Tuesday, 14 January 2014

the life and unfortunate death of Ragnar Lodbrok

Hamble River, close to where the ship belonging to the sons of Ragnar was captured by King Alfred
Ragnar Lodbrok, or Lodbroc, or Lothbrock, was a Viking, a prince, a warrior, a huntsman, a legend. He left his mark across Europe, his adventures taking him from Denmark to Ireland, to Britain, to France, across the continent to Russia. This tale tells of the events leading from ninth century Denmark to... Manor Farm Country Park, Bursledon, Hampshire.

1 The Family Tree
In the beginning, there was Adam, and Adam did beget Seth, Seth begat Enos, Enos begat Cainan, Cainan begat Mahalaleel, Mahalaleel begat Jared, Jared begat Enoch and Enoch did beget Methusalah, father of Lamech, Lamech the father of Noah.
And Noah did beget Scaef, Scaef begat Bedwig, Bedwig begat Hwala and Hwala did beget Hathra. Hathra was father to Itermon, Itermon was father to Heremod, Heremod begat Sceldwa and Sceldwa was father to Beaw.
And Beaw did beget Teatwa, the father of Geat. Geat begat Godwulf, Godwulf was father to Finn, Finn fathered Frithwulf, Frithwulf begat Freotholaf who was the father of Woden. Woden, King of Sweden, had a son Gauti, his son Hring was King of East Gotaland and married to the beautiful Sylgja (daughter of Earl Seafarer, sister of Dayfarer and Nightfarer).
Amongst the many sons of Hring and Sylgja was Herrauld. His daughter Thora was the first wife of Ragnar Lodbroc, the son of Sigurd Ring.

2 Ragnar Lodbroc - the early days

From the first his fate was to be the stuff of romance, tragedy, magic and bravery. His father was Sigurd Ring and his mother Alfild. Following the death of Alfild, when Ragnar was just a boy, Sigurd sought a new wife - the beautiful Alfsol, a princess of Jutland. Her family were against the union and so a great battle was fought at which Sigurd was victorious. However, Alfsol’s father would rather lose his daughter to Valhalla than to Sigurd Ring and gave to her a cup of poison. Sigurd declared that he could not live without Alfsol and arranged for her lifeless body to be placed on a funeral pyre on board his finest ship, “then when the fire had been kindled and the ship cut adrift from its moorings Sigurd sprang aboard and, stabbing himself, was consumed by the side of the fair maiden he loved”.

So, at the tender age of fifteen, Ragnar became King of Denmark.

3 How Ragnar became Lodbroc

Ragnar was a serial husband and father to a large number of children. His first wife was Logerda whom he left for Thora
... According to legend, a small snake was found in a vulture’s egg which King Herraud had fetched from Permia. It was golden in colour, and King Herraud gave it to his daughter, Thora Town-Hart, as a teething gift. She put a piece of gold under the snake and after that it grew and grew until it circled her bower. The snake was so savage no one dared come near it except the King and the man who fed it.  (Maybe, stop feeding it?) The snake ate an old ox at every meal, and everyone thought it a thoroughly nasty creature. King Herraud made a solemn vow that he would only allow Thora to marry the man brave enough to go into the bower to destroy the snake, but no one had enough courage for this until Ragnar appeared on the scene.

When Ragnar heard the tale of Thora and the snake (whose powerful jaws were said to emit fire, venom and noxious vapours) he vowed to rescue the maiden. He clothed himself in a garment of leather and wool, smeared with pitch, and the slaying was no sooner said than done.

“Nor long before
in arms I reached the Gothic shore,
To work the loathly serpent’s death.
I slew the reptile of the heath.”
(Death Song of Ragnar Lodbroc)

From then on Ragnar was known as Ragnar Lodbroc, meaning Leather-Hose, or Hairy-breeches.

My prize was Thora; from that fight
‘Mongst warriors am I Lodbroc hight
I pierced the monster’s scaly side
With steel, the soldiers wealth and pride
(Death song of Ragnar Lodbroc )

Ragnar and Thora were blessed with two sons, as brave as they were handsome, named Agnar and Erik. Sadly their happiness was shortlived - Thora soon fell ill and died.

Years later, when Ragnar was under attack by the Swedish king Eystein, Agnar and Erik persuaded their father to let them fight, which they did bravely, but, unfortunately, due to Eystein’s use of an enchanted cow, both were slain.

Ragnar married again, Krake, the daughter of a king who wowed him with her womanly whiles. She also had a neat line in bird impressions. They had a number of sons who were as brave as they were stupid, as skilled as they were Danish and very probably the roll models for the Ferengi. When these sons went into battle they flew a a giant pennant depicting a crow.

4 Ragnar Lodbroc - retired

Last from among the Heroes one came near,
No god but of the hero troop the chief -
Ragnar, who swept the Northern Sea with fleets,
And ruled over Denmark and the heathy isles
(Mathew Arnold)

Having lived a full and busy life as a Viking warrior - no room here to speak of Ragnar’s sallies into Europe, the taking of Paris, etc - Ragnar decided to live out his remaining years in a form of retirement. He had always been a keen huntsman and one foul day was teaching his falcon, Finist, to fish. A storm blew up and his small boat lost first its sail, closely followed by the wooden mast, then the rudder was torn away and finally t’oars splintered into matchwood. For three days Ragnar, Finist and their boat were thrown mercilessly by the waves, blown helplessly across the North Sea before beaching on the Norfolk coastline. Thought to be a spy or part of a Viking raiding party he was taken to King Edmund. Edmund recognising a warrior of royal birth (and “being struck by the manliness of his form”) gave him a position as the Royal Falconer.

5 Death of Ragnar

The existing Royal Falconer, a man named Berne, was put out and tricked Ragnar into accompanying him on a hunting trip. To cut a long story short, Berne forced Ragnar into a snakepit where he received a fatal snakebite. Berne buried the body and returned to the king, telling him that Ragnar was lost.

The Disir call me back home, those whom Odin
has sent for me from the Hall of the Lord of Hosts.
Gladly will I sup ale in the high seat with the Gods.
The days of my life are finished. I laugh as I die.
(Death Song of Ragnar Lodbroc)

There is another Scandinavian legend concerning Ragnar’s death in a snake pit - at the hands of a Saxon king named Aella. However, the historian FM Stenton points out:
“The contemporary account of ... events in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle shows that (Aella) had barely come into power before the Danes were on him and, if disproof were necessary, would disprove the famous Scandinavian legend that as King in York he had killed Ragnar Lothbrok, the father of Ivar and Halfdan, by throwing him into a pit infested with snakes.”

That evening Finist the falcon flew into the King’s chamber - and flew off again. The following evening it happened again, although this time the falcon landed alongside the King before flying off. The third time this happened the King decided to follow Finist, so follow he did, ending up deep in the forest where in a shallow grave he found the slain Ragnar.

Putting two and two together Edmund realised Berne was responsible and ordered his execution. It was the tradition amongst the norsemen at this time that a condemned man could choose the manner of his death. Berne asked that he put in a small boat without food or water and left to the mercies of God and the seas. Edmund agreed and with one good push the slayer of Ragnar was gone.

6 Betrayal

He drifted for some time and then a storm arose which pitched and tossed his boat like a child’s plaything but Berne held fast and eventually ended up in Denmark where he was brought before the sons of Ragnar.

Sons of Ragnar
Sons of Ragnar and Thora:                   
Sons of Ragnar and Krake (Aslaug)       
        Ivar, (aka Hinguar, Ingware the Boneless, Hungari) eldest son of Ragnar and Krake, known as ”the boneless” and is described as being crippled at birth. Legend tells how he would be carried into battle on a shield, from which vantage point he would shoot arrow after arrow, with fatal accuracy of aim.
        Bjorn, (aka Ubba, Hubba, Habbae)
        Halfdane, (aka Halfdan of the wide embrace)
     Sigurd the Snake Eyed
Three daughters      Erika, Afasig, Aolsig

Berne lied to the sons of Ragnar as he had lied to his King before. He told them that Edmund had put their father to death and that he - brave Berne - had escaped to tell them of Edmund’s foul deed! They were taken in by Berne’s lies and they vowed to avenge their father’s death. So they put together a fleet and set sail for England. There is not room to tell of all their adventures, the ritual murder of King Edmund, the burning down of London Bridge, the taking of London with a cow-hide. Suffice to say the sons of Ragnar left their mark on history as indelibly as the eagle they carved on Edmund’s back.They worked their way down thecoastline and by 897 were off the coast of Hampshire. Here the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle can be called upon to give an eye witness account of what happened next.

7 The Anglo Saxon Chronicle - 897 and all that ...

   1       In 897 - The same year the Danes in East Anglia and Northumbria greatly harassed Wessex along the south coast with predatory bands, most of all with the warships they had built many years before.

  2      Then king Alfred ordered warships to be built to meet the Danish ships: they were almost twice as long as the enemy, some had sixty oars, some more: they were swifter, steadier, and with more freeboard than the Danes’; they were built neither after the Frisian design nor after the Danish, but as it seemed to him that they might be most serviceable.

3 Then on one occasion the same year came six ships to the Isle of Wight, and did much harm there, both in Devon and almost everywhere along the coast. Then the king ordered nine of his new ships to be put out, and they blockaded the entrance from the open sea against their escape.

4 Then the Danes sailed out with three ships against them, and three of them were beached on dry land at the upper end of the harbour, and the crews had gone off inland.

5 Then the English seized two of the three ships at the entrance to the estuary, and slew the men, but the other escaped; in her all but five were slain; and they escaped because the ships of the English were aground, very awkwardly aground.

7 Local tradition has it that ...

 1 the ‘entrance from the open sea’ that was blockaded were the entrances to the Solent,

2 the ships ‘beached on dry land’ were beached on Hamble Spit

3 the one that got away at ‘the entrance to the estuary’ sailed up the Hamble River where it was caught and set alight opposite what is now the Manor Farm Country Park and

4 rather than ‘all but five’ being slain the only survivors were a boy and a cat, who swam ashore landing at what is now called Catland Copse (there was even a dreadful poem written about this by eminent Victorian Charlotte Yonge)

5 Krake, waiting at home for her sons to return, changed her daughters into magpies and sent them to find her three sons - and not to return unless they had good news. But the news was not good so they stayed - even now the magpies remain in the woods near where their brothers were slain - in fact, these magpies have given their name to Pilands Wood, Pylands Copse and Pylands Lane.

Proof - if proof were needed! - of the accuracy of this interpretation includes not only the crystal clear narrative of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle detailed above but also . . .

. . . in 1888, when the foundations for the new vestry at St Leonards church, Bursledon were dug, what was obviously a common grave was discovered, containing the skeletons of large men who had apparently died in battle. Mr CF Fox (of the Hampshire Field Society) after many conversations with Barney Sutton, who helped dig the foundations and remembered the skeletons vividly, was convinced they were Vikings defeated by Alfred in 897, and not victims of the plague. (Susannah Ritchie, The Hamble River, 1984)

. . . and, of course, the wreck of the Viking Ship. The wreck - 125 feet long, 48 feet across the beam - lies opposite Catland Copse, and was known for many years as the wreck of a Viking ship. Indeed, Southampton’s Maritime Museum has possession of an inkwell stand, carved into the shape of a Danish longboat, with a plaque reading “Carved from the timbers of the Viking Ship on the Bursledon River”. (The wreck turned out to be something else altogether - the wreck of the Grace Dieu - but that is another story)

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