8 Notorious Vikings Who Left Their Bloody Marks on History
Although an excellent series in many ways, Vikings brought with it a pretty romanticized portrait of some of the key names found in the Norse Sagas and the lives they might have lived. Although these figures surely existed in some form, the reality was probably far less romantic and more brutal than the fiction. This list tries to look to the true stories behind the now well known characters in Viking history.
Viking movie screenshot. ( Vimeo)
Harald “Blåtand” Gormsson was a King of Denmark and Norway who lived during the 10th century AD. He was responsible for the unification of Denmark. Although the majority of his subjects were followers of paganism, Harald did what he could to promote Christianity within his kingdom.
When the Germans were successful in their campaign against the Danes, Harald was forced to accept baptism and to spread Christianity in Norway. About a decade later, the Germans were militarily occupied in Italy and Harald seized the opportunity to attack them, expelling them from Denmark. Shortly after this success, however, Harald’s son, Svein Forkbeard, revolted, and Harald died in a battle against his son in 985/986 AD.
According to some scholars, Harald was nicknamed ‘Blåtand’ i.e. ‘Bluetooth’ as he had a dead tooth that looked blue, or dark. Today this nickname is known the world over as it is also the name of a wireless technology standard. The name was chosen due to Swedish telecommunication company Ericsson’s Viking heritage. The founders felt that Harald Bluetooth’s ability to unite people in peaceful negotiations would be appropriate for a telecommunications technology.
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A Viking warrior with an axe. Eric Bloodaxe raided around Britain before settling into a kingship there. (lassedesignen /Adobe Stock)
Eric Haraldsson is said to have been a 10th century ruler of Norway and Northumbria. Although both monarchs are generally regarded to be the same person, there are some doubts because the Norse and Anglo-Saxon sources do not always match up.
He is believed to have been a son of Harald Fairhair, a polygamous King of Norway. According to the sagas, Eric was Harald’s favourite and when he was 12, he was given five longships and began his Viking career. He first sailed eastwards, raiding the coasts of Denmark, Friesland, and Saxland, then he sailed to the west and raided Scotland and the area around the Irish Sea. The sagas also mention that Eric was married to Gunnhild, who is said to have been an evil witch with a strong influence over her husband.
Eric was appointed high king and ruled over his siblings, but he killed his brothers because he wanted to be the sole ruler of Norway. The Ágrip states that Eric is nicknamed ‘Bloodaxe’ for murdering five of his brothers. An alternative explanation from the Fagrskinna suggests Eric gained the nickname for his Viking raids .
Although Eric allegedly killed many of his male siblings, one of his half-brothers survived - Haakon, who was raised in English King Athelstan’s court. Eric’s rule was so brutal and unpopular the Norwegian nobles replaced him with Haakon. Eric fled to England and was welcomed by King Athelstan, who made him sub-king of Northumbria.
After just one year the Northumbrians expelled Eric. But he returned, overthrew the king who had taken his place, and ruled Northumbria for another two years before he was ousted for good. Anglo Saxon sources write that Eric dies at a place called Stainmore. According to local legend, the Rey Cross at Stainmore marks Eric’s burial spot, but a 1989 excavation did not uncover any bones.
Artist’s depiction of Ragnar Lothbrok (Nejron Photo / Adobe Stock)
Stories say Ragnar Lothbrok (Lodbrok) ransacked England and France and fathered the Great Heathen Army. However, as with the legendary King Arthur , Ragnar appears as an amalgamation of a number of historical personages and minor characters of legend.
He most likely was a warlord and king of Denmark and Sweden and the first Scandinavian to invade Britain. He is mentioned in several sagas, most significantly The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok and the Gesta Danorum. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle also refers to ‘Ragnall’ and ‘Reginherus’ as a powerful and prominent Viking raider from 840 AD, these names could be two variations of Ragnar.
Both the name Ragnar and the nickname Lothbrok had many variations. “Lothbrok” could mean “hairy breeches” or “shaggy breeches” because he is said to have crafted the breeches to fight a dragon or giant serpent and stop it from biting him.
Ragnar is believed to have been the scourge of both early Medieval England and France, raiding the Anglian kingdoms of Northumbria and Wessex on many occasions, along with the Kingdom of West Francia , concluding in the siege of Paris in 845.
Ragnar’s sons invaded England to avenge their father’s murder at the hands of King Ælla of Northumbria, who, according to legend, sentenced him to death by casting him into a pit full of snakes. Stories say Lothbrok’s sons captured King Ælla and performed the blood-eagle on him. But many scholars doubt the story, suggesting Ragnar died somewhere along the Irish Sea between 852 and 856.
Representative image of Viking Bjorn Ironside. (Fxquadro / Adobe Stock)
Bjorn Ironside was a famous Viking leader who legends say ruled Sweden as the first king from the House of Munsö. He lived during the 9th century AD and his father was the legendary Ragnar Lodbrok. The Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok and His Sons states that Bjorn and his brothers continued their father’s raiding activities and terrorized the areas of England, Normandy, France, and Lombardy.
It is written that the furthest that the brothers got to was Luni, an Italian town on the border of Liguria and Tuscany. The story says Vikings heard of the Eternal City’s wealth and decided to raid it. Bjorn and another Viking leader, Hastein, launched an expedition into the Mediterranean.
At Luni, Bjorn (or Hastein) sent messengers to the bishop to inform him of their leader’s death. They said that on his deathbed he had converted to Christianity and his dying wish was to be buried on consecrated ground. The bishop allowed several Vikings to bring the leader’s body into the town. Once they entered Luni, Bjorn jumped out of his coffin, fought his way to the town’s gates, and allowed the rest of the Vikings in.
Then Bjorn and his Vikings continued inland, sailing up the River Arno and laying waste to Pisa and Fiesole. The Vikings allegedly sailed to the Eastern Mediterranean next. They were later defeated by a Muslim force while heading back home.
Finally, the saga mentions that “Bjorn Ironside got Uppsala and central Sweden and all the lands that belong to that,” During the 18th century, a barrow was discovered on the island of Munsö and antiquarians claimed that it belonged to Bjorn, thus naming his dynasty after this island.
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The character Hvitserk, probably a nickname for Halfdan Ragnarsson, in the series Vikings. (CC BY SA)
Halfdan Ragnarsson was a Viking who lived during the 9th century. Generally speaking, Halfdan is considered to have been a historical figure, though he is known by different names depending on the source consulted.
He and his brothers were the commanders of the Great Heathen Army, which was a coalition of Viking warriors from Denmark and Scandinavia that launched several military campaigns against the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms during the latter half of the 9th century.
Halfdan’s army invaded the lands of the Picts and the Kingdom of Strathclyde after defeating the Northumbrians. Certain Irish sources suggest Halfdan felt he had a claim to the throne of Dublin after his brother Ivar died while ruling that kingdom. But Halfdan lost the throne when he went to York. When he returned to Ireland he was defeated and killed during a skirmish at Loch Cuan (known also as Strangford Lough).
The Norse saga The Tale of Ragnar’s Sons suggests a different story. It includes a character by the name of Hvitserk, which translates as ‘White Shirt’ - possibly Halfdan’s nickname. In the saga, Hvitserk is not linked to Ireland; instead, he is said to have raided France.
Viking warrior (trionis / Adobe Stock)
Ivar the Boneless is another of Ragnar Lodbrok’s sons. He likely had a condition called osteogenesis imperfecta, indicating that his body could bend beyond what the average human is capable. Rather than enhancing his performance however, this condition would damage his body over time, gradually weakening him physically.
Ivar’s "strange state" was unusual enough that its origins were tacked on to his mythological bio: his bone deficiency was attributed to Ragnar succumbing to his overwhelming lust for Ivar's mother, Aslaug, before the agreed upon time. In other words, it was a curse.
As Ivar the Boneless' parentage is under the umbrella of "legendary", there are other theories who the historical figure may be. One predominate suggestion is that he is Ímar, a Norse-born 9th century leader of the Viking settlement, Dublin. Ímar is recorded in the Irish Annals.
Ímar's life and battle against the king of Ulster coincide chronologically with Ivar the Boneless’ time. If Ivar and Ímar were the same individual with alternate names, giving Ímar/Ivar Ragnar Lodbrok as a father would have made his role in various battles and settlements far more pertinent mythologically as well as historically. Imperfect as Ivar might have been by Viking standards, his "bonelessness" seemingly did little to affect his performance as a warrior and leader. History paints him as a durable, determined Viking warrior.
Vikings on a ship. (anotherwanderer/ Deviant Art)
Described as “fierce, mightily cruel, and savage, pestilent, hostile, sombre, truculent, given to outrage, pestilent and untrustworthy, fickle and lawless” by his contemporaries, Hastein was one of the most successful, and infamous, Vikings of all time. When his name was whispered in medieval towns, it was one to be feared.
Hastein was a Viking chieftain in the late 9th century. Little is known about his early life aside from his participation in raids. He was supposedly the son of Ragnar Lothbrok, however, it is more likely that he just claimed this for prestige. Latin chroniclers called him Hastein. He is most famous for sacking Luni with Björn Ironside.
A man by the name of Hastein also set foot on English soil in 892. This may be a different Hastein (as the man would have been 71 years old by then), but it is also possible they’re the same person. This Hastein wanted to raid Mercia. However the fort they were staying in was defeated by the Eastern Wessex militia and the ships, cargo, women, and children were taken.
Hastein called for aid, got it, and then asked Alfred the Great to release his family. His two sons were returned, though Alfred had them baptized. Soon after, Hastein launched another series of attacks, with some success. In 893 he moved his men from East Anglia to a Roman fortress in Chester. However, the Mercians laid siege.
In autumn of 893, Hastein’s army left Chester, and devastated the kingdoms along their way down to the south of Wales. From there they returned to Mersea Island and towed their ships up the Thames to a new fort on the River Lea. In 895, Alfred caught up with them. The Danes abandoned their camp and sent their women back home to East Anglia, where they followed in 896 – the same year Hastein disappears from history.
Representative image of a Viking King. (muratgul/ Deviant Art)
In 871 AD, King Herlaug of the Namdalen district in Central Norway fulfilled his last wish: instead of surrendering to King Harald Fairhair, he and 11 of his men chose to be buried alive inside a large burial mound on the island of Leka. Herlaug’s brother King Rollaug chose instead to obey King Harald as the sole ruler of Norway and he was appointed Earl of the Namdalen district.
At the end of the 1700’s, three tunnels were dug into King Herlaug’s burial mound. Among other discoveries, excavators found a skeleton of a person who was leaning against a wall - a man who was believed to be King Herlaug himself. There were also remains of a sword and many animal bones. In the early 19th century the skeleton was exhibited.
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King Herlaug’s burial mound is larger than most other Viking Age graves found in Norway and it is presumed that it also contains one or more longships. Surveys with georadar back in 2012 did not give any new concrete answers to what might still be hidden inside the mound.
The somewhat bizarre grave documents both Viking honor and extreme willpower – and that there also were people (including close relatives) in the Viking Age who literally were willing to walk on people’s graves to get powerful positions and wealth.
Top Image: Many famous Vikings were known throughout the era. Source: Nejron Photo / Adobe Stock