Halfdan Ragnarsson: Viking Commander and King of Dublin
Halfdan Ragnarsson was a Viking who lived during the 9th century. He is best remembered for being one of the commanders of the Great Heathen Army which invaded the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England. There is a popular belief that the Viking became the King of Dublin upon his arrival in Ireland. But it was not an easy time to rule and Halfdan died while fighting to retain his kingdom.
Generally speaking, Halfdan is considered to have been a historical figure, though he is known by different names depending on the source consulted. When the 9th century Great Heathen Army split into two, one half of it went on a campaign in the north, with Halfdan as its leader. According to some sources, Halfdan gained kingship over Dublin in Ireland. These same sources say he was slain at a battle whilst trying to reassert his claim over this Irish kingdom, as he had been deposed while away in York.
The character Hvitserk, probably a nickname for Halfdan, in the series Vikings. (CC BY SA)
Halfdan Ragnarsson, Son of Ragnar Ladbrok
Halfdan Ragnarsson is reputed to have been the son of Ragnar Lodbrok, and his brothers are said to be Ivar the Boneless, Ubba, and Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye. Whilst Halfdan and his brothers were generally accepted by scholars to have been actual historical figures, the existence of their supposed father, Ragnar Ladbrok, is still a subject of debate.
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In any case, Halfdan 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 of England during the latter half of the 9th century.
History Channel ‘Vikings’ Hvitserk (Halfdan) on the far left, with his brothers. (History Channel)
An account of the campaigns of the Great Heathen Army can be found in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and Halfdan is referred to as one of the ‘heathen kings’. In 874, the Great Heathen Army subjugated the Kingdom of Mercia, and installed Ceolwulf as a puppet king. They then camped for the winter at Repton, which is located not far from the River Trent.
In the following year, the army was divided into two groups. The first of these, which was led by Guthrum, Oskytel, and Anwind, continued their campaign in the southern part of England. The other, led by Halfdan, went to the north, where they fought against and defeated the Northumbrians. Halfdan’s Viking army is recorded to have subsequently invaded the lands of the Picts and the Kingdom of Strathclyde. After this, Halfdan more or less disappears from the Anglo-Saxon records.
Diorama with Vikings at Archaeological Museum in Stavanger, Norway. (Wolgmann/CC BY SA 4.0)
Viking Rule of Dublin
The continuation of Halfdan’s story may be found in certain Irish sources. Halfdan’s brother, Ivar the Boneless, is said to have left the Great Heathen Army for Ireland following the conquest of East Anglia. Ivar is said to have become the King of Dublin, after the death of its king Olaf the White. Ivar was succeeded by Olaf’s son, Eystein. As Halfdan was Ivar’s brother, he felt that he had a claim to the throne of Dublin and this would have served as motivation for him to attack the kingdom.
Ivar the Boneless on the battlefield in the History Channel Series ‘Vikings.’ (CC BY SA)
Two More Names
In the Annals of Ulster, it is recorded that “Oistín son of Amlaíb, king of the Norsemen, was deceitfully killed by Albann.” Oistín son of Amlaíb has commonly been identified as Eystein, whilst it is usually claimed that Albann is Halfdan.
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Whilst Halfdan succeeded in wresting power from Eystein, he was overthrown when he returned to York. As a result of this, Halfdan returned to Ireland, only to be defeated and killed during a skirmish at Loch Cuan (known also as Strangford Lough), as recorded in both the Annals of Ulster and the Annals of the Four Masters.
A Viking army in battle. (Public Domain )
This may not be the only alternate name for Halfdan; the Norse saga The Tale of Ragnar’s Sons includes a character by the name of Hvitserk, which translates literally as ‘White Shirt’. It has often been suggested that this is the same figure as Halfdan, and that Hvitserk is the Viking leader’s nickname. In the saga, Hvitserk is not mentioned to have gone to Ireland. Instead, he is said to have raided widely in France along with his brothers.
Top Image: The character Hvitserk, probably a nickname for Halfdan Ragnarsson, in the series Vikings. Source: CC BY SA
By Wu Mingren
Anon., The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle [Online]
[Ingram, J. (trans.), 1823. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.]
Anon., The Annals of Ulster [Online]
[Various (trans.), n.d. The Annals of Ulster.]
Available at: https://celt.ucc.ie//published/T100001A/
Anon., The Annals of the Four Masters [Online]
[Various (trans.), n.d. The Annals of the Four Masters.]
Available at: https://celt.ucc.ie//published/T100005B/index.html
Anon., The Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok and His Sons [Online]
[Tunstall, P. (trans.), 2005. The Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok and His Sons.]
Wheeler, H. Y., 2018. Halfdan Ragnarsson d. 877. [Online]
Available at: http://www.totallytimelines.com/halfdan-ragnarsson-d-877/