How Historically Accurate is season 1 of The Last Kingdom?

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The Last Kingdom

This article contains spoilers.

The Last Kingdom is a popular television series recently released by the BBC. It depicts the life of Uhtred, son of Uhtred, who is a fictional character based on an amalgamation of several historical characters, during the Dane invasions of England during the 9th century. The events depicted in The Last Kingdom were critical early steps in forging what became England. The Last Kingdom is a reference to the Kingdom of Wessex, which was the last Anglo-Saxon kingdom to stand in the way of Dane conquest of England. Uhtred is from Bebbanburgh (modern Bamburgh), a part of Northumbria. The season begins with Uhtred's father being killed in a battle at York, where Uhtred was taken as a slave by the Danes. Uhtred's uncle then usurps the control of Bebbanburgh, where Uhtred was the rightful heir.

Anglo-Saxon and Danish History and Culture

The season begins at a battle where the invading Danes are victorious against the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria at York. This did occur and the Danes were, in fact, able to win this battle by slaughtering the garrison in 866 and then beating a counterattack in 867, which is the opening battle in the series. York was the chief city of this region and taking control over it was critical. The depiction of the Danes is relatively accurate, as they would have formed a shieldwall and likely attempted to entrap their enemy or outmaneuver them.[1]

Figure 1. Modern day Winchester, which served as the main capital of Wessex in the Anglo-Saxon period.

The Danes at this time were mostly polytheists, where the wars against the Anglo-Saxon were depicted as wars between the Christian God and the Danish gods. The Danes are generally known to us as Vikings; however, the show makes clear they were more than just Vikings because the Danes were settling to live in England. Viking, on the other hand, is a term used to describe the behavior of raiding.[2] Some of the events of conquest are not accurate or not explained, such as the Danish army coming from East Anglia after having landed there first, but the general events are true. The Danes did fear loosing warriors, as shown in the series, despite their fierce reputation, as they could not spare loosing too many men. On the other hand, the Anglo-Saxons were often shown as weak warriors too dependent on their priests, something Uhtred criticizes, to save them. There is some truth to this, as much of the Anglo-Saxon army lacked professional warriors. However, they were probably able to form a shieldwall, a form of defense and attack used by Medieval armies, whereas they were depicted as not having that capability and confounded by it when they encountered it in the battlefield.[3]

The Danes are shown as more fun-loving, while the Anglo-Saxons are depicted as more solemn and, at times, pious. This attracts Uhtred, an Anglo-Saxon, to prefer company with the Danes, although he later makes an oath to Alfred, king of Wessex and last remaining Anglo-Saxon king. There is truth to this, as the Danish beliefs did not involve a strict moral code. One scene shows the Danes killing the East Anglian king, Edmund, with a volley of arrows after he was captured.[4] This did occur and Edmund was canonized for it. Other Anglo-Saxon leaders are shown as tortured and murdered when captured and this would have likely occurred when Danes captured major leaders, although some would be spared to act as puppet leaders.

Many of the urban places are historical and the names used in the series reflects their Anglo-Saxon names. For instance, London and Reading are two cities mentioned. Wessex's main city of power was Winchester (Figure 1), where most of the Wessex kings did hold court, as depicted in the series.[5] Winchester, in fact, was rival to London for a period as the capital of all of England.

Some of the terms used in the series were words prevalent at the time. This includes terms such as plowing a field having sexual connotations. Another term is arseling, used as a playful or sometimes mocking term of Uhtred by his friend Leofric, which also would have been a term used at the time meaning "from the ass."[6] Such terms were, in fact, contemporary to the period.

Key Battles

Figure 2. Memorial to the Battle of Edington in Bratton Castle.

After the battle at York, several other key battles occur during the series. The first is the battle where Alfred's brother (Æthelred), who was the king of Wessex, dies, although the Anglo-Saxons are successful in temporarily halting the Danish advance. There is truth to Alfred's brother perhaps being injured and killed in battle as depicted in the series. Rather than the son of Æthelred taking power, it was Alfred that was chosen, something unexpected and discussed in the series, as he was seen as more fit to rule. However, the battle where Æthelred is fatally injured might be fictionalized or is based on several battles where the Anglo-Saxons did have some success in limiting the Danish advances. Still, Wessex failed to stop the Danes completely and had to pay off the Danes for temporary peace.[7]

The next major encounter in the show was the Battle of Cynwit, which occurred in 878. The battle in the series depicts the Danes besieging the Wessex forces led by Odda the Elder. The Danish leader was Ubba, who was killed in the battle. The Danes had surrounded the Anglo-Saxon army on a hill and likely expected them to surrender, as they had little water, but the Wessex army attacked and were able to defeat Danish army. The Raven banner was taken by the Anglo-Saxon army and it was a major battle in which the Wessex king Alfred did not lead. In the series, the year of the battle is different and the credit for killing Ubba went to Uhtred. However, as shown in the series, it was an important battle for the Wessex kingdom and Odda was the likely leader of the battle. In effect, the Anglo-Saxons being up on a hill and were still able to surprise and win the battle is accurate.[8]

The Danes attacked in January 878 the town of Chippenham, which is where Alfred held his court at the time. The series depicts Winchester, the more common capital of Wessex, as being attacked. However, the attack did not occur there. The events, though, are generally accurate in that the Danes did attack in a surprising fashion at the height of winter, a period during when armies rested and did not launch invasions. Alfred was depicted as fleeing to the marshes of Somerset, barley escaping with his life, which was true and he did flee after the battle to hide from the Danes and reorganize his forces.[9]

The next major encounter was the Battle of Edington (Figure 2), which pitted Guthrum of the Danes against Alfred. The Danes had likely assumed Alfred to be significantly weakened after being forced to flee. The battle was characterized by Alfred summoning his fyrds, or the popular army from different parts of his kingdom, that gathered to fight the Danes. This allowed Alfred to create a greater force and demonstrated he retained the loyalty of his ealdormen despite his earlier losses. Egbert's stone was used as the meeting point for the fyrds in the series as well as in the chronicles describing the events. In effect, much of these events are true historically. The battle, unlike the series, involved an encounter of the armies where the Danes were driven into a fort and were besieged afterwards. In the series, the main battle is only depicted and not the siege. In both cases, after Dane leader Guthrum was defeated he was baptized, as a condition of the peace, and led his remaining army away. Eventually, the Danes formed another kingdom called Danelaw that represented areas where the Danes ruled for nearly another 100 years. For now, there was peace between Wessex and the Danes. The result was also the Danes were finally and decisively defeated, never to threaten Wessex seriously again.[10] Arguably, this was the battle that may have prevented all of England falling to Danish hands in the 9th century.

Historical Figures

There are a number of historical figures shown in the series on both the Danish and Anglo-Saxon sides. These include Ubba and Guthrum, who were fearsome Danish warlords, and Alfred (later known as Alfred the Great), Asser the Monk, and the ealdormen of Wessex, including Odda, who are royal officials and regional leaders in Wessex who supported Alfred in war. Other figures such as Ealhswith, Alfred's wife, and Edward, the son of Alfred, were also historical figures.[11]

Many of the personalities and depictions of the known historical figures are accurately presented in the series. For instance, Alfred's piety, digestive problems, and his penchant for women are likely to be true based on known accounts. Ubba, a Danish warlord, was known to be fearsome in battle. However, for the Danes, as historical accounts from their point of view are far fewer, we generally know less about them, whereas Wessex was known to keep detailed historical records, as shown in the series.

While the main character Uhtred is not historical, he is based on Uhtred the Bold who lived after the events in the series in the 10th and 11th centuries. As the name suggests, Uhtred was known to have been a brave warrior. In the series, there is a feud between him and his uncle, while his adoptive Danish father is treacherously killed. This reflects some of the blood feud stories that did occur during and after the life of Uhtred, even though the events in the series did not outright occur.[12]

Summary

Like many historical series and movies, there are a lot of untrue events and stories incorporated into the historical period depicted. However, the Last Kingdom does a very good job at incorporating many cultural elements that would have been contemporary at the time, including those involving the behavior of the characters and types of equipment they had during campaigns. Unlike many earlier historical dramas, this one looks more closely at the historical background of the characters, trying to imbue them in a cultural and historical context that would have been familiar to them but still entertaining to 21st century viewers. The series informs us on how England arose as a nation, where its origin emerges at a time when Anglo-Saxon England was threatened as the last English throne and was close to being taken by the Danes. The use of a lot of historical facts mixed with fictional events make the series informative as well as entertaining.

References

  1. For a history on the invasion on Northumbria, see: Hunter Blair, P. H., & Keynes, S. (2006). An introduction to Anglo-Saxon England (3. ed., repr). Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, pg. 103.
  2. For background on the Danes, see: Jones, G. (2001). A history of the Vikings (2nd ed). London ; New York: Oxford University Press.
  3. For more on Anglo-Saxon fighting methods, see: Lavelle, R. (2010). Alfred’s wars: sources and interpretations of Anglo-Saxon warfare in the Viking age Woodbridge: The Boydell Press.
  4. For more on Edmund, see: Pinner, R. (2015). The Cult of St Edmond in Medieval East Anglia. Woodbridge, UK: The Boydell Press.
  5. For more on Winchester in the Anglo-Saxon period, see: Legg, P. (2011). Winchester: history you can see. Stroud: History.
  6. For more on Anglo-Saxon terms, see: Baker, P. S. (2012). Introduction to Old English (3rd ed). Chichester, West Sussex ; Hoboken, N.J: Wiley.
  7. For more on Alfred, see: Smyth, A. P. (1995). King Alfred the Great. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.
  8. For more on the Battle of Cynwit, see: Jones, G. (2001). A history of the Vikings (2nd ed). London ; New York: Oxford University Press, pg. 238.
  9. For more on Alfred's flight to the marshes of Somerset, see: Swanton, M. (Ed.). (2003). The Anglo-Saxon chronicles (New ed., paperback rev. ed., 5. impr). London: Phoenix Press.
  10. For more on the Battle of Edington, see: Hunter Blair, P. H., & Keynes, S. (2006). An introduction to Anglo-Saxon England (3. ed., repr). Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, pg. 111
  11. For more on the key historical characters from this period, see: Savage, Anne (1988). Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. Papermac.
  12. For more on Uhtred the Bold, see: James, J. (2013). An onslaught of spears: the Danish conquest of England.

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