The Viking warlord did not go quietly to his death — they never did. Ragnar ‘Hairy Britches’ was legendary for leading a fleet of longships up the Seine and pillaging Paris, but when he turned his band of marauders to England, he met his match.
Defeated by the Anglo-Saxon King Aelle in Northumbria, he was not executed cleanly, but thrown alive into a pit of poisonous snakes.
As vipers crawled over him and he died a lingering death in terrible agony, he sang a song of defiance and revenge.
It fell to his sons, Ivar and Halfdan, to carry out that threat. In 876, having crossed the North Sea, they took York, captured King Aelle and demonstrated that no one could out-do the Vikings for sheer violence and horror.
In a macabre ritual killing known as the ‘blood-eagle’, Aelle’s chest was cut open, his ribs split and his lungs pulled out from inside the ribcage and then pinned back to his chest like the wings of an eagle. The message was clear: you mess with the Norseman at your peril. In some ways, history has got it wrong about the Vikings. Those supposedly horned helmets of theirs — so beloved by cartoonists, costumiers for Wagnerian operas and Scandinavian winter sports spectators at Sochi — are a complete fabrication.
There is no evidence they wore anything other than unadorned conical headgear, straight up-and-down, and distinguished by nothing more than a vertical metal guard for the nose.
But, as for everything else we tend to assume about those rampaging warriors — the blood-letting, massacre, rape and plunder — that’s totally accurate, as King Aelle discovered. Their leaders didn’t revel in names such as Eirik Bloodaxe, Thorfinn Skullsplitter and Harald Hardruler for nothing. Emerging out of the sea-mists in their dragon-prowed long boats, crash-landing on beaches, or rowing up river estuaries into towns and cities, they terrorised much of Europe and beyond for three centuries and more, battalions of Hells Angels and Mad Maxes intent on drinking and sex, slaughter and pillage.
It fell to his sons, Ivar and Halfdan, to carry out that threat. In 876, having crossed the North Sea, they took York, captured King Aelle and demonstrated that no one could out-do the Vikings for sheer violence and horror. There was also a peaceful, domesticated side to them and a rich cultural heritage to draw on, as a splendid array of archaeological artefacts in a much-heralded major exhibition, opening in a couple of weeks’ time at the British Museum, shows — the biggest here for 35 years.
But, as the museum points out, the intricate jewellery, coins and other fine objects it has amassed shouldn’t lull us into too peaceful an interpretation of the Vikings.
Yes, some were merchants and others settled as farmers, but the very word ‘viking’ means ‘pirate’ or ‘raider’ in Old Norse, and that was their true trade.
Witness the exhibition’s array of warships, shields, swords and spearheads, the lethal tools of the trade for an inherently violent people, whose favourite saga was the story of a seven-year-old boy who buried an axe in the head of his best friend in an argument over a ball game.
In the Early Middle Ages, the so-called Dark Ages, from what is now Denmark, Norway and Sweden, the adventurous, ambitious, dispossessed, and just plain greedy adapted shallow-keeled rowing boats to operate under wind-power, hoisted sails, and went faster and farther than others to look for spoils. Their first arrival in Britain can be traced to the year 789, when three ships arrived off the coast of Dorset. An inquiring official of the local Anglo-Saxon king approached, there was an argument, and he was killed. A pattern was set.
Four years later, another gang swooped on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne in Northumberland, whose monks were put to the sword as Vikings erupted out of the sea and, in the words of a chronicler, ‘devastated everything with pitiless looting, trampled the holy things under their sacrilegious feet, dug up the altars and pillaged all the treasures of the church.
‘Some of the brothers they killed, several they threw out naked, and others they drowned in the sea. Never before has there been such terror in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race.’
The Vikings were here with a savagery that could be grotesquely inventive. In the next century, the captured King Edmund of East Anglia was used for archery practice and riddled with arrows, while the Archbishop of Canterbury was pelted with ox bones until dead. No wonder that local rulers wherever the vicious invaders landed tended to try to buy them off with vast amounts of money and treasure — a process that merely encouraged the raiders to come back for more. ‘Danegeld’ was always just another word for extortion, demanding money with menaces a Viking way of life.
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