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18 September 2014
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Loot: Why the Vikings Came to Britain

Map showing sites of Viking attacks
Sites of Viking attacks of the eighth and ninth centuries ©

The Vikings attacked Britain's holy places, slaughtered the monks who lived there and carried away countless treasures. Well designed boats and convenient winds helped these raiders to come and go as they pleased. Britain was devastated - but what could be done against such ferocity?

Terror from the sea

A short entry in the 'Anglo-Saxon Chronicle' describes how in 789 three Viking ships arrived on Britain's Wessex shore. The local reeve was sent to greet them, but he was killed on the spot. Unfortunately for the British, this was a harbinger of worse things to come.

Four years later, Lindisfarne (Holy Island), a monastery on an island just off the Northumbrian coast, was sacked. The monastery was revered for its link with St Cuthbert more than a century earlier, and was one of Britain's most sacred sites.

The first Viking raids were hit-and-run affairs. There was no co-ordination and no long-term plan behind them. Raids were not even a new hazard in a society well-used to warfare on every scale - from local skirmishes to great battles. The Vikings' great sin in this case, however, was to attack and pillage one of the most sacred places of the Christian world.

The leaders of that world were quick to condemn them, and one of those leaders, whose words have fortunately come down to us, was Alcuin of York.

'Lo, it is nearly 350 years that we and our fathers have inhabited this most lovely land, and never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race, nor was it thought that such an inroad from the sea could be made. Behold the church of St Cuthbert spattered with the blood of the priests of God, despoiled of all its ornaments; a place more venerable than all in Britain is given as a prey to pagan peoples ...'. Letter from Alcuin of York to Ethelred, king of Northumbria, 8 June, 793.

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