Ragnar Lodbrok: The Viking Hero of the British Isles

Ragnar Lodbrok, also known as “Ragnar hairy-breeches,” was a legendary Viking hero and a renowned king of both Sweden and Denmark. His exploits and adventures have been immortalized in Old Norse poetry of the Viking Age, Icelandic sagas, and near-contemporary chronicles.

According to traditional literature, Ragnar Lodbrok gained fame through numerous raids on the British Isles and the Holy Roman Empire during the 9th century. He is also a prominent figure in Norse legends, with his father being identified as the legendary Swedish king, Sigurd Ring.

Icelandic Sagas: Unveiling Ragnar’s Origins

Various Icelandic sagas, including the Tale of Ragnar Lodbrok, Tale of Ragnar’s Sons, Heimskringla, Hervarar Saga Ok Heiðreks, and Sögubrot Af Nokkrum Fornkonungum, shed light on Ragnar’s lineage. According to these sagas,Ragnar Lodbrok was the son of Sigurd Ring, the king of Sweden. It is widely agreed upon in these accounts that Randver, the King of Denmark, was Sigurd’s father.

The Hervarar saga further adds that Sigurd’s wife was Åsa, the daughter of King Harald of the Red Moustache from Norway. Randver was the grandson of the legendary Scandinavian king Ivar Vidfamne through his daughter, Aud. After the death of Ivar Vidfamne, Harald’s nephew, Sigurd Ring, became the chief king of Sweden and succeeded Randver as the subking of Harald in Denmark. Following Sigurd’s rule, he sired a son named Ragnar Lodbrok with Princess Alfhild from the petty kingdom of Álfheimr.

Ragnar’s Marriages and Sons: Tales of Love and Warfare

The Sagas of Scandinavian Prehistory, known as fornaldarsǫgur, provide more information about Ragnar’s marriages than his military exploits. Described as “the biggest and fairest of men,” Ragnar Lodbrok was renowned for his appearance, resembling his mother’s side of the family.

His first marriage was to Thora Borgarhjort, the daughter of Geatish jarl Herrauð, whom he won by slaying a giant snake guarding her abode. Their sons were Erik and Agnar. After Thora’s death, Ragnar Lodbrok encountered Kráka, a woman of extraordinary beauty and wisdom, living with a humble peasant couple in Norway. He married her, not knowing that she was actually Aslaug, the secret daughter of the famous hero Sigurd Fafnesbane. This union gave rise to sons Ivar the Boneless, Björn Ironside, Hvitserk, Ragnvald, and Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye.

Ragnar, driven by his sons’ rising reputations as warriors, resolved to conquer England with just two ships to prove himself. However, he faced defeat at the hands of superior English forces and was ultimately thrown into a pit of snakes, meeting a gruesome demise. The Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok, Tale of Ragnar’s Sons, and Heimskringla depict the Great Heathen Army‘s invasion of England around 866, led by Ragnar’s sons as they sought revenge against King Ælla of Northumbria, who had captured and executed Ragnar Lodbrok according to legend.

Danish Sources: Chronicles of Rulers and Cruelty

The Chronicon Roskildense (c. 1138) mentions Lodbrok (Lothpardus) as the father of the exceedingly cruel Norse King Ywar and his brothers, Inguar, Ubbi, Byorn, and Ulf, who ruled over the northern peoples. They called upon various Danish petty kings to aid them in their quest to conquer the Frankish realm.

Ywar successfully attacked the kingdoms of Britain, although not motivated by revenge as portrayed in the Icelandic sagas. Another Danish text, the Chronicle of Sven Aggesen (c. 1190), is the first to mention the full name Regnerus Lothbrogh. In this work, Regnerus’s son Sigurd invades Denmark, kills its king, and marries the king’s daughter, thus assuming the throne. Their son, Knut, becomes the ancestor of future Danish kings.

It is worth noting that these sources do not present Ragnar Lodbrok as a Danish ruler. The first to do so is Saxo Grammaticus in his work Gesta Danorum (c. 1200). This work combines Norse legend with historical data from the chronicle of Adam of Bremen (c. 1075). According to Saxo, Ragnar’s father Sigurd Ring is a Norwegian prince married to a Danish princess. Saxo identifies Ragnar as the successor to the Danish kingship after the deaths of Sigurd and his cousin Ring. Ragnar’s first notable achievement is the defeat of the Swedish king Frö, who had killed Ragnar’s grandfather.

Saxo introduces Ladgerda (Lagertha), a fierce shield-maiden whom Ragnar Lodbrok forces into marriage and with whom he has a son named Fridleif. However, Ragnar later abandons Ladgerda and marries Thora Borgarhjort, the daughter of the Swedish King Herrauðr, after conquering two venomous giant snakes guarding her residence.

With Thora, Ragnar’s fathers Radbard, Dunvat, Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye, Björn Ironside, Agnar, and Ivar the Boneless. Ragnar also has a son named Ubbe from a non-marital relationship. Finally, he marries Svanlaug, potentially another name for Aslaug, with whom he has three more sons: Ragnvald, Eric Weatherhat, and Hvitserk.

Ragnar’s sons are appointed as sub-kings in the territories they conquered. Ragnar Lodbrok himself leads a Viking expedition to England, killing its King Hama before targeting the earls of Scotland. He installs Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye and Radbard as governors and subjugates Norway, appointing Fridleif as its ruler. Later, Ragnar and three of his sons invade Sweden, overthrowing the new King Sörle and placing Björn Ironside on the throne.

Ragnar’s reign is marked by repeated expeditions to the British Isles, with one resulting in the deaths of Dunvat and Radbard. The sons of Ælla, with the assistance of their allies known as the Galli, expel Ivar the Boneless from England, making him their persistent enemy. Hvitserk eventually becomes the ruler of the Scythians. In retaliation, Ragnar leads an expedition to Kievan Rus‘ and captures Prince Daxon, who is later spared and exiled.

Saxo’s account of Ragnar Lodbrok’s reign primarily focuses on successful Viking invasions across a vast geographical area. It includes a notable expedition against the Bjarmians and Finns in the Arctic north. The Bjarmians’ magical spells caused adverse weather and the deaths of many Danish invaders. The Finnish archers, skilled in skiing, prove to be formidable adversaries. Eventually, however, these tribes are defeated, and the Bjarmian king is slain.

Saxo also portrays Harald Klak, a historical king, as another persistent enemy of Ragnar, regularly inciting rebellions among the Jutes and Scanians but consistently facing defeat. Ragnar’s final battle involves an attack on King Ælla of England, who had massacred Ragnar’s men in Ireland. In this conflict, Ragnar Lodbrok is captured and sentenced to death by being thrown into a snake pit—a fate reminiscent of the early Burgundian King Gunnar, as recounted in the Icelandic sagas. Saxo concludes that Ragnar’s demise is God’s rightful vengeance for his disrespect toward the Christian religion.

Poetic and Epigraphic Sources: Songs and Inscriptions of Valor

In addition to the narrative Norse sources from the 12th and 13th centuries, several older poems mention Ragnar and his kin. The Ragnarsdrápa, attributed to the 9th-century poet Bragi Boddason, praises Ragnar Lodbrok, son of Sigurd, for a beautifully adorned shield received by the poet. The shield depicts various scenes, including the assault on Jörmunrek, the Hjaðningavíg tale, the ploughing of Gefjon, and Thor’s battle against the Midgard Serpent.

Some scholars argue that the poem celebrates the Norse reconquest of England around the year 1000. The Knutsdrapa by Sigvat Thordarson (c. 1038) mentions the death of King Ælla at the hands of Ivar in York, who “carved the eagle on Ælla’s back.” While the precise meaning of the reference to a “blood eagle” punishment is debated, the story of Lodbrok’s sons seeking revenge is already present in this account.

Krakumal, a lay attributed to the dying Ragnar in the snake pit, recounts his exploits and mentions battles across a wide geographic range, including several related to the British Isles. The poem’s name, “Kráka’s lay,” alludes to Ragnar’s wife, Kráka, though philologists date the poem’s current form to the 12th century.

Ragnar Lodbrok: The Viking Hero of the British Isles
Image: August Malmström, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

An inscription on the prehistoric tumulus of Maeshowe on Orkney, dating back to the early 12th century, mentions Lodbrok. It states that his howe, or burial mound, was built long before Lodbrok’s time and praises the exceptional height of his sons. The expression “her sons” has led some scholars to suggest that Lodbrok was initially conceived as a woman, the mother of his historically known sons.

Frankish Accounts: The Viking Siege of Paris

The Siege of Paris in 845 marked the culmination of a Viking invasion of the West Frankish kingdom. The Viking forces, led by a Norse chieftain named Reginherus or Ragnar, besieged the city. While there is speculation about whether this Ragnar is the same as the legendary Ragnar Lodbrok, historians dispute the accuracy of such claims. However, it is noteworthy that the name Ragnar Lodbrok is occasionally associated with a Ragnar who received land in Torhout, Flanders, from Charles the Bald around 841 but later lost both the land and the king’s favour.

Ragnar’s Vikings raided Rouen on their way up the Seine in 845, and in response, King Charles assembled an army to defend the Abbey of Saint-Denis near Paris. Ragnar attacked and defeated one division of the smaller Frankish army, capturing 111 men who were later hanged on an island in the Seine as a tribute to the Norse god Odin. Ragnar’s fleet returned to his overlord, Danish King Horik I, but Ragnar himself succumbed to a violent illness that spread in Denmark.

Later Continental Accounts: Ragnar’s Legends Persist

The Norman history of William of Jumièges, written around 1070, mentions the custom among Danish kings to banish their younger sons from the kingdom to remove them as potential threats. According to William, King Lodbrok followed this tradition after succeeding his unnamed father on the Danish throne. Lodbrok’s eldest son, Björn Ironside, was ordered to leave Denmark and set sail with a considerable fleet, launching raids on West Francia and later the Mediterranean.

Adam of Bremen, an 11th-century chronicler, also mentions a Ragnar in his history of the Archbishopric of Hamburg-Bremen. In this work, Ragnar’s son, Ivar, is depicted as a cruel persecutor of Christians and identified as the son of Lodbrok.

Anglo-Saxon and Irish Accounts: Halfdan’s Father and the Raven Banner

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Asser’s Life of Alfred, dating from 878, refer to the “brother of Hingwar and Healfden” leading a Viking fleet that invaded Devon in England. The battle that ensued, known as the Battle of Cynwit, resulted in the Vikings’ defeat, their king’s death, and the capture of their banner, known as the “Raven.”

The Annals of St Neots, from the early 12th century, elaborate further, stating that the three sisters of Hingwar and Hubba, identified as daughters of Lodebroch (Lodbrok), wove the banner in a single day. According to the annals, when the flag flew before the Vikings in battle and a live crow appeared, victory was assured. However, if the crow hung motionless, defeat was imminent. These accounts offer early references to the legendary hero Ragnar Lodbrok.

The Irish Cogad Gáedel re Gallaib, composed in the 12th century based on earlier annals, mentions a King Halfdan (d. 877) referred to as “Mac Ragnaill,” suggesting that Ragnar or a similar name was indeed the father of Ivar and Halfdan. Another Irish text, the Three Fragments from the early 11th century, provides a semi-legendary account of Ragnar’s capture of York in 866.

According to this version, Ragnar’s two younger sons expelled their eldest brother, Ragnall, who settled in the Orkney Islands with his three sons. The two Viking sons subsequently launched raids in England and the Frankish realm, eventually learning of their father’s death and their own probable demise in battle. The text also mentions their return home with numerous captives of dark-skinned origin. This Irish account is seen as a possible version of Ragnar Lodbrok’s saga, with the Mediterranean expedition likely taking place in 859-61.

Sources and Historical Accuracy: Myth and History Intertwined

Ragnar Lodbrok: The Viking Hero of the British Isles
Image: Wikimedia

While historical figures such as Ivar the Boneless, Halfdan Ragnarsson, Björn Ironside, Ubba, and Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye are widely accepted, opinions differ regarding Ragnar Lodbrok’s historicity. Modern academia generally considers many stories surrounding Ragnar to be fictional. However, some scholars believe that certain aspects of Ragnar’s legend may be based on historical events. Irish historical tradition, as well as indirect references in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, lend support to some elements of the Ragnar Lodbrok narrative.

Nonetheless, the various accounts and their chronologies make it challenging to definitively associate the legendary Ragnar with specific historical figures. Nevertheless, the enduring tradition of a Viking hero named Ragnar who wreaked havoc across 9th-century Europe and fathered famous sons remains a captivating and iconic part of Norse mythology and history.

*Feature Image: Wikimedia