Seven Kings Must Die: the real history behind the Last Kingdom movie
Uhtred of Bebbanburg may not have really existed in Anglo-Saxon England, but there is plenty of real history in Seven Kings Must Die, the feature-length finale to The Last Kingdom
Seven Kings Must Die is the culmination of the story that began in The Last Kingdom, spanning decades of real history. At its core is the struggle between Saxons and Danes in the 9th-and 10th-century when England was not one nation, but a series of independent kingdoms variously overrun or ravaged by Vikings.
What started as a simple revenge story – that of the dispossessed Uhtred of Bebbanburg reclaiming his ancestral home from an usurping uncle – swiftly became a history-adjacent Vikings versus Anglo-Saxons epic. Among the hero’s travels and deeds across five seasons, he found himself in the Kingdom of Wessex, where he encountered Alfred the Great, dreaming of creating a single nation – something that wouldn't be achieved until the reign of his grandson, Æthelstan. This final chapter is the story that Seven Kings Must Die tells.
Spoilers for Seven Kings Must Die follow. Not seen the film yet? Check our Seven Kings Must Die preview for spoiler-free hints about what real history can tell us and find out about the history of Bamburg Castle, the real Bebbanburg.
When is Seven Kings Must Die set?
The film begins in AD 924, with the death of Edward the Elder. The ensuing instability sets events in motion, creating both a succession crisis within the kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia, and precipitating the formation of an alliance between Scots, Vikings and Britons to challenge Saxon dominance over the British Isles.
For Uhtred, last seen contented as lord of Bebbanburg at the end of season 5, that means he must pick sides once more.
- What’s happened in The Last Kingdom so far? Catch up with our series recap and breakdown of the real history
Why is the film called Seven Kings Must Die?
The film’s title is an allusion to a prophecy that comes to dominate the minds of the Uhtred and his men in the wake of Edward’s death.
Readers of Bernard Cornwell’s book series may remember that those words have already appeared in print – in book six, Death of Kings. When Uhtred meets with the witch Aelfadell, she delivers this chilling portent:
“Seven kings will die, Uhtred of Bebbanburg, seven kings and the women you love. That is your fate. And Alfred’s son will not rule and Wessex will die and the Saxon will kill what he loves and the Danes will gain everything, and all will change and all will be the same as ever it was and ever will be.”
In the film, it falls to Finan’s wife Ingrith to deliver a much briefer version:
“Seven kings must die, lord, seven kings and the woman you love.”
Seven Kings Must Die plot: what is the real history?
The major event that kicks off Seven Kings Must Die is the death of Edward the Elder, which puts us in AD 924 – this is the year Edward is known to have died, while putting down a rebellion in Mercia.
We quickly discover the intrigues surrounding Ælfweard’s claim to the throne (a major arc in season 5) has not abated. With Edward dead and Æthelstan away from court, his half-brother is raising men to take what he sees as his birth right by force.
Under threat on imprisonment, Edward’s widow’s Eadgifu and her son Edmund (half-brother to both Æthelstan and Ælfwaerd) seek refuge with Uhtred at Bebbanburg.
He hatches a plot to seize Ælfweard before all the scheming ruptures in open warfare, prompting protestations from Eadgifu that perhaps Uhtred is a bit old for the task.
How old is Uhtred of Bebbanburg in Seven Kings Must Die?
It is a fair point. Actor Alexander Dreymon has played the role of Uhtred for the best part of a decade now, but he certainly has not been aging at the same rate as his character should have been. The first season of The Last Kingdom begins nearly 60 years before the events of Seven Kings Must Die, opening as it does in AD 866, the year that Vikings first seized control of York.
If the characters were to age in tandem with historical events, then the lord of Bebbanburg should be around 80 years old by the film’s conclusion.
Could an octogenarian Uhtred have even stood in a shield wall? “I doubt it,” author Bernard Cornwell told us in this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast.
“But as somebody reminded me before I wrote the book, Beowulf must be very close to that age when he finally fights the dragon. The Saxons had older heroes.”
Uhtred’s increasing decrepitude aside, he manages to convince Aelfweard to surrender without bloodshed – only for Æthelstan to murder his supplicant half-brother and massacre his followers.
It seems unlikely there a succession war in real history, seeing as the historical Aelfweard perished just 16 days after his father. What is notable, points out Ryan Lavelle, historical consultant for Seven Kings, is that Ælfweard was buried alongside Edward the Elder, and was “crowned with kingly badges”.
Could Aelfweard have been an unanointed king? “It is possible that Ælfweard, the second son, was seen by Edward as his successor in Wessex, despite the fact that Wessex was the kingdom of his father and his paternal line,” says Lavelle, noting that only Mercia may have been destined for Æthelstan.
“Perhaps in the days after Edward’s death in the summer of AD 924, the two sons were planning to come to some sort of agreement, but fate intervened.”
Was Æthelstan a tyrant?
‘Tyrant’ is the charge levied by Uhtred in the wake of Æthelstan’s heartless dispatching of Aelfweard, and it is just the first of the young king’s apparent transgressions.
Æthelstan is shown to have demanded monetary tributes and fealty from lesser kings (in the case of Hywel Dda of Wales, secured by taking his son hostage). Off-screen, Æthelstan seizes York, the city that we’re told held Uhtred as their rightful lord. As the film progresses, we see him burning villages in the Scottish Lowlands, severing the truce made by his father. Later, he exiles Uhtred for a perceived act of treachery.
Certainly, some of these events happened: in AD 927, Æthelstan did conquer York, though it was held by Viking warriors rather than an erstwhile friend. That same year he summoned the lesser kings of the British Isles to a grand assembly at Eamont Bridge, near Penrith, and forced them to submit to him. He also invaded Scotland in AD 934, though it seems the Scots were the first to break that peace.
“He did claim on his coins and in his charters to be Rex totius Britanniae, the King of All Britain. In reality, he is only king of the English south of the Humber,” says Æthelstan biographer Michael Wood. “He is overlord of everywhere else, and he only maintains his overlordship by force.”
Being ruler of all Britain, Wood notes, was as such an imperialist project. “You have to pay him tribute. You have to come down to the south and attend his court on the big festivals and give your allegiance to him. You have to give your son his hostage if you've done anything wrong. It's the coercive arrangements of an overlord.”
Æthelstan’s actions in Seven Kings are explained in a much simpler way: in the film, he is manipulated by his advisor, Ingilmundr.
Who is Ingilmundr?
“Born a Dane and a raised a Saxon,” Ingilmundr quips to Uhtred, a clumsily presented foil both to our hero and his motivations: where Uhtred seeks to unite the peoples of Britain, Ingilmundr is working to sow discord.
He appears to be loosely based a real Viking warlord of the same name, who appears in the historical record in the early 10th century and, like his Seven Kings counterpart, was the leader of a settlement in the Wirral.
But there’s no indication that Ingilmundr and Æthelstan ever met; he may even have died before Æthelstan was born, as there is some speculation that Ingilmundr is the same person as ‘Agmund’ in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, who was slain during the battle of Tettenhall in AD 910/11.
Where do the seven kings fit in?
Simmering in the shadows amidst these domestic dramas is the threat of the ‘wolf warriors’ led by Viking king Anlaf, and it is on his behalf that Ingilmundr schemes. Anlaf is a real historical figure, a Viking king of Dublin also known as Olaf Guthfrithson. He was believed to be a member of the Uí Ímair, a dynasty that ruled much of the Irish sea region and was theorised to be descended from Ivar the Boneless.
In Seven Kings, Anlaf uses Æthelstan’s aggression (all spurred on by Ingilmundr) as a pretext to unite kings Constantine II of Scotland, Owain of Strathclyde (also known in real history as Owain ap Dyfnwal) and three unnamed rulers of Shetland, Orkney and Man into an alliance against the Saxons. He even tries to tempt Uhtred to join them as ‘King of Northumbria’.
As in the film, the historical Æthelstan appears to have been late to realise the scale of the alliance ranged against him ahead of the battle of Brunanburh in AD 937, the climatic clash between his army and this coalition of Norse-Irish, Scots and Strathclyde Welsh.
“Æthelstan had acted at first as though frozen by the sheer horror of it,” writes historian Tom Holland. “As harvests in the north of his kingdom were put to the torch and peasants fled before the onslaught, so the Rex totius Britanniae had seemed to shrink from acting.”
What really happened at the battle of Brunanburh?
Quite how the real Æthelstan prevailed when he met Anlaf’s armies at the battle of Brunanburh is lost to time, though the Annals of Ulster record that the battle was “immense, lamentable and horrible, desperately fought”.
We’re not even sure where the fighting took place; the battlefield has been lost. Seven Kings Must Die chooses to place it in the Wirral, one of frontrunners in more than 30 sites that have been suggested, at a place called Bromborough – which has the same name, ‘Bruna’s fort’.
Why didn’t Æthelstan marry?
When, in the Seven Kings’ final scenes, Uhtred cedes his lands to Æthelstan, it is on the condition that the king promises never to marry, allowing his half-brother Edmund to succeed unchallenged (which is exactly what happens in real history just two years later, in AD 939).
It’s a way of rationalising another narrative decision for which there is no historical basis, but explains how Ingilmundr is able to manipulate Æthelstan through his faith: Aethelstan is portrayed as a homosexual man, with Ingilmundr as his lover.
The reason why Æthelstan never married is something we can only guess at. As historian Sarah Foot writes in her Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry of Æthelstan, the king had four brothers and may have worried over his own succession, or was perhaps influenced by his own faith or the rumours of his illegitimacy. Certainly, as Michael Wood notes, Æthelstan’s accession to his father’s thrones had not been smooth, even facing “opposition within the royal house”.
This speaks to a wider issue: there is a lack of narrative sources for Æthelstan’s reign.
“The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle offers the sketchiest narrative of events in his reign,” writes Foot in a piece examining how Æthelstan measures up to Alfred the Great. “There is no surviving biography, nor any writing attributed to his own authorship. Creating a picture of him as a man, as well as a royal figurehead, involves piecing together information from a disparate range of sources – and a good deal of imaginative licence.”
Seven Kings Must Die is available to stream on Netflix now
- Seven Kings Must Die ending explained: who are the seven kings?
- 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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