Ragnvald is mentioned in the skaldic poem Austrfaravísur, ascribed to Sigvatr Þórðarson, skald of King Olaf Haraldsson of Norway (Olaf the Holy), who had been on a diplomatic mission to Sweden. This poem is quoted in the 13th century sagas Fagrskinna and Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla. In addition to the poem, Fagrskinna only briefly mentions Ragnvald, while Heimskringla contains a more elaborate account of him. This 13th-century prose text is not considered historically reliable.
According to Snorri, Ragnvald was the son of jarl Ulf Tostesson and Ingeborg and the foster-son of Þorgnýr the Lawspeaker. He was the cousin of Olof Skötkonung, through his aunt Sigrid the Haughty, and he was married to Ingeborg Tryggvasdotter.
During his days the Norwegians pillaged in Västergötland, but then the Norwegian king, Olaf the Holy, proposed to the Swedish princess Ingigerd Olofsdotter, the daughter of Sweden's king Olof Skötkonung. This pleased Ragnvald who was related to both.
However, at the Thing at Gamla Uppsala, Ragnvald and his foster-father Þorgnýr the Lawspeaker had to force Olof, the Swedish king, to promise his daughter to Olaf, the Norwegian king, whom he did not like. When the Swedish king failed to deliver his daughter, Ragnvald realized that he was in trouble. He has not only fallen out of grace with the Swedish king, but he could also expect the revenge of the Norwegians.
During a visit by the skald Sigvatr Þórðarson, Ragnvald learned that Prince Jaroslav of Kievan Rus' has proposed to Ingigerd, and so he had the idea that Olaf the Holy should marry the illegitimate daughter of Olof Skötkonung, Astrid, who was staying with Ragnvald. Sigvat promised to deliver the message, and the Norwegian king accepted.
Olof Skötkonung was now so upset that he intended to hang Ragnvald at the next Thing. However, when Ingigerd Olofsdotter married Jaroslav, Ingigerd managed to arrange that Ragnvald became the jarl of Staraja Ladoga (Aldeigjuborg) and Ingria, and Olof let him depart with Ingigerd in the summer of 1019.
Fagrskinna's account of Olaf the Holy's betrothal to Ingigerd, and eventual wedding with Astrid, differs significantly from the account in Heimskringla. In Fagrskinna's account, Ragnvald is not given a prominent role in the proceedings.
Married to Ingeborg Tryggvasdotter. Children:
- Ulf Ragnvaldsson Jarl
- Eilif Ragnvaldsson Jarl
- Ostrida Ragnvalsdatter
He is considered to have fathered king Stenkil, with Astrid Nialsdotter from Norway, but this is based on later Icelandic sources, and the identification of Ragnvald with Ragnvald the Old of Hervarar saga.
- Winroth 1995–1997:616
- The entry Stenkil in Larsson 2000:33
Stenkil anses ha varit son till Ragnvald jal i Västergötland. Translation: Stenkil is considered to have been the son of earl Ragnvald in Västergötland.
- Lagerquist 1997:41
Den nye kungen hette Stenkil och den ganska kortlivade dynasti han grundade kallas efter honom den stenkilska. Enligt senare isländska uppgifter var han son till jarlen Ragnvald i Västergötland och Astrid Nialsdotter från Norge. Translation: The name of the new king was Stenkil and the rather shortlived dynasty that he founded is named the House of Stenkil after him. According to later Icelandic reports, he was the son of the earl Ragnvald in Västergötland and Astrid Nialsdotter from Norway.
- Larsson 2002:154–157
[...] ingenting om Ragnvald den gamle eller den norska hövdingadottern Astrid som var Stenkils föräldrar enligt den fornisländska Hervararsagan. [...] Och lika lite kan jag få veta ifall Stenkils far Ragnvald var identisk med västgötajarlen med samma namn, som det ofta påstås i den historiska literaturen - en hypotes som i och för sig också skulle leda till släktskap med den gamla kungaätten genom att Ragnvald enligt sagorna var kusin till Olof Skötkonung. Translation: [...] nothing on Ragnvald the Old or the Norwegian chieftain's daughter Astrid who were Stenkil's parents according to the Old Icelandic Hervarar saga. [...] And just as little can I be informed whether Stenkil's father Ragnvald was identical to the Västergötland jarl by the same name, as it is often stated in history books - a hypothesis which, as it were, would lead to kinship with the old dynasty through the fact that Ragnvald according to the sagas was the cousin of Olof Skötkonung.
- Larsson, Lars-Ove (1993, 2000). Vem är vem i svensk historia, från år 1000 till 1900. Prisma, Stockholm. ISBN 91-518-3427-8
- Larsson, Mats G (2002). Götarnas Riken : Upptäcktsfärder Till Sveriges Enande. Bokförlaget Atlantis AB ISBN 978-91-7486-641-4
- Lagerquist, Lars O. (1997). Sveriges Regenter, från forntid till nutid. Norstedts, Stockholm. ISBN 91-1-963882-5
- Winroth, Anders (1995–1997) "Ragnvald Ulfsson", Svenskt Biografiskt Lexikon, volume 29, page 616.
- Wisén, Theodor, revised by Erik Brate (1915), "Ragnvald Ulfsson", Nordisk familjebok, volume 22, 913–914