There are many famed warriors from the Viking Age who lived up successfully to the the reputation of their people, but perhaps none so much as Hastein, supposed son of Ragnar Lodbrok (but not likely), and scourge of the Somme and Loire. His life was lived for adventure, and although he did not carve out large swaths of territory for himself as some others had done, he built an enduring reputation for himself as a man of great prowess, largesse, and cunning.
Hastein’s story begins, as many in the Viking Age do, ambiguously. We do not know for certain who his parents were, although it is suggested in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that he was a son of Ragnar Lodbrok. The Chronicle also suggests that he was a Dane, although that too is difficult to verify. His first raid of notoriety was that of the sack of Nantes in 843 A.D. in which he is named in the Annales D’Angoulême as being among the Vestfaldingi, or men of Vestfold. The sack of Nantes was a cataclysmic event which sent ripples throughout the Frankish Empire and marked the beginning of more aggressive Norse incursions.
Hastein was still a young man at this time, and raided with other companies for several years thereafter until he was able to put together his own expedition to explore lands not previously explored by his kin. In 859 with the help of Bjorn Ironside, another supposed son of Ragnar Lodbrok—although the two are not associated as brothers in primary sources—Hastein sailed to Spain where he hoped to gain fame and fortune pillaging the Moors. At first the expedition did not bode well. The Asturians of Northern Spain successfully fought them off, forcing the expedition to continue southward without any loot. They successfully pillaged coastal settlements until they sacked Cordoba, then continued into the Mediterranean Basin.
Hastein was of course ambitious and sought to sack Rome itself. Unfortunately, the walls of the city were too tall and well fortified. Thus he hatched one of the more notorious plans to take the city by creating a ruse to trick the “naïve” Christians. They arrived at the city and sent a messenger to inform the bishop that their leader had been mortally wounded and, in his dying moments, wished to be baptized so that he may reach salvation. The bishop took pity on him and organized the ceremony. A day later, the Norsemen returned to the city to inform the bishop that their chieftain had died, and that he had requested to be buried in the city. Again, the bishop took pity on them and organized the funeral. Hastein’s body was placed on a bier and carried by his men into the city. A gathering of noblemen and clergymen joined them to begin the ceremony when Hastein rose from the dead, snatched the sword beside him, and cut down the bishop. His men of course followed suit and slaughtered the Christians.
The ruse had proved successful and the Vikings under Hastein loaded their ships with loot, proud that they had sacked the famed city of Rome. Yet as they sailed from the city, they realized they had made a navigational error. The city they had sacked was not Rome, but rather the smaller city of Luna some two hundred miles north of their intended target. Nevertheless, their ships were filled to the brim with plunder, so Hastein ordered a return to his base on the Loire. As they attempted to sail past Gilbraltar however, the Moors intercepted them with a fleet of ships, destroying a significant portion of Hastein’s fleet. The chieftain survived and returned to his base on the island of Herius (today called Noirmoutier) with twenty ships, a mere third of the ships he had departed with three years earlier.
This Mediterranean voyage lives in infamy as one of the most ambitious and creative expeditions in Viking history. Hastein went on to have a successful career as the scourge of the Somme and Loire rivers, helped to establish the kingdom of Normandy, slew Robert the Strong in the wars of Brittany, and even fought as an opponent of Alfred the Great as recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. He eventually disappeared from history around 896 A.D. The conditions surrounding his death remain a mystery. Nevertheless, he left his mark on the world he lived in, and might be considered the most archetypal example of a Viking chieftain and warlord, and perhaps the greatest Viking of them all.
Primary Source authors and documents which attest to Hastein’s life and notoriety:
- Dudo of Saint Quentin
- William of Jumièges
- Annals of St-Bertin
- Chronicle of Regino de Prüm
- The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
Hastein is introduced in my Kindred of the Sea series in book two as a young, ambitious young man. He will feature prominently in the third installment of the series and become the central focus of the second trilogy in the series, which deals with the Vikings in Brittany, France. Check out the first one on audiobook below: