The Viking King, Ragnar Lodbrok (or Lothbrok according to different texts) had his infamous deeds embellished in medieval European literature. Noted as the scourge of France and Britain, Ragnar’s life and notorious acts are nothing short of legendary and his three notable sons-Halfdan, Inwaer (also known as Ivar the Boneless) and Hubba continued his legacy.
Ragnar’s story is told mainly through unreliable sagas, stories steeped in legend and myth with few facts confirmed by reliable sources; Scandinavia in this period was illiterate so there are very few historical records to support or negate these illustrious claims. Two sources from the twelfth century provide the most information about Ragnar; the Gesta Danorum recorded by Danish Historian Saxo Grammaticus and Krakumal, an Icelandic poem that is a romantic rendition of Ragnar’s death. Ragnar’s and his sons’ exploits are recorded in the Orkney Island’s poem Hattalykill. The son of Sigurd Ring and Alfild, Ragnar also claimed descent from Odin, the Viking God of War and he received the surname Lodbrok on account of his fashion choices, a combination of a strange coat and animal skin trousers. Through the written histories of Ragnar’s life, he is known to have married two great shieldmaidens, Lathgertha and Queen Aslaug with whom he fathers his famed sons.
Ragnar is said to have led raids into France, sailing his 120 longships up the River Seine to lay siege on Paris in 845. Ragnar and his forces swiftly defeated the French King and grandson of Charlemagne- Charles the Bald and occupied Paris during Easter. The plundering and occupation of the city ended when Charles paid a ransom of seven thousand French livres for the Vikings to leave. Ragnar continued his campaign of raiding France and England and fought numerous civil wars in Denmark; and while he was by no means the first to invade these nations he may have been the first to leave settlements and attempt to conquer land as opposed to merely plundering and leaving.
During one of Ragnar’s campaigns he and his crew were shipwrecked on the Northumbrian coast and were quickly defeated and captured by Aelle, King of Northumbria. The Krakumal tells the tale of Ragnar’s death by being thrown into a pit of poisonous snakes by Aelle and Ragnar singing his death song while expressing his confidence that his sons would avenge his death:
“It gladdens me to know that Baldr’s father makes ready the benches for a banquet. Soon we shall be drinking ale from the curved horns. The champion who comes into Odin’s dwelling does not lament his death. I shall not enter his hall with words of fear upon my lips. The Æsir will welcome me. Death comes without lamenting. Eager am I to depart. The Dísir summon me home, those whom Odin sends for me from the halls of the Lord of Hosts. Gladly shall I drink ale in the high-seat with the Æsir. The days of my life are ended. I laugh as I die.”
While these epics describe Ragnar’s life in romantic detail, Historians continue to debate his actual existence, but most agree that it is more likely that the tales of his life originate with the deeds of several Viking heroes and kings. Ragnar is referred to in several sources, three as mentioned above, the others include the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Tale of Ragnar Lodbrok, The Tale of Ragnar’s Sons, the Annals of St. Bertin and the Ragnarsdrapa, a skaldic poem. The stories that take place in Christian Europe allow historians to correlate some facts with written accounts of the time, most notably the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. However this evidence more validities the existence and deeds of Ragnar’s sons than Ragnar himself. It is circumstantial at best, only verifying that the sagas reflect historical events; therefore, it cannot be taken as historical fact of the existence of this legendary Viking king. It is exceedingly difficult to reconcile the various accounts of Ragnar’s life and determine if they inspired from other historical figures but the tradition of the one true Viking hero embellished in Ragnar Lodbrok remains persistent.
Katherine Holman, the author of The Northern Conquest, concludes that while Ragnar’s sons are historical figures, there is no evidence that Ragnar ever lived and is likely to have risen from the combination of several different historical individuals and the love for romanticism. Two individuals that may have inspired the amalgamation of Ragnar was King Horik I, King Reginfrid, Rognvald or Ragnall the leader of the Norsemen, who conquered Northumbria and the Isle of Man during the tenth century and Reginherus, a Viking warrior under King Horik, who laid siege to Paris in the ninth century.
While the legend of Ragnar is in doubt, there is the belief that his sons did in fact exist, this is due to extensive textual evidence. Halfdan, Inwaer and Hubba led an invasion in 865 knows as the “Great Heathen Army” (a coalition of Norse Warriors from Norway, Sweden and Denmark) to avenge their father’s murder. Crossing the North Sea in 866 they engaged in battle and captured King Edmund of East Anglia, tied him to a tree and executed him. After sacking the city of York and meeting King Aelle in combat, they were victorious and killed the King in revenge. Ragnar’s sons would control England as a unified state from 865-878, and the Danelaw was introduced- a foreign territory under Danish influence and authority. His three children would go on to dominate Scandinavia and impact European affairs and politics as well as becoming the head of several royal dynasties.
Whether Ragnar Lodbrok existed is still in question, but there is no doubt that Norse folklore had a crucial role in creating the legendary Viking heroes we know today. These stories embellished and romanticised the uncertain history of the Dark Ages and gave cultural and historical clues to mythical historical figures. If he did exist, Ragnar was a ruler of high power and territory stretching from raids in England and France, and leading vast armies into battle.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "Ragnar Lodbrok" https://englishhistory.net/vikings/ragnar-lodbrok/, July 27, 2016