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Ragnar Lodbrok

Ragnar Lodbrok or Lothbrok (Old Norse: Ragnarr Loðbrók, "Ragnar shaggy breeches", contemporary Norse: Ragnar Loðbrók) was a Norse Viking hero and legendary Scandinavian king known from Viking Age Old Norse poetry, sagas, as well as contemporary chronicles. To those in modern academia, his life and personage is somewhat historically dubious. According to traditional literature, Ragnar distinguished himself by many raids against Eastern Europe, Francia, Ireland, and Britain during the 9th century. His legendary kingdom is said to have included parts of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.


The Icelandic Sagas

According to the Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok, Tale of Ragnar's sons, Heimskringla, Hervarar Saga, Sögubrot, and many other Icelandic sources, Ragnar was the son of the Scandinavian king Sigurd Ring. Nearly all of the sagas agree that Randver was Sigurd's father, with the Hervarar saga citing his wife as Åsa, the daughter of King Harald of the Red Moustache from Norway. The accounts further tell that Randver was a grandson of the legendary Scandinavian king Ivar Vidfamne by his daughter Aud (whom the Hervarar saga calls Alfhild). After the death of king Ivar Vidfamne, Aud's eldest son by the Danish king Hrœrekr Ringslinger, Harald, conquered all of his grandfather's territory and became known as Harald Wartooth. Harald's nephew Sigurd Ring became the chief king of Sweden after Randver's death (Denmark according to Hervarar saga), presumably as the subking of Harald. Sigurd and Harald fought the Battle of the Brávellir (Bråvalla) on the plains of Östergötland, where Harald and many of his men died. Sigurd then ruled Sweden and Denmark (being sometimes identified with a Danish king Sigfred who ruled from about 770 until his death prior to 804). He sired a son with the Norwegian princess Alfhild of the semi-mythical Álfar people, Ragnar Lodbrok, who succeeded him.Eysteinn Beli, who according to the Hervarar Saga was Harald Wartooth's son, ruled Sweden sometime after Sigurd until he was slain by the sons of Ragnar and Aslaug. In their accounts of his reign, the Icelandic sagas tell more about Ragnar's marriages than about feats of warfare. He first killed a giant snake that guarded the abode of the East Geatic jarl's daughter Thora Borgarhjort, thereby winning her as his wife. His unusual protective cloths when attacking the serpent earned him the nickname Lodbrok (shaggy breeches). His sons with Thora were Erik and Agnar. After Thora died, he discovered Aslaug, a hidden daughter of Sigurd Fafnesbane, with a poor peasant couple in Norway, and married her. In this marriage he sired the sons Ivar the Boneless, Björn Ironside, Hvitserk, Ragnvald and Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye. As the sons grew up to become renowned warriors, Ragnar, not wishing to be outdone, resolved to conquer England with merely two ships. He was however defeated by superior English forces and was thrown into a snake pit to die in agony. The Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok, Tale of Ragnar's Sons, and Heimskringla all tell of the Great Heathen Army that invaded England at around 866, led by the sons of Ragnar Lodbrok to wreak revenge against King Ælla of Northumbria who is told to have captured and executed Ragnar.

Danish sources

The Chronicon Roskildense (c. 1138) mentions Lodbrok (Lothpardus) as father to the utterly cruel Norse King Ywar (rex crudelissimus Normannorum Ywar) and his brothers, Ingvar, Ubbi, Byorn and Ulf, who rule the northern peoples. They call on the various Danish petty kings to help them ruin the realm of the Franks. Ywar successfully attacks the kingdoms of Britain, though not as an act of revenge as in the Icelandic sagas. The chronicle of Sven Aggesen (c. 1190) is the first Danish text that mentions the full name, Regnerus Lothbrogh. His son Sigurd invades Denmark and kills its king, whose daughter he marries as he takes over the throne. Their son in turn is Knut, ancestor of the later Danish kings.

Neither of these sources mentions Ragnar Lodbrok as a Danish ruler. The first to do so is Saxo Grammaticus in his work Gesta Danorum (c. 1200). This work mixes Norse legend with data about Danish history derived from the chronicle of Adam of Bremen (c. 1075). Here Ragnar's father Sigurd Ring is a Norwegian prince married to a Danish princess, and different from the victor of Brávellir (who had flourished about thirteen generations earlier). Sigurd Ring and his cousin and rival Ring (that is, Sigfred and Anulo of recorded history, d. 812) are both killed in battle, whereupon Ragnar is elevated to the Danish kingship (identified by Saxo with Ragnfred, d. 814). His first deed is the defeat of the Swedish king Frö, who has killed Ragnar's grandfather. Ragnar is assisted in this by the ferocious shield-maiden Ladgerda, whom he forces to marry him. In this marriage he sires the son Fridleif and two daughters. He later repudiates the unreliable Ladgerda and instead wins the daughter of the Swedish king Herrauðr, Thora, after killing two venomous giant snakes that guard her residence. His sons with Thora are Radbard, Dunvat, Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye, Björn Ironside, Agnar and Ivar the Boneless. From a non-marital affair with the daughter of one Esbjørn, Ragnar begets Ubbe, while his last marriage with Svanlaug produces another three sons, Ragnvald, Eric Weatherhat and Hvitserk.

The sons were installed as sub-kings in various conquered territories. Ragnar led a Viking expedition to England and slew its king Hama, proceeding to kill the earls of Scotland and install Sigurd Snake-in-the Eye and Radbard as governors. Norway was also subjugated, and Fridleif was made ruler there and in Orkney. Later on, Ragnar with three sons invaded Sweden where a new king called Sörle had appeared and withheld the heritage of Thora's sons. Sörle and his army were massacred and Björn Ironside was installed on the throne. Some time later Björn was put in charge of Norway, while Ragnar appointed another son, Eric Weatherhat, as ruler in Sweden; he was subsequently killed by a certain Eysteinn. One of the sons, Ubbe, revolted against his father at the instigation of his maternal grandfather Esbjørn, and could only be defeated and captured with utmost effort. Saxo moreover tells of repeated expeditions to the British Isles, one of which cost the lives of Dunvat and Radbard. Ælla, son of Hama, expelled Ragnar's sub-ruler Ivar the Boneless from England with the help of the Galli (Gaill, Hiberno-Norse?) and remained a persistent enemy. Finally, the Scythians were forced to accept Hvitserk as their ruler. In the end Hvitserk was treacherously captured by the Hellespontian prince Daxon and burnt alive with his own admission. Hearing this, Ragnar led an expedition to Russia and captured Daxon who was curiously spared and exiled.


Unlike the Icelandic sources, Saxo's account of Ragnar Lodbrok's reign is largely a catalog of successful Viking invasions over an enormous geographical area. Among the seaborne expeditions was one against the Bjarmians and Finns (Saami) in the Arctic north. The Bjarmian use of magic spells caused foul weather and the sudden death of many Danish invaders, and the Finnish archers on skis turned out to be a formidable foe. Eventually these two tribes were put to flight and the Bjarmian king was slain. The historical king Harald Klak is by Saxo (based on a passage in Adam's chronicle) made into another persistent enemy of Ragnar, who several times incited the Jutes and Scanians to rebel, but was regularly defeated. After the last victory over Harald, Ragnar learned that King Ælla had massacred Ragnar's men on Ireland. Incensed, he attacked the English king with his fleet but was captured and thrown into the snake pit, similar to the Icelandic sagas. In spite of all his praise for Ragnar Lodbrok, Saxo also considers his fate as God's rightful vengeance for the contempt he had shown the Christian religion.

Poetic and epigraphic sources

While the narrative Norse sources date from the 12th and 13th centuries, there are also some poems that mention him and his kin. The Ragnarsdrápa, ostensibly composed by Bragi Boddason in the 9th century, praises a Ragnar, son of Sigurd, for a richly decorated shield that the poet has received. The shield depicts the assault on Jörmunrek, the Hjaðningavíg tale, the ploughing of Gefjon, and Thor's struggle with the Midgard Serpent. Recent scholarship has suggested that the poem is in fact from c. 1000 and celebrates the Norse reconquest of England. The four tales depicted on the shield would then symbolize four aspects of the Lodbrok saga (the initial defeat of the sons of Lodbrok in England due to recklessness, Ivar the Boneless's deceitful approach to King Ælla, Ivar's cunning snatching of land from Ælla, Ragnar's struggle against the giant serpent in order to win Thora). The Knutsdrapa of Sigvat Thordarson (c. 1038) mentions the death of Ælla at the hands of Ivar in York, who "carved the eagle on Ælla's back". From this the story of the atrocious revenge of Lodbrok's sons already seems to be present. The reference to a "blood eagle" punishment has however been much debated by modern scholars. An 12th century lay, Krakumal put in the mouth of the dying Ragnar in the snake pit, recount the exploits of Ragnar and mentions battles over a wide geographical area, several relating to the British isles.

There is one runic inscription mentioning Lodbrok, carved on the prehistorical tumulus of Maeshowe on Orkney in the early 12th century. It reads: "This howe was built a long time before Lodbrok's. Her sons, they were bold; scarcely ever were there such tall men of their hands". The expression "her sons" have given rise to the theory that Lodbrok was originally thought of as a woman, mother of the historically known sons.

Frankish accounts of a 9th-century Viking leader named Ragnar

The Siege of Paris and the Sack of Paris of 845 was the culmination of a Viking invasion of the kingdom of the West Franks. The Viking forces were led by a Norse chieftain named "Reginherus", or Ragnar. This Ragnar has often been tentatively identified with the legendary saga figure Ragnar Lodbrok, but the accuracy of this is disputed by historians. Ragnar Lodbrok is also sometimes identified with a Ragnar who was awarded land in Torhout, Flanders, by Charles the Bald in about 841 but eventually lost the land as well as the favour of the King. Ragnar's Vikings raided Rouen on their way up the Seine in 845 and in response to the invasion, determined not to let the royal Abbey of Saint-Denis (near Paris) be destroyed, Charles assembled an army which he divided into two parts, one for each side of the river. Ragnar attacked and defeated one of the divisions of the smaller Frankish army, took 111 of their men as prisoners and hanged them on an island on the Seine to honour the Norse god Odin, as well as to incite terror in the remaining Frankish forces. Ragnar's fleet made it back to his overlord, the Danish King Horik I, but Ragnar soon died from a violent illness that also spread in Denmark.

Later continental accounts

Among the oldest texts to mention the name Lodbrok is the Norman history of William of Jumièges from c. 1070. According to William, the Danish kings of old had the custom to expel the younger sons from the kingdom to have them out of the way. At a time it happened that King Lodbrok succeeded his unnamed father on the Danish throne. After gaining power he honoured the said custom and ordered his junior son Björn Ironside to leave his realm. Björn thus left Denmark with a considerable fleet and started to ravage in West Francia and later the Mediterranean. Roughly contemporary with William is Adam of Bremen whose history of the Archbishopric of Hamburg-Bremen contains many traditions about Viking Age Scandinavia. In a passage referring to the Viking raids of the late 9th century, he mentions the Danish or Norse pirates Horich, Orwig, Gotafrid, Rudolf and Inguar (Ivar). This Ivar is in particular seen as a cruel persecutor of Christians, and a son of Lodbrok (Inguar, filius Lodparchi).