Lindisfarne’s Fiery Dragons

This year came dreadful fore-warnings over the land of the Northumbrians, terrifying the people most woefully: these were immense sheets of light rushing through the air, and whirlwinds, and fiery dragons flying across the firmament.” – AD 793, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

Lindisfarne (Holy Island) is a tidal island in northern England, inaccessible by land for part of the day. It is a desolate place: a flat rectangle with no trees nor tall buildings, floating in the cold, black North Sea, which stretches out east to the horizon. Built upon a volcanic outcrop—the island’s only noticeable land feature—is a 16th-century castle. The hollowed-out remains of a 12th-century priory languish nearby, the meat of the building long ago stripped away to instead flesh out the castle’s defenses.

Picture of the remains of the priory at Lindisfarne

Remains of the Lindisfarne Priory

It is this priory that I have come to see. The monastery was founded in AD 635 by Irish missionaries and later rebuilt by 12th-century monks from nearby Durham. Lindisfarne Priory was the (original) final resting place of St. Cuthbert, a 7th-century bishop of Northumbria (northeast England) and patron saint of the northeastern diocese. It is here that many miracles were said to have occurred, miracles which eventually catapulted Cuthbert to saint status. Holy Island was also the birthplace of the Lindisfarne Gospels, beautiful illuminated manuscripts that were translated on the page to Old English—making them the oldest-known English translation of the Christian gospels.

But Lindisfarne, despite all its spirituality, is also hiding a dark secret. In 793, a terrible scourge swept across Holy Island, the first of its sort anywhere in Western Europe: The Vikings arrived.

The Vikings plundered Lindisfarne with terrible ferocity. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles writes of “heathen men” overtaking the island with “rapine and slaughter.” A later account says the Vikings “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.” The Christian world was horrified at the barbaric attack on such a holy place.

Picture of ruins, Lindisfarne Castle, and the North Sea

Ruins, Lindisfarne Castle, and the North Sea

Of course, the Lindisfarne raid was only the beginning. Soon the Vikings would become permanent residents of Northumbria and beyond, their customs melting into the Saxon world. Ironically enough, as the Danes converted to Christianity they took particular interest in the Cult of St. Cuthbert and began worshipping the patron saint of the land their forefathers had plundered.

But as I stand on the dark, rocky outcrop of Lindisfarne, a sharp wind whipping my hair into my cheeks, I am not thinking of the Viking’s eventual assimilation into Saxon life. I am thinking of the monks in AD 793, who looked out across the sea and saw dragons’ heads rising from the mist. I am thinking of the terror in those who watched the approaching dots of fire but who were trapped on a tidal island, the swelling water blocking their escape. I am thinking of men who dedicated their lives to God, only to witness the Apocalypse.

It’s more than a decade later, but the chilling memory of Lindisfarne haunts me to this day. I can trace my lineage back to the Vikings, as they moved from Norway and Sweden into Scotland. I wonder if I had ancestors at Lindisfarne. I wonder if the Viking blood in my veins comes from peaceful clans or from bloodthirsty attackers. I wonder what I would do if I looked across the water and saw dragons descending. I hope it’s a day that never comes. 

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