This article includes spoilers for History Channel’s Vikings, the final season of which will be available to stream on Amazon Prime in the US and the UK from 30 December
The overarching story of Vikings is predominantly that of the semi-mythic Ragnar Lothbrok and his sons. The show began with Ragnar as a simple farmer dreaming of sailing beyond Scandinavia, which led him first to the monastery of Lindisfarne, and then into conflict with the kingdoms of ‘England’, setting him on a path that made him a king in his own right and a legend across the Viking world.
Ragnar’s story ended in season 4, when he fell prey to the perennially apoplectic Northumbrian king Ælle’s pit of snakes. Now, almost all of the old guard are gone, too. Rollo, Ragnar’s brother and rival, has long vanished to Francia (where he started the family that would eventually give rise to William the Conqueror) and legendary shieldmaiden Lagertha was murdered in season 6, part 1. Floki, the shipbuilder who first gave Ragnar the means to sail to Britain, is missing – last seen in season 5 inside an erupting volcano.
Taking the lead now are the four sons who remain – Bjorn Ironside, Ivar the Boneless, Ubbe and Hvitserk – and they are not a happy family. An ahistorical sibling civil war has been driving the plot of the past two seasons, and by the beginning of season 6, part 2 things are suitably bleak.
Vikings season 6 plot recap: what’s happened so far?
In the drama, Bjorn Ironside is now king of Kattegat, but his fate is uncertain after being stabbed by Ivar in the part 1 finale, which saw Ivar and the Rus Vikings return west to reclaim Scandinavia with blood. Hvitserk is with allied with them, having been banished by Bjorn for killing Lagertha in a drug-induced fugue, though he believes he is destined to killing Ivar himself. (This is not entirely without reason, seeing as Ivar had Hvitserk’s lover Thora burned alive in an act of capricious cruelty worthy of the worst Roman emperors.)
Ubbe has left this all behind, it seems, sailing for Iceland before anyone knew the Rus were coming in search of Floki. And Harald Finehair, the man elected by the Vikings over Bjorn to become King of All Norway, is grievously wounded. There are myriad other subplots to wrap up too. Will Ivar, who has formed something of a bond with the innocent Prince Igor of the Rus, be able to free the boy from the clutches of his despotic uncle, Oleg the Prophet? Who is the wanderer, Othere, who has captivated Ubbe with tales of a ‘golden land’ farther west that Iceland? And what does the outlaw Erik actually want?
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There’s a lot to unpack even in this quick summary, starting with the Kievan Rus: though they had Norse heritage, at no point did they return to wage war on the Vikings of Scandinavia – they were more focused on the riches of Constantinople.
“Let’s be clear: there’s no point in picking holes in the accuracy of this show in terms of precise plot content or chronology, any more than precise details of the costumes or sets,” says Professor Howard Williams, in a piece exploring the real history of Vikings and the early medieval world in which the show is set.
But that’s not to say it is without merit – far from it.
“We can take it seriously as a form of public engagement – not because it ‘gets everything right’, but because it inspires so many insights and tackles many key issues which historians, archaeologists and other specialists are investigating about the Viking world.”
Read more about the real history of Vikings and the early medieval world behind the hit drama
As the final series continues, Professor Howard Williams explores how the show’s sweeping ambition has tackled historical issues of the Viking era while creating an immersive world – one with more reality than you might think…
Vikings season 6, part 2 spoilers: 8 historical questions answered
The final episodes are out, the victors have been decided, and Valhalla – the hall of slain warriors presided over by Odin – has a few new members. Below we answer some of the biggest questions surrounding the final season (of course, there are going to be some huge spoilers ahead, so don’t scroll any further unless you’ve finished all 10 episodes).
Where is the final battle, in which Ivar dies?
Blink and you’ll miss it, as it is only mentioned once, but the final clash between Ivar and Hvitserk’s Vikings and the Saxons of Wessex is the battle of Edington (or Ethandun) in 878. Though in the drama, the Norse attack is portrayed as more of a futile stab for glory, than the close-run thing for the kingdom of Wessex that it really represented.
In Vikings, Alfred the Great chooses to abandon the royal villa in Chippenham, so that he can meet Ivar in battle with his full strength. In real history, he was ousted from his home by a surprise assault, and the show makes no allusion to the fact that Alfred was forced to spend several months afterwards hiding in the Somerset Marches, where he is said to have burned a peasant woman’s cakes.
Did the real Hvitserk become a Christian?
Not much is known about the historical Hvitserk, but in one of Vikings’ final scenes he is seen being christened and given the name Athelstan (not to be confused with Aethelstan, Alfred the Great’s grandson and the king who finally united England).
If this turn of events sounds vaguely familiar, that’s because this is what happened to Guthrum, king of East Anglia and the real leader of the Danes at the battle of Edington, after he was defeated by the Saxons.
- 10 things you (probably) didn’t know about the Anglo-Saxons
What happened to the Viking colony at Greenland?
It certainly didn’t end with an unhinged Ketil Flatnose raging nonsensically while standing atop a beached, dead whale.
By all accounts, Flatnose did not set foot on Greenland. The first colony there was founded by Erik the Red, an exile from Iceland banished for murder, c986. And it proved quite the success.
“At one stage populated by about 5,000 people, Greenland’s Nordic settlements lasted nearly five centuries before becoming isolated and losing contact with Iceland and Scandinavia,” writes Pat Kinsella.
Erik the Red appears in Vikings, though not in any recognisable guise beyond the fact he is an outlaw. His story in the show sends him to Kattegat, and his scheming for power after Bjorn’s death results in him being magically blinded by the witch Ingrid and later impaled with a pitchfork.
Where is the ‘Golden Land’, where Floki has been hiding?
It’s never stated explicitly, but the ‘Golden Land’ that Ubbe is searching for, and where he eventually finds Floki, is North America – which the real Vikings would have known as Vinland.
What happened to the real Ubbe? Does he stay in North America?
As far as we know, the real Ubbe did not journey any farther west than Britain. He is suspected to have died in England in 878, alongside 1,200 other Norse warriors at the battle of Cynwit, which historian Thomas Williams describes as one of five ‘forgotten’ battles that shaped Viking Britain.
The first known European to have sighted North America is the Icelandic trader Bjarni Herjólfsson in 986 – and he only did so by accident while attempting to reach the settlement of Greenland, explains historian Gareth Williams.
“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.”
It was Leif Erikson, son of historical Erik the Red, who retraced Herjólfsson’s journey and became the first European believed to set foot on North America, which he did c1000. But unlike Vikings’ Ubbe, he didn’t make contact with Native Americans, whom the Norse called ‘Skrælings’.
“That fatal first encounter took place during his brother Thorvald’s follow-up expedition,” explains historian John Haywood, though he notes that “Thorvald’s death at the hands of Native Americans was not enough to deter at least two attempts by the Norse to settle in Vinland.”
Is Vikings’ timeline accurate?
Given that the battle of Edington of 878 and the expeditions across the Atlantic of the 10th century are happening at the same time in Vikings, it’s clear that show’s timeline doesn’t bear up to real history, something that has been apparent before.
“Ragnar Lothbrok unquestionably didn’t lead the famous Viking raid against the monastery at Lindisfarne in 793 and stay alive to lead huge armies against Paris in both 845 and 885–86,” writes Professor Howard Williams.
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What was it like sailing in a Viking ship?
The Vikings owe a lot of their legacy as raiders and explorers to their skill in shipbuilding – which they were rather good at. But Ubbe and his fellow explorers spend much of series at sea, and it rarely looks comfortable. Nor was it.
“When sailing in [a Viking ship], you would have been pretty exposed to the elements,” Professor Jan Bill told us. “It was not a holiday to try to cross the North Sea and definitely not to try to go to Iceland or Greenland.” He later adds, “It would have been a rather cramped, cold and smelly experience.”
Why smelly, though? That would be from the tar, to weatherproof the wood, and the rotten stench of the fats used to make the sails more windproof.
Do Vikings and The Last Kingdom overlap?
Yes, The Last Kingdom, which tells the geographically tighter tale of the formation of England through the eyes of fictional ‘half-Saxon, half Dane’ Uhtred of Bebbanburg, does overlap with that of Vikings.
Vikings closes with the battle of Edington, which is also the climactic battle of The Last Kingdom season 1 – though the way these shows approach that point is wildly different, as is the characterisation of the historical figures involved. Catch up by exploring the real history of The Last Kingdom.
Kev Lochun is production editor of BBC History Revealed
This content was first published by HistoryExtra in December 2020