Alexander Draymon, BBC, Bernard Cornwell, Medieval England, Medieval Europe, Military Stuff, The Last Kingdom, Uhtred of Bebbanburg, Vikings
I’ve finally found time to do my last post on The Last Kingdom, after wading through weeks’ worth of term papers and exams. Sorry this post is overdue. I knew I was going to have to re-watch several episodes to formulate my thoughts on the show’s depiction of 9th century warfare, and it took me a while to find the time.
In the series, the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons are equipped nearly identically in terms of their war gear, with one major exception. Vikings get round shields and Anglo-Saxons get rather pathetic small rectangular shields, clearly inferior in terms of how much of their body they cover and also in terms of manufacture (the Viking shields have metal rims, or actually if you look close, painted details designed to look like metal rims). The purpose of this difference is probably so that the viewer can distinguish the Viking troops from the Anglo-Saxons, which is a reasonable issue for the show to struggle with. But it’s wrong historically. Both Vikings and Anglo-Saxons had the same type of shields. Visually, there wouldn’t have been a whole lot to distinguish the two sides from each other.
In the first episode, three Northumbrian eldermen lead their troops against the invading Vikings. At the battlefield, the Vikings form a testudo and wait in position while the Anglo-Saxons charge across the field in an unruly mob, having apparently never seen a testudo before. (For those who are unclear on what a testudo is, I discuss the topic here.) The Anglo-Saxons are unable to penetrate the testudo, although they do force the Vikings to give a little ground and manage to kill a few. This leads to the Anglo-Saxon reinforcements charging in, thinking they are winning.
But then a second Viking unit rushes the field and forms a second testudo behind the Anglo-Saxons. This effective pens the Anglo-Saxons in. The two testudos slowly advance, mercilessly crushing the Northumbrian troops like the garbage compactor scene in Star Wars, only with much bloodier results.
There are a few things wrong here, namely almost everything. First, there is zero evidence that the Norse understood the concept of the testudo, much less had the intensive group military training to pull the formation off. (That is, unless you consider The Vikings, season 1, evidence.) Testudos required a degree of unit cohesion and training that, so far as the evidence allows us to speak, neither the Norse nor the Anglo-Saxons possessed. There’s no reason to think either side would have known about this ancient Roman military technique, much less been able to execute it.
(Ok, a brief digression. There is actually one medieval source that describes Vikings using a testudo. Abbo of Saint-Germaine, a French monk who was present at the Viking Siege of Paris in 886, describes the Vikings as advancing in a testudo. However, in this passage he’s using Roman military terminology, certainly because he’s read some Roman authors and possibly because he wants to show off how well-read he is. The question that historians debate is whether or not Abbo actually understands what a testudo is. Many scholars think that he is using Roman technical vocabulary without really knowing what the vocubalary means. In other words, he’s seen the Vikings using a shield wall and has decided to call that shield wall a testudo, either because he thinks it will make him look more learned or because he thinks that a medieval shield wall is the same thing as a testudo. This is a common problem with medieval authors, not at all unique to Abbo.
And I agree. I think it is much more likely that Abbo is misusing the term testudo here than that the Vikings somehow knew what an ancient Roman military formation involved, because there’s no easy way to explain how the Norse would have had access to military ideas from a culture that died out several centuries before their time. The Norse never fought a classical Roman legion, did not speak Latin, and did not know how to read. So how would they have gotten this information? Occam’s Razor makes me think that Abbo is more likely to have misused the terminology than that the Norse are to have understood this technique. However, this well-educated amateur scholar disagrees with my assessment. So you can decide for yourself.)
Second, the testudo was not really a fighting formation. Its tactical purpose was to allow soldiers to maneuver on the battlefield while taking arrow fire. It essentially puts soldiers into a sort of defensive crouch with their shields locked together. It’s unlikely that soldiers could have fought effectively from that posture, and even more unlikely that they could have held that formation effectively when a large number of hostile soldiers were charging them and slamming into the shields. The idea that a testudo could function offensively to push men back and kill them while still functioning defensively is highly dubious.
Third, if you watch carefully, you see two testudos slowly closing together, trapping the Anglo-Saxons within. But there’s a huge problem. The testudo is a straight line. So when two testudos close in on each other, there’s nothing to prevent the Northumbrians trapped within from simply running out at the top or the bottom of the formation. The camera shot is structured to keep the viewer from realizing that is a possibility, but it definitely is.
In reality, the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons used a very similar tactic when they had open-field battles. They both employed a formation called a shield wall, which is similar to a testudo but actually possible. In a shield wall, soldiers stand in a long line, close enough together that their shields overlap. The front rank focuses its energies on defense, while the men in the rank behind them focus on attacking over the shoulders of the front rank. Their presence also helps brace the front line, and if a man in the front rank is injured or killed, the man behind him can step up and close the gap.
The shield wall was a very effective formation, probably the most effective formation of the early Middle Ages. Unlike a testudo, it didn’t require long hours of practice to pull off (although certainly some drilling was necessary). At the battle of Hastings in 1066, the Anglo-Saxon shield wall withstood repeated charges by the Norman cavalry, although keeping the men from breaking rank and counter-attacking whenever the Normans retreated was a problem.
The big tactical drawback of the shield wall is that it was a static formation. When it advanced, it ran the risk of losing cohesion, and without cohesion, it lost most of its value. As a result, the Anglo-Saxons tended to take up a shield wall position and then wait for the other side to charge, trusting in the strength of their defensive position. As a result, when two Anglo-Saxon armies confronted each other, they frequently both adopted the shield wall formation and then waited for the other side to charge. They would taunt each other, each side hoping the other would lose its self-control and charge, thereby surrendering the defensive advantage.
So the scene as it’s depicted is sort of the opposite of what would probably have happened if the Vikings had taken up a testudo. The Anglo-Saxons would have done the same and tried to goad the Norse into breaking formation. They were unlike to have charged recklessly and without any structure to attack an unfamiliar formation. We could always assume that the eldermen were stupid, because military commanders did sometimes make shitty decisions, act rashly or with overconfidence, or lose control of their troops. But a plot that requires stupidity to work is a lousy plot.
In the third episode, we see Uhtred (Alexander Draymon) and Leofric (Adrian Bower) drilling a group of Anglo-Saxon men in a shield wall technique. The two sides line up and adopt a shield wall (or what would pass for a shield wall with those crappy little rectangular shields). But then Leofric’s side charges, losing all cohesion, and Uhtred’s side responds by quickly losing cohesion as well. In the second round, the two sides advance more cautiously, probably more the way an actual shield wall would, at least until Leofric’s side charges again and dissolves into disorder. Given that it’s a training sequence, we can forgive that.
Then Uhtred teaches the Anglo-Saxons how to do a testudo, a totally new and unfamiliar formation they’ve never seen before. But Uhtred forgets to make himself part of the shield wall and instead stands in front of it when Leofric’s line charges. It’s a slightly comical moment, but it undercuts the idea that Uhtred is really a great tactician. But overall, this training scene is probably the closest the show gets to showing us something real about how Anglo-Saxons fought.
The idea that the Norse understood the testudo seems to only go back to first seasons of The Vikings. It’s a good illustration of how an historical film or show can shift the way people think about the past for the worse.
If you need help picturing this battle, the always-amusing Lindybeige has a nice analysis of the first episode.
The Battle of Edington
The first season climaxes with the Battle of Edington. The Danes, led by the villainous Skorpa (Jonas Malmsjö) and the less villainous Guthrum (Thomas W Gabrielsson) and the Anglo-Saxons, basically led by Leofric and Uhtred, take up positions opposite each other on a field. Both sides form a testudo, with the Anglo-Saxons suddenly having both their usual crappy rectangular shields and kite shields. The kite shield (which I always think of as the Ice-Cream-Cone shield because in silhouette they look like sugar cones with a single scoop of ice cream on them) seems to have been developed in the 11th century for use from horseback (because the narrow end of the shield can fit between the horse’s neck and the rider’s leg). The 9th century Anglo-Saxons didn’t use kite shields because 1) they hadn’t been invented yet, 2) the Anglo-Saxons were quite resistant to fighting from horseback, and 3) kite shields are rather awkwardly shaped for use by foot soldiers (although foot soldiers can use them). But the production people on the show must have realized that the crappy rectangular shields simply wouldn’t work for a testudo and just threw in some kite shields hoping no one would notice. But I did. That’s why I get paid the big bucks to review shows like this.
Although both sides possess small cavalry units, they’re mostly using foot soldiers. This will become important later on.
The Vikings decide to charge, despite the fact that charging a shield wall is generally a losing tactic. Despite inflicting some casualties (including Leofric), the Vikings are unable to penetrate the Anglo-Saxon testudo, which begins to force the Vikings backward.
At this point, Skorpa has an opportunity to shift the course of the battle by leading his cavalry to flank the Anglo-Saxon formation which is vulnerable on its sides and read. Instead, he succumbs to his villainy and attacks the Anglo-Saxon camp, killing Uhtred’s current woman and bringing her head back to taunt him with.
That turns out to be a bad idea. The enraged Uhtred breaks from the testudo, leaps over the Viking testudo, and starts slaughtering Vikings, who are unable to do anything in response to his righteous fury (which apparently acts like a power-up in a video game). He single-handedly opens a big gap in the Viking position, allowing the Anglo-Saxons to charge into the breach and slaughter the bad guys, whose eyeliner is no longer able to protect them. Skorpa gets speared in the chest, Guthrum has to surrender and accept conversion, and the Anglo-Saxons get to live happily every after until next season, except poor Uhtred, who gets lots of juicy manpain to chew on because the woman he’s loved for the last two episodes has died.
Some elements of this are plausible. If you substitute shield walls for testudos, you have a basically believable 9th century battle, at least until Uhtred eats his spinach and starts clobbering the Vikings. Skorpa’s actions are more cartoon bad guy than ruthless military leader, but I suppose we could say he decided that a flanking maneuver wouldn’t work because he didn’t have a large cavalry unit and his maneuver might have been countered by the Anglo-Saxon cavalry. It seems unlikely that the Anglo-Saxons wouldn’t have posted any guards at their camp in case of just such villainy, and it’s not clear why the Anglo-Saxon cavalry doesn’t move to stop the raid on the camp. But this battle definitely makes a hell of a lot more sense than the one that opens the series.
In general, I dislike the show’s treatment of warfare. The show imagines that the Viking were able to beat the Anglo-Saxons because they had a superior battlefield tactic that the Anglo-Saxons didn’t understand, until Uhtred spilled the beans about how to perform the testudo. That’s just untrue. The Vikings did have a tactical advantage, but it was their longships, not their land tactics. The longship allowed the Vikings to get into a coastal or riverine area quickly, attack a surprised community when its defenses were down, and then get away before the local noble could raise a force to respond. However, during the late 9th century, the Norse switched over to conquest rather than raiding. At that point, the advantage that they had was more about numbers than superior tactics, from what we can tell from surviving sources. The Great Army (as the Viking force was called) probably included several thousand men (although historians have debated the exact size because we have no particularly solid numbers with which to make a real estimate). It wasn’t an enormous force, but the typical Anglo-Saxon kingdom probably could only field a force of several hundred fully trained elite warriors, supplementing that force with much more poorly-trained local peasant levies. So the Great Army probably had the upper hand in terms of numbers and battle experience. The force that Guthrum invaded Wessex with was only half the Great Army, but Alfred’s forces were weakened by years of coastal raiding and a few key defeats. Edington might only have involved one or two thousand men in total, but Alfred was gambling a lot on that battle.
The show also has a tendency, like so many modern depictions of ancient and medieval warfare, to privilege the righteousness of the hero’s cause over all other considerations. Uhtred wins his fights not because he is a demonstrably better fighter or because he’s tactically smarter, but because he’s filled with righteous fury that the enemy ultimately cannot prevail against. It’s the sort of assumption that teenagers make about how combat works. In general, Uhtred acts like an indignant teenager and the show tends to reward him for it. I want to like this show, because I love the fact that it’s telling a story about a period of English history that rarely gets much attention, but Uhtred is just such an unlikable and petulant protagonist that I can’t sympathize with him. Sigh.
This review was paid for by a kind donation to my Paypal account by my faithful reader Lyn. Thanks, Lyn! I’ve got a couple more requested reviews to tackle (my apologies that I’ve been taking a while to get to them guys) but if you want me to review a show or film, please make a generous donation and tell me what you want me to cover, and I’ll get to it as soon as I can.
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 you want to know more about Anglo-Saxon warfare, I would suggest the works of Richard Abels. His Lordship and Military Obligation in Anglo-Saxon England is excellent. And his Alfred the Great: War, Kingship and Culture in Anglo-Saxon England is very topical for this series.