Please note this article contains spoilers
Suddenly the rules of the game can change and the ground can shift underfoot in a most disconcerting way. Episode six is a striking example of those moments where life and art (or at least life and serious entertainment) come crashing headlong into one another.
One minute we’re watching a costume drama following some of the main protagonists on their way north. Our expectations of an early medieval road trip are being met: the conversations and characterisation, the wide shots of medieval landscape. There’s obviously some underlying peril, but it’s nothing that a hero like Uhtred (Alexander Dreymon) can’t manage. The next moment, a bunch of desperate vagabonds pounces on the party and the drama is thrown headlong into a 10th-century epidemic. The impact of what’s referred to as ‘The Sickness’ is shown pretty grimly to us by the sight of a group of half-dead unfortunates impaled on spikes blocking the road. Suddenly, everyone is rather worried, reaching for familiar comforts that differ in the detail but reveal the same instincts of self-protection: Finan (played by Mark Rowley, who puts in a great job as a brave warrior suddenly wracked with fear) kisses the crucifix that he keeps around his neck, while the pagan Sihtric (Arnas Fedaravicius) takes hold of his Thor’s hammer pendant.
What is going on? Little knowledge is required of the Middle Ages to arrive at the Black Death of 1348–9. Buboes and the demise of perhaps half of Europe’s population do tend to make an impact on a popular perception of all things medieval, and in some ways, it would hardly be surprising if ‘King Death’ were allowed to stride across the imagined England of The Last Kingdom. But here we’re watching the early 10th century, not the 14th, and although the initial encounter with ‘living dead’ makes a bit of an impact and provides a nod to our expectations of the Middle Ages, it is commendable that the disease outbreak isn’t referred to as ‘the Plague’, and for the most part we don’t see its victims. Fears and misconceptions are the biggest enemies.
What is the mysterious ‘Sickness’ in episode 6?
There is no historical epidemic known in early medieval Britain from 910/911 or even the first decades of the 10th century, but what is happening is not long after a period of disease recorded in 896, in which a number of the great and good of Wessex perished. The author of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle admits he has only “named the most distinguished”, suggesting that this particular historical bout of disease bit deeply into society. So, epidemic outbreaks happened frequently enough for people to be familiar with them. The reactions to widespread disease in The Last Kingdom are a reminder that while some historical pandemics like the Black Death were enormous in their actual impact, epidemic diseases, occurring once every couple of generations (like cases evidenced in the middle and late 10th century), might be more localised in their outbreak. All the same, their impact was still enough to make the difference between life and death for many, particularly (surprise, surprise) the more vulnerable.
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In the episode something has changed, and the characters have to adapt, watching every sniffle and avoiding ‘bad air’, including ordering herbs to be burnt as a countermeasure. ‘The Sickness’ adds a new tone to the political machinations which rumble on – there is talk of whether it would be wise to delay ceremonies associated with Aethelred’s funeral and succession in Aegelesburg (Aylesbury). The people of Mercia seeking refuge from the epidemic are refused shelter there, yet Edward (Timothy Innes) orders the gates to be opened at the sight of his mother Aelswith (Eliza Butterworth) arriving from Winchester, regally resplendent on horseback and very annoyed for having been placed under house arrest, under orders – she believes – from Edward himself. The notion that lockdown procedures can be broken when it suits the West Saxon king prompts dark mutterings from the Mercian ealdormen: despite his apparent wish to establish good relations with Mercia through Eardwulf (Jamie Blackley), who he sees as Aethelred’s successor, Edward apparently seeks to conquer.
Eardwulf, however, has learnt of the disappearance of Lord Aethelred and Lady Aethelflaed of Mercia’s daughter, Aelfwynn (Helena Albright). As Eardwulf’s plans for succession rely on being betrothed to her, he is in hot pursuit with his most trusted men. Uhtred and company, Aelfwynn’s protectors, have abandoned their horses to travel away from roads on foot, there is an added urgency as Aelfwynn develops an illness – is it the illness? As the group travels through a forested landscape, the sense of lurking danger sometimes gives way to some excellent characterisation and vignettes: Finan building a toy boat and a mini-Winchester from a pile of stones for the young Aethelstan (Caspar Griffiths); Stiorra (Ruby Hartley) carves a protective rune which is cast into water to protect the group; and Aelfwynn’s fevered wanderings, which have an ethereal quality, with the dreamlike otherworldliness enhanced by an atmospheric soundtrack.
It is only a pity that the group fail to meet with Aethelflaed (Millie Brady) and her confidante Aldhelm (James Northcote), who use the ruins of St Milburg’s church at Wenloca – Much Wenlock – as a meeting point. “Is this St Milburg’s?” asks Aldhelm. “Yes, trust the marker”, replies Aethelflaed, reminding us (in an age when our own mobile phones mean we don’t even need to bother to arrange rendez-vous before setting out) that relaying medieval messages and arriving at the same time was an involved affair; people relied upon things including old Roman milestones and knowledge of the landscape. Although St Milburg’s may actually have been a functioning religious community at the start of the 10th-century rather than a set of overgrown ruins, there is at least a medieval tradition that an earlier generation of Vikings had destroyed St Milburg’s, so the ruins do indeed link with the storyline.
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Failing to either meet with Aethelflaed or reach Ceaster, Uhtred and his band – now including Eadith – are trapped by Eardwulf and his horsemen. The heroes’ escape route is cut off by a stretch of water littered with diseased corpses (as close as the episode gets to ‘Black Death’ territory – fortunately they are not covered in anachronistic buboes!). It looks like the end is nigh, but Eadith steps forward to accuse her brother of the murder of Aethelred. Will the word of a woman be trusted against that of a male warrior? We are saved from a consideration of the relative weight of oaths in early 10th-century law – an interesting business but perhaps not what is needed right now – by the fact that Eadith declares that Eardwulf is carrying Aethelred’s distinctive ring, taken as a trophy from his corpse in the aftermath of the grim violence last episode. Caught out on the classic murderer’s error and facing the increasing hostility of his own men, Eardwulf finally scarpers. Even he can’t bluff his way out this time.
Away from all this, the story returns to west Wales and the kingdom of Deheubarth, where King Hywel (Steffan Rhodri) shows off the spoils of victory from his role in the battle of Teotanhealh (modern Tettenhall) to the rulers of the other Welsh kingdoms before heading off on pilgrimage. Hywel isn’t normally considered to have gained his wealth and power due to a role in the actual battle of Tettenhall (910) but the scene conveys the manner in which a successful king could become first among his peers and, finally, a dominant overlord. That Hywel intended to use his new wealth to complete Offa’s Dyke as a barrier against the Saxons is pure imagination, but as an allusion to the rhetoric of a more modern political leader, it is irresistible. The pregnant Brida, enslaved now by her Welsh captors, is humiliated by Hywel’s brother (capriciously played by Nigel Lindsay and given the name Rhodri in the series; though not the name of a known brother of Hywel, it is familiar enough within Hywel’s family). Brida is dropped into a deep cell under the floor of Hywel’s hall. The raucous feast above heightens our sense of the anger that Brida is feeling.
Someone is evidently listening to her thoughts, as the morning after the night before sees the arrival of a man looking like the remains of the previous night’s meal. He comes with the news that Danes have landed in Wales. Meanwhile, in a small abandoned settlement in Mercia, Aelfwynn is beginning to look seriously unwell…
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).