Spoiler alert: the below contains spoilers through the third season of Vikings.
Over the past three years, Vikings has gotten better and better every year. Its story lines are consistently good, but it’s grown in scale from a Viking villagers attacking an English monastery, to a Viking king laying siege to Paris. And the show tries to be historically accurate: as a PopSugar interview with an expert tells us, the costumes, hair styles and characters all fit within the Viking culture, even if some of it is the stuff of legends. The series even has a lot of dialogue in authentic languages of the time: Old Norse, Old English, Old French, none of which sound anything like their modern counterparts.
But how about the timeline and the characters? How do they compare to real history? The article gets the crux of it:
the show is both radically compressing and extending eras
The first raid portrayed in the series, in the second episode of the first season, is the infamous first Viking raid ever recorded, in 793 A.D., at the monastery on the East English isle of Lindisfarne. (The sunstone they used to navigate is thought to be real, too.) The attack was as shocking, if not more so, than the show makes it seem. To the British, the Vikings were demons.
Lindisfarne was located in what at the time was the Kingdom of Northumbria, and in the next episode, we meet its king, Ælla. Here is the first glimpse of the mangling of the timeline: in history, Ælla dies in 867. He looks to be in his 40s in the series, but let’s say life was hard back then and he was 25: that would mean he lived to be 100. However, Ælla does play a prominent role in Norse legend, particularly in one of the Norse sagas about Ragnar Lodbrok, The Tale of Ragnar’s Sons (possible future spoilers) and it makes sense that they included him in the show.
We’ll get back to Ragnar himself — as well as the rest of the Vikings — a little later but first, let’s look at the events of the second season because here, the series jumps forward four years and expands in scope quite a bit. In the second episode, the Vikings, now accompanied by King Horik, land in Wessex and we meet King Egbert. The historical Egbert lived from 770-something to 839.
If we count from the known raid of Lindisfarne, the series would be in 797-798, which would put Egbert in his late 20s, when he was in exile. However, he looks like he’s in his 40s, with his grown son, another historical figure named Æthelwulf, being in his late 20s. In the seventh episode, Egbert and Ælla, whose kingdoms are separated by Mercia, propose an alliance against the Vikings and Mercians, and seal it by wedding their children, Æthelwulf and Judith. It is believed that the real Ælla did have a daughter, but she was named Æthelthryth. However, the real Æthelwulf was indeed married to a Judith in order to form an alliance, but she was Judith of Flanders, and the alliance was with West Francia.
In the eighth episode, we meet a Princess Kwenthrith of Mercia, who seems to want to be either Queen Cynethryth or Princess Cwenthryth. If we have to pick one, it’s probably the former, who lived in late 700s, and was actually queen. However, neither of these women fought a civil war or ruled alone, as Kwenthrith in the series did, and so she seems to be largely fictional. The real Egbert did defeat Mercia though, in the late 820s, and was briefly the 8th and penultimate bretwalda, or ruler of all Britain. His grandson, Alfred the Great, was the last bretwalda. Incidentally, in the series Alfred is the name that Egbert gives to Aethelstan’s bastard child with Judith.
So, based on Egbert’s age and the events, the story seems to not take place as much in the late 790s as the 820s. (Egbert’s son, Æthelwulf, is first mentioned in history in 825 as heading a large army, so he had to be at least in his 20s by then, which matches up with the TV character.) If we leave Ælla and Kwenthrith out, and pretend the attack on Lindisfarne wasn’t the famous one in 793, we can almost say the series takes place in the 820s.
Almost, because the events of the third season would disagree. Noting that there’s no jump in time like the four year one in the previous season, Kwenthrith’s uncle, Beorhtwulf, dies in the battle in the first episode, and she poisons her brother, Burgred, in the fourth one. In reality, both of them were kings of Mercia for decent amounts of time: the former from 840 to 852 and the latter from 852 to 874. This not only really upsets the correspondence with the series, but also puts the story even later, in the mid 800s. The invasion of Paris introduces even more confusion.
First, we meet Count Odo, who in reality, fairly successfully defended Paris from the Viking siege of 885-886. However, all other signs indicate that the siege portrayed is the one from 845, because it:
- was the first Viking siege of Paris, and this seemed to also be the case in the series
- was led by Ragnar
- better matches the battle tactics used
- occurred during the reign of the Frankish emperor Charles the Bald, who was the grandson of Charlemagne, as mentioned in the series
- Charles the Fat ruled during the 885-886 siege, and he was great-grandson of Charlemagne
- Charles the Bald was named so ironically, because he had lots of hair, just like in the series
- Charles the Bald had a daughter, as in the series, while Charles the Fat did not
- ended with a raid inside the city and the payment of 5670 lb of gold and silver, as shown in the series
So it’s pretty clear that aside from Odo’s presence, who was not yet born then, the siege depicted is the one in 845. In the season three finale, Ragnar pretends to convert to Christianity and then die, uses his coffin as a Trojan horse to get into the city, fights his way to the gates, and lets his army in. In reality, they didn’t need to do that to get into the city, and that story is actually attributed to Ragnar’s son, Björn Ironside, who did the same thing to get into what he thought was Rome, but was actually Luna.
Finally, Charles the Bald marries his daughter Gisla to Rollo, in order to secure an alliance with the Vikings. This is interesting for two reasons:
- Remember Judith of Flanders, who married Æthelwulf? She was Charles the Bald’s daughter. It’s strange that in the series, they named his wife Judith and made it a diplomatic marriage, but with the wrong kingdom
- Charles the Bald did not have a daughter named Gisla but his grandson, Charles the Simple, is believed to have had one named Gisela, whom he did give to Rollo — in 911
Which brings us to the Vikings themselves and some history, which may or may not turn out to be spoilers of later seasons of the show:
- The actual Rollo lived from about 850 to 930, and apparently had nothing to do with Ragnar. He and his army eventually settled in Normandy — which took its name from the Normans, meaning North men
- Incidentally, Rollo is the great-great-great-grandfather of William the Conqueror, and thus an ancestor of Queen Elizabeth II and many other European monarchs.
- King Horik ruled the Danes from 827 to 854
- It’s not known which historical figure Ragnar was, if he even existed, but legend has it that the Great Heathen Army, which conquered much of England starting in 865, was led by his sons and constituted to avenge his death
If that’s true, that would mean Ragnar was born in the early 800s, and could’ve laid the 845 siege to Paris. But there’s no way much else in the timeline makes sense:
- King Horik died 9 years after the siege of Paris in real life, but before it in the series
- The historical King Egbert died in 6 years before the siege, but he’s still alive in the series
- Rollo was born 5 years after the siege, Odo 7
- The situation with the Mercian monarchy in no way represents reality
However, we do get a sense that even though people and events have been shifted both backwards and forwards through time, the story does take place in the mid-early 800s. The two firm historical dates we have are the raid on Lindisfarne in 793 and the siege of Paris in 845. Given they both can’t be true, and based on the other events in the series, fixing it to the latter seems more “correct”.
So in that case, Lindisfarne has been pushed forward in time almost 40 years; Egbert and Æthelwulf about 10 years; Ælla and Ragnar are about where they should be; Horik has been pulled back 10 years, and Rollo and Odo about 40; Gisela, almost 70.
Which is actually not a bad way to do the series: it takes about a century from the height of the Viking Age, compresses it down to a few years, and tells the most interesting stories, with compelling characters that shared a history, even if they weren’t actually contemporaries. Portraying that much history in one series would be very hard without a device like this. And actually, our historical sources from back then are so shaky, that who knows if what we think we know actually happened that way.