In this third article, we’ll cover the most known feats performed by the Ragnarssons, from the legendary raids in southern Europe to one of the most cold-minded strategic vengeances ever to occur.
After razing Sweden avenging their half-brothers Eirek and Agnar, the sons of Ragnar, far from being tired of war, decided to go south in pursuit of even greater glory.
In these raids, soon enough, Sigurd Snake-in-the-eye joined the other brothers: Ivar, Björn and Hvitserk. These four names were synonyms of legend, glory and fear. Wherever they went, they conquered. None could withstand the might of the four brothers and their host.
Ivar heard of a strongly fortified town called Vifilsborg1, both big and populous. He decided that they should go there and try conquering it.
Upon arriving at the town, they tried negotiating with the townsmen: if they surrendered the town, everyone would be spared. If they decided to fight for it, no mercy would be shown. The townsmen, confident in their undefeated defences, decided to decline the offer.
The day after they tried conquering the town, but failed in their attempt. They laid siege to the town for a month and a half, attempting new strategies every day, but they weren’t successful. As a matter of fact, they were so frustrated that they decided to leave.
The moment the townsmen got news of the raiders’ intentions, they went onto the town walls and started displaying all their treasure: finest clothes and textures, gold, jewels, etc. While doing so, one of the town soldiers taunted the brothers saying that they expected more from the “legendary sons of Ragnar”, and they all started banging weapons and shields and egged them as much as they could.
After hearing this, Ivar got sick. He laid down in silence for the whole day, during the evening though, he finally spoke his first words. He asked to have a meeting with Björn, Hvitserk, Sigurd and all the chieftains.
During this meeting, Ivar asked if anybody had come with a plan, but received negative answers. As always, the last beam of hope came from the crippled son of Ragnar: Ivar had a plan.
The plan consisted of leaving the tents behind and entering the forest nearby, during the darkness of the night, and each man had to pick up a bundle of sticks and wood. Then, they would return and surround the town with these sticks and wood and light the biggest fire ever to be seen. This would make the mortar between the stones crumble, thus debilitating the stone walls for a catapult attack.
They executed the plan. Great breaches were opened in the weakened walls by the catapults. When the combat began, there was nothing that the Vifilsborg people could do. The Vikings killed everyone that stood in front of them, grabbed all the wealth and burned down the houses and walls. Nothing but ash was left behind when Ragnar’s sons left Vifilsborg.
They continued raiding in the south. They wanted to raid Rome but when they found out how far it was they decided to keep raiding in the north of Italy and the south of France. Amongst the famous towns that they raided was Luna (modern-day Luni, in Liguria, Italy). It is believed that they raided Luna confusing it with Rome, which contradicts what’s written in the saga but it makes sense historically.
The Heathen Army
As we already covered in Ragnar’s article, he went to England and heroically died, pronouncing those famous last words:
“How the piglets would grunt now if they knew about the old boar’s condition”Ragnar Lothbrok in the snake-pit
After pronouncing those last words, King Ælla realised who he just killed and the potential consequences of this action. He never wanted to kill Ragnar, fearing his sons’ vengeance, that’s why he ordered his men to spare a Viking called Ragnar while fighting the invaders.
Now it was too late, the only thing that he could do was to find out how the brothers would react to this terrible news. He dispatched messengers to Denmark, to Ragnar’s kingdom, and brought word to the legendary quartet.
The messengers entered the Great Hall, in the high seat was Ivar, Björn was planning a spear-shaft on the floor, Sigurd and Hvitserk were sitting on the side playing a board game2.
The Englishmen spoke, they were sent by King Ælla bringing tidings of Ragnar’s fall. The moment they mentioned the falling of the legendary Viking, Björn stood up firmly, holding his spear, Sigurd and Hvitserk dropped the game pieces, they all observed with the utmost attention. Ivar, on the other hand, asked them about every single detail of Ragnar’s death.
The moment they cited Ragnar’s words and pronounced “The piglets would grunt”, Björn gripped the spear-shaft so strongly that his handprint could be seen afterwards. When the messengers had finished, Björn split into two the spearpoint, Hvitserk gripped a game piece so hard that blood spurted out of his hand, and Sigurd, that was pairing his nails with a knife while the story was being told, didn’t realise that the knife was sticking in the bone. He didn’t flinch.
But Ivar kept asking for details, and, while the Englishmen were talking, his complexion turned red, then black and finally pale. He was enraged.
Hvitserk spoke first. He wanted to start by killing the messengers, but Ivar interrupted and said that they should be given a free pass and that anything that they needed he would provide them with.
When King Ælla heard the reactions from his messengers, he expected all of them except for Ivar’s reaction. He knew that he could defend versus the others, but he feared Ivar the most.
The brothers held a council. They all wanted revenge except for Ivar, who wanted monetary compensation if the King was willing to give it. Despite the rage of the brothers to Ivar’s decision, they summoned their men and went to England nonetheless. Björn, Sigurd and Hvitserk with their ships and men, Ivar only with his own ship.
King Ælla got notice of the invading Vikings and summoned a massive army. The conflict ended with the brothers fleeing, overwhelmed by the massive number disadvantage. Ivar and his men didn’t participate in this skirmish.
Defeated, the brothers decided to go back home, all but Ivar, he had other plans. He decided to stay and ask the King for compensation for his father’s death. This didn’t sit well (again) with his brothers, Hvitserk said he would never accept money for his father. But Ivar insisted, when they bid themselves farewell, he requested his brothers that whenever he asked, they would have to send him money.
When Ivar The Boneless faced King Ælla, he pledged that he had no grudges nor motives to be hostile towards the King, the conflict was with Ragnar and his other brothers, not with him. He added that he would accept anything that the King was willing to give him.
King Ælla didn’t really trust Ivar, as a matter of fact, he told the Viking that he knew that he could not be trusted. Ivar swore that he would never oppose him, and just wanted a piece of land. The king agreed, he didn’t mind Ivar having some land as long as he stood by his hand. King Ælla already proved that he could handle the other three brothers.
Ivar swore an oath to King Ælla, never to turn nor plot against him. He then was given as much land as an ox-hide could span. The terms were agreed on by both sides. Ivar then used all his cunning craftiness. He used an old bulls hide, treated it in certain ways so that the hide would be extended and spanned as big as the size of a large town. He then settled there3.
Ivar started giving treasure to the people, his wisdom was crucial for settling many disputes in such ways that all parts feel like they won. He made many friendships and even became an important adviser for King Ælla when time passed.
At a given point, when he was established as an important, loved and respected figure in Northumbria’s society, close to the King, he dispatched some men back to Denmark, requesting his brothers a large amount of money. The brothers thought he wasn’t in his right mind but agreed nonetheless.
Ivar took the money and gave it to the most important men and chieftains of the land who swore allegiance to him and swore not to fight for the King if he ever summoned them to battle.
Once Ivar had this huge force in command, he dispatched again men to Denmark. This time the message was not of money, but of blood. He asked his brothers to summon every man that they had. When this news was heard by the brothers, they realised that Ivar now thought that it was the right moment for victory so they summoned all the available men from Denmark, Gotland and all the kingdoms that they ruled.
The brothers set course to England with an overwhelming force. A force never saw before, an army of Norsemen to be reckoned with: The Heathen Army.
The Vikings sailed day and night as they wanted to give as little notice as possible. When the news of this vast army came to King Ælla’s attention, he summoned as many men as possible, to no avail, he got few. Most of them stayed home enjoying the newly acquired riches and honoured the oath swore to Ivar The Boneless.
As an adviser, Ivar went to King Ælla and told him that he would not aid his brothers in this invasion, honouring his oath, instead, he told him that he would meet and try to persuade them to halt the aggression.
When he faced his siblings, he encouraged them to advance as soon as possible and meet battle at once. The brothers answered that they didn’t need any encouragement, they were as enraged as the first time that they attacked.
When Ivar went back to the King, he told him that the brothers would not listen to his words, they were too eager to fight. He then said that he would fulfil his oath of not taking arms against him, so he and his men would stay still. But the war would come to the King nonetheless.
The brothers advanced enraged, with such fury that anybody had ever seen before. Ivar gave his last counsel to the King, telling him to deploy his forces so they could meet in battle with the Vikings.
It was a bloodbath. Ragnar’s sons were so enraged that they charged right through the King’s ranks, dealing as much damage as they possibly could. King Ælla’s forces were defeated. They turned and fled, but the King was captured.
Ivar was nearby when Ælla was captured, he then advised that they should remember how their father, Ragnar Lothbrok, was tortured by that man. And he ordered a blood eagle to be carved. All his ribs were severed from his backbone and the lungs were pulled out and exposed, thus ending King Ælla’s life, completing Ragnarssons’ vengeance, Ivar’s cunning master-class in strategy and revenge.
It is said that after this, Ivar The Boneless ruled in England until his death, he had no heirs.
The rest of the brothers went back to their land, split Ragnar’s vast kingdom into three so that they would rule over them individually. They would unite forces less often after this, but they kept raiding.
Hvitiserk fell when raiding in the east, he laid his life with great honour.
Sigurd Snake-in-the-eye lost his life when fighting emperor Arnulf.
Many important figures descend from Sigurd: Sigurd Hart and King Harald Fairhair amongst them. From Björn, we find Thorfinn Karlsefni and Snorri Sturlusson as the most prominent and renown descendants.
It’s hard to find other characters of this time as cunning as Ivar the Boneless, as fierce in battle as Björn Ironside or Hvitserk, as great as Sigurd Snake-in-the-eye.
The fact that not only they were contemporary but they were brothers just makes it more epic, because these amazing characters fought side by side during most of their life.
If this wasn’t enough, they were sons of one of the most legendary and mythical Viking of all, Ragnar Lothbrok.
The deeds that these brothers accomplished would have taken many lifetimes for any ordinary man to complete, but they weren’t ordinary.
After reading the sources several times, I realise how great they were, how impossible their feats were. Of course, there was a lot of violence, but that was the world they lived in. We can’t judge them with today’s eyes, we have to understand the socio-cultural reality of that time.
I feel like a mist of myth and legend surrounds the Ragnarssons the same way it surrounds their father. In their story, we find ourselves constantly having to choose between reality and legend, and that’s exactly what hooked me to Ragnar and his family’s stories.
No matter what the truth may have been, Ragnar Lothbrok and his sons sure were the greatest of their time.
- Vifilsborg has been identified as Wiflisburg, the German name for Avenches in Switzerland. ↑
- Hnefatafl, a board game similar to chess. ↑
- In “The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok” it’s said that the town that Ivar founded was London. In “The Tale of Ragnar’s sons” it’s said the town is York. None of these allegations is true, they’re exaggerations to exalt Ivar’s actions. ↑
- The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok (Ragnars saga loðbrókar)
- The Tale of Ragnar’s sons (Ragnarssona þáttr)
- B. Waggoner, 2009, “The Sagas of Ragnar Lodbrok”
- J. Crawford, 2017, “The Saga of the Volsungs with The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok”