Ivar the Boneless: Conqueror of England and Ireland

Ivar the Boneless, also known as Ivar Ragnarsson, was a renowned Viking leader who left a lasting impact on the history of England and Ireland. Despite his physical disability, Ivar the Boneless was a formidable warrior and a master tactician.

This article explores the life and legacy of Ivar the Boneless, shedding light on his origins, military exploits, and the mystery surrounding his nickname.

Ivar The Boneless – Origins and Nickname

According to the Tale of Ragnar Lodbrok, Ivar the Boneless was born to Ragnar Loðbrok and his wife Aslaug, alongside his brothers Björn Ironside, Hvitserk, Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye, and Ubba. However, the historical accuracy of this account remains uncertain. It is highly likely that Ivar the Boneless is the same person as Ímar, the Viking king who ruled Dublin from 870 to 873.

The origin of Ivar’s nickname, “the Boneless,” is a subject of debate. In Old Norse, “Ívarr Beinlausi” can be translated as “Ivar legless” or “Ivar boneless.” This ambiguity arises from the fact that the Old Norse word for “bone” and “leg” is the same: “bein.” Some sagas describe Ivar as lacking legs or having a skeletal condition such as osteogenesis imperfecta. Alternatively, there is a passage in Ragnarssona þáttr that suggests the nickname refers to male impotence.

Theories and Speculations

Various theories and speculations surround the nickname “the Boneless.” Some writers of historical fiction propose that Ivar earned this epithet due to his extraordinary agility and skill as a swordsman. They argue that his flexibility in combat earned him the nickname, rather than any physical impairment.

According to the Tale of Ragnar Lodbrok, Ivar’s alleged bonelessness was a result of a curse. Aslaug, Ivar’s mother, was a seer who advised Ragnar to wait for three nights before consummating their marriage after a long separation. However, Ragnar’s passion led him to disregard her warning, resulting in Ivar being born with weak bones.

Another hypothesis suggests that Ivar was actually known as “the Hated,” which, in Latin, would be “Exosus.” This Latin term could have been misinterpreted by a medieval scribe with limited Latin knowledge, resulting in the name “the Boneless.” However, this theory contradicts the direct translation of his name in Norse sources.

Ivar the Boneless: Conqueror of England and Ireland
Image: Wikimedia

Ivar’s Military Exploits and Legacy

Despite his physical disability, Ivar the Boneless was a highly capable military leader. The Great Heathen Army, led by Ivar, invaded the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy in 865. The army targeted the seven kingdoms of East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Mercia, Northumbria, Sussex, and Wessex. Although the exact circumstances surrounding the invasion remain unclear, it is believed to be a retaliatory measure against Ælla of Northumbria, who was said to have executed Ivar’s father, Ragnar Loðbrok.

The Great Heathen Army first confronted Ælla but eventually sought reconciliation. Ivar made a unique request, asking for as much land as an ox’s hide could cover. Once granted, he cunningly cut the hide into thin strands, effectively covering a large fortress, which he claimed as his own. The army then turned its attention to Northumbria, capturing Ælla in 867 and executing him using the infamous blood eagle ritual.

Continuing their campaign, Ivar and the Great Heathen Army invaded Mercia in 868, seizing the town of Nottingham. King Burgred of Mercia sought an alliance with the West Saxon king, Æthelred of Wessex, and together, they laid siege to Nottingham. Although the Anglo-Saxon forces failed to recapture the city, a truce was negotiated, resulting in the withdrawal of the Danes to York.

Ivar and his brother Ubba returned to East Anglia in 869, where they executed King Edmund the Martyr for refusing to renounce Christ. The exact details of Edmund’s death remain uncertain, but it is highly likely that he fell victim to the sons of Ragnar’s vengeance.

Ivar’s death is recorded differently in various sources. The Anglo-Saxon chronicler Æthelweard places his death in 870, while the Annals of Ulster and the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland mention his demise in 873. The Fragmentary Annals describe Ivar’s death as the result of a sudden and terrible disease, suggesting a possible connection between his nickname and a debilitating illness.


Ivar the Boneless, a Viking leader of exceptional military prowess, left an indelible mark on the history of England and Ireland. Despite his physical disability, Ivar’s strategic genius and tactical acumen ensured his place among the legendary Viking leaders. While the exact origins and meaning of his nickname remain elusive, Ivar’s legacy as a fierce warrior and a feared adversary endures through the annals of history.

*Feature Image: Wikimedia