Please note this article contains spoilers
Relationships between fathers and sons have always provided something of a theme for The Last Kingdom, but in this episode – with the sense of the fading of the old order in the air – that particular dial seems to be turned up to 11. King Edward, played by Timothy Innes, is batting off not-so-subtle hints from his wife, Aelflaed (Amelia Clarkson) and his somewhat over-bearing father-in-law, Aethelhelm (Adrian Schiller) about how kingly the boy prince Aelfweard is proving to be.
Uhtred (Alexander Dreymon), a father estranged from his child thanks to King Alfred’s scheming, is struggling with his relationship with his now-adult son, also called Uhtred (that does indeed make him Uhtred, son of Uhtred, son of Uhtred; fortunately he’s just known as “Young Uhtred”). The two Uhtreds are worlds apart, it seems, with the younger working on his path to the priesthood while our Uhtred remains resolutely with the old gods. In a different time, the older Uhtred might don a cloth cap and rant about his son never having experienced a “hard day’s graft down t’pit”, but the inter-generational tension is there all the same.
While at sea en-route to Bebbanburg (Bamburgh), Uhtred sheds some of his own blood to make a small sacrifice; not much, but it underlines the sense of difference between the father and the son. Rán, the sea-goddess, “can be a vixen,” Uhtred tells his son, reminding him that his gods are capricious. The young man is unconvinced. He needs the steady counsel of Father Beocca (Ian Hart) to sow seeds of familial loyalty.
The gang are sailing north because they are aware of the weaknesses of the fortress of Bebbanburg, which had been battered by raiding Scots in episode 1. We might almost feel sorry for Uhtred’s evil Uncle Aelfric (Joseph Millson), the unrightful ruler of Bebbanburg, had he not been setting out to be an object lesson for petty lordship. Having got wind of the interests of Mercia’s lord, Aethelred, in gathering the relics of St Oswald, he’s keen to sell the precious relics of St Oswald held at Bebbanburg, and awaits the arrival of the Mercian envoys to seal the deal. Technically it ought to be one of Oswald’s uncorrupted arms which remained in Bebbanburg. The historical Aethelred, however, was actually interested in the cult of St Oswald – though it was with his wife, Aethelflaed, and the relics that made it to Mercia were from Bardney in Lincolnshire. Still, holding up a decorative rock crystal and claiming it as the heart of the saint has a certain cachet, conveying the sense of veneration with which early medieval people viewed such relics.
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In Winchester the court remains the palace of plots that it ever was. Alfred’s widow, Aelswith (Eliza Butterworth), is able to sense the winds of change, seeking out her grandson Aethelstan, the offspring of Edward’s first marriage to Ecgwynn, which had been annulled in season 3 – Aelswith didn’t think much of the “girl”. She’s having regrets, but can this be the only reason for her interest? With Aelflaed about to be inaugurated as queen with all the benefits that confers upon her family (principally the ealdorman Aethelhelm), Aelswith seems to have an agenda in mind. In a touching scene, she meets her young grandson, who is sat reading a book on the stairs in an anonymous Wessex convent. As she has plans for the boy, she witnesses Ecgwynn saying farewell to him for the last time. I’m willing to forgive the anachronistic mullioned windows through which Aelswith looks. The distortions of crudely-made glass nicely render Aelswith’s sense of the poignancy of the moment and the consequences of her actions. Her understanding of the difficulties and sacrifices presented by the road ahead are etched on her face.
In this episode we don’t see much of Æthelflaed (or Aethelflaed, played by Millie Brady), though she does appear to provide sisterly-support for her brother in Winchester. The saga of her despicable husband, Aethelred (Toby Regbo), Lord of Mercia, rumbles on, however. Having run pell-mell into East Anglia, believing its Vikings to have left for Ireland, he’s playing the king in an awesome royal encampment. History students sometimes find it hard to relate to the notion that when early medieval rulers are living under canvas, the lifestyle is more like glamping than the rigours of a Scout Jamboree. The depictions of Aethelred’s encampment should certainly help, and they project the message that if someone acted like a king and had the means to do so, people took notice.
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Aethelred’s eye is off the ball, however, as he’s focusing on his mistress Eadith (Stefanie Martini), whose interests, we learn, are mixed up with her brother Eardwulf (Jamie Blackley). The characters and backstory are fictional, but the sense of nobility lost through the indiscretions of the father still has a sense of believability.
The Vikings, meanwhile, have attacked Aegelesburg (Aylesbury), an important Mercian settlement which was actually attacked by East Anglian Vikings (albeit in 917 rather than in the early 900s depicted here). It’s brutal; the ealdormen are abjectly humiliated, and the leaders Brida (Emily Cox) and her partner-in-crime Cnut (Magnus Bruun) consummate victory in the bed of their foe. We get the sense, though, that the news of Aegelesburg, like the news of the Mercians’ attack on the East Anglian settlement seen in episode 1, isn’t where the main action is right now. The implications and the reactions are what matter.
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The court in Winchester hears of the attack, the news dramatically interrupting the queen’s coronation ceremony, but Aethelred remains blissfully ignorant and Uhtred still pushes toward Bebbanburg. Denied enough warriors to take the fortress by storm (has he ever been one to do such a thing?), Uhtred is relying on his son and a ruse de guerre worked out in a tavern in a very rough-looking Grimesby. The night-time attack on Bebbanburg is dramatic and reminiscent of medieval sneak attacks on castles (sadly there isn’t enough to know of these sorts of gambits in Viking Age England, but it certainly wouldn’t look out of place in 10th-century France).
Alexander Dreymon as Uhtred in ‘The Last Kingdom’ season 4. (Photographer Joe Alblas | Copyright Carnival Film & Television Limited)
The biggest credit for dramatic father-son relations in this episode might go to Aelfric’s son Wihtgar (Ossian Perret), who has arrived back in Bebbanburg, bringing with him men from “all corners” of the world, just in time to save his father’s skin. Or so we might think. Uhtred thinks he has his uncle as a bargaining chip and it looks like he might just get away with it, but Wihtgar has a crossbow (yes, they did exist before the 11th century!) and maybe the earlier reconciliation with his father wasn’t quite as fulsome as we have been led to believe.
Hats off to the production team, however, for allowing a quiet sense of the historical moment to slip on and off the screen with the episode’s depiction of the boy Aethelstan (Caspar Griffiths) sat calmly reading, one of his grandfather’s Aestels in hand, when we first encounter him. The screen caption comes up, as it does in so many other scenes, but this time it is a reference to the boy and a future to come: “AETHELSTAN. FIRST KING OF ALL ENGLAND AND THE ENGLISH”. History has its own spoilers, it seems, and some of them are worth knowing.
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).