The beginning of the Viking Era was chaotic, violent, and full of opportunity. Raiders from the north plunged Europe into a frenzy of fear, sailing up rivers into the very heart of the continent and terrorizing its peoples. They were brutal and had little mercy, and those who grew up in the culture saw their reaving endeavors as necessity. Coastal raiding became full blown invasions, and many Vikings became (in)famous, stamping their names firmly in the history books. Ragnar Lodbrok was one such name.
The hit television show Vikings brought to the attention of the public the historical characters of Ragnar Lodbrok and his family. While there are many inaccuracies with the television show, the exploits of these people are no less worthy to be retold. Here are the individual members of Ragnar Lodbrok’s family, and why they are remembered.
The Icelandic Sagas state that Ragnar Lodbrok was the son of King Sigurd Ring of Sweden, who in turn, was the son of King Randver of Denmark. The Sagas focus on Ragnar’s marriages, but do not mention his possible first wife, Lagertha, who is mentioned in the Gesta Danorum. In the Danish account, Ragnar Lodbrok ascends to kingship, and having gone to war against the Swedish King Frø who killed the Norwegian King Siward, Ragnar is assisted by a number of women who were part of Siward’s family and made to work in a brothel. According to the account, one of these women was Lagertha, who was forced to marry Ragnar Lodbrok.
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In the Gesta Danorum, Ragnar returns to Denmark to fight in a civil war, and divorces Lagertha. The Sagas then mention his marriage to Thora Borgarhjört, the daughter of the Geatish Jarl Herrauð. Ragnar wins her hand by killing two snakes that guard her abode (in the Icelandic sagas, it’s a single, giant serpent). The protective leggings Ragnar wore during this fight earned him the nickname “Hairy-Breeches,” or “Lodbrok.”
According to the Icelandic sagas, Ragnar had two sons with Thora: Erik and Agnar. Erik would later become King Erik Weatherhat of Sweden. According to the Gesta Danorum, however, his sons via Thora were Radbard, Ivar the Boneless, Dunvat, Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye, Björn Ironside, and Agnar. With another unnamed woman, Ragnar fathered Ubbe, and with his final wife, Aslaug (after Thora’s death), he fathered Ragnvald, Erik, and Hvitserk. The Icelandic Sagas again throw confusion on the matter claiming that His sons via Aslaug were Ivar the Boneless, Björn Ironside, Hvitserk, Ragnvald, and Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye.
Either way, Ragnar had several wives and lots of sons.
Saxo’s account deals much with the wars and raids led by Ragnar Lodbrok. In the north of Scandinavia, he fought against the Bjarmians and the Sami, eventually slaying the Bjarmian king and gaining victory. A significant enemy of Ragnar was Harald Klak, a Jutish king who initiated several rebellions against Ragnar. Ragnar eventually overcame these rebellions, but after the last battle with Harald, Ragnar learned of the massacre of his Vikings in Ireland at the hands of King Ælla of Northumbria. Seeking revenge, Ragnar lead an attack on Northumbria, but was captured and thrown into a pit of snakes, where he met his end.
Lagertha was Ragnar’s first wife and a Viking warrior known as a shieldmaiden. The story of Ragnar Lodbrok’s wife, Lagertha, is recorded in the Gesta Danorum. According to the ninth book of this work, Lagertha’s story begins when the Danish King Frø invaded Norway and killed King Siward. In an act of humiliation, King Frø put all the women in King Siward’s family to work in a brothel.
Upon hearing this, Ragnar Lodbrok led an army to avenge the death of King Siward. Many of the women who had been abused in the brothel dressed as men and fought on Ragnar’s side. During the fighting, Ragnar was impressed with Lagertha’s courage and decided to court her. Days after the battle, Ragnar arrived at Lagertha’s house to find it guarded by a bear and a hound, both of which he killed. This impressed Lagertha, and Ragnar won her hand. Ragnar and Lagertha had three children: a son, Fridleif, and two daughters, who are unnamed in the Gesta Danorum.
Several years later, Ragnar left for Denmark to fight in a civil war. Saxo recounts that Ragnar was still annoyed with Lagertha for having set beasts on him, so he divorced her and married Thora Borgarhjört, the daughter of the king of Sweden. They had several children together. Many years later and facing another civil war, Ragnar sent word to Norway that he required assistance. Lagertha, who still loved him, sent a fleet of 120 ships to his aid. During the most important battle, one of Ragnar’s sons, Sigurd, was wounded, and defeat looked imminent until Lagertha launched a counter-attack and won the battle.
Upon returning to Norway, Saxo recounts that Lagertha slew her husband and usurped his lands, stating that “this most presumptuous dame wanted to rule by herself rather than share a throne.”
The validity of Saxo’s writings must, however, be challenged. He was a misogynist and wrote from a very Christian perspective of women’s place in society. It’s quite possible that, for example, women fighting alongside Ragnar need not have dressed as men, as Viking women were not barred from picking up weapons and joining the menfolk in battle, nor were they subject to the same Christian demands of subservience. Under Christian law, it was illegal for women to wear men’s clothes – Joan of Arc was charged for this crime.
After the death of Ragnar Lodbrok, a large force of Vikings invaded England. This force was known as the Great Heathen Army, and it wrought havoc on the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. One of the army’s leaders was a man known as “Ubba.” This may or may not have been one of Ragnar Lodbrok’s sons.
In 869, with the death of King Edmund the Martyr, the Kingdom of East Anglia fell to the Great Heathen Army. A text written over 100 years after the events, Passio Sancti Eadmundi, mentions Ubba as being one of the principal leaders of the forces that conquered East Anglia. Another of the principal leaders of the Great Heathen Army was Ivar the Boneless, who is also attested to be one of Ragnar’s sons. This leads credence to the fact that the “Ubba” in question could be related.
Later accounts connect both Ubba and Ivar with the martyrdom of an abbess named Æbbe, who, upon hearing of the advance of the Great Heathen Army towards her monastery, told her nuns to disfigure themselves to avoid being shamed by the Vikings. The Vikings, in response, razed the monastery, burning all the nuns inside.
According to the 12th-century Liber de Infantia Sancti Eadmundi, Ubba and Ivar were joined by another of Lodbrok’s sons, Björn Ironside, in the conquest of East Anglia. Ubba appears to have met his death at the Battle of Cynwit in 878 CE.
Unlike in the popular series Vikings, Björn Ironside was unlikely to have been Ragnar’s first born son. According to Frankish sources, younger sons of Viking kings were expected to venture out to secure their father’s name. Thus, when Ragnar became king, Björn left his home and raided Francia, along with another Viking leader named Sigtrygg. The combined forces sailed up the Seine, raiding and pillaging as they went, but were eventually defeated by the forces of Charles the Bald. Eventually, Björn’s forces managed to sack Paris.
From 859 to 861, Björn co-led an expedition into the Mediterranean, where he plundered settlements along the Iberian coast before sailing towards Southern France and Italy. According to one account, Björn was with his foster father Hastein when they encountered the city of Luni, which they thought was Rome. Hastein gained access by pretending to be a dying Christian who needed last rites to be performed. He was admitted along with a small party of accomplices. While in the chapel, he leapt from his stretcher, and with his party, hacked his way to the town gate, which he opened to the rest of the Viking forces.
According to the Icelandic Sagas and the Gesta Danorum, there were significant disputes with a Swedish king named differently in both sources. Björn Ironside took part in the fighting along with his other brothers, Ivar the Boneless and Hvitserk. The 13th-century Hervarar Saga states that Björn killed the Swedish king, and upon Ragnar’s death, Björn became king of Sweden.
Ivar the Boneless
In the Tale of Ragnar Lodbrok, a 13th century Icelandic saga, Ivar the Boneless is a son of Ragnar and Aslaug. There is no conclusive evidence of how he earned his nickname, but it is widely believed that he was born with a leg defect that left him crippled.
Ivar was one of the sons who led the Great Heathen Army, and took revenge on King Ælla for the death of Ragnar. According to legend, his first attempt failed and Ælla and Ivar sought reconciliation. Ivar asked only for as much land as an oxhide could cover. Ælla agreed, and Ivar then cut the hide into thin strips which he used to envelop the area of a large fortress. In some accounts, this fortress was York, and in other accounts, it was London. Whatever the truth, the Great Heathen Army returned to Ælla’s kingdom the following year, and succeeded in capturing the Northumbrian king. Ivar and his brothers executed him by “blood eagle,” a method of execution involving the cutting and splaying of certain areas of the victim’s back. The blood eagle is debated by scholars as to how it was achieved, and even if it really existed at all, with many claiming it was a later fiction created by Christian chroniclers.
Ivar is also identified, along with Ubba, as having been responsible for the death of King Edmund of East Anglia.
Modern historians consider Ivar synonymous with Imar, the Viking king of Dublin from 1870 to 1873.
Sigurd Snake-In-The-Eye was born to Ragnar and Aslaug and is said to have had the image of Ouroboros in one of his eyes, hence the nickname. When he was just a boy, his half-brothers Eric/Erik and Agnar were killed by the Swedish King Eysteinn. Although they were not her children, Aslaug demanded vengeance. Ivar the Boneless believed that the gods were against them and was reticent upon taking revenge. At only three years old, Sigurd convinced his brothers otherwise, and Eysteinn was defeated and killed.
After Ragnar Lodbrok’s death, Sigurd was one of the brothers who took part in the attempt to avenge his father by killing the Northumbrian king Ælla, which they succeeded in doing. Sigurd inherited Halland, Scania, Zealand, the Danish islands, and Viken. Sigurd is also claimed to be the ancestor of many great Vikings, including Harald Bluetooth, Sweyn Forkbeard, and Cnut the Great, who ruled as king over all of England.
The written evidence of Ragnar and his family, including his ex-wives, is wildly inconsistent and filled with myth and legend. It is difficult for historians to gain an accurate depiction of the characters with sources that conflict with each other on such a fundamental level. Nevertheless, there are certain threads that are consistent, and what seems to be the case is that Ragnar Lodbrok was a powerful and influential leader who, upon his death, inspired his sons to do great deeds.
For hundreds of years, the legends have sung their praises, right up to the modern era where popular television shows include them as characters.