With much of his early life semi-legendary, Halfdan Ragnarsson rose from becoming a commander of the first wave of invasions to becoming ensconced on the throne of a defeated Anglo-Saxon kingdom, foreshadowing the carving up of the British Isles for the next two and a half centuries.

Legendary earlier life

Like so many of the famous personalities of the early medieval period, Halfdan Ragnarsson's early life is shrouded in legend, lore, and (one can assume) lies. 

According to the Norse sagas, perhaps our best source into Viking-era history but maybe not the most reliable one, Ragnarsson was said to be one of the six sons of Ragnar Lothbrok. For those Parisians (or lovers of Paris), this is a name that should bring cold shudders as Lothbrok was said to have led a Viking destruction of the City of Light in 844 CE.

Despite the fact that Paris was, during the mid-9th century CE, a mere shadow of the impressive global city status it has today, this raid had a devastating impact not only on the lives of its citizens (many were said to be hung by the Vikings on an island in full view of the besieged Parisians) but also a great deal of its wealth. 

After a period of plundering, the Vikings were eventually paid off, by the Frankish Emperor Charles the Bald, with more than 7,000 pounds / 3.1 tons of silver. This payoff had the reverse effect as Viking invasions, sieges, and plundering of the Frankish realms would only increase from this point on.

Lothbrok, however, was not finished here. Fresh off his Parisian plunders, he set his sites on the British Isles. The Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were vulnerable to Viking invasion because of their division. Lothbrok was said to have sailed and invaded the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria, encompassing today much of northern England and southern Scotland, laying siege to its capital, York. 

The King of Northumbria, Ælla, was said to have defeated this Viking invasion, captured Lothbrok and tossed him into a dungeon cell. Obviously keen on tossing things, Ælla was said to have thrown in several snakes, which killed Lothbrok. Yet before he met his slippery end, Lothbrok cursed Ælla and said that his sons would seek vengeance.

Like father, like son

This is the only information we have about Ragnarsson's early life. We do not know where or when he was born, and we do not even know if Lothbrok was indeed his father. 

Placing our trust in the Norse sagas, which is problematic, but sometimes you need to have a little faith, we can assume that if this was how Lothbrok was killed – a rather nasty end to a rather nasty Viking – the news would have filtered back to his home. 

Ragnarsson was not the only son of Lothbrok, with as many as six named in the sagas, including the brilliantly named Ivar the Boneless, Björn Ironside, Sigurd Snake-In-The-Eye, and Hvitserk. Poor old Halfdan rather lucked out in the nickname department, it seems.

The sagas then point to the fact that when the sons found of their father's grisly death, they were, to put it mildly, rather angry. The brothers amassed a force to sail across the North Sea, invade the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, and avenge their father's death.

What is beyond a reasonable doubt, however, is that from 865 CE, a series of Viking invasions, starting in East Anglia, soon swamped the four Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of East Anglia, Wessex, Mercia, and Northumbria. 

Historians agree it was never a single invasion, as often portrayed in sagas, a sort of Norse D-Day, but rather a series of invasions by Viking forces over a period of 13 years to 878 CE.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, written in the court of Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, as a history of his people, described these invasions, led by pagan Viking warriors, as being a "Great Heathen Army" and the name stuck for more than a millennium. 

One should remember that it was never just one invasion, one army, or even one unified force that led the Viking invasions of the British Isles from the mid-9th century CE onwards.

Two decades before the invasions of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, the Vikings had launched invasions, and settlement, of the island of Ireland. Illustration: The Viking Herald

Civil war and strife

Within the space of a decade, the Viking invasions of the British Isles had not only secured a Norse presence but also saw the Vikings annex and then colonize almost a third of what is now England. 

Historians point to the fractious and short-term strategic nature of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms being unable to mount any sort of unified resistance against the invaders. Following the initial Viking invasion in the kingdom of East Anglia, the force was said to have headed north for Ragnarsson and his brothers to seek the ultimate revenge on Ælla.

Reaching the gates of York in 866 CE, they found the Kingdom of Northumbria weakened by a civil war between Ælla, who usurped his way to the throne, and another claimant, Osberht. 

The Viking force knew it just had to sit on the sidelines and let the Northumbrians fight it out and weaken themselves in the process. 

Whilst a Viking force was said to have captured York that year, they didn't hold it for long as the locals managed to seize it back. Events across the Irish Sea, however, would distract Ragnarsson.

Securing his Anglo-Saxon flank to concentrate on Dublin

Two decades before the invasions of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, the Vikings had launched invasions, and settlement, of the island of Ireland. 

Founding Dublin in 841 CE, by the time of the "Great Heathen Army," the town was a throbbing Viking trading port. It was here that Ragnarsson is mentioned, in Irish annals, as becoming a King of Dublin – probably the main leader or political elite in this newly established Norse settlement. 

By 875 CE, Ragnarsson had risen to the title of "King of Dublin," having betrayed the Norse king, Eystein Olafsson.

Ragnarsson's exploits in Dublin, however, could only have been achieved if the Viking invaders were freed from constant harrying and guerilla tactics from the only remaining Anglo-Saxon kingdom not subjugated, Wessex. 

Despite Viking and West Saxon forces meeting each other more than nine times in battle, the Viking force could not land a death blow to the last remaining kingdom. 

Halfdan was said to be present at the signing of a truce between the two sides, with the newly crowned King of Wessex Alfred (later to become "the Great") in 871 CE. This freed up his forces to campaign in other areas of the British Isles, including the island of Ireland.

Having made peace with the West Saxons and secured a kingship, Ragnarsson's final move was to head back to Northumbria to avenge his father's death.

The final revenge

Ragnarsoon then split his forces from the rest of the Viking invaders and marauders who had devastated so much of Anglo-Saxon England, and beyond, in the preceding decade or so. 

Heading back up to Northumbria, he found that the old rivals, Ælla and Osberth, had put their petty differences aside and tried to recapture the city which the Vikings had reclaimed and made it the center of their now burgeoning colony. 

Whilst attempting to recapture the city, both Northumbrian power elites were captured. Ælla, however, was singled out for a particularly grisly execution. Perhaps with the memory of his father's demise, Halfdan was said to have overseen Ælla's death by an execution method known as a "Blood Eagle." This is where a victim's ribs are pulled from their spine, outwards, forming "wings" whilst also removing the lungs from their chest cavity.

Having avenged his father, Ragnarsson then sailed to Dublin to find that he had been deposed as "King." There is some academic speculation about whether Ragnarsson was an official king or just a powerful bully. 

Nevertheless, he met his end trying to push his royal claim against fellow Vikings, on a battlefield, near Stangford Lough in modern-day County Down, Ireland, in 877 CE.

Whilst the historicity of many elements of Halfdan Ragnarsson's life can be disputed and picked apart, his life story, in the sagas, remains one of the most fascinating and interesting (possible) tall tales from the early Viking invasions of the British Isles.

The Daily Mail has published an article looking at some of the Viking invasions launched from the Kingdom of Northumbria, available to read here

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