The Last Kingdom S4 E4 review: “Royal rage could be a terrible thing in the early Middle Ages”

Medieval historian and historical consultant on The Last Kingdom Ryan Lavelle reviews the fourth episode of season 4 – in which there’s no holding back a tide of anger…

Magnus Bruun as Cnut in 'The Last Kingdom' season 4

Please note this article contains spoilers

There are some serious anger issues on show in episode 4 of the Viking Age drama The Last Kingdom. At court in Winchester, King Edward (Timothy Innes) is annoyed that his mother, Aelswith (Eliza Butterworth) has gone behind his back in despatching amiable everyman Father Pyrlig (Cavan Clerkin) to the Welsh kingdom of Deheubarth for help in a now-inevitable battle. Royal anger could be a terrible thing in the early Middle Ages, but while Edward’s harsh words to his mother and, later, sister might make Christmas dinners an uncomfortable business for years to come, Lord Aethelred of Mercia (Toby Regbo) is seriously riled by his right-hand man, Eardwulf (Jamie Blackley), who had advised him – on very flawed intelligence – to go East Anglia three episodes ago, meaning that Mercia had been left open to Viking attack.

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Now, Aethelred only becomes aware of it at the same time as he learns that his wife, Aethelflaed (Millie Brady), is looking to become the saviour of the Mercians. The humiliation! Eardwulf might be able to redeem himself in leading the Mercian army but Aethelred’s an unforgiving sort, promising to castrate Eardwulf for his trouble, and it seems no idle threat. What patience Aethelred had is fast running out. It had taken two seasons for him to violently lose it with Eardwulf’s predecessor.

The biggest display of anger comes from a Viking character. Cnut (Magnus Bruun) learns – so he thinks – of the death of one of his sons, taken as collateral by Uhtred (Alexander Dreymon) in the previous episode. The end of the last episode had seen Viking horsemen lining up outside the devasted Mercian settlement of Aegelesburg (Aylesbury). In this episode they make their presence known, demanding that Lady Aethelflaed give herself up. Uhtred performs a rather macabre sleight of hand during a grim standoff, and sends the hapless Vikings on their way, back to Cnut… let’s just say that in The Last Kingdom it’s best to deliver bad news at a suitable distance.

Cnut’s anger about his dead son provides more than a standard ‘you have failed me’ TV trope. Cnut’s partner Brida (Emily Cox) cautions the need to hold back from turning anger into a strategic mistake, a historical lesson that Cnut would have been well advised to act on. Historically, Viking armies tried to avoid battle. But there’s no holding back a tide of anger: “It does not matter where we fight,” Cnut shouts, throwing out his arms expansively, “we have a thousand warriors!”

Emily Cox as Brida in The Last Kingdom season 4
Emily Cox as Brida. (Photographer Adrienn Szabo | Copyright Carnival Film & Television Limited)

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There are plenty of debates about the sizes of armies in the early Middle Ages, but it becomes evident as battle draws closer that this is indeed a numbers game, and naturally Cnut’s angry hubris looks at first like it is justified. When Aethelflaed and Uhtred arrive at Teotanhealh (Tettenhall)Tettenhall, where Aethelflaed had called an assembly of the armies (the fyrds), they don’t have many warriors between them. Even when the Welsh warriors of Deheubarth emerge from the forest, the combined force remains outnumbered. Of course, Uhtred is able to pull a trick from his sleeve which evens up the odds before the Mercians and, finally, King Edward and his West Saxons are able to turn the tide of battle.

What happened at the battle of Tettenhall?

What is known of the historical battle of Tettenhall (910) is sketchy; indeed, it is uncertain as to whether Aethelred even took part in the battle. Though the historical sense of encountering a raiding Viking army as it made its way through Mercia is there sure enough, The Last Kingdom’s depiction of the battle takes opportunity to establish its own narrative. The details of Uhtred’s stratagem employed in the battle are similar to an episode in the late stages of the 1066 battle of Hastings (the lesson: horses are useful, but if you decide to do a cavalry charge, know your ground!). It is this sort of thing that is needed – as Bernard Cornwell manages so well in the books which inspire this series – to add drama to what was often a series of very bloody slogs, probably indistinguishable to all but military buffs from any other bloody slog during the early Middle Ages.

Want to read more reviews of season 4 and know even more about the real events from history that inspired the drama? Read more from the experts at our curated page on The Last Kingdom

Magnus Bruun as Cnut in 'The Last Kingdom' season 4

That said, the episode conveys the slog of battle very effectively, and indeed graphically – Edward’s champion warrior Steapa (Adrian Bouchet) is violently despatched and at the end of the episode a stretchered Aethelred, suffering from a serious head wound, looks like he’s not long for this world either (it would evidently have been a crime to imprison hair like Aethelred’s into a sweaty helmet!). While The Last Kingdom’s depiction of Teotanhealh might be most memorable for the visceral violence, the quiet recitation of a verse from the Book of Psalms by Finan (Mark Rowley) in the face of oncoming horses is as cinematic an evocation of calm faith before the storm as we might hope for.

And as with so many of The Last Kingdom’s battle scenes, although the pace slows with the final stages and aftermath of a battle, these scenes can be as dramatic as the battle itself. Uhtred’s encounter with Cnut results in Brida’s discovery of Cnut’s role in the death of her former lover (and Uhtred’s adoptive brother), Ragnar, which had occurred during Season 3. Brida, true to the expectations of Viking saga, takes her violent revenge (adding an extra level to the story, she’s pregnant with Cnut’s child). But she is not able to escape capture by a band of Welsh warriors heading victoriously from the battlefield. The sense of Brida’s abject humiliation at being enslaved bites deeply at the relationship between Brida and her former lover, Uhtred, whom she begs, fruitlessly, to kill her.

The story of early medieval Britain was more than an English one

The appearance of Welsh warriors on the battlefield is a historical imagining on this particular occasion, but Welsh military service for Anglo-Saxon armies wasn’t unknown at this time. When we encounter this new group at the start of the episode, the dialogue, the finery and the sense of general antipathy toward ‘the Saxons’ add an extra but important element to the story. King Hywel Dda (‘the Good’), historically ruled from around 903 to 949 the kingdom of Deheubarth (‘the South Part’) and dominated much of Wales in the first half of the 10th century, so it is good to see Steffan Rhodri’s depiction of a confident king in a finely decorated hall and on the battlefield. That Hywel demands the all-important spoils of battle taints Edward’s sense of victory at the end of the episode, but the Welsh king serves as a reminder that the story of early medieval Britain was more than an English one.

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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).

Read more about The Last Kingdom here.