History Files
 

 

Anglo-Saxon Britain

In the Footsteps of Ivarr the Boneless

by Mick Baker, drawn from the Channel 4 series and a feature by Geoffrey van Leeuwen, 30 November 2003

 

 

Beginnings

Most of the information that exists about Ivarr inn beinlausi - Ivarr the Boneless - comes from the Scandinavian saga tradition. In particular it comes from Ragnar's saga - the tale that recounts the exploits of his father, the Danish king Ragnarr Lothbrok ('Leather or Hairy Breeches'), a famous Viking hero who led the sack of Paris in AD 845.

These sagas tend to mix historical fact with legend and folklore, but the existence of Ivarr, Ragnarr's eldest son, as an historical figure is in no doubt. His exploits are recorded in contemporary historical documents, and it is possible to trace his movements with relative certainty.

His Mother's Curse

The later Scandinavian sagas clearly describe Ivarr as 'lacking bones'. The mid-twelfth century poem Hattalykill says he was 'without any bones at all' (clearly a medical impossibility). In Ragnars saga, Ivarr's nickname is explained in great detail, and though the explanation clearly has its roots in folklore, the fiction was possibly constructed to explain a disability that could not then be logically understood.

However, more plausible and prosaic explanations to account for Ivarr's nickname can be found. Firstly, the sagas also say that 'neither love nor lust played any part in his (Ivarr's) life', and he died childless, so perhaps he was impotent - unable to achieve an erection - "boneless." Secondly, an even more readily acceptable explanation would be an ironic nickname, for which the Vikings were well-known, in much the same way as we refer to a short man as "Lofty" or a tall man as "Tiny" - so a larger than average Viking - say six foot nine inches to seven foot two inches, with obviously huge bones, might be called "Boneless", or he may simply have had very supple joints (in modern terms - 'double-jointed'). Ivarr's nickname could be as simple as that, with the Sagas' explanation no more than a 300 year-late rationalisation.

According to Ragnars saga, Ivarr's 'bonelessness' was the result of a curse. His mother, Aslaug, was Ragnarr's second wife and had powers of sorcery and foresight. She warned her new husband that they must wait for three nights before consummating their marriage:

Three nights together, but yet apart,
Shall we bide, nor worship the gods as yet;
From my son this would save a lasting harm,
For boneless is he thou wouldst now beget.

Ragnarr refused to believe in the curse and immediately made love to his new wife. The result of the untimely union was Ivarr, who was indeed born without bones, having instead 'only the like of gristle where his bones should have been'. In fact, it is possible, but unlikely, that he was suffering from a genetic disease. According to the sagas, Ivarr grew up unable to walk and had to be carried everywhere on poles or on the back of a shield. 

According to Geoffrey of Wells, Ivarr's brother, Ubbi, was imbued with devilish powers, which enabled him to gain a victory when he was raised high [on a shield perhaps?] to gaze at the forces of the enemy before a battle. Is this a possible source of confusion? Both brothers credited with sorcery and both having a tradition of being raised high? Perhaps there was nothing supernatural about the victories. A wise and tactical genius would obviously wish to survey the enemy positions before deploying his forces.

Surviving

It might seem likely that, in the 9th century, such a deformed or disabled child would have been destroyed at birth. However, since Ivarr was a Danish prince and an eldest son, it is not unreasonable to assume that he may have survived.

 

 

Ivarr the Boneless

Born

Place unknown

Estimated to AD 794.

Acceded

856 - Dublin

Died

873 - Dublin

Notes

Active in East Anglia, Dublin and York.

Father

Ragnar Lothbrok

(Hairy breeches) Chieftain of Denmark and Sweden.

Mother

Aslaug

Second wife of Ragnar.

Married

-

Brother 1

Halfdan

(of the Wide Embrace) son of Thora, third wife of Ragnar.

Brother 2

Sigurd / Siyard

(Snake-in-the-Eye) son of Aslaug.

Brother 3

Ubbi

Son of Esbern's unnamed daughter.

Brother 4

Bjorn Ironside

Son of Thora.

Brother 5

Rathbarth

Son of Thora.

Brother 6

Dunyat

Son of Thora.

Brother 7

Agnar

Son of Thora.

Brother 8

Regnald

Son of Svanloga, fourth wife of Ragnar.

Brother 9

Vithserk

Son of Svanloga.

Brother 10

Erik Wind Hat

Son of Svanloga.

Brother 11

Fridlef

Son of Lathgertha, first wife of Ragnar.

 

 

Centuries earlier, another disabled heir apparent had survived against the odds. In Sparta in the early fifth century BC, Agesilaus - the king's half-brother, who was born lame - was not killed shortly after birth as was the custom with disabled babies, but was allowed to live and eventually became king. The Roman emperor Claudius had also been lame from birth and had a pronounced speech impediment, so much so that he was regarded as feeble-minded. However, it is a long haul from lameness to complete disability.

 

Wisdom and Upper-Body Strength

At the same time as describing Ivarr's physical disability, the Norse sagas emphasise his extraordinary wisdom. Whereas his brother Ubbi is identified as having great physical strength and courage, Ivarr's mental dexterity is always stressed: 'It is doubtful if anyone has ever been wiser than he.' He is also credited with extraordinary cunning, and is described as a master of strategy and tactics in battle. The more powerful his mind was thought to be, the more his physical weakness was emphasised.

However, Ivarr's disability does not seem to have prevented him from fighting. Indeed, Ragnars saga emphasises his extreme upper-body strength, suggesting an almost superhuman might and alluding to powers of sorcery. In a battle against King Eysteinn of Sweden, Ivarr is said to have secured victory by defeating a bewitched cow named Sibilja. In the saga, he orders his men to carry him towards the terrible beast; he then blinds it by firing two arrows from a longbow as large as a tree trunk, which he drew back 'as if it were only a weak elm twig'.

Ragnarr's Death

The sagas record how, during one of his many raiding missions along the coast of England, Ragnarr's ship was blown off course and he landed in East Anglia. There he was entertained at the royal court, but internal politics led to his kidnapping. He was smuggled into Northumbria by its king Ælla, and then executed in a pit of vipers.

In his dying breath, the Viking declared: 'The little pigs would grunt now if they knew how it fares with the old boar.' His words prophesied the violent revenge that would be exacted by his children. Bloody retribution was, indeed, forthcoming.

The Conquering Vikings

In the early ninth century, Vikings from Norway - and, as we shall see, some from Denmark - settled in Scotland, in an area comprising the Northern and Western Isles and parts of the mainland. By the middle of the century, this was ruled by an effective, and new, royal dynasty. In the second half of the century, this dynasty made Dublin its headquarters, engaged in warfare with Irish kings, controlled most Viking activity in Ireland and imposed its overlordship and its tribute on Pictland and Alt Clut in Scotland.

When the invaders initially seized it in AD 841, Dublin was a monastic centre. Contemporary Irish annals say that the Vikings set up a longphort, or ship camp, 'at Dubhlinn'. This camp lasted sixty-one years, until 902, when the invaders were expelled by the combined forces of the king of Brega to the north and the king of Leinster to the south. [King Cerball of Leinster & an unnamed king of Brega.]

The Vikings' longphort was enclosed by large earthen banks but would have had direct access to the sea, crucial for the fleet. It must have been very large, given that, in one year alone, AD 849, it was able to cope with the loss of 1,000 fighting men and the simultaneous arrival of a fleet of 140 warships. It was also the home of political leaders, traders and craftsmen and their families.

In AD 853, Ivarr inn beinlausi arrived in Dublin and, with Olaf the White (in Norse, Amláib), who was from Norway, assumed sovereignty of the Viking settlement there.

Vikings of Middle England

Dublin to England: AD 865-867

AD 865 saw the greatest invasion of the British Isles in recorded history. In this year, according to an entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

a great heathen army came into England.

Unstoppable Success

It was an army of Danes - a Viking force of hitherto unseen strength and number - that moved through the land with frightening speed and seemingly unstoppable success. Led by Ivarr and his brothers Halfdan 'of the wide embrace' and Ubbi, this was the first Viking invasion of the British mainland aimed at conquest rather than pillage. Its impact was devastating.

Within the Scandinavian saga tradition, the 'great heathen invasion' was the result of Ivarr and his brothers' very personal desire to avenge the death of their father in the Northumbrian pit of vipers.

 

Vikings of Middle England
  The little pigs would grunt now if they knew how it fares with the old boar.

Words which prophesied the violent revenge that would be exacted by Ragnarr's children  

The Defeat of Northumbria

The Vikings landed on the East Anglian coast. King Edmund, the local ruler, bought peace for his kingdom by supplying the invaders with food, horses and winter quarters. Ivarr then led his army - perhaps reinforced by other Vikings from France - north along the old Roman road, crossing the Humber into the Anglian kingdom of Northumbria.

On 1st November 866, taking advantage of a civil war raging there between Ælla and his rival Osbert (who may have been his brother), the Viking army captured and occupied the Northumbrian capital of York (Jorvik) in a surprise attack, meeting little resistance. The invaders began to build up the defences of York, to make it theirs.

The warring Northumbrians had put aside their differences to unite against the common enemy, and on 23rd March 867, the combined forces of Osbert and Ælla attempted to retake York. They were heavily defeated by the Danes. Osbert was killed in battle and Ælla was put to death. The Annals of Ulster record:

A defeat of the Northern Saxons in York, at the hands of the Danes, in which Alli, king of the Northern Saxons, was slain.

Ælla's Execution

The manner of Ælla's death has generated tremendous debate among scholars of the period. His execution is described in great detail in the Scandinavian sources, and Ivarr's personal involvement is stressed. The most graphic description appears in the ßáttr af Ragnars sonum:

They caused the bloody eagle to be carved on the back of Ælla, and they cut away all of the ribs from the spine, and then they ripped out his lungs.

This particularly gruesome act was a form of Viking ritual murder known as the 'blood-eagle'. The practice has been rejected by certain academics, who feel it is based entirely on folklore, and that later descriptions are the result of mistranslation. However, the fact that the term 'blood-eagle' existed as a meaningful concept in the Old Norse vocabulary indicates that it constituted a ritual form of slaying in its own right.

Ivarr's devastating attack on the British Isles can thus be seen in the context of filial revenge and Ælla's exceptionally gruesome execution as the culmination of this impulse.

What was left of the Northumbrian royal court fled north, and Ivarr installed Egbert I as the puppet king of Northumbria. He was little more than a tax collector for the Danes, helping to bring them greater wealth and emphasising their power.

Vikings of Middle England

The Conquest of East Anglia: AD 867-870

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Ivarr's 'great heathen army' moved south from York in 868 and set up its winter quarters in Mercia, at Nottingham. The Vikings' arrival there marked the first recorded threat to the heartlands of Mercia. Nottingham's primary attraction to the Danes was its defensive position. Occupying high ground above the Trent at the lowest point at which it could be easily forded, it commanded two of the major routes between Mercia and Northumbria.

Cunning Fox

King Burghred of Mercia sent for help from King Æthelred of Wessex and his brother and heir Ælfred. The combined armies of Mercia and Wessex assembled before the Danish position. Ivarr realised that he was outnumbered and could not hope to win a battle. He relied instead on guile to secure a peace - the Treaty of Nottingham - to extricate the Danes from their position.

Henry of Huntingdon, writing almost 250 years later, described Ivarr's response:

Ingwar [Ivarr] then, seeing that the whole force of England was there gathered, and that his host was the weaker, and was there shut in, betook himself to smooth words - cunning fox that he was - and won peace and troth from the English. Then he went back to York, and abode there one year with all cruelty.

Under the cover of this peace, Ivarr recrossed Mercia with his army and his brother Ubbi Ragnarrson, and, in 870, conquered the kingdom of East Anglia at the Battle of Haegelisdun (probably Hellesden, in Bradfield St Clare, Suffolk).

The Execution of Edmund

Ivarr is also credited with the brutal execution of King Edmund in the small village of Hoxne, which later English sources equate with the martyrdom of St Sebastian.

In his life of St Edmund, the tenth-century French monk Abbo of Fleury wrote: 

Hingwar [Ivarr] then arrogantly commanded his troops that they should, all of them, take the king alone, who had despised his command, and instantly bind him.

When Hingwar came, Edmund the king stood within his hall, mindful of the Saviour, and threw away his weapons, desiring to imitate the example of Christ ... Then those wicked men bound Edmund and shamefully insulted him and beat him with clubs, and afterwards they led the faithful king to an earth-fast tree and tied him to it with hard bonds, and afterwards scourged him a long while with whips, and among the blows he was always calling with true faith on Jesus Christ.

Then the heathen were madly angry because of his faith, because he called upon Christ to help him. They shot at him with javelins as if for their amusement, until he was all beset with their shots, as with a porcupine's bristles, even as Sebastian was. When Hingwar, the wicked seaman, saw that the noble king would not deny Christ, but with steadfast faith ever called upon Him, he commanded men to behead him, and the heathen did so. For while he was yet calling upon Christ, the heathen drew away the saint to slay him, and struck off his head with a single blow, and his soul departed joyfully to Christ.

With that 'single blow' - Edmund's brother Edwold having fled to Cerne Abbas in Dorset and become a hermit - the East Anglian royal dynasty disappeared for ever.

From King to Saint

One of the best-known stories of this region tells how the Danes left Edmund's corpse unburied and his head thrown away into deep brambles. After a search by local people, the body was found, but not the head. They then heard the howling of a wolf (probably Edmund's own hunting-dog or wolfhound) and, following the sound, came to the place where the head lay.

The corpse and head were placed in a hastily built hut-like chapel and, it is said, miracles immediately began - a light was seen over the chapel, and the blind and the sick were healed. Edmund's head became joined to his body, with only a red scar marking the place of the previous cut.

Locals came as pilgrims to venerate Edmund's relics, which did not decay and rot. The murdered king was revered as a martyr and his cult quickly spread. Thirty years after his death, his body was interred in Bedericsworth, the central town of Suffolk, which soon became known as St Edmund's Town, or Bury St Edmunds. An abbey was founded in 1020, and the relics were moved to a shrine there in 1198. (At the beginning of the thirteenth century, these were stolen by French knights and taken to Toulouse.)

Edmund became the patron saint of all East Anglia. His symbol of three crowns - representing his kingship, his martyrdom and his virginity - can still be seen on many emblems, crests and flags all over East Anglia.

The Vikings in Wessex and Mercia [see entries above 871-879]

Meanwhile, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Vikings ...

... overcame all the land. They destroyed all the churches they came to; the same time they came to Medehamstede [Peterborough] they burned and broke, killed the abbot and monks, and all they found there."

Ivarr then returned to York, probably leaving the Viking army under the joint control of his brothers Halfdan 'Wide Embrace' and Ubbi.

They proceeded to attack Wessex. Following the Thames to Reading, they made the town their headquarters after a fight. Because the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was written in Wessex, we know what happened there in some detail. For instance, the chronicler specifies the Viking leaders - a collection of warlords, some of whom called themselves kings, others who did not have the support or the ambition to be more than jarls (earls).

Æthelred died, and Alfred (later to known as 'the Great') continued his campaign. There were at least nine engagements that the chronicler considered worthy of the name 'battle', plus many lesser forays mounted by the Wessex forces to harass or repulse the attacking Danes. By the end of 870, the Vikings, having lost one king [Bagsecg] and nine jarls, were willing to make peace.

Vikings of Middle England

Dumbarton, Dublin and Death: AD 870-873

In AD 870, Ivarr's brothers sued for peace in England. Ivarr went to Scotland and waged war.

The Siege of Dumbarton Rock

In this venture, he was joined by Olaf the White, his co-ruler in Dublin. This was not the first time that Olaf had been in Scotland. He had brought a raiding army to plunder it in 866.

Olaf was married to Aud 'The Deep-minded', whose family controlled the Hebrides, and it seems likely that many Hebridean Vikings joined his army. For three years, they wreaked havoc, plundering and extorting money from both Picts and Britons. In 869, these victims of Norse rapacity must have breathed a sigh of relief when Olaf returned to Dublin to curb Irish attacks there. However, he returned to Scotland the following year.

It was a two-pronged attack, Olaf sailing up the Firth of Clyde with a large fleet and Ivarr heading north-west from York. They met at Dumbarton Rock - Dun Breatann, 'fortress of the Britons', also called Alcluith, 'the Clyde rock' - the ancient capital of Strathclyde, which covered most of present-day south-west Scotland. The stronghold had, over the years, successfully resisted the attacks of Picts, Scots, and Angles. However, according to the Annals of Ulster, Ivarr and Olaf 'besieged, razed and pillaged' it.

 

Booty and Slaves

The garrison held out for four months but was compelled to surrender when the well on the rock dried up - 'miraculously', according to one ancient record, or by the Norsemen 'wonderfully' drawing off the water, according to another. The citadel was destroyed. The invaders remained in Strathclyde for the winter, and then sailed back to Dublin. It took a fleet of some 200 ships to carry off the booty and slaves (bound for sale in North Africa and the Middle East).

Arthgal, the king of Strathclyde, was taken prisoner and transported to Dublin. Ransom demands were sent to his son Rhun, who was married to the sister of Constantine, ruler of the neighbouring (and much larger) kingdom of Alba [Dal Riada's early Scotland]. Rhun was very ambitious and turned to his father-in-law. Constantine sent diplomats with gifts to Dublin, requesting that Arthgal be killed. Ivarr agreed to his request, the unfortunate prisoner was executed and Rhun became king. However, the capture of Dumbarton marked the downfall of the British dynasty in Strathclyde and its gradual absorption into the evolving Scottish kingdom.

Ivarr's Death

In 871, Ivarr arrived back in Dublin, where he remained as 'king of the Northmen of all Ireland and Britain' until his death in 873. Perhaps unusually, he died peacefully - laden with riches, seemingly invincible in battle and resolutely pagan. Winston Churchill says of Ivarr's end: 'Thus it may be that he had the best of both worlds.'

According to legend, Ivarr's body was brought back to England at his own request, and buried on the coast as a talisman to prevent further conquest of his kingdoms by foreigners. It served its purpose well until William the Conqueror supposedly had the body dug up and destroyed, making any examination of his remains impossible.

However, Professor Martin Biddle of Oxford University and his wife Birthe Kjølbye-Biddle believe that the skeleton of a nine-foot man discovered during excavations at Repton in Derbyshire is, in fact, that of Ivarr the Boneless. They have made a compelling case for this identification, which contradicts the theory that Ivarr suffered from osteogenesis imperfecta. But there are many who disagree with the Biddles' identification.

What Happened Next

Olaf the White left for Norway and his inheritance after the successful capture of Dumbarton Rock. Ivarr's successor as ruler of Dublin was his brother Halfdan, who then returned to England. There he achieved great military success, seizing the kingdom of Mercia in 874. Wide-scale Viking domination and settlement was now inevitable in the eastern Midlands and in the north. By 876, the Danes were actively sharing out land in Northumbria. This included all of present-day Yorkshire and Lancashire.

Who replaced Halfdan in Dublin is unknown, but he was not very successful. Dissent between different Viking clans gave the Irish their chance to regain Dublin in 902.

Ivarr Lives?

But maybe Ivarr didn't actually die in 873, but met his end five years later. The fourteenth century chronicler of the Book of Hyde says that Ivarr - whom he calls 'Hingwar' - drowned at Hungerford ('Hingwar's Ford') in Berkshire when he was on his way to meet the Saxons in battle at Ethandune, said to be nearby Eddington (although the site of the battle is almost certainly Edington in Wiltshire). This was the last decisive victory for the Saxons, when Alfred the Great drove the Danes out of southern England forever.

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

Ivarr The Boneless by Geoffrey van Leeuwen (internet article with additional text by Mick Baker)

Channel 4 article from their web site

Saxo Grammaticus - The History of the Danes [Books I - IX] by Hilda Ellis Davidson & Peter Fisher

The Fall of Saxon England (BCA) by Richard Humble

A History of the Vikings by Gwyn Jones (London: Oxford University Press, 1968)

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles

Ragnar's Saga

The Orkney Sagas

The Boy Through the Ages by D M Stuart

Essays and Data on Dark Age Britain: M D Baker with additions by P L Kessler,
August Hunt, David Nash Ford and Mark DeVere Davis

 

 

     
Images and text copyright © Mick Baker and Vikings of Middle England. An original feature for the History Files.