Ivar the Boneless

Ivar the Boneless – played by Alex Høgh Andersen. in the hit TV series Vikings.

Ivar the Boneless (Old Norse: Ívarr hinn Beinlausi; Old English: Hyngwar) was a Viking leader and a commander who invaded what is now England.

According to the Tale of Ragnar Lodbrok, he was the son of Ragnar Lodbrok and Aslaug. His brothers included Björn Ironside, Halfdan Ragnarsson, Hvitserk, Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye and Ubba.

The origin of the nickname is not certain. The sagas describe him as lacking bones. A genetic condition, osteogenesis imperfecta, is known to cause the body to appear to have “an imperfect bone formation”, because the body and limbs can bend off beyond the usual joints limitations, and produce other ill effects and degrading functions. It was known by the Ancient Greeks and Romans.

It could also be that he had what we now call Ehlers Danlos, which causes recurrent joint dislocations and joint hypermobility, and is a genetic collagen deficiency. They reported that it was common in the British Isles, but little was understood until the early 20th century.

According to the Tale of Ragnar Lodbrok, Ivar’s bonelessness was the result of a curse. His mother Aslaug was Ragnar’s third wife, She was a völva. She said that she and her husband must wait three nights before consummating their marriage after his return following a long separation (while he was in England raiding).

However, Ragnar was overcome with lust after such a long separation and did not heed her words. As a result, Ivar was born with weak bones.

Another theory is that he was actually known as “the Hated”, which in Latin would be Exosus. A medieval scribe with a basic knowledge of Latin could easily have interpreted it as ex (without) os (bones), thus “the Boneless”, although it is hard to align this theory with the direct translation of his name given in Norse sources.

While the sagas describe Ivar’s physical disability, they also emphasise his wisdom, cunning, and mastery of strategy and tactics in battle.

He is often considered identical to Ímar, the founder of the Uí Ímair dynasty which at various times, from the mid-ninth to the tenth century, ruled Northumbria from the city of York, and dominated the Irish Sea region as the Kingdom of Dublin.

Chronology

  • 865: the Great Heathen Army, led by Ivar, invades the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy. The Heptarchy was the collective name for the seven kingdoms East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Mercia, Northumbria, Sussex and Wessex. The invasion was organised by the sons of Ragnar Lodbrok, to wreak revenge against Ælla of Northumbria who had supposedly executed Ragnar in 865 by throwing him in a snake pit, but the historicity of this explanation is unknown. According to the saga, Ivar did not overcome Ælla and sought reconciliation. He only asked for as much land as he could cover with an ox’s hide and swore never to wage war against Ælla. Then Ivar cut the ox’s hide into such fine strands that he could envelop a large fortress (in an older saga it was York and according to a younger saga it was London) which he could take as his own. (Compare the similar legendary ploy of Dido.)
  • Late the next year the army turned north and invaded Northumbria, eventually capturing Ælla at York in 867. According to legend, Ælla was executed by Ivar and his brothers using the blood eagle, a ritual method of execution of debated historicity whereby the ribcage is opened from behind and the lungs are pulled out, forming a wing-like shape. Later in the year the Army moved south and invaded the kingdom of Mercia, capturing the town of Nottingham, where they spent the winter. King Burgred of Mercia responded by allying with the West Saxon king Æthelred of Wessex, and with a combined force they laid siege to the town. The Anglo-Saxons were unable to recapture the city, but a truce was agreed whereby the Danes would withdraw to York. The Great Heathen Army remained in York for over a year, gathering its strength for further assaults.
  • Ivar and Ubba are identified as the commanders of the Danes when they returned to East Anglia in 869, and as the executioners of the East Anglian king, Edmund the Martyr, for refusing their demand that he renounce Christ. How true the accounts are of Edmund’s death is unknown, but it has been suggested that his capture and execution is not an unlikely thing to have happened.
  • Ivar disappears from the historical record sometime after 870. His ultimate fate is uncertain.
“Hyngwar”, Ivar’s name as it appears in Harley MS 2278, a fifteenth-century Middle English manuscript.

Death

The Anglo-Saxon chronicler Æthelweard records his death as 870. The Annals of Ulster describe the death of Ímar in 873. The death of Ímar is also recorded in the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland under the year 873.

The identification of the king of Laithlind as Gothfraid (i.e. Ímar’s father) was added by a copyist in the seventeenth century. In the original eleventh-century manuscript the subject of the entry was simply called righ Lochlann (“the king of Lochlainn”), which more than likely referred to Ímar, whose death is not otherwise noted in the Fragmentary Annals. The cause of death – a sudden and horrible disease – is not mentioned in any other source, but it raises the possibility that the true provenance of Ivar’s Old Norse sobriquet lay in the crippling effects of an unidentified disease that struck him down at the end of his life.

In 1686, a farm labourer called Thomas Walker discovered a Scandinavian burial mound at Repton in Derbyshire close to a battle site where the Great Heathen Army overthrew the Mercian king Burgred of his kingdom. The number of partial skeletons surrounding the body -two hundred warriors and fifty women- signified that the man buried there was of very high status. It has been suggested that such a burial mound is possibly the last resting-place of the renowned Ivar .

The Great Heathen Army

According to the saga, Ivar ordered that he be buried in a place which was exposed to attack, and prophesied that, if that was done, foes coming to the land would be met with ill-success. This prophecy held true, says the saga, until “when Vilhjalm bastard (William I of England) came ashore, he went [to the burial site] and broke Ivar’s mound and saw that [Ivar’s] body had not decayed. Then Vilhjalm had a large pyre made upon which Ivar’s body was] burned… Thereupon, [Vilhjalm proceeded with the landing invasion and achieved] the victory.”

Fictional portrayals

  • Ivar the Boneless is a minor character in the film Alfred the Great, portrayed as an acrobatic and agile warrior.
  • In Hammer of the Gods, Ivar the Boneless appears, played by Ivan Kaye, who would later portray King Aelle in the History Channel Vikings (TV series).
  • In the History Channel Vikings TV series, Ivar is portrayed as the son of Ragnar and Aslaug and a younger half-brother to Björn Ironside. He first appeared in season two as baby, later played by James Quinn Markey and Alex Høgh Andersen.
  • Ivar is a minor character in The Last Kingdom, the first of Bernard Cornwell‘s Saxon Stories. He is portrayed as an expert strategist and shrewd leader of the Danish Grand Army
  • Ivar appears in Nancy Farmer’s Sea of Trolls trilogy as a weak king married to a half-troll.

References

 

15 thoughts on “Ivar the Boneless”

      1. This is a really cool time in history, something that was sorely neglected in my years in school. You don’t know what you’re missing until you discover it! Cornwell’s books gave me a bigger glimpse into an era that I previously knew so little about, yet find so fascinating!
        I started reading the winter king. Haven’t gotten very far yet, but I’m already absorbed into the story. There are some similarities to another Arthurian book I once read, and has me curious how his version will play out in comparison.

      2. I’m pleased to hear that you are already absorbed by the Winter King. I loved the Last Kingdom series, I suspect that Uthred, an orphan (twice over after Ragnar his surrogate father is killed), was inspired in no small part by Bernard Cornwell’s own experiences. He was adopted and brought up in Thundersley, Essex by the Wiggins family; they were members of the Peculiar People, a strict sect of pacifists who banned frivolity of all kinds, and even medicine up to 1930. After his adopted father died, he changed his last name by deed poll from Wiggins to Cornwell, his birth mother’s maiden name. Prior to that, he used Bernard Cornwell as a pen name. He met his father for the first time when he was 58, after telling a journalist on a book tour, “what I wanted to see in Vancouver was my real father.” There he met his half-siblings, with whom he shares many traits, and learned his genealogy. It is because of Cornwell’s books that I have a love for the Medieval period. I have a lot to thank him for.

      3. Wow, I didn’t know all that! Uthred is a great character, whatever the inspiration. I liked his surrogate father Ragnar better than his actual father. Those early exploits with the Danes was what I loved most an the whole series. Medieval history has always interested me, but most of what I had learned in school was about the better known kings and Queens, and not much at that. After school, I started reading up about barbarian Europe. How the Celts sacked Rome, etc.

      4. I had exactly the same experience at school Jessica. I wasn’t until I left school and started travelling that I became interested in History. It started with a fascination for cold war politics while I was at RAF Brüggen, that evolved into 20th century military history, then the Roman Empire, and from there I have had a passion for history for over 20 years. It’s a shame that schools seem to have such a limited curriculum. I can understand that in this country, you would focus on the UK, as my daughter will be focusing on US history at school. But the Anglo-Saxons, then The Vikings, the Franks and finally the Normans, in the early to middle medieval period, shaped Europe into the continent that we know today. How that can be missed in some part, or paid lip-service to in schools is a grave omission in the education of our children.

      5. I don’t know about the UK, but in the US, at least when I was a student, all they taught us were a bunch of meaningless names and numbers (dates). How teachers fail to make the teaching of history interesting is baffling to me. It’s a story! And a really long, complex story, with something for everyone, at that! It ought to be a pretty exciting school subject.

      6. I agree completely. History is rich in intrigue, excitement and is completely enthralling! The only way it can come across as boring is the dull way in which it is delivered to us. I fail to see how young minds couldn’t be enthralled by the mighty Vikings and their exploits, or The wars between the Anglo Saxon heptarcies, or the splendour of Paris under Charlemagne. Why did these people become history teachers??

  1. Another great post – thanks for sharing! And it’s a part of history that is little thought about these days – yet is both interesting of itself and important anyhow because it was through this early medieval world that today’s was really shaped. I’m always fascinated by the way that the nicknames of the Vikings (and Saxons etc) have been transliterated into English – either because it’s a translation, or because the name sounded a bit like an English word. Ethelred the Unready springs to mind, which makes him sound like he wasn’t yet fitted for kingship; but Ethelread ‘Unraed’, the original word, meant ‘ill-advised’ or ‘treacherously advised’. The way all this evolved and has been mythologised into history is maybe the most interesting part of the whole process. Fascinating stuff all round.

  2. The theory that Ivar suffered from Brittle Bones disease is a fascinating one and certainly on the face of it unlikely. However, it holds a lot of water when you consider the evidence that has been found. Carried into battle, using a long bow putting him at great distance from the enemy and being a formidable leader, certainly promote the idea. I doubt whether the truth will ever come out, but one thing does seem clear, and that is that the creation of a unified and structured Britain was as a result of his barbaric and gruesome battles. It’s a fascinating story and will no doubt be a discussion point amongst historians for years to come.

    1. His influence and that of his brother Ubba certainly contributed to the genesis of our country, You are right Andy, we may never know the true nature of his disability. But one thing is for sure, as you point out, his legacy lives on to this day.

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