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Chapter 6: Ragnar Lothbrok

Ragnar Lothbrok (or Lodbrok) is one of the most interesting, celebrated, and controversial characters of the early Viking Age.  Many scholars over the years have considered Ragnar to be semi-fictional, perhaps the composite of many figures who together represented some Viking ideal.  This opinion is understandable, especially since one of the legends that occur in almost all the major sources is that of Ragnar slaying a giant serpent that guards a golden horde and a beautiful princess.  Spurious nature of some of these stories notwithstanding, Ragnar was – at least in some part – a real historical figure, whose life and death are implicated in some of the best-documented events of the 9th century.

Before looking at what we know about his life, we will first look at his legend.  Ragnar is mentioned many times throughout medieval Scandinavian sagas and histories, but the most detailed accounts (on the Scandinavian side) that have come down to us are Book IX of Saxo Grammaticus’ Danish History, Ragnars Saga Lodbrok (The Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok and his Sons), and the  Krákumál (or Song of Kraka, also called the Death Ode of Ragnar).  

Of these sources, Saxo Grammaticus attempts to be the most organized and to present a dispassionate, reliable history.  However, even he cannot resist the dragon slaying and other hyperbolic achievements of this incredible hero.

Ragnars Saga Lodbrok is a source we will come back to over and over again in the next few chapters because it portrays Viking culture and mindset so well, but the story itself is less reliable.  

The Krákumál is a song reveling in the glory and gore of Ragnar’s exploits, and it relays the Viking soul and sensibility as truly as any poem could, but all it offers to our tale is another list of Ragnar’s wars to piece together.  With less reliance on details (conflicting or otherwise) and more emphasis on the thrust of the tale and the personal clues that come with it, Ragnar and the other Vikings of his time begin to come to life.

Ragnar Lothbrok, According to Scandinavian Sources

According to Saxo, Ragnar was born in Zealand – one of the islands of Denmark, where Copenhagen stands today – as the son of the king, Siward.  Ragnar’s extended family, including his grandfather (also a king named Siward), were jarls in Norway (illustrating, once again, that the kingdoms and territories of this time were much different from the nations we have today).  Ragnar’s father, King Siward, had many enemies, and was a brave king who preferred to take his fight to other lands rather than invite invasion at home. It was at such a time when Siward and the strength of Zealand were engaged in raiding and tribal warfare elsewhere that a traitor by the name of Ring (or Hring) usurped his throne.  

Other sagas reverse these roles, saying Ring was Ragnar’s father and Siward his enemy, illustrating the many contradictions in the sources and difficulties in aligning our knowledge of this shadowy age.  

To resist Ring, the loyal followers of Siward raised his son Ragnar up as king – though Ragnar was just a boy.  

Even at this young age, Ragnar showed great charisma, wisdom, and courage and had that quality which made people want to follow him.  Nonetheless, fearing for his safety his subjects sent him to his family in Norway to finish his training, while they fought for his family’s throne.  

Siward returned (we are not sure when) to save his brave subjects from Ring, and in a great battle he slew the usurper.  Siward received a horrible wound through, and when Ragnar returned to Zealand he found that his father was dead.

Peace was indeed a fleeting thing in Scandinavia at this time, for though Ragnar now reigned in Zealand, a king of Sweden named Fro attacked his grandfather in Norway and killed him.  Proving his wickedness, the Swedish King forced the women of the royal family into sex slavery for him and his men.

When Ragnar heard of these outrages, he and his followers took dragon ships to Norway to confront Fro and avenge his family.  Ragnar’s small army was not only joined by men loyal to his grandfather. Along the way they were met by women escaping King Fro’s exploitation, who begged Ragnar to be allowed to fight back against this monster who had done them so much evil.  Ragnar agreed, and so as his forces arrayed to fight the Swedish Vikings, he was accompanied by a young woman named Lagertha – a girl who “though a maiden possessed the courage of a man, and fought in front among the bravest with her hair loose over her shoulders.”  With Lagertha’s help, Ragnar slew Fro and drove the Swedes back across their borders.

Lagertha certainly merits her own chapter in this book, and so we will examine her part of the story more closely soon.  Ragnar was quite taken with Lagertha, and she became his first wife (according to Saxo). Though their love lasted, their marriage did not, however, and though the two remained allies, they went their separate ways. It was at this juncture that Ragnar, who was still a young man (20 years-old, according to the Krákumál) with a small but valiant following, earned the name “Lothbrok.”

Ragnar and Thora

There was a king in Denmark who had a lovely young daughter named Thora.  One day when the king was hunting he found an especially beautiful serpent, whose scales glinted green and gold.  The king knew his daughter loved animals, and the creature was too small to be much harm, and so he took it home as a gift for her.  Thora was ecstatic, and immediately gave the serpent a shiny gold coin to roost on.

The next day there were two gold coins where there had been one, and the snake was twice as large.

The day after, the same thing happened, and so on … until the serpent coiled around and around the house, amidst a great horde of gold, and Thora was his prisoner.

After a few disasterous attempts to assault the lair and save his daughter, the distraught king offered Thora’s hand in marriage, along with all the gold the serpent guarded, to anyone who could kill the beast.  Some found the courage to try, and each of them lasted mere moments – for not only was the serpent massive, there was also highly-potent venom in his long fangs.

When Ragnar, who by now was divorced and more than a little restless, heard of this wonder, he had an idea.  According to the saga, he took a pair of thick, leather chaps and boiled them in pitch. He then rolled them in sand before the pitch had hardened.  The result was a flexible garment of great strength. Saxo’s version of the story says that Ragnar’s chaps were of fur-covered hide that he deliberately soaked in water and then allowed to freeze solid in the chill Scandinavian morning air.  Ragnar was confident that this armor would protect him from the poison of the serpent, and so he took his spear and his shield and went to rescue Thora.

Ragnar knew armor, weapons, and skill were important in battle, but nothing was as essential as strategy, and so he ambushed the serpent.  His luck held, and his innovative armor served, and he killed the serpent with a spear thrust through the heart.

The king was as good as his word, and married his beautiful daughter to the impetuous youth he called Ragnar Lothbrok – or, literally, Ragnar Shaggy Pants.  The name stuck.

Thora was a beautiful girl inside and out, and Ragnar was very happy with her.  They had two children together (Ragnar had two daughters and one son in his brief marriage to Lagertha).  Unfortunately, Thora became very sick and died, leaving Ragnar alone.

Now Ragnar, born to lead and gifted in battle, had suffered the death of his father and many members of his family, the demise of his first marriage, and the tragic death of the love of his life.  He soon found a way to try to fill the void.

Ragnar Versus the World

In the years that followed, Ragnar flew his raven banner in raids not only throughout Scandinavia, but also far to the west, east, and south.  An ever-increasing number of Vikings added to the ship crews under his command, and he went from being a petty king of an unimportant Danish territory to a true “sea king” – that is, a Viking with a virtual empire not of land but of water.  This sea king ideal was perhaps one of the loftiest and most defining goals for a Viking, for it combined the bravery, lust for life, rejection of boundaries, and contempt of fear that formed the spine of the Viking character.

According to Saxo’s history and the  Krákumál, Ragnar led daring, successful raids into Sweden, Gotland, Livonia, Elsinore, Norway, Bornholm, Flemming, Belgium, Kent and Northumbria (both now part of England), Orkney, the Hebrides, the Isle of Sky, and Perth (Scotland), Ireland, Anglesey, and throughout Russia, Finland, Estonia, and the Baltic – even all the way down to the Hellespont in modern Turkey.  

Of all these places, we are told that it was the Finns and other Baltic peoples that gave Ragnar the most trouble, because they could fight on skis and were highly adept at the use of “wind magic” to turn the weather against the Vikings.  

Dragons and wind magic aside, such an explosion of bellicose activity led by one man is difficult to accept uncritically. What we do know is true is that during Ragnar’s time the Vikings did in fact expand their activities in such an exponential and vigorous way.  Even if the authors of our Scandinavian sources are describing the activities of many Viking leaders rather than one, the sudden tempest blast of Viking raids took Europe completely by surprise, with shock and awe.

Two passages are of particular interest to forming our historical image of Ragnar.  Saxo mentions the Finns giving Ragnar more trouble than the Romans at the height of their power.  This would certainly be impossible without time travelling 700 years before his era; but what it may be referring to is the first Viking Siege of Paris in 845.  Oddly, Saxo does not mention the Franks, who would have been well-known to him. But at the turn of the 8th century, the Frankish emperor, Charlemagne had been crowned Roman Emperor of the West by the Pope, and he and his successors were attempting to resurrect the Roman Empire in their image.  Charlemagne’s empire was known as the Holy Roman Empire ever after that. Saxo’s use of the term Romans for Charlemagne’s empire is confirmed towards the end of Book VIII of his Danish History, where he writes about the Emperor Karl (i.e., Charles – Charlemagne) and his struggles with Denmark.  

Another curiosity is the mention of the “island of Lindis” in verse 20 of the Krákumál.  At first glance, this seems a referrence to Lindisfarne (which is built on a peninsula), and seems to suggest that Ragnar was in fact the leader of the notorious expedition that began the Viking Age.  Most historians reject this, citing the line in the same verse: “The blood of the Irish fell plentifully into the ocean, during the time of that slaughter,” leading them to conclude that the verse may refer to Ragnar’s raiding in Leinster or some other part of Ireland.  While the truth is impossible to know with certainty, it is worth noting that many of the monks of Lindisfarne would have been Irish, or at least seemed Irish to the Vikings, due to the vigorous activity of Irish missionaries in Northumbria and the territories of what are now Scotland; and many of these monks were – we are told in church chronicles – martyred in the waves.  However, as Lindisfarne was sacked about 52 years before the siege of Paris, it would be unlikely that one Viking leader could have done both.

Modern research, as well as common sense, has repeatedly reminded us that the Norse of the Viking Age were not the stock character barbarians of fantasy movies, but were pragmatic traders and settlers who enjoyed peace, kept their laws, and loved their families.  While this is true, we see in the tales of Ragnar what made the Vikings so terrifying to their enemies. The Krákumál. reads:

We fought with swords, before Boring-holmi. We held bloody shields: we stained our spears. Showers of arrows brake the shield in pieces. The bow sent forth the glittering steel. Volnir fell in the conflict, than whom there was not a greater king. Wide on the shores lay the scattered dead: the wolves rejoiced over their prey…. The blue steel all reeking with blood fell at length upon the golden mail. Many a virgin bewailed the laughter of that morning. The beasts of prey had ample spoil.

But Ragnar’s life was not all war.  He was a beloved and competent ruler.  He found love again, with an exiled princess named Aslaug, who was beautiful, wise, brave, and cunning (we will discuss her more in the next chapter, also).  Though Thora’s two sons (Eric and Agnar) died in battle, Aslaug gave Ragnar Ivar, Bjorn, Sigurd Snake in the Eye, Halfdan, and Hvitserk though Halfdan and Hvitserk might be the same person, literally “Halfdan Whiteshirt”). Through an affair, Ragnar also had Ubba (also written Ubbe or Hubba), who Ragnar accepted as a legitimate son, though Saxo tells us Ubba would always resent his father.  

These sons all grew up to be extraordinary heroes, and to each make history in their own right.  Indeed, the sagas tell us that as Ragnar aged he began to worry that his sons might eclipse him in accomplishments and renown.  This fear was so real to Ragnar that it drove him to actions that ultimately led to his final demise – but we will defer this part of the story for a moment, in order to look at Ragnar’s tale from the view of his enemies.  

The Viking Siege of Paris, 845

There were two Norse sieges of Paris. The first was in 845; and though a fairly minor affair in terms of battle, it had great symbolic significance. The second was roughly two generations later, in 885-886; was much larger (and deadlier); and had greater direct ramifications. Before the first siege, Viking raids were a new and growing problem for the peoples of Western Europe; but hitherto raids had been made by relatively small war bands bent on plunder. The Scandinavian adventurers might sack monasteries or villages, but would usually shun larger, better defended targets. However, success was making the Norsemen bolder.

Aware of this growing threat, the aging emperor, Charlemagne, built a series of maritime defenses to protect his coasts and rivers from these new dragon ships. For the first few decades, the defenses worked; but the Vikings were growing in number, ability, and ambition and a new breed of leaders was coming to the fore. One of these leaders was a man the Frankish chroniclers call Reginheri; but who has since been widely equated with Ragnar Lothbrok.

As in the Scandinavian legends, Ragnar was a jarl in Denmark with ties to Norway; though he was a vassal of the leading power in that land – King Horik.  Perhaps Horik was jealous of Ragnar’s raiding success and strategic acumen from the beginning; and perhaps he was galled by the young warlord’s use of the raven banner and his other claims that he was descended from Odin (an insinuation of parity if not superiority to Horik himself) – we cannot know.  What we do know is that under Ragnar, Vikings were ready to step foot on the world stage. They were ready to capture the jewel of Western Europe, the city of Paris.

So, in Spring of 845, while Horik slept at home, Ragnar led 120 dragon ships carrying about 5000-6000 Vikings into the heart of the late Charlemagne’s empire.  They broke through Frankish defenses and surrounded the walled city of Paris.

In the 9th century, Paris was already more than a thousand years old. It was wealthy from its position as a trading center and was the seat of one of Charlemagne’s three competing heirs, Charles the Bald. At this time, the heart of the city was confined to the islands in the center of the Seine, the Île de la Cité where the cathedral of Notre Dame stands today. This position made Paris eminently defensible in the eyes of the Frankish elite that ruled there; but it made it easily surrounded by the ship-born Vikings.

Not a very good tactician at this time, Charles the Bald (Charlemagne’s grandson, who in all fairness, was only about 22 and new to his position as king) split his forces between the two banks of the Seine to better defend the nearby Abbey of Saint Denis. Ragnar’s Vikings concentrated their attack on the forces on one bank of the Seine and easily defeated the Franks. They took 111 Frankish prisoners in the battle.  This relatively small number further emphasizes the Frank’s level of surprise and unpreparedness, for either Charles’s force was assembled so quickly that it was undersized, or the defeat had been so utter that they had almost all been wiped out. In full view of the city and the army on the opposite river bank, the Vikings further terrified their foes by hanging all 111 prisoners as a sacrifice to Odin. The Vikings then moved on Paris and captured it with equal efficiency.

Faced with these appalling developments, Charles took a course of action that was as practical as it was controversial (both at that time and ever after). He offered Ragnar 7000 livres (more than 5600 pounds) in gold and silver to take his men and leave. This cash pay-out became the first of many, many danegelds (roughly translated, “gold to the Danes”) that the princes of Europe would offer Viking armies to leave them alone.

To pay such a tremendous sum to “heathen savages” must have been a brutal humiliation for the grandson of the man who united most of Western Europe under his implacable will; but Charles was already facing rebellion in Aquitaine and Brittany, and had no wish to risk his troops, the citizens of Paris, or the religious and cultural treasures of the several nearby abbeys in a prolonged battle he would likely lose. His hands were tied, and so he paid.

Over the next 273 years, many would follow his example.  Historians (as well as many medieval critics) have called this policy foolish or worse, because it would likely only encourage the offenders to return for more and more cash.  However, while it is true that the Vikings in general did raid perennially, and did demand larger and larger danegelds, in a testimony to the peculiarities of the Viking ethical system, no Viking leader is known to have reneged on a danegeld’s specific demands.

For Ragnar, the offer could not have come at a better time.  The Vikings held Paris, but now they were suddenly under attack from the greatest bane of all armies – disease.  Ragnar and his Danes were consummate fighters, but up to this time the Viking way of war was not usually one of siege craft. In their haste to defeat their foes they may have overlooked critical elements of sanitation in their encampments; or they had been tardy in burying the dead; or it could be that they entered a Paris that had already been festering from the Vikings’ blockade.  Or perhaps it was, as the 9th century clerics contend, that the Norsemen were smitten by the wrath of Saint Germain and the other spiritual protectors of the ancient city of Paris.  In any case, by the time King Charles was making his offer, Earl Ragnar’s mighty army was doubled-over with dysentery.

The Vikings took their fortune in gold and silver and the sailed back to Denmark, feeling healthy enough to attack a few more places along the way.  

It is here that the reliable part of the narrative ends.  Medieval Church writers, still reeling from the abomination of the defeat and the ignobility in which the situation was resolved, were quick to add an epilogue.  They assert that when the Viking army returned to their King, Horik, it was as broken men; and that the King – in great fear of this Christian curse – executed all the survivors to extirpate it.  Ragnar (or Regniheri) also allegedly died of illness, weeping of his sins. 

Several details of this epilogue are openly ludicrous.  First, even if the disease contracted by the raiders was especially virulent, it is unlikely that more than 50-60% could have died (and probably more like 10% based on established data of armies under similar conditions); which means that we are expected to believe that Horik (the king of one of the most warlike cultures the world has ever known) executed 2500-4500 heroes who had just pulled off the greatest heist in Scandinavian history.  Many of these men would have been jarls, and so even if Horik had wanted them dead, it is unlikely that any king in this time of unstable rule could have that kind of power. It is also unlikely that churchmen in West Francia would know reliably what occurred 770 miles away in pagan Denmark.

Finally, if Regniheri had been the Ragnar, his death under these circumstances would not have launched one of the most well-documented of all 9th century events, the invasion of England by the sons of Lothbrok.  

Despite these issues and the obvious propagandist quality of the tale, the story survives to this day and is taken for granted by a number of modern writers.

The Aftermath, as Interpreted by the Historian, Lars Brownworth

One analysis of the aftermath does help reconcile the facts and chronicles.  According to historian Lars Brownworth (in 2014’s The Sea Wolves), it was not fear of a dead saint that drove Horik to redress the injuries done to Paris – it was fear of Charles’s brother and co-emperor, Louis the German.  Denmark bordered Louis’s lands, and this powerful heir of Charlemagne had military might and strategic acumen that Horik had neither the means nor the appetite to deal with.  Horik’s upstart competitor, Ragnar, had thus made a great deal of political trouble for the King, both in his own court (through Ragnar’s greatly-bolstered popularity) and abroad.  By making a show of retribution, Horik could assuage Louis the German and remove his competitor, Ragnar, as well.

History as well as legend strongly suggests that Ragnar (and most others) escaped this politically-motivated cleansing, and left Denmark in exile.  Such an exile (whether imposed by self-preservation or royal decree) further explains Ragnar’s prolific career as a raider and sea king – he literally had no home to return to until Horik was assassinated a few years later.  

The Legacy of Ragnar’s Siege of Paris

Whether the men who took Paris lived on as wealthy heroes or died as accursed pirates, the first Viking siege of Paris was a tremendous event symbolically.  It made the statement to all the peoples of Europe that the Norsemen were no longer just a menace, a disparate and uncoordinated group of thugs who threatened settlements but made no political impact.  With the first siege of Paris, the Norse people saw what they could accomplish; and so did their enemies. It is no coincidence that the next few generations witnessed major Viking armies seize large territories in Britain, France, Ireland, Russia, and elsewhere.  It is no coincidence that Viking influence could soon be felt as far away as Constantinople and the Eastern Mediterranean.

Norse forces were organizing, consolidating, and spreading after the 845 siege of Paris, and the tributes they claimed were ever-growing.  Yet, it was not just the Vikings that were learning, but the defenders too. After his humiliation at Paris, Charles the Bald spent the rest of his career preparing to fight the Vikings again. He built fortified bridges and ordered many other ingenious defenses and reinvigorated what would become the most recognizable symbol of the Middle Ages – armored, mounted cavalry. Charles was not going to be unprepared again, because he knew that sooner or later the Vikings would be coming back to Paris. 

As for Ragnar, his story continues – but in the next chapters we will look at the legends and evidence of some of the fantastic figures surrounding him.


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