The Real Ragnar Lothbrok
Aside from the mysterious King Lothbrok who may or may not have been the father of Bjorn Ironside, there are a couple of real historical characters who could have formed the basis of Ragnar Lothbrok. The first is a Danish Viking called Reginheri or Ragnall. Like Ivar, Ubbe and Bjorn, Reginheri was active during the ninth century. A subordinate chieftain of King Horik, in March 845AD, he led 120 ships carrying 5000 warriors up the River Seine to besiege the city of Paris- just like the legendary Ragnar Lothbrok.
Despite having sacked the city of Rouen on their way to Paris, the Vikings were fighting fit. The Annals of Xanten describe the raid as vicious and uncompromising. For two days the Vikings held Paris under siege before the city capitulated. The Vikings had captured 111 men from the city garrison. Instead of keeping them as hostages, Reginheri had them sacrificed to the god Odin as a gesture of thanks for the victory.
However, this bloody act seemed to work to the Viking’s advantage. The Frankish King Karl der Kahle decided he wanted to be rid of these unwelcome and decidedly violent guests without further bloodshed. So he paid Reginheri 7000 pounds of silver and gold to go away. Reginheri was happy to oblige. He led his men back up the Seine, pillaging a few villages along the coast as they set off home. However, once he returned home to Denmark, Reginheri did not enjoy his victory for long. For the Vikings had brought something else back from Paris: a violent form of dysentery. It was from this, rather than a pit of snakes that finished off this particular Ragnar prototype.
The second inspiration for the legendary Lothbrok is somewhat later. Rognvald or Ragnall ua Imair. Ragnall died in 921 AD but was one of the earliest Norse rulers of Northumbria and the Isle of Man after the Great Heathen Army landed in England. Ragnall was one of a group of Vikings had who settled in Ireland sometime during the late ninth, early tenth century. While his kinsman, Sitric became King of Dublin, Ragnall settled himself on the Isle of Mann before moving in on the north of England. Here, Ragnall was more successful than Ragnar. For Ragnall fought Constantin mac Aeda, King of Scotland. While he did not beat the Scottish King, he weaken his hold on the north of England just enough for Ragnall to seize York in 918 and make himself King.
Neither of these figures make a complete Ragnar Lothbrok. Indeed, there are probably other, shadowy Vikings lost in history who never the less influenced the formation of the legend of Ragnar Lothbrok. For ultimately, that is what Ragnar is, a composite figure who acts as an encapsulation of all that the Vikings admired about themselves. In that sense, composite legend or not, Ragnar Lothbrok, is the ultimate Viking hero.
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