Vikings is a historical drama TV series on the History Channel. The story follows the legendary Viking chieftain Ragnar Lothbrok and his family as they leave their mark on the world. But even though the series is historical in nature, the storyline only loosely follows historical fact, being sprinkled with many Norse myths, legendary figures, and plot twists to fill in the gaps. The story begins in the 9th century, when the Vikings began making their presence felt around Europe and the rest of the known world.
What we hope to achieve here is to take 10 characters from the show and look at their historical or mythical counterparts, to see how fact and fiction diverge. But in doing so, we may actually end up revealing some spoilers, not only in the show as it is today, but in future seasons, as well. So, proceed with caution, and take his as a blanket SPOILER ALERT notification for the rest of this article. Nevertheless, even what little we do know about those early Norsemen from the 800s comes mainly in the from a few heavily biased chronicles of the people they attacked, as well as the glorifying (but oftentimes contradicting) Viking Sagas, written by their descendants several centuries later.
10. Ragnar Lothbrok
Of all the characters in the show, Ragnar Lothbrok is by far the most mysterious and controversial. His name is the first to make it into the history pages, by sailing away from Scandinavia and pillaging settlements in northwestern Europe during the 9th century. But on a closer examination of the scanty evidence available, it would seem that Ragnar may have been nothing more than a legendary figure, or even a number of different warriors that bore the same name. The most credible piece of information talks about a certain Ragnall who led a Viking raid of 120 ships up the River Seine to pillage Paris in 845. But the story also goes on to say that those Norsemen were afflicted by dysentery and their fierce leader succumbed to it.
Nevertheless, Ragnar appears in other stories, pillaging settlements in Scotland or England. He also dies several more times, either at the hands of his Viking rivals or during a raid, or is captured by the King of Northumbria and thrown into a pit of venomous snakes – depending on which story you read. In a couple Sagas, Ragnar also fights a fierce dragon, so there’s that. As for the Sons of Ragnar, things start to become somewhat clearer. Now, whether those men were actually his sons or not is still a matter of debate. But given the legends surrounding this semi-mythical hero, it wouldn’t be too farfetched to think that being a so-called “son” of his was nothing more than a title, or a badge of honor, taken up in order to attract warriors in search of plunder and glory. In a sense, being a son of Ragnar could be somewhat comparable to how the Spartans identified themselves as descendants of Hercules.
9. Bjorn Ironside
In the 13th century Viking Saga entitled The Tale of Ragnar’s Sons, Bjorn Ironside was Ragnar’s and Aslaug’s (not Lagertha’s) second eldest son, after Ivar the Boneless. As one of the so-called Legendary kings of Sweden, Bjorn can only be found described in these Sagas, making him a sort of semi-mythical character, as well. In these tales, Bjorn took part in the 865 invasion of England, alongside his brothers, and continued his father’s legacy of raiding France. Together with one of Ragnar’s best friends, Hastein, Bjorn Ironside also raided down the Iberian coast, the south of France, Northern Africa, Sicily, and even captured the city of Pisa, in Italy. Believing it to be Rome, Bjorn also besieged the town of Luni, but was unable to breach its walls.
Just like it was portrayed in the show’s third season, when Ragnar and his Vikings attacked Paris, Bjorn pretended to be on his deathbed and wanted to be Christened and buried within the city’s monastery. But once inside, he sprang from the stretcher, and with his small personal guard they dashed to the city gates and opened them for the rest of the Viking force waiting outside. Laden with treasure, the raiding party headed back home, only to be met by a formidable Moorish fleet at the Straits of Gibraltar. A fierce naval battle commenced and 40 of the 60-odd Viking ships were lost. The rest managed to reach Scandinavia where Bjorn became the King of Sweden and the supposed founder of the Munsö dynasty.
8. Harald Finehair
In the show, Harald Finehair is obsessed with the idea of becoming the King of all Norway. Well, according to the Sagas he actually made it. Harald I was the first to claim complete sovereignty over Norway. Born sometime around 860, he succeeded his father at the age of 10, becoming the ruler of southeastern Norway. Sometime between 872 and 900 AD, he began a campaign of conquest against the western parts of the country, culminating with the Battle of Hafrsfjord, and the unification of the entire region under his control. Modern scholars contest the idea of a single battle resulting in the unification of Norway, saying instead that it was more of a several-centuries process. Whatever the case, Harald only held effective control over the lands he previously had, and probably had a nominal authority over the others.
Nevertheless, he formed the basis of a provincial administration, by collecting taxes from coastal trade and by making use of lesser chieftains in charge of different provinces. His new taxation system may have forced many to emigrate elsewhere, such as the British Isles or Iceland. As these sources were only written down several centuries after his death, there isn’t much detail about his life or exploits. It is, nevertheless, said that he lived to be over 80 and had between 11 and 20 sons.
7. Lagertha the Shieldmaiden
Lagertha’s tale is depicted in several passages of a patriotic history book written by a Danish historian and theologian of the 13th century. Her story, as well as others found here, is considered to be mostly fictional. Lagertha’s life as a shieldmaiden began when Ragnar rescued her, after a Swedish king invaded and killed Ragnar’s grandfather and sent the women in his court to a brothel for public humiliation. Lagertha and the other women fought alongside him, being instrumental in Ragnar’s victory.
He was impressed by Lagertha’s beauty and courage in battle, and married her soon after. Together, they had a son, Fridleif, and two daughters whose names were not recorded. They later divorced so Ragnar could marry the daughter of a Swedish King. But after returning to his kingdom in Denmark, Ragnar was faced with a civil war. When all seemed lost, Lagertha, ahead of 120 ships (and still in love with Ragnar) saved the day. On her return to Norway, she quarreled with her husband and killed him with a spearhead hidden beneath her dress – thus taking sole-rulership over those lands. Some scholars believe that Lagertha’s story was partially inspired by Thorgerd, a local Norwegian goddess.
Born sometime during the 9th century, Floki, or Hrafna-Flóki Vilgerðarson, to be more exact, was a Norseman who sailed to Iceland and settled there with his family. In all likelihood, he never met Ragnar or the others. Anyway, his exploits are presented in the Landnámabók (Book of Settlements) – a 12th century genealogic record describing in detail the name of nearly 400 original settlers and their descendants, among other things. The real Floki was not the first to reach Iceland; in fact, he was the third to do so. Nevertheless, he was the first to go there intentionally.
In 868, he set sail from Western Norway, taking three ravens with him, and like Noah, he used them to find the island. Hrafna-Flóki actually translates to Raven-Flóki – a nickname given to him because of it. He and the other initial settlers built their first winter camp in the northwestern part of Iceland – a region with many hot springs and thermal pools. Probably because of the name similarity, show Floki is oftentimes associated with Loki, the Norse god of mischief. Plotwise, Floki’s character is also based in part on the previously-mentioned Hastein, a close friend of Ragnar, Bjorn’s mentor, and reportedly, a deceitful man.
5. Halfdan “Hvitserk” Ragnarsson
Because nowhere in the Sagas are the names Hvitserk and Halfdan Ragnarsson mentioned together, indicating them to be different sons of Ragnar, some scholars have speculated they are, in fact, the same person – where Hvitserk was only a nickname meaning “white shirt.” Nevertheless, the stories offer different accounts for each of the two names. On the one hand, we have Halfdan who, after the initial invasion of England, took charge of the Viking forces, captured York, and later London. Sources also talk of Halfdan as being the King of Jórvík (Scandinavian York). Some say he joined several raiding campaigns in Northern Ireland and died there in 877. Others say that he lived in York until 883.
The person named Hvitserk, on the other hand – the only name used by Ragnar’s son in the show – is said to have traveled to the Kievan Rus after the invasion of England. He raided with them until they were faced with overwhelming odds, and was captured. When asked how he wished to die, he decided to be burned alive at the stake, made out of human bodies. Interestingly enough, the show has announced that the Kievan Rus will appear in the next season. So… spoiler alert?
4. Bishop Heahmund
Even if the real version of Bishop Heahmund may not have had the same luck with the ladies as his fictional counterpart in the show, the man definitely existed in history. He was consecrated as Bishop of Sherborne (today’s Bishop of Salisbury) in 867 or 868, and stood beside King Aethelred and Prince Alfred of Wessex in their fight against the Viking invaders.
Nevertheless, he died at the Battle of Marton in 871, at the hands of the Norsemen led by the previously-mentioned Halfdan. Heahmund never actually encountered Ivar or Lagertha. King Aethelred also died, either during the battle, or from his wounds, several days later. Unfortunately, though, nothing else is known about the Bishop, but he is still venerated as a saint for his valiant fight against the heathens, by both Catholics and Eastern Orthodox alike.
3. Ivar the Boneless
As we’ve mentioned above, Ivar the Boneless was in fact Ragnar Lothbrok’s eldest son. Nevertheless, his early life is shrouded in mystery, as is his nickname. Historians speculate that it may have referred to a skeletal condition, such as osteogenesis imperfecta (brittle bone disease), or he was unable to walk for some reason. In any case, he was a general in charge of the Great Heathen Army that attacked England in 865, ransacking the petty kingdoms of East Anglia and Northumbria, and capturing the town of York in the process. Fighting with the English continued well into the 870s, but according to records, Ivar the Boneless no longer took part in it.
Instead, he joined up with Olaf the White, the supposed Viking King of Dublin, and together they went to Scotland. Here, they attacked the Kingdom of Strathclyde in 870, overrunning and destroying its capital city of Dumbarton, “fortress of the Britons.” The two returned to Dublin the following year, where Ivar became known as the King of the Norsemen of all Ireland and Britain. He died in 873 from “a sudden and horrible disease,” leading some to speculate that it was the underlying affliction he suffered from his entire life. In one of the Sagas, Ivar demanded to be buried in a mound somewhere on the English coast, where his remains would guard against any future invasions of the British Isles. His prophecy held true until 1066, when William the Conqueror came to his mound, unburied Ivar and burned his body, thus lifting the curse and allowing him victory.
2. King Alfred the Great
Alfred became King of Wessex in 871 after his older brother, King Aethelred, died in the Battle of Marton, alongside Bishop Heahmund. His many deeds and victories against the invading Norsemen earned him the byname of Alfred the Great. He was the first English king to make use of ships against the raiders. He fortified old strongholds and built others in strategic locations. He outsmarted the Norsemen in numerous battles, recapturing the town of London in 886 and paving the way for the future recapture of previously-conquered lands. He formed strong alliances with Mercia and Wales, and put up a fierce and relentless resistance against the marauding Vikings.
But aside from his military prowess, King Alfred is also known for his wise administration and love for learning. It is said that he never actually desired royal power, preferring instead a scholar’s life. Nevertheless, during his reign, he had many books translated into English (some by his own hand), and directed young men of able means to learn how to read. As was the popular belief at the time, Alfred also thought of the Viking invasion as a divine punishment for their sins. However, he attributed it to the country’s decline in learning, as only through knowledge and wisdom could people live in accordance with God’s will. Alfred also revised the justice system, ensuring greater protection for the weak and vulnerable against the oftentimes oppressive nature of corrupt or ignorant judges. He also limited the practice of blood feuds (vendettas) and imposed heavy penalties for those breaking pledges and oaths.
Rollo was definitely not Ragnar’s brother, as depicted in the TV show. Not only is this not mentioned or hinted at anywhere in history, but more importantly, Rollo lived at a later date than the others. In fact, he was born sometime around 860, either in Denmark or Norway, and much later than any of the so-called Sons of Ragnar. Anyway, he began making a name for himself when he besieged Paris in 885. This was also the first time when the Vikings opted for a prolonged siege of the city instead of a hit-and-run raid. He also managed to establish a permanent foothold on the lower Seine, and Charles the Simple of West Francia ceded him the lands between the mouth of the River, all the way to the city of Rouen, on the condition that he would defend against any other Viking incursions.
He founded the Duchy of Normandy in 911 and reigned over it until 927, when he gave the seat to his son, William I Longsword. Rollo was baptized in 912, but it’s said that he still died a pagan around 932. His sons and followers became known as the Normans and had a tremendous influence over Europe and the Near East. His descendants conquered southern Italy and Sicily at the turn of the millennium. Rollo’s great-great-great-grandson was William the Conqueror, also known as William I of England. And during the First Crusade, the Italian Normans also founded the Principality of Antioch, in what are now parts of Turkey and Syria.
Interestingly, Rollo’s Scandinavian name was actually Rolf, which later turned to Gaange Rolf. In old Dano-Norwegian, gaa meant to walk and was in reference to his imposing stature. In his adulthood, he became so big that no horse could hold his weight, and he was always forced to walk on foot, thus being known as Walking Rollo.