He laid siege to famous towns like Pisa and Paris whilst also surviving a shipwreck off the English coast and establishing a Royal dynasty that would last for centuries. His is a tall tale of action, adventure, and derring-do.
Son of a Viking legend and warrior
As with most Viking-era warriors and rulers, the historical record surrounding Björn Ironside is far mired in mystery and lore. The father of Danish history, Saxo Grammaticus, chronicled the Viking roots of Scandinavia in his magnum opus, Gesta Danorum, written around the turn of the 13th century CE. In this history, Grammaticus explains how the son of the legendary Viking ruler Ragnar Lothbrok became one of the legendary Kings of Sweden.
According to Grammaticus, Lothbrok, then notional ruler of much of Scandinavia, had a quarrel with a chieftain in Sweden. He then took his sons, among them Ironside, to invade the Swedish lands. Before a battle, the two rulers decided to meet in combat. Lothbrok and his three sons met the Swedish chieftain Sörle with his seven sons. It was Björn's courage and martial skill – defeating most of Sörle's sons – that turned the tide. The Swedish army descended on their ruler, and Lothbrok won not only the combat but the battle itself. As a reward for his martial skills, Lodbrok gave his son, Björn, the overlordship of Sweden. His nickname, "Ironside," came about came this bloody event.
Much later in the tale, Ironside joins forces with his father against a fellow conspiratorial brother defeating an army. His father then appointed Ironside as regent of Norway too. This is the last we hear of Ironside from Grammaticus.
Scourge of the Frankish realms and Mediterranean exploits
Aside from Grammaticus, Ironside's exploits and adventures are also mentioned by many Frankish sources. They paint a different – but no less violent - picture of Ironside. Here, when Lothbrok ascended to power, a Norse custom forced the youngest son to leave the realm, thus securing safety and authority for his father.
Leaving Denmark and sailing south with a great fleet, he soon began to raid and ravage West Francia. Utilizing the Seine River, Ironside then joined up with more support and would eventually go on to lay siege to Paris around 856 – 857 CE.
Björn Ironside was also an acclaimed naval commander. Photo: The Viking Herald
Following the siege of Paris, Ironside and his men would sail further south. By about 861 CE, they had raided, ravaged, and razed much of the Iberian peninsula, all the way down to the rock of Gibraltar. Entering the Mediterranean sea, they would foreshadow the impact that Norsemen would have on this area of the world for much of the next 3 – 4 centuries.
They laid siege to Pisa and many cities in Sicily before even reaching the shores of the North African coast. However, a surprise raid by Anadulsian forces decimated Ironside's fleet, and he eventually limped back to Northern Europe.
Was he Sweden's first king?
One of the lasting achievements that Ironside is remembered for, however, is that he helped found a Swedish royal dynasty. The so-called Munsö Dynasty is mentioned first throughout Icelandic sagas in the 12th and 13th centuries CE. In these sagas, a long history of Sweden's Viking-era rulers can be traced back to Ironside.
If we are to believe these Icelandic sagas that Ironside did indeed establish a royal dynasty, this is at odds with more contemporaneous material. The 9th century CE writer, historian, and later Saint, Rimbert, hailing from East Francia, makes no mention of Ironside as the founder of a dynasty.
There is also serious academic debate about whether the so-called Munsö Dynasty – which according to the sagas, shifts power to the island of Munsö, near modern-day Stockholm – is little more than a tall historical tale.
Either way, Björn Ironside remains a very much a legendary figure both in the country that he was supposed to have ruled and in the further Scandinavian region.
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