Please note this article contains spoilers
When a man steps out to relieve himself of last night’s ale in The Last Kingdom, there’s usually trouble afoot. It’s pretty clear that the unfortunate Welsh peasant waking up in the early morning is not long for this world as a group of Danes, led by the heavily pregnant Brida (Emily Cox), stalks his village. His panicked alarm is the cue for them to visit death and destruction upon a quiet corner of west Wales. It’s quick and violent, and in some ways is a return to a form of ‘old school’ Viking hit-and-run raiding that we haven’t seen much of in season 4 (with good reason – by the 10th century, Vikings had more settled interests).
Brida is moving to new levels of brutality as a result of her dehumanising treatment by King Hywel’s brother, on whom she exacts a terrible revenge worthy of a Viking saga.
Hywel (Steffan Rhodri), remembered in Wales as ‘Dda’ (‘the good’) is phlegmatic and concerned about his subjects when he sees the aftermath of the attack. But the affrontery of the seizure of his fortress by newcomer Sigtryggr (Eysteinn Sigurdarson) drives him to an overconfident night attack, which is met with an irresistible cinematic classic: a bombardment of flaming arrows, sent by disciplined ranks of Sigtryggr’s Danes. Though there is little evidence of such arrows being used much in medieval land battles – let alone by Vikings – it is quite a sight, and the production team has avoided the temptation to have warriors bursting into flames as they are hit. The arrows land in pits containing flammable liquid and form a deadly ring of fire in which the hapless warriors are caught and slaughtered. It’s far-fetched, of course, but somehow Sigtryggr gets away with it, reinforcing the sense that this is a new disciplined force that has appeared in Britain. Sigtryggr cuts an awesome Scandi-metal figure as he strides through the night-time flames to dispatch his helpless enemies.
In Mercia, the violence is not so visceral, but the politics are still fraught with danger. Having given in to the cajoling of King Edward of Wessex (Timothy Innes) to agree to become lord of Mercia, Uhtred (Alexander Dreymon) is now faced with censure from his erstwhile lover Aethelflaed (Millie Brady). She is dismayed that Uhtred would even consider this, given that he would be beholden to Edward and Wessex. Highlighting an issue that was an actual concern in early 10th-century England, she argues that Mercia needs to be independent from Wessex in order for any resulting alliance to be one of equals.
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If Uhtred becoming lord of Mercia is surprising enough, the episode holds another surprise: his baptism as a Christian. “I have already been baptised – twice,” Uhtred objects to Father Pyrlig. Then why should it matter again? While Christian doctrine might point out the theological problems with receiving baptism more than once, Young Uhtred (Finn Elliot) is concerned about his father’s motivation. He has a point: Uhtred is following in the footsteps of ninth-century Danes who were mocked by a Frankish writer for accepting baptism many times. (One early medieval story involves a Danish chieftain who complained about the quality of the baptism gown presented to him by the emperor Charlemagne. It had been a much better one the last time he was baptised, he said, and he only put up with baptism this time round because he had expected more of the same.) Uhtred is evidently not bothered about his splendid white baptismal robe, as he is happy to do without it entirely when it comes to the point of full body immersion.
Uhtred may not be mocking Christianity as his son originally feared, but the motivation for his pragmatism is clear. Suitably witnessed as at least a nominal Christian, Uhtred is presented to the Mercian witan as a suitable lord and he is accepted as such. But, poker-faced Uhtred has a trick up his sleeve. In a deft action, he relinquishes the throne in favour of Aethelflaed. Cue plenty of consternation and gasps of outrage from those in the room, not least from King Edward, who has muscled into the witan [council].
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The rule of Aethelflaed begins
The ensuing political intrigue is a good way of letting a drama grow in the cracks between the limited historical evidence for the circumstances of Aethelflaed’s accession to power in Mercia. The witan argues about the acceptability of a female ruler in terms that highlight typical reservations of powerful men accepting female authority, one fear being that if Aethelflaed marries again, the witan loses power. But a memory of historical precedent is invoked. “Offa’s widow ruled Mercia for many years and did it well,” says one ealdorman, Ludeca (Richard Dillane). He exaggerates – Offa’s wife, Cynethryth, outlasted her husband only by a matter of months, but did have authority in her own right and is the only Anglo-Saxon queen who is known to have minted her own coins. So even if she isn’t quite name-checked (there are enough complicated names there after all!) she’s an appropriate figure to mention in the light of female authority in Mercia.
As the witan buckles down to give their allegiance to the new Lady of Mercia, her confidante Aldhelm (James Northcote) speaks to Uhtred. His words are softly spoken, but as ever he hits the mark: “Your reign was brief, Lord Uhtred, but in that time you served Mercia well.” Indeed.
Edward, however, has one last roll of the dice in Mercian politics. Having lost face and seeing his sister’s professions of independence as a potential threat, he orders his troops to take up around the town. A military coup is in the offing. The subsequent standoff is broken by Edward and Aethelflaed’s mother, Aelswith (Eliza Butterworth), and by Uhtred. The latter arrives with a ragtag fyrd [militia] who have followed Uhtred out of loyalty to Aethelflaed. Aelswith, however, appeals to Edward’s family loyalty.
Uhtred’s action is dramatic – even if it is doubtful whether the numerous pitchforks in the hands of this “great fyrd” would really be that effective – although I can’t help but feel that it is Aelswith who has been of the most value, working quietly but persuasively behind the scenes. Indeed, although Aelswith’s historical predecessor was actually long dead by the time Aetheflaed became an independent ruler in 911, the character of Aelswith touches on a historical nerve. If the two siblings were really able to work cooperatively during the 910s, it was likely that the sense of familial identity helped to coordinate their historical actions.
In The Last Kingdom, the rapprochement between the siblings allows Aethelflaed to embark on her own adventures to the north of England. We hear that York (called by its Old English name of Eoferwic) is vulnerable, and Aethelflaed is well-placed to head there, something that she actually did some years after 911, in 918. But what is a few years in a drama as big as this? We get the sense that Aethelflaed’s story is moving out from that of Uhtred, who ends the episode with the task of travelling south with the Lady Aelswith and her grandson Aethelstan.
The pace seems to be moving to closure: Aethelstan’s existence can be recognised by King Edward now that his interfering father-in-law Aethelhelm has gone to Winchester, while the regretful sense of loss, of unrequited love – of both Aethelflaed and Uhtred – hangs heavy in the air now that she is pledged to marry and remain chaste for the sake of Mercia. Uhtred, naturally, pledges his word to serve Aethelflaed, should she need him. However, Eadith (Stefanie Martini), who had been stepping up to the role of caring for Aelfwynn, finds herself banished by Aetheflaed. The Lady of Mercia is regretful, but behind this is an indication that a hard political decision has been taken.
All the signs are there, then, of loose ends being tied up. But we are not quite there yet. The Saxons have been distracted with Mercian politics and have failed to notice the impact of Sigtryggr and his band in Wales. When Brida returns from east of Offa’s Dyke, having caught and questioned the fugitive Eardwulf (Jamie Blackley), the message is clear. Wessex has been left unprotected once again and the Saxons had better watch out.
Ryan Lavelle is a professor in early medieval history at the University of Winchester and a historical consultant on The Last Kingdom. An internationally-recognised expert in Anglo-Saxon Winchester and King Alfred, he is the author of the award-winning book Alfred’s Wars: Sources and Interpretations of Anglo-Saxon Warfare in the Viking Age (Woodbridge: Boydell 2010).
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