Nowadays, Swedish royalty has to duck and dive from the cover of the omnipresent paparazzi; their every move is closely followed, and every indiscretion (a fair few in the case of the current Swedish king) is made public.
Yet for the supposed first king of Sweden, Björn Ironside, we have not only a scant record of him as a historical figure but exactly how, where, and when he died is a confused collection of conflicting stories and sagas.
Separating fantasy, fact, and fiction
For those that are yet to watch the dramatically brilliant (but perhaps not brilliantly historically accurate) series, Vikings, look away now...
For those that have, the death of Björn Ironside, one of the main characters of the hit Netflix series, is one of the most dramatic and climactic events of the show.
Having been severely wounded, and assumed to have died, during a heavy attack by Rus warriors on Kattegat, Björn - who we first met as a child in Season 1 and is now King of Kattegat – rides out in full armor and on a white steed nonetheless to meet his destiny.
The Rus warriors, as well as his own men, seemed to be amazed at the eternal quality of this warrior - was Ironside a man or a god?
The Netflix series isn't the only fictional representation of the 9th-century CE warrior, and semi-legendary king, Björn Ironside. For those that don't like consuming their entertainment with the click of a button, we have a wealth of stories left to us from the Norse sagas.
Two in particular, The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok and The Tale of Ragnar's Sons, give us a wealth of information about Ironside's famous family (he was the son of the supposed leader of the first Viking raid on Paris in 844 CE, Ragnar Lothbrok), early career raiding across the Baltic region and eventual rise to some sort of either kingship or overlordship over much of the Scandinavian Viking world.
Amongst his exploits and adventures, Ironside was said to have led many of them with his other family members. He is credited with organizing and leading the first Viking raid into the Mediterranean Sea.
Here he led a huge armada (as many as 400 ships) to a campaign of plundering and pillaging along the coastal regions of what today is Portugal, Spain, areas of the Maghreb, and northwest Italy.
In fact, he was even said to have led a raid on the Italian town of Luni, mistaking it for Rome. This represents history's first case, but not the last, of a horde of hopelessly lost Scandinavians in Southern Europe.
Is there any historical proof of some of these wild tales?
What the record says
Aside from the tall tales and the superb sagas, there is little evidence of repute to show that there even was a historical figure named Björn Ironside.
Much of the evidence we have is from one set of Frankish annals, compiled late in the reign of the first Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne.
Covering the period 830 – 882 CE, in the Annales Bertiniani, there is mention of a Viking raider and leader who is dubbed Berno (the Latin rendition of Bjørn).
After the acceptance of what historians believe to be Danegeld (the payment, by Frankish rulers, of Vikings to cease their raiding activities...sometimes this worked and often it didn't), the annals relates how, "Bjørn, leader of the faction of pirates of the Seine, pursuing King Charles came to the palace in Veberie, and giving him his hands, swore fidelity to him..."
Yet here he disappears from the historical records of the Franks, never to be mentioned again.
Given that many of the sagas paint Björn Ironside as the son of the scourge of the Seine, Ragnar Lothbrok, could this Berno be Björn? Having ransacked Paris, could a Viking chieftain then have seen his son succeed him to rule an area dominated by the Seine River?
A page out of the Gesta Danorum. Photo: Public Domain
Björn Ironside also appears in a later medieval chronicle, Gesta Danorum, compiled in the very early 13th century by Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus.
Here, Grammaticus mentions Björn Ironside as being the first King of the Swedes, the founder of the House of Munsö, which was said to rule Sweden from the 9th to 13th centuries CE.
Though it may be the earliest attestable royal dynasty of Sweden, there is much debate about whether Ironside's role as founder of this dynasty is a solid fact or mere poetic license.
According to Grammaticus, it was Ironside's father, Lothbrok, who had set out to conquer what is now Sweden. Just before the invading army, led by the famous Viking father and son, met the opposing side, a request was made for a mortal combat to decide the fate of Sweden.
Björn was selected to represent the invading force and, through a deadly duel to the death, defeated his challenger. Grammaticus relates how the deadly warrior received his nickname after the duel as Björn, "...having inflicted great slaughter on the foe without hurt to himself, gained from the strength of his sides, which were like iron, a perpetual name (Ironside).
Grammaticus also points to Björn being the King of the Swedes when the famous Archbishop of Bremen, Ansgar, visited the Viking royal court at the trading town of Birka.
Despite Ansgar's proselytizing overtures, Ironside was stubborn in his refusal to adopt the new Christian faith. Many in his royal court, according to Grammaticus, converted, however.
These two sources, however, though more historically reliable than sagas, are problematic as the former is from an enemy's court, whilst the latter was compiled more than three centuries after Ironside was said to have ruled.
Yet the answer related to his death lies back in the realms of the Franks.
Any clues on the downfall of Ironside?
Like most great figures from the early medieval period, we have an annoyingly small amount of information about Björn Ironside.
This is perhaps why the Eurocentric view of this period as the "Dark Ages" is actually accurate, as we, later generations, are literally in the metaphoric "dark" when it comes to many of the events, dramas, and lives of this period. The downfall and death of Ironside are no different.
The last we hear of Ironside in Gesta Danorum is when, along with one of his brothers, he was said to have led a huge Viking armada of 1,700 ships to try and invade England.
His father, Lothbrok, had died here and swore that his sons would avenge him. Tales from the Irish canon state that it was Ironside who was responsible for the Viking invasions of the British Isles from 865 CE.
That would place Ironside as one of the leaders of the "Great Heathen Army" - the first significant set of Viking invasions of the British Isles, which would ultimately lead to the Viking conquest of huge swathes of Britain - which is mentioned heavily in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles.
Our best guess, however, lies with Frankish sources. Ironside's final days were said to be spent harrying the coast of Frisia and managed to get as far inland as Bruges.
The marshy nature of this region in the early medieval period did not lend itself to lightning Viking raids. Ironside and his force were said to have been ambushed in the marshy swamps north of the town, and he was brutally slain.
His body was said to have been returned to Birka, the location of the Swedish royal court, where he was interred in an elaborate Viking funeral.
Yet, much like his death in the recent Netflix series, the medieval chroniclers never let the truth get in the way of a good story.
Forbes has published more information on the latest exciting archaeological finds at the former Viking royal court at Birka, available to read here.
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