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Artist’s representation of Ragnar Lothbrok.

Ragnar Lothbrok: Legendary Hero or Historical Figure?

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According to legend, Ragnar Lothbrok was a king of Denmark who succeeded Sigurd Hring in 804 AD. Some historians identify him with Reginherus, a Norse chieftain who was responsible for the siege of Paris in 845 AD. There are historians, however, who dispute this idea. Either way, Ragnar is probably partly historical and partly legendary, like many figures in Scandinavian prehistory.

Ragnar “Hairy Breeches”

Ragnar Lothbrok means Ragnar “Hairy Breeches.” The nickname, hairy breeches, comes from the story of how Ragnar got his second wife. Before marrying her, Ragnar had to fight and kill several gargantuan venomous snakes. To do this, Ragnar made armor, including breeches, composed of animal fur which he boiled in pitch, rolled in sand, and covered with frost to create an icy covering. He used this armor to protect himself from the bites of the snakes.

‘Rayner Lothbroc and Kraka.’ (Public Domain)

Rayner Lothbroc and Kraka.’ ( Public Domain )

According to the original legend, Ragnar’s family tree included Sigurd Hring, king of Sweden and Denmark, who was his father. As a young man, he was intelligent and an accomplished speaker as well as a brave warrior.

But Ragnar is considered to have been a scourge on western Europe, conducting raids into France and Britain. He met his end when he was captured by Ælla, King of Northumbria, who threw him into a pit of snakes. Ragnar Lothbrok’s sons retaliated by invading England with the great heathen army of 865.

Ragnar’s execution by King Ælla in a pit of snakes. Etching by Hugo Hamilton. (Public Domain)

Ragnar’s execution by King Ælla in a pit of snakes. Etching by Hugo Hamilton. ( Public Domain )

Ragnar’s Rampage in Northern France

Many historians believe that there is a connection between Ragnar Lothbrok and the historical figure, “Reginherus,” or Ragnar, a Norse Chieftain known for having terrorized western Europe in the 840s AD, culminating in the siege of Paris in 845 AD. Ragnar was given territory by local rulers in 841, but he ended up losing this territory as well as favor with the principle monarch of the region, Charles the Bald. In response, Ragnar went on a rampage through northern France.

Ragnar’s forces advanced on the Abby of Saint-Denis. Charles the Bald was determined to not let it fall and sent a large army to face him in the battlefield. The army was defeated by Ragnar. After this, Ragnar continued to advance toward Paris. Paris would have been ransacked had Charles the Bald not ransomed Ragnar convincing him to leave for a time. Charles the Bald was heavily criticized for this, but he did succeed in saving the city of Paris from future Norse attacks, for a while.

Viking army in battle. (Public Domain)

Viking army in battle. ( Public Domain )

The Sons of Ragnar Lothbrok Take Revenge

The next point in history where Ragnar appears is during the Norse invasion of England in 865-870. In 865, it is said that the children of Ragnar Lothbrok, under the principle leadership of his sons Ubba, Halfdan, and Ivar the Boneless, led the “great heathen army” in the invasion of England. This invasion is said to have been in response to the execution of Ragnar Lothbrok.

By 870, the great heathen army established Danelaw, a realm of Danish rule in England. Whether the Ragnar who threatened to lay siege to Paris decades earlier was the same person as Ragnar Lothbrok who, according to legend, was executed by being thrown into a pit of snakes in Northumbria is unclear, but a man named Ragnar did have a noticeable influence on the history of both Denmark and England.

Battered and broken bodies of Viking warriors unearthed in Derbyshire, England, now identified as soldiers of the Viking Great Army. (Martin Biddle / University of Bristol)

Battered and broken bodies of Viking warriors unearthed in Derbyshire, England, now identified as soldiers of the Viking Great Army. ( Martin Biddle / University of Bristol )

The Impact of Ragnar Lothbrok and His Children

In addition to being one of the early kings of Denmark, Ragnar indirectly helped to found England. Before the Danish invasion by the children of Ragnar Lothbrok, England was divided into smaller independent kingdoms collectively called the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy.

The sons of Ragnar Lothbrok, when they led the great heathen army to invade the island of Britain, conquered most of the kingdoms, breaking down the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy. With all the other English realms conquered, Wessex was able to gain dominance and become powerful enough to eventually establish a unified kingdom of England. 

In Some Ways a Historical Figure

It is possible that Reginherus is identifiable with Ragnar Lothbrok, but there are some problems with this view. One major discrepancy is that Reginherus is said to have died shortly after his siege of Paris, though it does not say how shortly afterwards, while Ragnar Lothbrok is thought to have lived at least until 865 AD, twenty years after the battle. As a result, it seems that the true identity of the historical Ragnar Lothbrok is more elusive than it at first seems.

Excerpt from folio 39r of Harley MS 2278. The scene depicts Lothbrok, king of Danes, and his sons, Hinguar and Hubba, worshiping idols. (Public Domain)

Excerpt from folio 39r of Harley MS 2278. The scene depicts Lothbrok, king of Danes, and his sons, Hinguar and Hubba, worshiping idols. ( Public Domain )

There is not one historical individual that is unambiguously identifiable with the legendary Ragnar Lothbrok, but there are reasons to believe that Ragnar was in some way historical. Ragnar is mentioned as a real figure in historical works such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle .

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle also records the acts of Ragnar that were important in the history of western Europe and Scandinavia in the 9th century, as well as the actions of his children. Furthermore, all the tales regarding his invasions of France and England are consistent - which suggests that there is some truth behind these accounts. It is possible that Ragnar was based on several chieftains and historical figures that somehow became amalgamated into one legendary figure, Ragnar Lothbrok.

Thus, Ragnar Lothbrok is probably the exaggeration of one or more historical figures, such as the chieftain Reginherus or a warlord associated with the Norse invasion of Britain. Regardless of the exact historical identity of Ragnar Lothbrok, he certainly had a notable impact on the history of western and northern Europe.

Ragnar Lothbrok and his sons Hvitserk, Bjorn, Ivar, Ubbe, Sigurd as portrayed in the TV series ‘Vikings.’ (CC BY SA)

Ragnar Lothbrok and his sons Hvitserk, Bjorn, Ivar, Ubbe, Sigurd as portrayed in the TV series ‘Vikings.’ ( CC BY SA )

Top Image: Artist’s representation of Ragnar Lothbrok. Source: jere0020/ Deviant Art

By Caleb Strom

References

Puchalska, JOANNA KATARZYNA. "Vikings television series: when history and myth intermingle."  Pol. J. Arts Cult.  15 (2015): 89-106.

“Ragnar Lothbrok/Lodbrok (Vikings), The Real Story: His Life, Death, Wives and Children.” Mythologian.net. Available at: http://mythologian.net/ragnar-lothbrok-lodbrok-vikings-real-story-life-death-wives-children/

“Ragnar Lothbrok: The Ferocious Viking Hero that Became a Myth” by Theodoros Karasavvas (2017). Ancient Origins . Available at: http://www.ancient-origins.net/history-famous-people/ragnar-lothbrok-ferocious-viking-hero-became-myth-008177

Lassen, Annette. "Sögubrot af fornkonungum."  66 Handrit Úr Fórum Árna Magnússonar . Bókaútgáfan Opna, 2013. 59-61.

The Sagas of Ragnar Lodbrok . Lulu. com, 2009.

Rix, Robert W. "The Afterlife of a Death Song: Reception of Ragnar Lodbrog's Poem in Britain Until the End of the Eighteenth Century."  Studia Neophilologica  81.1 (2009): 53-68.

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