The Vikings fiercely made their mark on the pages of history, dominating the northern regions, raiding villages, and pioneering new lands during the 9th and 10th centuries. But while the Vikings as a whole are still very well known, especially thanks to recent TV shows, there are some famous Viking names of individuals who are often specifically identified.
After all, there was more to the Vikings than violent tyranny. They were tradesmen and skilled craftsmen. The Vikings are known for their colorful heritage and fascinating mythology.
Because they did not keep a written history, all we know about the Vikings comes from oral tradition and archaeological finds. Unfortunately, this has left a lot open to interpretation, and many legends abound about great warriors that dominated the era.
Let’s look at the most famous Viking warriors and try to separate folklore and history.
Most famous Vikings in history
1. Egil Skallagrimsson
Egil Skallagrimsson was not only one of the most famous Viking warriors but also one of the great Viking poets. He was a paradox of a man known for his violent tyranny, offset by his love of languages, storytelling, and epic poetry writing.
At the age of seven, his first kill was when he axed a ten-year-old boy named Grim to death. Later in life, Egil’s mastery of Norse runes, an ancient alphabet, was considered magical magic. They even saved his life when he composed a twenty-stanza poem praising his mortal enemy, Eric Bloodaxe.
2. Björn Ironside
Björn Ironside was one of the most famous Viking kings whose name has survived the passing of time. A Swedish Viking believed to be the son of Ragnar Lodbrok, his nickname, ‘Ironside,’ was bestowed upon him due to his strength and ability to withstand severe blows from a sword or ax, as if his sides were plated in steel.
He orchestrated many successful raids in the Mediterranean and what is now known as France. His name translates to ‘Bear,’ another nod to his powerful demeanor.
One of Bjorn’s most notable raids was in 869 when he led a raid on Monte Cassino in Italy (although long after the fall of Ancient Rome, so this doesn’t provide the Vikings vs Romans battle that many dream of…) and returned home with an enviable bounty of relics, wine, silver, and gold.
3. Ragnar Lodbrok
Ragnar Lodbrok is considered to be the most famous Viking by both historians and the general public, especially after his role in the hit TV show Vikings. He was a brutal warlord who terrorized his opponents, using opportunistic tactics to catch them off guard. Ragnar besieged Paris in 845, and the bloodbath forced the French king to surrender with little resistance.
Lodbrok was nicknamed ‘hairy breeches,’ as he donned trousers made from cowhide boiled in tar. This was said to protect him from snakes.
After a few years, the plague hit the region, wiping out much of the population, and Ragnar returned to Dublin. However, he was captured by the King of Northumbria, where he was executed by being thrown into a pit of vipers.
This was a bitter irony, considering his choice of protective clothing, but may have been what led to the king choosing this method of execution.
It’s not actually clear whether Lagertha was a real person or created in old stores, but she definitely fits on any list of the most famous Vikings given how well she’s known today. Like her husband, Ragnar, she (and her great Viking braids) have become particularly well known since the release of the TV show Vikings.
However, her story comes primarily from the Gesta Danorum, or The Danish History, of Saxo Grammaticus. That said, the Danish historian lived from circa 1150 to 1220 CE, placing his life after the Viking Age and thus after Lagertha would have lived.
Nevertheless, as arguably the most famous Viking woman, her role in Viking history is clear.
5. Eric Bloodaxe
Eric Bloodaxe was a Norwegian prince, son of Harald Fairhair, who Icelandic sagas name as the first king of Norway. He began his life as a warrior at the tender age of 12 when Eric, the fifth-born son, killed his older brothers to take his father’s crown after his death. After a few years on the throne, he was defeated by his younger brother and fled to Britain, where he became King of Northumbria.
Bloodaxe’s moniker was given to him due to his brutal savagery and love of violence – shocking even by Viking standards. When the English tried to conquer Northumbria, they were slaughtered violently, but it led to the Northumbrians ousting him.
6. Leif Erikson
Leif Erikson is widely regarded as the true ‘founder’ of America. He led voyages to Newfoundland hundreds of years before Columbus set sail. Leif was the son of Erik the Red, a notorious warrior who founded the Norse settlements in Greenland (and whose name came from him being one of the most famous Vikings with red hair who ever existed).
Erikson was born in Iceland, where his family lived in exile after his grandfather was expelled for manslaughter. His father was then exiled from Iceland for murdering Eyiolf the Foul. This was what led the family to settle in Greenland.
7. Rollo of Normandy
Rollo of Normandy is known as the conqueror of Normandy and established a strong line of dukes. His dukedom controlled all the land along the Seine River and was the most powerful of all the French Viking nations. Rollo converted to Christianity as a part of an agreement with the Frankish King, Charles the Simple.
He was used as a parable to all Christians – how the savage barbarian found morality and virtue through embracing religion. However, it is believed that Rollo eventually turned away from his newfound faith and died a pagan.
Rollo is a direct ancestor of William the Conqueror, and numerous European Monarchs can be traced back to his lineage.
8. Harald Hardrada
Harald Hardrada is arguably the most famous Viking king, at least for those interested in British history. A Norwegian King who is often referred to as the last great Viking, he was an influential military leader – after all, Hardrada literally means ‘hard ruler.’
Born into royalty, Harald was half-brother to King Olaf of Norway (whose name lives on as the leader of an expedition that saw the Vikings attack Finland), as they had the same mother, Åsta Gudbrandsdatter.
When Olaf returned after two years in exile, fifteen-year-old Harald rallied the support of 600 men and fought shoulder to shoulder with his brother in invading Northern England. Although the brothers were defeated, Harald was still revered and recognized for his admirable military talent. Harald’s death in battle at the Battle of Stamford Bridge is considered the end of the Viking Age.
9. Ivar the Boneless
Ivan the Boneless was a fearsome warlord, most known for his invasions of Anglo-Saxon territories. He was the youngest son of Ragnar Lodbrok, and some historians believe he was adopted, which was common practice. Ivar suffered from Brittle Bone Syndrome, which led to his moniker, but there was superstition surrounding his condition.
As one of the most feared Vikings of all time, his quest for revenge brought on his successful raids and conquering of Anglo-Saxon settlements after the Northumbrian king killed his father. He has gone down in history as a bloodthirsty berserker – one who becomes overcome by uncontrollable rage and fury – and he tortured the Northumbrian king before executing him.
10. Halfdan Ragnarsson
Halfdan Ragnarsson was commander of The Great Heathen Army and took this position immediately after his brother, Ivar the Boneless. He was the first Viking King of Northumbria and made numerous attempts to expand his territory but failed repeatedly.
The Great Heathen Army eventually conquered the region of Mercia and then split up to spread their forces across England. Halfdan moved north to Ireland, where he had a claim to the throne, but he was challenged by other Viking clans that had since settled in the area.
His determination to take the throne led to his death in 877, during the Battle of Strangford Lough.
11. Cnut the Great
Cnut – or Canute – The Great was another famous Viking king, ruling Norway, Denmark, and England. This came to be known as the Anglo-Scandinavian Empire. He was Danish but is recognized by history as an English King, ruling there from 1016.
Unlike most Christian Vikings, Cnut had two wives. He married his first wife through an ancient custom, not the church. He married his second wife in a church and had one queen in the North and one in the South. Both wives bore him a son, and both sons went on to be kings of England.
12. Olaf Tryggvason
Olaf Tryggvason ruled Norway from 995 to 1000 and has gone down in history as a brutal man who forced his people to convert to Christianity. He and his mother were sold as slaves to avoid execution and grew up in Russia, where he was a part of King Vladimir’s army.
He led a raid on the British Isles, which earned him a fortune. Then, after converting to Christianity, he returned to the land of his birth to spread the word.
Once he took the throne, he destroyed all temples deemed pagan and forced his subjects to convert or face execution. Many chose the latter, and in 1000 he was overthrown when his enemies joined forces and orchestrated an assassination.
13. Harald Fairhair
Harald Fairhair was the first ruler of Norway, and his reign lasted for nearly 50 years. But unfortunately, his written record only appeared 300 years after his death, in the form of poems and sagas.
Gyda, the daughter of the king of Hordaland, refused his marriage proposal until he ruled all of Norway. Then, he embarked on a 10-year campaign to conquer more land and refused to cut his hair until he succeeded. This is how he earned his name ‘Fairhair’ – in that his name was beautiful rather than blond, as many now mistakenly interpret this famous Viking’s title.
14. Sweyn Forkbeard
Sweyn Forkbeard was king of Denmark and briefly king of England. His name was inspired by his long beard separated by a cleft in his chin. Sweyn is the son of Harald Blue Tooth and father of Cnut The Great so is solidly in a long line of famous Vikings.
Not to be discouraged by failure, Sweyn invaded England several times and finally conquered London on Christmas Day 1013. His rule was short-lived, and he died five weeks later. He is often referred to as England’s forgotten king.
15. Harald Bluetooth
Harald Bluetooth was a successful King of Denmark. He unified Denmark, conquered Norway, and converted both nations to Christianity. His nickname is unclear, but it is more than likely due to a bad tooth that had turned blue.
Bluetooth was responsible for constructing Trelleborg ring forts, one of the most notable Viking ruins that are still around today. But what truly makes him probably the most famous Viking king is something that happened long after his death.
Yes, Bluetooth technology was named in his honor. He united Denmark and Norway, thus representing the unification of PC and cellular technology.
Rurik was the founder of the Russian monarchy. He ascended the throne after the enslaved people invited him to ease their political unrest. After 20 years of rule, he returned to his birthplace (Friesland – now the Netherlands) and handed his crown to Viking Oleg.
The Slavic word for invader was Rusi, the root of the modern name, Russia.
17. Valdamarr (Vladimir the Great)
Valdamarr was the Grand Prince of Kyiv and ruled Rus for 35 years. He fled to Scandinavia in 976 after his brother Yaropolk murdered his brother Oleg. He assembled a great army and returned to Rus to fight for his place on the throne.
The region had been converted to Christianity, and Valdamarr made a great effort to reinstate the Slavic/Viking pagan traditions. Finally, however, he converted to Christianity to win Anna’s hand, sister of Byzantine emperor Basil II.
18. Ingvar Vittfarne (Ingvar the Far-Traveled)
Ingvar is most known for his attempts to conquer Persia and the Caspian coast. In fact, there are even 26 runestones in Sweden today that tell the story of the journey, which are what are largely the reason for why he’s still such a famous Viking name.
Vittfarne was not a passenger on the returning ship. The runestones indicate that he died in Saracen lands – today’s Middle East.
19. Oleg the Prophet
Oleg was a Kyiv prince who took the throne after the death of Rurik. Oleg was a phenomenal military leader whose wisdom and insight were so advanced that it was believed to be supernatural. This is why he was considered a prophet and an oracle.
His status as a prophet was upgraded to wizard by many of his soldiers. They were presented with food from the Byzantines, and Oleg would not let them eat it, sensing it was poisoned.
Who is the most famous Viking?
Ragnar Lodbrok is considered to be the most famous Viking by many historians and the wider public. This is largely because of his lead role in the History Channel show, Vikings. However, he also had a prominent role in many Viking sagas that detailed his raids on what is now France and England.
Was there a real Ragnar Lothbrok?
Ragnar was a real Viking, but much of his life and achievements were embellished by legend. He was written about more than 300 years after his death, leaving much open to speculation. There are theories that the stories surrounding him may have been an amalgamation of several Vikings.
Who was the baddest Viking?
Erik the Red was likely the baddest Viking in history, with his name coming from both his red beard and his fiery temper. While his fame comes largely from the fact that he settled Greenland, his murderous rages were also renowned.
His family was exiled from Norway when he was ten years old, and they settled in Iceland. However, when Erik’s neighbor killed his servant for accidentally causing a landslide, Eric murdered the neighbor in a blind rage.
This led to him being exiled to Iceland and resettling on the island of Oxley. A few years later, his temper got him into trouble when he murdered his friend Thorgest and his two sons. This was because Thorgest refused to hand back Erik’s precious artefacts he had entrusted to him.
Although many before him had tried, Erik the Red was the first to successfully settle Greenland. He named the island Grœnland (Greenland) to attract settlers as the name deceptively implied that it was more fertile than in reality.
Despite his family converting, Erik was a devout pagan and refused to accept Christianity. Nevertheless, he remained Chieftan of Greenland until his death, and his successful settlement continued for more than 500 years after his death.
Who was the most famous female Viking?
Freydis Eiríksdóttir can be considered the most famous female Viking. As the daughter of Erik the Red and the sister of Leif Erikson. She was known to share her father’s fierce temperament. For instance, when a group of men beat Freydis, she killed their wives as revenge.
Her name is mentioned in a lot of folklore and Freydis is one of the few female Vikings to appear in numerous sagas. This includes that she was a part of the expeditions that led to the settlement in Greenland and the discovery of North America.
Freydis is said to have been a formidable warrior, fighting soldiers while heavily pregnant and showing no mercy. When news of her murderous action spread through the community, she was isolated and lived out her life in seclusion.
Did Lagertha really exist?
Lagertha is believed to have existed, but there is still difficulty confirming her true story, much like her husband, Ragnar. As a result, much has been left to speculation and embellishment. Lagertha is thought to have been a shieldmaiden, a legendary female warrior.
It was common at the time for women to participate in combat, although Lagertha is probably the most famous Viking warrior who was female.
Ragnar courted Lagertha from a distance, but when he went to ask for her hand, she set her bear and dog on him.
When he fought back and killed the animals, Lagertha was impressed with his strength and agreed to the union.
Their marriage didn’t last, and Lagertha is believed to have murdered her second husband, Jarl Sigvardm, to take his title.