Historical Figure Profiles

Historical Figure Profile: Halfdan

danish seamen, painted mid 12th century
danish seamen, painted mid 12th century

Unlike his brothers Ivarr the Boneless and Ubbe, none of the Viking Sagas mention anything of Halfdan or any other similar name (with the one exception of Hvitserk in the Saga of Ragnar’s sons, although this figure died in Russia). We are quite sure that they were brothers, however, as Simeon of Durham, Roger of Wendover and the Cogadh Gaedhel all agree that these three were brothers, and that especially in the case of the Cogadh Gaedhel, that Halfdan was a son of Ragnar Lodbrok.

It is unfortunate then, that we do not know much about his early life in the same way as we have seen for his brothers. The first sign of Halfdan is during the initial landing of the Viking army under Ivarr and Ubbe in 865/866 when they all wintered in East Anglia. Eventually the army was bought off with horses and treasure, forcing the Vikings to look elsewhere for plunder. Ivarr and Halfdan then turned their attention to York and over the Winter of 866/867 the city and the kingdom from the Tyne River to the Humber River fell to their might.

The next year the army marched south to Nottingham, where they were eventually turned away without conflict by King Burghred and his brothers-in-law, King Aethelred of Wessex and the future King Alfred the Great. Leaving Nottingham empty handed, they returned to York and stayed there for over a year.

In 870 the great heathen army was once again on the move, led by King Ivarr, resulting in the death of Saint Edmund that November. For this event Ivarr and Ubbe are mentioned as the main leaders of the army, yet Halfdan is strangely absent. It is possible of course that he was there also, however it could be just as likely that he had stayed back in York with some of the army, perhaps to keep an eye on their newly appointed servant king, Egbert. Either way, in 871 Ivarr goes missing from the English sources (possibly to attack Dumbarton and return to Ireland or Denmark) and it looks as though the army are now being led by Halfdan and Ubbe who march ever south to take on Wessex.

The following year is important in Anglo Saxon history. For nearly six months the Danes harass the west Saxons mercilessly, pushing them deeper and deeper into their own territory. At the battle of Ashdown, Halfdan is mentioned in partnership with ‘king’ Bascai/bagseg who it is assumed came with reinforcements possibly from Denmark and known as the great summer army. Bagseg is killed in this foray with a number of other Danish earls, but Halfdan lived to fight another day. It is just as well, for the Northumbrians at York had been left to their own devices for too long and were in rebellion.

In 872 Halfdan and his army returned north to quell the rebellion at York which had resulted in the expulsion of the Danish elected King Egbert and the Northumbrian Archbishop of York. These two men had sought refuge with the then king of Mercia, Burghred. By 875 Burghred and his family were themselves forced into exile in Rome, Egbert of York was dead, Archbishop Wulfhere was reinstated at York, large parts of Mercia and Lyndsey had been raided, and Halfdan and his army were at last making their way into Northumbria to exact their revenge. The kingdom suffered for over a year under his wrath and unlike in the initial stages of conquest, Halfdan raided beyond the Tyne into the lands of northern Northumbria (then under control of the remaining earls of Northumbria who had managed to resist the Danes) and even into the territories of the Picts and Strathclyde Britons. During this time Oisten/Eyestein ( also thought to be Thorstein the red, the son of Olaf the White) from Norse controlled Dublin was killed by Halfdan. He was the son of Halfdan’s brother’s old ally, and his death proved to haunt Halfdan later in life.

After subduing the Northumbrians, Halfdan parceled out the lands south of the Tyne river amongst his men who then farm and cultivate the land. It seems that at last the Danes are happy to be settlers and not just rampaging barbarians, but Halfdan is evidently not happy. He leaves for Ireland soon after, possibly in order to take his brothers place as ruler at Dublin (Ivarr seems to have died around this time). The Annals of Ulster relate that on this first trip to Ireland, Halfdan was invited to a banquet by other viking chiefs and he seems to have survived and escaped a failed attack by the Irish king or chieftain, Aed Findliath. Halfdan returnes to York for a short time but then returns to Ireland to try and recover Dublin again. Plans for this second attempt don’t excite any confidence in his army it seems as he leaves Northumbria for Ireland with only three ships. Simeon of Durham tells the story that Halfdan was eventually repulsed by the Northumbrians and the Danes because he had grown sick with some disease that made him repulsive to all who came near him. Whilst this could possibly be true, it is much more likely that Simeon was perhaps getting a bit of creative literary revenge on the violent leader, which in itself says something of the feeling surrounding Halfdan’s exit from England.

In 877, Halfdan and his three ships sail to Ireland but almost immediately come up against Bardr, the foster-father of Oisten/Eyestein of whom Halfdan killed in 876. They fight at Strangford Lough on the coast of county Down in Northern Ireland and it is here that Halfdan finally meets his end.


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