How Historically Accurate is Season 4 of The Last Kingdom?
Warning this article contains Spoilers!!!
The Last Kingdom Season 4 takes place in the roughly decade after Alfred's death from around 910. Historically, we know less about this time leading up to the events than the later years of Alfred in the 890s. However, these were critical years as the Anglo-Saxon began to turn the tide against the Danish forces but still faced significant threats. For a time, Mercia, areas north of London and to the west, fell to the Danes.
The main plot of the series in Season 4 differs more substantially from the books (Books 7 and 8) they are based on (The Saxon Stories). The first two episodes concentrate on Uhtred's attempts to reconquer his ancestral lands in Bamburgh (Bebbanburg) in modern Northumberland. By that time, the region was being raided by Scotts, which may have taken a toll on the northern Saxon populations. However, this is a side story as the main events revolve around Viking (Norse and Danish) invasions of western Mercia, while the combined Mercian and West Saxon (Wessex) forces attempted to trap the Vikings. It was during this time period that the Anglo-Saxons attempted to retrieve the relics of Saint Oswald from Northumbria, which was controlled by the Danes. Saint Oswald was believed to be an important saint to the English.
The Danes are shown as successfully sacking and pillaging western Mercia around the year 910. The Anglo-Saxons, which included the Mercians and Wessex, began to forge a plan to trap the Danes while they were in Mercia. The Danes ultimately did become trapped at the Battle of Tettenhall, near modern Wolverhampton in central England. While the Danes were raiding and ravaging the land, the Wessex King Edward and the Lord of the Mercians Aethlred, with his armies largely led by his wife Æthelflæd, came upon the Danes in a valley and area that was difficult to escape. This assault led to a crushing defeat for the Viking force; historically they were never able to threaten any Anglo-Saxon regions until the 11th century, at least to the same extent as they did in the late 9th century.
After the defeat of the Vikings, in 911 Aethelred died, perhaps from wounds in the battle of Tettenhall or other causes, or perhaps only partially based on the battle itself as the series depicts, although few sources confirm the exact causes. Nevertheless, this event was important because it led to a power struggle in Mercia, with Æthelflæd ultimately becoming the first well-known English female leader despite never being called Queen. She continued to not only lead the Mercians but because she was Alfred's daughter, she was a natural ally to her brother Edward of Wessex. The brother and sister became a powerful pair against the Vikings for the rest of their rule.
Despite their successes, it is possible there was tension between brother and sister. Not everyone in Wessex and Mercia was thrilled with Æthelflæd's rule because a female leader was hard to accept and because Edward's ultimate goal was to unite the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms under his rule. His sister, historically and in the series, primarily represented Mercian interests even though she was from Wessex.
Later, in 914, the Danes and Norse Vikings began to raid and try to take parts of Wales. These attacks also proved unsuccessful. The Norse also become more involved by this time, with Sigtryggr Ivarsson leading his men, possibly from Ireland, into Wales and parts of central England. They are shown as being unsuccessful in their attempts to capture land, but historically we do know Sigtryggr Ivarsson was able to settle near York and eventually become one of its rulers. In fact, he was likely the last significant Norse ruler in Northumbria before its reconquest by the Anglo-Saxons.
The Anglo-Saxons also begin to take parts of East Anglia. Thus, by the end of this period, the Anglo-Saxons were now emerging as being more on the offensive. By 917, Edward and his sister Æthelflæd were able to reconquer East Anglia and parts of Mercia, taking most of England for the first time. After that time, the Danish and Norse Vikings only ruled northern England and were unable to launch major attacks against the English for many decades after.
Key Historical Characters
As stated in Season 1, Uhtred is a fictional character, although he is based on possibly Uhtred the Bold who came from Bebbanburg. Other key characters are fictional, such as Brida and Father Beocca. Nevertheless, some important historical figures become more developed in Season 4 and begin to ultimately shape the history of England and the United Kingdom. Uhtred's children are also shown in the series, including Uhtred the Younger and Stiorra his daughter. These characters are very different from each other and their father in some ways. Stiorra has both her mother's spirit and her father's ability to fight, while Uhtred was trained as a priest.
Edward the Elder: Edward is shown as a somewhat indecisive ruler, swayed by his father in law Æthelhelm. Historically, we do not know much about Æthelhelm, and he may have died before Edward even became king. But in the series, he is shown as having substantial influence over the young king. Overall, Edward can be brave and smart, but he is shown to be held back by his insecurities. He is also shown as pushing his mother (Ealhswith) more away from court to lessen her influence. Still, he was torn between establishing his own distinct rule that was different from his father's as well as helping to establish his father's vision of a united England.
Æthelstan (Athelstan): One of the most important characters in English history, as he is the first true king of the English as he unites the four kingdoms to make England in 927. In the series, he is only a very young child and was the son of Edward's first wife (Ecgwynn) or lover. He is only introduced at this stage but the series foreshadows his important role later.
Æthelred (or Aethelred): He is the Lord of Mercia, which was effectively a vassal position to Edward. Mercia, while independent, depended on Wessex for men and resources and was relatively weak and could be more easily overrun by the Vikings. This becomes a problem in Season 4 as Edward was initially reluctant to aid Aethelred as the Vikings ravished much of Mercia. Aethelred is depicted as a cruel figure who seemed not to value his subjects' lives. Historically, Aethelred may have had an unhappy relationship with Æthelflæd his wife. He only ruled the western part of Mercia, as the rest was ruled by the Danes. The series shows that Aethelred suffered serious wounds in the Battle of Tettenhall, which may be accurate. In fact, his death soon after the battle suggested he may have died from mortal wounds, although the plot around Aethelred in the series likely differs from historical facts. Aethelred is shown as wanting to obtain the bones of Saint Oswald in Gloucester. We know he and his wife did establish a monastery dedicated to this saint, where his bones were presumably buried. In fact, the historical Aethelred and his wife were buried in that monastery after their deaths.
Æthelflæd: The Lady of Mercia, as she was called historically, becomes an even more important character in this season. She now effectively begins to rule Mercia, as her husband is shown to be an ineffective, weak. His death eventually ended his reign and she begins to rule outright and garnered the respect of her people. She is still, technically, under the authority of her brother Edward. However, she wields the fighting men of Mercia, who become critical for the defense of the English against the Danes and Norse Vikings as they form the outer defenses that the Vikings must break if they are to take Wessex.
Sigtrygg Ivarsson: He was a son of Iver the Boneless, who was active in Ireland and England. He eventually settled in Northumbria to become the king at York, which ultimately was the last Norse/Dane kingdom in the 10th century. In the series, he marries Stiorra, Uhtred's daughter. Little is historically known about his wife, but, as a son to Iver, he would have had an established reputation among the Vikings.
It is not clear in the series as to when various events happen. But we know that the Battle of Tettenhall occurred in 910, and provides the series with a historical anchor. It is not clear at all that Edward was that reluctant to fight as is shown in the series. He probably was somewhat cautious, as the Norse and Danes were still in a relatively strong position in the first decade of the 900s.
In fact, there are not many historical sources before this battle and the few indications suggest that Wessex was unsuccessful in some of their encounters with the Vikings. This explains why he may have cautiously approached warfare with the Danes. The series shows that the Wessex forces did not rush into participating in the battle against the Danish raids on Mercia. The raids themselves did occur but they probably did not sack any major Mercian capital as shown in the series. On the other hand, the side-story of Uhtred trying to regain his ancestral lands in Bebbanburgh is entirely fictional. Uhtred is an entirely fictional character, but his quest provides his character with a powerful motivation to fight for the English.
Sigtrygg becomes an important character in Season 4 of the series. Even though he fights for the Vikings, he becomes connected to Uhtred. Like Uhtred, Sigtrygg has great bravery and ultimately he marries Uhtred's daughter. The Viking raids in Wales and attempts to even conquer parts of it did occur after the Battle of Tettenhall, but some years well after that battle.
Additionally, there is no evidence the Welsh and the Welsh king (Hywel Dda)supported Wessex and Mercia in their fight against the Vikings at the Battle of Tettenhall. Edward's father in law is also shown as an important character, whereas historically he probably played a limited or even none existent role as he may have been dead by the time the series takes place. Aethelred's death did have a possible connection to the battle, while his wife Æthelflæd does, in fact, become a well-respected ruler and leader of the Mercians. In fact, she may have been among the earliest English female rulers of any level.
Eardwulf, the commander for Aethelred, is not a known historical character, who is depicted as a scheming nobleman. The danger to Aethelstan, first son of Edward, may have been real, as he likely had to fight or contest his throne with Edward's other children, including Ælfweard. Aethelstan's early years were obscure and he may have been partially raised in a monastery while Edward was married to his second wife (Ælfflæd). This period, in general, has few historical sources, which gives the series more creative liberties, but it is likely that among all the seasons this has the fewest historical links.
This season uses historical events, but they most likely occurred quite differently than how they were depicted. While that was true for earlier seasons, this season seems to take more liberties to guess what key characters were doing. This is both partly out of necessity and for artistic reasons. The amount of accurate and in-depth information about this time period is extremely limited. Still, we do know that the period covered in season 4 is a very important part of English history. The season shows that the Anglo-Saxons finally begin to dominate England and take key lands back from the Norse and Danes, while defending against continued threats. Alfred's system of fortified places begins to payoff in defending Anglo-Saxon lands while buying time for the Anglo-Saxon forces to become stronger so that they can launch offensives and counter-offensives against Viking forces. After the 910s, Wessex and the English often dictated battle with the Vikings, before ultimately uniting England for the first time in 927 by Æthelstan, who is the son of Edward.
- For more on Edward, see: Keynes, Simon (2001). "Edward, King of the Anglo-Saxons". In Higham, N. J.; Hill, D. H. (eds.). Edward the Elder, 899–924. Abingdon, UK: Routledge. pp. 40–66. ISBN 978-0-415-21497-1
- For more on Athelstan, see: Foot, S., 2012. Æthelstan: the first king of England, 1. paperback ed. ed, The English monarchs series. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven.
- For more on Aethelred, see: Zaluckyj, S., 2011. Mercia - the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Central England. Logaston Press, Herefordshire
- Fore more on Æthelflæd, see: Clarkson, Tim (2018). Æthelflæd: The Lady of the Mercians. Edinburgh, UK: John Donald. ISBN 978-1-910900-16-1
- For more on Sigtrygg, see: Holman, K., Holman, K., 2009. The A to Z of the Vikings. Scarecrow Press, Lanham, Md, pg. 245.