The BBC’s The Last Kingdom covers some of the same ground as The Vikings, but covers it from the Anglo-Saxon side of things. The series is based on Bernard Cornwell’s The Saxon Stories novels. My faithful reader Lyn has made a very generous donation and asked me to review the series, so today we’re going to start with the historical background to the events of the series.
The period between roughly 500 AD and about 829 AD in Anglo-Saxon England is often called the Heptarchy, the ‘Seven Kingdoms’ of Anglo-Saxon England. The name refers to the seven smaller kingdoms into which the region was divided: Kent, Essex, Sussex, Wessex, East Anglia, Mercia, and Northumbria The name is a bit of misnomer, because the reality was a bit of misnomer. Northumbria was really made up of two sub-kingdoms—Bernicia and Deira—that were sometimes united and sometimes independent. Some of these states were generally subservient and overshadowed by others; for example Essex was regularly dominated by its southern neighbor Kent, which in turn was increasingly dominated by its Western neighbor Wessex. And the list omits a variety of other groupings, such as Lindsey, Middle Anglia, the Hwicce, Magonsaeta, the Isle of Wight, and so on. So the Heptarchy were only the most important states of the period, and they were not all truly independent states at the same time.
By the start of the 9th century, the Heptarchy was really four states: Wessex (which had absorbed Sussex), Mercia (which had to some extent absorbed Essex and Kent), East Anglia, and Northumbria. The history of East Anglia is very poorly understood, because very few documents survive from East Anglia, and our two best sources of information on the period of the Heptarchy, the Venerable Bede’s History of the English Church and People and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, largely ignore East Anglia or mention developments there only in passing. Similarly, while Mercia is better-documented, most of our sources come from either the Northumbrian or West Saxon perspective.
These four kingdoms were poorly prepared for the start of the Viking raids. The early Viking raids, in the period from the end of the 8th century down into the 840s, were essentially hit-and-run raids that targeted remote monasteries or unsuspecting communities. They sailed in on their longboats, attacked a target that was not expecting them, killed those who opposed them, plundered what they cold easily carry, and then left quickly. These raiding parties were typically quite small, since a single longship would hold somewhere between 45 and 60 men.
The Anglo-Saxon kingdoms did not maintain navies, and barely had anything resembling a standing army. Kings maintained a personal warband of professional soldiers, but these tended to be small, numbering perhaps a few dozen men. When warfare was expected, the king would summon the nobles of the kingdom, who would arrive by a set date with their own warbands and local levies, and out of this assemblage of small warbands the king would have an army of several hundred men. But raising this army took time, and the Vikings got in and got out as quickly as possible, using a tactic that was well-suited to take advantage of this weakness in the Anglo-Saxon military system.
The earliest raids were expeditions from Scandinavia that lasted a few months and then returned home for the winter, since sailing on the open seas in winter was a bad idea. But starting in 850, the Vikings began to ‘overwinter’, usually camping out on a coastal island and then resuming their raids the next spring.
The initial Anglo-Saxon response was a sort of paralysis, because their whole military system had no good answer to Viking tactics. In 865, we find the first recorded example of tribute-paying. The king of Kent paid the Vikings a sum of gold and silver to go elsewhere instead of raiding them. The effort failed, since the Vikings took the money and then raided anyway, but paying tribute became a common response to the threat of the Vikings anyway, since the Vikings typically did go away for a season.
But in 865, another important development occurred. A Viking named Ivar the Boneless arrived in East Anglia with a much larger force than a typical Viking raiding party. We have no actual numbers for Ivar’s army, but Anglo-Saxon sources call it the micel here, the ‘Great Army’. Ivar forced the East Anglians to provide him with supplies to overwinter on land. The next year Ivar’s army attacked the Northumbrian capital of York, taking advantage of a civil war going on there, and seized control of the city, turning it in the basis for the Viking Kingdom of York, which lasted down until the 950s.
Using York as a base, Ivar wreaked havoc across England. In 869, he plundered Mercia. In 869, he slew King Edmund of East Anglia (reportedly by tying him to a tree and using him for archery practice) and essentially destroyed the whole kingdom. In 871, Ivar’s forces killed King Aethelraed of Wessex. Over the next several years, Ivar’s men occupied London and slew the king of Mercia, essentially tearing away the northeastern half of the kingdom away, and leaving the rest of Mercia to limp along in an alliance with Wessex. After that, the Great Army split into two portions. One group, under Halfdan, was based at York and focused on the conquest of Northumbria, while the other, under Guthrum, focused its attentions on Wessex, which was now ruled by Aethelraed’s younger brother Alfred, known to history as Alfred the Great. Deira was absorbed into the Kingdom of York, leaving just Bernicia and Wessex of the original Heptarchy.
If you want to learn about Anglo-Saxon history, Frank Stenton’s Anglo-Saxon England is excellent, but at more than 800 pages, it might be a bit much for you.
This is the background to The Last Kingdom. The hero of the story, Uhtred of Bebbanburg (Alexander Draymon), is enslaved when he is 11 in 866 after his father, the ealdorman of Bebbanburg and raised as a slave by the Danes until his owner-cum-foster father Ragnar is killed by some villainous Danes and he and another slave, Brida (Emily Coz) wind up roaming across England until Uhtred eventually takes service with Alfred.
As we’ll see in my future posts, the series is quite a mixed bag.
Want to Know More?
The Last Kingdom is available on Amazon, as well as on Netflix. The first book of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories is also called The Last Kingdom. If so, you might prefer An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England, by Peter Hunter Blair, is an excellent introduction for the casual reader.