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
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, 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contemporary historical documents, and it is possible to trace his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 Ragnar's 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,
'boneless' in terms of the physical ability to be able to mate. 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 between six feet nine inches to seven feet two inches, with
obviously huge bones - may be called 'Boneless', or he may simply have had
very supple joints (in modern terms being double-jointed). Ivarr's nickname
could be as simple as that, with the sagas' explanation no more than a
three hundred year-late rationalisation.
According to Ragnar's saga, Ivarr's 'bonelessness'
was the result of a curse. His mother, Aslaug, was Ragnarr's second wife
with 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.
A recreation of a Viking ship of the ninth century which was uncovered
on England's west coast, in Liverpool on the Wirral peninsula in
The Mercian Tribal Hidage
Kings of Denmark
Viking Kingdom of Dublin
Scandinavian Kingdom of York
Danish Kingdom of East Anglia
Kingdom of Sweden
Vikings of Middle England
Channel 4 Micro Site (dead
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.
It might seem likely that, in the ninth 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.
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Ivarr the Boneless - details
||Estimated to AD 794.
||856 - Dublin
||873 - Dublin
East Anglia, Dublin, and York.
||(Hairy breeches) Chieftain of
Denmark and Sweden.
||Second wife of Ragnar.
||(of the Wide Embrace) son
of Thora, third wife of Ragnar.
||Sigurd / Siyard
||(Snake-in-the-Eye) son of Aslaug.
||Son of Esbern's unnamed daughter.
||Son of Thora.
||Son of Thora.
||Son of Thora.
||Son of Thora.
||Son of Svanloga, fourth wife
||Son of Svanloga.
||Erik Wind Hat
||Son of Svanloga.
||Son of Lathgertha, first wife of
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. 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, Ragnar's 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'.
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,
The conquering Vikings
In the early ninth century, Vikings from Norway
and, as we shall see, some from Denmark, settled in what is now
Scotland, in an area comprising the Northern Isles 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 the far north of Britain.
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 for 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 and an unnamed king of Brega.
The Vikings' longphort was enclosed by
large earthen banks but would have had direct access to the sea,
something that was 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 a thousand 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) of Norway,
assumed sovereignty of the Viking settlement there.
This may be a fairly typical image of Vikings staging a raid
- whether in Ireland or Britain the scene would have been
very much the same - but they seem to be faced with some
well-armed opposition on the shore
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
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
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 which
specifically aimed at conquest rather than pillage. Its impact was
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.
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 1 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 to the Vikings) in a surprise attack, meeting
little resistance. The invaders began to build up York's defences,
to make it theirs. The warring Northumbrians had to put aside their
differences to unite against the common enemy. On 23 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 captured and put to death. The Annals of Ulster
A defeat of the northern Saxons in York, at
the hands of the Danes, in which Alli, king of the northern Saxons,
The Rise of Ceolwulf II and the Last Days of Mercia
The Viking Kingdom of York
High Reeves of Bamburh
The manner of Ælla's death has generated tremendous
debate amongst 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
Ivarr's devastating attack on the British Isles
can therefore 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
quite possibly to Bamburh where in the late ninth
century an Anglian nobility held the position of high reeve.
In York, 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.
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 at Nottingham in Mercia. 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 easily be forded, it commanded two of the major
routes between Mercia and Northumbria.
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 Vikings found quarters at Quatford in Mercia in 896, occupying
a commanding position over the valley of the River Severn (just
half a mile from the view shown here), and building a burgh
which may have formed the basis of the later Norman castle
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 to become a hermit - the East
Anglian royal dynasty disappeared forever.
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
cast aside to rest deep in 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 or 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 were 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 for 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 along 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
Æthelred died, and Alfred (later to known as 'the
Great') continued his campaigning. 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.
Dumbarton, Dublin and death: AD 870-873
In AD 870, Ivarr's brothers sued for peace in
England. Ivarr went northwards and waged war in Alt Clut.
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 the north of Britain. 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 the north
of Britain in the following year.
It was a two-pronged attack, with 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 Alt Clut or Strathclyde, which covered most of
present-day south-western 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 two
hundred 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 he turned to his father-in-law
for assistance. 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
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 said 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 any 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
However, Professor Martin Biddle of Oxford
University and his wife Birthe Kjølbye-Biddle believe that the
skeleton of a nine-foot man which was 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.
Viking remains from the eighth and ninth centuries can be found
not only in Britain but all over northern Europe, with this one
being discovered on the island of Saaremaa (Estonia) in 2008
What happened next
Olaf the White left for Norway and his kingly
inheritance there 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 by
seizing the kingdom of Mercia in 874. Widescale 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
seemingly large areas of Lancashire, although the timeline of Viking
possession there is highly obscure.
Who replaced Halfdan in Dublin is confused, but
he was not very successful. Dissent between different Viking clans
gave the Irish their chance to regain Dublin in 902.
But maybe Ivarr didn't actually die in 873, but
instead 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
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
Davidson, Hilda Ellis & Fisher, Peter
- Saxo Grammaticus - The History of the Danes [Books I - IX]
Humble, Richard - The Fall of Saxon England
Jones, Gwyn - A History of the Vikings
(London: Oxford University Press, 1968)
Stuart, D M - The Boy Through the Ages
The Orkney Sagas
Channel 4 article from their website
Essays and sata on Dark Age Britain: M
D Baker with additions by Peter Kessler, August Hunt, David Nash Ford, and
Mark DeVere Davis
van Leeuwen, Geoffrey - Ivarr The Boneless
(internet article with additional text by Mick Baker)
Images and text copyright © Mick Baker and Vikings of
Middle England. An original feature for the History Files.