Ragnar Lodbrok or Lothbrok (Old Norse: Ragnarr Loðbrók, "Ragnar Shaggy-Breeches") was a legendary Viking hero and ruler, known from Viking Age Old Norse poetry and sagas. According to this traditional literature, Ragnar distinguished himself by many raids against Francia and Anglo-Saxon England during the 9th century.
According to the antiquarian Hilda Ellis Davidson, writing in 1980, "certain scholars in recent years have come to accept at least part of Ragnar's story as based on historical fact". On the other hand, the historian Katherine Holman wrote in 2003 that "although his sons are historical figures, there is no evidence that Ragnar himself ever lived, and he seems to be an amalgam of several different historical figures and pure literary invention."
The Viking sagas
The Tale of Ragnar Lodbrok, tells that Ragnar was the son of the Swedish king Sigurd Hring.
The Hervarar saga tells that when Valdar died, his son Randver became the king of Sweden, while Harald Wartooth became the king of Denmark. Then Harald conquered all of his grandfather Ivar Vidfamne's territory. After Randver's death, his son Sigurd Hring became the king of Sweden, presumably as the subking of Harald. Sigurd Hring and Harald fought the Battle of the Brávellir (Bråvalla) on the plains of Östergötland, where Harald and many of his men died. Sigurd ruled Sweden and Denmark from about 770 until his death in about 804. He was succeeded by his son Ragnar Lodbrok. Harald Wartooth's son Eysteinn Beli ruled Sweden as Ragnar's viceroy until he was killed by the sons of Ragnar.
The Tale of Ragnar's Sons tells that the Great Heathen Army that invaded England in 865 was led by the sons of Ragnar Lodbrok, to wreak revenge against King Ælla of Northumbria who had supposedly captured and executed Ragnar.
Frankish accounts of a 9th century Viking leader named Ragnar
The Siege of Paris and the Sack of Paris of 845 was the culmination of a Viking invasion of the kingdom of the West Franks. The Viking forces were led by a Norse chieftain named "Reginherus", or Ragnar. This Ragnar has often been tentatively identified with the legendary saga figure Ragnar Lodbrok, but the accuracy of this remains a disputed issue among historians. Around 841, Ragnar had been awarded land in Turholt, Frisia, by Charles the Bald, but he eventually lost the land as well as the favor of the King. Ragnar's Vikings raided Rouen on their way up the Seine in 845, and in response to the invasion, determined not to let the royal Abbey of Saint-Denis (near Paris) be destroyed, Charles assembled an army which he divided into two parts, one for each side of the river. Ragnar attacked and defeated one of the divisions of the smaller Frankish army, took 111 of their men as prisoners and hanged them on an island on the Seine. This was done to honor the Norse god Odin, as well as to incite terror in the remaining Frankish forces.
The Great Heathen Army is said to have been led by the sons of Ragnar Lodbrok, to wreak revenge against King Ælla of Northumbria who had supposedly executed Ragnar in 865. The Great Heathen Army was organized and led by the brothers Ivar the Boneless, Halfdan Ragnarsson, Björn Ironside and Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye. The brothers are known historical figures.
Ivar the Boneless was the leader of the Great Heathen Army from 865 to 870, but he disappears from English historical accounts after 870. The Anglo-Saxon chronicler Æthelweard records Ivar's death as 870. Halfdan Ragnarsson became the leader of the Great Heathen Army in about 870 and he led it in an invasion of Wessex. A great number of Viking warriors arrived from Scandinavia, as part of the Great Summer Army, led by King Bagsecg of Denmark, bolstering the ranks of Halfdan's army. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Danes battled the West Saxons nine times, including the Battle of Ashdown on 8 January 871, where Bagsecg was killed. Halfdan accepted a truce from the future Alfred the Great, newly crowned king of Wessex.
Halfdan succeeded Bagsecg as King of most of Denmark (Jutland and Wendland) in about 871. Bjorn Ironside became King of Sweden and Uppsala in about 865, (the same year his father Ragnar is said to have died). Bjorn had two sons, Refil and Erik Björnsson. His son Erik became the next king of Sweden, and was succeeded in turn by Erik the son of Refil. Sigurd Snake-in-the-eye became King of Zealand and the Danish Isles in about 871, and also succeeded his brother Halfdan as King of Denmark in about 877.
Sources and historicity
According to traditional sources, Ragnar was:
- son of the Swedish king Sigurd Hring and a relative of the Danish king Gudfred;
- married three times, to the shieldmaiden Lagertha, the noblewoman Thóra Borgarhjǫrtr and Aslaug (also known as Kráka, Kraba), a Norse queen;
- the father of historical Viking figures including Ivar the Boneless, Björn Ironside, Halfdan Ragnarsson, Hvitserk, Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye and Ubba;
- captured by King Ælla of Northumbria and died after Ælla had him thrown into a pit of snakes, and;
- avenged by the Great Heathen Army that invaded and occupied Northumbria and adjoining Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.
The most significant medieval sources that mention Ragnar include:
- Book IX of the Gesta Danorum, a 12th-century work by the Christian Danish chronicler Saxo Grammaticus,
- the Tale of Ragnar's sons (Ragnarssona þáttr), a legendary saga,
- the Tale of Ragnar Lodbrok, another saga, a sequel to the Völsunga saga,
- the Ragnarsdrápa, a skaldic poem of which only fragments remain, attributed to the 9th-century poet Bragi Boddason, and
- the Krákumál, Ragnar's death-song, a 12th-century Scottish skaldic poem.
As a figure of legend whose life only partially took place in times and places covered by written sources, the extent of Ragnar's historicity is not quite clear.
In her commentary on Saxo's Gesta Danorum, Davidson notes that Saxo's coverage of Ragnar's legend in book IX of the Gesta appears to be an attempt to consolidate many of the confusing and contradictory events and stories known to the chronicler into the reign of one king, Ragnar. That is why many acts ascribed to Ragnar in the Gesta can be associated, through other sources, with various figures, some of which are more historically certain. These candidates for the "historical Ragnar" include:
- King Horik I (d. 854),
- King Reginfrid (d. 814), a king who ruled part of Denmark and came into conflict with Harald Klak,
- the Reginherus who besieged Paris in the mid-9th century, and
- possibly the Ragnall (Rognvald) of the Irish Annals.
So far, attempts to firmly link the legendary Ragnar with one or several of those men have failed because of the difficulty in reconciling the various accounts and their chronology. Nonetheless, the core tradition of a Viking hero named Ragnar (or similar) who wreaked havoc in mid-ninth-century Europe and who fathered many famous sons is remarkably persistent, and some aspects of it are covered by relatively reliable sources, such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
In popular culture
Ragnar Lodbrok features prominently in:
- Edwin Atherstone's novel Sea-Kings in England;
- Edison Marshall's 1951 novel The Viking;
- "Ragnar le Viking", a 1955 comic book feature written by Jean Ollivier with art by Eduardo Teixeira Coelho, that ran in the French Vaillant magazine up to 1969;
- Richard Parker's 1957 historical novel The Sword of Ganelon explores the character of Ragnar, his sons, and Viking raiding culture;
- a 1958 film, The Vikings based on Marshall's novel, in which Ragnar, played by Ernest Borgnine, is captured by King Ælla and cast into a pit of wolves; a son named Einar [sic], played by Kirk Douglas, vows revenge and conquers Northumbria with help from half-brother (and sworn enemy) Eric (played by Tony Curtis), who also had much to avenge upon King Aella.
- Harry Harrison's 1993 alternative history novel The Hammer and the Cross depict Ragnar being shipwrecked, captured and executed, as well as his sons' revenge;
- various strategy video games with a historical setting, including Civilization III: Play the World, Medieval: Total War, Civilization IV: Warlords,' 'Age of Empires II: The Forgotten and Crusader Kings II;
- History Channel's historical drama television series Vikings as the protagonist, played by Travis Fimmel.
- Bernard Cornwell's novel The Last Kingdom and the BBC America's series of the same name.