The Real Ragnar Lothbrok in History by Henry Wheaton 1831
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The remarkable story of this famous adventurer has been so disfigured by conflicting traditions and poetic and romantic fictions, as to exercise all the skill of the historical critics of the North to reconcile its chronology and other circumstances with the accounts given in the Frankish and Anglo-Saxon annals. One thing is certain, that the Ragnar Lodbrok who reigned in Denmark and Sweden in the latter part of the eighth century, could not have been the same chieftain who invaded France and England about the middle of the ninth, and whose sons were the pupils and companions of the celebrated adventurer Hastings. The termination of the reign of Ragnar Lodbrok, son of Sigurdr Ring, cannot be placed later than 794, according to the chronology of Suhm, or 838, according to the Icelandic annals; whilst on the other hand, the death of the Ragnar who invaded Northumbria, and was slain by the Anglo-Saxon king Ella, cannot be carried back further than 862, the year that prince usurped the Northumbrian crown. The resolution of this intricate problem of Northern history, by supposing two adventurers of the same name, seems hardly reconcilable with the Sagas and other ancient Icelandic writings, which speak of one only, and constantly assert the Ragnar Lodbrok who perished in England to be the father of Bjorn Iarnsida, who succeeded him in Sweden, and Sigurd Snogoje who reigned in Scania and Zealand. But it is probable that the chieftain whose exploits have been confounded with those of the more ancient Ragnar, was a prince of Jutland, whose real name was Reginfred, or Ragenfred, and who, having been expelled from his dominions during the reign of Harald Klak, became a sea-king, and subsequently invaded France during the reign of Louis-le-Debonnaire.
However this may be, all the original documents, both national and foreign, agree in the main circumstances of the invasion of Northumbria by Ragnar Lodbrok, and of his cruel death, which was afterwards so savagely avenged by his sons or kindred. The English chronicles relate that in 793, the monastery of St Cuthbert in the isle of Lindisfarn, on the coast of Northumbria, near the Scottish border, was plundered by a band of Pagan adventurers from Norway and Denmark; and that in the following year a fleet of Vikingar was wrecked on the same coast, and the prince by whom it was commanded taken prisoner and put to death in a cruel manner by the natives. The famous lay called the Lodbrokar-Quida or Biarka-mal, the death song of Ragnar Lodbrok, relates his ravaging the coast of Scotland, and his battle with three kings of Erin at Lindis-Eiri. But king Ella began to reign in Northumberland seventy years afterwards, and it would seem that this apparent anachronism can only be reconciled by the supposition that the Ella spoken of in the Icelandic Sagas was some other Saxon prince of that name, all those of the blood royal being called kings by the Saxons, and Ella being a name so general, that the Skalds familiarly term Englishmen in general, the race of Ella, Ello-kind.
We are told in the Sagas, that Ragnar ruled his realms in peace, ignorant, as well as his queen Aslauga, in what regions his sons then were. But the rumours of their exploits reached his ear, his jealousy was excited, and he determined to set forth an expedition that should rival their fame. For this purpose he ordered two vessels of immense size to be built, such as had never before been seen in the North. In the mean time, 'the arrow,' the signal of war, being sent through all his kingdom, summoned his Champions to arms, and his fleet was soon equipped and filled with warriors. With this apparently inadequate force, he set sail, contrary to the advice of Aslauga, to attack that part of England which had formerly been the scene of the exploits of his predecessors, Ivar Vidfadme, Harald Hildetand, and Sigurdr Ring. The expedition was driven back again to port by a tempest, when the queen repeated her warning, and accompanied it with the gift of a magical garment, to ward off danger. Ragnar again put to sea, and was at last shipwrecked on the English coast. In this emergency his courage did not desert him, but he pushed forward with his small band to ravage and plunder. Ella collected his forces to repel the invader. Ragnar, clothed with the enchanted garment he had received from his beloved Aslauga, and armed with the spear with which he had slain the guardian serpent of Thora, four times pierced the Saxon ranks, dealing death on every side, whilst his own body was invulnerable to the blows of his enemies. His friends and Champions fell one by one around him, and he was at last taken prisoner alive. Being asked who he was, he preserved an indignant silence. Then king Ella said:—"If this man will not speak, he shall endure so much the heavier punishment for his obduracy and contempt." So he ordered him to be thrown into the dungeon full of serpents, where he should remain till he told his name. Ragnar, being thrown into the dungeon, sat there a long time before the serpents attacked him; which being noticed by the spectators, they said he must be a brave man indeed whom neither arms nor vipers could hurt. Ella, hearing this, ordered his enchanted vest to by stripped off, and, soon afterwards, the serpents clung to him on all sides. Then Ragnar said, "how the young cubs would roar if
they knew what the old boar suffers," and expired with a laugh of defiance.
The Northern Skalds, not satisfied with this sufficiently romantic account of the fate of Ragnar Lodbrok, have put into his mouth an heroic lay, or death-song, which they suppose him to have composed and sung in this dreadful prison. The first twenty-three strophes of this song, the whole of which has reached our times, probably constituted the war-song of Ragnar and his followers. It gives an account of his sea-roving expeditions and exploits in various lands. The remaining strophes were probably added after the death of the king, and may have been composed, as some assert, by his queen Aslauga, or Kraka, or else by some of the Contemporary or later Skalds. They express, in the strongest manner, the feelings by which the Northern warrior was notoriously actuated, and some of the expressions are substantially the same which history attributes to Ragnar on this occasion, the style only being more poetical.
The last strophe of this lay may be rendered as follows:—
'Cease my strain! I hear Them call
Who bid me hence to Odin's hall!
High seated in their blest abodes
I soon shall quaff the drink of Gods.
The hours of Life have glided by—
I fall! but laughing will I die!
The hours of Life have glided by—
I fall! but laughing will I die! !*
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