MHM looks at some of the most formidable and fascinating Vikings.
5. Erik the Red
Hot-headed Erik the Red made murder his business. After being exiled from Iceland in 982 for ‘some killings’, he and his wife moved to Haukadal, where he built a farm. Trouble seemed to follow Erik around, however, and after he killed two men who were responsible for the murder of his slaves, he was forced to leave Haukadal.
Deciding to set off for Iceland, Erik entrusted his possessions to Thorgest. When his Iceland house was built, Erik returned to Haukadel to retrieve these goods, only to find that Thorgest was claiming to have misplaced them. In the ensuing row, Erik killed Thorgest’s sons and ‘a few other men’.
He went on to found two settlements in Greenland, of which he declared himself chieftain. He remained there for the rest of his life, fathering a daughter and three sons.
4. Ingólfur Arnarson
According to Landnáma (a book chronicling the settlement of Iceland by the Norse), Ingólfur left Norway due to a blood feud. He had heard of a new island in the Atlantic, and so sailed for Iceland.
In a grand gesture, when land was sighted, he threw his high-seat pillars (emblems of being a chieftain) overboard, promising to settle wherever the gods decided to bring the pillars ashore. Three years later, two of his slaves located the pillars in the small bay that would later become Reykjavík.
In the meantime, his brother-in-law had been murdered by his Irish slaves because of his ill-treatment of them. Ingólfur hunted them down, and killed them all.
3. Harald Hardrada
Harald Sigurdsson’s first taste of war was in 1030, when, aged just 15, he went to war to support his half-brother, the King of Norway. After his half-brother was defeated, he escaped to Kiev. He spent the next 15 years between there and Constantinople, where he became the leader of the Byzantine emperor’s Varangian Guard.
In 1046, Harald returned to Norway, where he took the throne and went about earning himself the nickname Hardrada, meaning ‘hard ruler’. When news reached him that the English king had died, Harald headed for northern England with a force of 300 ships – at the same time as another claimant, William the Conqueror, was about to set out for southern England.
Harald’s forces captured York, but at the Battle of Stamford Bridge he was hit in the throat by an arrow and died.
2. Ragnar Lodbrok
As a romantic gesture to win the hand 2 of a princess when he was only 15 years old, Ragnar destroyed a poisonous snake infestation while wearing a snake-proof suit made of animal skin boiled in pitch and sand. This earned him the nickname ‘Hairy Breeches’.
Snake-killing aside, Ragnar spent his life raiding up and down the rivers of France in his longships. French king Charles the Bald was so desperate to curb Ragnar’s plundering that he paid him 7,000 pounds of silver not to sack Paris.
Ragnar met his end rather ironically, however, when, while attempting to raid England, he was shipwrecked, captured, and executed by being thrown into a pit of snakes.
1. Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir
Around the year 1000, Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir was surely the most widely travelled woman in the world. Born in Iceland, Gudrid married in Greenland, gave birth to a son in North America, travelled to Norway, farmed in Iceland, and made a pilgrimage on foot to Rome, before ending her days as a nun and anchoress in Iceland.
A formidable, independent-minded woman, Gudrid was able to make her mark – even in the male-dominated culture of the Vikings.
This article appeared in issue 55 of Military History Monthly.