Lindisfarne: the Real Story

Photo courtesy of Olavs Menn

Photo courtesy of Olavs Menn

Fiction by Gunnar Skollingsberg

I read in a book somewhere about an Englishman’s description of his country’s first contact with the Vikings on the island of Lindisfarne in the year 793. This Englishman wrote that the Vikings were bloodthirsty warriors who came to kill the monks and steal the monastery’s treasures. He said that many monks were killed by the sword, some were drowned, and still others were taken away as slaves. He added that the Vikings stole all of the monastery’s gold and silver.

This is not true. They are all lies.

How do I know?

Let me introduce myself. My name is Ragnar Redbeard. I am a Viking.

I know that these stories about the so-called Lindisfarne Raid are false. I know this because I was there.

Let me tell you what really happened.

You see, we Vikings were not just raiders (although a few of us did do that sort of thing once in awhile), we were mainly traders. That was what we were trying to do when we went to Lindisfarne; we were looking for markets to sell our goods.

We landed on the shores of Lindisfarne on that sunny June day with three ships. We had brought with us a number of valuable Norwegian products—things that we were sure that the English would enjoy and want to buy from us. For example, we brought 40 barrels of lutefisk, 1,000 kg of gjetost, 200 colorful, knitted Norwegian sweaters, and 500 cute little wooden troll dolls (which the monks could sell to tourists).

We had almost reached the monastery when we met a group of monks working in a garden. These monks wore huge, dark robes that reached all the way to the ground, with sleeves so big that you could fit ten arms in each one. We thought that this was a strange way to dress and that those robes must be very heavy, but we didn’t say anything—it would be impolite to comment on other people’s strange clothing.

We also noticed that all of these monks had large bald spots on the top of their heads. These bald areas were quite weird because each one was perfectly round and they were all the same size. At first, we thought this meant that all of these monks had the same father (who was likewise bald), and that this was a genetic condition. But we discovered that these monks actually shaved these places on their own heads. Again, we didn’t say anything, because that would have been rude.

We walked up to the monks in the garden to greet them. When we got closer, however, one of the monks—a short, little man—started screaming when he saw us.

I will admit that we might look a little frightening at first, but people usually settle down when they realize that we only want to trade with them. But this little guy just kept on screaming and hollering and yelling, waving his arms in the air above his head, and running around in circles. He wouldn’t stop. While this monk was carrying on this way, the other monks all ran inside the monastery.

One of the Vikings with us was a man called Olaf. He was a big man, a good man, and he was a farmer back in Norway. In fact, he had the farm next to mine. Olaf once injured his leg when he was thrown off his horse, so he always used a long walking stick to help him to get around. One thing about Olaf is that he is basically a quiet man, and he likes everything around him to also be quiet. He does not like loud noises.

When this crazy little monk was running around in circles, waving his arms above his head, and screaming in his piercing, high-pitched voice, I could see that Olaf was getting annoyed. We all tried to calm the monk and told him that everything was all right, but he kept on screaming. I looked over at Olaf, and I could tell that he was now getting quite anxious about the noise.

“Calm down,” I repeated to the monk.

“Shhhhh,” said another man, but that monk just kept on screaming. My goodness, he had a pair of lungs!

Finally, Olaf could take no more of the noise and shouted, “Hold kjeft!” at the little man and hit him on the head with his walking stick.

Olaf only hit him once, and the little monk immediately collapsed into a pile on the ground—and he didn’t move. But he also didn’t scream anymore. Olaf breathed a sigh of relief; it was finally quiet again.

Fearing that Olaf might have really hurt this little guy, we dug around in the crumpled robe until we found him. You can imagine our surprise when we discovered that the little guy was dead! Olaf had actually killed him with that little tap on his head! Olaf felt so bad about this.

Olaf had hit the monk on that bald spot on top of his head, and since he didn’t have any hair there to help cushion the force of the blow, Olaf’s walking stick had actually cracked the poor guy’s skull open! It’s my opinion that this monk would have been all right if he had not shaved that round bald spot on the top of his head.

Well, you can imagine what happened next. All of the monks inside the monastery walls had seen what had just occurred, and they all now started their own screaming and shouting and running around in circles. At first, we tried to calm these others down as well, but then the monks started throwing things as us! We were soon pelted with tomatoes, carrots, and even large potatoes! One young monk started throwing rocks at us. Things were getting serious.

We entered the monastery and tried to catch these guys. We were trying to tie them up so they’d stop throwing things at us. But, as you know if you’ve ever tried to herd a bunch of sheep, things soon got out of hand. A few of these monks started hitting and biting our men, and—since Vikings are only human—some of our men fought back. I’m sorry to say that a few monks were killed this way, but it wasn’t generally on purpose; we were trying to protect ourselves.

That Englishman who wrote those things about us said that we drowned many of the monks in the sea. That is a lie. There were some monks who started jumping into the ocean from the walls of the monastery. Maybe they thought that they were going to swim away from us. But what happened was that—as soon as they entered the ocean—their long robes became even heavier in the water, making it impossible for them to swim anywhere. All those who jumped into the water promptly sank to the bottom. We were able to catch several monks before they jumped into the ocean, thus saving their lives. We tied them up, too, so they wouldn’t try leaping into the sea again.

We later decided to take these tied-up monks back with us to Norway. We thought that we might be able to find some good, honest work for them to do there; after all, many of us would need extra help at harvest time. So, we were not taking these monks to sell as slaves (as that Englishmen said), we were saving their lives.

Finally, after all of this ruckus settled down, we were faced with the problem of what to do with all the gold and silver that was in the monastery. With many of the monks dead and the others tied up in our boats, there was no one left to take care of the monastery or to protect the gold and silver. We thought about this a lot, and we decided that the only decent, honorable thing to do would be to take this treasure with us for safekeeping. If we left all the gold and silver there, unguarded, there was no telling who might just wander by and help themselves to stuff that didn’t belong to them. So we loaded this onto our boats as well, knowing that we would return all of this treasure to anyone who would be willing to come to Norway and claim it (and to provide proof that it belonged to them). I can tell you, however, that no one ever did.

So that’s what really happened at Lindisfarne. It was all, basically, just a misunderstanding.

Originally from Norway, Gunnar Skollingsberg spent most of his life in the United States before retiring and returning to Norway. “I soon obtained employment in a Norwegian public school,” he said. “While working with the students, I noticed that their textbooks contained only the ‘traditional’ report of the historic Lindisfarne raid, written by a likely biased and resentful Englishman. Since there are two sides to every story, I decided to write an account from the Viking’s viewpoint. This tale is humbly presented as one possible scenario.” Read about Gunnar’s own experiences and adventures in Norway on his website:

This article originally appeared in the June 19, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.