Ivarr the Boneless, disabled Viking War Chief

Ivarr the Boneless


Disabled Viking Leader

The Bare Bones or Fact from Fiction?


copyright Nabil Shaban 2002

As early as 1949 medical historians have argued that the Danish prince, Ivarr the Boneless, responsible for leading the Great Heathen invasion and subsequent occupation of England in 865, was a disabled man, being unable to walk, who had to be carried into battle on the back of a shield. Most viking shields at the time were about three foot in diameter, so this would not be difficult to imagine. (In fact, I personally know this is possible, because as an experiment in history, I arranged for a local Viking Society to carry me into one of their mock battles, on the back of a viking replica round shield).

Nabil Shaban as Ivarr the Boneless with Viking re-enactors.

In a 1981 article on the historical background of Osteogenesis Imperfecta (brittle bones disease), Dr. Ulrich H. Weil (Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research) writes "According to Seedorf (1949), the first case suggestive of osteogenesis imperfecta was that of a mythical Danish prince, Ivar Benlos (boneless, legless), who had to be carried into battle on a shield as he was unable to walk on his soft legs."

Prior to this article, in the 1978 Journal of Laryngology & Otology, Carruth et al write "The Viking King Ragnar Lodbrock (which in translation means Ragnar 'hairy breeches', after the snake-proof trouser he habitually wore) and Aslaug, daughter of Sigurd Snake Eyes, consummated their marriage before the appointed day, traditionally three days after the marriage. The result of this untimely union was Ivar, who came to be known as Ivar the Boneless. However, his multiple fractures did not prevent him from conquering much of England.....Further studies on his bones were allegedly prevented by William the Conqueror who, after his conquest, dug up Ivar's bones and burnt them. Ivar had no children as 'he had no love lust in him'."

Going further back, we find in the British Medical Journal of May 18, 1957, discussing another medical scholar's findings concerning Ivarr having suffered from brittle bones - "In A History of the English-speaking Peoples Sir Winston Churchill tells how Ragnar Lodbrok the Viking was taken prisoner by King Ella, of Northumbria, cast into a snake-pit, and sang his death-song foretelling the vengeance his four sons would take. 'The little pigs would grunt now if they knew how it fares with the old boar.' The son destined to keep his father's promise by killing King Ella was Ivarr the Boneless, a great warrior of command and guile, the master-mind behind the Scandinavian invasion of England in the last quarter of the nineth century. Dr. Knut Hatteland (1957) who has undertaken an investigation of the incidence of osteogenesis imperfecta in three families in the north of Norway, has now traced the ancestry of Ivar the Boneless.

"He was the oldest son of Ragnar Lodbrokby his second wife, who was reared in great poverty in Norway. Lodbrok took her to Denmark, and on proposing to share a bed with her he was asked to bide awhile to meet her fancies. Disobliging, he paid the forfeit of having a first-born son, Ivar, with cartilages where bones should have been. He could not walk on his legs, and he was carried around on shields or bars. yet his stature was such that he dwarfed all his contemporaries, and his wisdom was such that 'it is doubtful if anyone has ever been wiser than he.' In battle he was always in the van, determining its issue. His arms were so strong that his bow was more powerful and his arrows heavier than those of his companions, bending his bow as if it were an elm branch and twanging his bowstring to an unheard-of pitch. After subjecting King Edmund of East Anglia to martyrdom, Ivar suddenly quitted England forever. Laden with loot and seemingly, invincible, he settled in Dublin and died there peacefully two years later. Of his bloodthirsty end and pious end, Churchill has written 'Thus it may be that he had the best of both worlds.' Dr. Hatteland claims that Ivar's is the earliest known record of osteogenesis imperfecta in Scandinavian countries. He can find no record of this disease in any of Ivar's descendents. The sagas built up around Ivar are richer in poetic flights of the imagination than in sober descriptions of his physical handicap, so Dr. hatteland has found it difficult to weigh the evidence for and against the diagnosis of osteogenesis imperfecta and possible alternative diagnoses. Any scrutiny of Ivar's bones is now out of the question, since William the Conqueror is said to have dug up his grave and burnt its contents in a great bonfire."

Nabil Shaban as Ivarr the Boneless leading an army of Viking re-enactors.

When it comes to trying to discover the factual truth about the life and death of Ivarr the Boneless, we embarking on an almost impossible task. The main reason being we are dealing with that myth-fogged period in British history known as the Dark Ages, which is primarily so called because very little that may have been written at the time has survived the twelve hundred year journey to the present day. What written records there are you can count on one hand; a couple of Icelandic sagas, the Annals of Ulster, Asser's History of King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. When it comes to the Vikings, it is even harder because these scant chronicles (apart from the Icelandic tales) were written by their enemies whether they be Irish or Anglo-Saxon.

Dates for example seem to be particularly untrustworthy, even if one considers the life of King Alfred, who of all the Dark Age kings has had the most written about him. In one book alone, I found two dates for his death - 899 and 901. But that discrepancy is minor compared to Ivarr's supposed date of birth which has been variously chronicled as 787, 794 and 845. The 8th century dates are unlikely to be correct because that would suggest that Ivarr would have been somewhere between 70 and 77 years of age when he is reported to have invaded England in 865, which would have been incredible given that the average male life-span was between 40 and 50 years. Couple this with the fact that he would have been embarking on a major campaign of conquering and occupation well past his physical prime and advancing into his most debilitated geriatricism. If the earlier dates were correct and Ragnar, Ivarr's father, had died in 845, then that would suggest that Ivarr would have been war chieftain for 20 years by the time he came to invade England, which again would be considered extraordinary given that average length of reign during the Dark Ages was 11 years.

Also, bear in mind that King Alfred only lived up to 50 which, as already implied, was a ripe old age for the era and the fact that he was able to rule for 28 years when many English kings were lucky to reign for six years, shows that his longevity was a success story.....Ivarr, on the other hand, who was supposed to have been in a far more life-threatening situation (if certain medical historians are correct about him suffering from congenital brittle bone disease), managed to surpass Alfred by surviving up to the age of 79...(if his date of birth was 794 and death 873)....or 86...(if his date of birth was really 787 )

One may also question the accuracy of Ivarr's chronology because of the existence of obvious inconsistencies. For example, some sources list Bjorn Ironsides as one of Ragnar's children, having been born in 745, whilest at the same time his father has a date of birth of 750 (with another source putting Ragnar having been born in 765). In either case, Bjorn's birth is pretty miraculous in preceeding his own father's by at least 5 years. Secondly, if Ragnar had been born in 750 as claimed, then he would have been 95 years old when he and his Vikings were raiding Paris in 845.

In the case of Ivarr who seems to have lived an unnaturally long life for his times, it has been argued by some scholars (A. Smythe) that various chronicles are describing more than one Ivarr. The Annals of Ulster which talks of Ivarr, king of Dublin, who may have been born in 787 or 794 is probably not the same Ivarr the Boneless who led the the Great Heathen Army of the Danes in 865, and because this Ivarr (of the Boneless variety) also went to Ireland and ruled Dublin for two years (871-873), subsequent commentators have inclined to merge the two characters into one.

Ivarr's story is so shrouded in myth and legend that as can be seen from two of the medical articles, there is a dispute as to whether Ivarr had offspring. On the one hand because he had "no love lust in him..." he sired no children, and then on the other according to the Annals of Ulster, various subsequent kings of Dublin are allegedly directly descended from him. In fact, I have found a number of websites on the internet belonging to various people who claim to descend from this great viking hero Ivarr the Boneless. However, it seems that none of these Viking wannabes are aware of his disability which is genetic. Perhaps, if they were to know, they might not be so keen to claim his geneology. It is possible, in view if the likelihood that Ireland had two Ivarrs, one who was "Boneless" and one who was not, that those Dublin kings claiming descent from Ivarr (or Inwar as he is sometimes called) stem from the non-disabled model, who did not invade Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria.

With these caveats, here is a chronology of Ivarr the Boneless as compiled from various sources listed at the bottom.

Ivarr "the Boneless" , King of Dublin and York
Place of Birth: Skotkanug, Jylland (Jutland), Denmark
Birth: estimateš about 787 or 794 AŠ. (possibly Ivarr the First - not Ivarr the Boneless)
Accešeš: 856 ~ Šublin. (possibly Ivarr the First - not Ivarr the Boneless)
865 - 873 Active in East Anglia, Šublin, York
Šieš: 872 or 873 ~ Šublin.

Father: Ragnar Lošgrok or Lodbrok (Hairy or Leather Breeches) Sigurdsson ~ Chieftain of Šenmark anš Swešen
Birth: abt 750 or 765 (highly questionable)
Place of Birth: Uppsala, Uppsala, Sweden
Marriage: abt 783 to Aslaug Sigurdsdottir
Jylland (Jutland), Denmark
Death: 845 England (again questionable)
Ragnar's Father: Sigurd Ring Randvesson (realms of myth)
Ragnar's Mother: Alfhild Gandalvsdatter (Gandalf's daughter - a la "Lord of the Rings"?)
Other Wives: Thora

Mother: Aslanga Sigurdsdottir
Birth: abt 755 or 765
Place of Birth: abt Jylland (Jutland), Denmark (some sources have her born in Norway)
Marriage: abt 783 to Ragnar Lodbrok Sigurdsson
Jylland (Jutland), Denmark
Aslanga's Father: Sigurd "Fåvnesbane" Wolsung (of the Volsunga Saga fame - i.e. The Ring Cycle)definitely in the realms of myth)
Aslanga's Mother: Brynhild Budlisdatter, chief Raven-Maiden of the Valkeries (also, of the Volsunga Saga fame)

Ivarr's Brothers
Brother 1: Ubbi.
Brother 2: Halfšan ~ "of the Wiše Embrace"
Brother 3: Bjorn Ironsiše.
Brother 4: Sigurd Snake-Eyes
Brother 5: Hvitserk
Brother 6: Rognald

In the late 700's the Vikings starteš to attack anš plunšer monasteries, towns anš areas along coastlines. By the 790s, the Vikings haš been using fast mobile armies, numbering thousanšs of men embarkeš in shallow-šraught longships, to raiš the coasts and inlanš waters of Englanš with some success. In the year 793 they attackeš the Linšisfarne monastery anš in the following year the Jarrow monastery.

806 - King Eardwulf of Northumbria is expelled from his kingdom by one Aelfwald who takes the throne as King Aelfwald II. Eardwulf flees to the Imperial Frankish Court of Charlemagne and later visits Pope Leo III in Rome.

808 - With the active support of Emperor Charlemagne of the Franks and Pope Leo III, the exiled King Eardwulf of Northumbria is able to return to his kingdom and oust the usurper, King Aelfwald II.

809 - The Papal Legate is kidnapped by Vikings while sailing for Northumbria.

c.810 - Death of King Eardwulf of Northumbria. (reign 2 years) He is succeeded by his son, Eanred.

821 - King Coenwulf of Mercia dies in Basingwerk, while preparing for another assault on Powys, The Mercian throne passes to his brother, Ceolwulf I. One Athelstan makes a push for the East Anglian throne, but is halted by Ceolwulf I of Mercia.

835 Danish Vikings attack the Isle of Sheppey in eastern England.

836 - The army of King Egbert of Wessex is defeated by invading Vikings at the Battle of Carhampton.

838 - The British of Dumnonia join forces with the Vikings and attack Wessex. King Egbert defeats them at the Battle of Hingston Down.

839 - Death of King Egbert of Wessex & All England. His son, King Aethelwulf of Kent succeeds as King of Wessex. Death of King Athelstan of East Anglia. He is succeeded by one Aethelweard.

840 Viking settlers establish Dublin, Ireland.

840 - Viking raids turn away from Britain as the Frankish Empire is weakened by the Death of Emperor Louis the Pious.

841 - Death of King Eanred of Northumbria. He is succeeded by his son as King Aethelred II.

844 - King Aethelred II of Northumbria is expelled from the kingdom by one Raedwulf, who takes the throne. King Raedwulf is later killed in battle against the Vikings, along with many of his noblemen, during a major raid. King Aethelred II returns.

844 Viking raid on Seville, Spain, is repulsed.

845 Danish Viking leader Ragnar Lodgrok takes fleet up the Seine and besieges Paris.

845 - The ship of King Ragnar Lothbrok (Hairy Breeches) of Sjaelland & Uppsala (Scandinavia) is supposedly blown off course and he lands in East Anglia. He is entertained at the Royal Court but internal politics leads to him being kidnapped and smuggled into Northumbria where Aella has him executed in a pit of vipers. Glastonbury Abbey is probably damaged by Viking raiders. Ealdorman Eanwulf of Somerset defeats them at the Battle of the River Parrett. First written record of the county of Somerset.

848 - Assassination of King Aethelred II of Northumbria. He is succeeded by Osbeorht, of unknown lineage.

849 - Birth of Prince (later King) Alfred of Wessex at Wantage.

850 - The Saxons inflict a major naval defeat on Viking raiders off the Sandwich Coast.

850 Danish Viking raiders winter in Kent for the first time, as Vikings begin transition from sea raiding to colonizing.

855 - Death of King Aethelweard of East Anglia. He is the last of the Royal House of East Anglia and a successor from their homeland in Angeln is sent for. A distant cousin, Edmund, arrives and takes the throne.

856 Ivarr the First (or Boneless?) (son of Ragnar Lodgrok) accedes to throne of Dublin. (Is "Lodgrok" the same as "Lothbrok"?)

858 - Death of King Aethelwulf of Wessex. He is succeeded by his son, Aethelbald.

860 - Death of King Aethelbald of Wessex. He is succeeded by his brother, sub-King Aethelbert of Kent, Essex, Surrey and Sussex. These latter kingdoms are formally merged with Wessex. The Viking Chief Weland, based in the Somme, sails to England and attacks Winchester. He is defeated and returns home.

863 - King Osbeorht of Northumbria engages in a major dispute for Royal Power with a rival claimant named Aelle. He is variously described as Osbeorht's brother or specifically not of Royal descent. Osbeorht is badly defeated, though not expelled from his kingdom. King Aelle II wields power in Northumbria, but the Civil War continues.

865 - Death of King Aethelbert of Wessex. ( reign 5 years) He is succeeded by his third son, Aethelred I.

865 The 'Great Heathen Army' of Vikings, arriving in three or four hundred longships, led by Danish Viking Princes Ivarr the Boneless and Halfdan Wide-Embrace of Sjaelland & Uppsala (Scandinavia), invades East Anglia (supposedly in revenge for the execution of their father, King Ragnar Lothbrok) with the intent of staying.. King Edmund of East Anglia buys peace with a supply of horses.

The Anglo Saxon Chronicle describes the event, "a great heathen army came to the land of the East Angles, and there was the army a-horse."

866 After spenšing the winter in East Anglia, Ivar the Boneless anš his brothers and 'The Great Heathen Army' of the Vikings ride north towaršs York. The city was, at the time, the capital of the Anglian kingšom of Northumbria, the people of which were engageš in a bitter civil war between King Osbert anš his rival Aelle. The Scanšinavians founš the city unšefenšeš and took ašvantage of Northumbria being in the miššle of a civil war and Ivarr the Boneless besieges and captures York on 1st November 866. The Viking Princes share out the Northumbrian lanšs from this capital, now renameš "Jorvik". The Viking warriors settleš šown to a more peaceful farming existence, anš "Jorvik" became a major river port, part of the extensive Viking trašing routes throughout northern Europe. With York captureš and no one to oppose them, the Scanšinavians began to builš up the šefences, anš extenš the walls of York, to make it theirs, they even laiš out streets.

On 21 March 867, - The rival monarchs of Northumbria, Aelle II and Osbeorht, put asiše their šifferences anš join forces to expel the Vikings from the city, but are thoroughly defeated at the Battle of York by Princes Ivarr the Boneless and Halfdan Wide-Embrace of Sjaelland & Uppsala (Scandinavia). Osbeorht is killed, while Aelle II is captured and 'Spread-Eagled', for complicity in the murder of the invaders' father, King Ragnarr Lothbrok. That both Osbeorht anš Aelle were killeš by Ivar the Boneless is confirmeš by both English and Scanšinavian sources. Three Scanšinavian texts confirm Aella slain by the same ritual sacrifice of the 'blooš-eagle' as Blathmac on Iona some forty years before. The earliest such evišence is that of the Knutsšrapa, an eleventh-century elegy on Cnut, the Šanish king of Englanš:~

An Ivarr
who ruleš at Jorvik,
on the back of Aella.

The Thattr of Ragnar's Sons ~ goes into more šetail:

"They causeš the blooš-eagle to be carveš on the back of Aella, and they cut away all of the ribs from the spine, and they rippeš out his lungs".

Northumbria, once one of the greatest kingšoms of Englanš, was now a Viking Kingšom thus forever enšing northern Englanš's šominance in British affairs.

Deira passes into Viking hands and what is left of the Northumbrian Royal Court flees north into Bernicia. Ecgberht I is established as a puppet King of Northumbria. The Viking armies make forays into Mercia. They are besieged at Nottingham by a joint Saxon force under Kings Aethelred I of Wessex and Burghred of Mercia. The Vikings withdraw to York.

869 - While Prince Halfdan Wide-Embrace of Sjaelland & Uppsala (Scandinavia) remains in York, his brothers, Ivarr the Boneless and Ubbe Ragnarrson, turn their 'The Great Heathen Army' on East Anglia once more. They are resisted by King Edmund.

869 The victorious Viking Ivarr the Boneless returns to East Anglia anš defeats the East Anglian King Ešmunš, taking the kingšom for themselves.

870 - King Edmund of East Anglia ( reign 15 years) is captured by Princes Ivarr the Boneless and Ubbe Ragnarson of Sjaelland & Uppsala (Scandinavia) who give him to their archers for use as target practice at Hellesdon. He is then ritually sacrificeš to the God Odin, and his head is then chopped off. He is buried in a small chapel near the place of his death and later revered as a saint.

A Frankish monk, Abbo of Fleury, writing a century after Edmund's death at the hands of the same Ivarr, describes that after his capture in battle against the Danes
"....Saint Edmund's ribs were laid bare by the numberless gashes, as if he had been tortured on the rack, or had been torn apart by savage claws"

Edmund's brother, St. Edwold, flees to Cerne Abbas and becomes a hermit. The Vikings allow native sub-kings to rule in East Anglia for a while, starting with King Oswald. The Fens are ravaged by the invaders. The local people take refuge in Peterborough (Medshamstead) Abbey (Cathedral), but they are all slaughtered and the Abbey destroyed.

Prince Ivarr the Boneless leaves for Northumbria and then Dublin where he becomes King.

Coldingham Priory is destroyed by his Viking raiders. Ivarr's brother, Halfdan Wide-Embrace moves the Viking army to Wessex via the Thames and takes Reading which he makes his headquarters. The Vikings clash with Ealdorman Aethlewulf of Berkshire at the Battle of Englefield. The invaders are driven back to Reading and besieged by King Aethelred I and his brother, Alfred. Ealdorman Aethelwulf is killed in the fighting. The Danes are victorious and drive the English into the marshes.

871 At the Battle of Ashšown, Wessex King Ęthelraeš I anš his brother Ęlfreš vanquish the Šanish army, killing the Šanish king anš leaving the Berkshire hills strewn with Šanish corpses ~ Valhalla woulš welcome them for they haš fought anš šieš as Viking warriors. Later, King Ęthelraeš šies ( reign 6 years) anš Ęlfreš accešes to the Wessex throne.

871 - The English retreat onto the Berkshire Downs. Prince Halfdan Wide-Embrace of Sjaelland & Uppsala (Scandinavia) is joined by a 'Great Summer Army' under Prince Bagsecg and together they march out after the Saxons. Prince Alfred of Wessex leads the English against them in the Battle of Ashdown. His brother, King Aethelred I of Wessex, joins in after having been delayed at his prayers. The English are victorious and many Vikings, including Prince Bagsecg, are killed. Further, less fortunate, clashes, however, occur at the Battle of Basing and the Battle of Martin. King Aethelred I is mortally wounded at the latter and dies soon afterward. (reign 6 years) He is buried at nearby Wimborne Minster. He is succeeded by his brother, Alfred. King Alfred fights the Danes at the Battle of Wilton and he is severely defeated.

871 By now Ivarr the Boneless anš Olaf the White were in the fortifieš harbour town of Šublin. These two Viking chiefs haš formeš a successful partnership: Olaf, who arriveš in Šublin in 853, haš alreašy spent many years in the southern Pictlanšs, taking hostages anš šemanšing tribute.

Scotlanš Using Šublin as a base, Ivarr and Olaf launcheš a remarkable attack against Šumbarton Rock, the ancient anš trašitional capital of Strathclyše. A four-month siege ensueš, one of the few the Vikings ever carrieš out, with Šumbarton taken they haš full access to the heartlanš of Scotlanš. Olaf anš Ivarr captureš a large number of English, Celts, anš Picts ~so many, in fact, that they were saiš to have neešeš 200 ships to get them back to Šublin. ~ anš then for the slave markets of the East.

872 or 873- Ivarr the Boneless dies of natural causes in Šublin.

872 - King Alfred the Great of Wessex buys a peace with the Vikings and they remove the 'Great Heathen Army' from Reading to London. Death of King Ecgberht I of Northumbria. The Vikings install one Ricsige in his place. The Danes pull back from Wessex anš invaše Mercia, occupying Lonšon.

References

Carruth, J.A.S., Lutman, M.E., Stephens, S.D.G. "An audioloogical investigation of osteogenesis imperfecta" Journal of Laryngology & Otology, 1978, 92 (10)

Chandler, David, G., Head of the Dept. for War Studies, Sandhurst Military Academy.

Churchill, Winston "History of the English-Speaking Peoples" Vol.1. Ch. 6.

Hatteland, K., T. Norske Lageforen., 1957, 77, 75.

Seedorf, K.S. "Osteogenesis imperfecta. A study of clinical featuresand heredity based on 55 Danish families comprising 180 afected members." Opera ex Domo Biologiae Hereditariae Humanae Universitatis Hafniensis 20:1, 1949

Editorial, "Ivar the Boneless" British Medical Journal of May 18, 1957

Weil, Ulrich H. "Osteogenesis Imperfecta: Historical Background" Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research, 1981, September, 159

Joannes Brondsted, The Vikings

Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla: History of the Kings of Norway, trans. Lee M. Hollanšer.

Gwyn Jones, A History of the Vikings (Lonšon: Oxforš University Press, 1968).

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles.

The Venerable Beše.

P. Sawyer, 'The Last Scanšinavian Kings of York', Northern History, 31 (1995),

Alfred P. Smyth "Scandinaviuan Kiungs in the British Isles" OUP

The Orkney Sagas.

The Iclanšic Skalšic poems, translatted by Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson.

Egil's Saga, translated by Hermann Palsson and Paul Edwards (Penguin, 1976).

Roger of Wenšover - Flores Historiarum

R. Fletcher, Who's Who in Roman Britain anš Anglo-Saxon Englanš (1989)

Robin Bush - archivist with The Time Team, Channel 4.

The Fury of the Northmen: saints, shrines and sea-raiders in the Viking age by John Marsden (Kyle Cathie Ltd, 1996)

The Saga of the Volsungs (including The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok) - translated by Margaret Schlauch, Allen & Unwin, 1930. Scandanavian Classics Vol XXXV, American Scandanavian Foundation.

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