Biography of Ivar the Boneless, Ragnar Lodbrok's son

Ivar and Ubba Slaying Christians in Northern England
Excerpt from folio 48r of Harley MS 2278. Depiction of Ivar and his brother Ubba slaying Christians in the north of England. The manuscript may have been compiled under the direction of John Lydgate (d. 1449/1450).

Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Ivar the Boneless (794–873 CE) was the leader of the Great Viking Army in England, one of three Danish brothers who invaded and planned to take over the entire country in the 9th century CE. According to historical sources, he was a violent man, cruel and fierce. 

Key Takeaways: Ivar the Boneless

  • Known For: Leading the Great Viking Army
  • Also Known As: Ivar Ragnarsson, Ívarr hinn Beinlausi (Ivar the Boneless in Old Norse)
  • Born: ca. 830, Denmark
  • Parents: Ragnar Lodbrok and his wife Aslaug
  • Key Accomplishments: Captured and looted several monasteries in England and Ireland
  • Died: 873 in Repton, England
  • Fun Fact: His nickname has been alternately translated "Ivar the Legless," a metaphor for male impotence; or "Ivar the Detestable," a reflection of his character.

Early Life

The life of Ivar the Boneless is found in several Norse sagas, most particularly the Saga of Ivar Ragnarsson. He was said to be the eldest of three sons of the legendary Swedish Ragnar Lodbrok and his third wife Asalauga.

Although Ivar is described in Ragnar's Saga as a physically large and extraordinarily strong man, the saga also reports that he was disabled to the extent that he had to be carried about on his shield. The interpretation of his nickname "Ivar the Boneless" has been a focus of much speculation. Perhaps he suffered from osteogenesis imperfecta, a condition in which a person's bones are cartilaginous. If so, Ivar's is the earliest reported case of that in medical history.

One explanation suggests that his name in Latin was not "exos" ("boneless") but "exosus" ("detestable or detesting"). Others argue that his nickname might also be translated as "legless," a metaphor for male impotence. 

Battles in Ireland

In 854, Ragnar Lodbrok was killed after he was captured by Ælla, the king of Northumberland, who put Ragnar to death in a pit of poisonous snakes. After the news arrived at Ragnar's sons in Ireland, Ivar emerged as the primary leader and his brothers went on to raid France and Spain

In 857, Ivar allied with Olaf the White (820–874), the son of a king of Vestfold in Norway. For a decade or so, Ivar and Olaf raided several monasteries in Ireland, but eventually, the Irish developed defenses against the Viking attacks, and in 863–864, Ivar left Ireland for Northumbria.  

Lindisfarne Monastery, Northumberland Site of Viking Raid
The ruins of Lindisfarne Priory, Northumberland, North East England. St Mary's church on left. The Priory was the scene of Viking attacks in the 8th and 9th centuries. esp_imaging / Getty Images Plus

England and Revenge

In Northumbria, Ivar tricked Ælla into allowing him to build a fortress, sending to Denmark for forces that landed in East Anglia in 864. The new Viking Great Army, or Viking Heathen Army, led by Ivar and his brother Halfdan, took York in 866, and ritually butchered King Ælla the next year. Then in 868, they turned to Nottingham, and in East Anglia in 868–869 where St. Edmund was ritually killed. Ivar is said to have enjoyed inflicting painful deaths. 

After the conquest of Northumbria, the Great Army was reinforced by the Summer Army—estimates of military force are about 3,000. In 870, Halfdan led the army against Wessex, and Ivar and Olaf together destroyed Dumbarton, the capital of the Scottish kingdom of Strathclyde. The next year, they returned to Dublin with cargoes of slaves meant for sale in Arabic Spain.

Death

By 871, Ivar, having captured Northumbria, Scotland, Mercia, and East Anglia, returned to Ireland with 200 ships and a great number of captives of Angles, Britons, and Picts. According to the Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok, before he died, supposedly peacefully, Ivar ordered that his body be buried in a mound on the English shore. 

His obituary is recorded in the Irish Annals in the year 873, reading simply "Ivar King of all the Norse of Ireland and Britain, ended his life." It doesn't say how he died, or whether he was in Dublin when he died. Ragnar Lodbrok's saga says he was buried in England. 

Burial

In the fall of 873, the Great Army arrived in Repton, where Ivar the Boneless was apparently buried. Repton, which was one of the ecclesiastical centers of England in the 9th century, was associated with the Mercian royal family. Several kings were buried here, including Aethelbald (757) and Saint Wystan (849).

The Army over-wintered (wintersetl) in Repton, driving the Mercian king Burgred into exile and putting one of his thegns, Ceowulf, on the throne. During their occupancy, the Great Army remodeled the site and the church into a defensive enclosure. They excavated a large V-shaped ditch to create a D-shaped fortress, with the long side facing a cliff above the River Trent. 

Several groups of burials at Repton are associated with the over-wintering, including one elite burial, Grave 511, thought by some to represent Ivar. 

Grave 511

The warrior was at least between 35–45 years old when he died, and he had met with a very violent death, presumably in battle, killed by the thrust of a spear into his eye and a great slashing blow to the top of his left femur, which also removed his genitals. Cuts to the lower vertebrae show he was likely disemboweled. 

The individual was robust and just under six feet tall, taller than most people of his day. He was buried wearing Viking riches including a "Thor's hammer" amulet and an iron sword in a wooden scabbard. A boar's tusk and raven/jackdaw humerus were placed between his thighs.  

The burial was disturbed in 1686, and there are other Viking-era burials here as well, but 511 was the first one created for the period. Excavators Martin Biddle and Birthe Kjølbye-Biddle argue that the burial is probably that of Ivar. He was clearly a person of kingly stature, and the disarticulated bones of about 200 men of military age and women were buried around him. 

The only other leaders that could be interred in 873–874 were Halfdan, Guthrum, Oscetel, and Anwend, all of whom reportedly left in 874 to carry on the pillaging of England. The man in Grave 511 was tall, but he was not "boneless."

Sources

  • Arnold, Martin. "The Vikings: Wolves of War." New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007
  • Biddle, Martin, and Birthe Kjolbye-Biddle. "Repton and the 'Great Heathen Army,' 873–4." Vikings and the Danelaw. Eds. Graham-Campbell, James, et al.: Oxbow Books, 2016. Print.
  • Richards, Julian D. "Pagans and Christians at a Frontier: Viking Burial in the Danelaw." Carver, Martin, ed. The Cross Goes North: Processes of Conversion in Northern Europe, AD 300-1300. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2005. pp 383–397
  • Smyth, Alfred P. "Scandinavian Kings in the British Isles, 850–880." Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.