The Last Kingdom: the real history behind the series
The Last Kingdom: the real history behind the series
The Last Kingdom, based on the Saxon Stories novels of Bernard Cornwell, re-tells the history of King Alfred the Great and his desire to unite the many separate kingdoms into what would become England. Here, we recap the real history behind the story so far, and what’s covered in series four…
When is The Last Kingdom set and what it is about?
It is the story of the struggle between Saxons and Danes in 9th-century England, when England was not one nation but a series of independent kingdoms variously overrun or ravaged by Danes. The era of Lindisfarne and raiders from the sea is long past – by this point in history, the Vikings in Britain are settlers, lords and kings.
This tale plays out from the perspective of Uhtred of Bebbanburg, a man born a Saxon and raised a Dane, grappling with his persistently split loyalties between his oaths (of which he makes many), his conflicting cultural identities, and his quest for retribution.
What starts out as a tale of straightforward revenge – reclaiming his ancestral home in Northumbria from his usurping uncle and avenging the murder of his adoptive Viking father – rapidly extends into a history-adjacent Vikings versus Anglo-Saxons epic, as Uhtred finds himself in the Kingdom of Wessex, where Alfred the Great has dreams of expelling the northmen from all the realms of ‘England’ and creating a single nation, something that wouldn’t be achieved until the reign of his grandson.
The show is based on the Saxon Stories novels of Bernard Cornwell (now renamed as the The Last Kingdom series owing to the show’s success), of which there are currently 12 in print, with the concluding 13th instalment – War Lord – due to be published in October 2020.
Want to read reviews of season 4 and know even more about the real events from history that inspired the drama? Read more from the experts at our curated page on The Last Kingdom
What is the plot of The Last Kingdom season four?
Season four of The Last Kingdom is widely expected to cover books seven and eight of Bernard Cornwell’s saga, The Pagan Lord and The Empty Throne. Alfred the Great is dead, as is his ever-conniving nephew Aethelwold; Alfred’s son Edward the Elder sits on the throne of Wessex; his daughter Aethelflaed is wed to the ruler of Mercia; and the Danes, led by Haesten and Cnut (not Cnut the Great – he won’t be born for another hundred years), sense opportunity. Uhtred, meanwhile, realises now might be the time to challenge his uncle Aelfric for his birthright, the lordship of Bebbanburg in Northumbria.
Once season four is complete, there are still four more books (so far) in Cornwell’s series to adapt – if the The Last Kingdom is renewed for future seasons.
What happened in The Last Kingdom season one? And what’s the real history?
The Last Kingdom begins in 866, the year that Vikings first seized control of York. Uhtred is a child and heir to Bebbanburg (Bamburgh) in Northumbria. When the Vikings arrive, his father, Lord Uhtred, rides out to give battle and is predictably slain; the boy Uhtred is captured.
Uhtred’s uncle Aelfric hopes to ransom the boy back and quietly murder him so that he can claim the lordship of Bebbanburg for himself unimpeded, but that plan is scuppered when Danish jarl Ragnar the Fearless takes a liking to the lad and ultimately takes him back to Denmark along with a Saxon girl, Brida.
Fast forward several years: Uhtred is now a young man, fully immersed in Norse culture and religion. His apparent happiness comes crashing down when Ragnar the Fearless is murdered, burned alive in his hall by shipmaster Kjartan and his son Sven the One-Eyed, in retribution for Ragnar taking Sven’s eye many years before. Kjartan spreads rumours that Saxon-born Uhtred is the miscreant behind the deed, forcing Uhtred to flee back across the North Sea to the lands he left as a boy.
Guthrum and Ubba don’t believe his innocence, so Uhtred flees to Winchester, capital of Wessex, the titular ‘last kingdom’ to fall prey to the Danes. Aethelred I rules, but by the middle of the season he has been mortally wounded, and on his deathbed passes the crown to his brother, Alfred – overlooking Aethelwold, his own son, portrayed as a drunkard who believes the crown should have been his by default.
“[Alfred] can never have expected to be king, as the youngest of five brothers, but all of them died young,” writes Michael Wood. “He was 21, pious and brave, but in poor health, with a crippling hereditary illness, perhaps Crohn’s Disease.”
David Dawson (King Alfred), Brian Vernel (Odda the Younger) and Simon Kunz (Odda the Elder) in season one of ‘The Last Kingdom’ (2015). (Photo by Netflix/The Hollywood Archive)
Uhtred proves instrumental at the battle of Cynwit in Devon in 878 – one of the five most important ‘lost battles’ of the Viking age, writes Thomas Williams, who describes it as “one of the great military reversals of the early Middle Ages”, prior to which he kills Ubba in single combat. Uhtred’s part in the battle is glossed over (a common theme in The Last Kingdom) and victory is ascribed to Odda the Elder, ealdorman of Devon, as it is in real history.
Uhtred and Alfred clash frequently through the rest of the series over loyalty and religion, but where Alfred is forced to admit Uhtred’s usefulness is when the would-be Lord of Bebbanburg helps Alfred escape into the Somerset Marshes – where he famously burns the cakes – in the wake of the Danish invasion of Wessex in 878, and then at the battle of Edington in which the Saxons inflict a crushing defeat on the Northmen.
Listen to renowned historical novelist Bernard Cornwell talk about his books that inspired The Last Kingdom, and about his writing career more broadly:
What happens in The Last Kingdom season two? And what’s the real history?
Uhtred heads north – not to Bebbanburg, but to rescue Guthred, a Christian Dane prophesised to become the king of Cumberland. The mission is a success, but once king Guthred is convinced to betray Uhtred and sells him into slavery. Alfred sends Young Ragnar (son of Ragnar the Fearless and Uhtred’s adoptive brother, taken hostage by Wessex at the end of season one) to rescue him. Reunited, Ragnar and Uhtred besiege Kjartan and Sven the One-Eyed in Durham, finally avenging Ragnar the Fearless.
This season also develops the character of Aethelflaed – not yet the ‘Lady of the Mercians’, but a young woman and, as a daughter of a king, one ready to be married off in alliance – “As a wife, Æthelflæd’s story is all too familiar in terms of royal dynastic marriages,” writes Dr Janina Ramirez. She is wed, in history and on The Last Kingdom, to Aethelred of Mercia. “Theirs was an entirely political union, designed to strengthen the two kingdoms against Danish and Norwegian incursions in the north,” says Ramirez.
On the show, the Mercian Aethelred reveals himself to be a poor husband, possessive and abusive. He takes Aethelflaed to war against Danish brothers Siegfried and Erik (both fictional antagonists) and their underling Haesten (who did exist), where she is captured and held for ransom, setting up the season’s climactic battle at Benfleet in 893 and Odda the Elder’s suicide in lieu of certain execution for treason.
What happened in The Last Kingdom season three? And what’s the real history?
Season three opens by introducing two new antagonists, the warrior Bloodhair and his seer, Skade – who has a vision of Bloodhair killing Alfred in battle. But Alfred really is dying, through ill health; Edward the Aetheling is a young man not yet ready to rule; Aetholwold is sowing discord as he sees a route to finally becoming king.
Relations between Uhtred and Alfred reach crisis point when Uhtred accidentally kills a priest after Aethelwold’s meddling; in response, Alfred tries to make Uhtred swear an oath to serve Edward. Uhtred, realising that swearing an oath to Edward would mean a life of servitude, flatly refuses, then takes Alfred hostage to effect his escape.
Season three places Aethelwold centre stage playing politics. He also leaves Wessex, stopping first at Mercia, where he sows the seeds of betrayal for Aethelflaed, and the at Bloodhair’s camp, where he argues that the Danes should form a single ‘great army’ to crush Wessex.
Ola Repace as Bloodhair in season three of ‘The Last Kingdom’ (2018). (Photo by Netflix/The Hollywood Archive)
“West Saxon chroniclers were scathing about Æthelwold’s alliance with Vikings, but as a tactic of war it wasn’t unusual,” writes early medieval historian Professor Ryan Lavelle, who is also The Last Kingdom’s historical consultant. “There is good reason to suspect that Alfred too allied himself with Viking mercenaries when circumstances required.”
Uhtred makes his way north to Durham and to his brother Ragnar the Younger, where he briefly plots with Bloodhair, Haesten and Ragnar’s cousin Cnut to form a great army to invade the Saxon kingdoms, but abandons them to rescue Aethelflaed – now hiding in a nunnery, because Aethelred is plotting to have her killed.
Later, Aethelwold murders Ragnar in his bed – preventing him from reaching his sword and denying him entry to Valhalla. Haesten is revealed to be a spy for Alfred and alerts the king to the Danish threat.
Alfred finally succumbs to his illness – but not before he reconciles with Uhtred and sees Edward married. Uhtred publicly affirms his support for Edward as the presumptive king, and they ride to meet Aethelwold and the Danes near Bedford – defeating them with the help of Mercia and Kent. At the battle’s climax, Uhtred catches up with Aethelwold (having learned that he was the one responsible for Young Ragnar’s death) and stabs him through the heart.
This final act of Aethelwold’s machinations plays out markedly different to real events. Though in the show it is dealt with in the immediate aftermath of Alfred’s death in 899, the actual battle took place at unidentified location suspected to be Holme in East Anglia in 902, after a three-year insurrection in which Aethelwold had moderate success. Even the circumstances of the battle are reversed, with the Danes ambushing Edward’s army – they won the battle, but Aethelwold died in the fighting, making it somewhat pyrrhic.
“Æthelwold’s insurrection is little known today, a mere footnote in Anglo-Saxon history,” says Lavelle. “It also hints that, had Æthelwold enjoyed a little more fortune in the fallout from Alfred’s death, and had one obscure battle in 902 had an alternative outcome, the future of England could have been very different indeed.”
What happened in The Last Kingdom season four? And what’s the real history?
Edward rules in Wessex, battered from all sides by advisors and trying to step out of Alfred the Great’s shadow (or perhaps live up to it), but that’s no lingering concern of Uhtred. By the end of episode one he is sailing north to reclaim his ancestral home of Bebbanburg (Bamburgh) from Aelfric, the dastardly uncle who tried to have him murdered as a boy and then connived to have him sold into slavery as an adult.
Bebbanburg is conveniently vulnerable – not because of the Danes, but the bellicose attentions of the Scots – and Aelfric is struggling to contain them.
The history is mixed here, says early medieval historian Ryan Lavelle in our episode one review: “Northern Northumbria was in a frontier zone contested by an emerging Scottish kingdom and raiding was probably frequent enough, though the events portrayed here are as much a nod to the historical lord [Uhtred] of Bamburgh.” That Uhtred, whom Lavelle explains would have been at the limits of his power much like Aelfric is here, fought the Scots in the 11th century, not the 10th.
Listen on the podcast: Dan Jackson traces the distinctive history and culture of northeast England, from ancient times to the present day
Back in The Last Kingdom, Uhtred reckons a small army could take the fortress. Alas, Edward refuses to give him said army, so it’s on to Plan B: kidnap his estranged son (also called Uhtred) from his church, have him sneak into Bebbanburg with some other priests, then open its sea gate under the cover of darkness so that Uhtred and his merry band can sneak in and assassinate Aelfric.
Uhtred does get in – not without some mishap – only to find his plan scuppered by the return of the Aelfric’s own estranged son, Whitgar, who terminally alters the power balance in the north by executing Aelfric and claiming Bebbanburg as his own. Outmanoeuvred, Uhtred and co escape, but not without the death of Father Beocca, his close confidante and effective father figure.
In Mercia, Aethelred’s captain of the guard (Eardwulf) brings news that the Danes in East Anglia have left their camp for Ireland. Aethelred, chafing at being nominally subservient to Wessex, sees an opportunity to one-up Edward and promptly marches his entire army to East Anglia to claim it as his own. But it’s all smoke and mirrors: the Danes, led by Cnut and Brida, did leave East Anglia, but didn’t put out to sea. They sailed upriver, disembarked near Aethelred’s seat in Aylesbury, and took it as their own.
Jamie Blackley as Eardwulf in ‘The Last Kingdom’ season 4 episode 5. Eardwulf pretends to Aethelred that he shares his commitment to a strong and free Mercia, but his loyalties will be proven to be driven by his own ambitions. (Photographer Adrienn Szabo | Copyright Carnival Film & Television Limited)
The news doesn’t reach Aethelred; Eardwulf fails to tell him, fearing his master’s rage. It’s another black mark in a long line of character flaws in this depiction of the Mercian ruler, who is by turns capricious, adulterous and cruel. (“[Aethelred] is played as a pretty despicable character – a portrayal for which there is no historical evidence,” notes Lavelle.)
In Winchester, Edward refuses to spill Wessex blood to save Mercian soil, earning the approval of his most powerful vassal (and father-in-law) Aethelhelm, and the ire of his sister Aethelflead and his mother Aelswith. Though long-dead in real history, the Aelswith of The Last Kingdom has to deal with her diminishing role at court – leading to a momentous decision to retrieve Edward’s son from his first marriage (which both took place and was annulled off screen in season three) from a convent. The boy is revealed to be Aethelstan, the future first king of the English.
The intrigues and vacillations culminate with Aethelflead taking decisive action: she sneaks away from Winchester, raises the Mercian fyrds independently of her absent husband and (thanks to Uhtred) lures the Danes to battle at Tettenhall – a real clash that took place in 910, in which three Viking kings were killed. It was this battle, writes historian Dr Janina Ramirez, that “secured [Aethelflaed’s] image as victorious warrior queen”.
In the show, Aethelflaed doesn’t stand alone: she has the support of the Welsh (making their first appearance in The Last Kingdom), and late in the battle both Aethelred and Edward arrive to turn the tide. Cnut is slain, and Brida is taken back to Wales as a slave.
“The appearance of Welsh warriors on the battlefield is a historical imagining on this particular occasion, but Welsh military service for Anglo-Saxon armies wasn’t unknown at this time,” says Lavelle in our episode four review. These are the men King Hywel Dda (‘the Good’), who ruled Deheubarth (‘the South Part’), and they serve an important role – “a reminder that the story of early medieval Britain was more than an English one.” The real Saxon army at Tettenhall was an alliance of Aethelflaed and Edward, though Aethelred’s presence is uncertain.
The Last Kingdom sees Aethelred sustain a fatal head injury at Tettenhall. Despite the fact he is only expected to live for a few days (a fiction: Aethelred died in 911), Eardwulf kills him in his sickbed. Why? To protect a sudden elevation. With the question of who should succeed as ruler of Mercia, Eardwulf finds himself the firm favourite, a deal to be legitimised through marriage to Aethelred and Aethelflaed’s daughter, the child Aelfwynn.
Millie Brady as Aethelflaed in ‘The Last Kingdom’. (Photographer Adrienn Szabo | Copyright Carnival Film & Television Limited)
Though Aethelflaed eventually takes the throne as she did in history (though it’s thanks to Uhtred in this telling), this sets up an arc in which Uhtred spirits Aelfwynn across the countryside in search of safety, bringing her into contact with ‘The Sickness’, which – in an era without handwashing – is as pernicious as you might imagine. Aylesbury is even put into quarantine.
What is this sickness? “There is no historical epidemic known in early medieval Britain from 910/911 or even the first decades of the 10th century, but what is happening is not long after a period of disease recorded in 896, in which a number of the great and good of Wessex perished,” says Lavelle in our episode six review. Despite its imagery being heavily linked with the middle ages, there is nothing, either in the show or in real history, to suggest that it this Sickness is the Black Death.
In the midst of the succession crisis, a new Danish threat emerges: Sigtryggr, a real Viking who mooted as a descendant of Ivar the Boneless. He lands in Wales, routs King Hywel, rescues Brida, leads a warband to Wessex and ahistorically seizes Winchester – left undefended while Edward interfered in the Mercian succession.
At the end of the season’s climactic month-long siege, Uhtred turns negotiator, helping to forge an agreement in which Sigtryggr relinquishes Winchester in favour of York. This is again the right history at wrong time: Sigtryggr, notes Lavelle in our episode ten review, was the historical ruler of the Anglo-Scandinavians of York – but not until 920. Uhtred rides into the sunset (for now) with Aethelstan as his ward – the boy can’t stay in Winchester, not least because Aethelhelm, grandfather to Edward’s current heir, has just poisoned Aelswith to ensure his family retains power…
How will The Last Kingdom end?
If the show continues and follows the thread of Bernard Cornwell’s novels, then we might already know the answer. Cornwell told HistoryExtra in 2018 that “The Last Kingdom series is going to end with a real historical event: the battle of Brunanburh in 937. The battle marked the beginning of England, so obviously had to be included in the series.”
The Last Kingdom season four airs on Netflix from Sunday 26 April.
Kev Lochun is BBC History Revealed‘s production editor