Seven Kings Must Die ending explained: what next for England?
The Netflix film wants to wrap a bow on both The Last Kingdom series and the establishment of England as a unified nation. But the real history tells us that the dream of England had only just begun. Plus: who were the real seven kings mentioned in the title?
After five seasons of The Last Kingdom and the finale film Seven Kings Must Die, the story of the formation of England through the eyes of Uhtred of Bebbanburg has drawn to close. But what can real history tell us about what happens next?
Seven Kings Must Die ending explained: what happens next?
The alliance of Scots, Vikings and Britons is shattered at the battle of Brunanburh, with the kings of Scotland, Strathclyde, Shetland, Orkney and Man all stumbling from the field as broken men, humbled by the loss of their heirs.
Only Anlaf has any fight left in him, though his exaltations that the alliance can weather this defeat falls on deaf ears. Realising his cause is lost, he asks Constantine for a ship to take him back to Ireland. The King of Scots turns, silently, and walks away.
Meanwhile in Bebbanburg, Uhtred pledges Northumbria to Æthelstan, who in turn names his lands ‘England’, making him King of the English. The dream of England seems secure, with Æthelstan – the film tells us in its closing moments – reigning for 15 years.
That is how Seven Kings Must Die ends. But as far as the real history goes, the dream of England was anything but secure.
Let’s start with Æthelstan’s reign: he did rule for 15 years, but in total; not 15 after the battle of Brunanburh in AD 937, which took place 13 years into his kingship.
Nor did he assume the title of King of the English after the battle. He came to the throne as King of the Anglo-Saxons in AD 924 and adopted the mantle of King of English in AD 927, after he had seized York and coerced the kings of Wales, Scotland and Strathclyde to accept his overlordship.
Just two years after Brunanburh, in AD 939, Æthelstan died at Gloucester and was succeeded by his half-brother Edmund. The upheaval was sufficient enough for the real Anlaf to return from Ireland, install himself as King of York and spread his influence across the entirety of the Danelaw, which he held until his own death in AD 941.
In an echo of Æthelstan’s own succession crisis with Ælfweard, ‘England’ was split once more in AD 955, following the deaths of King Edmund, in AD 946, and then his brother and successor King Eadred. As historian Ryan Lavelle notes, the new king Eadwig’s realm (ruled AD 955-59) shrank to “Wessex alone” in AD 957, when Mercia and Northumbria chose to support the claim of his brother, Edgar.
Wessex and Mercia only again had different kings, if only briefly. It was only Eadwig’s early death in AD 959, Lavelle suggests, that meant this fracturing of the realms was “hardly noticed from afar”.
Who are the seven kings in Seven Kings Must Die?
Seven Kings Must Die revolves around its titular prophecy, breathed into life by Finan’s wife Ingrith: “Seven kings must die, lord, seven kings and the woman you love.”
The ‘woman’ is Ingrith herself, but what about the kings? This should be straightforward, since seven kings are identified with numerals through the film. They are:
- Contantine II of Scotland
- Æthelstan of Wessex, Mercia and East Anglia
- Owain of Strathclyde
- Hywel of Wales
- An unnamed king of Orkney
- An unnamed king of Shetland
- An unnamed king of the Isle of Man
Yet these cannot be the kings referred to in the prophecy: not one of them dies at the battle of Brunanburh or in its aftermath. For answers, we can look to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which has this to say of the clash:
“Five young kings lay dead upon the battlefield, by swords sent to their final sleep; and likewise seven of Anlaf’s earls, and countless of his host.”
Seven Kings Must Die plays with this by killing off the sons, or as Finan observes “five kings who will never be crowned”. The heirs of Scotland, Strathclyde, Orkney, Shetland and Man all fall in battle. Somehow the death of Astrid – daughter of Irish king Anlaf, who was felled by an arrow – doesn’t seem to count.
That leaves two more: who were these kings who needed to die for the dream of England to live?
In the film, it is suggested Edward the Elder could be one of them; could the other be his son Ælfweard? Though Seven Kings Must Die represents his claim to the throne as a minor rebellion, there are hints in medieval manuscripts that he may have been an uncrowned king of Wessex.
Then there is Uhtred himself, who is more than once questioned about his desire to be King of Northumbria, as his ancestors were.
Though there was no Uhtred, son of Uhtred in line of Northumbrian rulers during Æthelstan’s rule, there was an Ealdred in Northumbria. He was one of the lords who swore to Æthelstan at Eamont Bridge in AD 927, and in doing so added Northumbria to the kingdom of England.
Does Uhtred die in Seven Kings Must Die?
The clue might be in the golden light Uhtred sees spilling from an open doorway in the film’s denouement. Within comes the ring of laughing voices and the song of feasting, as warriors crowd around long tables chock-full with meat and ale.
The presence of the warrior Steapa, Uhtred’s lover-turned-enemy Brida, and his second father Earl Ragnar the Fearless – all long dead – can mean only one thing: Uhtred is having a vision of Valhalla, the warrior afterlife of Norse mythology.
Destiny is all, but at the death of the film Uhtred’s own destiny is left purposely ambiguous. What Seven Kings Must Die does make explicit is that Bebbanburg is a real place – better known as Bamburgh Castle – and that you can still visit today. Find out what to see, and how it got the name of Bebbanburg.
Seven Kings Must Die is available to stream on Netflix now
- Seven Kings Must Die: how close to real history is it?
- The Last Kingdom: what's the real history and how historically accurate is it?
- The real Uhtred of Bebbanburg: the historical inspirations for The Last Kingdom’s hero
- Bernard Cornwell on The Last Kingdom’s finale
- Tom Holland on the life of Æthelstan, 'King of the English'
- If King Alfred was great, was Æthelstan even greater?
- Ælfweard and Æthelstan: were they rivals for the throne of Wessex?
- Who was Edward the Elder?
- Brunanburh: the forgotten fight that changed British history
- Michael Wood on the astonishing Æthelstan
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