(Warning: the following contains potential spoilers for fans of Vikings on the History Channel)
I enjoy watching the TV show, Vikings, how can anyone not? Ragnar is played so convincingly by Travis Fimmel, that one has to wonder if he stays in character in his down time. Both he and his brother, Rollo, (the easy-on-the-eye Clive Standen) provide endless entertainment to millions of viewers each week.
Ragnar Lothbrok (Lothbrok translates as ‘shaggy pants’) and Rollo are semi-mythical figures; most of what we know of Ragnar is from the Norse stories told in The Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok. Rollo also appears in various sagas. The show gets it mostly right: Ragnar did marry the shieldmaiden Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick). He also married Aslaug (Alyssa Sutherland), and they did have sons, among whom were Ivar the Boneless and Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye. Note: Byorn (Alexander Ludwig) was actually Ragnar and Aslaug’s son.
This much can be determined from the Sagas. But what about Ragnar and Rollo’s descendants? Rollo, we’ve seen in the show, has been told by the Seer he has a great destiny. Is this true? (SPOILER ALERT!)
Rollo was a great warrior and leader in his own right. His descendants live in most of the royal courts across Europe, even today. Rollo commanded his own successful army and eventually became the first ruler of the northern region of France, known as Normandy (roughly ‘the land of the northmen’). Given to him by the King of the Franks, the land was an exchange for protection against further attacks by Norse raiding parties. Rollo married a woman – Poppa of Bayeux – captured while besieging the city of Bayeaux, and they had a son, William.
William, after fighting with various French nobles, finally pledged his loyalty to the King of France, who confirmed William’s right to the lands given to his father. William also married a woman captured during an attack on Breton (a common Viking practice), Sprota.
William I, known as Longsword (Image from Wikipedia)
When William died, the King of France took Normandy back. Through guile and the loyalty and might of his followers, William’s son Richard (known as The Fearless) took on the king and won back his lands. He ruled peacefully, heavily expanding the existing feudal system and creating a Normandy most medieval historians would recognise. Like all good rulers he used his daughters for marriage alliances, increasing his influence throughout Europe.
Richard and his wife Gunnor (who was once part of a rival Viking group) had an enormous family by any standards. Of all his children, the one that concerns us, and who plays a large part in The Northern Queen, is Emma of Normandy. (Note: Emma’s nephew, Robert, was the father of William the Conqueror, making Emma his great-aunt. Fun fact: Queen Elizabeth II can trace her ancestry back to William the Conqueror and thus also Rollo!) As with all of the children, Emma was used as a political tool, married to the King of England as part of peace agreement between Normandy and England. When her husband died, she usurped Aelfgifu, the wife of Canute the Great (a descendant of Ragnar Lothbrok, discussed next month in this series).
The Northern Queen is Aelfgifu’s story.