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Ivar the Boneless

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Ivar the Boneless ...and the Viking Conquest of England

Ivar the Boneless was leading elite crews of Vikings against the Irish when news reached him that King Aelle of Northumbria had cast Ragnar Lothbrok 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”.  King Aelle had just made an enemy of perhaps the most dangerous man of the 9th 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," and say it was as if he “had no bones at all."  In the Ragnar Saga Lodbrok, 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.  He was said to be very lethal but is usually mentioned killing with a bow or upon laying hold of an enemy. 

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 seems like a valid objection.  Before a Viking could even face his enemy in battle, 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 (especially the Byzantines, but even the Irish) would maim an unwelcome political figure solely to disqualify him from rulership.  

But however rare it may be for a physically disabled person to become a leader in pre-modern times, it was not unprecedented.  As unlikely as it may be that the Vikings would follow someone with a severe physical disability, it may be even more unlikely that they would tell stories about such a thing if it had not been the case.

The key to Ivar's acceptance lied 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.  Ivar's intelligence, cunning, and wisdom were so high that – if we can believe the skalds – his brothers were reluctant to take on any significant challenges without his insight. Thus as the royal heirs of Lothbrok’s legacy grew, so did Ivar’s acceptance and value to his people. 

Theories on Ivar’s Name

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 impotence, for Ivar "never showed any lust" or had a love for anything besides war, and few sources suggest any sons.  This lack of progeny is highly debatable, though because Ivar the Boneless is considered by many to be the founder of the notorious Ui Imar dynasty of Irish Vikings.

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.   Others take the opposite view, (attempting to reconcile "boneless" with other accounts of Ivar's battle prowess) and believe that Ivar was unusually fast and flexible.  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.  

The skalds themselves offer one final suggestion when they say that Ivar was occasionally afflicted by a sickness that made him temporarily unable to move. This could be a seizure disorder, some other type of neurological disease like Guillan-Barre syndrome, multiple sclerosis, or even a psychological condition.  If it were one of these fluctuating disabilities, that would explain some tales saying his followers had to carry him while others make no mention of infirmity.

One final theory comes from archeology.  A burial mound in Repton, England reportedly housed the skeleton of a 9th-century warrior that was allegedly nine feet tall.  The skeleton was at the center of the mound, with signs of high status (weapons, armor, sacrifices, etc.) but also signs of posthumous mutilation.  The archeologists were eager to tie this magnificent find to the legend of Ivar the Boneless.  If so, Ivar's moniker was ironic – since his gigantism gave him prominent knuckles and bony features, his peers called him "boneless" as a joke.  

It is our opinion that while the Repton man is certainly an interesting discovery and must have been a fearsome warrior, the links between him and the story of Ivar the Boneless have significant flaws.   

As in the case of the shield maidens, we find some modern experts refusing to accept what the Vikings themselves accepted enough to include in their stories.  Unfortunately, there is no way to solve the mystery. Still, it is vital to keep an open mind to all possibilities.

Because medical conditions and injuries change over time, it is also possible to reconcile several different theories.  Ivar may have been both a mighty warrior and litter-bound at different points in his life. 

Ivar and the Great Heathen Army

Whatever his disabilities might have been, by the time Ivar was planning to avenge his father, he was already a highly-respected leader.  Assuming that Ivar (Norse sources), Imar (Irish sources), and Ingvar (English sources) are all the same person, he had been leading Vikings for years.  Though Ireland was a magnet for raiders because it was the center of medieval monasticism, it was a very rough neighborhood even by Dark Age standards. 

How many years Ivar was active is another mystery.  The most commonly regurgitated date of his birth is 794 – but the math on this does not work out well.  The Imar of the Irish annals was a younger man, and was first mentioned around the 850’s.

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.  Compiling various sources, this "Great Heathen Army" was gathered from far and wide.  The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tends to call the Vikings “Danes” whenever it is not calling them heathens. So it is reasonable to conclude that Danes were the majority, though our early sources tend to be indiscriminate.  The army also included significant representation from Ivar's Ireland-based crews as well as Vikings from as far east as the Danube.

Whatever the particular make-up or organization, this Great Heathen Army was so big that most early chroniclers do not even try to count it.  It was under a number of leaders (all the sons of Ragnar and then many more) though Ivar quickly became the most conspicuous leader of the early years of the war. 

As Sir Winston Churchill puts it, "Saxon England was at this time ripe for the sickle."  The land was divided into several competing kingdoms.  These were mainly defended by fyrds (citizen-soldiers that only mobilized for 40 days at a time).  The English were neither expecting nor prepared for the Vikings that landed on their east coast in 866. 

Soon the Viking army was laying siege Northumbria’s biggest city, Eoforwic.  Eoforwic fell quickly, and the Great Heathen Army set up their base there.  They called the place Jorvik, (from which its modern name, York, is derived).  Jorvik would go on to play an essential role throughout the rest of the Viking Age.  

King Aelle was already entangled in a civil war with King Osbert.  Finally, recognizing the crisis that was upon them, the two put their feud aside and led a united army to repel the invaders. 

Aelle and Osberht found the Vikings huddled in York behind walls that had obvious gaps and week points.  The Northumbrian forces pounced.  The Vikings retreated into the town, and English pursued them into the close streets.  It was there that Ivar sprang his trap.  The English rushed into carefully-prepared kill zones, and all escape was cut off.  Their forces were cut in half, unable to help each other.  Ivar’s Vikings slaughtered the Northumbrians. 

Osbert 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.  This was the end of Northumbria as an independent kingdom.

Drunk on victory, Ivar the Boneless and his armies turned towards Mercia, the heart of Saxon Britain.  But by now, the English knew that they must unite or be destroyed.  Wessex, under King Ethelred and Prince Alfred, joined with Mercia and forced Ivar to the negotiating table.

Peace only lasted a short time.  Ivar broke the treaty of Nottingham, martyred King Edmund of East Anglia, and once more went on the warpath.  Later, Ivar changed course and joined his old friend (or “brother," according to one Irish source) Olaf the White.  Together, they crushed the Briton kingdom of Strathclyde in modern-day Scotland.  Meanwhile, the Great Heathen Army (now led by Ragnar’s bastard son Ubba and a Danish king named Guthrum) would continue to carve out a Viking kingdom in Britain without the help of their best tactician.  

Ivar the Boneless returned to Ireland.  As Churchill puts it, "Laden with loot and seemingly invincible, he settled in Dublin and died there peacefully two years later."

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 more significant 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.  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."  When he died, the pious chronicler wrote: "he slept in Christ."  This statement does not necessarily mean that the leader of the Great Heathen Army converted. Still, 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 is all the more amazing.


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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.



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