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Danelaw Years - 1: Legendary 'Leather Breeks' - Ragnar Lothbrok*, Viking Leader Above Others

Updated on January 20, 2019
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Alan has an abiding interest in the often misunderstood early mediaeval history of Scandinavia, northern and north-western Europe.

The sight of sails on the horizon filled men with fear...

The popular image of Ragnar Lothbrok - 'Leather Breeks', nowadays Ladbroke
The popular image of Ragnar Lothbrok - 'Leather Breeks', nowadays Ladbroke | Source
Siege of Paris, AD845 - next time the Frankish king paid Ragnar not to sack his city
Siege of Paris, AD845 - next time the Frankish king paid Ragnar not to sack his city | Source

Hail Lords, Ladies. The skald speaks...

'Seat yourselves by the hearth and listen to what I have for you. Hold out your cups to be filled by the ale wives or wenches, and warm yourselves by the hearth. You have fed well, I trust? Let the smaller children play amongst themselves, they will one day sit with you to listen when they are of an age to listen. Now they are restive, bored easily. Some, the elder ones amongst them will listen. I have much to tell you in a short time, so heed my words. It will be long before I pass this way again...'

Sigurd 'Ring' , Danish king of old was blessed with a son. Ragnar did not disappoint, far from it!

Noble ring-giver, he was the bane of Frankia and the lands of the Angles, Saxons and Gaels. A seeker of renown, he was once king of both the Danes and the Svear, and swore he was begotten by no less than the Allfather. A ladies' man, he shared the pillows of Lathgerda, Thora and Aslaug. Thora he came to love whilst still betrothed to Lathgerda, and Aslaug worshipped the earth he walked on!

Men say he needed to outdare his sons so as not to be cast into the darkness in the glare of their bravery, and forgotten through their deeds. The noteworthy Bjorn 'Ironside', Ivar 'the Boneless' and Halvdan might one day make his deeds seem commonplace! Ubbi was a Viking leader of uncommon skill with the axe. Sigurd 'Snake-Eye' was a crafty fellow who knew how to use the weaknesses of his enemies so that they betrayed themselves.

Ivar instilled fear in his foes, and used their gold to reward his followers. Those who wore his armrings knew the warmth of his friendship. Those who stood in his way fell soon enough. How long they dithered made the lives of their underlings unbearable, but each city always gave way under the fierceness of his attack! Paris, for one, bowed to the tune of three score and ten thousand pounds of silver, spared from burning by a wiser king of Frankia.

To win his second woman, the fair Thora, Ragnar rode to the kingdom of the Svear to rid them of a plague of snakes, wearing the coarse, hairy breeks that earned Ragnar Sigurdsson his nickname. He went on to raid in Frankia at the time of Karl 'the Bald' and battled against his own chieftains. It was in Northumbria when Ragnar was left in the lurch by the fickle Lady Luck. He was held prisoner by King Aella and thrown into a pit of vipers by the Anglian king of Bernicia in a bid to make a fool of him,

'I hear you rid the Svear king of a plague of snakes, Ragnar', Aella was so beside himself with glee at catching the Viking leader he snorted. All Ragnar could do was nod and wink,

'It was after all for the hand of a fair Svear princess'.

'We shall see how you fare with my snakes', Aella waved to his men, who pushed Ragnar forward so that he fell amid the coiling creatures and was filled with their venom.

I shall give you more than the bare bones of his life now. His life was that of a raider, his men falling on one kingdom after another. A favoured tactic was to raid on Church feast days, knowing many of the kings' men-at-arms would be at prayer. Taking payment for leaving noble and king in peace, he would show up not long afterward and demand more silver to mark his leaving. However he was a skilled leader. Before the century was half over he was a mighty man, always searching the horizon to keep his men faithful rather than follow his sons in their ventures.

In the year 845, with six score ships and five thousand warriors Ragnar landed in Frankia, near the mouth of the Seine, ravaging Western Frankia. Rouen fell. Carolivenna, twenty miles from Saint Denis was attacked next in search of silver. Paris fell in the fore-year. King Karl 'the Bald', grandson of the greater king Karl paid Ragnar a king's ransom not to sack Paris.

'Very well, but seven thousand pounds of silver is the least I can take. You see my men are the best, and to pay them costs me a whole shipful of silver! You understand what worries me? Do I risk them leaving me for my sons to make you happy? It is as well you are a far-sighted man', Ragnar argued, and was given what he demanded. However, having saved Paris from ruin, it did not mean Karl's other boroughs were left untouched. The Franks were a long time ridding themselves of Ragnar. His sons raided Frankia after him, burning their way across the Western Kingdom. One day some of them would settle in the north-west, where 'Ganger' Hrolf carved out his own corner as jarl of the Northmen at the mouth of the Seine.

It was in Northumbria, however, that Ragnar met his maker. He was shipwrecked in a fog off the coast of Aella's kingdom, captured and handed over to the king. The sagas tell us that Aella had the Viking thrown to the vipers he kept in the deepest of his dungeons. As the serpents sank their teeth into his flesh he laughed,

'How my little hogs would grunt if they knew of the old boar's death agony!' This was a hint to Aella, of his fate when Ragnar's sons caught up with him. He added, 'It gladdens me to know Baldur's father gets ready the benches for a feast. Soon we will drain the carved ale horns. The champion who comes from Odin's hall does not bewail his death. I shall not enter the feasting hall with words of dread, the Aesir will welcome me. Death comes without fear, eager as I am to leave this world. The Disir call me home, those sent for me by the Allfather from the halls of the lord of hosts. Glad shall i be to down ale in the high seat with the Aesir. The days of my being on this earth are over, and I laugh to welcome the Valkyries!'

Some will say he befriended King Eadmund of the East Angles, and that he was slain by one of Eadmund's close followers. The killer is said to have fled to Denmark and blamed Eadmund for Ragnar's dismal end. But we know this to be untrue. Aella was the culprit, who would meet his terrible end at the hands of Ragnar's offspring, his 'little hogs'.

When his sons heard how he died they howled in their sorrow. Hvitserk, playing Hnefatafl when he heard, gripped the king-figure so tightly he bled from his fingernails. Bjorn grabbed a spear so tightly his fingerprints were left on it. Sigurd 'Snake-Eye', trimming his finger nails at the time, sheared through to the bone in his grief. Ivar and Ubbi were at sea when the tidings reached Danish shores, and on landing swore revenge in time-honoured fashion. In the year 866 the Great Army crossed the western sea. With Jorvik sacked, Aella, summoned to meet Ivar and Ubbi on the field of slaughter was captured trying to flee. His death followed the rite of the 'Blod Erne', the blood eagle, where his ribs were pulled through his skin, the fibre cut that linked his ribs to his spine. His death spasms were witnessed by his followers, who had cheered at Ragnar's death a year before, but they were spared to let others know the fate they would meet should they cross the Danish king's fledglings.

The army sailed south along the coast of Lindsey to the kingdom of the East Angles, raiding the monasteries of Bardney, Croyland and Burh where they took the lives of eighty wretches who spurned their god, choosing not to fight to keep their treasures. King Eadmund fled to his church at Bury after being defeated in a hard fight put up by his doughty followers.

'Tell me', Ivar asked Eadmund, 'how is it that you, the king should wish to keep his life when the men asked to fight on your behalf are left sprawled out dead?'

Eadmund could, or would say nothing on his own behalf. Ubbi spoke next,

'My Lord King, I have heard that in death a Christian sprouts wings and rises to meet his god. Is this true?'

Eadmund merely nodded, dismayed at his own lack of spirit. One of the monks tried to go to him, but was held back.

'Your underlings are very loyal to you', Ivar noted drily. 'Do you think you have earned their loyalty? I for one do not. Do you believe you will still rise to meet your god if you have dishonoured him so?'

There was no answer this time, either. Ivar ordered Eadmund to be tied to one of the posts and his men loosed off their arrows at him.

'I cannot see your god wants him; your king is still here', Ubbi told one of the monks, shook his head and pointed to the dead Eadmund, hanging on his bindings, head bowed. Light from one of the small windows caught Ubbi's axe blade as Eadmund's severed head rolled across the church floor. Ubbi nodded toward it and let one of the monks raise the severed head, telling him, 'Do with it what you wish'.

The next to feel the wrath of the Danes were the kings of Wessex. One by one they fell, first Aelfred's father Aethelwulf and one by one in turn his brothers Aethelbald, and Aethelberht fell in battle. Aethelred I was mortally wounded and it was the lot of Aelfred to take the reins. Not only Ragnar's sons but another hopeful chieftain loomed on the horizon. Guthrum, self-styled Danish king of East Anglia attacked Aelfred celebrating Christmas at his winter quarters and chased the young king of Wessex into Somerset. Only after years of struggle and the eventual defeat and conversion of Guthrum was Aelfred allowed to sit back and take stock of his kingdom, having also defeated two of Ragnar's sons in battle.

*It has been said of the poet Bragi Boddason that he put together the Ragnarsdrapa for Bjorn, the Svear king at Hauge. This lay does not tally with facts we know of Ragnar. In the Norse sagas he was linked with a Svear king Ragnar (770-785), son of Sigurd 'Ring'. In legend he wedded Aslaug and became son-in-law to Sigurd 'the Volsung'.

Guided by the belief that they would live into the hereafter, to feast with the Allfather after each day's fighting... until Ragnaroek

Mjoelnir pendant - every warrior would have one of these hanging from a chain or cord around his neck, to thumb in times of need.
Mjoelnir pendant - every warrior would have one of these hanging from a chain or cord around his neck, to thumb in times of need. | Source

Ragnar and the aftermath - formation of the sub-kingdoms and partition of Mercia along Watling Street

Would Ragnar have looked like this? I wouldn't want to find out the hard way
Would Ragnar have looked like this? I wouldn't want to find out the hard way | Source
Distribution of Danish 'settlers' in the eastern shires between the River Lea (that enters the Thames on the esstern side of London) and the River Tees. This was the Danelaw
Distribution of Danish 'settlers' in the eastern shires between the River Lea (that enters the Thames on the esstern side of London) and the River Tees. This was the Danelaw
Name distribution, roughly in the same region, of families whose surnames reflected their Scandinavian origins
Name distribution, roughly in the same region, of families whose surnames reflected their Scandinavian origins

Follow Ragnar across Njord's iron-grey fastness, watch the mare's tails dance astern where his steersman guides his ship along the Frankish coast, up the Seine, the Loire... through skerries off the coast of Northumbria until one day his ship comes to grief on rocks hidden by the swirling waters off Bamburgh. King Aella of Bernicia thought he had achieved the unbelievable, only to fall foul of Ragnar's sons and suffer the unfathomable.

Norse expansion across Europe from the late 8th Century

The bigger picture: Viking expansion and voyages around Europe and Middle Sea (Mediterranean)
The bigger picture: Viking expansion and voyages around Europe and Middle Sea (Mediterranean) | Source

*'Lothbrok' is the original version of the modern name 'Ladbroke', the name of the chain of turf accountants in Britain's high streets

Do you know of any British surnames that owe their origin to Scandinavian influx? If your ancestors came from, say, Cumbria, western Wales, northern Scotland (Caithness, Sutherland, Lewis, Orkney, Shetland), Isle of Man, East Anglia, Lincolnshire and East Midlands and Yorkshire, the chances are you may have a Norse-derived name. I remember meeting Sidney Weighell a long time ago in the 1980s. He wrote a couple of books after leaving the General Secretary's office of the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR as was), one of which was 'A Hundred Years of Railway Weighells' (the name is pronounced as 'wheel'). He gives the origin of his family name as 'Vigell', having visited Norway and sourced the family name. Swansea and Milford Haven in Wales were Norse hangouts, handy as they were for rading on ireland and other parts of Britain. There is also Sigevard, a Danish name which became Sigeweard or Siward (ref. the earl known in 'Macbeth' as 'Siward the Dane', Earl of Northumbria) and later Seward. There is a book available titled 'A Guide to Late Anglo-Saxon England from Aelfred to Eadgar - 871-1074 AD' by Donald Henson, publ. Anglo-Saxon Books 1998, reprinted 2002, ISBN 1-898281-21-1. On pages 45-47 is a section subtitled 'The Formation of Names', and 'Survival of Names' which gives us the origins of first and surnames with their modern equivalents. Beorn comes down to us as 'Barne', 'Healfdene' (Halfdan/Halvdan) is 'Haldane' and 'Oslac' becomes 'Haslock'. Look for yourself, you may find your own there, and there are many more besides that you could find in an onomastics study at the British Library.

Next: 2 Njord's Path of Silver

The kingdom of the Danes in the early middle ages

Viking Age kingdom of Denmark - the kingdom began to grow from Godred's time, at the time the Frankish empire grew under Charlemagne
Viking Age kingdom of Denmark - the kingdom began to grow from Godred's time, at the time the Frankish empire grew under Charlemagne | Source

Next - 2: Njord's Path of Silver


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