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Although the Vikings were great traders, settlers and explorers, their most famous reputation seems to be their apparent bloodthirsty and insatiable appetite for war.
Whilst there is far more to the Vikings than just raiding and pillaging, they did breed some of the most hardened warriors the world has ever known.
We’ve compiled a list of five of the fiercest Viking fighters, a collection that doesn’t even include famed Viking warrior Ragnar Lothbrok or his brother Rollo (we already know how fierce they are). But these five were clearly not to be messed with.
His name meant 'Hard Ruler' and from a young age Harald Hardrada gained a taste for blood. As a teenager, he fought in a bloody power struggle alongside his half-brother Olaf against king Cnut the Great. They lost and Harald went into exile.
Stumbling into Constantinople, he joined the Varangian Guard – an elite force of mostly Norse fighters who served to protect Byzantine. Harald distinguished himself in the guard, garnering a reputation as a mighty warrior with a ‘talent for war’ and a penchant for brutality.
Described as cold, ruthless and aggressively ambitious, Harald soon amassed himself a large wealth. He then turned his sights to Norway, where Olaf’s son Magnus had recently been crowned king. The pair came to a compromise to co-rule, an agreement that lasted just one year as Magnus passed away, leaving Harald the new King of Norway in 1046.
After swiftly crushing any resistance to his reign, the formidable warlord turned his sights on the English throne, mounting an audacious invasion in September 1066. Initial success couldn’t be sustained and Harald was defeated at the Battle of Stamford Bridge by the forces of Harold II, who would go on to lose to William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings a few weeks later.
Although Harald was said to have fought during the Battle of Stamford Bridge with the fury of a beserker, with no body armour on, an arrow to the throat felled him. His death marks the end of the Viking Age, making Harald the last great Viking ruler.
Ivar the Boneless
A lot of what we know about Ivar the Boneless comes from legend. Said to be the youngest son of Ragnar Lothbrok, Ivar gained his epithet due to an apparent medical condition that made his bones brittle and easy to break. Considering he suffered from such an ailment it is impressive he built the fearsome warrior reputation that he did. According to the Norse sagas he is often depicted as leading his brothers into battle whilst sat atop a shield or a stretcher and wielding a bow.
After King Ælla of Northumbria had thrown his father into a pit full of venomous snakes, Ivar and his other brothers gathered together a force known as the Great Heathen Army and invaded England in 865 AD to exact revenge.
In 866, Ivar’s forces captured York and the following year they got their hands on King Ælla. According to some accounts, they tortured him to death by the method of the blood eagle – a gruesome Norse ritual of execution that saw the shape of an eagle carved into a victim’s back before their ribs were severed from their spine and their lungs pulled from their back and spread out to create a pair of wings. Historians debate whether or not this practice was ever a reality or an invention of the Nordic sagas.
The coming years saw Ivar rampage and pillage across parts of England and Scotland before he settled in Dublin, Ireland, as the king of the Norsemen of all Ireland and Britain. Unlike many of his countrymen, it seems Ivar got to enjoy old age before passing away.
Perhaps one of the most famous Vikings in history, Eric Bloodaxe was also one of the toughest. You don’t gain a nickname like ‘Bloodaxe’ without cracking a few skulls, something Eric started doing from a young age.
According to the sagas, Eric began his violent career at the age of 12, raiding and pillaging along the Baltic coasts. Eric was supposedly the oldest and favourite son of Harald Finehair, the first King of Norway and he secured his inheritance by murdering his other brothers.
Eric’s rule of Norway was harsh and unpopular, leading to his deposal by his last surviving brother, Haakon the Good. Eric fled to England where he enjoyed two stints as King of Northumbria during the mid 900s. During his reigns, he would go violently raiding in Scotland and around the Irish Sea, driven by a thirst for plunder and power.
He was said to have eventually died in battle in 954 AD.
Erik the Red
Perhaps the epitome of the archetypal bloodthirsty Viking, Erik the Red violently murdered his way through life.
Born in Norway, Erik gained his nickname most likely due to the colour of his hair and beard but it could also reflect upon his violent nature. Brutality was clearly in his blood - at a young age, his family were uprooted and taken to Iceland after his father had been banished from Norway due to some killings.
Soon Erik found himself in temporary exile after murdering two neighbours who killed his slaves. Another bloodthirsty rampage ensued when Erik returned from exile to retrieve some personal possessions.
In the end, Erik would leave and go on to discover Greenland in around 982 AD and the sagas would credit him with founding the first settlement there. He managed to persuade many people to follow him from Iceland to Greenland to establish a colony there, although only 14 of the 25 ships that left Iceland would survive the voyage. The 500 or so settlers established a colony that lasted until the mid-15th century.
As for Erik, he died during an epidemic that swept through the colony a short while after his son, Leif Erikson, had set sail westwards on a voyage that would see him become one of the first Europeans to reach North America.
As the daughter of Erik the Red, the family propensity for violence continued with Freydís. Very much her father’s daughter, legend states she also voyaged to Vinland (Newfoundland, North America).
Whilst exploring there, her party were attacked by Native Americans, which sent many of Freydís’ kinsman fleeing. She, however, was said to have grabbed a sword from a fallen Viking, exposed one breast and beaten the side of the sword against it before giving off a furious battle cry. The sagas state she singlehandedly won the fight, achieving the victory whilst also eight months pregnant, proving that Viking women could be equally fearsome warriors as men.
Another saga mentions her more murderous side whilst exploring Vinland with her husband and two business partners who were brothers. Tensions soon arose between Freydís and the two brothers who had settled in different places on Vinland. Freydís then cried wolf to her husband, stating that the brothers had beaten her. She demanded he killed them and if he refused she threatened to divorce him. He mustered his men and they killed the brothers and all the men in their camp, stopping short of a complete massacre as they spared the lives of the five women present.
Freydís demanded they all be slaughtered and when her husband refused, she picked up an axe and massacred the women herself. In the end, her brother Leif spared her any retribution for the murders, but legend states she and her descendants were forever shunned.
For more articles about the history and culture of the Vikings, check out our Viking history hub.