Ivar the Boneless and the Great Heathen Army

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Ivar the Boneless was one of the leaders of the Great Heathen Army that invaded the lands now known as England.

In Old Norse, he is known as Ívarr hinn Beinlausi and in Old English as Hyngwar.

Ivar the Boneless was the son of Ragnar Lodbrok and Aslaug. He and his half brothers, Björn Ironside, Halfdan Ragnarsson, Hvitserk, Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye and Ubba, had all grown up and set out to prove themselves as equals to their father.

The half brothers raided and made wars far and wide. They conquered such places as Zealand, Reidgotaland (Jutland), Gotland, Öland and all the surrounding small islands.

Ivar, who was the cleverest, was their leader.

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Before 865 AD, most Viking raids were predominantly hit and run operations, but by that year in 865 AD they changed into invasions with the intent to conquer. It is believed that pressure from tyrannous kings in Nordic regions forced them to seek new lands and start new lives. Norsemen were now looking for farm land to settle with their families.

The legend in the Sagas of Ragnar’s Sons (Ragnarssona þáttr) claims that some of the attention of England by Ragnar Lothbrok’s sons was because of the death of their father, Ragnar Lothbrok whom was killed by the king of Northumbria, Ælla, during a raid in which Ragnar was taken prisoner and thrown into a snake pit.

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.

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The Norsemen were well aware of the civil war that had weakened the great northern kingdom in England and as warriors these Norse were extremely opportunistic.

The Norse consolidated their forces as they came in and wintered in East Anglia. To protect their realm and as an opportunity to see their rivals in Northumbria attacked, East Anglia made a peace agreement with the Norse army. They allowed the Norse to use their lands to gather their army and provided them with horses. The Norse used it as a staging point for their invasion into Northumbria.

By late 866 AD, the Great Heathen Army marched into Northumbria and on November 21st they seized York, which they called Jórvik.

York ( Jórvik) had a great defensive and was a strategic stronghold that was well protected by the walls the Roman Army had built for it previously.

Kings Ælla and Osberht united their forces and made an attempt to retake York from the Vikings months later on March 21st 867 AD. But two days later on March 23, 867 AD, as they continued their attempt to retake York from the Great Heathen Army, the battle ended when King Osberht was killed and King Ælla was captured.

King Ælla was horrifically subjected to traditional Norse warrior practice of the Blood Eagle by having his ribs torn out and folded back to form the shape of an eagle’s wings.

Reputedly, it was punishment for King Ælla’s alleged murder of Ragnar Lothbrok by throwing him into a pit of snakes after his failed raid on Northumbria the prior year.

After that battle and the Norse seizing control of the region, the Northumbrians paid the Vikings off and the Great Heathen Army’s collected leaders established as King in their place, Egbert (Ecgberht I). King Egbert was put in place to be a puppet leader and tax collector in Northumbria.

The Great Heathen Army then set off for the Kingdom of Mercia, where in 867 AD they captured Nottingham.

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Routes taken by the Great Heathen Army from 865 to 878 AD.

King Burgred, the king of Mercia and Kent, requested help from his brother-in-law King Æthelred I, the king of Wessex, to help in defense against the Viking invaders.

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King of Mercia Athelred seen on the exterior of Lichfield Cathedral.

King Æthelred and his brother Alfred, the future Alfred the Great, led a West Saxon army from Wessex and Mercia and besieged the Norse occupied city of Nottingham with no clear result. The Mercians settled on paying the Vikings off to leave instead.

The Vikings of the Great Heathen Army returned to Northumbria in the Autumn of 868 AD and stayed the winter in York,. They remained in York for most part of the year 869 AD. Some remained in hopes of starting a new life in York, but most sought land of their own. It was the main reason they’d come in the first place and their leaders reassured them there was more areas available.

The Great Heathen Army returned to East Anglia and spent the winter of 869/870 AD at Isle of Thetford. This time when the Norse arrived there wasn’t a peace agreement between the East Anglians and the occupying Viking army. The East Anglians weren’t caught by surprise this time and the Great Heathen Army wasn’t as numerous as before either. They seen this as an opportunity to repel the Norse invaders from their land, so the local King Edmund fought against the Norsemen to no avail. He was captured and killed. Subduing the East Anglians, the Great Heathen Army wintered there and prepared to attack further Anglo lands as soon as weather permitted.

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A battle between ‘Anglo-Saxons’ and ‘Vikings’ staged by re-enactors.

The Battle of Englefield was a battle that took place on New Years Eve, December 31st, 870 AD at Englefield near Reading, which is now the English county of Berkshire. It was one of a series of battles that took place following an invasion of the then Kingdom of Wessex by an army of Danes. During these battles in which the Danes had established a camp at Reading. Both the battle and campaign are described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

Three days after their arrival in Reading, a party of Danes, led by two of their jarls, rode out towards Englefield. It was here that Æthelwulf, the Ealdorman of the shire, had mustered a force and was waiting for them. In the ensuing Battle of Englefield, many of the Danes, including one of the jarls named Sidrac, were killed while the rest of the Danes were driven back to Reading.

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Reenactors depicting King Alfred with the West Saxon (Wessox) forces battling the Danish Norsemen of the Great Summer Army.

However, the Saxon victory at Englefield did not last long. Four days later the main West Saxon army, led by King Ethelred and his brother, Alfred the Great attacked the main Danish encampment at Reading and were bloodily repulsed. This battle became known as the First Battle of Reading. Among many of the dead on both sides was Æthelwulf, whom had repelled the invading Norse in the first place.

~In 871 AD, King Bagsecg came to England from Scandinavia and brought with him the Great Summer Army. He arrived and added his forces to the Great Heathen Army which had already had much success in overrunning much of England.

The Anglo-Saxon chronicler Æthelweard records Ivar the Boneless’ death as 870 AD. 

by Njord Kane © 2016 Spangenhelm Publishing 


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by Njord Kane © 2016 Spangenhelm Publishing


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