The Vikings are generally thought of as a violent bunch of people who spent their lives raiding and pillaging their way around Europe with a high success rate. But who were the main players? Who were the ones that really stood out from the crowd and earned legendary status in a world of violence, blood and revenge? Let’s find out as we look at the top ten most violent Vikings of all time.
Eric Bloodaxe Haraldsson
(885 – 954)
When it comes to sibling rivalries, there’s not many who can hold a candle or ax to this fearsome Viking warrior. The favorite son of the King of Norway, Harald Fairhair, Eric spent most of his early career pillaging and plundering his way around the coasts of Saxland which consisted of Frisia, Denmark, and Germany, and then moved his way onto Scotland, Ireland, and Wales.
He earned the name Bloodaxe through his vigor, strength, and brutality with an axe, but most historians put it down to his ascension to the crown by murdering all but one of his brothers to get there. in some of the 12th Century Latin texts, he is referred to asfratris interfector or brother killer. His reign as King is often described as harsh and unpopular which is compounded be the fact that he married a witch, Gunnhild, who was as equally hated by the locals. However, the brother who he failed to kill, Haakon the Good, came back to oust him from the throne. He escaped to Northumbria where he had two brief reigns as its King from 947 – 948 and then again from 952 – 954. His second and final reign was cut short on the battlefield by Maccus, in the battle of Stainmoor. This also marked the last time any Viking would rule on the British Isles.
Eirik was a stout handsome man, strong, and very manly,—a great and fortunate man of war; but bad-minded, gruff, unfriendly, and silent.
–Saga of Harald Fairhair
Born in 970 as the sister of Leif Erikson and daughter to Erik the Red, Freydis was a woman not to be messed with. She is described in the Nordic Sagas as a Princess warrior who was masculine, strong-willed, and a liar; a reputation which has its foundations in three well-known stories.
The first story was about her leading two ships on a raid, only to lose one on the journey. No men were lost, but the food and provisions could only feed half of her men. She then had the men from the sunken boat murdered by the other to conserve resources.
The second is a raid that went wrong and found her being deserted by her men in the face of an attack by the locals of Finland. With nobody to defend her, Freydis is said to have picked up a sword, exposed one of her breasts, beat her chest, and let out a horrific war cry as she defeated the attackers single-handedly. Impressive enough, but even more so when you take into account that she was eight months pregnant.
The third and most brutal story linked to this Viking warrior is a joint raid to Finland with two brothers, Finnbogi and Helgi. Things took a turn for the worse when she lied to her husband and accused the brothers of attacking and beating her, requesting that they, along with their wives and children, be killed in revenge for the attack. She threatened to divorce him her husband if he didn’t do what she wanted. Her weak-willed husband, Thorfinn, obliged but refused to kill the wives and children. This didn’t stop Fredyis, however, who is said to have picked up an axe and done the killing herself. Nice girl.
Sweyn Forkbeard (Tiugeskaeg)
(960 – 1014)
This violent warlord and warrior began his brutal life in cruel style by leading a rebellion against his own father, the King of Denmark Harald Bluetooth whom he defeated and killed 986 to take the throne. Not content with just Denmark, he turned his attention to the throne of Norway with allies Trondejarl and Eric of lade. The pact brutally overthrew King Olaf I Trygvessön of Norway and split the country between them.
This all seems to pale into insignificance when compared to his next campaign of willful terror executed on the English Isles. So vicious was his killing spree that his raids were described as unprecedented and on a scale not repeated until the Norman invasions fifty years after his death. It’s reported that his campaign was so brutal that the King of England paid Sweyn a tax called the Danegeld to leave his country in peace which he did but not for very long. In 1003, the English King Ethelred the Redeless ordered the St. Brice’s Day massacre in an attempt to rid England of the raiding Danes once and for all. However, it backfired and Sveyns’ sister Gunhilde was killed in the massacre. On hearing of the massacre, Sweyn launched an eleven-year campaign on England and vowed to avenge the death of his sister. In those eleven years, Sweyn laid waste to vast areas of England and finally took the throne in 1013.
Unfortunately for Sweyn this was not to be a long-term job as he died only five weeks after taking the crown and was never officially given the crown. It is for this reason that many think of him as the forgotten King of England. However, on the continent, it was a different story and he is credited as starting the Danish Monarchy in England.
Harald Sigurdsson (Hardrada)
Eager to get into the brutal ways of the Vikings, Harald began his life of violence at the tender age of fifteen when, in 1030 AD, he supported his half-brother Olaf Haraldsson in an attempt to take the Norwegian throne. unfortunately for him and his brother they were defeated and he fled to Kievan Rus’ where he became a captain for the Grand Prince Yaroslav the Wise. He then moved to Constantinople and joined the ranks of the Byzantine Varangian guard and became a commander for the Byzantine Emporer and led many Mediterranean campaigns.
After fifteen years, he returned and claimed the throne of Norway, taking the name Hardrada which loosely translates into hard ruler due to his harsh rule and constant warring with other regional warlords. When he heard of the death of the King of England, in 1066 he put together a fleet of 300 ships and sailed to England to claim what he thought was his god given right. After initial successes in the north of England, he was defeated by another claimant Harold Godwinson at the battle of Stanford Bridge after taking an arrow to the throat. Not the best way to go I’m sure you will agree.
Ultimately, the battle for the crown of England was won by William the Conqueror and Harald Hardrada faded into history and is commonly thought of as the last great Viking king and indeed the last of the Vikings themselves as little was heard from them thereafter.
(777 – 859)
The second son of Ragnar Lodbrok and Aslaug, Bjorn Ironside Ragnarsson is famed for his ferocious attacks on France, Spain, Italy, the Mediterranean and North Africa. He and his brothers became wealth raiders from their attacks and Bjorn took the throne of Sweden after his father’s death and is regarded as the founder of the house of Munso of Sweden.
His most infamous attack came at the city of luna in Italy which he and his forces mistook for Rome. Unable to breach the walls and take the city, Bjorn pretended to be dead and sent one of his men to tell the ruler of the city that just before his death he had converted to Christianity and wished to be buried on consecrated grounds. The wish was granted and his coffin brought into the city under a small guard. Once inside the city walls, Bjorn leaped from the coffin and fought his way single-handedly to the gates and let his men in and took the city.
After years of successful raiding Bjorn’s luck ran out when he was defeated in the straits of Gibraltar and lost 40 ships to Greek Fire – a catapulted flame that could still burn once on the surface of the water. He survived though and returned to his native Sweden to live out the rest of his days in relative luxury.
Though his depiction in the TV show Vikings is not 100% he still remains one of the most violent and successful Vikings of all time.
Gunnar, also known as Gunnar the Hero, was an Icelandic chieftain of legendary proportions with tales and stories that would rival any of the Viking legends. Although thought of as a mild man of intellect, he was definitely somebody who you wanted at your side in battle. An all round athlete it was said that there was none could beat him at any sport of game and was second to none with a bow, with which he never missed a shot, or an atgeir, a type of spear. Even with a sword, it was said that he moved so fast that he would appear to be wielding more than just two swords and was a skilled swordsman with both hands.
In the Njals Saga stories of his speed are numerous. On one occasion he lept onto an enemies’ boat and with a single blow killed a man then, as a spear flew through the air towards him, he caught it with one hand, spun around and threw it back killing the man dead in his tracks.
His demise came at the hands of a clan of which he had killed two members. Whilst fighting off the attackers his bow-string broke, and he turned to his wife to asked for hair to use as a string but unfortunately, she refused because he had slapped her previously for stealing food and was overcome and killed. hell hath no fury like a woman scorned seems perfectly relevant here I think.
(950 – 1003)
Not known for their controlling temper, Erik the Red was one of the most ill-tempered Vikings of the lot. Father to the equally vicious and bad-tempered Freydis Eriksdottir, there were not many Viking settlements that could contain this aggressive warrior and was exiled from society more times than any other.
The first of three came from murder and he was exiled from Norway as a consequence. He moved, but after his slaves were killed by Erik the Foul for accidentally causing a fatal avalanche which killed some of his family members, he took it upon himself to wipe out Erik and was again subsequently banished for his actions. His violence was not over even then and when he moved to Oxney he found himself yet again killing the local community. This time it was because he had given Thorgest his fathers’ setsokkr – an ornamental beam of mystical properties – to look after whilst building his house. When it could not be found he killed both of Thorgests sons and a couple of other people nearby just for measure. The result, you guessed it, exile.
Which is really how he became so famous as he left his Viking homeland to set up a settlement in Greenland of which he is regarded as the founder and discoverer. He named himself chieftain and the settlement itself successfully continued for 300 years. His legacy carried on with his son Leif Erikson who is credited as an explorer in his own right though a great deal more chilled than his father ever was.
one of the most famous and vicious Vikings Ragnar Lothbrok or Lodbrok was the son of the King of Sweden Sigurd Hring and got his name which means hairy breeches due to the breeches he wore made from animal skins made by his wife. The first of his many tales begins with his destroying of a snake-infested pit to win the hand of his first wife at the age of fifteen.
Known for his numerous attacks on the English and French, Ragnar employed ruthless tactics such as blitzkrieg, suddenly charging at enemies, and was also famous for attacking people whilst they prayed in church. Further stories tell of him hanging 111 Christians as his reign of terror over the European countries continued through the 10th Century.
One of his most famous tales is how he forced the King of France, Charles the Bald, into paying him seven thousand pieces of silver not to sack Paris. He had taken his 120 ships up the rivers of France, destroyed a division easily and with so much vigor that the rest of the French armies retreated.
The father of some of the most famous Vikings such as Bjorn Ironside and Ivar the boneless, Ragnar’s life is bookended with snakes as led an attack on the English with only two ships in a bid to outdo his sons but was shipwrecked, captured and thrown into a pit of snakes by king Aella of Northumbria singing his death song as he died. his sons eventually avenged his death and attacked England and King Aella and finally killed him by the ritual of the blood eagle. A particularly vicious death where a man’s spine is ripped from their body, their ribs were broken and their lungs placed on their shoulders like the wings of an eagle.
Ivarr the Boneless
(794 – 873)
one of the strangest Vikings in the nordic Sagas, Ivarr was the son of Ragnar Lothbrok and Asluag who was supposedly the result of ignoring Asluags premonition that if they consummated their marriage too early then the Gods would not like it. Ragnar ignored her, and Ivar was born with a physical condition that would cause his bones to easily break that earned him the name boneless.
However, he was a Viking Prince and therefore was allowed to live and indeed became one of the most cunning, cruel and strategic Vikings of all time being carried into battle on a shield and fighting with a bow and arrow. On hearing of the death of his father Ragnar he and his brothers set sail for England, took control of York and made it the Viking capital of England. When he finally captured his father’s killer he initiated the blood eagle where a man’s lungs are ripped through the back of their body and placed on their shoulders. Other accounts are of him tieing the King of Anglia to a tree and allowing his soldiers to use him as target practice before beheading him.
He is also accredited to have taken the Irish throne in 856 and retired there after a long and bloody career in raiding and pillaging.
(904 – 995)
Another early starter this Viking warrior was reputed to have started his killing at the tender age of 7 when, after being cheated at a game by a child, he went home, got an axe and split the child’s head down to his teeth. This was just the beginning for this violent beast of a man as one story tells of him slaying 11 men by ripping out their throats with his teeth.
His life took a turn when he killed Baror of Atley who was a retainer of Erik Bloodaxe and kinsman to Queen Gunnhilde. Subsequently, they made it their business to have him killed and sent her two brothers to do the job. However, neither succeeded and were killed at the hands of Egil with ease. Declared an outlaw and hunted throughout the country, Egil also killed Rognvaldir the Queens son after he attempted to finish the job so many had failed to do.
Incredibly, apart from his skill at killing everyone and anyone, Egil was a writer of poetry. So good at this was he that, upon hearing his twenty-stanza long head-ransom poem, apparently Erik pardoned him for the murder of his son and he was left to live, not in peace but at least no longer hunted.
A leopard can change its spot though and in a final act of violence, Egil had the slave who helped him to bury all the treasures of a life of pillaging brings, killed, just to make sure nobody found it. Eventually, he died at the ripe old age of 81 not out. A nice bunch, the Vikings, don’t you think?