11 Famous Viking Kings, Leaders & Explorers [Updated] (2023)

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The Vikings are famous figures in European history. Many Viking kings and leaders have reached legendary status thanks to Icelandic and Norse sagas and more modern interpretations like the tv series, Vikings.

Viking leaders reached their peak power during the early Middle Ages in what is known as the Viking Age. While originally from the Scandinavian countries of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, Viking groups traveled extensively and gained power in England, Ireland, Scotland, Iceland, and Greenland.

Successful Viking raids would be followed by long periods of settlement in new territories. Viking leaders competed with each other and native kings for power.

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Some raids and attempts at permanent settlement were more successful than others. The Vikings were able to capture cities and regions in England before ruling the entire country.

Their presence in England proved the most dramatic, as Vikings took the place of English kings and brought their own methods of ruling to the island nation.

Other Scandinavian leaders ruled from their homeland. Kings of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden were often at odds over resources and power.

The following is a list of the 11 most famous and influential Viking kings and leaders of the early Middle Ages. They represent the Vikings’ power as raiders, rulers, and explorers.

1) Rollo

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Rollo was a Viking who conducted raids on the coast of France starting in the 800s. Scholars are unsure whether Rollo was of Danish or Norwegian origin.

Following his early raids on France, Rollo also pillaged and led expeditions in England, Scotland, Ireland, and Flanders. Rollo’s continual raids on France led Charles the Simple, king of the Franks, to give the Viking leader the region of Normandy.

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The Treaty of Saint Claire-sur-Epte made Rollo the first duke of Normandy. His descendent William of Normandy would lead the famous Norman Conquest of England in 1066.

2) Ragnar Lothbrok

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Ragnar Lothbrok is a figure shrouded in myth. While many have considered him only a legend of Icelandic sagas, a few historical records suggest Ragnar was a real person.

Ragnar’s name has been made famous thanks to the tv series, Vikings, but he may actually have been called “Ragnall” or “Reginherus.” These are the names that show up in the historical record during the time he supposedly lived.

We do know that a Viking with a name like “Ragnar” raided the English and French coasts and traveled up the Seine River to attack Paris.

The French king paid Ragnar’s group of raiding Vikings the then staggering sum of 7,000 livres to end their attack.

Ragnar is said to have arrived in Ireland in 851 and established a settlement there. Famous Vikings like Ivar the Boneless claimed to be Ragnar’s sons. Whether this was true or a fabrication is unknown.

3) Ivar the Boneless

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Ivar Ragnarsson, or Ivar the Boneless, claimed to be the son of the legendary Ragnar Lothbrok. His date of birth is unknown.

Ivar the Boneless’s unique name has puzzled scholars and Viking enthusiasts for centuries. His name may allude to impotence, extreme flexibility, or lameness.

Others believe this Viking suffered from brittle bone disease.

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Regardless of his possible health conditions, Ivar the Boneless proved ruthless as the leader of the Great Heathen Army. This large group of raiding Vikings attacked East Anglia and took the city of York in Northumbria.

Ivar the Boneless and his men killed kings Aelle and Osberht of Northumbria to consolidate power. The city of York would remain a capital of Viking activity in England.

Ivar the Boneless was also responsible for the execution of St. Edmund of East Anglia.

In 869, Ivar the Boneless left the Great Heathen Army to his brothers and sailed for Dublin. He ruled Dublin and made several attacks on neighboring areas before his death in 873.

4) Harald Bluetooth

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Harald Bluetooth was born in 910 or 911 to King Gorm the Old and Thyra Dannebod. He ruled as king of Denmark and Norway after his father’s death.

Harald Bluetooth focused on public works projects and the promotion of Christianity during his reign. Ring fort and bridge construction took place across his lands. The reconstruction of runic stones also occurred under Harald Bluetooth.

Harald converted to Christianity and promoted the faith in Denmark and Norway.

Bluetooth technology is named after Harald. The logo, developed in 1997, contains the initials of Harald Bluetooth in bine runes.

5) Erik the Red

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Erik Thorvaldsson is more commonly known as Erik the Red due to his fiery red hair. He was born in Norway in 950 but grew up in Iceland.

After being exiled for murder in 982, Erik the Red sailed to a new land, which he dubbed “Greenland.” Although the arctic environment was anything but green, Erik hoped his name would attract future settlers.

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Erik the Red’s Greenland settlement grew after he recruited residents from Iceland. Two main settlements formed in Greenland and at their height had total populations of around 5,000.

The Greenland settlements remained for several centuries after Erik the Red’s death in 1003.

6) Sweyn Forkbeard

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Sweyn Forkbeard was born in 960 and would become the king of Denmark, Norway, and England. This ambitious figure revolted against his own father and seized his throne in 980.

Ethelred the Unready, king of England, ordered the massacre of Danes in the country and Forkbeard’s sister was one of the victims.

This enraged Forkbeard and he initiated raids on England.

The ferocity of the raids drove the English king and his sons into exile in Normandy. This left Sweyn Forkbeard a clear path the English throne.

Forkbeard was officially declared the king of England in 1013 but only ruled the country for five weeks before his death in 1014.

His descendants Cnut, Harald Harefoot, and Harthacnut, went on to rule England for over two decades.

7) Leif Erikson

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Leif Erikson (970-1019/25) was an explorer credited with discovering America 500 years before Christopher Columbus. The son of Erik the Red, Leif clearly inherited his father’s sense of adventure.

Erikson found Labrador and Baffin Island in Canada. He is remembered as being a wise and considerate leader.

Leif Erikson’s discovery of America is meaningful to Nordic Americans living today. Statues commemorating this important explorer can be viewed in cities across the United States including Boston, Milwaukee, Chicago, St. Paul, and Duluth, Minnesota.

8) Cnut the Great

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Sweyn Forkbeard’s son Cnut the Great was born in 994. He controlled part of England until the death of his father made him king.

Cnut consolidated his power over England through raids, marriage, and the elimination of his enemies. Cnut first attacked East Anglia with a force of 10,000 men from Denmark.

His power in England forced Ethelred the Unready to remain in exile. Cnut also defeated his opponent, Edmund Ironside, in the Battle of Assandun. Edmund held onto his control of Wessex until his death in 1016.

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His power in England forced Ethelred the Unready to remain in exile. Cnut also defeated his opponent, Edmund Ironside, in the Battle of Assandun. Edmund held onto his control of Wessex until his death in 1016.

Afterwards, Cnut claimed all of England. At the height of his power, Cnut the Great was king of Denmark, Norway, and England.

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While Cnut the Great is associated with fierce raids and battles, he also established his power through his relationships. To secure the Danish throne, he sent his son Harthacnut to Denmark to reign as prince.

Cnut also made a strategic marriage to Emma of Normandy. Her connection to the English throne ensured peace in the land and strengthened his claim to kingship.

9) Harold Harefoot

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Harold Harefoot was a son of Cnut the Great and his first wife. Because of this, Harold faced competition for the throne from several claimants. Emma of Normandy’s sons Harthacnut, Alfred Atheling, and Edward the Confessor also vied for the throne.

Following the death of Cnut the Great in 1035, Harthacnut inherited the throne of Denmark. He lived in Denmark and became preoccupied with threats from the king of Norway.

This left the English throne open to Harold. He seized the throne of England and took Cnut’s treasure for his own. Emma of Normandy responded by gathering supporters.

Her sons Alfred and Edward sailed back to England from their exile in Normandy with a war fleet but lacked support from those in England.

Harold Harefoot did whatever it took to secure his throne. He ordered the assassination of Alfred, which was carried out by the earl Godwin.

Harold’s kingship was accepted in 1037 and Emma of Normandy was exiled. He died in 1040, before Harthacnut landed to take the throne for himself.

10) Harthacnut

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Harthacnut was the son of Cnut the Great and Emma of Normandy. He was the half-brother of Harold Harefoot. While Harold ruled England, Harthacnut served as king of Denmark.

The death of Harold left the English throne open to Harthacnut and he claimed the throne in 1040 with the aid of 60 warships.

After becoming king, one of Harold’s first orders of business was to avenge Alfred’s death (read above). He disinterred Harold’s body from Westminster, beheaded it, and threw it in the Thames.

Harold was later retrieved.

Harthacnut then put the earl Godwin on trial. Godwin managed to escape punishment by offering Harthacnut an elaborate ship.

Harthacnut’s rule proved largely unpopular. He refused to rule in the English style, which was supported by a council of advisors. Instead, the king introduced Danish autocracy in England and used intimidation tactics as brutal as the murder of civilians to get his way.

Increased taxes did little to help Harthacnut’s reputation.

11) Harald Hardrada

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Harald Hardrada, born around 1015, was a mercenary for Jaroslav of Kiev. He traveled to Constantinople, where he joined the Varangian Guard.

Hardrada later became the king of Norway and had a rocky relationship with Svein Estrithson, king of Denmark. The two competed for land and power until Hardrada gave up his claim to the Danish throne in 1064.

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Hardrada made several raids on England with mixed results. He won the Battle of Fulford Gate but was ultimately defeated in the Battle of Stamford Bridge, which occurred just weeks before the Norman Conquest.

Harald Hardrada is considered the “last great Viking warrior king.”


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