Silver penny of Cnut, who Gareth Williams describes as “the ultimate Viking success story”. (Photo by CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images)
Ivarr the Boneless
Ivarr spans the gap between history and legend. He was a famous warrior and one of the leaders of the ‘Great Heathen Army’ that landed in East Anglia in 865, and that went on to conquer the kingdoms of Northumbria and East Anglia. Ivarr also went on to lead a raid on Dumbarton on the Clyde, and in Ireland.
Later saga tradition makes Ivarr one of the sons of Ragnar Hairy-breeches. According to this account, Ivarr and his brothers invaded Northumbria to take a bloody revenge on its king, Ælle, for the killing of their father.
Although the Great Army continued to campaign in England, Ivarr is not mentioned in English sources after 870 and probably spent the remainder of his career around the Irish Sea. His death is recorded in Irish annals in 873. He was remembered as the founding father of the royal dynasty of the Viking kingdom of Dublin, and his descendants at various points also ruled in other parts of Ireland, Northumbria and the Isle of Man.
The reason for Ivarr’s curious nickname is unknown. One suggestion is simply that he was particularly flexible, giving the illusion of bonelessness, while others have preferred to see it as a metaphor for impotence. Another interpretation is that Ivarr suffered from ‘brittle bone disease’, which seems less plausible given his reputation as a warrior. However, the nickname beinlausi could also be translated as ‘legless’, which might indicate lameness, the loss of a leg in battle, or simple drunkenness.
Illuminated manuscript from the ‘Life of Edmund’, unknown artist, c1130, depicting AD 865 when Ivarr Ragnarsson (nicknamed ‘the Boneless’) with his brothers invaded Northumbria. (Photo Researchers/Alamy Stock Photo)
Aud the Deep-minded
Aud the Deep-Minded (alternatively known as the Deep-Wealthy) was the daughter of Ketil Flatnose, a Norwegian chieftain. For much of her life Aud is best known in the traditional female roles of wife and mother. She married Olaf the White, king of Dublin in the mid-ninth century, and following his death moved to Scotland with her son, Thorstein the Red. Thorstein became a great warrior and established himself as king of a large part of northern and western Scotland, before being killed in battle.
It was at this point, late in life, that Aud decided to uproot herself and make a new life in Iceland, taking her grandchildren with her. She saw little chance of maintaining or recovering her importance in Scotland, but the settlement of Iceland in the 870s offered new opportunities. Aud had a ship built and sailed first to Orkney, where she married off one of her granddaughters, and then on to Iceland, where she laid claim to a large area in the west. Aud was accompanied by friends and family, as well as Scottish and Irish slaves. She gave this last group their freedom, granting each man a small piece of land within her larger claim, thereby encouraging loyalty from their descendants to hers.
Aud was remembered as one of the great founding settlers of Iceland. Her large number of grandchildren meant that many of the greatest families in medieval Iceland looked back to her as an ancestor. Although her wealth may partly have been acquired through her father, husband and son, Aud’s success in Iceland is a reminder of how powerful a strong woman could be in Viking society.
Eirik Bloodaxe has an archetypal Viking nickname and was renowned as a fierce warrior. From his early teens onwards he was involved in raiding around the British Isles and in the Baltic, and at different points in his career he was king in both western Norway and in Northumbria, where he still has a legacy in York’s Viking-based tourist industry.
Despite all this, Eirik is a less impressive figure than first appearances suggest. Despite his success in battle, his nickname came from his involvement in the killing of several of his brothers. Eirik and his wife, Gunnhild (according to different accounts either a Danish princess or a witch from northern Norway), were between them responsible for the deaths of five brothers. Their growing unpopularity in Norway meant that when another brother, Håkon the Good, challenged Eirik for the kingship of Norway he was unable to muster support and fled without a fight.
Although Eirik was strong and brave and willing to give even his enemies a fair hearing if left to his own devices, he was said to have been completely under the thumb of his dominating wife and “too easily persuaded”. He comes across more like the cartoon character Hagar the Horrible than as a real Viking hero.
Image of Eirik Bloodaxe (aka Eric Bloodaxe) projected on to Clifford’s Tower at the Jorvik Viking Festival York 2006. In front of the tower stands a group Viking re-enactors. (Tony Wright/earthscapes/Alamy Stock Photo)
Einar Buttered-Bread was the grandson of Thorfinn Skullsplitter, the earl of Orkney, and Groa, a granddaughter of Aud the Deep-Minded. According to the Orkneyinga saga, Einar became caught up in a web of treachery and rivalry over the Orkney earldom, in which Ragnhild, daughter of Eirik Bloodaxe, played a central part.
Ragnhild was married first to Thorfinn’s son and heir Arnfinn but had him killed at Murkle in Caithness and married his brother Havard Harvest-Happy, who became earl in his place. Ragnhild then conspired with Einar Buttered-Bread – he was to kill his uncle Havard, her husband, and replace him. Einar Buttered-Bread killed Havard in a battle near Stenness on mainland Orkney.
But that was not the end of the story. Einar Buttered-Bread was then killed by another cousin, Einar Hard-mouth, apparently also at Ragnhild’s instigation. Einar Hard-mouth was then killed by Ljot (another brother of Arnfinn and Havard), who then married Ragnhild and became earl.
Nothing more is known of Einar Buttered-Bread and he earns his place on this list primarily for his intriguing nickname. Whereas it is easy to imagine how his grandfather Thorfinn Skullsplitter gained his name, we don’t know why Einar was called Buttered-Bread, and we probably never will.
Ragnvald of Ed
Ragnvald is known only from a rune-stone that he commissioned in memory of his mother at Ed near Stockholm, probably in the early 11th century. The runic inscription reads simply “Ragnvald had the runes cut in memory of Fastvi, his mother, Onäm’s daughter. She died in Ed. God help her soul. Ragnvald let the runes be cut, who was in Greek-land, and leader of the host”.
Despite being such a short inscription, this provides a variety of information about Ragnvald. Despite being a successful warrior he was a respectful son who went to the trouble of having a stone carved in memory of his mother. Like many Vikings in the 11th century, the invocation to God suggests that Ragnvald (if not necessarily his mother) was Christian.
Ragnvald may have become Christian as a result of his experiences in ‘Greek-land’. This refers not just to Greece but to the whole of the Byzantine Empire, which had its capital at modern Istanbul, known to the Vikings as Miklagard (‘the great city’). Ragnvald travelled all the way to Turkey, a reminder that the Vikings travelled east as well as west, and from his description probably served as an officer in the Varangian Guard. This was a unit in the Byzantine army, often used as the palace guard, and composed primarily of Viking warriors. The existence of such a unit shows the reputation of Viking warriors as far away as the eastern Mediterranean.
Bjarni Herjolfsson was the captain of the first ship of Europeans known to have discovered North America. Credit is more often given – especially in America – to Leif Eiriksson, known as Leif the Lucky. Leif was the son of Eirik the Red, who led the settlement of Greenland and himself led an attempt in around AD 1000 to settle in ‘Vinland’, somewhere on the east coast of Canada. However, according to the Saga of the Greenlanders Eirik travelled in the ship formerly owned by Bjarni, and made use of Bjarni’s description of the lands that he had already seen.
Bjarni had discovered America by mistake in 986. An Icelandic trader, he had been in Norway when his father decided to join Eirik the Red’s settlement of Greenland. Attempting to join his father he was blown off course in a storm and passed Greenland to the south, discovering Vinland (vine land), Markland (forest land) and Helluland (a land of flat stones). These are normally identified as Newfoundland, Labrador and Baffin Island. Some scholars prefer to place Vinland further south and west, although a Viking settlement was discovered on the northern tip of Newfoundland.
Bjarni had only come to America in error and, realising his mistake, we are told that he decided not to land, but instead navigated his way up the coast and back to Greenland – a much greater achievement than his accidental discovery, especially since he hadn’t been there before. However inadvertent his discovery was, such achievements deserve better recognition.
The beginning of ‘The Saga of the Greenlanders’, from ‘Flateyjarbok’ (‘The Book of Flatey’). Icelandic School, (14th century). (Arni Magnusson Institute, Reykjavik, Iceland/Bridgeman Images)
Freydis was the sister of Leif Eiriksson and daughter of Eirik the Red, the first settler of Greenland. Her brother Leif attempted the first-known European settlement in North America, and a settlement of Viking-type longhouses at l’Anse aux Meadows at the northern tip of Newfoundland may well be the houses that Leif built. Leif himself chose not to stay in ‘Vinland’, but offered the use of his houses to various members of his extended family, although he insisted that the houses remained his property.
Freydis was involved in two attempts to settle Vinland, and in the process proved herself as tough and ruthless as any Viking warrior. On one trip her party established contact with the native people and initially traded peacefully. However, when the party was subsequently attacked by some of the natives, the men were inclined to flee. Freydis, however, although heavily pregnant, picked up a sword and beat it against her bare breast, as the result of which the attackers fled in fright.
On the other expedition Freydis travelled in partnership with a group led by two Icelandic brothers, Helgi and Finnbogi. Having first smuggled a larger number of men on board her ship than agreed, she incited her husband to kill Helgi and Finnbogi and all their men. When they refused to kill the women Freydis did it herself, forbidding on pain of death everyone in her group to reveal this on their return to Greenland.
Cnut the Great
Cnut is the ultimate Viking success story. He was the younger son of Svein Forkbeard, king of the Danes, who conquered England in 1013 but died almost immediately. Cnut’s brother Harald inherited the Danish kingdom, so Cnut was left, probably still in his teens, to try to restore his father’s authority in England, which had reverted to the Anglo-Saxon king Ethelred II. By 1016 Cnut had conquered England in his own right, cementing his position by marriage to Ethelred’s widow. Cnut’s success in England came through victory in battle, but within a couple of years he had also become king of Denmark, apparently peacefully.
For the first time, the whole of Denmark and England were under the rule of one king, and in 1028 Cnut also conquered Norway, establishing the largest North Sea empire seen before or since, although it fragmented again following his death in 1035. Cnut also took the opportunity to borrow ideas from his English kingdom to apply in Denmark. While Cnut took – and held – England through good old-fashioned Viking warfare, Denmark now benefited from regular trade and from an influx of ideas as well as material wealth.
Under Cnut towns became more important both as economic and administrative centres, coinage was developed on a large scale, and the influence of the Christian Church became firmly established. Cnut even went on a peaceful pilgrimage to Rome to meet the Pope.
In some ways Cnut can be better understood as an Anglo-Saxon king than a Viking. However, his great success illustrates one of the strengths of the Vikings generally, which was their ability to adapt to a variety of cultures and circumstances across the Viking world. So, the very fact that many of Cnut’s achievements seem rather un-Viking makes him in some ways the quintessential Viking.
Gareth Williams is a historian specialising in the Anglo-Saxon and Viking period and a curator at the British Museum, a role he has held since 1996, with responsibility for British and European coinage.