The Last Kingdom S4 E3 review: moments of introspection remind us of history’s “shared humanity”

Medieval historian and historical consultant on The Last Kingdom Ryan Lavelle reviews the third episode of season 4 – an episode which, despite its high drama, is less about action as about internal turmoil. Prepare yourselves: the emotion comes thick and fast…

The Last Kingdom series 4

Please note this article contains spoilers

We all have days when we just need someone to sit down with, to reassure us that we’re doing fine. So, it seems, do Viking Age-heroes. Things have gone seriously wrong for Uhtred (Alexander Dreymon), who somehow snatches defeat out of the jaws of victory at his fortress of Bebbanburg – modern-day Bamburgh – at the start of this episode. His cousin, the returned prodigal son Wihtgar (Ossian Perret), having despatched his own father, Uhtred’s evil uncle Aelfric (Joseph Millson) at the end of episode 2, has turned the tables on Uhtred and his companions. The rain starts to lash down, there are flashes of lightning, and Wihtgar manages to reload his crossbow pretty speedily. “Your name will be forgotten,” Wihtgar tells Uhtred, blasting a rapidly-loaded crossbow bolt at Uhtred’s son and namesake, who stands gawping in the face of death (understandably – the lad wants to be a priest, not a warrior). Cue some serious self-sacrifice by Father Beocca (Ian Hart), whose dive in front of a fast-moving bolt means that Uhtred has now lost his oldest friend and confidante. No time to grieve yet, though – Uhtred and company have to beat a fast retreat to their ship, not the ideal move in the middle of a storm.

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Despite the high drama of the confrontation, the episode is less about action as about internal turmoil, both between people who are meant to be on the same side and in the minds and souls of individuals themselves. The emotion comes thick and fast. A despairing Uhtred is comforted by his long-time sidekick, Finan (an Irish warrior brought to the screen with a wry humour by Mark Rowley). Finan manages to talk some home truths to Young Uhtred into the bargain, the latter evidently suffering from survivor guilt. Such openness might feel a bit modern, but there is plenty of medieval evidence of men weeping for lost friends, not to mention the fear of a lost reputation. The moments of introspection convey something of Uhtred’s pain to us as a modern audience and remind us of a shared humanity across a thousand years.

There is plenty of medieval evidence of men weeping for lost friends, not to mention the fear of a lost reputation

Uhtred’s bigger loss of the chance of regaining his ancestral pile – something which few of us might directly relate to – is cast into sharp relief by the recognition that his friend’s body lies unburied. Recognising the Christian faith of a friend, he lays something to rest which looks remarkably like a 9th-century pendant cross – a gift for archaeologists to ponder over in some imagined future…? It seems unlikely that we might interpret a cross in a shallow deposit on a hillside as something buried by a pagan in memory of a dead Christian friend. The story might be imagined, but it’s a tangible reminder that real stories lie behind random objects discovered in the ground in the 20th and 21st centuries.


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A confrontation approaches

In the world of The Last Kingdom events are steaming to confrontation, and even if there’s plenty of artistic licence thrown in, the storyline neatly weaves in the historical events of the early 10th century.  Aethelred, Lord and self-proclaimed King of Mercia, is still living it up in his royal encampment in newly-captured East Anglian territory, unaware that his head ranch at Aegelesburg (modern Aylesbury) had been torn to pieces in the last episode (we see the aftermath – it’s not pretty). The handsome Aethelred (Toby Regbo) is still pursuing Eadith (Stefanie Martini). She decides that there is only one way in which Aethelred can be distracted from finding out about the attack, as well as buying time for her brother Eardwulf (who has just tried to cover up his responsibility in badly advising Aethelred by murdering a messenger sent from Wessex to bring news!)

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Magnus Bruun as Cnut in 'The Last Kingdom' season 4

Eadith dons of a Dark Age-version of ‘THAT Dress’, given as a gift by Aethelred with no uncertain meaning and no uncertain consequences. Aethelred is, as predicted, distracted. The evocation is not far from a medieval fantasy of Mary Magdalene. While there is no historical evidence that the ealdorman of Mercia was a sexual predator with sociopathic tendencies, the masculine abuse of power is an all-too-familiar theme, and Aethelred’s actions in the episode seem too real for comfort, made all the more so by our sense of Eadith’s own perspective.

King Edward (Timothy Innes) in the meantime still vacillates in Winchester. He’s heard the news of the Danes’ attack but, sitting with a ring of fortresses around Wessex, he’s cautious. His mother, Aelswith (Eliza Butterworth) and sister, Lady Aethelflaed (Millie Brady) urge the protection of Mercians (“I am Mercian!” Aelswith helpfully reminds us) and his loathsome father-in-law, Aethelhelm (Adrian Schiller), counsels Edward to let the Danes and Mercians slog it out, regardless of Aethelflaed’s fate.

The court at Winchester is well portrayed as a place of intrigue and plotting, and the storyline serves as a reminder that not everyone in the 10th century would have seen the formation of an English kingdom as the endgame. No one at court is actually threatening to overthrow Edward, but it’s good to see the counsel of the king’s mother. Even if the real Aelswith (historically ‘Ealhswith’) was dead by this point in Edward’s reign, the theme of maternal counsel given to a young king and its tensions are an important part of early medieval history. Where Edward does not wish to listen to her, Aethelflaed will.

Aelswith brings in her knowledge of Mercia’s landscape to drop in reference to Teotanhealh (modern Tettenhall), where Aethelflaed might best bring the armies together and so we get hints of a historical event to come.  Aethelflaed, independent of her husband and against the orders of her brother, is heading there. First, though, she stops off at the ravaged town of Aegelesburg, where she is encountered by Uhtred. The problem is, though, that other, less-welcome guests have arrived. Despatched from the army of Brida (Emily Cox) and Cnut (Magnus Bruun), a bunch of flame-wielding Viking horsemen emerge out of the darkness – and we get the sense that some action will follow soon.

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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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