The Story of Ragnar Lothbrok

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Ragnar Lothbrok, the Legendary Hero, Viking King, Lady’s man, and scourge of England and France.

It is well known about Vikings attacking England, Scotland, and Ireland, but little is told about how much mainland Europe was raided.

It was during this time, which was during the reign of Louis the Pious, the King of the Franks, the Vikings were also carrying out raids on Frankish areas primarily in the summer and then wintering in Scandinavia.

Louis the Pious by Jean-Joseph Dassy (1837)
Louis the Pious by Jean-Joseph Dassy (1837)

It wasn’t long until several coastal areas had become lost to the Norse invaders as Vikings took advantage of the quarrels within the Frankish royal family caused after the death of Louis the Pious.

The Frankish royal family’s quarrels caused so much instability in the Frankish region that the Norse seized the opportunity to settle their first colony in the southwest (Gascony) of the Kingdom of Francia. This area had been more or less abandoned by the Frankish kings after their two defeats at Roncevaux Pass on the Spanish border.

There were also incursions on the River Seine in Francia in 841 AD that had caused severe damage to Rouen and Jumièges. The Vikings attacking these Francia regions sought to capture the treasures stored at monasteries, which were easy prey given that the monks lacked any defensive capability.

"Viking Fleet" Painting by Edward Moran
“Viking Fleet” Painting by Edward Moran

Viking raids ruthlessly continued on the divided kingdoms of Francia (the Kingdoms of the Franks, Modern France). The infamous Ragnar Lothbrok with 120 ships and 5000 warriors landed in Francia near the mouth of the Seine River and began ravaging Western Francia. During these attacks, the city of Rouen had fallen to the Norse invaders.

Then Carolivenna fell victim and was attacked next in the Viking’s search for silver and other valuables.

Even the city of Paris fell and King Charles “the Bald” was forced to pay Ragnar a large bribery of silver not to sack it in 845 AD.

Charles the Bald (Charles II).
Charles the Bald (Charles II).

However, opportunistic Vikings still regularly patrolled the rivers and waterways of West Francia after discovering the easy pickings of the rich churches and monasteries.

Legend has it that many of the raids conducted on England, Francia and Frisia during this time were led by Ragnar Lothbrok

Ragnar “Lodbrok” Sigurdsson (also Ragnar Lodbrok or Ragnarr Loðbrók which means “Ragnar Hairy Breeches” in Old Norse) was a legendary Norse ruler and hero whom became known as the scourge of England and France. He was said to be the son of Sigurd Hring, a King of Sweden and succeeded the throne upon his father’s death.

Ragnar Lothbrok had been married three times.

Katheryn Winnick stars as Lagertha in the History Channel's series, "The Vikings"
Katheryn Winnick stars as Lagertha in the History Channel’s series, “The Vikings”

His first wife was Lagertha, whom he had met in a battle while avenging his grandfather’s death, King Siward. King Frø of Sweden invaded Norway and killed the Norwegian King Siward.

To add insult to injury for public humiliation, King Frø ordered that the surviving women of King Siward’s family into a brothel. When Ragnar Lothbrok heard about King Frø’s invasion of Norway, he came with an army to avenge the death of his grandfather.

When Ragnar arrived, some of the women King Frø had ordered into the brothel dressed in men’s clothing and helped fight on Ragnar’s side.

Among these women dressed as men and fighting in front among the bravest was the skilled shield-maiden Lagertha.

Lagertha fought as ferociously as a man and only the loose locks of her hair flowing over her shoulders revealed her as being a women. This impressed Ragnar greatly and lead him to court her. Lagertha pretended to be interested in his proposals and Ragnar came to seek her hand in marriage.

wolf-and-bearHowever when he arrived, Lagertha had a bear and a great hound which were guarding her home, attack Ragnar when he arrived. He killed the bear with his spear and choked the hound to death. By doing this, he won Lagertha’s hand in marriage.

Ragnar had three children with her, a son named Fridleif and two daughters (whose names are lost to history).

Unfortunately, Ragnar continued to hold a grudge against Lagertha for having her two beasts attack him when he originally sought out her hand in marriage and divorced her and returned to Denmark.

When he returned to Denmark, Ragnar was faced with a civil war and sent word to Norway for support.

Lagertha, whom still loved him, heeded his call and came to his aid in Denmark with 120 ships full of warriors. Lagertha arrived with her ships of warriors and saved the day for Ragnar with a counterattack by circling around and attacking the enemy from the rear. She took Ragnar’s enemies by surprise and turned the tide of the battle, causing their opponents to panic.

Upon returning to Norway, she quarreled with her new husband (name unknown) and slew him with a spearhead that she had concealed in her gown. She then usurped the whole of his name and sovereignty, as she found it better to rule without her husband than to share the throne with him.

Ragnar Lothbrok’s second wife was the daughter of King Herrauðr of Sweden, Thora Town-Hart (Þóra borgarhjörtr).

Thora Town-Hart (Þóra borgarhjörtr)

King Herrauðr had acquired an egg from Bjarmland (Arkhangelsk Oblast, Russia, next to Finland). The egg had hatched into a lindworm (wyrm or dragon) and grew into a great serpent that encircled her bower (apartment). Her father promised Thora’s hand in marriage to whomever could slay this great serpent. This is when Ragnar famously wore the hairy breeches that gained his nickname, “Lothbrok” (Loðbrók) which means “Hairy-Breeches.”
[Read about: <Thora Town-Hart>]

Ragnar went to Västergötland (West Gothland, in Southwest Sweden) where her bower was located and dressed himself in shaggy clothes and the hairy beeches that he treated with tar and sand to protect him from the serpent’s poison. He took a spear and approached the serpent which spewed poison at him, but Ragnar protected himself with his shield and was also protected by his tar and sand treated clothes. He speared the serpent through its heart and cut off its head. married Thora.

Thora gave Ragnar two sons Eiríkr (Erik) and Agnar. She later died of an illness.

The name of Ragnar’s third wife was Aslaug (Aslög).

Aslaug was said to be the daughter of the legendary Norse hero Sigurd (Old Norse: Sigurðr) and the shield-maiden Brunhild (also spelled Brynhildr or Brünnhilde). Upon the deaths of her parents, Sigurd and Brunhild, she was then raised by Brunhild’s foster father Heimer. However, Heimer was concerned about Aslaug’s safety and kept her identity hidden. Legend states that he built a large harp to hide her in and traveled as a poor harp player, keeping the girl concealed within it.

They arrived at Spangereid at Lindesnes in Norway, where they stayed for the night in the house of the peasants Åke and Grima. Åke believed that the mysterious large harp contained valuables and told his wife Grima about it. Grima then convinced him to murder Heimer while he was sleeping. However, after they murdered Heimer and broke the harp open, they discovered the hidden little girl, whom they named Kråka (“Crow”) and raised as their own child. In order to hide her beauty, the accepted sign of her noble origins, they rubbed her in tar and dressed her in a long hood.

However, one day when as she was bathing, she was discovered by some of Ragnar Lothbrok’s men, whom were confused by Kråka’s beauty and allowed the bread they were baking to burn as they watched her. When Ragnar inquired about the mishap with the bread, they informed him about the beautiful girl they’d seen.

Ragnar then sent for her, but in order to test her wits, he commanded her to arrive:

  • neither dressed nor undressed,
  • neither hungry nor full and,
  • neither alone nor in company.
Áslaug a.k.a. Kráka a.k.a. Randalín clad in a net sitting with a dog. By Mårten Eskil Winge (1825-1896). The image is found on page 315 of Fredrik Sander's 1893 edition of the Poetic Edda.
Áslaug a.k.a. Kráka a.k.a. Randalín clad in a net sitting with a dog. By Mårten Eskil Winge (1825-1896). The image is found on page 315 of Fredrik Sander’s 1893 edition of the Poetic Edda.

Kráka arrived dressed in a net, biting an onion, and with only a dog as a companion.

Ragnar was genuinely impressed by her ingenuity and felt that she would be a wise companion. Ragnar proposed marriage to her, but she refused until he’d accomplished his mission in Norway.
[Read about: <Kråka (Aslaug)>]

When Ragnar visited Östen Beli, the viceroy of Sweden, he had told him of the maiden Kråka (Aslaug), but Östen persuaded him to reject Kråka and instead to marry Ingeborg, a Swedish princess.

On Ragnar’s return home, “three birds” had already informed Kråka of his plans to marry the princess Ingeborg and so she expressed her disapproval of this to him and revealed to him her true noble origins. In order to prove she that she was indeed the daughter of the hero Sigurd whom had slain the dragon Fafnir, she told him that she’d bear him a child whose eye would bear the image of a serpent.

Fulfilling this, she bore him a son whom had the image of a snake encircling the pupil and he was named Sigurd “Snake-in-the-Eye.” When Östen learned of Ragnar’s change of plans to marry the princess Ingeborg, he rebelled against him but was slain by Ragnar’s sons at Kråka’s (Aslaug) bidding.

Aslaug (Kråka) bore Ragnar four more sons: Ivar the Boneless, Björn Ironside, Hvitserk, and Ragnvald.

Although these marriages were recorded consecutively in history/lore, Ragnar Lothbrok was a bit of a ladies’ man and shared the beds of all three, Lagertha, Thora and Aslaug. Each bearing children to him before being married, because there is mention of the deeds of Ragnar’s sons before he was betrothed to their mothers.

Ragnar’s sons grew up and set out to prove themselves as equals to their father. They made wars far and wide and conquered such places as Zealand, Reidgotaland (Jutland), Gotland, Öland and all the surrounding small islands. Ivar, whom was the cleverest, was their leader and installed himself at Lejre on the island of Zealand, East Denmark.

Ragnar’s sons grew to be strong warriors of their own accord and became even more ambitious.

Ragnar didn’t want his sons to overshadow him and seek his kingdom from him. So he appointed Eysteinn Beli to be the king of Sweden in his stay and instructed him to protect it from his son’s ambitions.

One summer when Ragnar was out Viking (pillaging) in the Baltic region, his two sons from Thora, Erik (Eiríkr) and Agnar, came to Lake Mälaren in Sweden seeking the kingdom. They send a messenger to Gamla Uppsala, which is the seat of Swedish Kings and a place in Sweden that hosted regular sacrificial rites and royal burials, and asked King Eystein to meet them.

Upon his arrival, they demanded that the King be their vassal and to give his daughter Borghild to Erik to be his wife.

When King Eystein heard their demands, he consulted the Swedish chieftains and they made the decision to attack Erik and Agnar. After a long battle against overwhelming numbers, the brothers lost against the Swedish forces. Agnar was slain in the battle, but Erik survived the battle and was captured alive.

King Eystein desiring peace and wanting to seal a peace treaty went ahead and offered his daughter to Erik and as much from the Uppsala öd as he wanted. The Uppsala öd was the ancient collection of royal estates that financed the Swedish Kings.

Scene from History Channel's Series, "The Vikings"
Scene from History Channel’s Series, “The Vikings”

But Erik declined the King’s offer and stated that he didn’t wish to live after such a humiliating defeat. The defeated Erik asked the King to be raised him up on the points of spears above the slain in the battlefield, so he’d be pierced by the spears and slain on the field of battle.

He wished to be put to death in this manner so he could enter Valhalla with the rest of the battlefield’s slain. A demand which, the Swedish rulers granted.

This was the end of Ragnar Lothbrok’s sons by Thora Town-Hart.

Meanwhile, the raids following the rivers and hitting inland Francia (France) became more regular.

By 858 AD, Vikings had captured and burned Chartres, Francia. They did it twice more in the 860’s AD. Vikings simply rowed to Paris and left only when they acquired sufficient loot or were bribed by the Carolingian rulers. These Viking raiders are believed to have been led by none other than Ragnar Lothbrok himself.

Desiring to show himself as a better warrior than his sons, Ragnar Lothbrok decided to conquer England with only two knarr ships.

Knarrs were a type of merchant ship used by the Norse traders at the time. The ships Ragnar had were built in Vestfold, Norway and were indeed enormous ships.

Ragnar’s wife, Aslaug didn’t approve of this idea because such large ships weren’t fit for attacking the English coast, only the more maneuverable longships were more capable for that task. However, Ragnar refused to heed her advice and arrived safely with his army in England and began a campaign to ravage and burn his way across the country.

Sometime late in 864 or early 865 AD, Ragnar had made his way to Northumbia 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.

viking shipwreck
Viking longboat crash by Spiros Karkavelas 2013

King Ælla, mocking the tales he’d heard of Ragnar’s immunity to snakes during the time when he courted Thora and slew the serpent, had Ragnar Lothbrok thrown into the snake pit.

King Aella (upper left) gloats as poisonous snakes are dropped onto Ragnar Lothbrok. There's an Eagle in his future, courtesy of Ragnar's son, Bjorn Ironside.
King Aella (upper left) gloats as poisonous snakes are dropped onto Ragnar Lothbrok. There’s an Eagle in his future, courtesy of Ragnar’s son, Bjorn Ironside.

However, it is said that Ragnar was protected by an enchanted silken shirt that Aslaug had made for him. It was only when this shirt had been removed from him that the snakes were able to bite Ragnar and kill him with their venom.

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.

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 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 ordeal by having his ribs torn out and folded back to form the shape of an eagle’s wings.



by Njord Kane © 2016 Spangenhelm Publishing

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