History is full of interesting characters Ivar the Boneless is just one of them. Ivar Ragnarsson (known as ‘Ivar the Boneless’) was a Viking warlord of Danish origin. He ruled over an area covering parts of modern Denmark and Sweden but is best known for his invasion of several Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.
According to Icelandic Saga, ‘The Tale of Ragnar Loðbrok’, Ivar was the youngest son of legendary Ragnar Loðbrok’ Viking king, and his wife Aslaug Sigurdsdottir. His brothers are said to have included Björn Ironside, Halfdan Ragnarsson, Hvitserk, Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye and Ubba. It is possible he was adopted — a common Viking practice — perhaps as a way to ensure dynastic control.
Some stories say that Ragnar learned from a seer that he would have many famous sons. He became obsessed with this prophecy which almost led to a tragic event when he tried to kill Ivar, but couldn’t bring himself to. Ivar later exiled himself after his brother Ubba tried to usurp Ragnar, earning Lodbrok’s trust.
The Vikings didn’t keep a written record of their history — most of what we know is from the Icelandic sagas (notably the ‘Tale of Ragnar’s Sons’), but other sources and historical accounts from conquered peoples do corroborate the existence and activity of Ivar the Boneless and his siblings. The main Latin source in which Ivar is written about at length is in the Gesta Danorum (‘Deeds of the Danes’), written in the early 13th century by Saxo Grammaticus.
A number of the sagas refer to him as ‘Boneless’. Legend says that despite Aslaug warning Ragnar to wait three nights before consummating their marriage to prevent the son they conceived from being born with no bones, Ragnar had been too eager.
In reality, ‘Boneless’ might refer to a hereditary skeletal condition such as osteogenesis imperfecta (brittle bone disease) or an inability to walk. The Viking sagas describe Ivar’s condition as “only cartilage was where bone should have been”. However, we know he had a reputation as a fearsome warrior. Whilst the poem ‘Httalykill inn forni’ describes Ivar as being “without any bones at all”, it was also recorded that Ivar’s stature meant he dwarfed his contemporaries and that he was very strong. Interestingly, the Gesta Danorum makes no mention of Ivar being boneless either.
Some theories suggest the nickname was a snake metaphor — his brother Sigurd was known as Snake-in-the-Eye, so ‘Boneless’ may have referred to his physical flexibility and agility. It is also thought the nickname could even be a euphemism for impotence, with some tales stating he had “no love lust in him”, though some accounts of Ímar (assumed the same person), document him as having children.
According to the Norse sagas, Ivar is often depicted as leading his brothers into battle whilst carried on a shield, wielding a bow. Whilst this could indicate he may have been lame, at the time, leaders were sometimes borne on the shields of their enemies after victory. According to some sources, this was the equivalent of sending a middle finger to the defeated side.
Ivar’s father, Ragnar Lodbrok, had been captured while raiding the kingdom of Northumbria and was killed after allegedly being thrown into a pit full of venomous snakes on the orders of the Northumbrian King Ælla. His death became an incentive to rouse many of his sons to align and establish a unified front with other Norse warriors against several Anglo-Saxon kingdoms — and to retake lands previously claimed by Ragnar. Ivar and his brothers Halfdan and Ubba invaded Britain in 865. leading a large Viking force described by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as the ‘Great Heathen Army’. Ivar’s forces landed in East Anglia to begin their invasion. Having met little resistance, they moved north to Northumbria, capturing York in 866. In March 867, King Ælla and deposed King Osberht joined forces against their common enemy. Both were killed, marking the start of the Viking occupation in parts of England.
Ivar is said to have installed Egbert, a puppet ruler, in Northumbria, then led the Vikings to Nottingham, in the Kingdom of Mercia Aware of this threat, King Burgred (the Mercian king) sought assistance from King Æthelred I, king of Wessex, and his brother, the future King Alfred. They besieged Nottingham, causing the outnumbered Vikings to withdraw to York without a fight. In 869, the Vikings returned to Mercia, then to East Anglia, defeating King Edmund ‘the Martyr’ (so named after refusing to renounce his Christian faith, leading to his execution). Ivar apparently did not participate in the Viking campaign to take Wessex from King Alfred in the 870s, having left for Dublin.
Ivar the Boneless was known for his exceptional ferocity, noted as the ‘cruellest of Norse warriors’ by the chronicler Adam of Bremen around 1073.
He was reputed to be a ‘berserker’ — a Viking warrior who fought in an uncontrollable, trance-like fury (giving rise to the English word ‘berserk’). The name derives from their reputed habit of wearing a coat (a ‘serkr‘ in Old Norse) made from the skin of a bear (‘ber‘) in battle.
According to some accounts, when the Vikings captured King Ælla, he was subjected to the ‘blood eagle’ — a gruesome execution by torture, in revenge for his order to kill Ivar’s father in a snake pit.
The blood eagle meant a victim’s ribs were cut by the spine and then broken to resemble blood-stained wings. The lungs were then pulled out through the wounds in the victim’s back. However, some sources say such torture was fictitious.
Ivar took part in several battles in Ireland during the 850s with Olaf. Together they formed short-lived alliances with Irish rulers (including Cerball, king of Ossory), and plundered in the county of Meath in the early 860s.
They are also said to have fought in Scotland. Their armies launched a two-pronged attack and met up at Dumbarton Rock (formerly held by the Britons) in 870 — the capital of the Strathclyde kingdom, on the River Clyde near Glasgow. After laying siege, they overran and destroyed Dumbarton, later returning to Dublin. The remaining Vikings then exacted money from the King of Scots, King Constantine.
The Uí Ímair dynasty ruled Northumbria from York at various times, and also dominated the Irish Sea from the Kingdom of Dublin.
Whilst it’s not proven that these were the same man, many think the historical records seem to tie up. For example, Ímar, the King of Dublin vanished from the Irish historical records between 864–870 AD, at the same time as Ivar the Boneless became active in England — launching the largest invasion of the British Isles.
By 871 he was known as Ivar ‘king of the Norsemen of all Ireland and Britain’. Unlike previous Viking raiders who came only to plunder, Ivar sought conquest. Ímair was said to have been deeply loved by his people, whilst Ivar was depicted as a bloodthirsty monster by his enemies — this doesn’t necessarily mean they weren’t the same person. Furthermore, both Ivar and Ímar died the same year.
Ivar disappears from some historical records around 870. However, in 870 AD, Ímar reappeared in Irish records after his capture of Dumbarton Rock. The Annals of Ulster record Ímar as having died in 873 — as do the Annals of Ireland — with his cause of death ‘a sudden and horrible disease’. Theories suggest Ivar’s strange nickname could be linked to the effects of this disease.
However Emeritus Fellow, Professor Martin Biddle from Oxford University claims the skeleton of a 9ft tall Viking warrior, discovered during excavations at the churchyard of St Wystan’s in Repton, may be that of Ivar the Boneless.
The unearthed body was surrounded by the bones of at least 249 bodies, suggesting he was an important Viking warlord. In 873 the Great Army is indeed said to have travelled to Repton for the winter, and intriguingly, ‘The Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok’ also states that Ivar was buried in England.
Examinations revealed the warrior died a savage and brutal death, contradicting the theory that Ivar suffered osteogenesis imperfecta, though there is much dispute whether the skeleton is indeed that of Ivar the Boneless.