Extracted from ‘The Historians History of the World’ – 1909
Ragnar Lodbrok and his heirs
The remarkable history of this Scandinavian adventurer has been so obscured by conflicting traditions and poetical embellishments as to create considerable difficulty in reconciling the chronology and other circumstances of his life with the accounts given in the Frankish and Anglo-Saxon annals.
The anachronism is generally explained by supposing two piratical chiefs of the same name, although this seems hardly consistent with the Sagas and other ancient Icelandic writings. All the northern chronicles agree in the main particulars related of the prince who reigned in Denmark and Sweden in the latter part of the eighth century, and who could not, therefore, be the formidable invader that infested France and England about the middle of the ninth. It is not improbable, however, that the chieftain whose exploits have been confounded with those of the more ancient Ragnar, was a prince of Jutland, whose real name was Ragenfrid, or Regnier, who became a seaking on being expelled from his dominions in the time of Harold Klak (827), and subsequently invaded France under the reign of Louis le Debonnaire.
Without venturing to narrate the wars and piracies of this redoubted monarch, or the extraordinary feats of courage ascribed to him by Saxo we may record what tradition states as to the cause and singular manner of his death. While ruling his dominions in peace, his jealousy was excited by rumours of the daring achievements of his sons in various regions of Europe; and he determined to undertake an expedition that should rival their name. Two vessels were built of immense size, such as had never before been seen in the North. ” The arrow, the signal of war, was sent through all his kingdoms, to summon his champions to arms. With this apparently inadequate force he set sail, contrary to the advice of his queen, Aslauga, who presented him with a magical garment to ward off danger.
After suffering from storms and shipwreck, he landed on the coast of Northumberland, which had been so often ravaged by his predecessors. Jura, the Saxon king of that country, collected his forces to repel the invader. A battle ensued, wherein the valiant Dane, clothed in his enchanted robe, and wielding the huge spear with which he had slain the guardian serpent of the princess Thora, four times pierced the enemy’s ranks, dealing death on every side, whilst his own person was invulnerable. But the contest was unequal; his warriors fell one by one around him, until he was at last taken prisoner, stripped of his miraculous vest, and thrown alive (as the Saga relates), by order of (CHECK), into a dungeon full of serpents, in the midst of which he expired with a laugh of defiance, chanting the famous death-song called the Lodbrokar-cruidaf or Biarkcanal, which he is alleged to have composed in that horrible prison.
This ancient lay mentions his ravaging the coast of Scotland, and his battle with three kings of Erin at Lindis Eiri. The English chronicles also allude to the same invasion, when they relate that the monastery of St. Cuthbert, in the isle of Lindisfarne (Holy Island), was plundered in 793 by a band of pagan rovers from Denmark and Norway; and that their leader was taken the following year, and put to death in a cruel manner by the natives.
The life of this hero is represented as an uninterrupted course of wise measures, noble actions, and glorious victories; for not only did the British Isles quail at the terror of his name — the prowess of his arms was also felt by the Saxons, Russians, and Greeks on the distant Hellespont.
At the time when the father perished, the sons were engaged in foreign piracies; and the first news of his tragical fate they received after their return, while feasting in their hall, from the messengers sent by Jura to propitiate their anger. The Saga-men have carefully preserved their names, and the pastimes in which they were engaged. Sigurd Snogoje (Snake-eye) CHECK red at chess with Huitserk the Brave, whilst Bjorn Ironside polished the die of his spear. Ivar diligently inquired what kind of death Ragnar had suffered; and when the deputies narrated the dreadful story, and mentioned the words of the expiring king, “how the young cubs would rage when they learned their sire’s fate,” the youths ceased their amusements, and vowed instant revenge. An expedition, led by eight crowned heads and twenty jarls, and composed of the various Scandinavian tribes, was again directed against England. In a battle which took place at York, the Anglo-Saxons were entirely routed; Jura, being made prisoner, was subjected to the most barbarous treatment. According to a strange and savage custom of the vikings, the sons of Lodbrok ordered the figure of an eagle to be cut in the fleshy part of his back, the ribs to be severed from the spine, and the lungs extracted through the aperture. After this victory Northumbria appears no more as a Saxon kingdom; Ivar took possession of the sovereignty, while the rest of the Northmen wasted and conquered the country as far as the mouth of the Thames.
Sigurd Snake-eye inherited the Danish crown, but was slain in a battle with the Franks (803 A.D.), after extending his sway over all Jutland, CHECK, Halland, and part of Norway. Bjorn was placed on the throne of Sweden; and a third brother Gottrik (Gudrod or Godefrid), became king of Jutland, which again asserted its independence. The latter prince, by attempting to expel a troublesome colony of the Abodriti, planted on the Elbe by Charlemagne, involved himself in a quarrel with that powerful emperor, who was then carrying on a bloody war of extermination against the pagan Saxons, for refusing to be converted to Christianity. Gottrik for some time harassed his imperial adversary; and appearing with a fleet of two hundred barks on the coast of Friesland, he landed at three different points, dispersed the natives, slew their duke, Rurik, and levied an assessment of 100 pounds weight of silver, which the Frisians brought to his treasury and threw into a copper basin in his presence. Judging from the sound that the tributemoney was debased with alloy, he ordered every coin to be confiscated that did not ring to his satisfaction.
This daring marauder even attempted to take the emperor by surprise, in his palace at Aix-la-Chapelle; but he was himself cut off in the midst of his designs (810 A.D.) by the hand of aassassin. Charlemagne entered into a treaty with Hemming, the nephew and successor of Gottrik (813 A.D.), which stipulated that the Eider should form the boundary between Denmark and the Frankish Empire — the Danes thus abandoning all their conquests southward of that limit Harde-Knud, the heir of Sigurd, being young at the time of his father’s death, was left to the guardianship of his uncle Gottrik, regent of the kingdom.
During the prince’s minority, grievous commotions had arisen. Jutland threw off its allegiance, and the sovereignty was fiercely contested between the sons of Gottrik and Harold Klak, a petty king of Schleswig, and father of Rurik, who had taken violent possession of Friesland. He was repeatedly driven from his dominions, and his flight became remarkable as the means of shedding the first rays of Christianity over the pagan darkness of the North. In the peace which Charlemagne had concluded with Hemming, that politic conqueror did not attempt to impose his religion upon the Danes, which would have been rejected by them as a badge of slavery. However anxious to reclaim them from their wild and barbarous habits, he was unwilling to excite a spirit of hostility that might have spread to the bordering nations, by interfering with their obstinate attachment to idolatry.The achievement of this desirable object was reserved for his son and successor. Louis le D6bonnaire, whose court at Ingelheim, on the Rhine, was visited (826 A.D.), by the exiled prince of Jutland, accompanied with his Queen, his sons, and a numerous retinue, in a fleet of a hundred galleys. Here the solicitations of the emperor and his prelates induced Harold to
renounce the errors of paganism. His wife and children, and many of his followers, were baptised, having solemnly abjured, according to a rude formula still extant, ” the works and words of the devil, of Thor, and
Woden, and Saxon Odin, with all the evil spirits, their confederates.”
After the ceremony, the royal convert proceeded in his white garments to the imperial palace, where he received rich baptismal presents of mantles, jewels, armour, and other gifts. The day was ended with a magnificent festival, in which every means were lavished to impress the Danes with a lively idea of the pomp and splendour of the Romish religion, as well as the wealth and power of the Franks.