Vikings depicts the life of the legendary Ragnar Lodbrok and the adventures of his numerous sons. In a previous article we saw 10 facts the show got right, so this time I’ll focus on what Vikings made up, because great entertainment as it can be, a TV show sponsored by History Channel should be more responsible. Let’s see 10 things Vikings got wrong in this payback!
1. Lagertha and Bjorn Ironside
The wife and son of Ragnar Lodbrok, which are depicted as living in an idyllic farm in the Scandinavian wilderness at the beginning of the show. Lagertha was Ragnar’s first wife, and they later got divorced, but still she would apparently support his ex-husband with troops during a civil war. Overall it seems her character to be very loyal to her historical self depicted in Gesta Danorum (13th century). However, real Lagertha wasn’t the mother of Bjorn, but Aslaug, Ragnar’s third wife.
2. Sons of Ragnar
Neither was Bjorn, the first born of Ragnar and Aslaug, but the second. Ivar the Boneless was the eldest son of the couple, followed by Bjorn, Hvitserk, Ragnvald and Sigurd Snake-in-the-eye. But to be honest, the different sagas mention different marriages and name the siblings in different order, so it’s difficult to ascertain who was oldest, but what it seems clear is that Ragnar begot many sons and daughters with several women.
3. Alfred the Great
Alfred is depicted as the son of Æthelwulf, and the grandson of the King of Wessex, Egbert. A fragile child, prone to fall ill and extremely pious, the product of the affair between the former monk Æthelstan and Æthelwulf’s wife, Judith. In the fifth season he ascends the throne of Wessex after Judith convinces her first son, Æthelred, to resign, and later murders him in a lovely family dinner.
He is shown as someone with potential, but very inconsequential to main events, and rather dependant on Ragnar’s sons, like Ubba. But the real Alfred of Wessex was the main responsible in repelling the Danish Vikings who invaded Saxon Britain, strengthening Wessex to the point, that barely thirty years after his death in 899, his grandson, Æthelstan, conquered the Viking Kingdom of York, and unified the Old Saxon kingdoms into England. Not a bad CV Alfred.
Neither the real Alfred succeeded his father, Æthelwulf, straight away. He had four older brothers, three of them, Æthelbald, Æthelberht and of course Æthelred, who preceded him as Kings of Wessex. It seems he had been truly a sick person, as the TV show depicts, but he was a legitimate son, not the result of an affair between a fallen monk and a princess.
Probably the most eye-soaring detail of Vikings is not about the license with which it depicts several of the characters. But the chronological line. It starts with the documented attack of the Northmen upon the monastery of Lindisfarne, modern day England.
That’s right, these selfless heroes rescued the treasures from the fire! But jokes apart, the plunder of Lindisfarne happened in 793. Keeping this in mind, we move to the 4th season. Ragnar’s murder at the hands of Ælla, king of Northumbria (where Lindisfarne was), is hinted as the reason for Ragnar’s sons to invade Britain. But this happens in 865. Taking into account that Ragnar is depicted as lad in his mid-twenties when he attacks Lindisfarne, plus the 72 years happening between 793 and 865, he would have been close to hundred years old. Very unlikely in the middle-ages, when life expectancy barely reached 40 years.
Moreover, Bjorn, who is a twelve year old lad in the beginning of the series, would have been eighty years old by the time he and his brothers invaded England. Can you imagine a Viking grandpa leading troops from a wheelchair? Not a very frightful sight for the invaded.
5. Invasion of Wessex
These sons of Ragnar, leading what is known as the Great Heathen Army, wouldn’t just kill a man and go home to farm. Both in history and in the TV Show, the Vikings decided to stay and have some more fun. Plunder, capture people to slave and burn were some of their hobbies. At the time, Saxon Britain was formed by four main kingdoms, Northumbria, East Anglia, Mercia and Wessex. Only the latter would resist the Vikings onslaught, and would drive them off, eventually.
In Vikings they are depicted as killing Ælla, and invading Wessex afterwards. After the celebrations, Ivar, Ubba and Hvitserk leave to take York. But reality was more complex. They landed first in East Anglia, wintered there, and took York in 866. They proceeded to pick all kingdoms, except Wessex, by 874, and although they temporarily occupied some parts of the latter, it was done only after submitting its neighbours. And they would only leave after being decisively defeated by Alfred in 878.
6. Siege of York
The Great Heathen Army took Eoferwic (the Saxon name for the former Roman city of Eboracum), and renamed it Jórvík, which eventually would be shortened to modern York. This is correctly depicted in the show, being the work of Ragnar’s sons. They even depict how the Saxon forces try to recapture York, attacking a segment of the ruined walls, but to their horror, they discover is a trap devised by the Vikings, who proceed to corner them and slaughter them.
And although such Saxon attempt to retake York did happen according to some sources, it wasn’t lead by men of Wessex, as depicted in Vikings, but by King Ælla of Northumbria and Osberht, a claimant to the throne and Ælla’s rival.
Rollo is depicted as Ragnar’s older brother and rival, eventually becoming ruler of Normandy, and siding with the King of West France, against his brother’s attempts to attack Paris. Although Ragnar might have had siblings, the historical Rollo who settled in Normandy (whose descendant William would eventually conquer England in 1066) wasn’t Ragnar’s brother. The real Rollo is said to have been born in 860, which means he didn’t exist yet during most of the events depicted in the first four seasons, and making him five years old when the Great Heathen Army invades Britain in 865.
8. The Vikings attack Paris
In the last episode of the fourth season the Vikings take Paris, following Ragnar’s deceit. He asks to be christened, and before faking his own death, he asks to be buried inside Paris. The gullible Parisians mourn his coffin inside the cathedral, where King Charles the Simple (and very simple had to be, to fall for such trick), his daughter Gisla and the Bishop attend the ceremony. What happens is priceless:
Frankish chronicles recorded the sacking of Paris in 845 by a man called Reginherus, Ragnar, in Latin. But the coffin trick isn’t attributed to him, but to his son Bjorn, when he captured the Italian city of Luni, believing it to be Rome. The town walls were too strong, so he proceeded to fake his own death, and when his coffin was brought inside the walls to be interred, he leapt out of it and hacked his way to the gates to open them for his troops.
In the TV show Guthrum is presented as an inconsequential young man, son of the deceased Jarl Borg, who was Ragnar’s archenemy during the second season. Since his mother Torvi was married with Bjorn, Guthrum is Bjorn’s stepson, and fights for the first time against Ivar and Harald’s army, where he is killed by Hvitserk.
But the real Guthrum wasn’t as helpless and trivial as the TV show Guthrum. In fact, he was the main leading Viking of the Great Heathen Army after the sons of Ragnar are not being mentioned anymore (likely dead), and fought against Alfred of Wessex, who finally defeated him in 878. As a part of the peace treaty, Guthrum converted to Christianism, and was crowned king of East Anglia.
10. Brother’s feud
Ivar is depicted as the ultimate baddie who will usurp Kattegat from his older siblings, and eventually take on all of them. He is the main antagonist of season five and probably six, so it made sense he would fight Bjorn and company.
But the real Ivar the Boneless was Ragnar’s eldest son, and therefore his heir, if we are to believe the chronicles. He fought many years alongside his siblings against the Saxons in Britain, and he is often mentioned as the leader of the Great Heathen Army. There’s little information about Ivar, and the Anglo-Saxon chronicles scratch his name after 870, while Irish Annals thick him off the guests list in 873.
Although he could have been fighting his siblings during these years, there’s no mention of him doing so.