Please note this article contains spoilers
The town of Aegelesburg (Aylesbury) is in lockdown with ‘The Sickness’ raging across the Mercian countryside, but apparently things still have to be done right. Episode 7 of the Viking Age-drama begins with an impressive evocation of the funeral of Aethelred, the Lord of Mercia. Having died from a battle injury and foul murder, his body lies in state waiting for the events of the previous episode to unfold. It’s a grand start to episode 7. Throughout this season of The Last Kingdom Aethelred had taken the opportunity since Alfred’s death to begin stepping up to a royal title (and there is some evidence that the real Aethelred moved in the same direction). But he hadn’t been able to gain universal recognition as a king. In death as in life, this attempt at projecting kingliness continues.
The funeral scene evokes the portrayal of the best-known Anglo-Saxon royal funeral: that of the last direct descendent of Alfred’s line, Edward the Confessor, whose 1066 funeral is depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry. In The Last Kingdom the banners, the processional cross, the lines of priests and soldiers, and sumptuous coffin carried on a bier strike the right note as the funeral wends its way through the streets of Aegelesburg. However, not everyone agrees. The Mercian people are tired and hungry, and understandably frightened of ‘The Sickness’, and so there is a fair bit of hostility to Aethelred now that he is dead. Insults are directed at the coffin and, although no riot ensues, dignity dissolves as the mourners themselves quickly break off to plot their next moves.
Under cover of the funeral, our hero Uhtred (Alexander Dreymon) and most of his companions sneak into the town, naughtily breaking lockdown courtesy of Father Pyrlig (Cavan Clerkin) – they’re not planning some commando raid, but Uhtred is needed in the serious politics which are afoot. The Mercian succession is still in question and news reaches Aegelesburg of the Mercian Eardwulf’s flight and his responsibility for the death of Aethelred. Two factions among Mercia’s ealdormen argue it out in a meeting of the witan [council].
While there are obvious nods to modern democracy, the witan is not overplayed as some ancient ancestor of the Westminster parliament. There is discussion, there’s shouting, and there are moments when persuasive speech is needed, but decisions are about consensus and authority rather than a vote. King Edward of Wessex (Timothy Innes) asserts his right to sit in the Mercian witan. His influence on proceedings is not appreciated, but the presence of a powerful neighbour is certainly felt. Is the young king learning? Later, one of the ealdormen, Burgred (Dorian Lough), overreaches himself, but Edward, with the air of one who is beginning to feel comfortable in the mantle of kingship, points out that the ealdorman’s son has been taken to Wessex “for religious instruction”. It is a sneaky bit of hostage-taking which is very much in line with the way that medieval rulers could ensure good behaviour.
THE LAST KINGDOM SEASON 4 REVIEWS:
But Edward isn’t getting everything his own way. His sister Aethelflaed (Millie Brady), widow of Lord Aethelred, is on the run, and her daughter Aelfwynn (Helena Albright) is sick with fever and in hiding. The trouble for Edward is that Uhtred knows where Aelfwynn is, and he isn’t telling.
Safe for the moment in a hut in the Mercian countryside, a true cottage hospital is run for Aelfwynn by Eadith (Stefanie Martini) and Osferth (Ewan Mitchell, playing a historical character who may really have been Alfred’s illegitimate son). They give us a lesson about the pros and cons of an early medieval treatment for Aelfwynn, who may or may not be suffering from the contagion that is ravaging the land (on balance, it is probably some other sickness). Uhtred, meanwhile, is taken by royal guards to a cell to get the truth from him.
The beating is grim and wince-inducing; stereotypes of medieval torture are fortunately avoided, but the notion that a ruler’s right-hand man – in this case his father-in-law, Aethelhelm (Adrian Schiller) – might take the king’s order to “find out” to a violent extreme is very close to the bone in more ways than one. Yet again The Last Kingdom reveals something of the universality of the abuse of power. Edward is regretful, and that regret gives an opportunity for him to have a heart-to-heart with Uhtred as he lies battered and bruised on a cell floor. “I have lived somewhat in Alfred’s shadow”, declares Edward. There is a sense that Edward is thinking about ways to find his own way to the light.
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
Edward doesn’t quite banish Aethelhelm, but it is as near as dammit. Aethelhelm heads back to Winchester muttering warnings that Edward’s mother, Aelswith (Eliza Butterworth) had better be good at providing counsel (she is). Uhtred recovers pretty quickly from his beating – maybe the rejuvenating cream that has stopped him ageing since the early days of Alfred’s reign works well here, too! But a little artistic licence is worthwhile as Uhtred needs to look his best in order to persuade the good folk of Mercia not to fight one another for grain supplies during a period of shortage caused by the outbreak of fever. With this, it dawns on Edward that Uhtred offers an opportunity to get out of the mess that the king is in. Like Alfred in previous seasons, Edward is able to make Uhtred an offer he can’t refuse – this time as lord and ‘protector’ of Mercia. It’s quite a turn-up and quite good timing, really, given that Uhtred’s dreams of Bebbanburg seem to have been put on ice.
While this seems far from what little is known of the actual succession to power in Mercia, it is plausible and works in the drama, and Uhtred is given the opportunity to gaze into the Mercian sunset while agonising about the decision he faces. Aelfwynn is returned to Aegelesburg, where she recovers from her fever (somehow standing for the kingdom’s recovery from the bigger fever that now seems to be passing!). Aethelflaed, however, coming to Aegelesburg in the belief that her daughter is dead, is delighted to find her alive – a feeling tempered somewhat by news that Uhtred has agreed to become the next lord of Mercia.
In the meantime, in the Welsh kingdom of Deheubarth, we learn that the band of Vikings which has arrived is led by Cnut’s cousin Sigtryggr (Eysteinn Sigurdarson). While the connection with Cnut is fictional, the real Sigtryggr was a member of the kin of a Viking dynasty who dominated Britain and Ireland in the 9th and 10th centuries. Sigtryggr was driven out of Dublin, where he had been based, in around 902 – and although he is more likely to have gone to northern England than to Wales, the impact of Viking activities on Wales in the early 10th century is well attested.
Still, Brida (Emily Cox), languishing in a cell under the royal hall, is unlikely to quibble such historical niceties. She grasps at the opportunity of freedom with both hands, relishing the opportunity to return the brutality visited on her by her former captors. In a drama series were each new group of Vikings has to be more Viking than the last, Sigtryggr’s band manages to be a different type of Viking altogether: there’s plenty of hair and leather, but Sigtryggyr exudes an instinctive kind of calm. His violence is brutal but efficient and visited in a matter-of-fact manner. One would be lucky to survive the slaughter in the royal hall, but we probably have to pity the poor survivor tasked with running the length of Wales while carrying a severed head from to Treffaun (Holywell) in north-east Wales, to interrupt King Hywel’s pilgrimage. We can only hope for the messenger’s sake that Hywel is a little more measured in his reaction than earlier recipients of bad news have been in The Last Kingdom…
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).