Viking Age – Ivar the Boneless – Legendary commander of the Great Heathen Army

Ivar the Boneless (Inwaer/Ingvar/Hyngwar) was one of the greatest leaders of Vikings and the legendary commander of the Great Heathen Army. He was the oldest son of Ragnar Lothbrok and Aslaug and had four younger brothers; Bjorn Ironside, Halfdan Ragnarsson, Ubbe and Sigurd Snake-in-the Eye. Although he was known as a ruthless warrior, he was described in many historical accounts and sagas as the wisest one among Ragnar Lothbrok’s children.

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Ivar the Boneless was known as a berserker. Berserkers were Viking warriors who went into a trance-like state of fury when they were fighting and that is where the English word “berserker” was derived from.

There are a few theories about the origination of Ivar’s epithet “the Boneless”. Some historians discussed Ivar was called “the boneless” because he was impotent. Although this theory sounds a bit far-fetched, the fact that Ivar never got married and had children might be a reason to not to discard it completely.

Another theory about the epithet suggests that Ivar was a skilled warrior with a very flexible physical form like a snake and that was the reason behind the epithet. A poem written in the 12th century named “Háttalykill inn forni” describes Ivar “having no bones at all”.

According to The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok, Ivar’s epithet “the Boneless” was a result of a curse foreseen by his mother, Ragnar Lothbrok’s second wife, Princess Aslaug, who had the power of foresight.

It is written in the saga that Aslaug warned Ragnar Lothbrok to wait three days before consummating their marriage saying the gods would not be pleased and their child would be cursed otherwise. Ragnar ignored her warning and Ivar was born with legs with gristle-like structures instead of bones.

The Great Heathen Army’s Progress in England

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Ivar and his men progressed to conquer the Kingdom of Mercia. The Great Heathen Army captured Nottingham where they spent winters. King Burgred of Mercia asked King Ethelred of Wessex and his brother Alfred for help in defeating “the brutal heathens”. Joining forces with Wessex, the army of Mercia laid siege to Nottingham.  Ivar was a fearless warrior but also a wise ruler. After seeing his forces were largely outnumbered, he made peace with the Kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex and returned to York in 868.

King Edmund’s Death

When Vikings returned to East Anglia they faced resistance by the forces of King Edmund of East Anglia. King Edmund was captured but refused to renounce Christianity saying his faith was more important than his life. It is written that he was killed brutally by being hung on a cross and shot by arrows until he died.

Capturing Dumbarton Rock in Scotland

Ivar ruled Dublin together with Olaf the White. Together, they laid siege to Dumbarton Rock (also known as the Clyde Rock) in Scotland and although the garrison resisted for four months, it had to surrender when the Viking army cut off the water supply. Vikings pillaged the city. Ivar and Olaf remained in Strathclyde for winter and returned to Dublin with slaves and booty they acquired in Scotland. They forced Constantine I, King of Scotland to pay tribute.

Ivar the Boneless’ Death

According to the Annals of Ulster, Ivar died of a sudden disease in 873. In the 19th century, it was suggested that Ivar might have died from brittle bone disease, also known as osteogenesis imperfecta, and this might have been the reason why he was called “boneless”.

Ivar the Boneless’ Grave – Two Different Theories

During their excavation in 1970s and 1980s, Professor Martin Biddle from Oxford University and his wife Birthe Kjølbye-Biddle discovered the remains of a 9-foot Viking warrior in Repton. They suggested that these remains might belong to Ivar the Boneless since the Great Heathen Army spent winters in this settlement. These bones were originally discovered by Thomas Walker, a farm worker, in late 17th century. However, although the grave was recovered, the existence of remains was forgotten until Prof. Briddle and his wife unearthed the bones together with a sword and a small Thor’s hammer.

 

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