The eighth-century English ecclesiastic Alcuin wrote: ‘Pagans have desecrated God’s sanctuary, laid waste the house of our hope and trampled the bodies of saints like dung in the streets…”.
He wasn’t lying; indeed he was perhaps the most frank Anglo-Saxon writer we know. Alchie (as he was probably called by his closest drinking buds) wasn’t referring to the traffic of elderly tourists and pilgrims that shuffle around Lindisfarne today buying gallons of the local mead. No, he was of course describing (and thus creating) the infamous massacre of monks and pillage of saintly treasures in the raid of 8th June AD 793 by pirates. They had painted the whole saintly town red…literally.
Of course, those namby-pamby revisionist historians will tell you that Alcuin was somehow biased. Alchie exaggerated the ferocity and significance of the raid, they claim. I will concede this, but only so far. Of course we do now know that Alchie deliberately concealed the truth of the Norsemen’s runic letter of apology, the reparations they paid to the monastic community in soapstone paper-weights and troll ornaments, the truth and reconciliation committees that dragged on well into the 820s and the annual distribution of free IKEA furniture and Frozen DVDs by way of apology. Alchie didn’t even mention that the blood-soaked Vikings immediately retired to the nearest Travelodge (in North Berwick) to play pianos and open shutters in pointlessly large and empty rooms while imagining all the people, living life in peace.
How do they know this? They know it because they’re historians, and now you know because they’ve just told you.
Of course the same historians will probably tell you that the First World War wasn’t really that violent and most combatants had a really, really jolly time watching Charlie Chaplin films (but I’ll leave that story to the CBA…). Despite these alternative views, literally dozens of archaeological trenches prove beyond doubt that Alchie was absolutely spot on; the Vikings were horrid and they smelled of horse and urine and they did nasty things.
So craving some trace of the Viking legacy of violence, I drove aggressively in my University of Chester fleet vehicle (a Vauxhall Astra as it so happens) onto Lindisfarne, following the same route that the Vikings almost certainly didn’t take to plunder the monastery. Visiting Lindisfarne is hardly dark tourism, but I was intrigued regarding how the holy island would deal with this bloody chapter in the monastery’s history. How would they present the AD 793 raid to visitors?
The EH guidebook by the super-nice and hyper-scholarly Anglo-Saxon historian Professor Joanna Story outlines the salient facts, but none of the blood and gore I was thirsting after. So where could I go to imagine all the invaders and the bodies strewn like dung? Thankfully, photographs of re-enactors and a few allusions to the raid were all I needed to set alight my plundering passions. Here’s where I got my satisfaction.:
1. I have no idea if they conduct Vikings vs Monks re-enactment events, but English Heritage certainly know that Vikings sell. The main car park has a great sign drawing on the brief Norse presence.2. The apocalyptic stone within the visitor centre may (or may not) depict Viking warriors, but it is certainly a centre-piece that implies Vikings and most visitors will think that if they don’t read the captions.
3. The EH Lindisfarne Priory exhibition is divided between a room displaying the archaeology and history of the Anglo-Saxon monastery and a second room displaying the archaeology and history of the later Benedictine priory. Upon the threshold between these spaces is a brief account of the raid, with a photograph of a detail of the warrior scene from the aforementioned stones.
4. I then found on the Heugh a visual timeline in which those re-enactors were back with their beards and aggressive facial expressions.
Sadly that’s all folks. There was a car park, but has anyone yet looked under it for the graves of kings or slaughtered monks? Of course not, and you cannot blame archaeologists for that. Blame those revisionist historians who wish to keep the gore from you, keep the violent from your door, and who even deny the historicity of horned helmets.