Vikings murder Christian monks!

Vikings monks

Go back a thousand years and being a Christian monk on the English or Irish coast was terrifying. On the horizon you clutched your cassock while looking out for those familiar longboats carrying Vikings bent on murder and destruction. Some historians argued in the recent past that this was all overdone. The Vikings weren’t so bad. But facts are stubborn things. Indeed, the evidence for monks being slaughtered by these seaborne warriors is overwhelming.

A skull in an English church tells a grime tale

Let’s look at some incriminating artefacts!

Crowland Abbey is a gorgeous medieval church in the English county of Lincolnshire. On one side are the ruins of what was once a vast Benedictine abbey founded by Saint Guthlac who claimed to be visited in visions by the apostle Bartholomew who gave him a weapon to fight demons. He imagined these as otherworldly beings, not a menace from planet Earth. But it was real human beings and not supernatural demons that would plague the abbey.

In the century following his death in 714 CE, the monks were going to need to be armed as the Vikings stormed in!

If you go into the church today, you’re confronted by a skull in a glass case. This is the decapitated head of Abbot Theodore who was busy praying at the high altar when a Viking sword was thrust through his eye socket. Many believed this was divine punishment for the monks celebrating Christmas a little too riotously – even blasphemously – the year before.

In the 1980s, his skull was stolen for several years before being returned anonymously. A final indignity for the poor man.

Murder at Lindisfarne – guess who’s to blame?

At Lindisfarne Priory, off the coast of Northumberland, the ghosts of monks killed by Vikings in 793 CE are still said to roam the shoreline forever on the lookout for their mortal enemies. That year saw one of the bloodiest raids on a monastic community. What happened send shockwaves through Europe. And was commemorated by the monks themselves on a carving that still survives.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – a diary of events dating back over a millennium – described signs in the sky before the Viking raid that were portents of the doom ahead:

 ‘Here were dreadful forewarnings come over the land of Northumbria, and woefully terrified the people: these were amazing sheets of lightning and whirlwinds, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the sky.’

But what could the monks do by way of preparation apart from taking some defensive measures and hiding their most sacred treasures? Maybe they didn’t really believe the Vikings would desecrate a holy site so comprehensively. Well, they were soon disabused of that notion as the chronicle continued:

“A great famine soon followed these signs, and shortly after in the same year, on the sixth day before the ides of January, the woeful inroads of heathen men destroyed god’s church in Lindisfarne island by fierce robbery and slaughter.”

What made this attack so awful was that Lindisfarne was where Saint Cuthbert had been the bishop a century before – a holy man often credited with reviving Christianity in Britain. The Gospels of Christ had all but disappeared for 250 years after the Romans left in the early 400s. Then monks like Cuthbert, with bags of missionary zeal, restored the Christian faith.

Now, however, the site of his tomb was bathed in flames with bodies lying all over the place. A contemporary scholar, Alcuin, wrote in anger when he got the news:

“The church of St Cuthbert is spattered with the blood of the priests of God, stripped of all its furnishing, exposed to the plundering of pagans.”

This was just the beginning!

DISCOVER: Ancient bog body murder mystery

Massacre at Iona!

In the Dark Ages after the western Roman Empire collapsed, it was monks from Ireland who fanned out across Europe determined to keep the Christian faith alive. One intrepid monk, Saint Columba, crossed the treacherous seas between Ireland and Scotland with a band of followers in the year 563. Their boats were tiny ‘coracles’ – circular craft made of rope and leather. Once on land, they founded a small monastic community at Iona.

Fast forward to the year 806 CE and 68 monks were working and praying at Iona. But not for much longer. What followed was the “red martyrdom”, as it came to be known. The raiders arrived and murdered with wild abandon, loading their boats with booty and slaves. The Viking victims – unarmed monks – were commemorated throughout Christendom as the Martyrs of Iona.

The only positive to emerge from this act of mass murder was that the survivors crossed over to Ireland and helped to complete the Book of Kells – arguably the most magnificent illuminated bible in the world. One can almost imagine this intense artistic labour as being some kind of early medieval therapy for the traumatised holy men who had seem such horror perpetrated by the merciless invaders.

This had not been the first raid on Iona but it was definitely the worst. And the Vikings came back for more.

In the year 825 (though the date is contested), Saint Blathmac was cut down by raiders while celebrating mass. They had demanded he point to the shrine of Saint Columba so that they could loot it. According to an account written in the years immediately afterwards, he replied to the Vikings:

“I know nothing at all of the gold you seek, where it is placed in the ground or in what hiding-place it is concealed. And if by Christ’s permission it were granted me to know it, never would our lips relate it to thy ears. Barbarian, draw thy sword, grasp the hilt, and slay; gracious God, to thy aid I commend me humbly.”

Faced with his brave defiance, they slashed him to pieces.

Vikings come to murder monks in Ireland

In the same year that Lindisfarne was devastated, 795, Ireland saw its first but far less serious on a monastery at Rathlin Island on the north-east coast. There were a couple more raid that year. But it took a few decades into the 9th century for the violence to pick up. Longboats sailed along the rivers Shannon, Liffey, Boyne, and Erne picking off isolated communities.

One abbot, at the monastery of Sceilg Mhicil, died of thirst as a prisoner of the Vikings in 824 CE. And the list of raids against monasteries got ever longer: Inishmurray (795 and 807 CE), Inishbofin (795 CE), Holmpatrick (798 CE), Inis Cathaig (816 CE), Bangor (823 CE), Connor (829 CE), Armagh (839 CE), Louth (839 CE), Clonmacnoise (842 CE approx) and several surrounding monasteries.

Little wonder the monks built high pointed towers with doors half way up to clamber into via a rope ladder if the Vikings were sighted. These distinctive structures seem to have a very obvious purpose: survival. But in recent years with attempts to rehabilitate the Vikings as non-violent types, that theory was questioned. Nevertheless, the ceaseless attacks seem to suggest the original explanation was correct.

During one Viking raid in county Kilkenny in 928 CE, hundreds of local people took refuge in Dunmore Cave – a stunning limestone chamber you can still marvel at today. Sadly there was no escape for those huddling in the dark, hoping the barbarians would disappear. One account in the Annals of the Four Masters claims a thousand people were murdered there. Skeletal remains found in recent years suggest this claim may be true.

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