Björn Ironside Ragnarsson was a legendary viking that became the king of Sweden and founded the Munsö dynasty as its first ruler during the 9th century.
Björn Ironside was the son of Ragnar “Lothbrok” Sigurdsson and Queen Aslaug (Kráka) Sigurdsdatter of the royal Völsung clan. In the television series, ‘The Vikings,’ he is portrayed as being the son of the shieldmaiden Lagertha, but this is incorrect.
He is known in Old Norse as Bjǫrn Járnsíða Ragnarsson, meaning “Bear Ironside, Son of Ragnar.”
Following in their father’s footsteps, Björn and his brother Hvitserk raided northern France. When they were done, instead of returning to home to Scandinavia, Björn and his brother decided to venture onward to the rich lands of the Mediterranean. They heard the lands to the south and in the Mediterranean Sea contained the vast riches of the Christian heartland. It was worth checking out.
In 859-860 AD, Björn and Hvitserk led a large Viking expedition of 62 ships and raided the Spanish coast. They attacked Galicia (northwestern Spain), the Portuguese shores, and Sevilla. Björn and Hvitserk’s fleet then crossed over to Africa and again sacked Moroccan state of Nekor. Afterwards, they returned to the Iberian peninsula, stopping at the Balearic Islands and attacked Pamplona after crossing the Ebro river and capturing the king of Navarra, García Íñiguez.
They were paid a ransom for his release
The Viking raiders led by Björn and Hvitserk continued their raids all the way up into southern France where they spent the winter.
In the summer of the following year Björn proceeded on to Italy, where they captured the coastal city of Pisa (this was 300 years before they began building the famous Bell Tower, ‘The Leaning Tower of Pisa’ in 1173 AD).
While they were in the city of Pisa, Björn was informed that the notoriously wealthy City of Rome was only a short journey inland and well within his reach. This was a Viking raiding party’s dream, considering the vast wealth that could be plundered from the very heart of Christendom. The great city of Rome was well known for its wealth and this was something that he and his brother could not pass up.
Unfortunately for Björn his raiding party, they were misled as to where Rome actually was located and were sent in the opposite direction to the well defended and prepared city of Luni instead.
When they reached Luni, they thought that they had reached the walls of Rome and began to lay siege upon the city. However, in contrast to their success attacking the city of Pisa, the city of Luni proved able to keep the Vikings in check and from breaching their walls. The Viking’s siege looked like it was going to end up becoming a very long and lengthy engagement.
This was not going to deter Björn from figuring out a way to get inside the city’s walls.
He fabricated a plan of deception and sent a messenger to inform the Bishop of Luni that he’d died but had converted to Christianity on his deathbed and wished to receive the sacraments of last rites and be buried in consecrated ground inside the town.
The Bishop of Luni was not willing to deny Björn a Christian rites and burial, so he granted permission for Björn’s body to be brought in, but to be escorted only by pallbearers and a small honor guard.
Once Björn Ironside and his funeral escort were inside, he stopped feigning death and leapt up from his stretcher. He and his “funeral honor guard” began to fight their way to the town gates. Once at the gates, they opened them and let the waiting Viking army come in and sack the town, ending the siege.
Satisfied with his victories and acquired loot, Björn and his viking expedition began to make their way back home. But when they reached the Straits of Gibraltar they found the Saracen navy from Al-Andalus (Muslim Spain) waiting for them. In the desperate battle that followed, Björn lost 40 ships and the greater part of his loot, largely to a form of Greek fire launched from Saracen catapults.
The remainder of his fleet (22 ships) managed to escape and return to Scandinavia, leaving Björn with enough loot to live out the rest of his life as a rich man.
The success of his sons did not sit well with Ragnar Lothbrok.
Ragnar was jealous with his sons’ successes and set Eysteinn Beli as the jarl of Sweden, telling him to protect Sweden from his sons. Eysteinn Beli was the son of Harald Wartooth who was a legendary king of Sweden, Denmark, Norway and the historical northern German province of Wendland in the 8th to 9th century.
Ragnar Lothbrok then went east across the Baltic Sea to pillage and to show his own skills and prove himself as greater than all of his sons.
The Hervarar saga and Ragnar Lodbrok’s saga, tells that Ragnar’s sons Eric and Agnar then sailed into Lake Mälaren and sent a message to Jarl Eysteinn that they wanted him to submit to Ragnar’s sons. Eric included that he also wanted Eysteinn’s daughter Borghild to be his wife. Eysteinn replied to them that he first wanted to consult the Swedish chieftains (all of Scandinavia was a collections petty kingdoms and jarldoms during this period of time).
The Swedish chieftains said no to the demands and ordered an attack on Ragnar’s rebellious sons.
A great battle ensued that ended with the forces of Eric and Agnar being overwhelmed by flanking Swedish forces.Ragnar’s son Agnar died and his son Eric was captured and taken prisoner.
Jarl Eysteinn offered Eric Ragnarsson as much of the Uppsala öd as he wanted and his daughter Borghild to be his wife as a weregild payment for the death of his brother Agnar Ragnarsson.
The Uppsala öd is a collection of estates which were the property of the Swedish Crown used to collect goods and taxes to finance the king.
Weregild was a value placed on every being and piece of property.
Eric proclaimed that after such a defeat he wanted nothing but to choose his own death. Eric asked to be impaled on spears that raised him above the dead so he could join them in Valhalla.
His wish was granted.
In Zealand (Denmark), Björn, Aslaug, and Hvitserk, who had been playing a game of tafl (Hnefatafl), became upset when they heard the news and sailed to Sweden with a large army.
Aslaug, calling herself Randalin, rode with cavalry across the land.
The armies led by Ragnar and Aslaug’s sons and Aslaug united and met the Swedish forces. A great battle ensued and they defeated the Swedes and killed Jarl Eysteinn.
Ragnar was not happy that his sons taking revenge for the deaths of his sons Agnar and Eric without his help. He felt it made him look weak, so he decided to conquer the kingdom of Northumbria with only two knarrs (large merchant ships).
It was sometime late in 864 or early 865 AD when Bjorn’s father, Ragnar Lothbrok made his way to raid Northumbria and became shipwrecked off the coast.
Hearing the news of Ragnar being shipwrecked, King Ælla of Northumbria mustered an overwhelming force and defeated Ragnar’s army while they were vulnerable. They were able to take Ragnar alive and held him prisoner. King Ælla, mocking the tales he’d heard of Ragnar’s immunity to snakes during the time when he courted Thora Town-Hart and slew the serpent, had Ragnar Lothbrok executed by having him thrown into a snake pit.
The legend in the Sagas of Ragnar’s Sons (Ragnarssona þáttr) claims that some of the attention of Northumbria and England by Ragnar Lothbrok’s sons was because of the death of their father, Ragnar Lothbrok. The following year, Ragnar’s sons build a substantial force and sought vengeance for their father against King Ælla.
In 865 AD, the Great Heathen Army, otherwise known as the Great Viking Army was formed by uncoordinated bands of Norse Vikings that came from Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. They were led by Ragnar Lothbrok‘s sons, Ivar Ragnarsson (Ivar the Boneless), Halfdan Ragnarsson (Halfdene), and Ubbe Ragnarsson (Hubba), along with the Dane Viking chieftain Guthrum.
Interestingly Björn Ironside is the only one of Ragnar’s children who didn’t take part in this great invasion with the Great Heathen Army.
He is said to have remained in Sweden, which he inherited when his father Ragnar died.
Björn Ironside had two sons, Refil and Erik Björnsson, who became the next king of Sweden. Upon his death, Björn Ironside Ragnarsson was buried at a barrow called Björnshögen (or Björn Järnsidas hög) whcih is located on the island of Munsö, in lake Mälaren, Sweden.
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Article by Njord Kane © 2016 Spangenhelm Publishing
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