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Ragnar Lothbrock - Legendary Viking Leader

Viking Warrior As featured in the History Channel series "Vikings", is a farmer who believes there is land west of Iceland. He is credited with the first raids on England. The TV series clearly places Ragnar in Norway based on the geography shown, and mixes elements of history and myth. 

In fact, Lothbrock is a legendary Vikings figure who almost certainly existed, although the Ragnar in the Viking Sagas may be based on more than one actual person. He is the scourge of England and France. One highly probably link is to the real life character Ragnall. 

Ragnar's death has been stated as occuring in 840 or 865. Danishnet subscribes to the theory that the later date is more likely. This would mean that Ragnar was probably born around 820 AD. He was a pirate and a raider who was later eclipsed in fame by his sons, Bjorn Ironside and Ivar the Boneless. The sons may have been adopted as this was a common practice by Vikings during the period. If they were adopted, this may have come about as a result of the death of their biological parent, or perhaps as a means of ensuring dynastic control. (not unlike Roman practice where Emperors adopted their preferred heirs)

Vikings had raided England and Scotland since the late 700's. Ragnar was by no means the first to raid England. It seems however that he may have been the first to leave settlements and attempt to control areas of land, rather than simply plunder and leave.

The Vikings had been raiding what is now France since at least 800. In 845, "Ragnall" sailed south with a large force said to include 120 ships and 5,000 men. He presumably navigated up the Seine river, and ravaged and plundered the western part of the Frankish Empire including Rouen. The story of Ragnall is conflated with Ragnar and it is likely that these are the same person.

Interestingly, Rouen was the capital of Normandy, and it was controlled from 911, by Vikings who pledged allegiance to the French crown. In other words, the Normans who conquered England in 1066 were largely of Viking origin.

In 845, Vikings laid siege to Paris. The Vikings were partly pagan and partly Christian by this time, so accordingly the attack was preceded by prayer to the old Norse Gods, and a fast to the Christian one. The Vikings defeated the army of Frankish King Charles the Bald and withdrew only after payment of 7,000 pounds of silver. (an immense amount of money during the period)

Ragnar was a powerful Lord, under Danish King Horik II. Although the visual backgrounds of the  TV series appears to place him in Norway, it is more likely that he was from Denmark or Sweden. 

All sources agree that Ragnar died in England, although the legends of the cause of his death vary. In one story, he is killed by the Northumbriand King Ælla. In another, he is murdered in East Anglia after befriending Kind Edmund. Although the date is sometimes given as 840, that seems unlikely as the invasion of England by Ragnar's sons takes place in 865.

Whatever the case, we know that the "Great Heathen Army" led by three sons of Ragnar's landed in 865 and commenced a 14 year long war against the small Saxon Kingdoms. As was common Viking practice, they were more than willing to be paid off to attack some other group. The story is told that the King of East Anglia gave the Vikings horses in return for their agreement to attack other kingdoms.

In the series, Ragnar's wife is Lagertha, a "shieldmaiden" who fights alongside the Viking men. There are few historical references to actual shieldmaidens, but it certainly is reasonable to believe that this at least occasionally occurred. There are other examples of women fighting alongside men in other cultures. There is however little evidence for the existance of a real Lagertha. Rather, the sagas refer to his wife Lathgertha, who may be the Nordic goddess Thorgerd.

On the whole, the television series is great fun, but viewers should explore some historic sources to learn more about the Viking era.

LastUpdate: 2016-08-28 22:46:54