History Of The Vikings
Ragnar Lodbrok, Father to the Great Heathen Army
There have been several tales about Ragnar Lodbrok but because there has been so little evidence of his existence people often wonder if he was just a myth. True enough, Ragnar Lodbrok was one of the more popular Viking heroes during the Viking age and has been credited for several victories.
Ragnar Lodbrok got his nickname on account of the strange coat he wore. He was also called "Hairy Breeches" due to the trousers he wore made from animal skin. He was the son of King Sigurd Hring and Alfild but he claimed to be a descendant of the Great Odin himself. Ragnar's mother passed away when he was young and it is said that after her death, Sigurd wanted to remarry and chose Alfsol, the princess of Jutland, as his future bride. Much to his dismay, Alfsol's family was opposed to the union. Sigurd went to war and conquered Jutland declaring that he could not live without Alfsol in his life. Alfsol's family would rather loose their daughter to Valhalla than to have her marry Sigurd and poisoned their daughter. Devastated, Sigurd arranged for her body to be placed on a funeral pyre on board his finest ship. As his ship burned and when fire had been kindled and the ship cut adrift from its moorings, Sigurd sprang aboard, stabbed himself and was consumed by the fire beside the love of his life.
If we were to be honest, there are more stories about Ragnar's superior physical features than of his accomplishments in the battlefield. In many sagas, it is said that "he was the biggest and fairest of men that human eyes have seen, and he was like his mother in appearance and took after her kin". Because of this Ragnar had three wives. His first wife was Lagertha, a shield maiden. He won over his second wife, Thora Borgarhjort, by killing a gigantic snake that guarded their home at the East Geatic. It was here that he earned his nickname Lodbrock or shaggy breeches. He could credit his success to the breeches he wore which he fashioned from the skin of a dragon he defeated. Thora bore him sons: Erik and Agnar. After the death of his second wife, Ragnar met and married Aslaug, a powerful shaman. Aslaug bore him sons: Ivar the Boneless, Björn Ironside, Hvitserk, Ragnvald and Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye. Ragnar and Aslaug's sons grew up to become better warriors than their father. Not to be upstaged, Ragnar sailed to England with only two ships and sought to conquer. But he met his fate in the hands of King Aella. He was captured and thrown into a pit full of venomous snakes. To which came his famous words, “How the little piglets would grunt if they knew how the old boar suffers.” His death was the pivotal moment for the great Viking's invasion of England. In 865, with the intention of avenging his death, his son's Ivar, Halfdan and Ubba left their home and together with the "Great Heathen Army" sailed for England.
Before his untimely demise, Ragnar raided several cities near the coast of France and England. Charles the Bald gifted him with land and a monastery. This was before he betrayed the covenant and sailed up to Seine to besiege Paris. For his betrayal, he was paid off with 7,000 livres of silver. This was an enormous amount at the time, equivalent roughly to two-and-a-half tonnes. He also went on to terrorize the shores of Ireland and Dublin in the year 851. It is because of his betrayal of the covenant; the brutality of his death was described as "an act of divine retribution".
Ivar the Boneless
Ivar Ragnarsson, also known as Ivar the Boneless was the youngest son of Ragnar Loðbrok (also known as Ragnar Hairy Breeches) and his third wife Aslaug. His half-brothers and brothers included Björn Ironside, Halfdan Ragnarsson, Hvitserk, Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye and Ubba.
Where Ivar got his nickname is not certain. Some have suggested that he suffered from a degenerative muscular disorder, eventually resulting in him having to be carried everywhere. In some sagas (Viking tales), he was mentioned being carried to battle on a shield. According to the Tale of Ragnar Lodbrok, Ivar's lack of bones was a result of a curse. His mother, Aslaug, was a shaman (Viking witch) and told her husband, Ragnar, after returning home from a long raiding trip from England that he needed to wait three days before consummating their marriage, if not their child would be born deformed. Consumed with lust, Ragnar could not wait. He forced himself on her and true enough when their son, Ivar, was born he was born with weak bones. If the said rumors were true, someone like him would have been killed at birth, but as he was the son of a powerful warlord, he was saved. Other versions of the story included that Ivar was really a berserker and he is described as a large, dangerous and powerful warrior. Due to an unnatural flexibility during combat he got his nickname.
Despite the rumors of how he got his name, Ivar the Boneless was said to be one of the most feared Vikings in history. According to some accounts, he was a leader of the Sheppey expedition of 855 that occupied an isle near the mouth of the River Thames. He also fought side by side with Olaf the White, the Danish king of Dublin, in several battles on the island of Ireland during the 850s. Ivar and Olaf formed short-lived alliances with certain Irish rulers, including Cerball, king of Ossory, and campaigned and plundered in the county of Meath in the early 860s. However, these were small feats compared to what he accomplished after the death of his father. From his contemporaries, it is said that “It is doubtful if anyone has ever been wiser than he.”
Ivar was fiercely loyal to his family which is why it came as no surprise that his quest to conquer England was triggered by the death of his father. Ragnar was captured while raiding the kingdom of Northumbria. In captivity, King Aella, Northumbria's king, ordered that Ragnar be cast into a pit full of venomous snakes which was the reason for his demise. In anger, Ivar and his brothers, Halfdan and Ubba, vowed to avenge his death. In 865, Ivar led the "Great Heathen Army" to invade the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy. The Heptarchy is a collective name applied to the seven kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England from the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain in the 5th century until their unification into the Kingdom of England in the early 10th century. The seven kingdoms included East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Mercia, Northumbria, Sussex and Wessex.
Some stories say that Ivar decided not to extract his revenge but instead came upon an agreement with Aella. He asked for only as much land as he could cover with an ox's hide and swore to leave them in peace. Upon Aella's agreement, Ivar cut the ox's hide into such fine strands that he could envelop a large fortress and made it his own. In another version of the tale, Aella and his ally Osbert escaped during Ivar's first attempt to capture him but that he was captured in York soon after. Ivar and his brothers executed Aella in a ritual called the "blood eagle". This is one of the most brutal and painful way to die. From behind, they ripped open Aella's ribcage and pulled his lungs out into the shape of wings. To make it even more painful, they sprinkled salt into his bloody wounds.
It should have stopped there, but while some Vikings sought only treasure and adventure, Ivar set his sights higher. He was out to conquer England. Late 866, Ivar and his army turned north and invaded Northumbria. It was in York that Aella was captured in 867. Later in the year, they moved south and invaded Mercia, capturing Nottingham. Mercia was, at the time, the strength of England and its greatest kingdom. It was also Ivar's hardest target. He set up a base near the city and spent more than a year attacking and withdrawing from it until they broke through its walls and slaughtered everyone inside. In an effort to take back Mercia, King Burgred formed an alliance with King Æthelred of Wessex. With their combined force they were able to outpower the Vikings and laid siege to the town. Try as they might, the Anglo-Saxons were no longer able to recapture the city. In the long run, a truce was agreed where the Danes would withdraw to York where they stayed for over a year. During that time, they strengthened their forces and in 869, Ivar and his brother Hubba returned to East Anglia. In 870, Ivar renewed his alliance with Olaf the White and entered what is now Scotland. Together they destroyed Dumbarton and Dublin the year after.
Ivar the Boneless was also known to be a cruel and merciless warrior. He famously put King Edmund of East Anglia through a long and horrible death. So much so that he was sainted “Edmund the Martyr”. Edmund was brutally beaten, bound up in iron chains and tied to a tree. He was then shot with so many arrows that in the end he looked like a porcupine. Upon his death, Ivar cut off his head and threw it into the brambles.
In 1686, Thomas Walker, a farmer, discovered a Scandanavian burial mound at Repton in Derbyshire. This was close to a battle site where the Great Heathen Army overthrew King Burgred, the Mercian king. At this burial site, over 250 partial skeletons surrounded one body which signified that the man was of very high status. The body was draped in a necklace bearing Thor's hammer and clutching a Viking sword. The skeletons surrounding him included his men and dead children, who were ritualistically killed to accompany him to Valhalla. Studies showed that this man died a painful death. In the center of the skeleton was a disemboweled mound and his genitals were cut off. Historians have suggested that this is possibly the last resting place of Ivar the Boneless who was estimated to have passed away in year 873.
One of the more well-known Viking name in history would probably be Eric Haraldsson. Born in 885, he was the eldest and, as some sagas mention, favorite son of King Harald Finehair and Ragnhild. But while King Harald Finehair has been credited for having unified Norway, it is said that the extent of his power may have been limited to the west and southwest. If there's one more thing he was credited for, it is that King Harald Finehair had 20 sons. This did not give them enough in terms of inheritance, which is how Eric got his nickname, Eric Bloodaxe. The only way he became heir to his father's throne was to gradually murder all of his brothers. Bloodaxe in latin fratris interfector which means brother-killer. In context, the word blood could also mean blood relations.
At the age of 12, and this is once again proof that he was indeed his father's favorite, Eric began his career as a Viking after his father gifted him 5 long ships. He first sailed eastwards, where he raided the coasts of Denmark, Friesland and Saxland. This went on for about three years. After which, he sailed to the west and raided Scotland and the Irish Sea for about four years.
In sagas, Eric's rule of Norway was brief and unpopular. He was easily challenged by one of his surviving brothers, Hakon. Hakon grew up in English court which is probably why he survived long enough to challenge Eric to the throne. Surprisingly, Eric surrendered without a fight and fled to England. There he was welcomed by an ally in the form of Athelstan. Athelstan was a trusted friend of Eric's father and it is because of that friendship that he granted Eric authority as sub-king to Northumbria under his scrutiny.
There was another reason that Eric was given reign over Northumbria and this was to protect the land against Danish invasion. He was given specific instructions to defend the land against Scottish and Irish invasion. The kingdom of Northumbria provided a useful buffer zone for both Athelstan and the Scots. Both being anxious to have control over the land. In 939, Athelstan passed away and Eric's rule was once again taken from him, this time by Olaf Guthfrithsson of Dublin.
The sagas also mentioned, Eric's wife, Gunnhild, who is generally depicted in stories as an evil witch. Gunnhild was the daughter of Gorm the Old, the King of Denmark. Stories have depicted Eric as a henpecked husband who was under the great influence of his wife. Gunnhild is described as “…the most beautiful of women, —clever, with much knowledge about magic, and lively; but a very false person, and very cruel in disposition.”
While sagas account for Eric's burial spot to be at the Rey Cross at Stainmore, evidence has surfaced to disprove this. In the year 989, no bones were discovered on Rey Cross after an excavation was done. Until this day, there is no definite proof of his burial grounds.