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Better to Rule Alone: Lagertha
I have a feeling that a lot of you out there are watching History Channel’s Vikings. I’ll bet that many of you were surprised to see Viking women wielding swords and shields alongside their hoary male counterparts. Some of you might have thought that this is just Hollywood taking liberties with its storytelling, but the shieldmaidens—women who actively participated in the defense of their homes and towns and went a-Viking with the men—were real. They lived in a dangerous, bloody time and were encouraged to protect themselves and their households when their husbands and male relatives were gone. Others chose to go with their male kin and seek their own fortunes—like Leif Erikson’s sister Freydis who, while heavily pregnant, stripped off her shirt, grabbed two axes and chased off a band of Native American warriors that had attacked the Vikings’ settlement in Vinland.
The problem with many of the records the Vikings have left us is that they are heavily entwined with mythology, often attributing so many fantastic abilities and events to people that nobody can really tell where the person ends and the legend begins. In fact, we’re not even one hundred percent sure that Lagertha or her famous husband Ragnar Lodbrok actually lived because their stories are so filled with fantasy (flying women! Dragons! Giant dogs!) that they don’t seem real … plus, such as the case of medieval historian and blatant misogynist Saxo Grammaticus, many people add what they want and have no problem with disfiguring a person—especially a woman—in history if they don’t like who or what they are.
So was Lagertha real? Possibly, though I don’t think she could actually fly. Read on, but warned for Vikings fans—here be spoilers!
Lagertha was a member of the household of Norwegian king Siward (father of Princess Alwida, the famous Viking pirate). There is nothing recorded of Lagertha until the day King Frø of Sweden invaded Norway, killed Siward, and forced all of the women of Siward’s house to serve in a brothel.
It wasn’t long until Siward’s grandson, Ragnar Lothbrok heard of what happened to the king and his family and, in a rage, led a retaliatory attack on King Frø. Freed from their enslavement in the brothel, the Norwegian women quickly dressed in men’s clothes and armor and joined Ragnar in ousting the invaders. The women were led by Lagertha, who was such a ferocious fighter that she soon led them to victory. The twelfth-century historian Saxo Grammaticus wrote that Lagertha, “though a maiden, had the courage of a man, and fought in front among the bravest ... All-marveled at her matchless deeds, for her locks flying down her back betrayed that she was a woman.”
Ragnar was fascinated by Lagertha and decided to court her … provided he could get past her fearsome hound and pet bear first. After killing the bear with his spear and choking the giant dog to death, Ragnar finally wins Lagertha’s love. They marry, and Saxo Grammaticus notes that they had a son named Fridlief, and two daughters … whose names he naturally doesn’t bother to mention.
Some time afterwards, an uprising began in Denmark, and Ragnar had to rush back with his men to quell it. There, the heroic and oh so loyal Viking leader met and fell in love with Thora Town-Hart, a princess who owned a poisonous lindworm (dragon). The dragon guarded Thora until the day her one true love would slay it and free her—that’d be Ragnar. Of course, Ragnar was still married to Lagertha and needed a reason to divorce her. According to the legend, Ragnar returned to Norway to tell Lagertha that he was divorcing her because he was unhappy that she sicced the bear and dog on him all those years ago. That’s all.
While Saxo doesn’t give enough of a damn to record how Lagertha reacted, I’m sure she didn’t take it well and they divorced, with Ragnar returning to Denmark and a powerful and bitter Lagertha retaining control in Norway. Ragnar settled down with Thora (who after giving birth to two sons eventually died of illness, prompting Ragnar to marry the warrior queen Aslaug), but in short order was soon faced with another, much bigger civil war. The war was so big and he was so badly outnumbered that he was forced to call for help—from Lagertha.
Apparently still carrying a torch for her ex-husband, Lagertha led her fleet to Denmark, where she routed Ragnar’s enemies and led a rear counterattack (though Saxo insisted that she actually flew around behind her enemies) that wiped out the uprising. Ragnar was grateful for her assistance yet again and accompanied her back to Norway. Shortly after arriving there, Lagertha and Ragnar became embroiled in a vicious argument and, in a rage, Lagertha drew out a spearhead she had hidden in her gown and stabbed Ragnar. According to Saxo, she did so because, “it would be better to rule alone than with a husband.”
And that’s all he wrote.
Lagertha works referenced:
The Encyclopedia of Amazons, Jessica Salmonson 1992
Women Warriors, David E. Jones, 1997
Ragnar Lothbrok: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ragnar_Lodbrok
King Siward: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synardus
Thora Town-Hart: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thora_Town-Hart