Ok, now that I’ve gotten some of the snarkiness out of my system, it’s time to discuss the actual plot of The Last Kingdom, based on Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories series. Unlike The Vikings, this show has the merit of following the broad outline of the actual events, although the main character, Uhtred of Bebbanburg, is fictitious, and so the show is obviously taking liberties by inserting him into what really happened.
The show’s protagonist is very loosely based on, or perhaps most reasonably ‘inspired by’ Uhtred the ealdorman of Derby, an Anglo-Saxon noble of the 10th century who is often thought to have been a member of the Bernician royal family that ruled Bebbanburg (modern Bamburgh) in Northumbria. In the period from 930 to 959 AD, two nobles named Uhtred appear as witnesses to royal charters; little is know about either of these men, but the fact that they were witnesses to royal charters means they were significant nobles. But the Uhtred of Bernard Cornwell’s novels is at least half a century too early to be either of these men, since he was born sometime in the late 850s and would have literally have to survive to about 100 to be one of them.
In 866, his older brother is killed by Norse raiders, which results in him being rebaptized by Father Beocca (Ian Hart) from his original name of Osbert to Uhtred, his older brother’s name. I’m not quite sure what the point of including this is, since it doesn’t seem to make any difference in the story, and it would have been highly unusual. Certainly by the 12th century, rebaptism was theologically unacceptable, but I’m not sure if that was the case in the 9th century or not. Even if it were a violation of canon law in the 9th century, we could probably forgive it by saying that Father Beocca was not trained in the details of theology.
Soon afterward, though, Uhtred’s father leads an army against the invading Vikings and gets slaughtered. Uthred, who is about 9 at the time, has not had any training in fighting, but tries to fight, gets knocked out, and taken as a slave by Earl Ragnar (Peter Ganzler), along with the girl Brida. Ragnar is clearly part of Ivar the Boneless’ Great Army that invaded England in 865. Ragnar raises the two of them and essentially becomes their foster-father because he is impressed with their spirit. At one point, when a dispute breaks out between Uhtred and the boy Sven, he punishes Sven by putting out of his eyes.
About a decade later, a vengeful Sven attacks Ragnar’s stead and kills almost everyone, but the now-adult Uhtred (Alexander Dreymon) and Brida (Emily Cox) escape. Initially, Uhtred tries to reclaim Bebbanburg, but his uncle (pretty reasonably, in my opinion) refuses to accept this total stranger’s claim. When Uhtred learns that Sven has blamed the slaughter on him, Uhtred and Brida try to clear his name by going to the new Danish warlords, Ubba (Rune Temte) and Guthrum (Thomas W. Gabrielsson).
They catch up with the warlords just in time to witness them killing the East Anglian king Edmund, which places the events of the first episode or two in 869. That means that Uhtred and Brida have somehow aged about a decade in the space of 3 years. This sort of distortion of time is a serious problem with the first season, because they ride straight to Winchester in 871 and then manage to spend a year or so (long enough for Uhtred to get married and have a son who dies as an infant) serving King Alfred (David Dawson) in the lead-up to a battle that happens in 878.
Edmund’s death is roughly as it reportedly happened. Historically, Edmund was tied to a tree and used for archery practice and then beheaded. In the show, after Edmund explains the story of St Sebastian to Guthrum and Ubba, he’s tied to the pillar of a church and shot with arrows. Since the legend asserts that Ubba was one of the leaders who instigated this, the show is basically following the facts as they are commonly known.
Uhtred and Brida go to Winchester, where they meet King Aethelred and his younger brother Alfred. They are suspicious of him because he dresses more like a Dane than a Saxon (remember, the Danes wear mullets and too much eyeliner, while Saxons wear their hair short and have odd diagonally-buttoning tunics). But Uhtred proves his worth because he knows how the Danes think. Aetheled gets himself killed at the Battle of Ashdown, so Alfred becomes king, despite the fact that Aethelred has a son, Aethelwold (Henry McEntire).
The plot around Aethelwold becomes incredibly grating, because the show refuses to understand how early Germanic kingship operated. Modern audiences imagine that kingship is always passed from father to oldest son (primogeniture), and so film-makers insist on imposing that model on monarchy everywhere, despite the fact that it was only invented in the 12th century under specific conditions in Europe. The Anglo-Saxons had no concept of primogeniture at all
Instead, like most early medieval Germanic peoples, they used a system in which any man whose great-grandfather had previous been king might qualify to inherit the crown. In practice, this usually meant that the kingship stayed within a loose group of second cousins. When the king died, his successor was the man who had the best combination of several qualities: biological relationship to the previous king, skill in battle, political support, reputation for generosity, and (after the conversion to Christianity) support of the Church. The most vital characteristic is that the prospective king had to be an effective warrior, because the king’s primary duty was to be a war-leader. He had to be to inspire loyalty and courage in battle and that required being a brave warrior himself. No candidate who lacked that quality was likely to become king until the late 10th century, when Aethelraed Unraed became king at 12 years old as part of a political coup probably orchestrated by his mother.
When the historical Aethelraed died in 871, the reason his son Aethelwold did not become king is that Aethelwold was a very young boy at the time (his exact birthdate is unknown, but he was probably about two or three). In the series, Aethelwold is an adult, but even if we leave aside that issue, McEntire’s Aethelwold would never have become king because he lacks all the other qualities of a king; he’s a coward who has never fought in a battle, a drunkard, a craven opportunist, has no political support whatsoever, and spends most of his time idiotically complaining to everyone that he is the real king (thereby demonstrating a total lack of political understanding). No one in his right mind would follow this jackass into battle or support him as a ruler.
In contrast, the historical Alfred was an adult, a warrior with a reputation for bravery and tactical knowledge, and a man of considerable learning, because he had been slated to become a priest. He was, in fact, the youngest of the five sons of King Aethelwulf of Wessex. All four of his older brothers had previously been kings of Wessex and had predeceased him. Additionally, according to one source, when Aethelraed was alive, Alfred enjoyed the position of secundarius, which seems to have designated the king’s successor. Even after Aethelwold’s birth, Alfred was his brother’s intended heir.
As the season winds on, Uhtred works to undermine the Danes. The Danes seize the fortress of Wareham, which happened in 876, and he briefly winds up a hostage there. Immediately thereafter, when Ealdorman Odda gets trapped on a hill without waater, he sneaks down to the Danish ships and burns them single-handedly, then kills Ubba in single combat. This enables Odda to win the battle of Cynwit, which happened in 878, not just a few days after the situation at Wareham. Then the Danes attack Winchester and drive Alfred and a few supporters to flee into the Somerset Marshes.
In reality, the Danes attacked Reading (not Winchester) and forced Alfred into the Marshes in 877. Alfred led resistance to the Danes over the winter (something the series completely omits) and then in 878 defeated the Danes at the battle of Edington near Ecgbert’s Stone (not Edward’s Stone, as the show has it).
So all the major political and military events of the series beginning with Edmund’s death actually happened, and with the exception of Cynwit, they’re shown in the correct historical order, but the passage of time is off, compressing a decade’s worth of events into what appears to be perhaps 18 months total. As readers of this blog know, other shows and films have been guilty of far worse manipulation of events. The pace of the show is a bit too brisk for my preferences, but things happen in the right order and the basic facts are correct (once you factor out the non-existent protagonist). Edmund really was killed by being shot full of arrows by the Vikings, Aethelraed really was killed at Ashdown and Alfred really did succeed him, Odda really did win the battle of Cynwit and Ubba really did die there, Alfred really was forced into hiding in the Marshes and really did defeat the Danes at Edington, and Guthrum really did convert to Christianity as part of his peace treaty with Alfred. All of this puts the shows light-years ahead of nonsense like Reign or Salem.
What Bugs Me
My big gripe with the show plot-wise, apart from the truly asinine character of Aethelwold, is that Uhtred repeatedly does really stupid shit and then gets upset when it works out badly for him. After he engineers the defeat of Ubba at Cynwit, he is explicitly told that he needs to go to Alfred and claim responsibility for the victory so that someone else won’t claim credit first. Instead, he goes off and spends time with his new wife, and when he gets to court he’s shocked to learn that Odda’s transparently villainous son Odda Jr, who is already gunning for him, has claimed victory for the battle.
Then a few episodes later, Uhtred decides he’s going to lead his Christian Saxon men on a raid into Cornwall against fellow Christians in order to get the wealth he needs to pay off his wife’s debts, even though Alfred has a peace treaty with the Cornish. So he has his men disguise themselves as Danes so that no one will know that Uhtred and his men are breaking the treaty. But after supposedly taking pains to disguise their identities, he repeatedly tells people his real name, doesn’t wear a helmet or in any other way disguise his face, and lets his men fraternize with the Cornish king’s men for a day before teaming up with a group of Danes to slaughter the king and his men in order to steal their hidden treasure. And then when he gets back to Winchester, he’s shocked to discover that a witness has gone to Alfred and reported that Uhtred of Bebbanburg has broken the truce, and then gets mad when one of the men who went with him and warned him not to do all this stuff admits it’s true.
It would be one thing if the show made clear that Uhtred is immature and making dumb choices because he’s overconfident. If the show was clearly trying to depict Uhtred gradually learning a series of lessons about what it takes to be a great leader in 9th century England, I’d think that was actually pretty smart of them. Instead, the show clearly expects the viewer to sympathize with Uhtred’s shitty choices and feel outraged when he can’t get away with them. It wants us to accept Uhtred as a natural-born leader and cunning tactician, all the while showing him doing incredibly dumb things.
But that’s my opinion as a viewer, not my opinion as an historian.
This review was paid for by a generous donation from my reader Lyn. Thanks, Lyn! If you’re interested in a review, please made a donation to my Paypal account and tell me what you’d like me to review.
Want to Know More?
If you would like to know about the reign of Alfred the Great, Alfred P. Smyth’s Alfred the Great would be one place to start, although at 800 pages, it’s quite dense. Or you could read Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources, which brings together many of the primary sources on Alfred into one fairly readable book.