Imagine an icy wind ripping through trees after a savage night of arctic air cutting its way between cracks in walls and threatening to freeze everything in its path. In the early morning light, no one heard the muffled sounds over the water. Everyone slept, still clinging to their dreams. Suddenly a hollow pounding was heard, at first in the distance, but gradually coming closer. This ominous sound broke the peaceful silence as people woke, rubbing the sleep from their eyes. Then, out of the mist appeared dragon-headed boats with blue water foaming around the hulls. The Vikings had arrived, attacking and murdering viciously, and they only left when their boats were filled with a rich booty of gold, jewels and sacred emblems.
These heavily tattooed men held no semblance of a moral code. They were the most treacherous and audacious type of pirate, far surpassing the Romans or the Saxons. The unprecedented violence of this raid sealed itself into Britain’s very being. Now the English were confronted with a different type of enemy.
These Vikings weren’t just expert sailors and ship builders: they were warriors in every sense of the word. Even to the dark-age standards, these golden-haired, blue-eyed savages were very adept in the messy business of killing. Their long boats were stunning craft packed with two dozen men, that could sail up rivers and anchor in creeks and bays and their beautiful lines and construction could ride out the fiercest storms of the Atlantic Ocean. Every male Viking had a sword, an axe and a knife on him at all times but when going to war or on a raid, equipment like shields, spears, bows and arrows were added.
Fifty years later, on a crisp, cold winter's morning, a Viking fleet finally appeared on the horizon in a quiet bay in Denmark. In the eeriness of pre-dawn, smoke drifted lazily up from the chimneys as snow floated onto the barren icy wasteland. Around a fire inside one of the huts, Ragnar Lodbrok's four sons huddled together, rubbing their hands together and warming themselves while they waited impatiently for news of their father's return from a marauding trip in England. No other viking was more ruthless than Ragnar Lodbrok and his boys fully expected him to bring back precious booty of gold and gems filling every hull of the fleet.
When news finally arrived it wasn't good. Their father had been captured by King Ella of Northumbria and cast into a snake pit, dying horribly and painfully in a coiling mass of loathsome adders.
The boys received the news of their father's death with silent, furious rage. Legend says that Bjorn 'Ironside' gripped his spear shaft so hard that his fingerprints remained stamped on it. Ivitserk was playing chess but clenched his fingers around a pawn so tightly that blood started from under his nails. Sigurd 'Snake-eye' was trimming his nails with a knife, and kept on paring until he cut into the bone. But Ragnar's fourth son was the one who would go and seek revenge for his death. Ivar 'The Boneless' demanded the precise details of his father's execution, and as his face turned red, blue and pale by turns, his skin began to swell with anger.
What Britain didn’t know was that Vikings believed in revenge and sons were expected to avenge the killer of their fathers. This act of vengeance was known as the “Blood Eagle”. The flesh and ribs of the killer must be cut and sawn off the spine, and then the dutiful son would rip out the palpitating lungs with his own hands.
And that is exactly what Ivar and his brother Hvitserk had in mind. This conquest was far greater than anything they had attempted before and the brothers had only two things on their minds. Revenge for their father’s death and control of the whole of England.