Vikings weren’t just a people, they were an era, one that was marked with brutality, cruelty, murders and one war after the other.
What you may not know though is that Vikings were an intelligent breed of warriors, who were tough, but wanted to do the best for their kind. They might have started as savages but in time, learned to colonize and adapt. The Viking Age lasted from 790-1100 CE and changed the culture of the Norse people.
Here is a list of 15 of the toughest viking warriors of all the times. These people have colored history with their and their opponent’s blood!
1. Egil Skallagrimsson
Egil Skallagrimsson isn’t simply known for his killing skills, he is also known for being an epic poet of his time. Like most Norse people, poetry was also his favorite pastime. In fact, he was so good that his poetry is said to be among the finest in ancient Scandinavia. From what we know of his life, it is said that he started early, first poem at 3 and first kill at the mere age of 7. This was the start of young Egil’s notorious life of words and massive killings.
Others may grow calm and peaceful after becoming in-tuned with their inner poet, but Egil terrorized Norway with his blood lust. He was an expert swordsman, ax wielder and could rip out throats with his fingers too. His madness was such that he was forced to become a fugitive in his own country as the King of Norway placed a prize on his head. Becoming an outlaw only allowed Egil to further plunder and pillage without any kind of hindrance.
His capabilities of looting were such that he earned a huge fortune for himself. Since he was never caught, he died free at the ripe age of 80, after murdering the slave who had helped him in burying his treasure.
2. Ragnar Lodbrok
TV series portrayal of Ragnar Lodbrok isn’t his only name to fame. He has been one of the most well known vikings of his time because of all the tales that are present in the Vikings sagas.
As per the sagas, Ragnar’s 9th century raids on Francia (modern day France) and Anglo-Saxon England earned him his legendary nickname, “Shaggy Breeches”, but that doesn’t really convey his personality or conquests. But this was not the only reason for the nickname. According to historical accounts, Ragnar at the young age of 15 killed a poisonous snake infestation to win the hand of his beloved, wearing a snake-proof suit. This did not only earn him the bride, but also the title of ‘hairy breeches’ or ‘shaggy breeches’.
It is believed that Ragnar Lothbrok or Lodbrok, the warlord and king of Denmark and Sweden, was the first Scandinavian to plunder England and France combined and was also the one to father the Great Heathen Army. This has earned him his very own sagas, such as The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok and the Gesta Danorum. As per the accounts of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle ‘Ragnall’ and ‘Reginherus’ was a brutal Viking raider from 840 AD. There are different accounts of the same man.
Even though he ransacked England, he was never able to conquer it. Legend has it that Ragnar was warned by his physic wife Aslaug to not attack England simply with two ships, but he did not pay any heed to her and was thus killed by King Ælla of Northumbria (d. 867 CE). What is ironic though is that he was thrown in a pit of poisonous snakes and died there.
The story goes on to explain how Ragnar’s sons invaded England, to take revenge for their father’s killing. They were able to capture King Ælla and also performed the blood-eagle on him. But there is doubt about the authenticity of these stories.
Another version of history states that the historical Reginherus had nothing to do with England and only attacked France during 845 CE. He was so feared by the king that Charles the Bald (r. 843-877 CE) paid Ragnar 7000 pounds of silver to never attack Paris (France). This is what later set the precedent of paying large sums of money to Viking chiefs for protection from plundering and invasion.
3. Bjorn Ironside
Bjorn Ironside is the son of the infamous Viking Ragnar Lodbrok. He is said to be the king of Sweden, who was the first one from the House of Munsö, although some accounts mention his father to be a king before him. As per the accounts of The Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok and His Sons, Bjorn along with his brothers continued raiding activities of their father, causing terror and chaos in the regions of England, Normandy, France, and Lombardy.
Bjorn it seems had the same lust for plundering and killings that his murdered father had. He spent his entire life raiding one city after the other so much so that countries were frightened at the mere mention of his name. According to one account, once there came a time when Bjorn and his men were unable to gain access to a town, so Bjorn acted dead, was placed in a coffin and taken to the priest for burial. The priest allowed it and as soon as he was taken inside the city, he fought with the villagers, reached the gates of the city, letting his men in and conquering the town.
The Vikings are also said to have sailed to the Eastern Mediterranean after the above mentioned victory. There they were defeated by a Muslim force when they were coming back home. The saga states that “Bjorn Ironside got Uppsala and central Sweden and all the lands that belong to that”.
Bjorn continued his raids, even though he had acquired a huge amount of wealth. It was in the Straits of Gibraltar that he lost his 40 ships. Some accounts state that he sank along with them, while others mention his retirement to Scandinavia and living a life of luxury till his death.
4. Eric Bloodaxe
It is stated that Eric Bloodaxe was the favorite son of Harald Fairhair, the King of Norway. This made him heir to the Norwegian throne but unluckily for him, he was not the only contender. He began his viking career at the age of 12, when his father gave him 5 longships. From that time through his mid teens, Eric went on a plundering spree, raiding from coasts of Denmark to Friedland, Saxland, Scotland to the Irish Sea.
According to sagas, even though he was made the high king, Eric feared the rise of competition in the form of his brothers and decided to kill them all. He is said to have killed 5 of his brothers to keep the throne secured solely for himself. This is where he gained the title of ‘Eric Bloodaxe’. An alternative story taken from the Fagrskinna mentions that Eric gained his nickname for all of his viking raids.
The sagas also explain how Eric was married to Gunnhild, an evil woman believed to be a witch and who had a very negative control over her husband.
Eric had managed to kill all his brothers except one, who was the one responsible for throwing him off the throne and exiling him from the country. Eric continued to pillage the surrounding nations, gathering wealth before attacking Northumbria once again. The Norse sagas tell the tale of his recapturing the throne and ruling for a few more years before he was thrown out again or possibly killed in battle.
Other versions of the tale explain that Eric Bloodaxe ruled Northumbria till his death, when he was fighting in a battle. As per the Anglo Saxon sources Eric died at Stainmore. The local legend claimed that Rey Cross at Stainmore was the place where the blood lusty king was buried, but an excavation in 1989 revealed on such remains.
5. Erik the Red
Believed to be the most prominent and well known Viking, Erik the Red, was nothing but a murderer. He is the perfect epitome of what a viking must be, bloodthirsty and power loving, as detailed in The Saga of the Greenlanders and Erik the Red’s Saga. Although he is also believed to be the one who is known for discovering and settling in Greenland, albeit by killing more men than can be justified.
The reason why Erik found Greenland was simply that he could not seem to stop himself from killing people. Erik Thorvaldsson, as was his real name, was named Erik the Red not just because of his flowing red hair, but also for his murderous temper. He began his killing spree at an early age and was exiled from his birthplace Norway, for this very reason.
After this he, along with his family moved to Iceland, but Erik killed three men there and was exiled from Iceland around 982 for three years. From there he decided to sail west and it was on these sea fares that he found uncharted land that he decided to name Greenland. He liked the place so much that he decided to colonize it. Once his exile had ended, Erik the Red headed back to Iceland and enticed the people to follow him to his new found island. He was able to organize a fleet of 25 ships, carrying 500 men and women to Greenland. Only 14 vessels were able to survive the journey, and they created two main settlements in 986. It is said that during its grandest time, after the death of Erik, the Greenland colony had about 5,000 residents.
Erik had declared himself the chieftain of Greenland and remained there for the rest of his life. Here he had three sons and one daughter.
6. Leif Erikson
Son of the famous Erik the Red, Leif Erickson is one of those invader Vikings, who discovered something no one had before him, the Americas. This is set to have happened a full 500 years before Christopher Columbus was even born. He set foot in the New World in 1000, after venturing off course to Greenland. He anchored at what he called the ‘Vinland’, which is now Newfoundland, Canada.
Like his father, Leif too is mentioned in The Saga of the Greenlanders and Erik the Red’s Saga. The stories claim that Leif was travelling on one of his sea journeys when he came into contact with King Olaf Tryggvason of Norway (r. 995-1000 CE) who had brutally converted the entire country to Christianity. Leif, liking what the king had done, swore fealty to him and was going back to Greenland to evangelize the people of his homeland when he was blown off course towards the Americas.
Even though the Vikings created a settlement in Vinland, the problems of travelling through the sea and skirmish with the local community led to Leif and his men abandoning that place. So they returned back to Greenland where Leif kept his promise and converted his people to Christianity. Not too bloody for a Viking, eh?
7. Freydis Eiriksdottir
This may not be believable for you, but there were women Vikings too. Freydis Eiriksdottir was the daughter of Erik the Red and half-sister of Leif Eriksson. Just like the viking men, Freydis too was vicious, murderous and greedy! She earned herself a place in this list because she is notorious for chasing off hostile Vinland natives on her own, with a sword in hand, while heavily pregnant! How did she get to Vinland you ask?
Records state that like her brother, she too was a traveler and came across Vinland with her husband. Their’s was the fourth expedition to the New World. When they were there, Freydis, being her greedy, bloodthirsty self, felt like having more than her share of the goods/money, and lied to her husband about how the partners had stolen from them and attacked her. She demanded that her husband kill them all. He agreed to kill the men, but refused to kill their wives and children. This enraged Fredyis and she took the ax and murdered them herself.
When others found out about this barbaric act, she was shunned by the community but literally got away with murder, as she was the sister of Leif Erickson.
8. Rollo of Normandy
There simply cannot be any doubt about the existence of this Viking leader as he is the great-great-great-grandfather of the first Viking to have successfully invaded England, William the Conqueror. But this under no way reduces his own personal achievements. Rollo of Normandy is said to be the founder of Normandy, the first “land of the Norsemen”.
Before becoming the leader of Normandy, he conducted raids on France. He was involved in the Siege of Paris in 885-886 CE, during the time when the city was protected by Odo of West France (l. c. 856-898 CE). The siege only ended when Charles the Fat agreed to pay the vikings their demanded sum to leave their land. But Rollo stayed back and continued to raid for more settlements. It was in c. 911 CE, when Charles the Simple offered Rollo some land and his daughter Gisla in marriage that Rollo stopped plundering France. He also promised to keep the place safe from future viking raids.
Rollo of Normandy was believed to be a great leader to his new state and people. He expanded his region of control, improved the laws, restored abbeys and churches, and overall turned Normandy into a powerful country. By the time year 928 came, Rollo was succeeded by his son William Longsword, to the throne of Normandy.
It was in 1066 that a great great great grandson of Rollo, William, duke of Normandy, was finally able to successfully invade and capture England. He came to be known as William the Conqueror, and served as the king of England until 1087.
9. Harald Hardrada
Another infamous viking is Harald Hardrada or Harald Sigurddon as he was named. He started his career of wars and bloodshed at the age of 15, which is pretty late for a Viking, but better late than never! This war was in 1030 fought in support of his half-brother, the King of Norway. The war was lost and for the next fifteen years Herald traveled to Constantinople and became the leader of Varangian Guard of the Byzantine emperor.
By the year 1046, lust for more power pulled him back home to Norway where he fought his way to the throne becoming the last Norse king of the Viking Age. This is where he got the title of “Hardrada,” or “hard ruler”, because he was a harsh ruler who loved wars and the thought of conquests.
Even though Harald fought many battles with the king of Denmark, in 1064, he decided to make peace and gave up the thought to conquer that land. Instead, he had his eyes on the throne of England, whose king had just died. Envious of the thought that a Norwegian king might claim it, Harald decided to attack and expand his kingdom. But his luck had expired as he now came face to face with a formidable warrior, William the Conqueror, who too had viking blood in his veins.
With 300 ships, Harald was able to capture York, but at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, his army was not able to do well and Harald died with an arrow to his neck. William seized England and begin a new era.
But the death of Harald in 1066 CE was also a defining end of the Viking era. Even though he was a harsh ruler, his time was one of peace and prosperity, with the introduction of Christianity in the state and expansion of land.
10. Cnut the Great
There is a reason why Cnut is known as Cnut the Great. He was an expert in all things to do with wars and kingship. It was he who conquered Britain, united it with Norway and Denmark and then went on to capture Sweden as well. His desire to unite all people came to fruition for some time.
Cnut the Great was the son of the king of Denmark, King Svein Forkbeard. It was in 1013 that Cnut helped his father conquer England. But once Svein died, England was again taken by the exiled Anglo-Saxon king, Aethelred the Unready. Lucky for Cnut, Aethelred died soon enough in 1016 and his son, Edmund Ironside came to power.
Cnut battled him and agreed to a peace treaty that gave him power to certain areas of England. Fortune seemed to follow Cnut, as Edmund died just a few weeks after the treaty and entire England came under Cnut’s rule.
It was his reign that finally brought highly sought after period of peace and stability that people so desperately desired. He changed the laws of Britain in a manner that equalized punishments for all the territories under his rule. He may or may not have been a devout Christian but like his father, knew how best to manipulate the church to work in his favor. This is the reason that by the time of his death, he was known as the wise king of not just England but Norway, Denmark and parts of Sweden too.
Cnut established trade and improved the deteriorating condition of Britain along with other states of his realms. He died in 1035, and was preceded by his son Harold Harefoot, who remained king until his death in 1040. But after the death of Cnut’s other son too, Danish rule in England came to a sad end.
11. Ivar the Boneless
Ivar the Boneless is the son of Ragnar Lothbrok who has been mentioned in Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok, the Tale of Ragnar’s Sons, and the Gesta Danorum by Saxo Grammaticus (c. 1160-c. 1220 CE). He was named Ivar ‘the boneless’, because of a medical condition that he suffered from that allowed him to bend more than normal people and also lead to fractures all over his body. The people of the time though believed that Ivar had this condition as a curse of his father lusting after his mother.
But this most certainly did not mean that he was any less fearsome than other Vikings. On the contrary he was feared more because of the steel attached to his body. He was a champion at Berserker fight, a kind of Norse warrior technique that lets them fight in a kind of trance-like fury.
Ivar fought best with bow and arrow and was able to invade many Anglo-Saxon kingdoms along with his two brothers. He was able to capture the throne of Dublin in 856. There are two accounts of how Ivar and his brothers were able to gain the ownership of York. Some state that he captured King Aelle and took revenge of his father’s death, then gained access to East Anglia. Others believe that even though his brothers wanted to fight the king, Ivar refused to do so and made a deal on getting land for not fighting, the one that later became the city of York.
Whichever version is true, Ivar was hailed as a furious and highly intelligent viking warrior who did not let his disease come in his way of greatness. He is said to have spent his days in Dublin and died a natural death.
12. Halfdan Ragnarsson
Halfdan Ragnarsson is one of those historical figures, who are known by different names, depending on what kind of source you are looking at. What is a fact though is that he was a Viking who lived in the 9th century. He was also the brother of Ivar the Boneless.
He along with his brothers were said to be part of the Great Heathen Army and were in leading positions. The Great Heahen Army was a collaboration of Viking warriors from the Scandinavian and Denmark regions, who fought against Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in later years of the 9th century.
Halfdan with the aid of his army attacked the lands of the Picts, as well as the Kingdom of Strathclyde, once they had conquered the Northumbrians. According to some Irish accounts, Halfdan felt that he had the right to the throne of Dublin once his brother had died. But even though he did sit on the throne for some time, he lost it when he tried to take York as well. After that he tried to get back to Ireland but was killed at the Loch Cuan.
As per the stories of The Tale of Ragnar’s Sons, Halfdan was basically Hvitserk, which means the ‘white shirt’. This is believed to be the nickname that Halfdan was given. But according to this tale, Halfdan or Hvitserk has no connection to Ireland; rather, he is said to have invaded France and performed his plundering there.
13. Olaf Tryggvason
Olaf Tryggvason was the grandson of Harald Fairhair and was born in 986. He was raised in Russia after the death of his father. He began his Viking career in 991, when he decided to invade England and was able to win the Battle of Maldon. After this defeat, the English paid the vikings some gold to temporarily hold off further invasions. This is exactly the kind of thing that appealed to Olaf. He allied with Svein Forkbear, king of Denmark in 994 and attacked England again. This way they were able to secure more gold.
The secured gold was the one he used to invade Norway. There he was able to murder the king and become the ruler instead. It was he who forced most of Norway to forcefully accept Christianity. He had made a lot of enemies and in the year 1000, he was attacked in a sea battle where he is said to have jumped over the ship instead of surrendering, never to be seen again.
14. Harald Fairhair
Harald’s Saga clearly mentions that Harald Fairhair was the first king of a united Norway. The most interesting thing about Harald aren’t his missions or adventures that he performed in order to unite Norway, but rather of why he went about doing that in the first place.
Legend has it that Harald fell head over heels for the prince Gyda of Hordaland, who in turn scorned him. This dejected him so much that Harald refused to tend to his hair, meaning no cleaning or cutting, until he had conquered her love by uniting the separate kingdoms of Norway. It may seem like a small thing, but think of the 10 years it took him to do the tremendous task of reuniting a kingdom. Not keeping personal hygiene first was a huge deal for the Norse, particularly when it was a prince who was doing this.
As per the accounts of scholar Martin J. Dougherty, Harald was known as mop-hair the ten years when he was trying to unite Norway and once he had accomplished the task, not only did he become a king, he also won the hand of his beloved Gyda. This was when he was started to be called ‘fair-haired’, because he washed and styled those locks.
15. Sweyn Forkbeard
Sweyn Forkbeard is another one on this list who was able to conquer England, the one task that all Vikings seemed to love indulging in. In 987, he rebelled against his father for the throne of Denmaek and ended up murdering him. He then went on to do what he desired most, attack and plunder England.
It was almost a decade before he decided to change course and raid Norway for a change. So in year 1000 Sweyn attacked Norway and killed the king. He then went on to divide the country among his peers so that no one loyal to the ex-king could rise up.
It was during this time that the king of England got many Danish nobles killed, among them the sister of Sweyn. This enraged Sweyn so much that he brutalized the country so that he was able to avenge his sister’s death and become England’s king himself. He was crowned the king in 1013 CE but sadly was only able to reign for a few weeks before his untimely death. His throne was then taken by his younger son Harald II, while his older son Cnut was consolidating powers of all other regions. Once all the states had been reunited, Harald abdicated in place of his elder brother.
These were some of the most fierce and toughest vikings of all times, who were not simply known for their barbarism, but also for their valor, stamina and persistence.