with its battled walls,
The ancient monastery’s halls,
A solemn, huge and dark red pile,
Placed on the margin of the isle.
This week’s events within Lindisfarne’s “ancient monastery’s halls” include Uruz, a replica Viking longship, complete with carved wooden figurehead, which arrived on Monday and will be displayed all week. Uruz, named after the second character of the futhark, or runic alphabet, is 30 foot long and would have held a reasonable-sized raiding party. In addition a 15 foot long Saxon boat will be on display until the 10th of August, complete with a replica of St Cuthbert’s cask, which was rowed to safety in a boat of this kind.
Confusingly, the Saxon boat has been named the Skidbladnir, which, in Norse mythology, was the magical ship belonging to phallic fertility god Frey. Both boats were made in Northumberland. Over the weekend of 10-11 August, a raiding party of actors dressed in full Viking costume will re-enact the storming of the priory. The Saxon gravestone carving of invading Vikings clutching swords and axes can be seen in the Priory Museum – next year it will feature in a display at Durham University, when the Lindisfarne Gospels will be the centrepiece of a special exhibition at Palace Green Library.
Jon Hogan, events manager for English Heritage, which owns the Priory, said:
Viking Week is the most popular event on the Lindisfarne calendar… As well as full-scale combat and demonstrations of weaponry, visitors will also be able to explore the Viking camp.
Access to and from Holy Island is dependent on the tides. Anybody planning to visit should check the tide tables here.