Please note this article contains spoilers
The king is dead. Long live the new king! It’s a tough call to start a new TV season on Britain’s Viking age with two of your main characters dead. Our fictional hero Uhtred, “half Saxon, half Dane”, might still be alive and brooding, but two of the popular historical figures, King Alfred the Great and his rebellious nephew Aethelwold, were killed off pretty much right on historical cue, at the end of season 3.
What does Alfred’s death mean for Anglo-Saxon England?
The theme of uncertainty – the question of whether King Alfred’s legacy will all come tumbling down – hangs heavy in the air. The Last Kingdom season 4 doesn’t tiptoe around this problem, but plays to it. The palpable absence of David Dawson, who portrayed Alfred so well in the first three seasons, is made real by a memorial of the dead king in a Winchester church. This effigy is imagined rather than based on a real 10th-century object, and indeed a fashion of figurative memorials emerged more than two centuries later, but the simple tonal colouring of the decoration, resembling contemporary Anglo-Saxon painted sculpture, conveys the right feel. As with the real historical King Alfred, The Last Kingdom’s Alfred had died with the kingdom of Wessex in relative security and Mercia under some subordination, but a Viking threat remained and the dream of holding onto a larger English kingdom lay just beyond the horizon.
Alfred’s successor, Edward (899–924), played by Timothy Innes, looks every inch like he is feeling the pressure, trying both to live up to his father and to forge a path for the kingdom. Because the TV drama can move beyond the first-person narrative of Bernard Cornwell’s books (on which the series is based), we are able to dwell on such things as the tensions between Edward and his mother, Aelswith (the historical Ealhswith). By the law of strict historical accuracy this character ought to be lying alongside her husband by now, but for the moment at least, she remains an awesome presence at court, thanks to her portrayal by Eliza Butterworth. Aelswith cuts a strong female lead, establishing that court matters are more than petty squabbles but have implications for the future of a kingdom – her rivalry with Edward’s second wife, Aelfflaed (or Ælfflæd), over the royal title relates to an issue of real concern in early medieval queenship.
THE LAST KINGDOM SEASON 4 REVIEWS:
However, the story ranges wider than Winchester and Wessex; for a long-form TV drama based on the story of a Northumbrian nobleman, Uhtred (Alexander Dreymon) deprived of his birthright, we are reminded not to forget the coastal region of Bamburgh – Bebbanburg – where it began. The season propels us into a dramatic opener, with a raid not by Vikings but by Scottish warriors on the Northumbrian fortress held by Uhtred’s uncle Aelfric. The Scots are wild and woolly; the unrightful lord Aelfric (Joseph Millson) is grim and merciless, but he’s at the limits of his power.
‘The Last Kingdom’ season 4 episode 1: Ewan Mitchell as Osferth, Mark Rowley as Finan and Aenas Fedaravicius as Sihtric. Uhtred seeks help from his loyal gang in preparation for a new battle, to challenge his Uncle Aelfric and infiltrate the ancestral home he has long-dreamed of reclaiming. (Photographer Adrienn Szabo | Copyright Carnival Film & Television Limited)
Is this historical? Yes and no. Northern Northumbria was in a frontier zone contested by an emerging Scottish kingdom and raiding was probably frequent enough, though the events portrayed here are as much a nod to the historical lord of Bamburgh. Uhtred, after whom Bernard Cornwell named his protagonist and who fought against Scots in the 11th rather than 10th century, and semi-independent lords, were often at the limits of their power in this period.
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News of the weakness of the fictional Bebbanburg is received gleefully by our hero Uhtred, coasting in his Wessex estate, though his illicit relationship with the Lady of the Mercians, Aethelflaed (Millie Brady) means that he also has other things on his mind. And Aethelflaed’s faithful servant, Aldhelm (James Northcote), is deeply concerned about his former master Ealdorman Aethelred of Mercia (Toby Regbo) finding out about the affair.
Aethelred, chasing his own adulterous affairs, is played as a pretty despicable character – a portrayal for which there is no historical evidence, but it certainly stops him being boring. “He makes his own coin,” the Viking Haesten (Jeppe Beck Laursen) drily observes, holding up a coin which declare Aethelred ‘King of the Mercians’. “How ambitious.” We may never be able to prove that the historical Aethelred actually made his own royal coins – presumably a Viking warlord growing fat on the profits of trade would be able to recognise different types of coin – but the sentiment is hardly insignificant. Titles mattered, and they certainly matter in The Last Kingdom’s depiction of the Viking Age.
Listen to renowned historical novelist Bernard Cornwell talk about his books that inspired The Last Kingdom, and about his writing career more broadly:
The fictional Aethelred’s interests reach up to Bamburgh where precious relics of St Oswald actually did reside, and to East Anglia, where the Viking army led by Cnut (Magnus Bruun) and Brida (Emily Cox) remains twitchy. In a sleight of hand, these Vikings are able to dupe Aethelred into thinking that they have left for Ireland, but their absence in turn leaves the Viking settlers of East Anglia (now Anglo-Scandinavians?) to get slaughtered by marauding Mercians.
The fog of war indeed! There’s a lot going on in an episode which lays a trail of characterisation and weaves fictional events and people with the historical flow of the early 10th century. Uhtred may be heading to his destiny but the episode works best when the characters are given room to breathe, reminding us that what remains from the past was created by living, breathing people, even if a few have had to be invented along the way. For that reason, I loved the image of Father Beocca (Ian Hart) as a priest in the precincts of Winchester’s Nunnaminster, quietly living out his days writing The Life of St Cuthbert. He gives us as good an explanation as any as to why a vision of King Alfred might appear in one version of the saint’s life and miracles.
Ryan Lavelle is a professor in early medieval history at the University of Winchester and 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).