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Who Was Ivar The Boneless - A Ruthless Invader Of England?

Through countless Viking stories, we could hear about many leaders of these fearless warriors. The stories talked about them as people with strong moral codes, legendary strength, and passion for war.

Some of the most famous Viking leaders did not practice democracy. They were made for war. They fought and died for what they believed in.

Ivar the Boneless was one of them. As the son of the legendary Viking Ragnar Lodbrook and the leader of the Great Heathen Army (the name of the army comes from the Anglo-Saxon chronicle), Ivar the Boneless was one of the most notorious Viking warriors in history.

He is portrayed as a bloodthirsty warrior longing for power. But what was his life really like? What were Ivar's family ties like, and why was he called "the Boneless"?

Stay tuned as we're going to answer all of these questions below.

Was Ivar the Boneless a Real Viking?

Let's start with one of the most important dilemmas of the Viking Age - was Ivar real?

The identity of Ivar the Boneless is shrouded in mystery. Many theories try to explain his origin. Some think he was a Viking, while others say he was Irish or Slavic. There is also a theory that Ivar was actually a Danish prince.

Furthermore, there are several theories about how Ivar the Boneless got his nickname. However, we would say that the one that connects his nickname with the brittle bone disease he had is the most accurate.

So, was Ivar real?

If you ask us, one of the most famous Vikings must have been real, and therefore we'll continue this article with that conviction - Ivar the Boneless was a true Viking.

Who Was Ivar the Boneless (Ivar Ragnarsson)?

Ivar the Boneless was a 9th-century Viking leader. Despite the handicap he had, Ivar was one of the most feared Vikings of all time. Under his leadership, the Vikings began an era of domination over Great Britain, which lasted even after his death.

Boneless Ivar was trained to be a warrior from an early age, so it can be said that he dedicated his entire life to wars.

Ivar entered historical records when, together with his brothers Halfdan and Ubbe, he attacked and conquered East Anglia at the head of the Great Heathen Army (865).

After a successful invasion of East Anglia, Ivar invaded the kingdom of Northumbria in 866 and conquered it's capital York (then known as Jorvik).

Furthermore, the sources say that Ivar left control over the conquered territories to his brothers and left England. However, there is no exact information about where he went. It is known that Ivar dominated the Irish Sea around the 850s and that together with King Olaf the White, he took part in several battles in this area. Therefore, it is unknown whether he returned from England to Scandinavia or went to Dublin to pillage the seas with Olaf the White.

Although Ivar the Boneless entered historical records thanks to his prominent role in the Viking Wars, his name is most often mentioned in sagas about Ragnar. The most notable among them is the Icelandic saga of Ragnar Lothbrook, written in the 13th century.

The Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok and the Origin of Ivar The Boneless

A page from the Ragnar Lodbrok saga

The saga begins by describing the childhood of Aslaug (Ivar's mother). According to the legend, Aslaug was the daughter of Sigurd and Brynhildr (the famous shieldmaiden), who passed away when she was only three years old. She grew up in a poor Norwegian family that, to hide her origin, gave her the name Kráka (crow).

During a raid in Norway, Ragnar Lodbrok meets Aslaug and decides to marry her despite her poverty. As a result, they had four sons: Ivar The Boneless, Hvitserk, Sigurd Snake-in-the-eye, and Ubba.

Before marrying Aslaug, Ragnar had two marriages. The first marriage was with the shieldmaiden Lagertha, with whom he had a son, Björn Ironside. The second Ragnar's marriage was with the noblewoman Tora Borgahjortr, with whom he had two sons, Eirik and Agnar.

Although all of Ragnar's sons grew into brave warriors, Ivar, according to the legends, was the bravest of them all. For that reason, Ivar the Boneless led his brothers on the battlefield, showing a great talent for strategic planning and tactics.

This saga also describes the reason why Ivar was born with a lack of bones. According to the legend, Ivar's handicap is the result of a curse. As Ivar's mother Aslaug was a vǫlva (according to Nordic mythology, the vǫlva was a female shaman), she cast a curse on herself.

She prophesied that she and Ragnar had to wait three nights before consuming the marriage after returning from a campaign in England. Otherwise, the child that is conceived will be born without bones.

Since Ivar's father Ragnar could not restrain himself, although she warned him of the curse, Ivar was born boneless. The saga mentions that Ivar had cartilage where the bone was supposed to be. Whether that was really the case, we cannot know. However, the fact that someone with such a severe physical disability has become one of the most famous Vikings seems really inspiring.

For that reason, it's understandable that many historians have written about him in their works. One of the records in which Ivar is described in detail is the work "Gesta Danorum," about which we will write in more detail below.

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Ivar Ragnarsson and His Brothers (The story of Ragnar's Sons)

Ivar and his brothers, more precisely their joint conquests and revenge campaigns, are described in the old Norse legend "The Story of Ragnarsson's Sons" (Ragnarssona þáttr), written in the late 13th century or early 14th century.

This saga is also an Icelandic work, according to which Ivar the Boneless and his brothers went on a conquest against the will of their father, Ragnar.

Ragnar did not like the disobedience of his sons, so he appointed Eysteinn Beli as King of Scotland, asking him to defend the country from his sons with all his might. However, in an attempt to occupy the territory of Scotland, Ivar's half-brothers Eirik and Agnar are killed.

Upon learning of the brothers' death, Ivar the Boneless and Ragnar's other sons, together with their mother Aslaug, attacked Scotland. In this attack, King Eysteinn White was defeated and killed.

Ragnar Lothbrok, according to the legend, sails to England with only two ships after this event, wanting to show his superiority over his sons. However, Ragnar is captured by King Ælla of Northumbria. Ælla throws him into a snake pit, and just like that, Ragnar dies in 865.

Upon hearing about their father's murder, Ivar and his brothers gathered an army and immediately sailed to England to take revenge. At that time, England was divided into seven smaller kingdoms known collectively as the "Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy." Ivar's goal was to conquer all kingdoms and kill their kings.

He gathered an army that is today known as the "Great Heathen Army." However, when they arrived in England, Ivar allegedly changed his mind and refused to fight.

It turned out that this was only part of a well-thought-out plan to gain the trust of King Ælla. And indeed, when King Ælla saw that Ivar the Boneless did not want to fight against him, he agreed to give him the land to make up for his father's death.

After Ivar got the land he wanted and made new friends, he called on the brothers for the final act of revenge. They captured Ælla, tortured him, and eventually killed him. 

According to the saga, Ælla was killed by a ritual method of torture, better known as the "blood eagle." The "blood eagle" involved cutting the victim's ribs along the spine and pulling the lungs out through the hole, forming a pair of "wings."

After Ælla's death, Ivar the Boneless remained king in England for a long time, ruling from York. More precisely, the legend says that England was his home until his death.

The Great Heathen Army

Great Heathen Army

Ragnar's death was a crucial moment in Ivar's life, which turned him into the cruelest Viking leader. This event led Ivar to gather numerous warriors and lead them to war to avenge his father's murder. As we've already mentioned, the army he gathered became known as the Great Heathen Army. Under his command, the army plundered and ravaged Great Britain for years.

After conquering Northumbria and killing King Ælla, he set out to conquer other English kingdoms. The most challenging target for Ivar and his army was the kingdom of Mercia. The Viking attacks on this kingdom lasted for more than a year, and in the end, Mercia was conquered.

The Vikings had the tactic of creating a truce with the English rulers and then suddenly breaking the truce and attacking. Jane Kershaw (Oxford University) said that the Vikings had an element of surprise in their attacks that the Anglo-Saxons could not have foreseen and prevented. Also, Jane said that the Vikings were extremely fast thanks to their longships and that their army easily penetrated the interior of Great Britain.

By 880, all the kingdoms of England were under Viking rule except the Kingdom of Wessex.

Ivar in the Saga “Gesta Danorum”

It is believed that this work was written at the beginning of the 13th century and that it presents characters and events that were not mentioned in other sources. Saxo Grammaticus tried to unite several versions of stories about Ragnar and his sons in this part.

Two of Ragnar's wives appear for the first time in this saga, shieldmaiden Lagertha and a woman named Swanloga, while Aslaug is not mentioned at all. It's worth mentioning that Saxo does not describe Ivar the Boneless as a man without bones in this saga.

In "Gesta Danorum," Ivar is simply described as a wise warrior in whom Ragnar had great confidence.

The Death of Ivar the Boneless

There are different theories concerning Ivar's death. For example, the Anglo-Saxon chronicler Æthelweard wrote that Ivar the Boneless died in 870, while according to Irish reports, his death occurred in 873.

As for the place of his death, historians believe that Ivar died in Repton city (Derbyshire). The reason for that is the tomb found in 1686 on a farm in the town. 

Over 250 partial human skeletons were discovered around the tomb, which is why historians concluded that the man buried in the tomb had a very high social status. Therefore, most of them believe that this person is Ivar the Boneless.

An analysis of the bones of the deceased warrior determined that his death was brutal. There were two spear wounds on his skull, and the marks on his spine indicate a brutal butchery. Also, his genitals were cut off and replaced with a boar's tusk. Therefore, it's believed that his death was also an act of revenge.

A Final Words About Ivar the Boneless

Regardless of the extent to which the legends about Ivar are true, its significance in Viking history is indisputable. The strength and shrewdness he showed in battles terrified his enemies and turned him into the most famous conqueror of the Viking era.

For this very reason, it's often stated that his enemies described him as a bloodthirsty monster.

Whether Ivar was really so cruel and insensitive or just a brave warrior who fights for his beliefs remains to be guessed.

In any case, he left a mark in history, and his name will always be mentioned when it comes to Viking conquests.

Until our next meeting,

Skåll!

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