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Vikings is Back, but who was the Real Ragnar?

Vikings is Back, but who was the Real Ragnar?

Vikings is Back, but who was the real Ragnar?

Vikings is back for another season and we are thrilled! As fans of the show will know, it follows the story of Ragnar Lothbrok — the protagonist in a world filled with violence, magic, and even the occasional meade filled party. But what fan may not know is that the shows creators have actually based their story on the legendary history of one of Denmark‘s founding fathers…a man no less terrifying, and mysterious than Ragnar himself.

“This year came dreadful fore-warnings over the land of the Northumbrians, terrifying the people most woefully: these were immense sheets of light rushing through the air, and whirlwinds, and fiery, dragons flying across the firmament. These tremendous tokens were soon followed by a great famine: and not long after, on the sixth day before the ides of January in the same year, the harrowing inroads of heathen men made lamentable havoc in the church of God in Holy-island, by rapine and slaughter.” –  A.D. 793, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
The legendary king Regner Lodbrog (Regnar Lodbrog, Ragnar Lodbrok, Ragnar Loðbrók), relief in Frederiksborg Castle, Hillerød, Denmark

The legendary king Regner Lodbrog , relief in Frederiksborg Castle, Hillerød, Denmark

The Scourge of the Franks

The real Ragnall Lodbrok, as opposed to Ragnar Lothbrok, was the archetype of the Norse Era Viking — a Dane who made a name for himself as the “Scourge of the Franks.” In fact, the havoc he and his men caused in Paris, is the reason that the French popularized the image of the horned helmet wearing Viking, as a savage who killed and raped all in their path. Alas, the truth is not that far off, since the Vikings had been raiding Gaul, or what has become France, since the 9th century. In the year 845, Ragnall loaded over one hundred ships with over 5,000 battle hardened warriors and descended upon the Seine river. Their goal was to look for booty, which in Viking terms meant, not only gold, but also a ready supply of slaves to work their farms and provide as dowries.

Ragnar Lodbroks död by Hugo Hamilton"  via Wikimedia Commons.

Ragnar Lodbroks död by Hugo Hamilton” via Wikimedia Commons.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes the events as being so brutal, that they were a turning point in the relations between Western Europe and the Peoples of the North. Some sources say most of the adult men of northern France who did not flee were executed or taken as slaves, leaving the land ripe for conquering. And, only after they  defeated the army of the Frankish King Charles the Bald did the Vikings finally leave, and only after the King scoured every part of his kingdom to find over 7,ooo pieces of silver to dispatch them with. Unfortunately, this only emboldened the Northmen and eventually they returned in Northern France and established a permanent settlement which became the kingdom of Normandy. In fact, when German soldiers occupied France in World War  Two, many were surprised to find more blond, blue eyed people on the Norman coast then back in Berlin, leading one to assume that the Vikings left behind more than their share of influence in the modern people of Normandy.

A Battle of Sources

So what happened to Ragnar? Well, that is where things start turning into the stuff of legend. Some Chronicles say Ragnar defeated the King of Norway, very much like the show represents with King Horik in Season Two. But the real King Horik lived until old age so this claim may be dubious. More probable is that Ragnar became king of the Danes and then died in one of his many campaigns in England in or about the year 840,  at the hands of another partly historical king named Ælla of Northumbria, (who may be the source for King Athelstan of the TV show.)

Mary MacGregor: Stories of the Vikings

The real Ragnar might be as imaginary as the horned helmet…

In the year 865, the Chronicles begin to enter the historical record as multiple sources record the invasion of England by a “Great Heathen Army”. As independent Kingdoms all vying for supremacy at this time, the English nobility were known to be actively using Viking armies against each other, but one has to wonder whether the Vikings were as crafty as the show suggests — playing the English as pawns against each other.

At the head of this Heathen Army, these bands of marauding warriors with the horrifying names like Ivar the Boneless, Björn Ironside, and Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye — all of whom claimed to be sons of the legendary Ragnar. Much like their mythical father, even if their claims were just a convenient ploy, these warriors  left their mark on England and hastened what would become the Norman Conquest a century later. It will be interesting to see how the TV series integrates the sons of Ragnar with these historical figures, and if they continue down the the narrative laid out in the Anglo-Saxon chronicle. One thing is certain. We haven’t seen the last of Ragnar yet, one suspects that are many Blood Eagles, and heads to cleave ahead of us, so tune in…

Herodotus was a Greek historian who was born in Halicarnassus, Caria (modern-day Bodrum, Turkey) and lived in the fifth century BC (c. 484–425 BC). Widely referred to as "The Father of History" (first conferred by Cicero), he was the first historian known to collect his materials systematically and critically, and then to arrange them into a historiographic narrative. Although some of his stories were fanciful and others inaccurate, he states he was reporting only what was told to him. Little is known of his personal history.