Ivar the Boneless

Dumbarton Rock

Dumbarton Rock. Illustration by T. Nelson (1892)

The kingdom of Strathclyde emerged from the wreckage of a much older kingdom whose principal fortress lay on the summit of Dumbarton Rock. Kings were residing at this fortress as far back as the sixth century and probably earlier. Archaeological evidence shows that they imported high-status goods such as wine from the Mediterranean. They identified themselves as Britons and, like their fellow-Britons in Wales, spoke a language similar to the ancestor of Welsh. Their imposing stronghold was known as Alt Clut, which means ‘Rock of Clyde’. It served as their main centre of power for hundreds of years until, in 870, it was besieged by a huge force of Vikings. The attackers came from Dublin, a major colony and pirate-base of the Norse or Northmen (Norwegians). The outcome of the assault was reported in the Annals of Ulster by scribes writing in Latin:

Obsesio Ailech Cluathe a Norddmannis, .i. Amlaiph & Imhar, duo reges Norddmannorum obsederunt arcem illum & distruxerunt in fine .iiii. mensium arcem & predauerunt.
(‘The siege of Alt Clut by the Northmen. Anlaf and Ivar, two kings of the Northmen, laid siege to the fortress and at the end of four months they destroyed and plundered it.’)

In Wales, the compilers of the Welsh Annals briefly mentioned the catastrophe that had befallen their fellow-Britons:
Arx Alt Clut a gentilibus fracta est.
(‘The fortress of Alt Clut was broken by the heathens.’)

More is said on the fall of Dumbarton in Chapter Three of Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age where, for instance, the political repercussions are discussed. One small aspect not touched on in the book is the parentage of the Norse leaders Anlaf and Ivar. Irish tradition identified them as brothers, while the old Norse sagas mention a great warrior called ‘Ivar the Boneless’ who may be the historical Ivar of 870.

Ragnar Lothbrok

Travis Fimmel as Ragnar Lothbrok.

Being quite an avid viewer of the ‘Vikings’ series on the History Channel, it hasn’t passed my notice that the star of the show is the warlord Ragnar Lothbrok (played by Australian actor Travis Fimmel). The Norse sagas depict Ragnar as the father of Ivar the Boneless, a relationship that may or may not have a basis in fact. This is picked up by the TV show in Season 2, where Ragnar’s wife Aslaug gives birth to Ivar whose legs are deformed, thus explaining his nickname (other explanations are possible). Since Ragnar’s own historicity is sometimes doubted, we may be dealing here with semi-legendary figures anyway. If not, and if Ivar the Boneless was the Ivar who led the destruction of Alt Clut, the TV series may have a link with one of the key events in the history of Strathclyde.

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4 thoughts on “Ivar the Boneless

    1. Tim Post author

      There seem to be quite a few theories, e.g. he was agile/flexible, or he was carried around on a shield after winning a battle, or he was lame through disease/injury.

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      Reply

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