While historical evidence and contemporary sources are sketchy, Ubba is said to have been responsible for the martyrdom of one of England's first saints.

This is his story, steeped in a heady mix of historical facts, fiction, and fantasy. 

Anglo-Saxon England and invasions

By the 5th century CE, the British Isles were a part – albeit a peripheral one – of the vast Roman Empire that stretched from the Scottish highlands to the Red Sea. Around 406 CE, Constantine III, a Roman general and self-declared Emperor, called back the Roman garrison from Britain in order to stop the flow of invasions and peoples over the Rhine river.  

By 410, the Roman Emperor Honorius told the Romano-British that, essentially, they were on their own and had to see to their defense with Roman support or military might.

Over the course of the next few generations – and indeed centuries – successive waves of Germanic peoples invaded the British Isles. There was no single large invasion but rather a series of smaller migratory waves – often via boats – including the tribes of the Jutes, Angles, and Saxons. Some Saxons already lived in the British Isles as many had been hired to help defend the northern border against the Picts throughout the 4th century CE.

By the 7th century CE, the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain had changed the former Roman province beyond recognition. The language and culture had shifted from Romano-British to Germanic.

Viking raids

Much has been made about the so-called "start" of the "Viking Age" with a raid at Lindisfarne in 793 CE. This has – rather clumsily – generally agreed to be the dawn of a new era in Northern European medieval history. Throughout the 9th century CE, Viking warriors soon began to raid, pillage, and plunder coastal communities throughout the British Isles, especially on the east coast.

From the 860s CE onwards, it appears that large forces of Viking warriors soon began to invade England. Like the migrations of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes before, these armies appear not to be one unified force but invaded in smaller waves, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, a history of Anglo-Saxon Britain, compiled between the 9th and 12th centuries CE. Perhaps the best overview is on the British Library's website, available here.

This coalition of armies was labeled "The Great Heathen Army" as chroniclers lumped all these Scandinavian warriors as a monolithic force. Though technically wrong – as these armies were never unified – historians have nonetheless used this label when referring to the Viking armies' invasion of Anglo-Saxon Britain during the 860s CE.

Having invaded the British Isles in 865 CE, the Great Heathen Army laid waste, conquered, and subjugated much of Anglo-Saxon Britain. Initially making alliances with the Kings of East Anglia and Mercia, they later killed both and conquered their territories. They then moved to Wessex, where King Alfred the Great paid them to leave – they wintered in London – before heading north to conquer York. They met Alfred again in battle, at Edington, in 878 CE but were finally defeated. The post-war treaty saw the Army keep much of the land conquered – huge swathes of the Midlands and Northern England – to be ruled by Viking warriors. This was the origin of the "Danelaw."

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, this force was believed to have been led by three of the five sons of Ragnar Lothbork – Halfdan Ragnarsson, Ivar the Boneless, and Ubba.

According to sagas, Ragnar Lothbrok was the son of Norse royalty, living sometime in the late 8th to early 9th century CE. Photo: Leah Morillon / Pexels

Ubba Ragnarasson and martyrdom

What little written evidence we have about the life of Ubba Ragnarasson comes from a 9th-century chronicle of the life of Edmund, King of East Anglia and martyr, Passio sancti Eadmundi. In this hagiographical account, Edmund is portrayed as an ideal Christian king who was killed in battle by Ubba. Edmund's death is also mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and he was later canonized and was the center of a large medieval cult of personality throughout the 10-12th centuries CE.

Ubba is said to have also been the cause of the martyrdom of Æbbe, an abbess in Coldingam, northern England. Here, as the Great Heathen Army approached, led by Ubba, Æbbe encouraged the nuns under her care to disfigure themselves to preserve their virginity. Æbbe, according to the Chronica majora, is said to have cut her nose and upper lip. The trick appeared to work as the sight of these disfigured nuns repelled the Viking hordes. Nonetheless, Ubba was said to have razed the monastery with the nuns, including Æbbe, inside.

Ubba again pops up with the martyrdom of another woman in the Anglo-Norman hagiography, Vie siente Osith. Written in the 12th century, Ubba was said to have been the commander of a pirate gang. Osyth, a local virgin, was beheaded by Ubba when she refused to worship the pirates' pagan idols and gods.

The Battle of Arx Cynuit

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles make one more mention of Ubba towards the end period of the ravages of the Great Heathen Army. A great battle between West Saxons and Viking warriors was said to have taken place in what is now a part of Devon in southern England. 

Though the commander of the Viking army is not named, he is said to have been the brother of Ivar and Halfdan and was slain during the course of the battle. The battle itself was won by the West Saxons and took place in 878 CE, which makes the historical record of the end of the major violence and destruction of the Viking armies.

Historical figure or Viking archetype?

There is just too little evidence to conclusively prove that Ubba Ragnarsson was indeed a historical figure. He may well have been a Viking leader and warrior, but the only evidence available comes from chronicles and hagiographies, often complied centuries later and with dubious motives.

Interestingly, throughout the 12th and 13th centuries, Ubba reappears in the growing medieval legend of his father, Ragnar Lodbork. Throughout the medieval period, Ubba – and indeed "The Great Heathen Army" – transform into cartoonish archetypes of pillaging, ravenous and violent barbarians. The insertion of Ubba into any chronicle or story would have been used to highlight a stereotypical adversary.

Whether Ubba existed or not is somewhat irrelevant as his legend continues to this day. The Netflix series, Vikings, has Ubba as one of its major characters. Somewhat bizarrely for a Viking warrior, he is also a character in a 19th-century ballet, Sketch of Alfred the Great.

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