(Warning: the following contains potential spoilers for Vikings on the History Channel!)
In Part One of this series, we discussed the descendants of Rollo (here) from the History Channel’s Vikings, and the significant parts they play in my novel The Northern Queen. This month we’ll be looking at the TV series’ main character, Ragnar Lothbrok, and his descendants.
On the show Vikings, Rollo (Clive Standen) and Ragnar (Travis Fimmel) are portrayed as brothers. Historically this is not true and has been added for dramatic effect on the show. Each man comes from a different family with no ties at all.
It’s been difficult determining who the historical Ragnar is; there are many candidates. While scholars agree that Ragnar’s sons existed there is no consensus on Ragnar himself. However, most agree that at least part of Ragnar’s story is based on fact.
The main source is “The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok” and “The Tale of Ragnar’s Sons.” In the sagas Ragnar marries the shieldmaiden Lagertha (played by Katheryn Winnick) as well as the princess Aslaug (Alyssa Sutherland), which the TV show portrays accurately. The show is also accurate about Ragnar’s sons, including Ivar the Boneless, Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye and Bjorn (Alexander Ludwig). (Note: Bjorn was actually the son of Ragnar and Aslaug, not Lagertha).
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“The Tale of Ragnar’s Sons” continues the story. Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye becomes one of the leaders of The Great Heathen Army. Beginning around 865CE (the year of Ragnar’s death), the army invaded England over a period of fourteen years. The sagas tell us that Ragnar was killed by King Aella of Northumbria, who threw the Viking into a pit of serpents.
“The piglets would protest loudly
if the boar’s plight they knew.
Death has been dealt to me,
snakes dig in my flesh-house
and savagely stab me,
serpents suck my life out.
Beside the beasts I’ll die now,
soon I will be a corpse.”
(From “The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok”.)
Ragnar’s sons attacked and avenged their father’s death (note: there are two versions of King Aella’s death: one where he is injured in battle and surrenders, the second where he is captured and blood-eagled by Ragnar’s sons as punishment for their father’s torture.)
Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye married King Aella’s daughter Blaeja (in part one, we saw that taking a woman from your defeated enemy’s court was a common practice) and they had a son, Harthacanute. Harthacanute was more than likely raised in the Danelaw in East Anglia. When he was grown he reconquered Denmark, taking it back from the Swedes, who overran it in the 890s.
We don’t know who Harthacanute married, but his son, Gorm the Old, is credited with being the first king of Denmark. Gorm created the first Jelling Stone (he ruled his kingdom from the town of Jelling) to honour his wife Thyra, who he called ‘Denmark’s Ornament’.)
The early medieval chronicler Adam of Breman suggests that Denmark had been broken up into separate regions prior to Gorm’s rule and that, when he died, he had not united the entire country of Denmark as we now know it.
Grim’s son with Thyra, however, did unite the country. Harald Bluetooth established firm military and economic control over Denmark through an extensive public works program, one of which was erecting and repairing the Jelling Stones. He is famous for converting Denmark to Christianity, bringing it into line with the beliefs and practices of the majority of Western Europe.
(Fun fact: As acknowledgement for Harald’s unification of the country through works and practices, the Bluetooth symbol used in today’s technology is based not only on Harald’s last name but the symbol is made up the rune for H and B – Harald Bluetooth).
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Harald died around 986 and his son Sweyn Forkbeard inherited the Danish throne. But Sweyn had other interests: England. His sister was killed in the St. Brice’s Day massacre in Oxford, England in November 1002 (where King Aethelred ordered anyone of Danish blood killed). Sweyn exacted his revenge over many years with repeated campaigns against England, leading to his eventual conquest of the country.
Sweyn’s rule lasted less than two months. But he had a son, one who had fought beside him: Canute.
(Canute Sweynsson. Image from Wikipedia.)
For more of Canute’s story (and Ragnar’s descendants), read The Northern Queen.