10 Famous Vikings From History: Ragnar Lodbrok, Rollo, and More


The history of humankind is marked by civilizations that left behind lasting legacies that are appreciated to this day. Some did so through continuous innovation combined with longevity; for instance, the ancient Egyptian civilization lasted for roughly 3,000 years, and the Roman Empire spanned nearly 1,000 years. Even the rule of the Samurai in Japan ran a course of approximately 700 years.

By comparison, the Viking Age, which by most accounts lasted about two and half centuries, is a mere blip in the annals of history. But during that tumultuous period, a number of larger-than-life figures emerged, and through their accomplishments, they are not only memorialized in Scandinavian history books but commemorated by people all around the world.

Here are 10 famous Vikings from history, along with their triumphs and achievements:

Viking Ragnar Lodbrok
What is Rollo known for? See below

Ragnar Lodbrock

Of all the figures on this list, Ragnar Lodbrok (also Lodbrock) is one whose true identity has been hotly debated. There are those who assert that he is an amalgam of multiple people in Viking history, and further muddying the waters of historical accuracy are his portrayals in modern mainstream media, including a blockbuster television series. Others believe he is the real-life Viking chieftain Ragnall.

As far as the popular narrative, these are the noteworthy events and accomplishments of Ragnar Lodbrok’s life:

  • He was a feared raider who not only attacked England and neighboring Scotland but also attempted to settle these areas by leaving behind encampments [1]
  • In 845, he led an armada consisting of 120 ships and 5,000 warriors and besieged Rouen in what would later become the region of France known as Normandy (named after its “Northmen” conquerers)
  • Some sources also have Ragnar Lodbrok attacking Paris as well
  • He left behind several sons who would go on to become famed Viking leaders themselves, including Ivar the Boneless (more on him later) [2]

Regardless of the questionable details and mythical deeds (for example, slaying a dragon), one thing that is beyond dispute is that Ragnar Lodbrok is a bona fide hero not only in the eyes of Scandinavians but now millions of fans around the world. (Also see was Ragnar Lodbrok a Christian?)

Vikings Rollo

Rollo

Perhaps no Viking left a more lasting and far-reaching legacy than Rollo, the fearless Norse warrior whose conquest of western France led to the founding of a famed region that would come to be known as Normandy and its people, the Normans. [3] Generations later, a Norman named William the Conqueror would lay siege to England, becoming its monarch and a distant ancestor of the British royal family.

Rollo actually launched two military campaigns in western France. The first, which occurred in 885, was aimed at Paris and comprised a massive force of: 

  • Ships 
  • Men 
  • Heavy armaments like catapults 

This conflict was long and drawn out due to the inspired resistance of Parisian forces and ended in a stalemate.

It was Rollo’s second campaign in 911 that finally convinced Charles the Simple to offer large parcels of land in exchange for Rollo’s agreement to lay down his arms and to stand guard against future Viking threats to France. Rollo agreed, and the rest is history as the foundation was laid for the formation of Normandy and its long line of influential Norman leaders. (Also see What Did the Vikings Look Like?)

Erik the Red

Contrary to popular belief, not all Vikings were fearless warriors. Aside from their military prowess, the Vikings are also famous for their daring explorers and highly skilled mariners. Case in point, consider the legendary exploits of Erik the Red, who earned his moniker thanks to his fiery red mane or red-hot temper, or perhaps a combination of both. [4]

Erik the Red’s crowning achievement is the settlement of Greenland in the late 10th century, which he named as such as a cunning marketing move to entice others to relocate there. The famous Viking explorer’s family settled in Iceland after his father was exiled from Norway for murder. 

Interestingly, Erik the Red was later exiled from Iceland for the very same thing, but as fate would have it, this led directly to his discovery of Greenland to the west, and the rest, as they say, is history. (Also see Did the Vikings have Red Hair?)

Olaf Tryggvason

Although he ruled as king of Norway for a mere five years (circa 995 to 1000), Olaf Tryggvason is a beloved and respected figure not just in his homeland but throughout Scandinavia and beyond. His life story reads like a fairytale with highlights including:

  • He was born into royalty as his grandfather was Harald Fairhair (king of Norway from 872 to 930)
  • As a child, he was forced to flee from Norway after his father was murdered, and he wound up as a slave on a farm
  • Freed from slavery by his uncle, Olaf Tryggvason, he rose to prominence as a feared Viking raider and gained great wealth and power in the process
  • Determined to regain his rightful place, he returned to Norway with ships and men and overthrew the reigning ruler of Norway, Earl Hakon, and took over the throne
  • As king, Olaf Tryggvason set the stage for Christianity to spread throughout Norway

Even Olaf Tryggvason’s death seems to be a mix of fact and fiction. Supposedly wounded during the Battle of Svolder, Olaf jumped overboard rather than being taken captive. While the weight of the armor he was wearing would surely have dragged him down to a watery grave, legend has it that he managed to take off his armor and swim to safety. 

It has even been rumored that he lived the remainder of his days as a man of the cloth in Jerusalem. (Also see What Happened to the Vikings?)

Leif Eriksson

Following in the footsteps of his famous father, Erik the Red, Leif Eriksson is perhaps the most famous and accomplished of all Viking explorers and is widely credited by historians and legends as having been the first European to arrive on North American soil centuries before Christopher Columbus landed in 1492.

Some of the highlights of Leif Eriksson’s life include:

  • As a young man, Leif Eriksson set sail from Greenland to Norway, where he was converted to Christianity by the king of Norway at that time, Olaf Tryggvason
  • Prior to arriving in Norway, Leif Eriksson made an unplanned stop in the Hebrides due to poor sea conditions (during his time there, he fell in love with a local ruler’s daughter, and she bore a son out of wedlock after he departed)
  • Following Leif Eriksson’s journey to Norway, the voyage for which he is most famous occurs when he lands on North American shores at a location he calls Vinland (meaning “Wine Land”) in recognition of all the wild grape vines he observed

The Vikings did not maintain written records of their own history, so certain events are a bit hazy, if not dubious. (Also see the full article Vikings in America: the Evidence)

But in 1961, archeologists discovered evidence and clues of a Norse settlement at the L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland (modern-day Canada) area with structures and objects dating back to 980 – 1020, which coincides with various written accounts of Leif Eriksson’s discovery of Vinland.

Canute the Great

At one time during his reign as monarch, Canute (also Cnut) the Great was king of Denmark, England, and Norway. He came from a royal bloodline as the son of Sweyn Forkbeard, king of Denmark and successful conqueror of England. On the sudden death of his father, Canute the Great was forced to retreat back to Denmark when the exiled Ethelred the Unready was re-elevated to the throne.

Canute the Great returned to England with a vengeance, armed with 10,000 men and seasoned military leaders. The deaths of King Ethelred and later his son Edmund Ironside left Canute the Great solely in power over all of England. During his two-decade reign, England enjoyed relative peace and prosperity, elevating Canute the Great to a lofty status among English monarchs. (Also see 6 Reasons the Vikings Invaded England)

Harald Hardrada

The life of Harald Hardrada is a compelling story, and in the eyes of many, his death during the Battle of Stamford Bridge marked the formal end of the Viking Age as no meaningful Viking raids or invasions took place thereafter. 

As fate would have it, King Harald Hardrada of Norway also played a central role in English history, as his failed invasion directly led to a successful one mounted a few weeks later that changed the course of the English monarchy forever. [5] Here’s a brief summary of how it unfolded:

  • In 1066, believing himself to be the rightful holder of the English throne, Harald Hardrada led a force of hundreds of ships and thousands of men on an invasion of England
  • English king Harold Godwinson mounted a surprise attack on the Viking invaders and killed Harald Hardrada at the Battle of Stamford Bridge
  • But the fiercely fought battle against the Viking invaders left Harold Godwinson’s forces weary, and several weeks later, they were defeated at the Battle of Hastings by none other than William the Conqueror of Normandy, himself a descendant of Vikings

The British royal family, including Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, can trace their roots back to William the Conqueror, and thus, the life of Harald Hardrada left a lasting legacy that can be recognized even today. (Also see What Weapons Did the Vikings Use? The Top 5)

Saint Olaf

Olaf Haraldsson was king of Norway from 1015 to 1028 and, by all accounts, was as ruthless and violent as any Viking ruler that came before or after him. Baptized in 1010, Olaf Haraldsson ascended to the throne in 1015, following in the footsteps of his father, King Harald Grenske. In 1028, Olaf Haraldsson was dethroned by King Canute the Great of England and sent into exile.

In 1030, Olaf Haraldsson returned to Norway, and at the Battle of Stiklestad, he was killed in action. This failed attempt to regain the throne became the basis of his martyrdom, and he was posthumously celebrated as a hero for Norwegian independence. In 1031, an English bishop named Grimketel declared Olaf Haraldsson a saint based on his claim that Saint Olaf’s body was miraculously intact and pristine. [6]

These are the particulars of Saint Olaf’s sainthood:

  • Patron Saint of carvers, difficult marriages, kings, Norway, Faroe Islands
  • Feastday: July 29th
  • Patron of Norway, canonized in 1164 [7]

Although Christianity had arrived in Norway prior to Saint Olaf’s reign as king, he is celebrated as a champion for the Christianization of Norway despite his harsh and often violent ways. (Also see What Did the Vikings Eat?)

Ivar the Boneless

Like his reputed father, Ragnar Lothbrok, Ivar the Boneless is a legendary Viking figure whose life story seems to be an amalgamation of fact and fiction, with a more than healthy dose of the latter. Even his nickname is a source of intrigue as scholars are at odds as to whether he truly had a medical condition (i.e., he was frail or really missing some bone structure) or if it was a reference to something else.

As far as the factual aspects of the life of Ivar the Boneless, this is what is known about him:

  • There are sufficiently reliable historical accounts to establish that Ivar the Boneless was a real Viking figure and that he did claim to be the son of Ragnar Lothbrok (although it was common for prominent warriors to adopt sons to guarantee that there would be heirs)
  • In 865, he joined up with several of his brothers and launched an invasion of England with a military force that chroniclers of the time period described as the “Great Heathen Army”
  • Various accounts describe Ivar the Boneless as being a ruthless and violent raider and plunderer of multiple sites throughout the British Isles, including Ireland and Scotland
  • He is believed to have died in 873, but sources are split as to whether his death occurred in Dublin, Ireland, or in Repton, England

While there may never be a complete portrait of Ivar the Boneless, the lack of verifiable details does nothing to diminish his lofty status as one of the most famous Vikings to have ever lived. (Also see Viking Art Styles)

Eric Bloodaxe

Born into a distinguished royal bloodline as a son of King Harald Fairhair, the first king of Norway, Eric Bloodaxe is one of the most recognizable and infamous figures in Viking history. With a well-earned reputation for being exceptionally violent and ruthless, Eric Bloodaxe purportedly earned his nickname by killing four of his brothers because they stood between him and his sole ascension to the throne.

Eric Bloodaxe had three stints as king:

  • Once as ruler of Norway, until his younger brother Haakon the Good, forcibly took over the crown
  • Twice as king of Northumbria in England, with the first reign lasting two years (circa 947 – 948) and the second lasting three years (circa 952 – 954)

As was the case with so many famous Viking figures, Eric Bloodaxe died as he lived – violently and ruthlessly. And like so many Vikings before and after him, Eric Bloodaxe was welcomed into Valhalla by none other than the all-father Odin, as vividly described in the skaldic poem Eiriksmal (“The Lay of Eric”). (Also see Why Are Vikings Associated with Axes?)

Final Thoughts

The ten famous Vikings on this list provide a meaningful glimpse into the vibrant and colorful history of the Viking people.

References:
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