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The Real Vikings: A Documentary

The Real Vikings: A Documentary


Popular, modern conceptions of the Vikings—the term frequently applied to their modern descendants and the inhabitants of modern Scandinavia— strongly differ from the complex picture that emerges from archaeology and historical sources. A romanticized picture of Vikings as noble savages began to emerge in the eighteenth century. Perceived views of the Vikings as alternatively violent, piratical heathens (or intrepid adventurers) owe much to conflicting Viking conceptions of the twentieth century. Contemporary representations of the Vikings are typically based on cultural clichés and stereotypes, complicating modern appreciation of the Viking legacy.

Vikings True Story: How Much Was Real (& What The TV Show Changed)

Throughout 5 seasons, Vikings has shown the travels and battles of Viking warriors, but how much of it is historically accurate? Let's take a look.

History Channel’s Vikings has drawn the attention of the audience for its depiction of Viking warriors, their society, and their merciless battles and raids, but how much of it was real? Although it is not a documentary or educational series, it’s inevitable for viewers to ask how much of Vikings is historically accurate and how much was made up just for the series. Truth is, the series takes from both historical records and fiction to keep the story moving.

Vikings was created by Michael Hirst (who also created The Tudors) and premiered in 2013. The series initially followed the adventures and raids of the legendary Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel) and his Viking brothers, from the start of the Viking Age (marked by the Lindisfarne raid, as seen in season 1) onwards. The subsequent seasons have focused more on his sons and their own travels, more so after Ragnar’s death in season 4.

Vikings is now preparing for its sixth and final season, with Ragnar’s sons Bjorn and Ivar pitted against one another for the future of Norway, promising as much action, drama, and blood as in previous seasons. With the end fast approaching, it’s a good time to explore the true story behind Vikings. Here’s what inspired the series, the truth behind one of its most popular characters, and how much the series adapted history.

‘Vikings’ creator Michael Hirst on the real history behind the hit drama

As the latest series of hit drama Vikings continues on History UK – accompanied by new documentary The Real Vikings which investigates the real history which inspired the show – we talked to Vikings' creator and producer, Michael Hirst…

This competition is now closed

Published: March 6, 2018 at 2:52 pm

Given the popularity of the history drama Vikings – now filming its sixth season – it might seem strange that when screenwriter and producer Michael Hirst first came to the topic, he was cautioned by some that he couldn’t possibly write a successful show about the Scandinavian warriors.

“They were the ‘other’,” he explains, “because they were the people who came and broke into your house at night and raped and pillaged.”

“Many years ago,” Hirst continues, “I was writing a film script about Alfred the Great, who fought against the Vikings. I was fascinated to discover that a lot of what I thought I knew about the Vikings was wrong. I knew nothing about their attitude towards women, which was much more progressive than most other societies.”

Hirst found Viking society surprisingly democratic, “and their engineering and boat-building skills were phenomenal,” he says.

“We were all brought up on clichés about the Vikings that they are brutal, mindless savages. They were certainly brutal when they needed to be, but they weren’t savages.”

Inspired by the sagas

It’s important to Hirst, who’s also behind the Oscar-winning film Elizabeth (1998) and historical television drama The Tudors (–2010), that the show’s characters and stories are grounded in real history. One of the initial sources for Hirst and his historical advisor, Justin Pollard, were the Norse sagas, a collection of tales largely written in the 13th century, telling the histories and semi-mythical voyages of Viking heroes from around 930 to 1030.

When Hirst came across the figure of Ragnar Lothbrok in the historical record, he knew that he’d found his protagonist. According to Norse legend, poetry and sagas, Ragnar Lothbrok was a fearsome raider and warrior who was famously recorded as the leader of the Viking Siege of Paris in 845 (an event which the show explores in season three).

“There’s still some controversy about whether Ragnar was real or not,” Hirst says, though Lothbrok is also said to have fathered many famous Viking figures including Ubbe, Bjorn Ironside and Ivar the Boneless. Two of these figures – Ubbe and Ivar – were part of the coalition Norse Army that invaded the British Isles in 865.

While the extent to which Ragnar was a historic figure or legendary character remains unclear, Hirst explains that, on balance, he concluded that Ragnar did exist. “His name does occur in several accounts, which would have been written by Christian monks in France and Ireland and England. His name crops up, often in different places at the same time, so there is substantial evidence.”

“In any case, even if he didn’t exist it was necessary that he did for the story, for my saga that I was going to tell.”

Fact vs fiction

Though there are some elements included in the show which could be considered to give the drama a fantastical tone – such as Viking gods appearing to characters in premonitions and hallucinations – Hirst is clear on the boundaries of fantasy within his show.

“I allowed myself the opportunity of showing the god Odin briefly on the battlefield in the very first episode of the show, because I knew that’s what the Vikings believed. After a battle, they believed that Odin would walk around the battlefield choosing people to go to Valhalla [the place in Norse mythology where warriors travel after their death]. To me, that wasn’t fantasy because that’s what they believed.

“Also, Vikings believed that their gods were capable of shape-shifting, so they could appear in the shape of a raven, or an owl, or a wolf. The Vikings thought of their landscape as a living organism, filled with god-like presences. I thought it was legitimate to occasionally show ghosts or spirits, or things do with the Vikings’ spiritual world, which I find fascinating. But I would never have a dragon in a show of mine.”

The Vikings and women

Since the earliest seasons of the show, Hirst says, he has experienced some criticism regarding the character of Lagertha, a shield maiden and Ragnar Lothbrok’s first wife (played by Katheryn Winnick). Some have found fault with the idea that women would have been warriors or fighters during the Viking age.

Yet in September 2017 it was widely reported that the archaeological find known as the ‘Birka warrior’ could be a woman.

Found in a 10th-century chamber in Birka, Sweden, in the 1880s, the remains have been long presumed to be those of a male due to its burial with weapons and other status symbols, which suggested the grave of a professional warrior. However, a team of researchers at Uppsala University and Stockholm University reappraised the find in 2016 and found, through genomic testing, that the bones lacked a Y chromosome.

While some historians, including Judith Jesch, an expert in Vikings and Norse history, have pointed out the gaps in the theory – Jesch writes in a blog that “the emotional lure of the woman warrior, especially in the Viking Age, is too strong for reasoned argument” – the new research challenged the assumptions that were made when the remains were first unearthed in the 19th century, and rejuvenated interest in gender roles in the Viking period.

“Having fought for the idea of a female warrior,” says Hirst, “I suppose I felt very vindicated. I don’t look at social media on the whole, but people draw my attention to it occasionally and there were still people posting things such as ‘you’re still wrong, women aren’t strong enough to fight’. The misogyny that still exists is incredible.

The full interview with Michael Hirst, in which he discusses Vikings, The Real Vikings and also his next project The Caesars with Martin Scorsese, features on the History Extra podcast here.

Documentary The Real Vikings aired on History UK in 2018, in which experts revealed the archaeology and history that inspired the show.


The program gives glimpses into the world of the Norsemen (Vikings are derived from a verb, "to go Viking", the people are Norse), and taps a broad spectrum of experts to present it through the lens of "let's find out more about the tv show "Vikings"! The big gem was hearing about the drastic population collapse in the centuries preceding the Viking Era, which lead to the development of a martial culture.

This show provides a lot of visual treats with clips from the show and panoramic views of ancient Norse urban centers, homesteads, and burial sites as they stand today, and the semi-mandatory CG visualizations of the sites, and I learned some new things about what Ragnar's sons were up to as they matured into men. (Ragnar Lothbrok was my 35th grandfather).

Where this documentary starts to fall flat, is how shallow every subject matter is. The series is almost 4 hours long, and you could have spent 12 hours on this, and still had new things to say. I am interested in the real lives of my ancestors, and I get a feeling from the Anglo-centric point of view that my elementary school introduction to Norse life in Scandinavia was more thorough. I could listen to the historians talking about what they've spent their lives researching for hours, and we barely get a glimpse.

Because of the way Vikings (Norsemen going "Viking", or raiding) have been portrayed in the Anglo-centric historical records, there are more than one occasion, when the hosts ask "were they villains?" It's not a great existential question, when the obvious answer is that they never perceived themselves as such. In an era of violence being the norm even in Christian kingdoms, it really isn't a great surprise that Vikings were brutal, too, just following a different rulebook, which meant their Christian victims viewed them as dishonorable creatures.

The episode about Viking Women is where the show started treading on thin ice, because there really wasn't any storyline to follow as with the preceding episodes tracing the history and recorded deeds of male Vikings. Yes, we've known for a while that Shieldmaidens were real, if you pay half a mind to news about these things. Volvas were an important part of the spiritual side of Viking society, we knew that, and oh lookie, women were also at times thralls, because every society owned slaves back then. Seeing a snapshot of moments in time wasn't as interesting as the tracing of one or two women's lives from girlhood to old age would have been, giving more context to the viewer, one of whom is my young daughter, who is interested, but didn't get context for how women grew from girls into a variety of positions within their societies.

The last part about Viking Textile making was contrived and quite soured me to the whole of the program. Yes, women processed wool into cloth, and sails, a fleet needed 50,000 "female work hours" (as opposed to 50,000 "man-hours"), but it is made to sound like they were Dickensian poor laboring in a textile mill, and we should be sorry for them. Textiles were a major industry, and as such, a means for non-fighters to generate wealth for the trade that Norsemen also extensively engaged in. Cloth, silver, and butter were standard commodities in trade throughout the Viking Era, and without the hard working "oppressed" women, there wouldn't really be much of a cloth economy. I was surprised that there were no mentions of reproduction dresses based on grave finds, where textile scraps have survived adhered to brooches. The craftsmanship and quality of those suggests designs varied by region and status, and some of the reproductions are gorgeous pieces of craftsmanship.

The skills and craftsmanship these women had to exhibit to produce the quality and quantity of material we hear they did were amazing, and finally we have the textile archaeologist woman looking defeated and depressed that women spent the coldest time of the year cooped up in the safety of their homes, carding, spinning, weaving, and sewing wool. It's something I pay money to learn and sift through books to rediscover, and this woman looks like she's got PTSD because women did "women's work" a millennia ago. I felt pity for her, in stead of interest in her expertise at that point. Cloth was one of the currencies in Norse lands, so the more productive a woman was, the better her household's status, and chance to secure a good marriage and improve her position. If women controlled the means of production of two of the three economic pillars of the age (butter, cloth, and silver), they had agency that is underplayed by the filmmakers, to my disappointment.

The Battle of Maldon

Another savage confrontation unfolded in 991, during the time of King Aethelred the Unready, but this time the Anglo-Saxons didn’t come out of it quite as well. After a long period in which the Vikings had seemingly become less of a threat to England, the raids flared up again in the late 10th Century. Some believed the best way to deal with them was to pay them off, but others had a more indignant view, believing Viking violence should be met with violence.

Read more about: Vikings

The history of the Viking Age

One such fighter was Byrhtnoth, a royal official in Essex, who rallied his forces against Viking warriors when the latter sailed up the Blackwater River. Geography was against the Vikings, who were rather awkwardly forced to congregate on a small patch of land in the river – probably Northey Island. Yet, a streak of gallantry meant Byrhtnoth didn’t exploit his position. He actually agreed to the Vikings’ request to be allowed to cross from the island onto the mainland without being picked off, in the interests of a fair fight.

Battle then commenced, with the overly-chivalrous Byrhtnoth being slain and his forces defeated. Afterwards, the English agreed to pay the Viking “tax”, or Danegeld, to prevent further violence, while Byrhtnoth’s doomed skirmish inspired a great piece of Old English poetry, called the Battle of Maldon.

From the 9th century onwards England was frequently attacked by Viking invaders

Read more about: Vikings

What is the legacy of the Vikings?

"Real Vikings" Documentary Episode 1 - Student Question Sheet with Answer Key

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This is a question sheet for students watching the the “Real Vikings” documentary that is based on the History Channel’s show “Vikings”. This episode is called “The Age of Invasion” and is focusing on the Vikings raids throughout Europe, including the kingdoms of medieval England and the kingdom of Frankia.

This would be apart of a larger unit of work when studying The Vikings in Stage 4. This could also be very engaging to leave for a substitute teacher for when you are away. This first episode goes for approximately 45 minutes.

Australian Curriculum - Stage 4 - Depth Study 4: The Western and Islamic World - Topic 4a: The Vikings (c. AD 790 – c. 1066)

Significant developments and/or cultural achievements that led to Viking expansion, including weapons and shipbuilding, and the extent of their trade(ACDSEH047)
-identify the extent of Viking exploration and trade
-identify the regions conquered and/or settled by the Vikings
-explain how and why Viking expansion occurred, including developments in weaponry and shipbuilding technologies

Viking conquests and relationships with subject peoples, including the perspectives of monks, changes in the way of life of the English, and the Norman invasion(ACDSEH048)
-explain and assess the impact of the Vikings on subject peoples in England and northern Europe, including the Danelaw
-discuss the significance of the Norwegian (Viking) and Norman invasions of England in 1066
-outline what sources reveal about different perspectives on the Vikings, for example those of English monks

The Vengeance of Ivarr the Boneless

Vikings as portrayed in a 19th-century source: fearsome warriors and sea raiders.

Ninth-century Scandinavia has had good press in recent years. As late as the 1950s, when Kirk Douglas filmed his notorious clunker The Vikings—a movie that featured lashings of fire and pillage, not to mention Tony Curtis clad in an ahistorical and buttocks-skimming leather jerkin—most popular histories still cast the Denmark and Norway of the Dark Ages as nations overflowing with bloodthirsty warriors who were much given to horned helmets and drunken ax-throwing contests. If they weren’t worshiping the pagan gods of Asgard, these Vikings were sailing their longships up rivers to sack monasteries while ravishing virgins and working themselves into berserker rages.

Since the early 1960s, though—we can date the beginning of the change to the publication of Peter Sawyer’s influential The Age of the Vikings (1962)—rehabilitation has been almost complete. Today, the early Viking age has become the subject of a History Channel drama, and historians are likely to stress that the Vikings were traders and settlers, not rapists and killers. The Scandinavians’ achievements have been lauded—they sailed all the way to America and produced the Lewis Chessmen—and nowadays some scholars go so far as to portray them as agents of economic stimulus, occasional victims of their more numerous enemies, or even (as a recent campaign organized by the University of Cambridge suggested) men who “preferred male grooming to pillaging,” carrying around ear spoons to remove surplus wax. To quote the archaeologist Francis Pryor, they “integrated into community life” and “joined the property-owning classes” in the countries they invaded.

Much of this is, of course, necessary revisionism. The Vikings did build a civilization, did farm and could work metal. But, as the medievalist Jonathan Jarrett notes, the historical evidence also shows that they took thousands of slaves and deserved their reputation as much-feared warriors and mercenaries. They could be greedy and implacable foes, and over the centuries reduced several strong and wealthy kingdoms (not least Anglo-Saxon England) to the point of collapse. Much of the time, moreover, the same men who were doing the farming and the metalworking were also responsible for the raping and looting—it was a matter of economic imperative that Vikings who planted crops in the poor soil of Norway, Orkney or northern Scotland in the spring went raiding in the summer before returning home at harvest-time. Finally, as Jarrett points out, being a well-groomed but brutal soldier is scarcely a contradiction in terms. One of the Viking fighters killed at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 gloried in the nickname of Olaf the Flashy, and “the era that invented and lauds James Bond really shouldn’t need telling that someone can plausibly be all of heroic, well-dressed and pathologically violent.”

A section from the Stora Hammars I stone, preserved at Gotland in Sweden. The carving seems to show a victim about to be cut open from the back a bird of prey appears behind him. It has been suggested that this depicts the rite of the blood eagle. Image: Wikicommons.

There have always been problems, in short, for historians who want to suggest that the Vikings were peace-loving and misunderstood, and of these the most intractable is their penchant—at least as portrayed in chronicles and sagas—for gory ritual killings. Among several eminent victims of this practice, we might number the Saxon king Edmund the Martyr—who died in 869, tied to a tree (says the 10th-century Passio Sancti Eadmundi), thoroughly scourged and then used for target practice by Danish archers “until he was all covered with their missiles as with bristles of a hedgehog”—and Ælla, king of Northumbria, who in 867 is said to have met an even more unpleasant fate at Viking hands in a rite known as the “blood eagle.”

One does not have to search too far in the secondary sources to uncover explicit descriptions of what execution by the blood eagle entailed. At its most elaborate, sketched by Sharon Turner in the History of the Anglo-Saxons (1799) or J.M. Lappenberg in his History of England Under the Anglo-Saxon Kings (1834), the ritual involved several distinct stages. First the intended victim would be restrained, face down next, the shape of an eagle with outstretched wings would be cut into his back. After that, his ribs would be hacked from his spine with an ax, one by one, and the bones and skin on both sides pulled outward to create a pair of “wings” from the man’s back. The victim, it is said, would still be alive at this point to experience the agony of what Turner terms “saline stimulant”—having salt rubbed, quite literally, into his vast wound. After that, his exposed lungs would be pulled out of his body and spread over his “wings,” offering witnesses the sight of a final bird-like “fluttering” as he died.

Ragnar Hairy Breeches meets his end in King Ælla’s pit of vipers. From Hugo Hamilton, Teckningar ur Skandinaviens Äldre Historia (Stockholm 1830). Image: Wikicommons.

Well into the last century, most historians of the Vikings accepted that the blood eagle was deeply unpleasant but very real. According to the eminent medievalist J.M. Wallace-Hadrill, its possible victims were not only Ælla of Northumbria but also Halfdán, the son of Harald Finehair, king of Norway, and the Irish King Maelgualai of Munster in some interpretations, it is supposed that even Edmund the Martyr may have suffered the same fate.

To put these claims in context, it is necessary to note that each of these tormented royals died late in the ninth century or early in the 10th, and that two of them—Ælla and Edmund—were killed by Ivarr the Boneless, the most feared Viking of that day. Ivarr, in turn, was the son of the equally notorious (if  marginally historical) Ragnarr Loðbrók, whose name translates as “Ragnar Hairy Breeches.” Ragnarr is supposed to have been the Viking who sacked Paris in 845, and—at least according to the medieval Icelandic Þáttr af Ragnars sonum (Tale of Ragnar’s Sons)—he eventually met his end after being shipwrecked on the coast of the northern Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria. Captured by the local ruler, he was killed by being hurled into a pit of vipers.

It is only when this background is understood that the horrible death ascribed to Ælla makes much sense, because Ælla was the king who captured Ragnarr Loðbrók. By carving the blood eagle into Ælla’s back, Ivarr was avenging his father’s killing what’s more, Viking fury at Ragnarr’s death might also explain the appearance of the Danes’ Great Army in England at about this time. Since that army and its depredations proved to be the motor of some of the most vital episodes in Anglo-Saxon history—not least the rise and eventual triumph of King Alfred the Great—it is not surprising that many eminent scholars have accepted the historical reality of what Patrick Wormald termed this “ferocious sacrificial ritual.”

Perhaps the most prominent proponent of the blood eagle as a real ritual has been Alfred Smyth, the controversial Irish specialist in the history of Scandinavian kings in the British Isles during the ninth century. For Smyth, while King Ælla’s Northumbrian snake pit was a mere literary figment (a sensible conclusion, it must be said, given the scarcity of poisonous snakes in England),

it is difficult to believe that the details of this butchery were invented by a later medieval Norwegian compiler… the details explain precisely what the blood-eagle was all about … the fact that the term bloðorn existed as a meaningful concept in the Old Norse vocabulary indicates that it constituted a ritual form of slaying in its own right.

One key to the success of the Viking raiders of this period was their maneuverability. Shallow-draft longships allowed them to penetrate river systems and disappear at will.

In support of this thesis, Smyth cites the Orkneyinga Saga—a late-12th-century Icelandic account of the Earls of Orkney, in which another well-known Viking leader, Earl Torf-Einar, carves the blood eagle into the back of his enemy Halfdán Long-legs “by laying his sword in the hollow at the backbone and hacking all his ribs from the backbone down to the loins, and drawing out the lungs.” Smyth goes on to suggest that both Halfdán and Ælla were sacrifices to the Norse gods: “The sacrifice for victory,” he notes, “was a central feature of the cult of Oðinn .”

That there are some problems with these claims will not surprise anyone who has studied this period of history sources for the ninth- and 10th-century Scandinavian world are few, mostly late and open to interpretation. Smyth’s identifications of several victims of the blood eagle ritual are certainly subject to challenge. Alex Woolf, the author of the latest general history of Scotland in the period covered by Orkneyinga Saga, bluntly concludes that it is a work of literature, not history, for the period to 1100, while the fate of Maelgualai of Munster is known only from annals composed centuries later. Maelgualai is said by the Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh (the Wars of the Irish with the Foreigners, composed as late as the 12th century) to have died in 859 when “his back was broken on a stone”—an act that Smyth insists implies a ritual murder that “recalls the blood-eagle procedure.” But the account given in another old Irish chronicle, the Annals of the Four Masters–which reports merely that Maelgualai “was stoned by the Norsemen until they slew him”–is equally credible.

So accounts of the blood eagle are generally rather late–most are 12th- or 13th-century–and rather worryingly based on the evidence of Norse and Icelandic sagas, which were written by poets and designed to be recited as entertainment during the long northern winters. The sagas tell great stories, which makes them deeply enticing to historians struggling with the fragmentary evidence for this fascinating period, but since it is hard to reconcile them with contemporary chronicles, they have become considerably less fashionable than they once were as sources of serious history. Moreover, if Halfdán Long-legs and Maelgualai are crossed off the list of those who suffered death by the blood eagle—and if we pass over the entirely unproven suggestion that Edmund the Martyr may have been hacked to death with axes rather than shot to death with arrows (or, as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle implies, simply killed in battle)—we are left with only King Ælla as a possible victim of this form of ritual execution.

Johan August Malmstrom’s 1857 painting King Ælla’s Messenger Before Ragnar Lodbrok’s Sons depicts the arrival of the news of Loðbrók’s death at the Danish court.

Here it is necessary to turn to a paper published by Roberta Frank some 30 years ago in the august English Historical Review. Frank– a scholar of  Old English and Scandinavian literature who was then at the University of Toronto, but is now at Yale—not only discusses the original source for the story of King Ælla’s death, but also makes the important point that “the blood eagling procedure varies from text to text, becoming more lurid, pagan and time-consuming with each passing century.” The  earliest sources, she stresses–such as the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus–

merely envisage someone scratching, as deeply as possible, a picture of an eagle upon Ella’s back…. Orkneyinga Saga envisages the tearing out of ribs and lungs and provides the information that the rite was intended as a sacrifice to Oðinn…. the late Þáttr af Ragnars sonum gives a full, sensational report of the event… by the beginning of the 19th century, the various sagas’ motifs—eagle sketch, rib division, lung surgery, and ‘saline stimulant’—were combined in inventive sequences designed for maximum horror.

It may seem to be a pretty tall order to arrive at any sort of judgement on this scholarly debate, but one of the joys of studying such an obscure period of history is that the sources are so scant that anyone can become familiar with them. For me, Frank scores most heavily by pointing out that (if the late Icelandic sagas are discarded as evidence, as they surely must be) what remains is nothing but one early-11th-century half-stanza of skaldic verse that formed part of a now-fragmentary series of poems known as the Knútsdrápa because they are thought to have been composed to be read to King Canute. This reads

and translates, literally but enigmatically, as

A Viking landing on a hostile coast, as depicted in a history from the Victorian era.

Frank goes on to a learned discussion of the Norse love of gnomic poetry and of how these lines may best be translated—much depends, apparently, on the instrumental force of the ablative. Her view, though, is clearly stated: “An experienced reader of skaldic poetry, looking at stanza in isolation from its saga context, would have trouble seeing it as anything but a conventional utterance, an allusion to the eagle as a carrion beast, the pale bird with red claws perched on and slashing the back of the slain: ‘Ívarr had Ella’s back scored by an eagle.’ ” And the image of an eagle’s claws, she concludes, is conventionally paired with the suffering of martyrs in texts written by Christian scribes throughout late antiquity and the early medieval period.

The crucial point, though, is made elsewhere in Franks’ paper, in a passage that points out that, in those few obscure words of verse, “the syntax, in addition to being skewed, is ambiguous yet every trace of ambiguity has disappeared from the version of the stanza accepted by modern editors.” Which is to say that the rite of the blood eagle is, and always has been, a matter of interpretation, one that has as much substance as Tony Curtis’ buttocks-skimming jerkin.

Seen from that perspective, it’s no surprise that—at least so long as scholars remain intent on recasting the Vikings as farmers with a penchant for the occasional fight—we’ll be encouraged to doubt the reality of the blood eagle. When the wheel turns, though, as it most probably will, don’t be too surprised to hear historians once again contending that blood-drenched Scandinavians sacrificed victims to their pagan gods.

The Vikings who invaded the British Isles soon settled down and built villages for their wives and children to live in. However, these villages would have been heavily fortified, as the Norse raiders would have wanted to protect their family from Anglo-Saxon soldiers. The Viking settlements in the TV show have no such fortifications.

Like Cuthbert, Ansgar was also a real religious figure who met an inaccurate demise at the hands of the Vikings writers. In Season 3, Ansgar was sent as a missionary to Kattegat but was killed when he failed to prove the power of his God. Saint Ansgar was a very successful missionary, who spent his life preaching in Scandinavia and northern Europe.

The Viking Army

This army was led by three of the legendary warrior Ragnar Lodbrok&rsquos five sons: Hvitserk, Ivar the Boneless, and Ubba Ironside. The size of the force is unknown to historians, but it is estimated to be one of the most massive armies of the time.

This campaign against the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms lasted a gruesome 14 years, most of which were filled with terror and suffering.

The King of East Anglia, Edmund the Martyr, offered the invading forces many horses as a gift, hoping to appease them. Unsurprisingly, the Viking forces did not accept this gift and proceeded to devastate the lands of East Anglia, killing Edmund in the process.

How Much Vikings Is Based On Actual History

There are a lot of period dramas on television these days, but there are none quite like History's Vikings. The show has set itself apart not only because it is set in a time period not often explored onscreen, but also because it strives to be as accurate as possible when it is creating its storylines. But if you've ever wondered exactly how accurate Vikings is, show creator Michael Hirst has broken it down for us. Here's what he had to say in a recent AMA.

It's all based on actual history. It starts life with my research into the sagas and into the history and I have historical advisers who helps me. And even though I'm not writing a documentary everything is based on historical fact and I would only say that Vikings is the second biggest show across Scandinavia and they think that it is pretty authentic and pretty real. I had a conversation with the head of Scandinavian studies at Harvard and he said to me, 'This is the first time my culture has ever been taken seriously and intelligently.' I went to the Vikings ship in Oslo and the curator said, 'I just want to say thank you. Because of your show twice as many people come to the museum. You have reawaken[ed] the interest in our history.'

It's pretty cool. It's cool that Vikings is using major players from history to flesh out its story and reference actual historical facts and events. However, anyone familiar with the Vikings will know that the the group's sagas were frequently written down a long time after they happened. In many cases, this was hundreds and hundreds of years after the Vikings in question were actually around. So, Michael Hirst also admitted that sometimes his job is about filling in the gaps to make a cohesive story, not to mention a good drama. Sometimes he has to make decisions about how to interpret the historical record, too.

One example of this has been with Ivar the Boneless, which Hirst readily admits could have been interpreted in numerous ways.

There are various interpretations of what 'Boneless' actually meant. If I was writing a documentary, I would cover them all. I would say all of these were possible. But, I'm not writing a documentary, I'm writing a drama. So I'm looking for the most dramatic. So, a 'cripple' became one of the most feared warriors of all time. There's a lot of evidence that Ivar was carried into battle on a shelf.

Other times he will take an idea that happened, like the crucifixion of members of Viking society, and will apply them to a particular character on his show. There are a lot of ways to stay true to the time period and to still be able to be creative with the storylines. If you look at a lot of other historical dramas, one basic similarity between other shows is that a lot of them are trying to be historically accurate but get picked apart for nitpicky things, as there is a vast historical record for a lot of time periods. However, Vikings gets to slide right into a time where there is not an overabundance of written facts. In a sense, Michael Hirst gets to be accurate, but also gets to be creative. It's kind-of the best of both worlds.

New episodes of Vikings air on Wednesday nights at 9 pm ET, only on History. If you'd like to learn more from Michael Hirst, you can take a look at his full Reddit AMA.

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