Bjorn Ironside


Björn Ironside (from Old Norse: Bjǫrn Járnsíða, from Icelandic: Björn Járnsíða, from Swedish: Björn Järnsida, from Danish: Bjørn Jernside; from medieval Latin: Bier Costae ferreae), son of Ragnar Lothbrok, is a Viking commander known in the mid-9th century for his expeditions to France and the Mediterranean; for a time in the service of Charles II the Bald. His life dates to the 9th century.

Björn Ironside is assumed to have been the first ruler of the Englinger dynasty. In the early 18th century, it was assumed that the mound on Munsö Island was that of Björn Järnsidas hög.

Medieval sources mention sons and grandsons that Björn Ironside may have had. These included Erik Björnsson and Björn at Haugi. Björn Ironside male descendants are thought to have ruled Sweden until about 1060.

Björn Ironside in Frankish sources

A powerful Viking chieftain, and fleet commander, Bjorn appears in period source texts such as the Annales Bertiniani and the Chronicon Fontanellense. The first mention of him appears in the summer of 855. The oldest text describing its origin is a work describing the history of the Normans by William of Jumieges (c. 1070).

According to William, it was the custom of the kings of Denmark to banish their younger sons from the kingdom, thus removing them from the path to power. Following this rule, after King Ragnar Lothbrok succeeded his father, he ordered his own son, Björn, to leave the kingdom.

Thus, commanding a substantial fleet, Björn left Denmark and, invading the West Frankish state, began its desolation. The chronicles of the time indicate that Björn allied with another Viking named Sigtrygg and in 855 sailed up the Seine from where his own forces and Sigtrygg's forces made landfall.

That same year, allied Viking units were defeated in Champagne by Charles II the Bald, ruler of the West Frankish state, though the victory was not final.

Although Sigtrygg retreated the following year, Björn's forces were joined by reinforcements from another Viking army, preventing the Franks from driving him from the Seine region. Björn and his men took up winter quarters at the so-called Givold's Tomb.

Björn erected fortifications on the island of Oissel near Rouen, which became his stronghold for years.

Although it is certain that Björn swore an oath of loyalty to Charles II the Bald at Verberie in 858, it remains unclear whether he kept his oath. Eventually Charles decided to confront the recalcitrant Vikings of the Seine, and with all available forces he laid siege to Oissel in July.

However, the Vikings fiercely defended their fortifications, and the attack was a resounding defeat. Furthermore, Charles' brother, Louis II of Germany, ruler of the East Frankish state, invaded Charles' lands, causing many of his former vassals to secede. The siege was therefore broken in September.

In the historical sources of the time, we do not find Björn's name after his meeting with Charles at Verberie. It is certain, however, that the Viking warriors from the Seine continued their raids in the following years, and even sacked Paris again in 861.

In despair, Charles II the Bald attempted to persuade another Viking chieftain, Veland, whose forces were operating in the Somme region, to attack the Vikings from Oissel. This plan was counterproductive, however, and the two Viking armies reached an agreement and joined forces.

Between 861 and 862, the Vikings camped in the lower Seine region, but after a while they separated again. Veland agreed to become a Christian and enter the royal service. In turn, the Vikings from the areas near the Seine went to sea. Some of them joined the struggle between the ruler of Brittany and some Frankish magnates.

Bjorn's expedition to the Mediterranean

Although Björn's role in this event is unknown, several Frankish, Arabic, and Irish sources include references to a large Viking expedition to the Mediterranean between 859 and 861 in which he is said to have participated.

After sailing along the coast of the Iberian Peninsula and crossing the Strait of Gibraltar, the Normans plundered southern France, where they wintered before moving on to Italy. Their first victory in Italy was the capture of Pisa.

During this foray into the Mediterranean, the Vikings conquered many lands, including Sicily and areas of North Africa. However, it is noted that they lost as many as 40 ships in a storm.

After retreating to the Strait of Gibraltar, they lost a further 2 ships when their fleet was attacked by Andalusian forces off the coast of Spain. The remaining 20 Viking ships returned to French waters in 862.

According to a later chronicler, Wilhelm of Jumieges, Björn Ironbeard was said to be the leader of the expedition, while in the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland the leadership of the expedition is attributed to the two sons of Ragnall mac Albdan, a ruler exiled by his own brother from Scandinavia who had settled in Orkney.

Wilhelm of Jumieges identifies Björn as Bier Costae ferreae (Iron-bearded), who was Lotbroci regis filio (son of King Lodbroek). The fragmentary account of the expedition to the Mediterranean written down by Wilhelm centers around Hastein, Björn's adoptive father.

Hastein and Björn jointly organized many expeditions to France, most of which were successful. Hastein was also the originator of the plan by which Björn would become Roman emperor. He and Björn led an expedition to the Mediterranean where, thinking it was Rome, they attacked the city of Luni, but were unable to breach the city walls.

To get inside, a plan was devised in which Hastein would send a message to the bishop of the city claiming that he was terminally ill and had converted to the Christian faith on his deathbed. In the letter he also asked the bishop to administer the sacraments and bury him on consecrated church land.

As he was carried into the chapel, assisted by a small honor guard, he rose from the stretcher and the Vikings who accompanied him opened the city gate, allowing their army inside.

After capturing the city, they realized that it was not Rome, but, despite their initial intentions, they ultimately decided not to attack Rome because they learned that the city was well prepared to defend itself.

After returning to eastern Europe, Hastein and Björn separated. Off the coast of England, Björn's ship sank and he barely escaped with his life. After this incident, he sailed to Friesland, where he died.

The Saga of the Sons of Ragnar

The story of Björn and his brothers, sons of the legendary king Ragnar Lothbrok, was told in various versions throughout the Middle Ages. The Tale of Ragnar's Sons (Ragnarsson þáttr) is an Icelandic Fornaldar Saga from around the 14th century that combines many legendary and partly historical themes.

The saga tells that Björn was the son of Ragnar and Aslaug, and that he had brothers UbbeHalfdan, Ivar the Boneless, and Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye, and half-brothers Eric and Agnar.

The saga depicts Ragnar as the ruler of large areas of Sweden and Denmark. While he was still alive, Björn and his brothers left Sweden to conquer Zealand, Reidgotaland (Jutland), Gotland, Öland and numerous smaller islands. They then settled in Lejre in Danish Zealand, where Ivar the Boneless became their leader.

Ragnar's sons Eric and Agnar sailed to Lake Melar and sent a message to the Swedish king Eysteinn, Ragnar's vassal, demanding that Ragnar's sons submit to his authority. In addition, Eric demanded that Eysteinn's daughter Borghilda become his wife.

Eysteinn replied that he would first like to consult with the Swedish commanders. The commanders rejected the offer and ordered an attack on the rebellious sons. So a battle ensued, during which Eric and Agnar were overwhelmed by the Swedish forces. During the battle, Agnar was killed and Eric was taken prisoner.

As payment for Agnar's death, Eysteinn offered Eric as much territory as he would like and the hand of Borghilda. Eric announced that after such a defeat he wanted nothing more than to choose the day of his own death.

He asked to be impaled on spears that would raise him above the dead on the battlefield; his wish was granted.

Upon hearing of the death of Agnar and Eric, Björn, Aslaug, and Halfdan became enraged and sailed to Sweden with a large army. In a great battle they killed Eysteinn.

According to the saga, their father Ragnar was captured and killed in England by King Aella as a result of his risky attempt to mount an invasion.

In an act of revenge, Björn and his brothers attacked Aella, but were forced to retreat. Realizing that the English king could not be defeated immediately, Ivar decided to agree to a reconciliation.

He demanded only as much land as the ox hide could cover, and swore to Aella that he would never make war against him again.

Ivar then cut the ox hide into such thin strips that when joined together they would encircle a huge fortress (York according to the older saga, London according to the younger saga) which he could take.

Having gained notoriety in England, Ivar turned to his brothers to attack once again, and during the battle he allied himself with them. As a gesture of loyalty to Ivar, the English chiefs and their troops did likewise.

Aella was captured, and a blood eagle was carved on his back in revenge. Björn and his brothers then plundered England, Normandy, France, and Lombardy until they reached the city of Luna in Italy. Then they returned to Scandinavia and divided the kingdom in such a way that Björn Ironside received Uppsala and Sweden.

Bjorn Ironside in Other sources

According to the 13th century Herwar Saga, Eysteinn Beli was killed by Björn and his brothers. This version is consistent with that given in the Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok. In addition, we learn that the brothers conquered all of Sweden, and after Ragnar's death, Björn Ironside inherited it.

Björn had two sons, Refil and Erik Björnsson, who became the next king of Sweden. According to the Saga of Erik the Red, Björn had a son named Asleik (Aslak), who was the ancestor of Thorfinn Karlsefni.

Anglo-Saxon and Irish sources on the other hand suggest that the Danish invasion of England after 865 was led by three brothers named Ingvar (i.e. Ivar), Ubbe, and Halfdan.

Based on an Irish source entitled Cogad Gáedel re Gallaib, we infer that they were sons of Ragnall (meaning Ragnar).

Björn is not mentioned in this context, although later Norman tradition suggests that he may have been one of the brothers. According to Wilhelm of Jumieges, Björn died in Friesland, which can also be linked to Vikings invading England.

Ubbe is sometimes described as the "jarl of Friesland", and the invaders are referred to as Scalding (meaning people from Scald). Historical problems arise in the context of the figure of Björn as king of Sweden.

First, older sources do not provide information to support this, and second, there are insurmountable chronological inaccuracies.

Björn Ironside in popular culture

The character of Björn serves as the inspiration for one of the lead characters in the TV series Vikings. The character is played by Nathan O'Toole as a teenager, while the adult Björn is played by Alexander Ludwig.

This character was partially based on the historical original Björn and is portrayed as the son of Lagertha rather than Aslaug.