I should really start my discussion of The Last Kingdom with a discussion of plot, but I feel the need to start with the physical culture of the series: the sets, costuming, and props. My only real reason for this is that every time I start to write about the plot, I keep finding myself getting irritated about the physical culture, so here we go.
On a superficial level, the show captures a general sense of what 9th century England looked like. The Anglo-Saxons were, like most Europeans of this period, not remarkably sophisticated engineers. Most of their secular buildings were built of wood rather than stone and therefore generally survive only as post-holes that can support a variety of reconstructions. And most of the buildings we see are simple one- and occasionally two-story wooden buildings. We see several farms, such as Ravn’s and Mildrith’s, which have lots of bare-timber structures and wicker fencing, which is probably ok, although the roofs are usually not pitched steeply enough for the thatching to do its job properly (steeply pitched thatch will encourage water to roll off, whereas a shallow pitch will tend to hold the water and therefore cause the thatch to rot). The various towns we see have structures that are not unreasonable approximations of things Anglo-Saxons might have built, although they often look just a little too sophisticated for the 9th century, but given that we have only a very poor idea of what Anglo-Saxon domestic architecture looks like, I think we can probably give the series a pass on this. A few of the more important halls have a partial second floor, which is probably wrong, but again, given the poor state of the evidence, I couldn’t say for sure they’re wrong. (And if any of my readers happens to be a specialist in Anglo-Saxon or Norse architecture, feel free to correct me.)
Although most stone buildings in England in this period were churches, the Anglo-Saxons did reuse some of the surviving Roman stone and brick structures, sometimes incorporating a ruined stone wall into a new wooden structure. Alfred’s capital, Winchester, is mostly wooden buildings, but he has a palace that is clearly supposed to be a surviving Roman structure. It has brick walls, stone arches, and bronze doors and window-frames that suggest Roman style. It makes sense that Alfred would have chosen such a structure as his palace if one had existed, but it’s stretching the bounds of plausibility to think that a Roman structure would have survived in such excellent condition 4 centuries after the end of the Roman period. I’m sure the reason for this is that the set designers wanted this major set to stand out from the endless number of wooden halls that the show has to use, and to suggest that Alfred is a more sophisticated man than many of the other leaders of the period, but every time the show does a scene here, I find myself distracted by how wrong the set is.
The palace also has a classic ‘jail with iron bars and door lock’ in it, that would be right at home in a Western. No such structure ever existed in Anglo-Saxon England. I’m doubtful such a thing existed anywhere during the Middle Ages at all.
But more problematic than Alfred’s palace is the fortress at Wareham, which the Danes occupy. From the outside, it appears to be a wooden palisade with wooden buildings inside. That’s totally plausible for a 9th century fortress. But inside, all the buildings are made out of mortared stone, with some of the structures being three stories tall. This makes no sense at all. First, the architecture is way too sophisticated for 9th century masonry (which, as I said, is mostly churches anyway). The Anglo-Saxons simply did not have the engineering ability to build three-story domestic structures out of stone. Second, given that stone walls are stronger than wood, logically, when you build a fortress you put the stone walls on the outside and the wooden structures on the inside. So this set inverts what such a structure would have looked like if the Anglo-Saxons had been able to build it. Indeed, I’m pretty sure that the internal buildings are taller than the external palisade and would have been visible in the external shots of the fortress, so apparently the set-designers just said “Fuck it. I don’t wanna build another goddam wooden hall today. Let’s design something that makes no sense but looks kinda cool. No one will notice.”
Again, very superficially, the series looks right. The women are mostly dressed in ankle-length tunics that are not overly form-fitting, and the men are mostly wearing knee-length tunics over pants, while the more important men at Winchester wear ankle-length tunics that aren’t fitted. But when you look a little closer, the costuming doesn’t measure up.
In most cases, the tunics (both men’s and women’s) have no trim at the neckline, the wrist, or the lower hems, so they’re just long drab sacks in dull browns and greys. They usually don’t seem to have undertunics, so apparently they’re wearing those tunics against their bare skin. That’s unlikely. The purpose of the undertunic was to protect the skin from the heavier fabric of the tunic (which is otherwise likely to chafe at sensitive spots) and to catch the wearer’s sweat, thereby lengthening the life of the tunic and reducing the need to wash it.
Work garments might have been undecorated, but the nobles at least would have had something fancier for important occasions. These fancier tunics would have been made of bright colors and would have had trim of a contrasting color, both to be decorative and to strengthen the garment at points where it would be easy to snag and rip the garment. Fancier tunics would probably have had embroidery on them as well, but the costume designers don’t seem to have wanted to take the trouble to embroider anything.
The nobles of Wessex, up to and including Alfred (David Dawson), all wear long tunics that open down the side, so their tunics are essentially coats with a left side that reaches over to the right hip and shoulder and is held in place by small clasps. That’s a totally fictitious garment for the period.
Queen Iseult (Charlie Murphy) at one point wears a gown made of a shimmery silvery fabric that I think is supposed to be cloth-of-silver. While such fabric could have existed in this period, it would probably have been staggeringly expensive and therefore unlikely that a poor Cornish queen would have owned such a garment. She certainly wouldn’t have gone riding in it. And she definitely wouldn’t have had a form-fitted coat to wear over it.
Occasionally, the show goes totally off the deep end. In one scene, Uhtred’s friend Brida (Emily Cox) is wearing what I can only describe as a Cookie Monster snuggy. (See Update) At other times she gets a cute little leather vest that was all the rage at Forever 21 a few years back. Uhtred (Alexander Dreymon) frequently wears what looks like a black shirt with leather bands sewn onto it with little metal disks sewn on the leather, with a matching sleeveless tunic over it. And all the Danes wear absurd amounts of fur. Apparently when it’s time to go out raiding, they just grabbed the nearest floor-rug and threw it over their shoulders.
When the men wear belts, they’re always modern Ren Faire belts with double d-rings instead of a buckle. In case you didn’t know it, the belt buckle is a very old piece of technology, going back to at least the Romans, whereas the double-d belt is a very recent invention (or so I’ve been told). Buckles are far better at holding a belt closed that double d-rings, which is why medieval men wore belts with actual buckles.
The armor varies between the plausible, such as mail byrnies, and the bizarre, such as elaborate stitched-together leather tunics. In some scenes, Uhtred gets to wear the suspender-harness from a set of Goth lederhosen. Some of the men have leather plates sewn onto leather or cloth, some have leather gorgets, it’s just a random assortment of vaguely early-medieval looking armor. But most of the helmets are plausible, so that’s something.
Uhtred’s sword is not a 9th century sword. It has a curved crosspiece in a period when swords did not have crosspieces at all. And he wears it on his back, which wasn’t a thing.
The men of Cornwall carry short rectangular shields with a big hole in them, which sort of defeats the whole point of carrying a shield at all. But then, they also fight with pitchforks and use them like quarterstaves rather than thrusting weapons, so clearly they’re idiots who deserve to get massacred.
Also, the show is convinced that the Danes liked to paint their faces. And they generally wear mullets and way too much eyeliner. Sigh.
Oh, and is it just me, or are they trying to copy Jon Snow’s look?
Alfred has a library in which all the books are scrolls. The scroll as a piece of writing technology was pretty archaic in the 9th century, having been superseded for several centuries by something called a ‘book’. Ok, more precisely it’s called a codex but it was such a big step forward in durability and accessibility that scrolls entirely vanished.
Oh, and while some Norsemen did file horizontal grooves into their teeth, they didn’t file them down to points, because among other things, it makes biting your tongue really painful.
TL:DR, most of what you see on the screen is wrong, at least once you dig into the details.
Update: Someone on Reddit linked to this post in a discussion about a coat Brida wears, suggesting that it was what I meant by a ‘Cookie Monster Snuggie’. The garment in discussion on that Reddit thread is this one:
That is absolutely a modern coat. I doubt anyone in Europe wore anything like that until the late 20th century (although perhaps the Frock Flick ladies can correct me on that, modern fashion not being my specialty). But it’s not the Cookie Monster Snuggie. I cannot find a screen shot of it, but it’s some sort of full-length coat made of wiry fur dyed blue. It appears to be the same fur that Uthred is wearing on his shoulders in this pic, only as a full-length over-garment and more definitely blue:
Apparently Cookie Monster is the last of his kind, all his kin having been hunted into extinction by the 9th century Norse snuggie industry.
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.