Thursday, May 26, 2011

The dark days of the 8th century

The year 793 AD would forever change the destiny of Britain. An Anglo-Saxon writer in the late 800s remarked that,
“In this year fierce, foreboding omens came over the land of Northumbria. There were excessive whirlwinds, lightning storms, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the sky. These signs were followed by great famine”.

The writer then went on to describe the event that made 793 such a dark year in the annals of Anglo-Saxon history: “and on January 8th the ravaging of heathen men destroyed God’s church at Lindisfarne.”
The monastery at Lindisfarne had been founded by Saint Aidan in 635, under encouragement from King Oswine of Deira (an Anglo Saxon kingdom). Located on a small tidal island off the north-east coast of England, the monks who made their home there were completely unprepared for the savage assault that greeted them on January 8th, 793. Almost before the Vikings had landed on the island, the priests were cut down, their monastery pillaged, their sacred altar stripped of the sacred treasures.
Never before had a terror like this been seen in Britain. “For nearly 350 years” wrote the Saxon monk and scholar Alcuin after hearing about the raid, “we and our fathers have dwelt in this most beautiful land, and never before has such a terror appeared in Britain, such as the one that we are suffering from this pagan nation.” Alcuin went on to describe just how unexpected the attack at Lindisfarne was:
Nor was it thought that a ship would attempt such a thing. Behold the church of Saint Cuthbert, splattered with the blood of the priests of God, plundered of all its treasures, a place more venerable than anywhere in Britain is given over to pagan nations for pillaging…the heritage of the Lord has been given over to a people who are not his own. And where the praise of the Lord once was, now is only the games of the pagans. The holy feast has been turned into a lament.
The raiders were Vikings from Scandinavia. When they took their booty home, the thought that there might be more unguarded treasure was too much for their kinsmen to resist. The people of Britain hardly had time to recover from the Lindisfarne massacre when the Vikings sacked another monastery further South at Jarrow. After that they hit Iona in the Hebrides islands off the western coast of what is now Scotland.
Monasteries provided a perfect target for these greedy pagans. Often situated near waterways, the Vikings could make a quick escape before the surrounding villages had time to mobilize against them. Moreover, the monasteries contained much portable wealth that was undefended.
As tales of their easy gains reached the Danish homeland, more dragon ships began to make their way to the British coast, carrying small bands of raiding parties. Occasionally even a whole fleet of a dozen Viking ships would make their way over.
The Anglo-Saxons of Britain were helpless to defend themselves. The Vikings relied on three things that always gave them the advantage: speed, surprise and fear. Their speed meant that they could strike and return to their ships before a town or monastery had time to sound the alarm. The element of surprise meant that no one could predict where or when they were next going to attack. Put these two things together and the result was that the people of Britain became paralyzed with fear. It was not without good reason that the Christians feared the Vikings. Danish sagas show that they were not only ruthless, but were proud of being ruthless and took great delight in their cruelties.
But the Anglo-Saxons possessed one thing that the Vikings did not: they had Christ. Ultimately it would be through the power of Christ that the Viking threat would be abated.
The fact that the Vikings were attacking religious communities immediately put the conflict into a spiritual context for the Saxons. Alcuin, an Anglo-Saxon serving at the court of Charlemagne at the time, wrote to Ethelred, King of Northumbria urging him to call the people to repentance, lest these attacks were God’s judgment against this people for their sins. He wrote: “Consider carefully, brothers, and examine diligently, lest perchance this unaccustomed and unheard-of evil was merited by some unheard-of evil practice. . . ”
In another letter Alcuin wrote, “Either this is the beginning of greater tribulation, or else the sins of the inhabitants have called it upon them. Truly it has not happened by chance, but it is a sign that it was well merited by someone. But now, you who are left, stand manfully, fight bravely, defend the camp of God.”
Alcuin was right: this was the beginning of greater tribulation in the days ahead. Viking ships continued to make the journey, using fast mobile armies to raid England’s coasts in search of plunder. Destroying and utterly decimating everything that stood in their way, the Vikings became the terror of the countryside. Far and wide they ranged on stolen horses, killing with such terrible ferocity that the people prayed nightly, “From the fury of the Northmen, Good Lord, deliver us.”

It was into these turbulent and violent times that the Lord raised up one of the most important men to ever walk the earth: Alfred the Great. To read my biography of him, click here.

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