The eighth day of June in the Year of Our Lord 793 dawned breezy and bright. On the coast of north-eastern England it seemed a day for strolling along the grassy cliffs and drinking in the sea air; for watching the sea-birds high above, and skimming stones across the green-grey waves; for gazing out at the distant horizon, and wondering what lay beyond.
On the island of Lindisfarne, the monks had been up for hours. Some were bent over their desks, copying the exquisitely illustrated Gospels for which their monastery was famous. Others were working in the kitchens, or cleaning in the chapel, or patiently sweeping the long stone corridors. But on such a fine morning, most of the younger men had slipped outside to work in the gardens. Life out here, two miles off the Northumbrian mainland, was often dark and wet and cold, so it was only sensible to make the most of the sunshine.
Lindisfarne, they all knew, was special, a place like no other. There had been a monastery here for more than a century, a sanctuary from the temptations of the sinful world. In recent months, pilgrims had brought reports of strange signs and omens. Some had talked of whirlwinds, and flashes of lightning, and great fiery dragons soaring through the heavens. But on such a morning as this, when all was well with God’s creation, storms and dragons seemed very far away.
And then one of the younger monks stiffened, and pointed, and gave a cry of warning. His fellows came running to see the sails… and that was the moment everything changed.
What happened that day, as a Viking raiding party rampaged ashore, smashed their way into the church, looted its treasures and carried off shiploads of slaves, has become one of the great milestones in medieval history. The newcomers, wrote one horrified churchman, “poured out the blood of saints around the altar, laid waste to the house of our hope and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God like dung on the streets … Behold, the church of St Cuthbert, splattered with the blood of the priests of God and robbed of all its treasures — the most sacred place in Britain, prey for these wicked heathens!”
Today we remember this as the raid that opened the Viking Age, a 300-year orgy of violence and bloodshed, ambition and adventure, exploration, conquest, romance and horror. The gently embellished version above comes from the opening of my book about this period, Fury of the Vikings, written for children encountering history for the first time. It’s the sixth volume in my Adventures in Time series for younger readers, and judging by the feedback from my school visits, by far the most eagerly awaited.
What it is about the Vikings that fascinates us so much? In the last couple of years, we’ve been treated to the film The Northman as well as the TV shows The Last Kingdom and Vikings. One of the biggest hits this Christmas season is certain to be the video game God of War: Ragnarök — and even if you’re completely indifferent to video games, it’s worth noting that the previous Viking-themed God of War sold a staggering 20 million units at almost £50 apiece. Another, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, has made more than $1 billion worldwide, more money than all but two of this year’s Hollywood blockbusters. The Vikings, in other words, could scarcely be a bigger draw.