We have published a series of articles here dedicated to analyzing the historical aspect of the characters from the television series Vikings. Among the sons of Ragnar Lodbrok, one who deserves our attention due to his uniqueness is Ivar the Boneless. Today, we are going to take a look at another important figure who accompanied the former on the expedition they led to England, which has gone down in history as the Great Heathen Army: Halfdan Ragnarsson.

Like almost everything surrounding the Viking world in general, and the family of Ragnar Lodbrok in particular, the data is somewhat confusing. In fact, Ragnar himself is a figure that is difficult to categorize, as he combines some real characteristics with others that are legendary. We won’t dwell on this because we already dedicated an article to him at the time. However, the historical existence of his offspring is well-established, although there may not be complete certainty regarding the events attributed to them, and in some cases, their identification.

That’s the case with Halfdan, as it is not clear whether he existed as an individual or if it is another name given to one of his brothers, Hvitsärk (as depicted in the series). If it’s the latter, then Hvitsärk would be the real one because Halfdan was a common name in the Viking world, while Hvitsärk is a term that means “white shirt,” suggesting it could be a nickname for that character. This uncertainty is based on the fact that the sagas that mention one often omit the other, and vice versa, which is quite suspicious.

First page of the Peterborough manuscript, part of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle./Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

In addition to the famous Gesta Danorum and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the main sagas about that family are Völsunga, Ragnar Lodbrok, and Edda, all composed by the skald (poet) Snorri Sturluson. However, there is also a saga specifically dedicated to the sons, called the Ragnarssona þáttr (Tale of the Sons of Ragnar). All of these sagas were written after the time they depict, and Hvitsärk is only mentioned in the Ragnarssona þáttr and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

As we know, Ragnar Lodbrok had a considerable offspring because, after all, he was married three times. His first wife was the famous Lagertha, a skjäldmo (shieldmaiden, warrior) from whom he divorced soon after to marry Þóra Borgarhjörtr (who was the one who gifted him the hairy breeches that characterized him, hence the name Lodbrok). Finally, he entered into a third marriage with Aslaug, not to mention several other lovers. The result of this intense love life was a dozen children.

Aslaug was the mother of half of them, including Halfdan (or Hvitsärk), and his siblings were Björn, Sigurd, Rognvald, Guthrod, and the aforementioned Ivar. In the TV series Vikings, they also attribute the maternity of two others, Ingvar and Ubbe, to Aslaug, although it seems that they actually came from other relationships, just as the show’s writers depict Björn as Lagertha’s son for the sake of the plot. In fact, some consider Halfdan to be a different character altogether, the son of one of the lovers and not of Aslaug. As mentioned before, uncertainty is the general theme in these matters.

If Halfdan’s childhood and youth are somewhat elusive, his adult life is slightly better known for two reasons: leading the Great Heathen Army alongside his brothers and being crowned as the monarch of Northumbria. Since he attained the crown through the expedition, let’s first explore how it unfolded. It all began with the raid led by his father Ragnar against the English kingdom in the year 865. It’s important to remember that England would not be unified until the 10th century under King Athelstan.

Up until then, England was composed of a series of kingdoms that divided the territory among themselves, including Mercia, Essex, Wessex, East Anglia, Sussex, Kent, Cornwall, and the aforementioned Northumbria. Northumbria, being the northernmost kingdom, had already been visited by Ragnar a decade earlier (in what, according to legend, was the first Viking raid in Great Britain, where the monastery of Lindisfarne was plundered, although in reality, this occurred in 793 and Ragnar could not have participated). Nonetheless, the new incursion by Ragnar’s sons was defeated by King Ælla, who executed Ragnar.

A messenger from King Ælla to the sons of Ragnar Lodbrok (August Malmström )/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

This event spurred his sons to organize a retaliatory expedition, gathering a colossal fleet of Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish Vikings under the command of Halfdan, Ivar the Boneless, Ubbe, and Björn. This fulfilled a prophecy, more literary than veracious, that their father had made to Ælla, foretelling that his sons would avenge him. The exact number of troops is unknown, but it must have been significant, around three thousand, in contrast to the modest two longships that Ragnar had led. They landed in East Anglia in autumn to winter there and gather horses, which were difficult to transport in sufficient quantities.

With the arrival of the new year, they set off towards the north and invaded Northumbria, taking advantage of the fact that Ælla was engaged in a civil war with Osberht, whom some sources consider his brother and, in any case, the dethroned legitimate king. When the Vikings captured the wealthy city of York, both contenders realized the danger and signed a truce to fight them together. However, not only did they fail in their attempt to retake the city but they also perished in battle.

Of course, there are other versions of the story. One account suggests that Ælla may have survived and reached an agreement to give the Vikings the territory that could be covered by a bull’s hide, which, cleverly cut into strips by Ivar, supposedly formed the perimeter of an entire city (York, according to some, or London, according to others). Here, again, the mythical tone and allusion to the foundation of Carthage by Dido can be noted. Nevertheless, Ivar resumed the fight and gained control over all of Northumbria, capturing the king and subjecting him to an ancient pagan ritual known as the Blood Eagle, where the back of the condemned was opened, the ribs were cut and pulled apart to expose the lungs, and salt was sprinkled inside. However, there are doubts about the existence of this ritual beyond skaldic poetry.

Campaigns of the Great Heathen Army/Image: Rowanwindwhistler on Wikimedia Commons

The invaders installed a puppet king, Ecgberht, and subsequently began the conquest of Mercia, establishing themselves in Nottingham. They were besieged by King Burghred, with the assistance of the Saxon Æthelred, but managed to hold out and negotiate a retreat to York, where they regrouped to attack East Anglia in 869. They defeated the local army and killed King Edmund, who subsequently joined the list of Christian martyrs because he had set the condition for becoming their tributary and paying the Danegeld (a silver tax imposed by the Vikings on their vassals to finance their activities on the ground): that they accept Christianity. They responded to his request with arrows.

From that point on, Ivar mysteriously disappears from history -speculation suggests that he may have been the king Ímar of Dublin, although he died in 873- and the focus shifts to Halfdan, who succeeded him in command. As the leader, he led a campaign against the Kingdom of Wessex, taking advantage of reinforcements (the so-called Great Summer Army led by the Danish chieftain Bagsecg). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentions repeated clashes in which the Vikings were unable to defeat the Anglo-Saxons -Bagsecq even fell in battle-, leading Halfdan to negotiate a truce with their ruler, Alfred the Great, who had just ascended to the throne and agreed to pay the Danegeld.

Halfdan wintered in London -coins minted with his name have been found- and in the autumn of 872, he returned to Northumbria to suppress an uprising led by Ecgberht. In 874, he finally took control of Mercia, installing a puppet king, Ceowulf, in place of Burghred. He then divided his army in two: one half, led by Guthrum, marched south to continue the fight with Wessex, establishing a kingdom that, along with other Viking territories, would form the Danelaw; the other half, led by Halfdan himself, fought against the Picts. The Annals of Ulster (a medieval Irish chronicle compiled by a scribe named Ruaidhri Ó Luinín, covering the period from the 5th to the 16th century) equate Halfdan with someone named Albann, who was supposedly in conflict with the Dublin king Eystein Olafsson.

Great Britain at the death of Halfdan, with Northumbria and Danelag along with the kingdoms /Image: Hel-hama on Wikimedia Commons

He would have succeeded Ímar, or rather, Ivar, the brother of Halfdan. The circumstances are unknown, although it is known that Ivar the Boneless met a “sudden and horrible” death, which led Halfdan to lay claim to the Irish throne. However, he was unsuccessful in his attempt, or perhaps he succeeded briefly but lost it upon his return to Northumbria, where he already controlled the southern half and proclaimed himself king of Jórvík (referring to its capital, York) in 876. The following year, he decided to return to Dublin to settle the unfinished business, only to find that the Vikings who had been settled there for some time received him poorly.

The Fair Heathens, as they were known, clashed with the Dark Heathens, the newcomers, in a sort of civil war among invaders. In the Battle of Strangford Lough, not only did the former prevail, but Halfdan also lost his life. His death was not mourned greatly as he was known to be cruel and unpopular. The throne of Northumbria thus remained vacant for over half a decade until it was occupied by Guthfrith.

By then, the Great Heathen Army had set its sights on a new target for plundering: the coastline of the North Sea (France, Belgium, and Germany). They abandoned Britain and when they attempted to return in 892, they were decisively repelled by Alfred the Great once again. Although the Danelag persisted for a while, until the mid-10th century, the Viking Age in the country was coming to an end.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on January 17, 2019. Puedes leer la versión en español en La historia de Halfdan, el hijo de Ragnar Lodbrok que fue rey de Northumbria


The northern conquest. Vikings in Britain and Ireland (Katherine Holman)/The kings & queens of Anglo-Saxon England (Timothy Venning)/Breve historia de los vikingos (Manuel Velasco Laguna)/Los vikingos en la historia (F. Donald Logan)/Demonios del norte. Las expediciones vikingas (Carlos Canales y Miguel del Rey)/The world of Vikings (Justin Pollard)/Wikipedia

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