Hvitserk is, without doubt, one of the most tragic characters in the History Channel’s Vikings series.
One of the younger sons of Ragnar Lothbrok, he is a follower rather than a leader and often struggles when he must choose between his brothers.
He is haunted by the things that he has done and eventually goes mad, and then finds himself exiled in the east with Ivar, the brother he detests. The writers of the show didn’t give Hvitserk an easy time of it.
But how accurate is this representation of the real Hvitserk of Viking legend and saga?
Let’s take a look at what we know about the real Hvitserk Ragnarrson, probably also known as Halfdan. While he is no Bjorn Ironside or Ivar the Boneless, he is still one of the most infamous Viking warriors of the 9th century.
History or Legend?
Before digging into the details, it should be made clear that when we talk about the “real” Hvitserk, we are talking about the Viking described in the surviving 13th-century sagas written more than 200 years after the deaths of all the character involved.
The stories recorded in the sagas are filled with fantastic acts of courage and brutality, but it is hard to believe that some of the events haven’t been embellished for the sake of good storytelling.
Scholars also believe that the writers of the sagas assigned some of the escapades of other Vikings to the more well-known sons of Ragnar.
So, just to be clear, even when we talk about the “real” Hvitserk, we are talking about a legendary figure, who is a composition of both history of mythology.
Nevertheless, scholars do believe that Hvitserk was a real Viking that lived in the second half of the 9th century, though he may not have done all of the great things credited to him.
Who Was Hvitserk?
Hvitserk was one of the sons of the legendary Ragnar Lothbrok with Aslaug. He seems to have been the third son of the couple, after Ivar the Boneless and Bjorn Ironside (in that order, Ivar was the oldest of Ragnar’s sons with Aslaug).
The exact list of the sons of Ragnar Lothbrok is difficult to distinguish, as different sources record them in different combinations.
Notably, in some sources, Ragnar and Aslaug are said to have a son Hvitserk, and in other sources, a son called Halfdan, but the two never appear in the same source. For this reason, some scholars have suggested that the two are one and the same.
If this is the case, Halfdan is probably his birth name, and Hvitserk a nickname, which means “white shirt”. There are a variety of reasons why he may have gained the name. He may have been very pale in complexion, or he may have been late in “bloodying his shirt” in battle. But the source of the name is now lost to history.
When Hvitserk and his brothers were born, Ragnar already had two legitimate sons with Thora, the daughter of the Jarl of Gotland, Eirik and Agnar.
In order not to complicate the passage of power, and in a practice that was common among the Vikings, Ragnar sends his younger sons, which he had with Aslaug, away to find their own fortune.
So, Ivar the Boneless, Bjorn Ironside, Hvitserk/Halfdan, Rognvald, and Sigurd Snake in the Eye found themselves in exile. However, this shouldn’t be interpreted as Ragnar abandoning his sons, each seems to have sailed away from their homeland with a number of ships at their command.
Rather, they were sent to find their own fortunes, since they should not expect to inherit that of their father.
The brothers set themselves up on Zealand, in the Netherlands, with Ivar, the oldest of the brothers, as their leader. From there they made raids on the surrounding Viking territories, including Jutland, Gotland, Oland, and other minor islands.
Their presence put a lot of pressure on the Swedish king, Eysteinn Beli, to protect and maintain his territories. Ragnar’s two older sons, Eirik and Agnar, decided to take advantage of the situation. They went to the Swedish king to request that he bend the knee to Ragnar. But instead, Eysteinn killed the two young men.
This gave the brothers the excuse that they needed to attack the king in earnest, and they killed Eysteinn, bring Sweden under the influence of Ragnar as well.
Hvitserk and the Great Heathen Army
Some years later, Ragnar decided to embark on an ill-fated mission to conquer England. He seems to have become very arrogant, or mad, or was simply looking for a new challenge, as he set out to conquer the whole country with just two ships.
Unsurprisingly, Ragnar was defeated. He was captured by King Aella of Northumbria, who executed him, apparently by throwing him into a snake pit, like on the show.
The sons of Ragnar were honor bound to avenge their father’s death. Ivar the Boneless, Bjorn Ironside, Hvitserk (recorded as Halfdan), and Ubba (who was probably a son of Ragnar by another woman) put together an enormous army of Vikings and set sailed for England.
While the English had been suffering from Viking raids for over a century, the records suggest that this new army was much larger, though the exact size is unknown. This is why it became known as the Great Heathen Army.
The army landed in East Anglia in 865, where they made an alliance with the local king, and then went on to take York and set it up as their base the following year. Like the in show, York was an important stronghold for the Vikings, and after this initial conquest, it remained in their hands for more than 100 years.
In 867 they marched into Mercia and made camp in Nottingham, which forced the Mercians to make a deal with the Vikings, encouraging the Great Heathen Army to return to York.
However, it seems that the sons of Ragnar were not always as good as their word. In 869 they returned to East Anglia, where they had already made a deal, but killed the king and took control of his territory.
It is believed that at this time, Ivar the Boneless left the Great Heathen Army, so from this time forward, Hvertisk/Halfdan was probably one of its most important commanders.
In 871 the army advanced on Wessex, where King Alfred the Great paid them to leave. They turned their attention on London, and then in the following years returned to conquer Mercia. They forced the king to flee and set up their own puppet king, Coewulf, in his place.
Following this success, in 874/5, the army split up. One part turned their attention on Wessex, and the other part headed into Northumbria. Hvitserk/Halfdan was at the head of the army that headed north.
In 875 he ravaged the north of Scotland where he fought the local Picts and Britons of Strathclyde. In the following year, he returned to Northumbria and shared out the territory among his men, who became farmers.
This area of England became a part of the Danelaw, a part of England in which the laws of the Danes held sway, and Hvitserk could be described as the first Viking king of Northumbria.
The Anglo-Saxon records that tell this story do not mention Halfdan/Hvitserk again.
The Fate of Hvitserk
Historians have searched the sources for signs of what Hvitserk might have done next, and there are a number of different stories that have been linked with him.
Hvitserk in Ireland
When Ivar the Boneless left the Great Heathen Army in 870, he disappears from the Anglo-Saxon sources, but it is generally agreed that he shows up in the Irish ones as Imar, the Norse King of Dublin who died in 873.
It is said that Ivar set himself up as the King of Dublin after the death of King Olaf the White. But his reign was short-lived, probably dying of some kind of illness. He was succeeded to power by Eystein, the son of his predecessor Olaf.
But according to the Irish sources, Olsyin son of Amlaib, who has been identified as Eystein, was killed by a man named Albann who thought that he also had a claim to be the King of the Norsemen in Ireland.
Many scholars have speculated that this was Hvitserk, who believed he had a claim on his brother Ivar’s legacy.
While this supposed Hvitserk defeated Eystein, he didn’t hold the territory for long. Rather than staying in Ireland he returned to York, and lost control of his Irish kingdom. It is said that he returned later to reconquer the territory, but was defeated and killed during a skirmish at Lock Cuan (Strangford Lough) in 877.
Hvitserk the Scandinavian King
Other sources suggest that after England, Hvitserk when on to pillage France and Italy with his brothers Bjorn Ironside and Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye.
They were on their way to Rome, which they believed they reached when they reached the Italian city of Luna. They sacked the city, but when they learned that they had still not reached Rome, they turned for home.
At this time Bjorn Ironside may have become the king of Uppsala and Sweden, Sigurn Snake-in-the-Eye the king of Zealand, Scania, Hallang, Vken, and Agder, and most of Oppland, and Hvitserk the king of Jutland and Wendland.
A different source describes “Sigfried and Halfdan” as co-rulers of Denmark.
Hvitserk in the East
Yet another source suggests that Hvitserk went west to Gardarike and pillaged there with the Kievan Rus.
If this is the case, he would also be the Hvitserk that married Efanda, the Duchess of Novgorod, and had two children Askold, and another son whose name is unknown.
If he was this Hvitserk, he was captured in 877 and asked how he wanted to be executed. He said that we wanted to be burned alive on a steak of human remains.
However, this Hvitserk may also have been a Kevin prince by the name of Askold, the sources are unclear.
Hvitserk the Enigma
So, while we know that Hvitserk was a son of Ragnar Lothbrok and Aslaug, everything else about him is a bit of an enigma. If he was also known by the name Halfdan, then he was part of the leadership of the Great Heathen Army with his brothers. But after that, we just aren’t sure what happened to Hvitserk/Halfdan.
What do you think? Where do you think this son of Ragnar Lothbrok ended up?