Please note this article contains spoilers
A month has passed since Sigtryggr’s lightning capture of the city of Winchester in the last episode, and late summer is turning to a warm early autumn in what has evidently been one crazy year in Viking Age England. It’s certainly not over yet. The opposing sides have now settled into a state of siege. King Edward of Wessex (Timothy Innes), who has been denied the city that was so important to his father, is getting increasingly desperate – and is preparing to smoke out the Vikings.
The Anglo-Saxons seem to have tried to avoid long sieges. Throughout the Middle Ages, the ever-present danger of disease – not just the ‘Sickness’ of earlier episodes but more conventional conditions like dysentery – often put a besieging force in more danger than a besieged one. It is clear that with members of the royal family held as captives, Sigtryggr (Eysteinn Sigurdarson) is in possession of the trump card.
Sat in the royal palace library, Uhtred’s daughter Stiorra (Ruby Hartley) is settling in to a bit of Stockholm syndrome, passing the time reading a version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to a frosty Sigtryggr. “It is so dull I want to pull out my own eyes,” she complains. That’s a matter of opinion, of course. She’s only just getting to the good bits, but her ennui enhances a vignette which links Wessex’s past – which Sigtryggr declares he wants to understand – with the boredom of siege.
The scene is interrupted by the sudden arrival of Brida (Emily Cox) demanding decisive action, a hostage as a counter-threat to Edward’s threat to burn the city. Uhtred’s daughter? Sigtryggr is not keen on that option – but what about the children of Edward whom Sigtryggr also holds captive? Cue agony for King Edward, who sees both of his sons threatened at the gates of the city and needs to choose one child to be saved (if he takes away the threat of fire). The dilemma has historical parallels: in a similar 12th-century stand-off, the father of Earl William Marshal is said to have declared that he still had the “anvil and hammers” to forge more sons. Edward’s silent scream is probably more in line with how most of us would cope under such circumstances. He is a sympathetic figure.
It is up to Uhtred to rescue Edward from this situation by offering himself as hostage to Sigtryggr in exchange for the two boys. “Why would I exchange gold for silver?” Sigtryggr asks. But Haesten (Jeppe Beck Laursen) persuades him of Uhtred’s importance and our hero walks into the lions’ den.
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With Uhtred’s beloved sword flung from the ramparts by a furious Brida, prevented by Sigtryggr from exacting revenge, Uhtred enters peacemaker mode. Negotiations begin with Sigtryggr – but Edward remains restless, impatiently waiting for news from Uhtred. Although his wife Aelflaed (Amelia Clarkson) and his mother Aelswith (Eliza Butterworth) are still captive within the city, Edward has his sons back.
When Uhtred’s distinctive sword is found and he is assumed dead, the king is willing to let Winchester and the pagans within it burn. Uhtred’s companions keep their faith in Uhtred, but Edward is spurred on by news of the arrival of Aethelflaed (Millie Brady), fresh from receiving the submission of Eoferwic (York) after a successful campaign in Northumbria. Thick smoke, the result of fires lit by Edward, drifts across the city and the king orders his troops through the gates. There is confusion and more carnage, but somehow Uhtred is able to make his way through the opposing lines, where he persuades the fighters to reach an uneasy truce.
The leaders go into peace conference. Can Sigtryggr be persuaded to leave Winchester? Contrary to one historical interpretation of Sigtryggr as a Viking leader who originally settled in East Anglia, he’s not willing to accept this region. It’s Eoferwic he wants. Perhaps, with Eoferwic now in Aethelflaed’s hands, some sort of exchange can be worked out. “Better a Dane in Eoferwic than in the south,” Edward mutters to his reluctant sister.
There are still moments for final twists. Brida’s partnership with Sigtryggr is over and she attempts to ambush Uhtred – her former lover and, as she sees, her betrayer – in the palace garden. Once more, when Uhtred has her at his mercy – and despite Brida’s profession to instil in her unborn child a hatred of all Saxons and exact revenge – he is again unable to kill her, and he lets her go. We can’t help but feel that this is a decision to regret.
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Before the captives are freed, Aethelhelm is able to make a final move. He is aware that the first-born son Aethelstan (Caspar Griffiths) has come out rather well in the affair, which puts his own grandson, Aelfweard into the shade. Aethelstan is out of reach but he has a chance to even up the score in an unofficial ‘favourite grandparent’ competition, putting his knowledge of a poisonous flower growing in the palace garden to a nefarious use. A draught of water is offered to Aelswith and we know that this is not looking good for the former first lady of Wessex.
There is a sense of history catching up at the end of season 4. Aware of the tensions at court, Edward orders Aethelstan to be fostered by Uhtred. That’s not quite on the nail given that Uhtred is a fictional character – but true enough insofar that Aethelstan was indeed fostered away from Wessex. Aelswith, who is historically meant to have been dead by the end of 902, finishes the episode somewhat unwell courtesy of that unfortunate drink.
Aethelflaed, meanwhile, has her Mercian authority well established. The actual submission of York was the last thing we know of the historical Aethelflaed prior to her death in 918 (sorry, I did say history is full of spoilers!). But The Last Kingdom’s Aetheflaed clearly has more life in her yet at the end of the episode, but needs to be wary as Sigtryggr, who was the historical ruler of the Anglo-Scandinavians of York by 920, is heading to the right place, even if not at exactly the right moment in history.
Uhtred looks on to the changes at court and the resettling of the pieces on the gaming board with the sense of the detached observer, but his desire to regain his familial inheritance of Bebbanburg burns as deep as it ever was. There may be settlement, there may be some sort of peace, but the story is not yet ended. Destiny, as Uhtred reminds us, is all.
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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