Ivar the Boneless ...and the Viking Conquest of England
Ivar the Boneless was leading elite crews of berserkers against the Irish when news reached him that King Aelle of Northumbria had trapped and his father, the legendary Ragnar Lothbrok, and killed him by casting him into a pit of vipers. The skalds tell us that Ivar quietly demanded the details of his father’s death, and as he listened “his face became red, blue, and pale by turns”.1 King Aelle had just made an enemy of perhaps the most dangerous man of the ninth century; and though he did not know it yet, this action would doom his kingdom and shape the history of England. For Ivar was more than just another rampaging Viking, testing his skills against the warriors or Ireland while seizing hold of their treasures and territory; he was a military genius and a leader of magnificent ability.
He also may have been a cripple. Historians argue over what the mysterious moniker “the Boneless” means, because our sources give us only conflicting clues. The skalds say that “only cartilage was where bone should have been, but otherwise he grew tall and handsome”, whereas other tellers say that it was as if he “had no bones at all”.2 In the Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok (which we must remember was finally set down in writing a few centuries later) there is a story that he was born with deformed legs because of a curse; and there are accounts of his men carrying him on their shields.3,4 He was said to be very lethal, but is usually mentioned killing with a bow or upon laying hold of an enemy.4 Paradoxically, he is said elsewhere to have towered over his enemies, and to have great strength; but this may simply be literary license typical of heroic poetry.
Many historians dismiss this idea, emphatic in the belief that the Norse would not have followed someone into battle who could not even stand. This is a valid objection, for before a Viking could even face his enemy in the ultimate physical test of prowess, he would have had to row, march, or ride great distances over violent seas and wild terrain. In fact, in Ivar’s time many cultures (such as the Byzantines) would maim an unwelcome political figure solely to disqualify him from rulership.5 But however rare it may be for a physically disabled person to become a leader in pre-modern times, it was not unprecedented. The key to Ivar’s acceptance lay in his birth, his ability, and his brothers. The sagas say that Ivar’s brothers carried him with them wherever they went, and that he fully participated in all their actions.4 Ivar’s intelligence, cunning, and wisdom where so great that – if we can believe the skalds – his brothers were reluctant to take on challenges without his insight.4 Thus as the royal heirs of Lothbrok’s legacy grew, so did Ivar’s acceptance and value to his people.
The strange thing about Ivar’s affliction is that many sources hardly mention it (focusing instead on his incredible victories or savage character). This may support the notion that it was not some glaringly obvious physical variance. Some believe that “boneless” refers to impotency, for it is mentioned that Ivar “never showed any lust” or had love for anything besides war, and only a few sources suggest any progeny.2 This euphemism is anachronistic, though; and while the Norse knew little medicine they certainly had a very good understanding of gross anatomy. A popular view is that Ivar suffered from osteogenesis imperfecta, a rare, genetic condition that hampers the formation of bone cells and can lead to deformities and fractures.6 Others take the opposite view, (attempting to reconcile “boneless” with other accounts of Ivar’s battle prowess) and believe that Ivar was especially fast and flexible2. If so, it may be possible that Ivar was on the opposite side of the spectrum of connective tissue disorders, having something like Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, as some contortionists do.7 The skalds themselves offer one final suggestion (perhaps unwittingly) when they say that Ivar was occasionally afflicted by a sickness which made him temporarily unable to move.4
Whatever his disabilities might have been, by the time Ivar was planning to avenge his father he was already a highly-respected leader. The skalds describe him both in terms of a bear (for a berserker means one who takes on the mantle of the bear, or becomes the bear in battle) but also as a cunning fox8,3 He had been leading Vikings in Ireland for some years; and though Ireland was a magnet for raiders because it was the center of medieval monasticism (where much of the wealth of otherwise sparse lands aggregated) it was a rough neighborhood even by Dark Age standards. How many years Ivar was active is another mystery. The most commonly speculated year of his birth is 794 – but the math on this does not work out well. In any case, when Ivar joined his brothers and landed in the English kingdom of East Anglia in 866, he was well-prepared to accomplish what no Viking had before him.9
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As Sir Winston Churchill puts it, “Saxon England was at this time ripe for the sickle”.1 Divided into four competing kingdoms and defended largely by fyrds of citizen soldiers who only expected to mobilize for forty days at a time, the English were neither expecting, nor prepared for the “Great Heathen Army” that landed on their shores. Before this time, the Vikings had come as raiders that would sometimes take swaths of territory. They had assailed Paris with 5000 men 21 years before, but had never come to conquer whole kingdoms. The East Anglians panicked, and promised Ivar and the brothers horses in exchange for peace. So, in the spring of 867, the Viking host left their ships safely behind and penetrated deep into the English interior.1
Most Vikings were not cavalrymen, but the East Anglian horses gave them excellent mobility between targets. Armies had difficulty catching them, and when they did Ivar would order his men to feign retreat.9 When the English followed and overcommitted, they would be cut off and ambushed. Ivar used a variety of other stratagems to trap his foes, or to escape the traps they set for him.4 Soon the Viking army was laying siege to York in the kingdom of Northumbria.
King Aelle of Northumbria was already enmeshed in a civil war with King Osberht.3 Finally, as the Vikings reached York, the two put their feud aside and led a united army to repel them. The English were slaughtered. Osberht died on the field, but according to Norse sources, Aelle was captured. Ivar and the sons of Ragnar performed the Blood Eagle ritual on King Aelle, ripping his lungs from his body and finally avenging the death of their father.3 This was the end of Northumbria as an independent kingdom.1
Drunk on victory, Ivar the Boneless and his armies turned towards Mercia, the heart of Saxon England. But by now the English knew that they must unite or be destroyed. Wessex, under King Ethelred and Prince Alfred (later known as Alfred the Great) joined with Mercia, and forced Ivar to the negotiating table.1
Peace only lasted a short time. Ivar broke the treaty of Nottingham, martyred King Edmund of East Anglia, and once more went on the war path. For unknown reasons (perhaps out of political consideration for his brothers and other Viking leaders, such as King Guthrum) he later changed course. Ivar the Boneless ravaged part of Scotland; but then in 870 he returned to Ireland. “Laden with loot and seemingly invincible, he settled in Dublin, and died there peacefully two years later”1
Ivar the Boneless was an extraordinary warrior whose ferocity and cruelty at times reached psychotic levels. He was responsible for the death of three kings (two by ritual murder), to say nothing of soldiers, clergy, and civilians. But he was also a visionary and a true leader. Before him the Vikings were primarily raiders who hadn’t done anything bigger than sack Paris. Ivar changed that, and in just a few years his Vikings had turned three English kingdoms into a large Norse state called the Danelaw. If in the first siege of Paris we saw Ragnar’s dream, in Ivar’s accomplishments we saw this dream fully realized. We have evidence, too, that in those rare times when he was not fighting, Ivar may have been a good ruler. He showed religious and ethnic tolerance in York and other formerly-Saxon cities he controlled. We are told that he was generous to his subjects, “giving with two hands”.4 When he died, the pious chronicler wrote “he slept in Christ”.1 I do not take this to mean that the leader of the Great Heathen Army converted; but I do think that it shows that his subjects respected him – which is no small thing for a conqueror to accomplish. If he did all this despite a disability (or perhaps because of it) that makes it all the more impressive. Whole or broken, hero or monster, Ivar the Boneless helped shape our world.
David Gray Rodgers is a career fire officer who holds a bachelor’s in history and a master’s in business administration. He has published several books, including The Songs of Slaves: A Novel of the Fall of Rome.
The popular 'Vikings' TV series has resurrected a love and interest in all things Viking, including their characters who are loosely based on historic Vikings such as Ragnar Lothbrok and Ivar the Boneless.
- Churchill, W. S. The History of the English Speaking Peoples: Volume 1, the Birth of Britain. Barnes and Noble Books p.100-102. 1956
- Ivar the Boneless. English Monarchs. http://www.englishmonarchs.co.uk/vikings_10.html Published 2004. Accessed September 26, 2017
- Baker, M. In the Footsteps of Ivarr the Boneless. The History Files. http://www.englishmonarchs.co.uk/vikings_10.html Published November, 2003. Accessed September 26, 2017
- Waggoner, B. The Sagas of Ragnar Lodbrok. Troth. 2009
- Norwich, J. J. Byzantium: The Apogee. Knopf. 1992
- Learning about osteogenesis imperfect. National Human Genome Research Institute. https://www.genome.gov/25521839/learning-about-osteogenesis-imperfecta/ Published July 5, 2017. Accessed September 26, 2017
- Beighton, P., Graham, R., Byrd, H. Hypermobility of joints. New York. Springer-Verlag-Berlin-Hiedelberg p.103. 1983
- Brown, N. M.. Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them. New York, St Martin’s Press. 2015
- Hanson, Marilee. "Ivar the Boneless" https://englishhistory.net/vikings/ivar-the-boneless/, July 25, 2016. Accessed September 26, 2017