Iona and Lindisfarne

On either side of Northern Britain lie the holy islands of Iona and Lindisfarne. Both have been attracted by archaeologists, historians and pilgrims for centuries, and both were exposed to the marauding attacks of the Vikings at the close of the 8th Century. In fact, the attack on Lindisfarne in 793 AD, signalled the beginning of the Viking Age. Iona was attacked for the first time two years later. Iona is renowned for being the stronghold of the great missionary Columba (St. Columcille) during the christening of Britain. It is also the final resting place for several Scottish and Norwegian kings (i.e. Dublin, Man and Suðereyar kings).

Lindisfarne (Holy Island)

Outside the coast of Northumbria (Nordimbraland) in Northern England is a flat island – Lindisfarne – which is only reached by low tide from a causeway. So it is really a peninsula, and is known by the name of Holy Island. It belongs to the archipelago of Farne. On the only hill on the island a castle was built in medieval times – Lindisfarne Castle. Otherwise the coastline is dominated by low sandbanks – ideal landing places for the slim Viking ships. In the centre of the island lie the ruins of the ancient monastery that once played a vital part in society at the time. The ruins visible today dates back to the 12th Century, indicating that the attacks of the Vikings in the late 8th Century did not obstruct the rebuilding of the monastery. Activity was resumed, but the memory of the marauding Northmen was hard to relinquish, and made the monks vigilant.

Kosteret på Lindisfarne Lindisfarne Castle Northumberland

When this harmonious monastic society suddenly was ruthlessly disturbed on a day in June 793 AD, it created a commotion far beyond the shores of Britain, and the pious clergymen were soon to link the incident up to biblical foreseeings. No place in the contemporary writings about the incident it is referred to Scandinavian Vikings being responsible for the sea raid. Some researchers even speculate the raid being a revenge by Frisian seafarers against Charlemagne’s brutal enforcement of Christianity in their home country. The incident is dramatically recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles in the year of the Lord 793 AD (Anno Dominus DCCXCIII):

In this year dire forewarnings came over the land of the Northumbrians, and miserably terrified the people: these were extraordinary whirlwinds and lightnings, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine soon followed these omens; and soon after that, in the same year, on the sixth of the ides of Ianr, the havoc of heathen men miserably destroyed God’s church on Lindisfarne, through rapine and slaughter.

A slightly more detailed description is recorded in “History of the Church of Durham” by the monk Simeon:

On the seventh of the ides of June, they reached the church of Lindisfarne, and there they miserably ravaged and pillaged everything; they trod the holy things under their polluted feet, they dug down the altars, and plundered all the treasures of the church. Some of the brethren they slew, some they carried off with them in chains, the greater number they stripped naked, insulted, and cast out of doors, and some they drowned in the sea.

At Charlemagne’s court in Aachen, the scholarly monk Alkuin received the news of the attack. The Anglo-Saxon Alkuin was born in York in Northumbria in 735 AD, and had got acquainted with Charlemagne during a pilgrimage to Rome in 781 AD. He was then offered a position at the court, responsible, among other things, for the education of the king’s children. Alkuin was personally acquainted with some of the monks in the Lindisfarne monastery, and he corresponded regularly with one of the brethren there by the name of Biutta. The attack made such an impression on him that he wrote at least five letters to England, also one to king Aethelred himself, in which he expresses his abomination and despair. His wrath was however directed against the Anglo-Saxons themselves, and not against the Vikings. They only got what they deserved after many years of sinful behaviour. This was a punishment from God.


So, where did those heathens come from? The majority of historians today are convinced the marauders were people of Norwegian descent, although some still claim they were Danes or Saxons. Alkuin, Simeon, and others refer to the marauders as coming from the north. So, probably they were Norwegians. Their point of departure however was not from mainland Norway, but rather from base camps in the Orkneys and Shetland Islands. The monasteries were built of wood, and old documents and letters claim they were partly burned down by the Vikings. The community on the island comprised men of all ages – including young apprentices studying the Holy Scriptures. Many of them – it is told – were “carried off in chains”. Some were also “raped” by the Vikings.*

* Sexual relations between boys and men were common and accepted during the Viking Age, but a distinction was drawn between men playing the active and passive role in a relationship. The man playing the passive role was often ridiculed, especially if he continued to pursue his desires. The Old Nordic word for this activity was argr (or ragr/ergi), and was used in a disparaging manner to describe these individuals (read: homosexuals).

Many of the youngsters were probably sold in the slave markets. In one of Alkuin’s letters to the abbot in Lindisfarne he promises to do what he can to persuade Charlemagne to exchange these young monks with hostages from Saksland and Friesland. However this enterprise was never to become a reality.

The Vikings robbed the monastery of all the valuables they could get their hands on, but there were two important treasures they overlooked – the beautiful, handwritten and illuminated bible “The Lindisfarne Gospels”, and the exquisite carved oak coffin containing the relics of St. Cuthbert. The Lindisfarne Gospels are today exhibited in the British Museum in London, while the relics of St. Cuthbert are kept in Durham Cathedral, where they were brought after the Viking raid.

Lindisfarne Johannes Lindisfarne gospels - front cover Lindifarne Markus

The monastery of Lindisfarne was founded by the Irish monk Aidan in the year 635 AD. At the time the Christian king Oswald ruled in Northumbria, and had brought Aidan from the monastery in Iona. Aidan could choose himself where to build the new monastery. The story behind the christening of king Oswald is as follows:

King Oswald’s father – king Aethelfrith – was a brutal and heathen warrior king. He fought many battles, and was renowned for his ruthless behaviour, especially towards the Christians. It is told he once massacred 1200 Welsh monks while they were praying to God for victory in a battle. Eventually he was himself killed in a battle, and his four children – three boys and a girl - were taken as hostages and exiled on the Island of Iona. Here Oswald was raised and schooled by the Irish monks in the Christian faith. As a grown man he recaptured his father’s kingdom in Northumbria.

Together with twelve of his brethren, Aidan set out on his life’s mission – the conversion of the heathen Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. He was offered a horse by king Oswald, but preferred wandering about on his own feet. In his monastery on Lindisfarne he eventually began teaching young boys in the art of reading and writing, Latin and the knowledge of the Holy Scriptures – training and preparing them for the work as missionaries. Aidan also encouraged young girls to become nuns, but it was much later that girls were given permission to go to Lindisfarne. At this time the monastery on Lindisfarne was acknowledged as a centre for the art of illumination of the Holy Scriptures.

King Oswald was – just like his predecessors – a warrior king, and it was expected of him to die in battle. He ruled his empire with a steady hand from his headquarters at Bamburgh Castle. Eventually he was killed in a battle with his foe and rival – king Penda of Mercia. Soon after his martyrdom, a row of miracles occurred, almost making him a saint in peoples eyes. After having faithfully served as Northumbria’s first bishop for 16 years, Aidan died at Bamburgh in 651 AD. If anyone deserves the posthumous reputation as the Apostle of England it surely must be Aidan.

Lindisfarne Johannes Lindisfarne gospels - front cover Lindifarne Markus

The man, whose name forever will be firmly attached to Lindisfarne, is the monk Cuthbert – later St. Cuthbert. He was born in northern Northumbria in the same year Aidan founded his monastery at Lindisfarne (635 AD). He was born in a wealthy Anglo-Saxon family, and like the majority of boys of the time, was raised in a scholarly family.*

* This system of raising children in foster families seems to have been the regular practice in many societies of the time, and we find it among the Anglo-Saxons, the Celts and the Scandinavians. Well-known examples from the Nordic cultural sphere are Håkon the Good Aethelstanfostered, and the Icelandic Saga author Snorre. In old Irish legends we find it in the story of Cúchulainn.

The night Aidan died (August 31st 651 AD) Cuthbert had a revelation which was to become decisive for his choice of life, and at the age of 17 he chose the cowl. He joined the brethren in Melrose monastery – also founded by Aidan. Together with some other monks he founded his own monastery some years later in Ripon. He was then appointed abbot at his old monastery in Melrose, and before reaching the age of 30 he became the abbot of Lindisfarne. At Lindisfarne he further developed his powers in spiritual healing, and soon achieved great fame. After 10 years in the abbot chair, he decided to withdraw to become a hermit in one of the small and isolated islands of the Farne archipelago. At the age of 50 he was persuaded by the king and church to return to the abbot chair in Lindisfarne. He now resumed his missionary practice and travelled near and far. In his old days he again chose the hermit way of life, and withdrew to his little island to seek peace with God. He died on Inner Farne on March 20th 687 AD.

Christians started making pilgrimages to his grave, and soon news were spread of healings and other miracles taking place by his tombstone. The monks of Lindisfarne decided that his corpse should rest in peace for 11 years. They reckoned this would be sufficient time for all flesh to decade from the bones. In the year 698 AD they opened the grave “to sanctify the holy relics”. The famous Lindisfarne Gospels had just been completed and was used for the first time in this ceremony. When the coffin was finally opened the congregation became stunned – Cuthbert’s corpse was unaffected after all these years in the earth, and his holiness was thus confirmed.

Soon an exceptional cult arose around the worship of St. Cuthbert, and the monastery at Lindisfarne became a popular site for many pilgrims for almost 100 years - right up until the Viking raid in 793 AD! After the Vikings left, the relics of St. Cuthbert was moved to safety on the mainland. After the Norman invasion a magnificent Cathedral was built in Durham, and the relics of St. Cuthbert were placed behind the altar. To complete the story; the coffin was reopened in 1827, and all they found was a skeleton!

When I visited the ruins of the monastery on Lindisfarne in the summer of 2002, I was a little surprised to find how effectively the whole matter about the Vikings had been hushed up. There were no signs, memorials or information of any kind bout this fatal event of 793 AD. The place was still primarily a place of pilgrimage and contemplation, and I incidentally met a large delegation from the Norwegian Bible Society. The sombre ruins of the medieval church in red, weather-beaten sandstone, with its Romanesque archways, dominate the ancient sacred place. Surrounding the church are the ruins of the monks abbey and other facilities. The only archaeological evidence of the Vikings presence is the remnants of a picture stone – the Lindisfarne Stone. A copy of this stone (the original being in the British Museum) is placed on a rotating platform in the small village museum. It shows a row of seven warriors, all (except the first one) clad in byrnies, tight trousers and helmets, with swords and axes ready to attack. The stone was discovered in the cloister ruins 50 years ago, and has since been interpreted as a memorandum of the Viking raid of 793 AD. On the reverse side of the stone some Christian symbols have been carved out – cross, sun, moon, a pair of praying hands and a pair of monks in prayer. Stylistically the motives can be traced back to the early 9th Century, and resemble motives found on stone slabs in Scandinavia from the same era. The weapons and the byrnies are at any rate quite similar to those worn by Vikings at the time.

Lindisfarne 1 Lindisfarne Stone Lindisfarne 3


When the Irish monk Columba or Colmcille (=the pigeon) went ashore on the small island of Iona in the year 563 AD, it had already for several centuries served as a religious centre for the Celtic druids. In Viking times it held a sacred position in the Norwegian possessions overseas. The Viking name for Iona was Ilkolmkill.

To day Iona belongs to the Inner Hebrides. The island is small, only 5 1\2 kms long and 2 1\2 kms broad, and lies outside the much larger island of Mull. To get there one must go by ferry from Oban in Scotland to Mull, then one hour bus ride, before entering the small ferry out to Iona. Like elsewhere in Scotland or Ireland, the weather is humid and unstable all year, so if the day starts out with some rain showers, the sun will peep through again in just a few hours. The ferry landing is close to the monastery, and the island’s small steady population are mostly concentrated around the main attraction. There are no more than 70 houses on the island. On our way to the abbey ruins we pass the remnants of a nunnery, founded in 1203 AD by Reginald MacDonald of Islay – Lord of the Isles. It was once run by the order of St. Benedict. The nunnery is modest in size, but one gets a good impression of how they once must have lived here. The ruins are surrounded by remnants of what once must have been a beautiful cloister garden.

Map of Mull and Iona

On our way to the Cathedral (1203) and the ruins of the Monastery, we pass the small Chapel of St. Oran. This chapel is the oldest building, still intact, on the island, founded by the legendary Somerled, Lord of the Isles in 1150 AD. Surrounding the chapel is the Holy Cemetery – Reilig Oran. Here rest the earthly remnants of 60 kings – 48 Scottish, 4 Irish and 8 Norwegian. The legendary Macbeth is also buried here. Magnus Barelegs (King of Norway 1095 – 1103) visited the island on one of his many sea raids in the Western Islands. His bard, Bjørn Krepphendt, paints a vivid picture of these raids:

Tongues of fire above Ljodhus* playfully licked the sky.
People fled in all directions,
from their burning homes.
The King ravaged Ivist*v
with fire, his sword drenched
in blood, the peasants lost
their lives and fortunes.

The satisfier of ravens then
arived in Skid*,ravaged and burned.
The wolf in Tyrvist* joyfully
cloured his teeth red.
The Grenland* king caused
Many a young maiden to weep.
Luck followed the Scot scarer.
People in Myl* fled.

* Ljodhus = Lewis
* Ivist = North Uist
* Skid = Skye
* Tyrvist = Tiree
* Myl = Mull

Snorre relates what happened on Iona:

King Magnus landed with his army on the Holy Island; there He guaranteed safety and peace to all men and property. People Relate that he tried to open the small Church of Colmcille. The King did not enter, but immediately closed the door and locked It, and said that none should ever be so bold to enter the church, And it has stayed locked ever since. Then King Magnus and his men Boarded the ships and sailed south to Il (Islay) to do some ravaging.

The church Snorre is referring to has long since disappeared. Magnus Barelegs managed at that time (1098) to secure his Scottish provinces, but the fighting steadily broke out again. King Håkon Håkonsson had to cross the North Sea once more in the 1260’s to “tidy up”. In the Battle of Largs on October 2nd 1263 AD he defeated the Scottish king Alexander III’s troops (according to Snorre). In reality it was a draw.

The monk Colmcille was of royal Irish breed. His family belonged to a branch of the Uí Néill dynasty. Officially he was never declared a saint, due to the simple fact that he lived long before this “arrangement” came about. His biographer St. Adomnán wrote down his life’s history in the 7th Century. He died in Iona on June 9th 597 AD at an age of 75. As was the custom by the Celts, Colmcille was also raised in a foster home. His foster father was a local priest named Cruihnechán, who lectured the young man in Latin and the Holy Scriptures. Despite his royal heritage, he renounced this kind of life, and took the monastic vow. His most famous master was St. Finian at the monastery in Clonard. When he reached the age of 30 he was ordained into priesthood. Colmcille lived and practised at many monasteries all around Ireland, Bangor and Clonmacnoise being two of the most renowned. Eventually he established his own monastery in Derry.

In the year 563, at the age of 42, he left his homeland Ireland. He had firmly decided to mission among the heathen Picts in Scotland. He brought with him 11 devoted disciples. They first went ashore on Islay, before they went on to Iona. Here Colmcille established the monastery which were to become his permanent base in his life as a missionary. All together he has been given the honour of establishing 37 monasteries and 100 churches in his lifetime, among others the famous monasteries in Durrow and Kells. For 200 tears the brethren in Iona worked in peace with illuminating bibles (Book of Kells). When the Vikings brutally attacked the little island society in 794 AD, and set fire to the premises, the monks fled to the monastery in Kells in Ireland. During the peaceful decades, pilgrims had brought with them loads of gold and silver, to honour the holy Columba, so the Viking loot must have been considerable. The island’s treasures were so abundant that the Vikings returned many times to provide themselves of the riches. During one of their raids in 806 AD they showed exceptional brutality. A total of 86 monks were butchered on the beach, and the place today still bears the name of Bay of the Martyrs. It was following this attack the relics of St. Columba were moved to Kells in Ireland. After some peaceful years the relics were brought back to Iona. But in 825 AD the Vikings hit again. When the abbot refused to tell where the relics were kept, he was killed together with all his brethren. The next – and last – raid took place 160 years later – in 986 AD! This time it was the Dublin Vikings. Once more the monastery was plundered, and the abbot was killed together with 15 of his brethren. This was to be the last Viking attack on the Holy Island of Iona.

Vikingraid 2