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Lindisfarne - History

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Holy Island

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Holy Island, also called Lindisfarne, historic small island (2 sq mi [5 sq km]) in the west North Sea, 2 mi (3 km) from the English Northumberland coast (in which county it is included), linked to the mainland by a causeway at low tide. It is administratively part of Berwick-upon-Tweed district.

Holy Island’s importance as a religious centre dates from ad 635, when the ecclesiastic St. Aidan established a church and monastery there with the aim of converting the Northumbrians. The Lindisfarne Gospels (produced on the island and now housed in the British Museum) are fine examples of 7th-century illuminated manuscripts. The threat of Danish raids caused the monastery to be abandoned in 875, and the monks fled inland with the body of St. Cuthbert (the sixth bishop), eventually settling at what became the inland cathedral city of Durham. The prior and convent of Durham refounded the monastery in 1082, and it was garrisoned at the end of the 16th century.

The village of Lindisfarne, in the fertile southwest corner of the island, grew up around the monastery and is now a tourist centre. It has coast guard and lifeboat stations. Pop. (latest census) 190.

Anyone with more than a passing interest in Lindisfarne should go and see The Lindisfarne Story and track down a copy of Dave Ian Hill's authoritative biography Fog On The Tyne (Northdown Publishing ISBN 1900711 07 9). However, at the risk of boring die-hard fans, there now follows a brief synopsis of one of the country's most talented and underrated bands.

(Please note albums mentioned are all of studio material – live albums and compilations are omitted deliberately – for further info please refer to the discography section on this website. )

The formation of Brethren - an amalgamation of most previous members of Downtown Faction (who had already recorded one unreleased album). Personnel being Simon Cowe (guitar)- ex Aristokats, Rod Clements (bass)- ex Impact, Ray Jackson (harmonica/vocals)- ex Zulus, Autumn States and Ray Laidlaw (drums)- ex Aristokats, Druids, Impact.

Around this time, entrepreneur Dave Wood and singer songwriter Alan Hull ran a folk club at the Rex Hotel, Whitley Bay. Brethren soon join forces with Alan- ex Dean Ford & The Crestas, High Five, Clik, and The Chosen Few (who had some years previously released two singles, and had a series of shows on Radio Luxembourg). It was at this venue that the Lindisfarne sound was born - sometimes billed as Alan Hull and Brethren, or Brethren and Alan Hull - depending on who secured the gig! Meanwhile tracks for a sampler LP were recorded for Dave Wood's new Rubber Records label. This album Take Off Your Head And Listen would be released a little while later, with the tracks credited to Alan Hull & Bretheren (note the spelling!).

The band are signed to the Charisma record label in June, making a debut appearance at the Newcastle City Hall in July, and after a name change to Lindisfarne, their first album Nicely Out Of Tune is released in the November.

Touring starts in earnest, and they prove popular on the festival scene.

Famous producer Bob Johnston collaborates with their second LP Fog On The Tyne - released in October of that year.

Now things are hotting up! The Rod Clements-penned single Meet Me On The Corner enters the top five. Fog is biggest British album of the year.

After two U.S. tours a third album Dingly Dell is released in September. A re-release of the single Lady Eleanor is also a hit (having made little impact a year previously).

1973 proves too much for the band and after touring abroad they decide to call it a day.

The band splits into two - Si, Rod and Ray Laidlaw form Jack The Lad, calling ex-pat Billy Mitchell (strings, vocals - ex Callies/ session work) home from Canada.

A new Lindisfarne is formed featuring Ray Jackson and Alan Hull, joined by Kenny Craddock (keyboards/ vocals), Charlie Harcourt (guitar/ keyboard), Tommy Duffy (bass/ vocals), with drums by Paul Nichols. Most of this talent was originally roped in for the first Alan Hull solo LP Pipedream (1973).

The Lindisfarne Gospels

A famous illuminated manuscript created around 700 AD, the Lindisfarne Gospels is a historical marvel which demonstrates Anglo-Saxon art, culture and religious expression.

The creation of the text occurred on Lindisfarne around 1300 years ago and has since become famous for its beauty, ornate detail and design.

More commonly referred to as Holy Island, Lindisfarne was settled by Aidan and a group of Irish monks who had been invited to establish a monastic community there by King Oswald of Northumberland. They would come to develop, influence and represent the Celtic and religious traditions of the day.

The island itself, which lies only sixty miles away from the hustle and bustle of Newcastle, can at times of high tide be completely cut off from the mainland.

On this rugged and beautiful coastline, the evolution of Christianity in Northumbria developed, with King Oswald of Northumberland wishing the people to embrace the faith, letting go of the more pagan customs which had dominated.

St. Aidan

Over time, the island of Lindisfarne was to have sixteen bishops, the first of whom was Aidan, whilst the most famous was Cuthbert. St Cuthbert was born in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria, today’s Scotland in a time when the conversion to Christianity was taking place.

It was said that Cuthbert found his calling after seeing a vision on the night that St Aidan, the founding father of Lindisfarne, died.

He would spend the rest of his life serving the church as a monk and a bishop. Whilst at Lindisfarne he played an important role in the evolution of monks’ practices. He would live the rest of his days out in solitude as a hermit before passing away in 687.

Eleven years later, when monks opened his tomb they were said to be astounded that his remains were untouched by decay. It was at this time, that his reputation grew. St Cuthbert’s shrine brought an increase in power, funding and popularity to the monastery. Lindisfarne was firmly on the map as a site of pilgrimage and epicentre of Christianity in the region.

St Cuthbert’s body showing no signs of decay.

St Cuthbert is referred to as the patron saint of Northumbria with a feast day held in his honour.

Since the time of its founding with St Aidan, Lindisfarne had become an important focal point for Celtic Christianity, however this peace and tranquillity was not to last. After its initial settlement, Lindisfarne was plundered by the marauding Vikings in 793, the group sacking the church and killing several monks.

After continued fears for their safety, the monks eventually made the choice to flee with the body of St Cuthbert, relics and books, one of them being the Lindisfarne Gospels.

As they fled to Durham in 995, the Holy Island was left to rack and ruin for almost two hundred years until William the Conqueror forced the monks to return once more to the solitude of the island.

The passing of Viking and Norman conquests eventually allowed the priory to be re-established with a small castle later being built on the island. The heyday of the island however had long since passed with the times of St Cuthbert and the monastery’s place in Christian history and culture.

It was around the early 700’s that an artistic masterpiece was produced, known as the Lindisfarne Gospels, containing a copy of the Gospels according to the four disciples, recounting the life of Jesus Christ.

The manuscript is an ornate representation of Anglo-Saxon craftsmanship which in itself belies the multitude of cultural and religious influences which contributed to its beauty. The Latin gospel text is presented with calligraphy and elaborate carpet pages, described as such due to the designs being reminiscent of Persian carpet design.

Carpet page, Gospel of St Matthew

The use of carpet pages is typical of the form of illuminated manuscript represented by the Lindisfarne Gospels and can be found in other texts such as the Book of Kells and Book of Durrow. These beautiful pages are filled with decorative, geometric patterns and ornate, complex, colourful and often symmetrical motifs. It has been said that the inspiration could be taken from oriental, eastern textile or even Roman mosaic design and form.

These elaborate Coptic-inspired carpet pages form the incipit pages before each Gospel. There are also artistic depictions of the four Evangelists which take inspiration from more Italian imagery.

Meanwhile, the metalwork features swirling patterns and design representing the strong Celtic artist traditions of Britain at the time. Interwoven patterns draw on monastic, artistic and cultural traditions, all contributing to the beauty of the text.

The Lindisfarne Gospels, with its elements of artistry from other cultures, is therefore even more noteworthy, not only as an item of Celtic and local Northumbrian heritage but as a representation of early multiculturalism.

John The Evangelist, Lindisfarne Gospels

This was a time of great change in the world with religious forms of expression changing and great shifts in behavioural patterns. As people travelled and expanded their horizons, cross-cultural connections were being formed, making this early medieval period a time of cosmopolitanism.

Moreover, there are historic references to the Celtic church and its relationship with Egypt, most notably in a letter written by the English monk Alcuin to Charlemagne in which he described the Celtic Culdees (Christian community) as Children of Egypt (pueri Egyptiaci). Therefore the works of Lindisfarne and others like it reflect the inspiration that Celtic monasticism took from a wide array of styles combining influences from far flung places such as Rome and Egypt.

The manuscript itself would have likely been used for ceremony and aside from its early binding being lost during Viking raids, the Lindisfarne Gospels has remained largely intact.

With much mystery about the origins of such a creation it is believed that the man responsible for such a work of genius was Bishop Eadfrith whilst two others, Brother Aethilwold and hermit Billfrith the Anchorite contributed to much of the binding and encasing of the book in metalwork and jewels.

“Eadfrith bishop of the Church of Lindisfarne
He, in the beginning, wrote this book for God and
St Cuthbert and generally for all the holy folk
who are on the island.
And Æthilwald bishop of the Lindisfarne-islanders,
bound and covered it without, as he well knew how to do.
And Billfrith the anchorite, he forged the
ornaments which are on the outside and
bedecked it with gold and with gems and
also with gilded silver-pure wealth.”

These words are taken from the priest Aldred who was responsible for adding later additions to the manuscript in the tenth century.

The artistic traditions represented by the monks on Lindisfarne point to the moment of conception for an exciting period of medieval English art which brought with it artistic cultural influences from the east combined with Celtic iconography of the British Isles.

Lindisfarne Gospels

Moreover, the Lindisfarne production of the gospel book in a spiritual and religious context also represented a great feat of dedication, perseverance, piety and devotion. The devout belief in the word of God and the importance of disseminating his message is yet another element of significance.

The beautiful text after its completion was faced with continued challenges and went on a vast journey across the British Isles with monks searching for a place of safety.

By the time of William the Conqueror, the Lindisfarne Gospels had found a new home in Durham Cathedral alongside the shrine of St Cuthbert. This resting place however was not to last as many centuries later, with the introduction of the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII, the book was taken to the Tower of London.

Two centuries on, the Gospels manuscript was in the personal ownership of a collector called Sir Robert Cotton who, after his death, left the nation this wonderful artifact at the British Museum.

Eventually by the late twentieth century, after a new binding was commissioned, the book found its final resting place, not in Northumberland but in the British Library where it is carefully housed today.

Wherever it may be housed, the Lindisfarne Gospel is not bound by geography for it is a treasure of a period of history, of a time, culture and peoples which shall be admired for many more centuries to come.

Jessica Brain is a freelance writer specialising in history. Based in Kent and a lover of all things historical.

The Lindisfarne Gospels

The Lindisfarne Gospels, c. 700 (Northumbria), 340 x 250 mm (British Library, Cotton MS Nero D IV) © 2019 British Library, used by permission Speakers: Dr. Kathleen Doyle, Lead Curator, Illuminated manuscripts, British Library and Dr. Steven Zucker

A medieval monk takes up a quill pen, fashioned from a goose feather, and dips it into a rich, black ink made from soot. Seated on a wooden chair in the scriptorium of Lindisfarne, an island off the coast of Northumberland in England, he stares hard at the words from a manuscript made in Italy. This book is his exemplar, the codex (a bound book, made from sheets of paper or parchment) from which he is to copy the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Lindisfarne Gospels, St. Matthew (detail), Second Initial Page, f.29, early 8th century (British Library)

For about the next six years, he will copy this Latin. He will illuminate the gospel text with a weave of fantastic images— snakes that twist themselves into knots or birds, their curvaceous and overlapping forms creating the illusion of a third dimension into which a viewer can lose him or herself in meditative contemplation.

Lindisfarne Gospels, John’s cross-carpet page, folio 210v. (British Library)

The book is a spectacular example of Insular or Hiberno-Saxon art—works produced in the British Isles between 500-900 C.E., a time of devastating invasions and political upheavals. Monks read from it during rituals at their Lindisfarne Priory on Holy Island, a Christian community that safeguarded the shrine of St Cuthbert, a bishop who died in 687 and whose relics were thought to have curative and miracle-working powers.

A Northumbrian monk, very likely the bishop Eadfrith, illuminated the codex in the early 8th century. Two-hundred and fifty-nine written and recorded leaves include full-page portraits of each evangelist highly ornamental “cross-carpet” pages, each of which features a large cross set against a background of ordered and yet teeming ornamentation and the Gospels themselves, each introduced by an historiated initial. The codex also includes sixteen pages of canon tables set in arcades. Here correlating passages from each evangelist are set side-by-side, enabling a reader to compare narrations.

In 635 C.E. Christian monks from the Scottish island of Iona built a priory in Lindisfarne. More than a hundred and fifty years later, in 793, Vikings from the north attacked and pillaged the monastery, but survivors managed to transport the Gospels safely to Durham, a town on the Northumbrian coast about 75 miles west of its original location.

We glean this information from the manuscript itself, thanks to Aldred, a 10th-century priest from a priory at Durham. Aldred’s colophon—an inscription that relays information about the book’s production—informs us that Eadfrith, a bishop of Lindisfarne in 698 who died in 721, created the manuscript to honor God and St. Cuthbert. Aldred also inscribed a vernacular translation between the lines of the Latin text, creating the earliest known Gospels written in a form of English.

Lindisfarne Gospels, St Matthew, Cross-Carpet page, f.26v (British Library)

Matthew’s cross-carpet page exemplifies Eadfrith’s exuberance and genius. A mesmerizing series of repetitive knots and spirals is dominated by a centrally-located cross. One can imagine devout monks losing themselves in the swirls and eddies of color during meditative contemplation of its patterns.

Compositionally, Eadfrith stacked wine-glass shapes horizontally and vertically against his intricate weave of knots. On closer inspection many of these knots reveal themselves as snake-like creatures curling in and around tubular forms, mouths clamping down on their bodies. Chameleon-like, their bodies change colors: sapphire blue here, verdigris green there, and sandy gold in between. The sanctity of the cross, outlined in red with arms outstretched and pressing against the page edges, stabilizes the background’s gyrating activity and turns the repetitive energy into a meditative force.

Lindisfarne Gospels, St Luke, incipit page, f.139 (British Library)

Likewise, Luke’s incipit (incipit: it begins) page teems with animal life, spiraled forms, and swirling vortexes. In many cases Eadfrith’s characteristic knots reveal themselves as snakes that move stealthily along the confines of a letter’s boundaries.

Blue pin-wheeled shapes rotate in repetitive circles, caught in the vortex of a large Q that forms Luke’s opening sentence—Quoniam quidem multi conati sunt ordinare narrationem. (Translation: As many have taken it in hand to set forth in order.)

Lindisfarne Gospels, St Luke, incipit page, f.139 (British Library)

Birds also abound. One knot enclosed in a tall rectangle on the far right unravels into a blue heron’s chest shaped like a large comma. Eadfrith repeats this shape vertically down the column, cleverly twisting the comma into a cat’s forepaw at the bottom. The feline, who has just consumed the eight birds that stretch vertically up from its head, presses off this appendage acrobatically to turn its body 90 degrees it ends up staring at the words RENARRATIONEM (part of the phrase -re narrationem).

Eadfrith also has added a host of tiny red dots that envelop words, except when they don’t—the letters “NIAM” of “quoniam” are composed of the vellum itself, the negative space now asserting itself as four letters.

Lindesfarne Gospels, St. Luke, portrait page (137v) (British Library)

Luke’s incipit page is in marked contrast to his straightforward portrait page. Here Eadfrith seats the curly-haired, bearded evangelist on a red-cushioned stool against an unornamented background. Luke holds a quill in his right hand, poised to write words on a scroll unfurling from his lap. His feet hover above a tray supported by red legs. He wears a purple robe streaked with red, one that we can easily imagine on a late fourth or fifth century Roman philosopher. The gold halo behind Luke’s head indicates his divinity. Above his halo flies a blue-winged calf, its two eyes turned toward the viewer with its body in profile. The bovine clasps a green parallelogram between two forelegs, a reference to the Gospel.

According to the historian Bede from the nearby monastery in Monkwearmouth (d. 735), this calf, or ox, symbolizes Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Bede assigns symbols for the other three evangelists as well, which Eadfrith duly includes in their respective portraits: Matthew’s is a man, suggesting the human aspect of Christ Mark’s the lion, symbolizing the triumphant and divine Christ of the Resurrection and John’s the eagle, referring to Christ’s second coming.

Lindisfarne Gospels, John’s cross-carpet page, folio 210v. (British Library)

A dense interplay of stacked birds teem underneath the crosses of the carpet page that opens John’s Gospel. One bird, situated in the upper left-hand quadrant, has blue-and-pink stripes in contrast to others that sport registers of feathers. Stripes had a negative association to the medieval mind, appearing chaotic and disordered. The insane wore stripes, as did prostitutes, criminals, jugglers, sorcerers, and hangmen. Might Eadfrith be warning his viewers that evil lurks hidden in the most unlikely of places? Or was Eadfrith himself practicing humility in avoiding perfection?

All in all, the variety and splendor of the Lindisfarne Gospels are such that even in reproduction, its images astound. Artistic expression and inspired execution make this codex a high point of early medieval art.

A History of The Lindisfarne Gospels

The Lindisfarne Gospels are an illustrated medieval manuscript created by a monk called Eadfrith who lived on the Island of Lindisfarne, England, in the eighth century.

The Gospels were created at Lindisfarne Priory by a monk living at the Island’s abbey. In the eighth century, when the Gospels were created, Christianity was in the process of becoming the dominant religion in the north of England. Already, Lindisfarne was established as a holy place, and home to the shrine of the revered Saint Cuthbert, who died in 687. Pilgrims visited the shrine regularly and it was reputed to be the site of miracles.

The Creation of the Lindisfarne Gospels

The Lindisfarne Gospels are a particularly important medieval manuscript because they were created by just one man, in contrast to the majority of manuscripts of the time, which were created by a team of scribes in a monastery’s scriptorium.

The Gospels are a work of art, highly illustrated with colours made using animal, vegetable and mineral pigments, which created rich, vivid shades. The opening pages of the Gospels are particularly striking, with elaborately patterned first letters, which have Anglo-Saxon designs.

A tenth-century inscription at the end of the Gospels states that the work was created in honour of God and St Cuthbert, by Eadfrith. A leather binding for the book was created by Eadfrith’s successor Ethelwald.

The Author of the Lindisfarne Gospels

The Gospels are believed to have been written by a monk called Eadfrith, who was Bishop of Lindisfarne between 698 and 721AD. Unusually, he worked along on the Gospels, and the work was left unfinished at his death in 721.

The work is made up of 250 pages of parchment of vellum, and the Gospels are presented in Latin, with a tenth century Anglo-Saxon translation written between the lines of the original work. Each Gospel is characterised by a detailed illustration of the relevant evangelist.

In working on the design of the Gospels, Eadfrith was influenced by the wide and varied cultural influences which existed in Northumbria during this turbulent period of its history. His work has echoes of Celtic, Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Roman and Eastern traditions, all of which had influenced the region’s history by this point.

Where are the Lindisfarne Gospels Kept?

The Lindisfarne Gospels are kept at the British Museum in London, England as part of the collection of Sir Robert Cotton. The Gospels are remarkably well preserved considering their age. Originally, the Gospels were used at Lindisfarne Priory and were covered by a highly-jewelled leather binding, made by Billfrith the Anchorite. This cover was lost during Viking raids on the Island and a replacement was made in the mid-nineteenth century. A modern facsimile copy of the Gospels can be seen at Durham Cathedral.

The First Battle of Lindisfarne: Where History and Legend Meet

Long before Lindisfarne became known as one of the most isolated holy islands in Britain — second perhaps only to Iona — it was an area of great strategic importance. So much so that I borrowed from this history in my third and final book in the Guinevere’s Tale Trilogy, Mistress of Legend. However, what I borrowed was not the famous Viking battle of 793 that ushered in their ascendancy on the isle. No, Lindisfarne was a strategic stronghold long before the Vikings changed English history with their victory. What I borrowed from was an earlier fight between the Angles and the northern Britons that took place somewhere between 547 and 590.

Lindisfarne, then referred to as The Isle of Winds (or Medcaut in Nennius’ The History of the Britons), was is a key strategic point for blocking any Pictish attack by water. Located off the coast of Britain just north of Bamburgh (a possible site of the famous Battle of Catraeth), it was a critical access point to the Firth of Forth. Whoever held it controlled whether or not the Picts could access Britain via water. At the time, Britain was in chaos following the withdrawal of the Romans and decades of civil war even the peace brought about by the defeat of the Saxons at the Battle of Mount Badon was nearing its end. The Picts were sniffing around Hadrian’s Wall, seeking access to resource-rich northern Britain. Knowing they could not lead a successful attack by land, they turned their sights to the sea.

About a century before the Christian monastery was built on the isle, Lindisfarne was home to a small hillfort that kept watch for miles around. It was a tidal island, cut off from the mainland twice a day at high tide, but otherwise accessible by a mud and sand causeway. Around the year 547, King Ida and his sons, Theodric and Osmere, took over Bamburgh, the capital of Bernicia, and claimed it as their own. As cited in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Theodric led a three-day battle against King Uriens of Rheged for the Isle of Winds. Uriens was desperate to defend it to keep both the Saxons and the Picts at bay and Ida wanted to control it in order to weaken Uriens and further establish his foothold in Britain. On the third day, the Britons were close to winning, but King Morcant Bulc, who was allied with Uriens, turned coat and paid a foreign assassin to murder Uriens, effectively undoing the Briton’s progress and handing the victory to the Angles.

Now, in my book there is much more political intrigue, involving the Votadini tribe of what is now southern Scotland and the Saxons (it was easier to conflate them with the Angles for fictional purposes) and the fight for the survival of the Briton’s traditional way of life. But as in history, this battle marked the first in a series of defeats for the native Britons that would eventually culminate in the Battle of Catraeth and determine the fate of the isle. And what does this have to do with Guinevere? She was leading the British army at both skirmishes.

The Guinevere’s Tale Trilogy (all three books in a single volume) is on sale for .99 in ebook July 8-15 at all major online retailers. Click here to learn more.

For more on the history of Lindisfarne and its importance to the Picts, Angles, and Britons, please read Brian Taylor Hope’s wonderful book Yeavering: An Anglo-British Centre of Early Northumbria.

Nicole Evelina is a historical fiction, non-fiction, and women’s fiction author whose six books have won more than 40 awards, including three Book of the Year designations. You can find her online at or follow her on Twitter @NicoleEvelina

Top Image: Lindisfarne Castle on Holy Island in Northumberland – photo by Alan Cleaver / Flickr

Lindisfarne Gospels

The Lindisfarne Gospels has long been acclaimed as the most spectacular manuscript to survive from Anglo-Saxon England. It is a copy of the four Gospels, the biblical books recounting the life of Christ, along with the associated texts that typically form part of Gospel-books, such as chapter lists and letters written by St Jerome (d. 420).

The copying and decoration of the Lindisfarne Gospels represent a remarkable artistic achievement. The book includes five highly elaborate full-page carpet pages, so-called because of their resemblance to carpets from the eastern Mediterranean. Four of the carpet pages appear alongside &lsquoincipit&rsquo pages that mark the beginning of each Gospel the fifth precedes the book&rsquos prefatory material. There are also full-page images of the four Evangelists and an illuminated Chi-Rho page, where the first letters of Christ&rsquos name are abbreviated and written in Greek as XPI.

In the late-10th century, additions were made to the manuscript by a priest named Aldred (active c. 970), provost of the community at Chester-le-Street, about six miles north of Durham. He added an Old English gloss to the manuscript, the earliest rendering of the Gospels in the English language. He also added a colophon, or inscription, that provides valuable evidence of the manuscript&rsquos production. In the blank column at the end of the book (f. 259r, digitised image 17), Aldred wrote:

Eadfrith bishop of the Church of Lindisfarne
He, in the beginning, wrote this book for God and
St Cuthbert and generally for all the holy folk
who are on the island.
And Æthilwald bishop of the Lindisfarne-islanders,
bound and covered it without, as he well knew how to do.
And Billfrith the anchorite, he forged the
ornaments which are on the outside and
bedecked it with gold and with gems and
also with gilded silver-pure wealth. (Gameson, 2013, p. 93)

Eadfrith was a monk at Lindisfarne, or Holy Island, who became bishop in c. 698 and remained incumbent until his death in c. 722. Most scholars accept the evidence of the colophon and conclude that Eadfrith was the artist of the book&rsquos intricate illumination as well as its scribe. Others involved in the production of the book are mentioned by name (Æthilwald the binder and Billfrith, the creator of what was originally a &lsquotreasure&rsquo case or binding of jewels and precious metals).

Further Reading

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, ed. by Claire Breay and Joanna Story (The British Library, 2018)

Michelle Brown, The Lindisfarne Gospels: Society, Spirituality and the Scribe (London, 2003)

Richard Gameson, From Holy Island to Durham: The Contents and Meanings of The Lindisfarne Gospels (London, 2013)

From the raid on Lindisfarne to Harald Hardrada’s defeat: 8 Viking dates you need to know

The Viking era is thought to have lasted from the ninth century to 1066, when the Norwegian king Harald Hardrada was defeated at the battle of Stamford Bridge. But what are some other key moments in the history of the Vikings? From the infamous Lindisfarne raid in 793 to the year the Vikings arrived in North America, we bring you eight dates from Viking history you need to know…

This competition is now closed

Published: November 20, 2019 at 9:50 am

The raid on Lindisfarne

On 8 June 793, the terrified inhabitants of the small Northumbrian island of Lindisfarne found themselves under attack. Norse longboats landed on the holy island with the intention of plundering its monastery’s riches. Treasures were stolen, religious relics destroyed and monks murdered, in a brutal and shocking start to centuries of Viking activity in Britain.

Anglo-Saxon monasteries made rich pickings for Viking raiders. The British Isles’ religious communities could offer little resistance to the plundering of their treasures. Furthermore, as pagans, the Viking attackers had no religious qualms about desecrating sacred sites.

Lindisfarne was not the first time Scandinavians had visited on the British Isles. While they had largely come to trade peacefully, there had been sporadic violence. In 789 three ships of Norsemen had landed on the coast of the kingdom of Wessex and murdered one of the king’s officials. Yet the merciless raid on Lindisfarne’s monastery was different – it was an unprecedented brutal strike right at the heart of Anglo-Saxon Christianity.

The shocking event spread fear and panic across Christian Europe. The scholar Alcuin argued that God, as vengeance on the immoral people of the kingdom of Northumbria, had sent the raiders. The attack was not easily forgotten. In the ninth century, Lindisfarne’s Anglo-Saxon residents memorialised the violence by carving the scenes of bloodshed onto a stone grave marker. The stone, now kept in Lindisfarne’s museum, is known as the ‘Viking Domesday Stone’.

Just as Christian communities had feared, Lindisfarne heralded the beginning of further death and destruction, as Viking raids on Britain escalated over the following years.

Vikings Season 6 is now streaming on Amazon Prime: catch up on what’s happened so far

865 – The Great Heathen Army lands in England

The formation of the Great Heathen Army in 865 marked a turning point in the Vikings’ relationship with Britain. Up until this point, Scandinavian expeditions to the British Isles had consisted of smaller raiding parties on ‘smash-and-grab’ missions. Their intention was to plunder the islands’ riches before returning to their homelands with the loot. The Great Heathen Army was different however – it was a calculated invasion force.

The army was a coalition consisting of soldiers from Norway and Denmark, and possibly also Sweden. According to legend, various bands of Norsemen came together under the leadership of the three sons of legendary Viking warlord Ragnar Lothrok – Halfdan Ragnarsson, Ivar the Boneless and Ubba. The number of troops in the army is unclear – estimates range from less than 1,000 men to several thousands.

The Great Heathen Army landed on the coast of East Anglia in the autumn of 865, picking up horses before going on to capture Northumbria and York. For several years, frequent fighting plagued the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, as rulers proved unable to subdue the spread of the Viking invaders. By 874, Wessex was the only Anglo-Saxon kingdom not under effective Viking control.

866 – York is conquered by Viking forces

As a thriving Anglo-Saxon metropolis and prosperous economic hub, York was a clear target for the Vikings. Led by Ivar the Boneless and Halfdan, Scandinavian forces attacked the town on All Saints’ Day. Launching the assault on a holy day proved an effective tactical move – most of York’s leaders were in the cathedral, leaving the town vulnerable to attack and unprepared for battle.

After it was conquered, the city was renamed from the Saxon Eoforwic to Jorvik. It became the capital of Viking territory in Britain, and at its peak boasted more than 10,000 inhabitants. This was a population second only to London within Great Britain.

Jorvik proved an important economic and trade centre for the Vikings. Norse coinage was created at the Jorvik mint, while archaeologists have found evidence of a variety of craft workshops around the town’s central Coppergate area. These demonstrate that textile production, metalwork, carving, glasswork and jewellery-making were all practised in Jorvik. Materials from as far afield as the Arabian gulf have also been discovered, suggesting that the town was part of an international trading network.

According to Dr Soren Sindbaek, urban living in the tightly packed streets of Jorvik was unusual for Viking settlers, whose traditional lifestyle was agricultural. Sindbaek argues that for a Viking, “the commonest path is to farm the land… If you end up in towns, something’s almost always gone wrong.”

Jorvik’s last Viking king was Eric Bloodaxe. Depicted in Norse sagas as a bloody tyrant, Bloodaxe was expelled from York in 954, after which the town returned to Anglo-Saxon rule.

886 – The Danelaw is formally agreed

By the 870s, the Great Heathen Army had conquered huge swathes of north-east England. However, Viking forces had failed to conquer Wessex, under the rule of Alfred the Great. After two unsuccessful invasion attempts, in 878 the army launched a third attack on Alfred’s kingdom. At the ensuing battle of Edington, they met with a crushing defeat at the hands of the Anglo-Saxons and Viking leader Guthrum met with Alfred to negotiate terms.

A peace treaty was established. Guthrum agreed to baptism and assumed the Anglo-Saxon name Aethelstan. In return, Alfred formally recognised the Viking leader as king of East Anglia.

As part of this peace treaty, a political boundary was drawn up, dividing Aethelstan’s Norse territory in the north-east and Alfred’s Anglo-Saxon lands in the south-west. The Viking region, known as the Danelaw, was to be dominated by Norse customs and law-codes, different to those of the surrounding Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

The first article of the treaty formally drawn up between Alfred and Guthrum has been taken to mark out the boundaries of the Danelaw. It reads – “First concerning our boundaries: up on the Thames, and then up on the Lea, and along the Lea unto its source, then straight to Bedford, then up on the Ouse to Watling Street.” The treaty also laid down laws to establish peaceful co-existence between the two kingdoms. Its fifth article banned attacks by raiding bands, set down rules for the exchange of hostages and slaves and made allowances for safe trading between Vikings and Anglo-Saxons.

Although the Danelaw was never extensively settled by Vikings and had dissolved by c954, the impact of Norse rule on England’s north-east was significant and long lasting. Echoes of the Danelaw could be traced forward in the social customs and law codes (such as severe fines for breach of the peace) of the region for many centuries. Norse influence can still be seen in the area’s place names, especially in the central Viking hub of Yorkshire. Here, you can still find many town names ending in ‘thorpe’, the Norse term for an outlying farmstead, and ‘by’, which meant a farmstead or village.

10th century – The Second Viking Age

In the mid-tenth century Denmark began to emerge as a major power, heralding in what is known as the Second Viking Age. As the Danish kingdom became increasingly powerful, Viking raiders began to target the British Isles with a renewed ferocity.

In 991 Danish king Swein Forkbeard landed in Kent with more than 90 longboats, before exacting a cruel victory over Anglo-Saxon forces at the battle of Maldon. Over the following two decades, Swein led several more destructive campaigns in England.

While Norse raids had been targeting the Britain Isles since the eighth century, it was unprecedented for these raids to be led by the king himself. Raids were on a larger scale than ever before, and Swein’s Danish forces proved unstoppable as they ravaged England’s major towns and extorted money from their leaders.

By 1012, the Anglo-Saxons’ situation had reached breaking point. Payments to the Danes, known as Danegeld, had proved crippling. Anglo-Saxon leaders were forced to raise 22,000kg of silver, largely levied through tax. The same year, Viking raiders led by Thorkell the Tall (it is debated whether Thorkell was an agent of Swein or not) plundered Canterbury and held the archbishop Aelfheah hostage for seven months. When he refused to let anyone pay his ransom they pelted him to death with bones and struck him over the head with an axe.

C1000 – The Vikings reach North America

The British Isles were not the only destination of seafaring Norse traders, raiders and adventurers. Paris, Iceland, Italy and even the Iberian peninsula and Morocco were also visited by the Vikings.

Remarkable archaeological discoveries have revealed that Norse longboats even travelled huge distances to North America, making the Vikings the first Europeans to land on the continent. In 1960, evidence of Norse settlement was uncovered at L’Anse aux Meadows, a site on the northernmost tip of the island of Newfoundland, off the east coast of Canada.

Investigation into the site began after archaeologists found a small cloak pin that appeared to be of Scandinavian origin. Further archaeological work revealed timber-framed buildings identical to ones in Viking settlements discovered in Greenland and Iceland. After extensive work on the sites, experts have suggested that there were in fact Norse settlers in Newfoundland, but they stayed close to the coast and abandoned the site just a few years after it was founded.

According to Norse sagas, the first Viking explorer to reach North America was Leif Erikson, a fearless seafaring adventurer who discovered ‘Vinland’. The description of ‘Vinland’ in the sagas has been seen by some to match the site in Newfoundland.

In 2015, a potential new site of Viking settlement was found at Point Rosee, on Newfoundland’s south-west coast. Identified using infrared satellite images and aerial photographs, the site contains promising evidence of iron-smelting, and turf walls which match Norse construction styles. Further investigation into the site is planned for later this year.

1013 – Swein Forkbeard becomes the first Viking king of England

By 1013, after years of raiding England, Danish king Swein Forkbeard set his sights on conquering the country entirely.

Although Swein had been campaigning in Britain from 991 onwards, fighting had been piecemeal. His troops were repeatedly forced back to Scandinavia – in 999 by an attempted coup in his homeland and in 1005 by famine in Britain. However, after decades of patchy campaigning, in 1013 Swein’s attempts to conquer the entirety of Anglo-Saxon England finally came to fruition.

By 1013, Oxford, Bath, Winchester and many other major towns had capitulated to Swein’s forces. After fierce resistance, London also finally submitted, its residents afraid of what the Viking forces might inflict on them. Following these victories, the Anglo-Saxon king Aethelred the Unready was forced into exile in Normandy and Swein was finally accepted as king of England.

However, after battling for so long to add England to his great Scandinavian empire, Swein’s reign was short-lived. Only five weeks after he was pronounced king of England, Forkbeard died on 3 February 1014. It took two more years of intensive fighting before the country was returned to Viking rule, under Swein’s son Cnut. Cnut reigned over England for 19 years, finally bringing a period of relative peace and stability to the kingdom and uniting his Anglo-Saxon and Danish subjects.

1066 – The end of the Viking age

The death of Anglo-Saxon king Edward the Confessor (of the House of Wessex) in 1066 led to a power-struggle for the English crown. The Viking contender for the throne was Harald Hardrada, king of Norway. Descended from the line of the kings of Norway ousted by Cnut a generation earlier, Hardrada claimed a right to the throne based on an agreement between his father and Hardicanute, Cnut’s son and successor.

In an effort to reclaim England for the Scandinavians, in 1066 Hardrada sailed to England with 300 ships stuffed full of 11,000 warriors. His intention was to seize the throne from the vulnerable Anglo-Saxon king Harold Godwinson, who was also expecting a Norman invasion from the south.

After sailing up the river Ouse and seizing York, Hardrada’s forces were taken by surprise by the Anglo-Saxon troops at Stamford Bridge. Harold Godwinson’s men had travelled north with remarkable speed, meaning that the Scandinavian forces were unprepared to take them on. Not expecting Harold Godwinson to leave the south under the threat of Norman invasion, Hardrada had left both men and armour behind with his anchored fleet at Riccall. The Viking army was smashed and Hardrada killed by an arrow through the neck. It was reported that of the 300 longboats that landed in England, only 24 returned to their homeland carrying the survivors.

Despite proving a failure, the Viking invasion of 1066 nonetheless had a significant impact on British history. Taking on the Vikings at Stamford Bridge had weakened Harold Godwinson’s forces, making the path easier for the successful invasion of William of Normandy. William defeated Godwinson at the battle of Hastings just three weeks later, going on to launch a conquest more successful and long lasting than any Viking invasion.

Hardrada’s crushing defeat at Stamford Bridge is generally seen as the end of Viking influence in Britain. Centuries of raiding, extortion, trading and bloodshed had finally come to a close.

This article was first published on History Extra in May 2016

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  2. Reynald

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