The Boneless Viking: Ivar Ragnarsson

Who is Ivar the Boneless?

Ivar the Boneless, also known as Ivar Ragnarsson, was a legendary Viking leader who made a name for himself in England and Ireland. According to the Tale of Ragnar Lodbrok, he was the son of Ragnar Loðbrok and his wife Aslaug, and was one of five brothers including Björn Ironside, Hvitserk, Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye, and Ubba. However, the accuracy of these historical accounts is still up for debate. Some sources suggest that Ivar may have been the same person as the Viking king of Dublin, Ímar, who ruled from 870-873.

The Origins of the Nickname “Boneless”

The exact origin of Ivar’s nickname is not clear, and there are several theories floating around. “Ívarr beinlausi” could be translated to “Ivar legless”, but “beinlausi” could also be translated as “boneless”, since “bone” and “leg” translates to the same word, “bein”, in Old Norse. Some sagas describe Ivar as having a skeletal condition, such as osteogenesis imperfecta, which would make him legless, while others suggest the nickname refers to male impotence.

Despite the uncertain origins of Ivar the Boneless nickname, one thing is for sure – he was a legendary figure in Viking history. Whether he was a fearless leader or a king with a bone disorder, the tales of Ivar continue to capture the imagination of people today.

 

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Ivar The Boneless: Myths Legends & History by KIV Books
Ivar The Boneless: Myths Legends & History by KIV Books

The Curse of Ivar the Boneless

According to the Tale of Ragnar Lodbrok, Ivar’s bonelessness was the result of a curse. His mother, Aslaug, a völva or seer, warned Ragnar to wait for three nights before consummating their marriage after a long separation. However, Ragnar ignored her advice and raped her, leading to the birth of Ivar with weak bones.

Another Theory: The Hated

Another hypothesis is that Ivar was actually known as “the Hated,” which in Latin would be Exosus. A medieval scribe with only a basic knowledge of Latin could have interpreted it as “without bone,” leading to his nickname “the Boneless.” However, this theory is hard to align with the direct translation of his name given in Norse sources.

A Master of Strategy and Tactics

Despite his physical disability, the sagas emphasize Ivar’s wisdom, cunning, and mastery of strategy and tactics in battle.

The Founder of the Uí Ímair Dynasty

Ivar is often considered identical to Ímar, the founder of the Uí Ímair dynasty, which ruled Northumbria from the city of York and dominated the Irish Sea region as the Kingdom of Dublin. This would also make him the ancestor of the Crovan Dynasty.

The Great Heathen Army Invades the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy

In AD 865 the Great Heathen Army, led by Ivar, was a group of Danish warriors who set their sights on the seven kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy. East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Mercia, Northumbria, Sussex, and Wessex were all at risk of being conquered by Ivar and his army, who were seeking revenge against King Ælla of Northumbria.

The Sons of Ragnar Lothbrok

The invasion was organized by the sons of Ragnar Lothbrok, who sought to avenge the death of their father. According to legend, King Ælla had executed Ragnar by throwing him in a snake pit. However, the historicity of this explanation is unknown.

Ivar’s Clever plan

Ivar did not defeat Ælla in battle, instead he sought reconciliation. He asked for only as much land as he could cover with an ox’s hide and swore never to wage war against Ælla. Ivar then cut the ox’s hide into such fine strands that he was able to encompass a large fortress, which he claimed as his own.

The Invasion of Northumbria

Late the next year, the Great Heathen Army turned north and invaded Northumbria, eventually capturing King Ælla at York in 867. According to legend, Ivar and his brothers executed King Ælla using the blood eagle, a ritual method of execution.

The Invasion of Mercia

Later that year, the army moved south and invaded the kingdom of Mercia, capturing the town of Nottingham, where they spent the winter. King Burgred of Mercia responded by allying with the West Saxon king Æthelred of Wessex, and with a combined force they laid siege to the town. The Anglo-Saxons were unable to recapture the city, but a truce was agreed whereby the Danes would withdraw to York.

The Great Heathen Army Gathers Strength

The Great Heathen Army remained in York for over a year, gathering its strength for further assaults. Ivar and Ubba were identified as the commanders of the Danes when they returned to East Anglia in 869.

The Death of King Edmund the Martyr

The precise account of the death of King Edmund the Martyr is unknown, but it is believed that he was executed by the sons of Ragnar for refusing their demand that he renounce Christ.

The Great Heathen Army was a formidable force that threatened the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy during the 9th century. Despite their clever tactics and cunning plans, the Danes ultimately failed in their conquest.

 

The Death of Ivar the Boneless: Chronicles and Legends

The Chronicler’s Records

The death of Ivar the Boneless, a legendary Viking leader, is recorded in several historical sources. The Anglo-Saxon chronicler Æthelweard recorded his death in 870, while The Annals of Ulster and The Fragmentary Annals of Ireland both describe his death in 873.

A 17th-century Copyist’s Addition

In the original 11th-century manuscript of The Fragmentary Annals of Ireland, the king of Laithlind was simply referred to as “the king of Lochlainn.” However, a copyist added the identification of the king as Gothfraid, who was Ivar’s father. This raises the possibility that Ivar was the true subject of the entry, and the cause of his death – a sudden and horrible disease – could be the origin of his Old Norse nickname.

The Repton Burial Mound

In 1686, a farm labourer named Thomas Walker discovered a Scandinavian burial mound in Repton, Derbyshire. The large number of partial skeletons surrounding the body (over 250) suggested that the person buried there was of very high status, leading some to believe that it could be the resting place of Ivar the Boneless.

Prophecy of Ivar’s Burial

According to the sagas, Ivar ordered that he be buried in a place that was exposed to attack and prophesied that foes coming to the land would meet with ill success. This prophecy was said to have held true until William I of England, also known as Vilhjalm bastard, arrived and broke open Ivar’s mound. Upon seeing that Ivar’s body had not decayed, Vilhjalm burned it on a large pyre and went on to achieve victory in his landing invasion.

 

Excerpt from folio 39r of Harley MS 2278. The scene depicts Lothbrok, king of Danes, and his sons, Hinguar and Hubba, worshiping idols
Excerpt from folio 39r of Harley MS 2278. The scene depicts Lothbrok, king of Danes, and his sons, Hinguar and Hubba, worshiping idols

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Sources

  • Wikipedia Contributors. (2023, January 11). Ivar the Boneless. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ivar_the_Boneless

  • Ivar the Boneless | Biography, Battles, & Facts | Britannica. (2023). In Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ivar-the-Boneless

  • Groeneveld, E. (2018, November 12). Ivar the Boneless. World History Encyclopedia. https://www.worldhistory.org/Ivar_the_Boneless/

  • Crawford, J. (transl. & edited). The Saga of the Volsungs with The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2017
  • Ivar the Boneless | Viking Berserker. (2022). Englishmonarchs.co.uk. https://www.englishmonarchs.co.uk/vikings_10.html‌

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