The real Uhtred of Bebbanburg: the historical inspirations for The Last Kingdom’s hero
The Last Kingdom draws a great deal from history, but is the character of Uhtred of Bebbanburg among them? The formidable warrior of the TV series may be a fiction but, writes Professor Ryan Lavelle, he has parallels in real history – not least an 11th-century ealdorman named Uhtred, who fought the Vikings and married the daughter of King Æthelred II…
Born a Saxon and raised a Dane, “Uhtred, son of Uhtred” (so the show calls him) is a man of conflicting loyalties, bound by the many (often inadvisable) oaths he makes, and driven by a desire to regain his lost birth right – the Northumbrian coastal fortress of Bebbanburg. It’s a real place: today we know Bebbanburg better by its medieval name, Bamburgh Castle.
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Uhtred’s adventures in The Last Kingdom are set against the great events of the Viking Age. Through him, we’ve witnessed the bloody activities of the 9th-century Great Heathen Army, the defence of the kingdom of Wessex under Alfred the Great (who reigned from AD 871 to AD 899), and the political turbulence in the different kingdoms across England following Alfred’s death. We’ve seen the ascension of Edward the Elder in Wessex, the triumphs of Æthelflæd in Mercia, the failed rebellion of Alfred’s nephew, Æthelwold, and now, in Seven Kings Must Die, the rise of the man to fulfil Alfred's dream of England, Æthelstan
Though this fictional Uhtred moves deftly throughout these events, even in exile from Bebbanburg he remains linked to the great fortress, to Northumbria at large, and to the Vikings who settled in northern England. His interests sometimes lie with Wessex and Mercia, but Uhtred’s loyalties remain conflicted throughout the series, and it is often in these conflicts, including within Uhtred himself, that the heart of the drama lies.
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Is Uhtred of Bebbanburg real?
Sadly, there is no ‘Uhtred, son of Uhtred’ amongst the Northumbrian royalty or nobility in the early Middle Ages, but there was more than one Uhtred associated with Bamburgh who was important enough to be remembered in historical records.
One was the son of a certain Eadwulf, Lord of Bamburgh; this Uhtred was simply named in passing in an episode recorded in a Northumbrian work known as the History of St Cuthbert.
Intriguingly, he was referred to as the brother of a figure who was a ‘favourite’ of King Edward the Elder of Wessex (Alfred the Great’s son), who ruled from AD 899 to AD 924). This is not a million miles away from the events in The Last Kingdom, then, even if the fictional Uhtred probably would have edged away from being described as favoured by the southern king.
The second historical Uhtred, again linked with Bamburgh, is far more prominent in a range of sources: he was active during the Viking Age and his reputation suggests that he was held in high regard, at least in parts of Northumbria.
This Uhtred was not a contemporary of Alfred the Great and his descendants in the 9th and 10th centuries, but can be found in the early 11th century.
This was a time when the realisation of Alfred’s dream of a united England was threatening to unravel during the tribulations of the Viking attacks under the rule (some would say the misrule) of Æthelred the Unready (who reigned from AD 978 until 1013, and then again from 1014 to 1016).
With little guarantee of the loyalty of lords to their king and defences quickly crumbling in the face of massive Viking onslaughts, it is little wonder that individual successes could capture the imagination of contemporaries.
What did the real Uhtred do?
The real Uhtred of the 11th century is a fascinating figure. Manuscripts from the period show the name ‘Uhtred’ in the lists of witnesses to the charters of King Æthelred, the earliest of these being from 1009, recorded as a dux. Dux was a Latin word for someone with the regional governor office of ealdorman or, in Uhtred’s case, the title of earl (from the Scandinavian jarl).
As charters recorded those who came to the royal courts of the period, forming the ‘witan’ of the advisors of the king, this Uhtred was evidently a prominent person within the English kingdom – so prominent, indeed, that in the last years of his reign, King Æthelred gave him the hand of his daughter, Ælfgifu, in marriage.
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There is evidence of Earl Uhtred as a man of action. It exists in a description of a defence of the city-fortress of Durham against attacking Scots that probably took place in 1006, when Uhtred’s father (whose name was Waltheof, not Uhtred), remained in Bamburgh. When that battle was over, a particularly lurid source relates that Uhtred had the heads of the dead Scots displayed on poles around the walls of the city.
Though the account was written down some years after the battle occurred, such macabre displays of victory weren’t uncommon in early medieval warfare, and the episode could have reflected Uhtred’s new authority in the wake of a successful defence.
What was Uhtred’s relationship with Northumbria?
Uhtred probably earned recognition as the earl of the Northumbrians at this point, even though his father was still alive for a short time afterwards. Earl Uhtred’s lordship seemingly extended from the northern realm dominated by Bamburgh to the whole Northumbrian region – probably also including the former Viking kingdom of York, which formed the southern part of Northumbria.
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Despite being at the heart of the ‘Land of the English’, made famous as early as the 8th century by the ecclesiastical historian Bede, there was no guarantee that Northumbria would end up as part of the English kingdom that emerged in the early 10th century. But there is evidence of Anglo-Scottish hostilities, and the evidence of Uhtred’s marriage to Æthelred’s daughter suggests that under Uhtred, Northumbria was moving towards the orbit of an English kingdom.
Many Viking attacks on England at this time were visited upon the south, so it is likely that Uhtred’s activities were mainly focused upon countering Scottish pressure in the north of England. This may even have included leading a force against the Scots at Carham on the River Tweed in 1018, two years after the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports Uhtred’s death: historians disagree over which account to believe (in fact both might be correct), but less contentious is the suggestion that Uhtred’s dominance of York helped to maintain its place within an English kingdom at a time of great political stress.
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How does Uhtred of Bebbanburg die?
There is an air of pragmatism to Uhtred’s actions during the final years of Æthelred’s first period of rule. He is recorded by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as submitting to Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard in 1013, along with “all the Northumbrians” and the inhabitants of Lincolnshire.
It was this event that led to Sweyn’s brief kingship of England and Æthelred’s exile to Normandy. Like the fictional Uhtred of The Last Kingdom, the historical Uhtred’s position was determined by the need to balance out different interests in the face of changing political circumstances.
Sweyn’s rule did not last – he died in early 1014 – and Æthelred returned as king, but a political balancing act came into play again. This time, Uhtred joined forces with Æthelred’s son, Edmund Ironside, attacking areas around the West Midlands as a way of countering the notorious ealdorman Eadric Streona, who had sided with another Danish invader, Cnut (Sweyn Forkbeard’s son).
Cnut responded by ravaging Uhtred’s Northumbrian lands, forcing Uhtred to come to a truce, in which hostages were handed over. Whether Uhtred’s historical death came at the orders of Cnut shortly afterwards, as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has it, or some years later in the aftermath of the battle of Carham, there can be no doubt that one tradition of Uhtred’s death was straight out of the world of Norse saga.
As Uhtred came into Cnut’s presence under cover of a truce, the Danish king’s soldiers were hidden behind a curtain. Stepping out, they ambushed the Uhtred, slaughtering him, along with 40 of his men. The 12th-century tract De Obsessione Dunelmi appoints this act not to Cnut directly, but through “a powerful king's thegn named Thurbrand, known as Hold”.
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Who did Bernard Cornwell base Uhtred of Bebbanburg on?
There are clear parallels in the figure of a Northumbrian warrior, drawn into the various politics of different parts of Viking Age England.
Bernard Cornwell, the historical novelist behind The Last Kingdom books, has never claimed his Uhtred to be anything other than a work of fiction, but there remains a personal note that sounds across a millennium. When he first turned his hand to the Viking Age in The Last Kingdom, first published in 2004, Cornwell’s imagination was fired by the discovery the family name of his biological father, Oughtred, and the links that this gave him to Northumbria.
Cornwell may not be able to lay claim to a lost birth right in the form of Bebbanburg, but his sense of personal connections adds to a story that resounds through the ages.
Seven Kings Must Die is available to stream on Netflix now
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Ryan Lavelle is Professor of Early Medieval History at the University of Winchester, and historical advisor on the The Last Kingdom and Seven Kings Must Die. His books include Cnut: The North Sea King (part of the Penguin Monarchs series), which was released in paperback in November 2021.
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