The Last Kingdom is based on the historical novel series The Saxon Stories by Bernard Cornwell. I am a big fan of Bernard Cornwell, especially the Saxon books. I have to admit that I was excited about this series, since I wrote a post listing six historical fiction series that I thought would make a great TV show, and it is the first one to actually get made. The series examines the Danish conquest of England from the perspective of Uhtred Ragnarson, a Saxon raised by Danes, who finds himself fighting for King Alfred of Wessex against the Great Heathen Army, a massive Danish army, which invaded England in 866 AD.
What is the the Great Heathen Army you ask?
Having looted Frankia (modern-day France, Belgium, Holland and part of Germany) of most of its treasure, Danish Vikings turned their attention to England. Ragnar Lothbrok (the main character in Vikings) had become famous when he raided Paris in 845, and his sons Ivarr, Halfdan and Ubba recruited thousands of Danes to conquer, not merely raid, England. Divided into four kingdoms, Northumbria, East Anglia, Mercia and Wessex, the total population of England was roughly a million Saxons, half of whom lived in Wessex. The Christian monks who recorded the history called the horde of pagan Vikings the Great Heathen Army, and probably other words that they did not write down.
Weakened by a civil war, Northumbria became the first Viking conquest, bringing the wealthy trading center of York into Danish hands. Eager to conquer more of England, Ivarr installed Ecberht, a Saxon, as a puppet king, and moved on Mercia in 868. Faced with a powerful Viking army, King Burgred asked Wessex for aid, and King Aethelred agreed. However, the Saxon armies were made up mostly of farmers, who could not stay for long campaigns, so Burgred eventually agreed to pay a ransom. In the summer of 869, a relieved Burgred watched Ivarr lead his army through Mercia to invade East Anglia, which quickly fell. Having captured Northumbria and East Anglia, Ivarr returned to his base in Dublin in 870. As a Scandinavian, an empire of northern kingdoms based on York and Dublin made more sense than conquering the southern kingdoms of England. Following Ivarr’s departure, Halfdan invaded Wessex and fought several battles until Athelred died and was succeeded by Alfred in 871. Wessex had fought the Vikings to a bloody draw, but Mercia fell more easily in 872. Two years later, the Great Heathen Army separated when Halfdan led part of the army back to Northumbria to consolidate his family’s territory, dividing land among his followers, who had been fighting for nine years and wanted to enjoy their plunder. However, Guthrum, leader of the more recent arrivals, would continue against Wessex.
Hurry, Must Hurry!!!
Uhtred, son of the lord of Bebbanburg (Matthew Macfadyen), a powerful lord in Northumbria, watches his father die in battle against a Danish army. Taken as a slave by Ragnar (Peter Gantzler), one of the Danish leaders, ten-year-old Uhtred forms a bond with Brida, a young Saxon slave. Ragnar eventually adopts Uhtred as his son, and even refuses an offer of a huge ransom from Uhtred’s uncle Aelfric (Joseph Millson). The same night that the adult Uhtred (Alexander Dreymon) and Brida (Emily Cox) become lovers, they witness Kjartan (Alexandre Willaume), a shipmaster who was banished by Ragnar, burn Ragnar’s hall, and kill everyone. When Kjartan spreads the rumor that Uhtred burned the hall, the young couple flees to Wessex.
The first episode is a whirlwind. Uhtred is orphaned twice in the episode, which undoubtedly caused him to have trust issues. Season One is based on the first two books in the series, and the hall burning that drives Uhtred to return to the Saxons happens midway through the first book, but here it is in the first episode. I realize that the producers did not want to show Uhtred and Brida as lovers when they were fourteen, even though it was natural for the time, but the series speeds through the conquest of the English kingdoms, which Uhtred observes from the Danish side, filled with growing contempt for the ease with which the Saxons surrender or pay huge sums to buy a winter’s peace.
Alfred the Great. Before he became great.
King Athelred of Wessex makes his younger brother Alfred (David Dawson) his heir, not his son Athelwold (Harry McEntire), because Athelwold is a drunkard. Actually, the real Athelwold was a child when his father died, so Alfred was appointed king, which makes sense since a child could not lead during a war. After the Danes are first defeated and Aethelred dies, Alfred becomes king, agrees to pay a ransom for the Danes to leave Wessex, and persuades Uhtred to swear loyalty for a year in order to teach Saxon soldiers how the Danes fight.
Alfred is ruthless but likeable. The show captures Alfred’s efforts to tame Uhtred, such as convincing him to marry, even though Mildrith (Amy Wren), his bride, comes with a huge debt to the church. When Uhtred continues to resist Alfred’s civilizing attempts, he is handed over as a hostage to Guthrum (Thomas W. Gabrielsson) because his rank as a noble made him an acceptable hostage, but he would not be missed if the truce was broken and the hostages were killed. Alfred admits that he is willing to risk Uhtred because he does not worship his god or acknowledge him as king. Uhtred is an unrepentant pagan in a Christian kingdom with a fervently devout king, which leads to entertaining arguments between Uhtred and Alfred.
The real Vikings were ruthless yet skilled political operators, not barbarians who believed that a sword settled everything.
Although the real Great Heathen Army was led by the Lothbrok brothers, Ivarr, Halfdan and Ubba, the screen Ubba (Rune Temte) and Guthrum lead the invasion, but there is no mention that Ubba is the son of Ragnar Lothbrok. Halfdan never actually appears, and Ivarr is only mentioned in the fourth episode as dying in Ireland.
While the erasure of the Lothbrok clan from history is annoying, the series’ greatest weakness is its failure to explain that the Danes used puppets in Northumbria, Mercia and East Anglia because it was easier to rule through a local figurehead. When Halfdan allied with a rival dynasty in 872, King Burgred of Mercia abandoned his throne to go on pilgrimage to Rome, and the Danes’ nominee Ceolwulf II was accepted with surprisingly little opposition by the Mercian nobles. By this time, York, capital of Northumbria, was already connected to a thriving Scandinavian trade network, which made an alliance with the Vikings more attractive. Instead, the show portrays the Danes as moderately bright thugs.
Hm, my complaints about the lack of context may be pointless. Anyone who watches The Last Kingdom has probably already watched Vikings, so they know that Wessex was the most powerful kingdom in England, and that Ubba, Ivarr and Halfdan were Ragnar’s sons. Why waste time with tedious explanations when most of the background was already covered in Vikings?
Uhtred is conflicted by a mixture of loyalties.
Although a Saxon by birth, Uhtred identifies as a Dane, and only fights for Wessex grudgingly because of circumstances. The scenes as a hostage where he is drinking with his adopted brother Ragnar the Younger (Tobias Santelmann) and his ex-lover Brida show how he feels more comfortable with the Danes. Actually, those are some of the best scenes in the show, as the former lovers awkwardly tell each other that they are now with someone else.
Uhtred has anger management issues. And is not always a nice man.
Learning that the nobleman Odda the Younger (Brian Vernel) had claimed credit for a key victory and the death of Ubba, Uhtred rashly draws his sword and threatens Odda in church in front of Alfred. Angered that Alfred made him crawl in the mud as penance, Uhtred kills the manager of his estate when he is caught stealing. Combined with his refusal to allow his son to be baptized, Uhtred quarrels endlessly with Mildrith.
Stephen Butchard, the writer of the series, deserves praise for avoiding the easy path of whitewashing Uhtred’s merciless nature. Needing wealth to raise an army and reconquer Bebbanburg, Uhtred and Leofric (Adrian Bower), a Saxon warrior, lead a raiding party into the nearby kingdom of Cornwall while pretending to be Danes. After agreeing to help a Briton king against a rival, Uhtred betrays him to ally with Skorpa (Jonas Malmsjo), a Dane serving the rival king, in order to loot both kings, after first slaughtering the king’s army. The massacre of innocent people in Cornwall simply to gain wealth is not very heroic, but sadly very realistic.
Surprise attack or coup?
Unfortunately, Alfred learns of Uhtred’s extra-curricular activities, and Uhtred is about to be killed for raiding in Cornwall without permission when the Danes suddenly invade. Caught off-guard, Alfred flees to the marshes, but there is no explanation how a Danish army strolled right up to the capital of Wessex unnoticed. Resentful that Alfred is king, not him, Aethelwold seizes the opportunity to offer himself as puppet king to Guthrum. In the books, the powerful lord Wulfere (Sean Gilder) used his position as the guardian of Aethelwold to make a deal with the Danes where Aethelwold would be the figurehead, the Danes would gain Wessex and Wulfere would become rich, which makes a lot more sense than the screen Wulfere’s decision to switch sides after Alfred emerges from the marshes and gathers an army. Instead of using Aethelwod as a puppet, Guthrum sends him to assassinate Alfred, which is just weird. Really, really weird.
While I may appear fixated on a minor point, the series ignores the strong likelihood that Alfred was betrayed by some of his own noblemen, who staged a coup and invited in the Danes because they were fed up with the endless fighting, otherwise why was he forced to hide in the marshes. His court had reason to be angry with him, since he had demanded huge sums to pay the ransoms but the Vikings were still a threat four years later, and his continuing sickness made it appear that he might die soon.
Shield Walls are scary.
In the books, Uhtred is constantly talking about his fear of standing in a shield wall. The climatic battle is a good depiction of a shield wall, and clearly used up most of the budget. It was worth it.
However, I have to ask if the producers ran out of money after filming the battle? Uhtred wins the battle for Alfred and then suddenly rides off with the nun Hild (Eva Birthistle) and one of Wulfere’s men to reclaim his castle, even though he had constantly said that he needed wealth to raise an army. At least, he rides off into the sunset, like in a western. Honestly, I have the impression that the producers misjudged the budget and needed a fast ending to the season.
A lot was cut from the books.
An avid sailor, Bernard Cornwell wrote many voyages into the series, but I guess the producers lacked the necessary budget for ships, so everything takes place on land.
The show has less humor than the books, which is unfortunate since the books did not have a lot.
Uhtred’s lover Iseult (Charlie Murphy) is still a sorceress but her prophecies about Uhtred’s future disappear. Furthermore, the show ignores Uhtred’s relationship with Alfred’s daughter Aethelfald, especially their bonding when Alfred was hiding in the marsh. Instead, half of an episode is filled with debate over whether the pagan sorceress should be allowed to try to save Alfred’s sickly son Edward. Even after she succeeds, the priests try to take the credit.
I must admit that I am irritated that Staepa was written out. Sigh, Strong Belwas did not make into Game of Thrones and now Staepa. Do writers have something against inhumanly strong, socially awkward men?
Despite my criticisms, the show is actually quite accurate historically and generally faithful to the books. Most important, it examines the time before there was an England, presenting a nation-building process that was bloody and not guaranteed. Compared with shows like Black Sails and Vikings, The Last Kingdom is limited by a much smaller budget. Netflix has become a co-producer for the second season, so hopefully the budget will increase.