Fact and Fiction
What is undoubtedly true is, soon after Ragnar supposedly died in the snake pit, the first serious waves of Viking invasions swept across Saxon England. In 865 AD, the Anglo Saxon chronicle describes how the Great Heathen army swept across the north of England. The leaders of the army, which was composed of warriors from Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, led their men to secure Northumbria for the Norsemen. Then in 867 AD, they moved onto York. The Vikings killed King Aella and King Osbertht.
This invasion sounds like the vengeance that Ragnar Lothbrok foretold; a vast army sent out to avenge the death of their greatest leader, killing the man responsible for Ragnar’s death and conquering new lands for the Vikings in the process. However, while the surface facts fit the legend, actual history does not support the idea of the Great Viking invasion as anything to do with Ragnor Lothbrok. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle that records the events of 865AD and beyond does not mention his name. However, what the Chronicle does mention is the names of some of the leaders of the Great Heathen Army. Two of them are particularly significant: Ubbe and Ivar.
We know that Ubbe and Ivar, like Bjorn Ironside, were real historical figures- not just from the Anglo Saxon Chronicle but from other sources. Their names come up time and again as leaders of Viking forces that tormented France, Ireland, and England in the second half of the ninth century. Ivar became the ruler of a Viking kingdom that stretched from Dublin to York. He died in battle in 873. Ubbe meanwhile seems to have outlived him. He died in Devon in 878. Bjorn Ironside is known to have raided along the River Seine between 857- 859 and is credited as a great explorer. Yet there is no historical evidence to suggest that any of these men were the son’s of Ragnar Lothbrok, let alone brothers.
In fact, the connection between Ragnar and his so-called âsons’ seems to postdate the ninth century by at least a century. In 1070 a Norman historian called William of Jumieges named a Danish King called Lothbrok as Bjorn’s father. Not long afterwards, the chronicler Adam of Bremen identified Ivar as a man called Ragnar’s son. Finally, in the twelfth century, an Icelandic scholar Ari Porgilsson climbed on the bandwagon. It was he who linked the names “Ragnar” and “Lothbrok” to create one person, so forming the basis for legends of Ragnar Lothbrok. Such a character could not have been the father of Ivar, Ubbe or Bjorn. However, there is the possibility that, like his name, Ragnar Lothbrok could be a composite figure based on actual people.