No woman played such a significant role in a period of change and political turbulence.
Born into a royal family but unrecorded
For any historian – or history lover – of the early medieval period, work can be both rewarding and frustrating.
We only have a sliver of historical records and information passed down to us from our medieval ancestors, leaving us with limited knowledge about much of medieval life.
What information we do have is mostly from the elite, powerful kings, and rulers, giving us a very one-sided and incomplete view of life a millennium ago.
You may assume, like the current author did, that there would be solid information on a granddaughter of the King of Sweden, born in the early 12th century.
Unfortunately, you would be wrong.
Ingrid Ragnvaldsdotter, though she was born the daughter of the heir apparent to the Swedish throne, Ragnvald Ignesson, making King Inge I her grandfather, no one bothered to record her birthdate correctly.
Modern historians believe it was somewhere between 1100 and 1110.
This sort of oversight (at best) or downright misogyny (at worst) plagues the lives and times of women right up until the modern period – and many would argue it continues today.
However, as history lovers, we need to try and gauge what we can with the gaps, the silences, and the missing parts of the historical record.
- READ MORE: Women and power in the Viking Age
Sigtuna, founded in the late 10th century, is one of Sweden's oldest cities and was a significant political and economic center during the time of Ingrid Ragnvaldsdotter. Photo: Arild Vågen / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)
A historical estuary
Ingrid Ragnvaldsdotter grew up in the Swedish court during an era of change.
Despite people from what is now Sweden dominating areas of Eastern Europe, there was still no unified Swedish realm until the first half of the 12th century.
Unlike its next-door neighbor, Norway, which was unified under the strong rule of Harald Fairhair, there was no singular dominant figure in Sweden to subjugate the various peoples and petty kingdoms under one centralized authority.
Some historians argue that the medieval kingdom of Sweden did not truly materialize until the 14th century.
Her grandfather, King Inge I, oversaw a "kingdom" based in what is now Västergötland and Östergötland, dominated by uneasy alliances of powerful nobles.
One way of ensuring alliances and powerful friends was through marriage, and young Ingrid was sent off to marry one of the grandsons of King Sweyn II of Denmark.
It was believed that this alliance could provide significant security to Inge's southern flank, as well as forging military and economic links with the Danish kingdom.
This was to be the first of four marriages that Ingrid would enter throughout her life.
Her new husband, Henrik Skandelar, was said to be crippled – a term in medieval times that could indicate any sort of physical disability – and thus was not considered a candidate to ascend to his grandfather's throne.
Instead, he was reputed to spend most of his time scheming and plotting.
Their marriage produced three sons, one of whom, Magnus, would go on to become King of Sweden.
It appears that Ingrid was not averse to a bit of scheming, too, as she planned for her son Magnus to ascend to the throne by plotting to kill her husband.
Eventually, an assassin was not needed as Skandelar was killed at the Battle of Fotevik – a bloody battle that pitted a current, a former, and a future king of Denmark against each other.
Gamlehaugen, the royal residence in Bergen, stands as a testament to the rich history of Norway's monarchy, echoing back to times when figures like Ingrid Ragnvaldsdotter influenced the royal courts. Photo: Marius Dobilas / Shutterstock
A kingdom divided
We cannot assume to know the personality of Ingrid, but she must have had a considerable amount of charm or presence, as she next appears in the historical record as the wife of Harald Gille of Norway.
No doubt, Harald Gille saw marriage to Ingrid, as the mother of a future king of Sweden, as an important alliance between the two kingdoms.
We know not of any romantic intentions – whether they existed or the marriage was strictly political.
She now became the Queen Consort of Norway, albeit a divided Norway.
Despite being "unified" since 872, deep fissures were beginning to show in the Norwegian kingdom by the first half of the 12th century.
Following the legendary crusading King Sigurd I – whose reign was a true golden age for medieval Norway – Harald had to share his grandfather's kingdom with his father, Magnus.
An uneasy rule between father and son eventually descended into war, leading to Harald capturing and blinding his father.
However, Harald's days on the Norwegian throne were numbered, as he was assassinated in 1136, some six years after his joint royal ascension.
This marked the start of what historians call the "Norwegian Civil War," a decades-long period of bloody conflict and internal strife.
Before his death, however, Harald and Ingrid's marriage produced another son – confusingly named Inge (European royalty tended to stick with certain names – think of all the Georges in England or Christians in Denmark).
Inge would become an important figure to whom Ingrid remained an advisor when he came of age and ascended to the throne.
Start of the civil war
Sadly for Ingrid, she had been widowed twice in her short life.
Yet this was a recurring theme, as her next husband, a high-ranking Norwegian noble, would be killed in the royal capital of Nidaros in the early 1140s.
Twice became thrice, but there appears to have been little said or thought of this.
Given the short and bloody lifespan that most medieval people experienced, death was always an ever-present threat, especially in an era when Norwegian society began to split and divide with the looming threat of civil war.
Her last marriage was to another Norwegian noble.
However, she continued to be a key advisor for her sons, especially King Inge, during the early stages of the Norwegian Civil War era.
Inge would eventually fall in battle in 1161, signaling the true start of this decades-long conflict.
As the queen consort of Norway during her marriage to Harald Gille, Ingrid Ragnvaldsdotter likely resided in Nidaros, known today as Trondheim, a city that held great importance in both royal and religious matters. Photo: saiko3p / Shutterstock
A remarkable life
The last record we have of Ingrid dates back to the early 1160s. Following this, like so many other medieval figures, the historical record trail goes cold.
If she died then, she would have been of middle age, which, given the amount of physical and psychological toll her life took – being a widow three times over and the mother of many children, including two kings – was closer to what might be considered a ripe old age in those times.
For being a key advisor to two medieval Scandinavian kings, for marrying into the royalty and nobility of three kingdoms, and for the small miracle of surviving multiple childbirths without any modern medical technology, she deserves considerable praise.
Hers was a life plagued by death and political insecurity, yet she seems to have persevered with true grit that echoes down to us through the ages.
For more information on Norway's unification during the Middle Ages, check out this article on the official website of the Royal House of Norway.
This deep-dive article was written thanks to the support of subscribers to The Viking Herald's Facebook page. Do you enjoy our work? You can SUBSCRIBE here or via our Facebook page. You'll get access to exclusive content and behind-the-scenes access.
Feel free to reach out to discuss potential stories that may be in the public interest. You can reach us via email at email@example.com with the understanding that the information you provide might be used in our reporting and stories.