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Historical Basis of History's "Vikings" Characters

Updated on January 14, 2015
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Ragnar Lodbrok

A legendary hero of the Norse sagas, there is contention as to whether Ragnar Lodbrok actually existed. According to the stories, he was a great ruler who terrorized England and France. He became a legendary figure among the Norse for his many successful raids and conquests, and his story is told in several Icelandic chronicles including Lodbrokar (the Tale of Ragnar Lodbrok) and Krakumal (the Lay of Kraka), which is a poem of Ragnar recounting his many heroic deeds as he died.

The Norse sagas say that he had three wives, including Lagertha the Shieldmaiden, a noblewoman named Thora, and Aslaug. He had many famed sons, including Ivar the Boneless, who is widely considered the primary leader of the Great Heathen Army that invaded England and established the Danelaw.

He met his eventual demise when his nemesis King Ælla of Northumbria, captured and cast him into a pit of snakes.

The Blood Eagle

Occasionally noted in the Sagas, the blood eagle was a singularly gruesome form of torture employed by the Norse. It entailed breaking the ribs at the back and forcibly spreading them (to resemble wings), then pulling the victims' lungs out through the open wounds.

Ælla of Northumbria

King of Northumbria from 862, very little is known about the man, his rule, or his lineage. He is, however, a pivotal character in the story of the Vikings thanks to his battles against the Great Heathen Army.

Sources are limited, but the depiction of Ælla in the Ragnarssona þáttr is likely the most thorough. After the execution of Ragnar Lodbrok during the retaking of York, but the sons of Ragnar returned in 866 and captured the Northumbrian King, subjecting him to the blood eagle.

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Lagertha

Recorded by the 12th Century historian Saxo, Lagertha was said to have fought alongside the bravest men in battle with her hair loose about her shoulders. Her story began with the death of King Siward of Norway at the hands of Frø, a Swedish King. Frø had the women of Siwards family put in a brothel in order to humiliate them. Upon finding out, Ragnar Lodbrok gathered an army to avenge these crimes and many of the abused women joined his cause, dressed as men. Lagertha was chief among them.

Ragnar, when he arrived at her home, was attacked by a bear and hound who served as guards for Lagertha, but killed them and won her hand in marriage by the act.


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Rollo

Rollo was a Viking leader who founded what would eventually be known as Normandy. He converted to Christianity in 911 and granted land by King Charles under the Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte. While Rollo held up his end of the treaty with Charles, he continued raids elsewhere until Robert I usurped Charles' throne. He retained his fief in Normandy until passing it on to his son in or around 927. He earned the nickname "The Walker" because it is alleged that he was so large, no horse could carry him.

William the Conqueror is a descendant of Rollo, and by that bloodline he is an ancestor of the modern British royal family.

Depiction of Aslaug
Depiction of Aslaug | Source

Aslaug

The daughter of Sigurd and Brynhildr, Aslaug was raised by a foster father until discovered by a peasant husband and wife in Norway. Renaming her Kraka (Crow) and clothing her in a hood and covering her in tar to conceal her noble birth, they raised the girl as their own until her discovery by Ragnar Lodbrok's men.

Ragnar wished to meet her, and to test her wit requested that she arrive for the meeting neither clothed or unclothed, neither hungry nor full, and neither alone nor in company. She met with Ragnar dressed in a net, biting on an onion, with a dog as company. Impressed, Ragnar proposed to her and the two were married after Ragnar concluded his business in Norway. Their sons would come to be the leaders of the Great Heathen Army.

The stories suggest that Aslaug warned Ragnar before his ill-fated journey to England that his fleet was in poor condition, but he set out anyway and in turn fell at the hands of King Ælla of Northumbria.

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Note from the Author

More will be added as time permits. I am intentionally excluding anything I can't be certain of as a basis for the character for the sake of keeping things somewhat relevant. If you have any specific characters that you would like to see, leave a comment below.

I hope you enjoyed reading, and as always feel free to track me down on Facebook, or visit my home page for more about real Vikings, not the ones with horns on their hats.

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    • JG11Bravo profile image
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      JG11Bravo 4 years ago

      Glad you enjoyed it.

    • Judi Bee profile image

      Judith Hancock 4 years ago from UK

      I've not read any Viking sagas - this was a great introduction to the sagas and the historical characters behind them.