The name Ragnar Lodbrok is now known amongst so many due to the success and popularity of the tv series Vikings, starring Travis Fimmel as Ragnar. In the show he’s called Ragnar Lothbrok, but potato potato – the spellings are all different as is common for references to come out of the medieval period and earlier.
Just who was this man? He’s a figure who has become almost a figure of myth and legend but almost certainly existed, even if his feats and some of the stories about him may be embellished.
Undoubtedly there are creative liberties taken on the show (of which I’m not an expert) – but we can look at what the sources say.
To gain an overall picture of Ragnar, we have to look at a number of different sources and take what we feel is likely to be true – what the majority tend to agree on is that he was a fearsome leader that caused terror in the British Isles and to an extent, France – and that he had several sons who are perhaps better known or at least better recorded than the man himself.
One of the better respected and most accurate sources of the medieval period is The Anglo Saxon Chronicle.
Two references to a particularly infamous Viking raider in 840 AD appear in the chronicle: ‘Ragnall’ and ‘Reginherus’. In the same way that Ivar the Boneless and Imár of Dublin are considered the same person, Ragnall and Reginherus are believed to be Ragnar Lodbrok.
It is said this Ragnar raided the coasts of France and England, was given land and a monastery by Charles the Bald, before betraying him and sailing up the Seine to besiege Paris in 845.
Sources allude to Ragnar and his army then being paid off with 7,000 livres of silver (a ridiculous amount of money, roughly equivalent to two-and-a-half tonnes).
When Ragnar died, Frankish chronicles recorded his death as “an act of divine retribution”.
He was almost certainly not slain in France however, as sources put him back in England and Ireland in 851, again terrorising the coasts.
The Icelandic Sagas
You’ll no doubt be familiar with the Iceland sagas if you’ve been following this event – and there is a saga solely devoted to Ragnar. He features in multiple sagas such as the Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok, Tale of Ragnar’s sons, Heimskringla, Hervarar Saga, Sögubrot, and many other Icelandic sources in fact.
Ragnar, is described as the son of King Sigurd Ring of Denmark, grows up to be handsome and martially adept, “good to his men and cruel to his enemies”, and a top warrior whom few could equal.
The sagas don’t say a lot about Ragnar’s achievements in battle (though they do say how he slays a monstrous serpent) but rather his marriages – including the life of his second wife Asluag, his sons – and his death at the hands of King Ælla of Mercia.
He is said to have been thrown into a pit of snakes, which sparks off the revenge of his sons – of which there are much more historical sources in evidence of. The very reason for Ragnar’s voyage against Ælla is said to have began with his desire not to be outdone by his sons, who were already achieving great feats of their own – so he sailed there with just 2 ships. It is from this that the famous quote is attributed as Ragnar lay dying, “How the young pigs would grunt if they knew what the old boar suffers!”
The Gesta Danorum
In the Gesta Danorum (c. 1185) of the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus, Ragnar was a 9th-century Danish king whose campaigns included a battle with the Holy Roman emperor Charlemagne. According to Saxo’s legendary history, Ragnar was eventually captured by the Anglo-Saxon king Ælla of Northumbria and thrown into a snake pit to die – which corroborates with the Anglo Saxon chronicle and other medieval sources.
The Sons of Ragnar
The sons of Ragnar led an invasion of East Anglia on 865, said to be in revenge against King Ælla. Legend has it that the force was led by all of his remaining sons including Halfdan Ragnarsson, Ivar the Boneless, Bjorn Ironside, Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye and possibly Ubba, concluding (according to Ragnarssona þáttr) with the execution of Ælla by blood eagle. Other sources though say he died in battle.
Part myth and legend, part historical figure, Ragnar has a permanent place in the tales of the great Vikings and the stories that live on today.