Ragnar Lodbrok: Separating Fact from Fiction


Ragnar Lodbrok may be the most famous Viking in history. Yet since information about his life is sparse, and he his legend sometimes takes on almost mythical details, it can be difficult to separate fact from fiction. Nevertheless, there are facts about his life that can be known. So who as he?

Ragnar Lodbrok was a legendary Viking warrior who led the “Great Heathen Army” into battle, most memorably in raids on England’s coast. Lodbrok is also known for the women he married, include Lagertha, a Viking legend in her own right, and for the sons he fathered, including Bjorn Ironside.

Stories about Lodbrok can be found in Scandinavian sagas. He is also mentioned briefly in the records of his European conquests. The Vikings themselves, however, didn’t keep a written record of their history.

Ragnar Lodbrok Viking warrior
Viking legend, Ragnar Lodbrok

A Peak Into Ragnar Lodbrok’s Life

References and allusions to the real Ragnar Lodbrok date to around the middle 9th century AD. References largely come from English and Irish record-keepers from the time period. Historians debate the accuracy of some of the descriptions.

  • 841 AD: Charles the Bald, king of West Francia, gave land to Ragnar; questions surround the accuracy of the account
  • 845 AD: Frankish accounts mention the Siege of Paris was led by Ragnar; questions surround the accuracy of the account
  • 865-866 AD: The Great Heathen Army winters at Thetford
  • 866 AD: Northumbria is invaded and conquered
  • 866 AD: The Great Heathen Army marches to York; King Aella is killed
  • 867 AD: Conquered Mercia and wintered in Nottingham
  • 869 AD: Conquered East Anglia
  • 871 AD: Invaded Wessex, paid tribute by the English king to leave; wintered in London
  • 878 AD: Abglo-Saxon Chronicle mentions Ragnar; the accuracy of the account is questioned
  • 878 AD: The Vikings are defeated by the king of Wessex, Alfred the Great (Battle of Edington); the Vikings make peace with the English and establish their own territory via treaty

A lot of people are curious about what the Vikings looked like, including their hair? One common question is, Did the Vikings wear dreadlocks? Follow the link to find out more.

What are the writings that mention Ragnar Lodbrok?

One of the challenges of separating facts from fiction when it comes to learning about the life of Ragnar Lodbrok is that there are only a few references of him that exist in literature from the time.

Furthermore, references to Lodbrok are brief and include characteristics of fantasy.

Many of the references to Lodbrok are found in Scandinavian sagas, which is a form of story telling, originating with oral tradition, and eventually written down for the sake of preservation and proliferation.

References to Lodbrok are brief and contain characteristics of fantasy.

The nature of this literature, because of the elements of fantasy they contain, sometimes leaves historians unsure about what is a biographical fact and what is fiction.

Literary sources used to gather information about Ragnar Lodbrok:

  • Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: This is one of the most significant pieces of literary evidence that mentions Ragnar Lodbrok as a real historical figure. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is a 9th century English document that historians generally consider to be authentic. In the text, the English writers refer Viking invaders several times and call Lodbrok as a prominent Viking raider.

Many people know that the Vikings raided place like England and Ireland, but did they ever set foot in America? Find out more here, Vikings in America: The Evidence.

  • The Icelandic Sagas: Lodbrok is mentioned in several famous Icelandic sagas, such as the Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok, Heimskringla, Sögubrot, Tale of Ragnar’s Sons, and Hervarar Saga. [1] These sagas recount most of Ragnar’s more heroic and villainous deeds, such as his various courtship trials for Lagertha, Thora, and Aslaug.
  • Gesta Danorum: The Gesta Danorum is a Danish document that combines historical information about Denmark, yet includes legend as well. It was compiled by the historian Saxo Grammaticus. The document mentions Lodbrok’s marriage to Lagertha as well as his second marriage to Thora. One of the main difference between the Gesta Danorum and the Icelandic sagas is that the Gesta Danorum is a largely accurate geographic breakdown of Viking rule during the period.
  • Poems and paintings: Along with the official sagas and historical accounts that mention Lodbrok and his family, several famous Scandinavian famous poems and paintings depict stories about Lodbrok. Because art from the time period can reflect their subjects using visual hyperbole and elements of fantasy, historians suggest that they reflect how people viewed legendary figures and are likely not supposed to be interpreted as accurate historical representations.

The question of authenticity

The Icelandic Sagas that mention Ragnar Lodbrok and his family make for a fascinating story. However, there are many aspects of them that are generally understood to be hyberbole or incorporate older Norse legends, such as the tale of the Volsungs. [2]

Not many details of Ragnar’s biography can be verified with a high degree of accuracy for reasons such as: 

  • Propaganda: Some literature from the time was written for the purposes of political propaganda. For example, writers may exagerate a foreign threat because it makes the English victory more impressive. If the enemies’ leader is evil and vicious, as opposed to the opposite, their defeat is all the more sweeter.
  • Fabrication: Most historians agree that the Icelandic Sagas likely contain some truth when it comes to Lodbrok’s life, but there are certain details found in the stories that raise questions for some historians. For example, in one account, Lodbrok strangels Lagertha’s guard dog to death. In another, he strangles a bear to death. Most historians understand these stories as either hyperbole of fantasy.
  • Mythology: Many of the stories about Lodbrok found in the sagas mirror tales from earlier Norse myths, such as Aslaug being the daughter of Sigurd and Brynhildr, other Viking legends. Like the Greeks and Romans, it was not uncommon for prominent Vikings to claim that they were descendants of super-human figures, to gain followers, solicit respect, solidify power, and more. 

The Icelandic Sagas that contain tales of Lodbrok are considered the most fantastic stories about the legendary Viking king. Still, the fact that other historical documents outside Viking culture at this time also mention Lodbrok by name corroborates his existence and activity to some degree.

Icelandic Sagas
Icelandic Sagas mention Ragnar Lodbrok

Please also see the article, Is Valhalla Heaven or Hell? 10 Facts That Might Surprise You.

The Wives of Ragnar Lodbrok

Though historical documents from the time contain some inconsistencies in the records of Ragnar Lodbrok’s wives, historians generally agree that he was married to at least three separate women. His first wife was Lagertha. His second was Thora, His third was Aslaug.

Lagertha

Lagertha was a Nordic shield maiden who made an impression on Ragnar when they fought together as warriors in Norway when he was avenging the death of his grandfather, Fro.

Lagertha denied Lagertha’s advances at first. One account records that she attacked him with a hound and bear that guarded her home.

She eventually gave in to his courtship and became his wife. 

Lagertha is only mentioned a few times in only one of the Viking sagas, the Gesta Danorum. [3]

Lagertha denied Ragnar’s advances at first.

Lagertha was the mother of two of Ragnar’s daughters, who the sagas don’t nam, as well as his son Fridleif. Another reference—a popular one—refers to Lagertha’s fighting prowess:

Ladgerda, a skilled Amazon, who, though a maiden, had the courage of a man, and fought in front among the bravest with her hair loose over her shoulders. All marveled at her matchless deeds, for her locks flying down her back betrayed that she was a woman.

The same Danish history book mentions an occasion when Lagertha’s bravery helped the Vikings overcome setbacks and achieve victory:

Ladgerda, who had a matchless spirit though a delicate frame, covered by her splendid bravery the inclination of the soldiers to waver. For she made a sally about, and flew round to the rear of the enemy, taking them unawares, and thus turned the panic of her friends into the camp of the enemy.

Even after Lodbrok married Thora, Lagertha remained faithful to her husband and his cause and lent him, not only her ships and her fighting men for his conquests, but her own sword as well. 

Thora Borgarhjört

Viking legend says that Ragnar Lodbrok had to slay a giant monstrous serpent to win her hand in marriage, making his courtship of Thora even more mythical than that of Lagertha. Thora is also mentioned as the mother of Ragnar’s sons, Erikr and Agnar. 

The story of Lodbrok’s courtship with Thora is where he got the nickname “Hairy Breeches” or “Shaggy Breeches.” To deflect the poison of the serpent that guarded Thora’s home, Ragnar treated his breeches with tar and sand to act as armor and the weight pulled the clothing down. [4]

The Icelandic Sagas record that Thora died of an illness while her sons were off fighting and dying against Eysteinn Beli, an Earl of Sweden. After Thora’s death, Ragnar’s third wife, Aslaug, initiates vengeance, ordering her sons to avenge their half-brothers.

While Ivar the Boneless was uncertain about attacking Sweden because of its magical reputation, all of the brothers were convinced of the plan when three-year-old Sigurd demanded vengeance for his brothers. 

Aslaug

Aslaug, also referred to as Kraka or Kraba in the Viking sagas, is the daughter of the legendary dragon slayer, Sigurd, and the shieldmaiden, Brynhildr. Yet, when she first met Lodbrok, she led him to believe she was the daughter of peasants who had been watching over her since they murdered her foster father. 

Like with his other wives, Lodbrok tried to court Aslaug through a unique form of courtship; he asked her a riddle.

He asked her to come to him neither dressed nor undressed, neither eating nor fasting, and neither alone nor with a companion. She came to him draped in a fishing net, biting an onion, and accompanied by a dog. Charmed by her witty reply, Lodbrok set about trying to make her his wife. 

While Ragnar proposed his hand to Aslaug in marriage soon after meeting her, she refused until he’d conquer Norway.

Along with being a famous historical figure in Ragnar’s sagas, Aslaug is also memorialized in several famous works of art as a classical beauty. 

Lagertha Ragnar Lodbrok wife
Lagertha, wife of Ragnar Lodbrok (Morris Meredith Williams)

The Sons of Ragnar Lodbrok

The sons of Ragnar Lodbrok are famous in their own right and are as much a part of their father’s saga as he is himself. Lodbrok had several sons with his three wives, many of whom aligned to avenge his death at the hands of the Northumbrian, King Aella.

Given the self-serving nature of the Great Heathen Army, however, it is likely that the Vikings, led by the sons of Lodbrok, had as much of an eye out for treasure as the did for revenge. 

The sons of Lodbrok mentioned in sagas and historical accounts of the Great Heathen Army: 

  • Hvitserk (“White Shirt”): Some historians suggest that Hvitserk may be the same person as Halfdan in Scandinavian sagas. The name “White Shirt” was simply a nickname for this son of Ragnar. Hvitserk is also known as “Hvitserk the Betrayer.” After avenging his father’s death, Hvitserk went raiding in modern-day Kiev and was eventually conquered and burned alive while impaled on a stake. [5]
  • Ivar the Boneless: Ivar the Boneless was thought to have been born crippled because his father made love to his mother Aslaug on the night of their wedding, rather than three days later, as she suggested following a premonition she’d had. While it is not known precisely why Ivar was referred to as Ivar the Boneless, it is thought he had a congenital disability, such as Spina bifida or Cerebral palsy, which prevented him from being able to walk. [6]
  • Bjorn Ironside: Bjorn Ironside became a Swedish king and a renowned naval commander of the Viking fleets in the Great Heathen Army. During his reign as an overlord and conqueror, Bjorn was believed to have invaded and conquered Zealand, Jutland, Gotland, Oland, and all of the minor islands of Sweden. Bjorn went on to pillage across middle Europe until returning to Sweden to rule.
  • Ubba: Ubba, also known as Ubbe, was one of Ragnar’s sons from Aslaug. Because of his relentless pillaging against the Christian nations of Europe, with his brother Ivar, Ubba is seen as the archetypal Viking invader in Christian historical texts from this period. Ubba is believed to have died in battle in 878 against the English. 
  • Fridleif: Fridleif is referred to Scandinavian sagas as the only son of Lagertha. He is not mentioned in any historical accounts of the Great Heathen Army. Fridleif and his sisters do not play a significant role in Ragnar’s sagas.
  • Sigurd Snake-In-The-Eye: Sigurd Snake-In-The-Eye is the youngest of Aslaug’s sons and is named for a mark in his eye that was foretold by his mother before he was born. This mark was said to resemble an ouroboros, or a snake eating its own tail. This mark was more likely a physical defect. [7] Sigurd is most famous for goading his brothers to battle to avenge the death of his half-brothers, Agnar and Erikr.

While Ragnar is a fearsome historical figure, his equally ferocious sons add much to his legend, especially since there are so many historical accounts from conquered peoples that verify their existence and activity. 

Were Lodbrok’s Sons Actually His Sons? 

There is some question as to whether Ivar the Boneless, Bjorn Ironside, and Ragnar’s other sons were actually related to Ragnar Lodbrok. There is no way to prove whether or not these historical figures were related to Lodbrok by blood, for it was not uncommon in this time for Viking men to “adopt” younger men to succeed them in leadership. 

Likewise, it would not have been out of character for Lodbrok’s sons to claim a bloodline to a legendary figure, since Viking warriors and leaders often claimed mythic lineage to increase their leadership status.

Who Was Lodbrok’s Most Famous Son?

Bjorn Ironside is considered the most famous of Lodbrok’s sons since he was the ruler who inherited Uppsala in present-day Sweden. Sweden, and its Nordic neighbors, have become the cornerstone of Norse heritage. 

Along with being a fierce warrior like his brother Ivar the Boneless, Bjorn Ironside was also known as a skillful naval commander. He was responsible for leading many of the Viking fleets in raids against England and France. 

Another famous son of Ragnar was Ivar the Boneless, due in large part to his name. Like his brother Bjorn, Ivar the Boneless was reputed to be a “berserker” i.e. a Viking warrior who had super-human ability. One historian describes berserkers this way:

This fury, which was called berserkergang, occurred not only in the heat of battle, but also during laborious work. Men who were thus seized performed things which otherwise seemed impossible for human power.

This condition is said to have begun with shivering, chattering of the teeth, and chill in the body, and then the face swelled and changed its colour.

With this was connected a great hot-headedness, which at last gave over into a great rage, under which they howled as wild animals, bit the edge of their shields, and cut down everything they met without discriminating between friend or foe.

When this condition ceased, a great dulling of the mind and feebleness followed, which could last for one or several days. [8]

Both of these sons of Ragnar were famous. Neither had a reputation for mercy. [9]

The Conquests of Ragnar Lodbrok

Before Ragnar was known as the Viking who led the Great Heathen Army, he was first mentioned as raiding the coasts of France. This culminated in the siege of Paris in 845, where Charles the Bald reportedly paid Ragnar’s fleets off with two and a half tons of silver to move them along. 

At this point, the historical accounts differ. The Franks note that Lodbrok was defeated, but Danish records state that he went on to pillage the Irish coast until his death, which likely occurred sometime in the mid-850s according to historical accounts. More evidence and research is needed to know which account is most trustworthy. 

The Death of Ragnar Lodbrok

Scandinavian sagas and other literary sources reveal that the reason the Great Heathen Army descended on Europe was to avenge the death of Ragnar Lodbrok at the hands of King Aella of Northumbria.

Allea reportedly threw him into a pit of venomous snakes as a form of execution after he attempted to conquer the kingdom with only two ships to his name. His death makes for a heroic tragedy to spur on the Viking army to war with Europe, but the account may reflect great exaggeration.

Some historians believe that Lodbrok died in a less dramatic way. Lodbrok may have died at sea as he pillaged the coasts of Ireland. [10] Shipwrecks in this stormy region are common, and many Viking ships were lost there. 

Another historical account says that a jealous huntsman of King Edmund murdered Lodbrok after being shipwrecked in his kingdom and manuevering his way far into the king’s favor. [11]

Whether Lodbrok was murdered by Aella or Edmund, or simply died in a shipwreck in the Irish Sea, his death became a prod to rouse the entire Viking people to establish a unified front against England. 

Even though Lodbrok was one of the most famous Vikings of all time, it was said that he predicted that he would be surpassed by his sons in fame, and as far as some historical accounts are concerned, he may have been right.

The Great Heathen Army assembled by the “sons of Ragnar” harrassed and conquered their neighbors for over two hundred years. 

The Revenge of Ragnar’s Sons 

According to legend, the death of Ragnar spurred several of Lodbrok’s sons to band together to seek vengeance for their fallen father, aligning their ships and men into the largest coalition of Viking warriors the world had ever seen.

This vast army set out for Europe, not just to pillage and raid, but to conquer. 

The Invasion of England and the Great Heathen Army

The Great Heathen Army, also known as the Great Danish Army or the Viking Great Army, was a massive alliance of Norse warriors from all over Scandinavia, including countries like Sweden, Norway, and Denmark.

These warriors were led by many different warriors ranging from local chieftains to regional earls and kings. 

The size of this army is estimated to be approximately four thousand men. While this doesn’t seem like many men in modern military terms, in the Middle Ages, it was large enough to challenge England.  

After their father’s death, the sons of Ragnar set about systematically conquering Britain with their great Viking army, working their way across the European continent from the sea, then inland.

While Viking legend states that the sons of Ragnar tortured King Aella of Northumbria to death through the blood eagle ritual in 866, [12] English historical accounts note him as dying on the field of battle in York. [13]

Viking sword found at Mercia
Viking sword found in Mercia

By 878, the Viking and English armies had come to an impasse, and the English retreated for peace. In exchange for stopping their raids, the Vikings were given land to settle in northern England.

The leader of the defeated Viking army, Guthrum, was baptized and renamed with the Christian name Athelstan. 

Since many of the Vikings had come to England to settle rather than pillage, many of them stayed and did not return to Scandinavia.

Bjorn and several of his brothers eventually left England to raid across central Europe and eventually returned home to Sweden. Others, such as Ubba, died in the battles against the English. 

What Happened After Ragnar’s Death? 

Despite their defeat at the Battle of Edington, the remaining Vikings in the Great Heathen Army disbanded to rule the allotments of land that had been left to them by the English.

Even though the English had managed to beat them in battle, they did not have the numbers to drive the Vikings from their shores. 

The treaty brought between the English and the Vikings resulted in the Danelaw, an area of England that was dominated by the Danes and was ruled under Viking occupiers.

The influence of these invaders-turned-natives is still seen in northern England today in everything from the names of local villages to the genealogical makeup of the residents, which is mainly Scandinavian. 

The Vikings were not officially driven out of England until the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066, but by this time, the influence of the Danes was cemented into the local culture.

However, this soon led to the Harrying of the North by William the Conqueror in 1069-1070, where he used his armies to subjugate the Viking villages of northern England. 

Ragnar Lodbrok, the Viking King

Like many great historical figures, it is often difficult to separate fact from fiction when talking about the details of Ragnar Lodbrok’s life. One historian speculates:

As for Ragnar himself, as far as we know, there was no one historical person that matches his alleged deeds (and sons) to any proper degree.

It is more likely that in the centuries after the adventurous 9th-century Viking heyday of raids, stories cropped up to unify various historical events and known persons under one roof.

Several historians have indeed argued that Ragnar Lothbrok may be an amalgam of various historical figures, tied together into one mythical hero who was the scourge of 9th-century CE northern Europe and father of many famous sons.

Perhaps the historical figures who became known as Ragnar’s sons were famous enough to be assigned such a prestigious ancestry. [14]

Regardless of the certainty of parts of Lodbrok’s life, there is no denying that the figure has managed to capture the imagination of millions of people. 

References: 

[1] https://www.express.co.uk/showbiz/tv-radio/1204097/Vikings-Ragnar-Lodbrok-wives-married-Lagertha-Thora-Aslaug

[2] https://wikivisually.com/wiki/Þóra_Borgarhjǫrtr

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hvitserk

[4] https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ivar-the-Boneless

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Björn_Ironside

[6] https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/Ragnar-Lodbrok/

[7] https://www.historyextra.com/period/viking/ragnar-lothbrok-the-immortal-viking/

[8]  Fabing, Howard D. (1956). “On Going Berserk: A Neurochemical Inquiry”. Scientific Monthly83 (5): 232–37. 

[9] History Extra

[10] Historic, UK.

[11] History Extra.

[12] Express.co.uk.

[13] https://www.ancient.eu/Ragnar_Lothbrok/

[14] Ibid.

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