Please note this article contains spoilers
We are in the middle of a 10-part series, the story unfolds in the ‘middle’ kingdom of Mercia, and a big battle has occurred in episode 4. In the world of long-form TV drama, it would be fair to expect a lull in proceedings. But there is much about episode 5 of The Last Kingdom which pushes us from the comforts of traditional mid-season territory.
Things hang in an uneasy balance in Aegelesburg (modern Aylesbury), where Aethelred (Toby Regbo), the lord and self-proclaimed king of Mercia, lies in a life-threatening state after the battle of Teotanhealh (Tettenhall). The Danes may have been defeated, and it appears that they aren’t a threat (at least for the moment), but there is a sense that a peace still has to be won. Will it be a peace for Mercia or for Wessex?
Aethelred’s right-hand man Eardwulf (Jamie Blackley) and his mistress, Eardwulf’s sister Eadith (Stefanie Martini), are given time to draw breath and plan their escape from Aethelred. Unable to remember much of what has happened, Aethelred is displaying some symptoms of a serious head injury. “Who in God’s name advised we go to East Anglia?” he asks, unaware that the one who advised him – who just a few hours earlier Aethelred had threatened to castrate at the earliest opportunity – is standing right beside his bed. It’s doubly ironic really, given that Aethelred’s name means “noble counsel” in Old English – a wordplay that would have been appropriate to an Anglo-Saxon audience. Noble counsel is exactly what Eardwulf (‘land-wolf’) has failed to provide. Eardwulf ought to take his chance to scarper but, much to his sister’s dismay, he remains an opportunist, seeing that he might act as a ‘peacemaker’ between the factions forming in the Mercian kingdom. A glint in his eye hints that it’s not for entirely altruistic motives.
The intrigue and tension builds up nicely. King Edward of Wessex (Timothy Innes), who has evidently been attending some assertive-training classes since making a late appearance at Teotanhealh (modern Tettenhall) in episode 4, arrives at Aegelesburg with an air of decisiveness and more than a hint of irritation with his father-in-law, Ealdorman Aethelhelm (Adrian Schiller). Edward is still needing to step out from the shadow of Alfred’s legacy, however, and he has more to learn. Afraid to be seen to step too far into Mercian affairs while Aethelred might yet recover from his wound, but reluctant to step away entirely, Edward is attempting to feel his way to a solution. His actions result in the imprisonment – or attempted capture – of three generations of the females of his family: Aelswith (Eliza Butterworth); Aethelflaed (Millie Brady); and her young daughter Aelfwynn (Helena Albright) – all in different places, and all through the ignoble counsel of Aethelhelm.
THE LAST KINGDOM SEASON 4 REVIEWS:
- The Last Kingdom S4 E1 review: will Alfred’s legacy come tumbling down?
- The Last Kingdom S4 E2 review: winds of change and dramatic father-son relations
- The Last Kingdom S4 E3 review: moments of introspection remind us of history’s “shared humanity”
- The Last Kingdom S4 E4 review: “Royal rage could be a terrible thing in the early Middle Ages”
- The Last Kingdom S4 E6 review: a mysterious medieval ‘Sickness’ leaves its mark
- The Last Kingdom S4 E7 review: a royal funeral, the abuse of power, and a little artistic licence
- The Last Kingdom S4 E8 review: a fiery opening paves the way for a new ruler of Mercia
- The Last Kingdom S4 E9 review: a tense penultimate episode sees the Saxon heart “ripped out”
- The Last Kingdom S4 E10 review: resettled pieces on the board allow drama to “catch up” with history
Although there is no evidence that this actually happened to these historical women during Aethelflaed’s lifetime, the confinement of royal and aristocratic women wasn’t unusual in early medieval Europe; where politics was based on kinship, women – young and old alike – had an important part to play and could often be treated as political resources. In The Last Kingdom Aethelhelm is foiled on all counts without any need for these women to be rescued by Uhtred, but it is the ealdorman’s rueful smile as he orders a royal guard to imprison Aelswith that really hits a chord. Does the king really want his own mother punished like this, Aethelhelm is asked. “It is what he wants… but cannot order directly”, Aethelhelm replies, expressing the startling universality of how power can be subverted by those in a ruler’s entourage who profess to make difficult decisions on behalf of that ruler.
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Elsewhere in Mercia, Uhtred (Alexander Dreymon) and Aethelflaed (Millie Brady) head west to Aethelflaed’s estate of Saltwic (a place associated with the historical Aethelflaed; we know it now as Droitwich). We meet Uhtred’s daughter Stiorra (Ruby Hartley) for the first time since appearing as a child in season 3. Now a young woman, she is there with Aethelflaed’s daughter Aelfwynn and Aethelstan, the young son of King Edward, who had been sent there for safe keeping by Aelswith (a twist on the historical version of Aethelstan’s upbringing).
Rather than raiding the drinks cabinet and messaging her friends to come over while she has the run of the place, Stiorra is evidently taking her responsibilities seriously, barricading the manor house against any Viking stragglers from the battle up the road at Teotanhealh. “Death came for mother, faster than she could ever know,” she later points out, referring to her memories of the death in childbirth of her mother, Gisela, in season 3 – there is a wise head on young shoulders here, and it’s a reminder that childhood in this period offered harsh lessons.
Stiorra and her charges will have to remain there a little longer, Uhtred tells her. It’s clear that further enforced isolation with two children isn’t something that she looks upon with relish, but when the threat of death comes to the estate – thanks to an unholy alliance of the interests of King Edward, Aethelhelm and Eardwulf – Stiorra’s steady presence, preparation and quick thinking is found to be more valuable than Uhtred’s more conventional attempt at save-the-day heroism.
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While it’s an episode which manages to ratchet up the tension without the clashing of swords, not everyone makes it through alive. We might not know the cause of death of the real-life Aethelred. Maybe he was too ill in 910 to have participated in the battle of Tettenhall, and it may have been through a process of the transition of authority that Aethelflaed herself took on her role as Lady of the Mercians. This isn’t exactly how either Bernard Cornwell’s original novels or The Last Kingdom plays it, and to me that seems fair enough. The sense of unease when no one is quite sure where power really lies is a theme which rewards exploration, and it works well in this context. We might be aware of Aethelflaed’s historical status as a powerful female leader in Mercia in the 910s, but the storyline inserts a cracking level of uncertainty – could she end up in a nunnery without the status afforded by marriage to her husband? Aethelred looks like he might recover, and even has time for us to sympathise with him (a bit) when expressing (limited) regret to Aethelflaed, but something is clearly going to happen – the storyline is too fast-paced for us to have to kick our heels till the calendar ticks over to 911, when Aethelred actually died.
The game changer is Eardwulf’s panicked dispatch of his lord, a literal twist in the story which seems to come out of nowhere and has to rank among the more gruesome episodes of the season, if not the series. With Eardwulf’s murderous actions witnessed only by Eadith; Aethelflaed confined; and a bunch of Wessex horsemen in pursuit of the young Aelfwynn (who is promised to Eardwulf as a child-bride in Edward’s attempt to ensure Mercian unity), Eardwulf is emerging by the end of the episode as the best bet for the new Lord of Mercia.
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).