The Norwegian Attack on Iona in 1209-10: The Last Viking Raid?

The Norwegian Attack on Iona in 1209-10: The Last Viking Raid?

The Norwegian Attack on Iona in 1209-10: The Last Viking Raid?

By Ian Beuermann

Paper given at the Iona Research Conference, on April 11, 2012

Introduction: “… the counsel was adopted that in the following summer they should sail west to the Sudreys [Hebrides] for plundering to get goods and riches … [So] with twelve ships, [they] went on a plundering trip to the west; and they plundered the Sudreys and the surrounding islands … They pillaged the Holy Island [Iona], which Norwegians have always held sacred; then they fell out, and were defeated in various places, and those that came back to Norway were severely rebuked by the bishops for their pillaging.”

With these words, Bǫglunga Sǫgur (The Sagas of the Crosiers), a Norse saga compilation from the early thirteenth century, describes a Norwegian attack on Iona in 1209-10. It has usually been seen as just another, late, in fact the last such, viking raid in the area. And indeed, the description agrees with our common idea of a typical viking raid:

  • an attack by seaborne Scandinavian privateers
  • a surprise hit-and-run attack on an undefended target, with a monastery the most shocking example
  • in order to plunder: goods, animals and slaves.

This is our classic understanding of a viking raid which we derive from the attacks in the late eighth and early ninth century, at the beginning of the Viking Age, when Scandinavians appeared off the coasts of Britain and Ireland to sack for example Lindisfarne in 793, and Iona in 794, 802, 806 and 825. And 400 years years later, in 1209-10, the Norwegians supposedly still went a-viking (fóru í víking) to Iona.

But we should beware of believing first impressions and easy explanations. A closer look at what happened in and around Iona in the early 1200s, makes the interpretation that this was just another such ‘classic viking raid’ rather unlikely. We might also have to ask again what exactly a ‘classic viking raid’ was. And lastly, all of this makes us understand better what the Scandinavians did here for the better part of 500 years – also in the Hebrides they did not limit themselves to making surprise attacks for nearly half a millennium!