Ivar the Boneless – What Happened to Him?

ivar the boneless

If you have played Assassin’s Creed Valhalla or hold a general interest in Viking and Saxon history, you will have undoubtedly come across the name Ivar the Boneless.

The man himself is somewhat of a mystery, from the reason behind his name to his death, there is plenty to discover. The truth is, there is no definitive cause of death or etymology for his name, but we do have a rough idea.

Let’s uncover this fascinating man who has captured our imaginations.

Who was Ivar the Boneless?

We don’t have any evidence to suggest when Ivar the Boneless was born or how he came to be on British shores in 865AD. We even don’t know if Ivar was born overseas or in Britain.

His name is also a bit of an obscurity (which we will examine further down). He was likely known by the name Ivar (or Ivarr according to some sources) Ragnarsson.

As Ivar Ragnarsson

The surname Ragnarsson means the ‘Son of Ragnar’. In Ivar’s case this meant he was the son of Ragnar Lodbrok.

Ragnar Lodbrok is only known from Viking sagas and Old Norse poetry and isn’t attested to with any contemporary evidence. After Ragnar’s death (if he existed) later chroniclers stated Ragnar was a prolific raider of the British Isles and also led raids against the Holy Roman Empire.

Did Ragnar Lodbrok Exist?

You might think because Ivar Ragnarsson claims to be the son of Ragnar Lodbrok that he must have existed.

The problem is the earliest source outside of the sagas and poetry for the existence of a historical Ragnar is from the 1100s (Book IX of the Gesta Danorum), a full 500 years after his supposed life.

The sagas and poetry are considered unreliable sources, not least because of their obvious embellishments but also because some of the feats attributed to Ragnar Lodbrok have been tied to other historical figures.

Many Claimed to be Ragnar Lodbrok’s Sons

There are six Vikings who claimed to be sons of Ragnar that we know of:

  • Ivar the Boneless,
  • Ubba,
  • Halfdan
  • Bjorn Ironside,
  • Hvitserk (possibly Halfdan known by another name),
  • Sigurd Snake in the Eye.

These six Vikings all achieved a great level of success in their respective lives. It should be pointed out that Ivar, Ubba and Halfdan are known to have been in Britain, whereas the remaining three are known to have been rulers of Scandinavian countries.

This disparate range of kingship tends to suggest rulers of this period simply claimed lineage to Ragnar in the same way Viking rulers before them claimed lineage to Odin. What are the odds that the sons of Ragnar all achieved leadership positions across the Viking world?

For reference:

  • Sigurd Snake in the Eye – King of Norway
  • Bjorn Ironside – King of Sweden
  • Hvitserk – Led invasion of Kiev and Rus.

We don’t know how many other lesser-known Vikings also claimed descendance from Ragnar and it could be the case many hundreds of Vikings took the surname Ragnarsson to increase their social standing.

What Do We Know About Ivar the Boneless?

There are three events we know Ivar the Boneless engaged in:

  • 865 AD – Ivar the Boneless led the Great Heathen Army against the Anglo Saxons,
  • 867 AD – Ivar the Boneless turns his attention to the North of Britain, invading Northumberland.
  • 869 AD – Ivar the Boneless alongside his brother Ubba invade East Anglia and executes Edmund the Martyr.

We also have two differing accounts of his death.

Great Heathen Army Invasion of 865 AD

In 865, Ivar, Halfdan and Ubba led a coalition of Viking clans in a widescale invasion of England. The Great Heathen army (named so by the Christian Saxons) landed in Kent. It is thought prior to the invasion, the Vikings had sent summons across Scandinavia for clans to come together and unite under one banner.

The reason for forming the coalition was to avenge the death of Ragnar Lodbrok (although as mentioned he may not have existed).

It is likely the invasion was simply to conquer new territory. It is highly unlikely the invasion was to avenge the death of Ragnar Lodbrok. Even if we accept Ragnar did in fact live, there is incongruity with only three of his supposed sons being involved and the other three not.

If Ragnar had lived and the invasion was to avenge his death, according to Viking tradition it would have been upon all six of the sons to avenge his death. Because that didn’t happen, we can safely assume they didn’t invade for that reason.

Notwithstanding, uniting Vikings under a coalition for this purpose would have been impossible. Viking clans unrelated to Ragnar Lodbrok wouldn’t have been interested in avenging his death and we know from future coalitions (after the St Brice’s Day Massacre) that Viking clans were reluctant to unite for revenge.

viking boat in norway

From Kent to East Anglia

After largescale raiding in Kent, the Vikings once more united to push up into East Anglia. Viking raiding parties were typically small, and the Anglo Saxons were accustomed to dealing with parties under thirty-five men. In contrast, the Anglo Saxons considered raiding parties of over thirty-five men to be a significant threat.

We don’t know the size of the Great Heathen Army, but we can assume it was small, with estimates ranging from under a thousand men to a few thousand men. To cover a county the size of Kent meaningfully, the Army would have broken up and then reconvened before pressing north.

Both the kingdoms (now counties) of Kent and East Anglia paid the Vikings in return for peace or what’s known as ‘danegeld’ which translates as Danish yield.

North and South Again

By 867, the Vikings had pushed further north and established a centre of command at York (known as Jorvik at the time). In pushing this far north they had conquered the Kingdom of Mercia and taken control of Nottingham (hilariously known at the time as Snotengaham or Snottingham for Assassin’s Creed players).

By 869, the Vikings had raided into Northumbria and returned back to East Anglia, where they would overwinter in Thetford and kill Edmund the Martyr for refusing to renounce Christian doctrine.

It would be shortly after Ivar the Boneless would die.

When Did Ivar the Boneless Die?

There are two dates for Ivar’s death:

  • 870 – According to the Anglo Saxons,
  • 873 – According to the Irish.

I would wager he died in 870 or even late 869 if you account for the time it would have taken for the Anglo Saxons to become aware of his death.

The Irish did a better job of recording the nature of his death, but as the Great Heathen Army was nowhere near Ireland at the time, it is safe to assume they had to wait for news to arrive and be verified.

How Ivar the Boneless Died

It is not known for certain how Ivar the Boneless died, the evidence of his death is scant to say the least.

We can make a supposition based on what we know.

It is likely Ivar the Boneless had osteopenia or osteoporosis – both cause bones to be less dense, more brittle and break easier. This is attested to in the Viking sagas which state Ivar was born with weak bones.

The Irish chroniclers documented he died of a sudden and horrible disease. When marrying up this information with the theory Ivar the Boneless had weak bones, it isn’t too much of a leap to imagine he sustained a broken bone in battle that caused infection, gangrene and necrosis.

While a broken bone would not present as a sudden and horrible disease, gangrene and necrosis certainly would of.

While this is just a theory and not definitive, it is the most likely in my opinion given the source evidence. The evidence also points to Ivar not expecting to live through the war and had instructed his men to bury him in a particular way when he died – suggesting once again Ivar had an illness he was acutely aware of such as weak bones.

What Does ‘Ivar the Boneless’ Mean?

There are three competing theories for the name Ivar the Boneless:

  • Ivar had Osteopenia or Osteoporosis
  • Ivar was known for killing using a ‘Blood Eagle’
  • Boneless was the result of a mistranslation.

We have examined the illness already and for it’s worth I think this is the most likely. For Ivar it would have been a badge of honour to be battle-hardened with such a crippling illness and it isn’t farfetched for him to carry this in his name.

Ivar the Boneless Suffers a Blood Eagle – Warning: Graphic Content

Blood Eagles

A Blood Eagle is a type of ritual execution. According to sagas it involved placing the victim in a prone position, separating the rib cage from the spine and pulling the lungs out from behind to give the victim ‘wings’.

Ivar the Boneless is recorded to have used a Blood Eagle at least once when he killed the King Aella of Northumbria.

It could be that Ivar didn’t use this execution in isolation and he may have been prolific in using it. However attributing ‘the Boneless’ to it is problematic, mainly because the rib cage is severed rather than removed – the execution according to all sources doesn’t debone the victim.

Boneless as a Mistranslation

Even less credible is the theory that Boneless originates from a mistranslation of Saxon into Latin. The reason this isn’t credible is because the Norse also use the term Boneless, so it couldn’t possibly be a mistranslation.

Where is Ivar the Boneless Buried?

It is fairly safe to assume Ivar is buried in the Southeast of England, either East Anglia or around that area.

There is a theory he was buried near Repton due to a large amount (two hundred and fifty) of partial skeletons being unearthed in the area. The idea being Ivar was buried alongside vanquished foes and this burial would befit someone of his status.

The problem this theory has is Repton is a long way from East Anglia and the Vikings were in East Anglia at around the time of his death.

We also know from the Saga outlining Ivar’s last wishes he be buried on land that would bring illness to those who invaded it which held until the invasion of William the Conqueror (Vilhjalm bastard in the saga).

This suggests Ivar was once again buried in the Southeast as William landed in East Sussex.

Maybe we will one day find his skeleton, maybe it will have the tell-tale signs of osteopenia and we will know once and for all why he was called Ivar the Boneless. Until then we can only guess and romanticise about what happened to Ivar the Boneless.

Jon Logan

Jon Logan is an editorial consultant and author that loves living life without boundaries. Over the past 5 years, his content at Immortal Wordsmith has helped thousands of readers gain new perspectives and discover fascinating stories. Jon holds several professional qualifications and is financially qualified in the UK. He left the humdrum world of financial advice to pursue a career in writing – his lifelong passion. He has partnered with local and global brands to help them grow their businesses and audiences through insightful and innovative content strategy. Jon specialises in creating inspirational and thought-provoking writing that challenges readers to look beyond the confines of “the norm.” He uses dynamic writing styles to convey messages to diverse audiences from all walks of life. He is an avid explorer and loves sharing the world from his perspective with his readers.

Leave a Reply