Please note this article contains spoilers
Just when you thought it was safe to go back into Winchester, the drama of The Last Kingdom steps up once again in season 4’s penultimate episode as Sigtryggr’s sneaky Vikings catch the city napping. While Mercia’s new ruler Aethelflaed (Millie Brady) is feted in Aegelesburg (modern Aylesbury) as something akin to a new saviour before heading off on a campaign to Eoferwic (York), the odious Ealdorman Aethelhelm (Adrian Schiller) enjoys the early morning peace of Winchester’s royal palace, plucking a few nose-hairs by way of an old Roman mirror. His men barely know what has hit them. Evidently the good folk of Winchester are rather good at gawping at arrows and running down narrow streets in the wrong direction. Hardly surprisingly, it’s carnage.
Those looking in accounts of the reign of King Edward of Wessex for evidence of an early 10th-century Viking attack on Winchester will search in vain. This is a moment where the story hooks back to a familiar location, a trick that worked so successfully with a depiction of an attack on Winchester in the first season of The Last Kingdom. In season 1, Winchester stood in for the small Wiltshire town of Chippenham. In Bernard Cornwell’s books (upon which The Last Kingdom is based) and accounts of Aethelflaed’s reign in Mercia, a siege took place further north, in Chester (‘Ceaster’). Still, shifting the action south allows the impact of the attack to be felt. “We have ripped out the Saxon heart,” declares Brida (Emily Cox), and the actions that she orders are intended to humiliate the kingdom of Wessex. There is some historical justification for what happens. Attacks on the city and its territory were significant in the ninth and 11th centuries (albeit resolved by negotiation in 11th-century cases), so as with the epidemic in earlier episodes this season, what occurs is a plausible version of contemporary events and themes, even if they didn’t actually take place in the early 10th century.
In the meantime, Uhtred (Alexander Dreymon) and his companions have the dubious privilege of escorting Aelswith (Eliza Butterworth) south to her estate in Wiltshire, where she is to care for the young prince, Aethelstan (Caspar Griffiths), newly accepted back into the royal family. For all her significance in bringing the royal family together, Aelswith is not proving easy company. Under these circumstances it is perhaps forgivable that the heroes fail to do much about the lugubrious ambush set by the world’s laziest Viking, Haesten (Jeppe Beck Laursen), who sends Aelswith, Stiorra and Aethelstan as captives to Winchester, the younger of the group assumed by Haesten to be servants or slaves. Now Haesten can finally dispose of Uhtred and his gang. They are trussed and left to a slow death by inverted hanging from the nearest tree.
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Keen to get back to ingratiate himself with Sigtryggr at Winchester, Haesten makes the classic Bond-villain mistake of leaving the scene, with the ‘Dark Age David Blaines’ watched over by just two guards, who have orders to slit the heroes’ throats if they take too long to die. Unfortunately for the guards, they are unaware that Eadith (Stefanie Martini) has been off gathering firewood…
In Winchester, now displaying Viking war banners on its ramparts, the captives are holed up with Alfred’s tomb, replete with effigy, seen early in the season. The dangers are clear, heightened by threats within. Aethelhelm – the grandfather of the young prince Aelfweard – twigs that Aethelstan is not just a servant. The stakes are high.
Gazing on Alfred’s effigy, Aelswith speaks to the boy prince Aethelstan about their shared history in a moment that looks back to Alfred, and forward to an imagined reign of Aethelstan – and has more than a hint of any manner of futures of an English kingdom. It’s quite a speech, delivered in an understated but powerful manner, which stood as a reminder to me of the importance of medieval women as keepers of familial memory. “Our sense of history is who we are,” Aelswith observes. “It is how God separated us from all the animals.” Now it becomes easier to appreciate why Aelswith, a character who really ought to be dead by this point in the 10th century, is depicted in Winchester, a place that wasn’t actually captured by Vikings at this time, gazing on an imagined effigy of Alfred. Such imagination can tell us much about the real history itself.
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Aelswith may be striding the moral high ground but Eardwulf (Jamie Blackley), fuelled by ale, is at a new low as the archetypal traitor wracked by conscience. Stiorra (Ruby Hartley) has been recognised as Uhtred’s daughter and taken from the group of royal captives to the royal library, and she becomes a target of Eardwulf’s self-pitying aggression in a moment full of tension. Sigtryggr (Eysteinn Sigurdarson) appears something of a kindred spirit to Stiorra and arrives in time to save her. He also learns of the manner of the dispatch of Eardwulf’s lord, Aethelred. In a moment worthy of Viking saga, Sigtryggr makes sure Eardwulf has betrayed his lord for the last time. His sister Eadith, who has sneaked into the city on behalf of Uhtred, cries out with anguish when it is clear that Eardwulf’s end is nigh. He sees her in the crowd and there is a poetic irony that his last act is to save his sister. Sigtryggr, however, has created a rift with Brida with his speech. His sense of a measured-but-efficient type of Viking conquest does not go down well with her, as it disrespects the Vikings before him who have perished.
Things have evidently changed, though. Having reached the outside of the city following a rather impressive long-distance run, Uhtred and his companions are stuck there. It is telling of Uhtred’s predicament that he relies on Eadith to enter the city while he himself remains beyond its walls. The failure to recapture Bebbanburg in episode 2 is evidently weighing heaving on Uhtred’s mind. He can only watch helplessly as King Edward (Timothy Innes) arrives unexpectedly, launching a rather ineffectual cavalry charge against the closing gates of the city – with predictable results. With no way of replicating the sudden success with which Sigtrggyr took the city in the first place, the siege is on.
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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