The research behind Warrior of Mercia by MJ Porter!
During the Saxon period, Peterborough was known as Medeshamstede – a bit of a mouthful, and even for those who study the period a lot, a bit confusing, as it has so little resemblance to Peterborough. For that reason, I determined to name it Peterborough and give us all a chance of knowing what I was talking about. London/Londonia and Londinium is a little easier to work out.
The monastery itself was founded in the middle of the seventh century. But what drew me to it for Warrior of Mercia was the knowledge that it was allegedly attacked by a force of Viking raiders in about 870, as part of the great swathe of destruction that occurred from about 865 onwards when the Viking raiders swept through the United Kingdom. Why, I considered, if it was attacked then would it not have been a target during earlier raids?
The Viking raids into the smaller kingdoms of England begin in 793, or rather, that’s when they’re first mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a complex source, but one that’s very useful, provided it’s remembered that the events are often recorded retrospectively. There was no one sitting there in 793 scratching the following words onto a piece of vellum, but they are all we have. (The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle doesn’t even start to be written until nearly a hundred years later, and Bede, wrote his Ecclesiastical History of the English People in the early 730s).
‘In this year dire portents appeared over Northumbria and sorely frightened the people. They consisted of immense whirlwinds and flashes of lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine immediately followed those signs, and a little after that in the same year, on 8 June, the ravages of heathen men miserably destroyed God’s church on Lindisfarne, with plunder and slaughter.’
Over thirty years later, the Viking raiders, or heathens as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle liked to term them, made a return to the island of the United Kingdom, and entries from the 830s onwards make reference to the Viking raiders.
So why then did the Viking raiders attack Lindisfarne, and then, much later Peterborough? It’s often supposed the Viking raiders sacked the monastic sites because of their wealth. But, these monastic sites often had another advantage for the ship-bound Viking raiders. They were on coastal or riverside sites. Lindisfarne projects into the North Sea to the east of the mainland of Northumberland and is accessible via a tidal estuary, which sadly often catches out the unwary modern-day traveller, and I can assure you that while the Coast Guard will come and rescue you, they won’t be happy about it. Peterborough monastery was also on a river site and perhaps not quite as easily accessible as Lindisfarne, but tempting all the same.
And yes, these monastic sites more than likely did seem to have great wealth, but equally, what the Viking raiders wanted was slaves, and the holy men and women would have fetched good coins from the slavers when they were later sold on in Hedeby, Birka or even Staraya Ladoga, to name just a few of the known slave markets.
But, the Peterborough Cathedral that survives to this day was begun in 1118, having been burned down by fire in 1116, and so, is not, sadly, a Saxon building, but it’s still rather stunning, all the same.