Here’s a little thing that narks me every now and then. This comes up occasionally in teaching, where I can set it straight, occasionally someone is wrong about it on the Internet (which never ends well) but I was quite surprised to find a related version in a certain large book I’m still sporadically making my way through, and that has me worried enough to set out my thinking. The thing in question is a supposed fact, the dates of the first Viking attacks on the kingdoms of Western Europe.
[Edit: a very cogent point from Julia Barrow in comments has meant I've seriously overhauled this paragraph and the next. Further edit: there has also developed in the comments a very erudite dispute about what exactly Alcuin was thinking when he wrote the letters I mockingly pastiche in what follows, and if that is likely to matter to you you should have a look below.] For England, canonically, it was Northumbria that was first to be attacked, with the sack of the monastery Lindisfarne in 793. Now, OK, let’s be quite clear, Lindisfarne in 793 was not a good place to be. However much the famous letter of Alcuin about it may work it up into eschatological froth, people surely died or were kidnapped and the monastery plundered.1 The only problem is that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states that the first Viking attack was in the reign of King Beorhtric of Wessex, which we put from 786 to 802, when a boat hauled up on Portland sands, the king’s reeve Beaduheard went down to tell them, I suppose, the contemporary equivalent of “you can’t park that there” and they killed him. That, I grant you, could still put Lindisfarne first, but the Chronicle‘s compilers (working around 892) explicitly said the Portland attack was “the first ships of the Danish men which sought out the land of the English race”.2 So, at the least, if you want to ignore what the Chronicle says you need to make that argument or one like it before you go and take Alcuin’s words (which have their own moral purpose, as no doubt did the letter that must have been his source) instead.
Now in fact that argument is not hard to make, because the earliest manuscript, known as A or the Parker Chronicle, of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle doesn’t mention the sack of Lindisfarne. In fact it doesn’t have an annal for 793 at all. Notice of the sack only occurs in three later manuscripts (known as D, E, and F), all of which had, one way or another, incorporated parts of a set of northern annals that we no longer have, except via these manuscripts and the twelfth-century Historia Regum, written at Durham, whose author Simeon also seems to have had them to use.2bis Can it be that the Chronicle‘s compilers didn’t know Lindisfarne had been sacked, a hundred years on? It seems unlikely, so perhaps they were just keen to make sure that the real first attack clearly happened in Wessex, where the Chronicle was being compiled and where King Alfred was fairly keen on getting people on board dealing with the massive threat that Viking attacks had by that time become. In which case, of course, they may have adopted the vague dating for exactly the reason that they were aware that Lindisfarne was attacked first. But there are good reasons to suppose that if they thought that, even so, they were wrong.
You see, there’s a charter of King Offa of the Mercians (and also, he claims in it, now awarded the sceptre of government of the people of Kent by God), that he issued at a synod at Clofesho (which was apparently a vastly important place then and is now unknown) in 792.3 Offa seems to have been in generous mood, or perhaps really urgent to pacify Kent, as the document is a blanket confirmation that all the churches of Kent were to be exempt from various services and dues. There were however some things they still had to pay when necessary. This was a classic Mercian strategy, indeed since the 1970s it’s been thought of as one of the things that made Mercia great, but usually it extended only to providing soldiers on royal demand, repairing fortresses and maintaining bridges.4 On this occasion, however, the first thing these churches still had to stump up for was, “an expedition within Kent against seaborne pagans arriving with fleets, or against the East Saxons if necessity compels”. Now, against this, it must be admitted that the charter as we have it is not an original. It was once preserved at St Augustine’s Canterbury but now survives in two thirteenth-century cartularies in London. So it could be, shall we say, improved, but if so, the bit about attacking Essex would be a very odd thing to add! Mind you, it looks odd in its day’s terms as well, it’d been a while since Essex had a separate political existence, but all the same I’m not inclined to dismiss it straight away. If it’s not some scribe’s over-active imagination, anyway, in 792 Offa was expecting pagan sea-raiders in Kent, which rather suggests that there had already been some. Once again the sources are awkward, but one has to at least explain why one trusts one and distrusts another before stating things as fact. There just aren’t any safe facts here.
The same debate can be had about the Continent. On page 587 of that certain large book for example, we are told, “the first Viking raid on Francia, from neighbouring Denmark, was in 834, in the context of Louis [the Pious]‘s 833-4 conflict with his sons”.5 Now, I’m not going to say this is wrong, you must realise; I believe that if you stuck the word “documented” in there somewhere it would be cast-iron true, and the actual point, which is about how quickly enemies of a kingdom might capitalise on its political problems, is perfectly valid. But, as with Offa, we may suspect there was more going on already behind the scenes, because in 800 King Charles of the Franks and Lombards, as he still then was, spent some of the earlier part of the year touring “the coastal region adjoining the Gallic ocean; he created a fleet upon this sea because it was infested with pirates at that time [and] organised defences”.6 There’s really only one likely set of pirates out there at this time, and whereas the attack in 834 was a political one, we know that, well, by 802 and likely earlier there were also presumably-independent Danish raiders in the English Channel, see above.
What we are facing here is that no-one realised this whole Viking thing was going to be the theme of the century when it started. Even Alcuin, who is all “OMG it’s like the sack of Rome all over again, nothing as bad as this has happened in English Christian history, are you really sure you guys weren’t being sinful because you know God does nothing by chance“,7 did not go on to say, “I bet this isn’t the last we see of this; run to Chester-le-Street!” and predict the First Viking Age. The people compiling the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle however, with a century’s bitter hindsight, did know when they came across some note of the Portland attack, in whatever sources they had to build the Chronicle out of, that that was the story of which that attack should be seen as part, and so do we. But that doesn’t mean that whoever had written it down first recognised it as such, and that they knew it was the first such attack; it just means that the Chronicle compilers thought they could make the case that it was. The earlier attacks on Kent that Offa seems to have been providing against, likewise, were not recognised as the beginning of a centuries-long society-changing war; he made no special provision other to than ensure that the regular military response would not get smaller. How could they have known, after all? So the first Viking attacks, in either England or Francia, are almost certainly not recorded, but there is good reason to say that anyone who gives you the canonical dates for them without a crucial word like “known” or “recorded” or similar is, well, probably talking about something else really.
1. Alcuin’s letter is actually two letters, printed in Ernst Dümmler (ed.), Epistolae Ævi Karolini II, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Epistolae) IV (Berlin 1895), Alcuini sive Albini epistolae nos 20 & 21 (pp. 57-59), one of about ten letters he immediately sent to people in England trying to drum up help and support for the beleaguered monastery. No. 20 is translated in full in S. Allott (trans.), Alcuin of York, c. A. D. 732 to 804 (York 1974), pp. 72-73, whence repr. in Paul Edward Dutton (transl.), Carolingian Civilization: a reader, Readings in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures 1, 2nd edn. (Peterborough ON 2004), pp. 123-125, probably in the first edition as well and I expect several other places, but those are the ones I have on the shelf so that’s the reference you get.
2. Anglo-Saxon Chronicle s. a. 787 for 789, here cit. from Michael Swanton (transl./ed.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (London 1996).
2bis. A brief discussion of the manuscripts can be found ibid., pp. xxi-xxix, and a much more thorough one in D. Whitelock (ed./transl.), English Historical Documents I: c. 500-1042, 2nd edn. (London 1979, repr. 1996), pp. 113-131, but I don’t know as I write how well that now stands up against the latest scholarship.
3. Now best ed. in Susan Kelly (ed.), The Charters of St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury, and Minster-in-Thanet, Anglo-Saxon Charters 4 (Oxford 1995), no. 15, but of course also available via Sean Miller’s ASCharters.net here, whence the Latin: “nisi expeditione intra Cantiam contra paganos marinos cum classis migrantibus uel in australes Saxones si necessitas cogit“. I would, of course, like to cite it from the supposed replacement for that site at King’s College London but as usual it’s down so I can’t. Plus ça change.
4. Discussed classically in Nicholas Brooks, “The Development of Military Obligations in Eighth- and Ninth-Century England” in Peter Clemoes & Kathleen Hughes (edd.), England before the Conquest: Studies in Primary Sources presented to Dorothy Whitelock (Cambridge 1971), pp. 69–84, back when CUP still printed Festschriften, repr. in Brooks, Communities and Warfare 700–1400 (London 2000), pp. 32-47 and in David Pelteret (ed.), Anglo-Saxon History: Basic Readings (New York City 2000), pp. 83-105.
5. Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 (Oxford 2005), p. 587.
6. Royal Frankish Annals s. a. 800, printed in Friedrich Kurze (ed.), Annales regni francorum inde ab a. 741 usque ad a. 829. Qui dicuntur Annales laurissenses maiores et Einhardi, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum germanicum in usum scholarum separatim editi) VI (Hannover 1895); here cit. from P. D. King (transl.), Charlemagne: translated sources (Lancaster 1987), p. 92.
7. I paraphrase, obviously; this is not Alcuin’s style really. I realise he was a famous teacher and a moralist and theologian of the first order and so forth, and yes, at the same time as questioning his old acquaintances’ morality he was also trying to kick an international (or at least interregnal) relief effort into action, but I can’t help feeling that Alcuin was not very much fun, you know? I would have been in Theodulf’s camp, or more likely waiting for Walahfrid and Eriugena to arrive.