The Vikings (from the Old Norse víkingr meaning “to go on expedition”)were a people famous for their skill as raiders and explorers. In the 9th century these Scandinavian peoples had earned the fear and respect of the European nations as they launched raids and conquests establishing themselves in colonies across Europe. One of the most prolific of these Viking raiders was Björn Ironside who cut a swathe across the Mediterranean. Björn was said to be the son of Ragnar Lothbrok (Lothbrok meaning “Hairy-Breeches in Old Norse), the legendary King of the Vikings (and protagonist of the Vikings TV series). Ragnar was, according to tradition, the great “Scourge of England and France” whose sons would lead the Great Heathen Army against the Saxons in England and establish the Danelaw (the Viking kingdom in England ruled from York). Ragnar has largely been dismissed by historians as a fictional amalgamation of several Viking leaders, however, there is still debate as to his existence due to his appearance in generally reliable sources such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Nonetheless Björn Ironside is known to history as one of the sons of Ragnar Lothbrok along with his brothers Ivar the Boneless, Hvitserk and Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye.
Ragnar himself is an interesting character of legend who deserves some explanation, a great warrior who is ultimately undone by his jealousy of the success of his sons. Ragnar led great raids into England and France, at one point sacking Paris. He would meet his end in England (which he raided with an under-strength force attempting to out-do his sons) when he was captured by his long-time nemesis King Ælla of Northumbria who threw him into a pit of snakes. According to the legend Ragnar was wearing a magic leather jerkin which could not be pierced by anything and so the snakes would not bite him. Ælla ordered Ragnar out of the pit, stripped him naked and then through him back in. The Saga Ragnarssona þáttr (The Tale of Ragnar’s Sons) relates that it was this act that caused the Great Heathen Army to invade England at the behest of Ragnar’s children who demanded revenge for the death of their father. Interestingly Björn is the only one of Ragnar’s children who doesn’t take part in this great invasion, however, his accomplishments are arguably more impressive, equal or possibly greater than the accomplishments of his father.
Björn’s most famous accomplishments was his semi-legendary raid into the Mediterranean which began in around 860 AD. Following in his father’s footsteps Björn and his brother Hvitserk raided northern France. However, at the end, instead returning to Norway, upon hearing of the rich lands of the Mediterranean, Björn and his brother decided to venture onward. The two brothers raided the Spanish coast all the way round the straits of Gibraltar and all the way up into southern France where they spent the winter. In the summer of the following year Björn proceeded on to the city of Pisa which he duly sacked. Whilst in Pisa Björn heard that the Holy City of Rome lay within his reach, only a short journey inland. Aware of the riches that had been plundered from various abbeys in England and France he anticipated the vast wealth that could be plundered from the central city of Christendom. Unfortunately for Björn he had been misled as to how far away Rome was. When his army reached the town of Luna they thought that they had reached the Eternal City and began a siege. However, in Luna the Vikings had found their match and the siege looked as if it would turn into a protracted engagement. Eager to get inside Björn fabricated an incredible deceit. Björn let it be known to the bishop of Luna that he had died but had converted to Christianity on his deathbed and wished to be buried in consecrated ground inside the town. Not willing to deny Björn a Christian burial the bishop gave permission for Björn’s body to be brought in by a small honour guard. However, once his coffin was laid in the church Björn astounded the assembled clerics by leaping from the coffin after which he and his “honour guard” hacked a bloody path to the town gates, opening them and allowing his army in to sack the town.
Buoyed by this victory Björn launched further raids in Sicily and North Africa back to the straits of Gibraltar. However, this time the Arab rulers of Spain had anticipated his coming and assembled a fleet against him. Björn’s fleet was ravaged by the Saracen fleet who bombarded the Vikings with Greek Fire (a substance similar to napalm invented by the Eastern Roman Empire). Björn lost 40 of his ships and the greater part of his loot but managed to escape back to Norway with enough booty to live out the rest of his life as a rich man.
On the death of Ragnar Lothbrok Scandinavia was split between Björn and his brothers. Björn inherited the Kingdom of Sweden where he founded the House of Munsö which ruled Sweden for several generations and would eventually become the ruling House of Denmark (they were eventually chased out of Sweden after a long period of civil war in the late 10th century). The House of Munsö, known in Sweden as the Old Dynasty, took its name from the island where Björn Ironside was said to be buried, in a barrow known as Björn Järnsidas hög, crowned by a stone with a runic inscription, a fitting legacy for the great Viking who lived up to his father’s great name.