The Vikings dominated Northern European history for a span of over two centuries, and military tactics and strategies changed dramatically in this time by the societies they raided, traded, and helped settle.
Today, we look today at the top 5 most elite Viking warriors.
Ragnar Lothbrok: Fact or fiction?
From the late 8th century CE onwards, Viking warriors left their homelands in Scandinavia to wreak havoc on coastal communities throughout Northern Europe.
According to many sagas and legends, one of the most fierce early Viking warriors and raiders was Ragnar Lothbrok. The supposed son of a Swedish king (Sigurd Ring) and grandson of a Danish one (Randver), the historicity of Ragnar is still part of a heated debate amongst scholars.
What little we know about his actual life is pieced together from sagas written hundreds of years after he was supposed to have lived during the 9th century CE.
Sagas, including The Tale of Ragnar Lodbrok, Tale of Ragnar's Sons, and the Heimskringla, paint Lothbrok as a warrior who, amongst other things, wore clothes that gave him a magical form of protection, killed a giant snake and married the famous Kraká.
Wanting to outshine his more illustrious family, he sailed to conquer England with two ships but was defeated by an Anglo-Saxon force and thrown into a snake pit. His sons swore vengeance and led the first wave of the "Great Heathen Army" that invaded the British Isles from 866 CE.
The first more historically based mention of Lothbrok, however, comes from Saxo Grammaticus' seminal Gesta Danorum, compiled in the very early 13th century CE. Here, Ragnar is said to have slain the Swedish King Frö, aided by a feisty shield-maiden named Lagertha, who he ends up marrying. Saxo focuses on Ragnar's constant campaigning in the British Isles.
In 845 CE, a Viking force sailed up the river Seine and laid siege to, and eventually sacked, Paris. The Viking forces were led by a chieftain called "Ragnar"; however, there has been an ongoing debate about whether this Ragnar was Ragnar Lothbrok.
Some scholars have pointed to the fact that Ragnar Lothbrok may well be a compilation of Viking warriors and raiders that terrorized the Frankish kingdoms and the British Isles during their blitzkrieg raids during the 9th century CE.
Björn Ironside - raiding Northern and Southern Europe
When your father was said to be the scourge of the Frankish realms, a famous Viking warrior and hero, it is safe to assume that you will more than likely follow in your father's footsteps. This was the case for Björn Ironside, one of the sons of Ragnar Lothbrok.
Again, like his father, we have limited historical or contemporary sources to shed some factual light on his life, but he was believed to have lived in the middle of the 9th century CE.
Later French sources, compiled in the 11th century CE, tell of how Ironside had to leave the Danish realm at the request of his father. The Danes had a custom where the sons of a king had to leave the realm in order to prevent any political intrigues or coup attempts.
Ironside then commanded a huge flotilla of longboats and sailed south to the Frankish kingdoms. He sailed up the Seine (like father, like son) and laid waste to riverside communities further inland than his father had reached.
Aside from laying waste to many Frankish communities, Ironside is best remembered for his raids into the Mediterranean Sea. A number of later Frankish, Norman, and Arab sources tell of a Viking raid, more than probably led by Ironside, that raided down the Iberian coast and into the warmer climes of Southern Europe. They devastated areas of Southern Spain and France and laid siege as far away as Pisa.
Ironside was also said to have founded the Munsö dynasty that would rule over Sweden until 1060 CE. Later sources also credit him with being one of the leaders of the first wave of the Great Heathen Army into England from the mid-860s CE onwards.
Eric Haraldsson, a.k.a., "Erik Bloodaxe," was the son of famous Norwegian King Harald Fairhair. Photo: Fotokvadrat / Shutterstock
Eric Bloodaxe: A pirate or a tyrant?
The Vikings had such great names with descriptive monikers, and Erik Bloodaxe (real name Eric Haraldsson) is a great example of this.
The son of Harald Fairhair, who not only united Norway under one crown but also established a dynasty that would rule Norway until the 14th century CE, was said to have killed his half-brother during his struggle for the throne of Norway.
His name Bloodaxe – could be descriptive of his violent nature for control of Norway. However, he is also known as Eirik fratrum interfector – literally Eirik Brother-bane (killer).
The Heimskringla paints a vivid picture of Eric's early life. Aged twelve, Eric was set to have a career as a successful raider and pirate. He spent more than four years harrying coastal communities around the Baltic region, Northern Germany, the British Isles and as far away as the northwest coast of what is now Russia. One saga explains how he sailed far inland into Russia and completely devastated one Slav settlement at Permian.
Following his youthful raiding, he arrives back in Norway to seize the throne. Here, he kills one of his stepbrothers at his father's request – if we are to believe the sagas – and reigns as King of Norway from 931 to 933 CE. His rule was apparently despotic and extremely harsh, which turned the local earls and nobles against him. He was eventually forced into exile as his younger half-brother, Håkon, took the throne supported by the noble class.
Eric had a successful exile, eventually winding up as King of Northumbria for an interrupted period of 7 years. Finally, he found himself wound up in the internal politics and intrigues between the Anglo-Saxons, Norse, and Hiberno-Norse factions that ruled over this part of England.
His harsh rule likely led to his exile from Northumbria, and he was assassinated around 954 CE. The Eiríksmál, a skaldic poem commissioned by his Norwegian consort, Gunnhild, helps shed some light on his glorious deeds and adventures.
Erik the Red: Named for his beard color or his lust for violence?
Many psychologists have dedicated their working lives to trying to unlock the secrets of aggressive and violent behavior. Is it influenced by genetic predisposition or something learned in one's early life experiences?
Erik the Red, who lived from c. 950 – 1003 CE, would make a fascinating case study on the subject. His father, Thorvald Asvaldsson, was banished from their home in Rogaland, Norway, for manslaughter – something that contemporary sources say was a "family custom."
He sailed westward to the then relatively young Norse settlement in Iceland. Growing up in this harsh, frontier community must have had an impact on the young Erik. Nonetheless, tradition states that he married a local girl and had four children – three boys, including Leif Eriksson, and a daughter Freydis. However, all was not great in his marriage as his stubborn refusal to convert to the religion of his wife, Christianity, saw her apparently withhold "bedroom activities."
Erik's life in Iceland, on a farm, with his young family, took a turn for the worse. He was sent into exile, just like his father, for killing two of his neighbor's slaves. His lust for violence continued when, breaking his exile, he returned to his farm to retrieve some possessions, killing more in the local community.
It was in his exile, around 982 CE, that Erik was said to have discovered Greenland. Returning from his exile with stories of this new land, he returned to Greenland with a number of colonists in 985 CE. The Icelandic colonists then established two settlements and would survive until the 15th century CE.
From Greenland, two of his offspring – Freydis and Leif Eriksson – led expeditions that "discovered" what the Norse called "Vinland," the modern-day island of Newfoundland, Canada, centuries before Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
Although he is sometimes celebrated as an explorer, one should remember that many thought his moniker had more to do with his bloodlust than his hair color.
Harald Hardrada was recognized as a very successful and competent military leader. His death marked the end of the Viking Age. Photo: alseeger / Pixabay
Harald Hardrada - from a royal bodyguard to a royal throne
Tradition states that the so-called "Viking Age" ends, more or less, near a village in East Riding, Yorkshire, England, in September 1066 CE. The Battle of Stamford Bridge saw an English army, under King Harold Godwinson – the last Anglo-Saxon King of England – defeat an invading Norwegian force led by King Harald "Hardrada" Sigurdsson.
Though Godwinson repelled the Norwegian force, he was ultimately unsuccessful in saving his kingdom as he fell (famously by an arrow to the eye) in battle at Hastings less than three weeks later.
However, Hardrada's failure at Stamford Bridge should not overshadow an illustrious career that saw him rule Norway and lay claim to both the English and Danish thrones after spending 15 successful years in the Byzantine Empire. He was, without any doubt, the pre-eminent military genius of his day and perhaps arguably is one of the greatest Viking warriors of the age.
Harald Sigurdsson was only a mere boy, fifteen years old when he fought at the Battle of Stiklestad together with his half-brother, Olaf Haraldsson (later to become a saint). Losing the battle, Harald was forced into exile and wound up in the Kievan Rus – a state in Eastern Europe that owed its foundation to Viking warriors and adventurers.
He wound up in the employ of the Grand Prince of Kiev, Yaroslavl the Wise, rising up the ranks of his army. Thirsty for more military action (and promotion), he would move to Constantinople, the greatest European power of the day.
A series of promotions due to his military prowess saw Hadrada become commander of the illustrious Varangian Guard. This elite unit of the Byzantine Army, often made up of Norse Viking warriors, was responsible for the safety of the Byzantine Emperor. With the Guard, he saw action across Southern Europe, from Sicily to Bulgaria and even to the Holy Land. Amassing a huge fortune on his travels, he eventually returned to Kiev in order to seize the Norwegian throne.
Sigurdsson would eventually succeed in his quest for the Norwegian throne by outliving Magnus the Good. He was ruthless in squashing all domestic opposition to his rule over a two-decade period from 1046 CE. During this rule, he received the epithet Hardrada – Old Norse for "hard ruler." He sought to re-establish the "North Sea Empire" and campaigned every year of his rule to try and incorporate Denmark under his rule.
Events in nearby England would ultimately end Hardrada's illustrious career. Familial intrigues saw the brother of the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, Harold Godwinson, declare his allegiance not to his brother but to Harald. Seizing this opportunity of political instability, Harald invaded England with a force of 10,000 troops and won victories over the English in Northumbria and Mercia.
However, a surprise attack at Stamford Bridge saw Harald die and, with him, the last remnants of a Viking ruler of England. The future of England would never again be decided by Scandinavian warriors and rulers.
A new book on Harald Hardrada has been recently released. For an overview of the book and more historical details on the life of this great Viking warrior, visit an review of it from The Washington Post here.
We get to provide readers with original coverage thanks to our loyal supporters. Do you enjoy our work? You can become a PATRON here or via our Patreon page. You'll get access to exclusive content and early access.
Feel free to reach out to discuss potential stories that may be in the public interest. You can reach us via email at firstname.lastname@example.org with the understanding that the information you provide might be used in our reporting and stories.