Most historical novels have a big story, and a little story—you flip them and put the little story in the foreground.
Alfred the Great, at twenty-two, became King of Wessex, and ruled from 871 to 899. Ælfred, in Old English, translates as “elf counsel” or “wise elf”, and his insightful wisdom lay in a vision for unification of the heptarchy of the seven small medieval kingdoms of East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Mercia, Northumbria, Sussex and Wessex, during the crucible of the invasion of “Englaland” (Land of the Angles) by the Viking Danes. Alfred envisioned an eventual united kingdom, and also understood the need to resuscitate education and writing from the cultural amnesia that had occurred since the end of Roman rule.
In the preface to his translation of Pope Gregory I’s Pastoral Care, Alfred wrote:
So completely had wisdom fallen off in England that there were very few on this side of the Humber who could understand their rituals in English, or indeed could translate a letter from Latin into English; and I believe that there were not many beyond the Humber. There were so few of them that I indeed cannot think of a single one south of the Thames when I became king.
How timely then is the highly informative British dramatic television series The Last Kingdom, taken from Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories series of novels, co-produced by Netflix and Carnival Films, the producers of Downton Abbey.
Cornwell believes current immigration issues in the UK influenced the BBC’s decision to take on this project: “The Saxons were very successful colonisers, and neighbours, then the Danes, the Normans, the Huguenots, you name it … right through to this century, we are all immigrants.” Cornwell felt that few people in England today knew the origins of their country.
This review appears in the October edition of Quadrant.
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The first season of The Last Kingdom focuses on the invasion of the early disjointed kingdoms by the Viking Danes.
First, a clarification on the meaning of the misunderstood term Viking, originating from the Old Norse vékingr, meaning “expedition” and Old English wicing, “pirate”: it signified an activity, rather than a people. A tribe of Danes went viking (that is, raiding).
After 400 AD, and the withdrawal of the Roman military, the peripheral lands of Britain slipped beyond foreign control into a state known, historically, as sub-Roman, making them ripe for invasion by European pagans—Saxons, Angles, Jutes and Frisians—and rebellion. England, Wales and Ireland were divided into warring kingdoms and vulnerable. Wessex, in the south, was the last to stand strong.
The protagonist of our story is a warrior, Uhtred, son of the murdered Saxon Lord of Bebbanburg (named after Queen Bebba, now known as Bamburgh, a part of Northumbria), and although Uhtred’s character is fictional, his surname, Bebbanburg, is not.
Bernard Cornwell was born in 1944, and raised in Essex. He was adopted by the Wiggins family, part of a religious sect known as the Peculiar People. The only book allowed him was the Bible, which he believes strongly contributed to his curiosity and lifelong fascination for literature.
In the aftermath of John Wesley, many non-conformist religions sprang up through the conservative lands of Essex. The Peculiar People were founded in the 1800s by James Banyard, a shoemaker, smuggler, poacher and alcoholic, whose wife eventually reformed him. He was said to be a charismatic speaker with a thunderous voice.
The term, also adopted with pride by Quakers, comes from the Book of Deuteronomy: “For thou art an holy people unto the Lord thy God, and the Lord hath chosen thee to be a peculiar people unto himself, above all the nations that are upon the earth.” Adherents wore very plain black clothing and practised faith healing, relying on prayer in preference to outside medical intervention. The congregation would gather around the beds of the sick and apply the laying on of hands.
Some sect members were sent to prison in 1910 after a diphtheria epidemic in which many children died. The group then divided into two, the New Peculiars, who allowed doctors to treat them in certain circumstances, and the Original Peculiars, who did not. When Banyard’s own son became critically ill, he reluctantly sent for medical help, which led to his demotion from bishop to ordinary preacher.
Bernard Cornwell attended University College London, earning a degree in history. He worked for the BBC in news, covering Northern Ireland, but after he was married he quit and moved to the US. When he was refused a green card, unable to work as a journalist, he began writing novels.
At the age of fifty-eight he met his real father, William Outhred, who had been a Canadian airman stationed in the UK, and discovered that he was descended from the Bebbanburgs. This inspired him to create this historical drama around actual events.
The first season of The Last Kingdom is taken from two novels, The Last Kingdom and The Pale Horseman. Cornwell has written ten books in the series and is currently working on an eleventh.
The protagonist, Osbert (played by Alexander Dreymon), son of a Northumbrian Saxon Lord, Uhtred of Bebbanburg (Matthew Macfadyen), is witness, as a ten-year-old, to the murder of his father and elder brother by the conquering Viking Danes. As heir to his father’s estate, he now takes the family name, Uhtred.
One can be forgiven for getting somewhat lost, now and then, in a web of unfamiliar character names, liberally peppered with the Old English “thorn” (Þ) and “ash” (Æ):
I settled in southern Mercia. I found another uncle, this one called Ealdorman Æthelred, son of Æthelred, brother of Æthelwulf, father of Æthelred, and brother to another Æthelred who had been the father of Ælswith who was married to Alfred, and Ealdorman Æthelred, with his confusing family …
Earl Ragnar the Fearless (played by Peter Gantzler), leader of the Norsemen, amused by the pluck of a small Saxon child who stands up to him wielding a little sword, decides to spare him and his friend—Uhtred’s later lover, Brida (played by Emily Cox)—taking them as slaves. Uhtred’s new home becomes Danish-occupied Northumbria where he is raised and trained as a warrior, following the credo: “Start your killers young before their consciences are grown, start them young and they will be lethal.” Uhtred comes to accept Earl Ragnar, with great affection, as his surrogate father.
A band of outcast Danes, bearing a grudge against Ragnar, set fire to the main community hall, killing everyone except Uhtred and Brida, who witness the carnage from their hiding place in the forest. To mask this crime, and throw false suspicion on the Saxons, further motivating the Danes’ bloodlust—“men who embrace battle like a lover”—Uhtred is falsely blamed for the fire, forcing him to flee south to the last unconquered English kingdom, Wessex, ruled by King Alfred the Great (played by David Dawson). Matthew Gilbert, of the Boston Globe, wrote:
Dawson, as Alfred, is extraordinary. Introduced in episode two, he’s riveting in all his scenes, with his icy demeanour and a spark of brilliance in his eyes. He listens and observes everything closely, employing his acumen in the face of Viking savagery. He envisions a united England under one God, and calmly plots to make it so. There is plenty of spectacle in The Last Kingdom, but none quite as spellbinding as Alfred’s quiet intelligence.
Uhtred is forced to choose between his birth land, Saxon, and the people of his upbringing, the Danes, and although still loyal to Ragnar, who has been a kind mentor to him, agrees to serve King Alfred for a year. Ragnar’s son, Ragnar the Younger (played by Tobias Santelmann), a childhood friend of Uhtred’s, has been deceived into believing that his old friend was the one responsible for his father’s death. Meanwhile, in Wessex, King Alfred persuades Uhtred to marry Mildrith (played by Amy Wren), who brings with her the weight of her father’s long-standing financial debt to the church, further tethering Uhtred to the Christian Alfred. Mildrith gives birth to a son, Uhtred the Younger.
A Danish armada of dragonships, with colourful and aggressive names such as Fyrdraca (Firedrake), attempts to invade the south, but is decimated by a storm and Alfred’s army defeats the warlord, Guthrum the Unlucky (played by Thomas W. Gabrielsson).
Series One ends with Uhtred riding north to Bebbanburg to reclaim his lost inheritance and land.
The dedication to the novel The Last Kingdom is the phrase, Wyrd bið ful aræd (Destiny is Everything), taken from the Old English poem “The Wanderer”. We hear this phrase, in English, several times throughout the book and the series. Oddly enough, this same phrase is translated, differently (Fate is Inexorable), in The Pale Horseman, so I assume between the first and second novels, Cornwell decided the latter translation was more accurate. The screenwriter, Stephen Butchard, was familiar with both books and most likely went with the most easily understood variation.
The pacing of Butchard’s script is quite brilliant. Benji Wilson of the Telegraph said:
[Butchard] picked his way cleverly through the narrative explication and never got bogged down in the kind of stodgy dialogue that can beleaguer historical drama (where everyone speaks solely in proverbs while staring at the floor and chewing dolefully on a hunk of meat).
There is great detail, in both novels, about Uhtred’s early childhood under the Danes. For example, a description of the first animal he had to slaughter:
A cow was pushed towards me, a man lifted her tail, she obediently lowered her head and I swung the axe, remembering exactly where Ragnar had hit each time, and the heavy blade swung true, straight into the spine just behind the skull and she went down with a crash. “We’ll make a Danish warrior of you yet,” Ragnar said, pleased.
Or wood-chopping skill: “A dozen of us would go up into the woods and I became proficient with an axe learning how to bring a tree down with an economy of strokes.” And day-to-day routine: “Every woman had to spin and weave. Ragnar reckoned it took five women or a dozen girls a whole winter to make a new sail for a boat, and boats were always needing new sails.”
The Viking Danes did not have fond memories of their homeland, having left it in hopes of better fortune in the new country. They considered Denmark a “bad land … flat, sandy, little grew, steep hills, competition with other tribes: the Svear, the Norse …”
As banks were unknown, they would bury and hide wealth and, for daily trading, rely on coins and arm rings of silver and gold, worn with great pride, which could be used when coins were scarce.
There is remarkable detail about the art of sword-building:
There were two sorts of iron, he told me, the soft and the hard. The hard made the best cutting edge, but it was brittle and a sword made of such iron would snap at the first brutal stroke, while a sword made of the softer metal would bend as my short sword had done. “So what we do is use both,” he told me, and I watched as he made seven iron rods.
The soft and hard rods were combined, twisted, hammered into shape and forged into a final weapon, strong and sharp:
[He] finished the blade by hammering grooves, which ran down the centre of each side. He said they helped stop the sword being trapped in an enemy’s flesh. “Blood channels,” he grunted.
There is an old proverb: You never truly own your knife until it has bitten you. A still-observed superstition originated in Viking times: that the giving of a knife, or sword, as a gift, will sever the friendship, but by taping a coin to the blade, the receiver can then return the coin, as payment, and the knife will no longer be a present.
There is sharp contrast between how the pagan religion of the Danes is portrayed and Christianity. There is a romantic and empowering view of the old Norse gods, but either a depreciating humour, or else downright hypocrisy, whenever Christianity is referenced. This anomaly may stem from cynicism Cornwell developed in the early years with his adopted family and their strict beliefs. The first time Uhtred encounters Alfred, the King is praying and weeping to God because he can’t resist women, unable to abstain from carnal desires. The leader of the Danes, Earl Ragnar comments: “Alfred spends half his time rutting and the other half praying to his god to forgive him for rutting. How can a god disapprove of a good hump?” Ragnar is also sceptical of the concept of “turning the other cheek”, replying: “Gods fight each other—everyone knows that.”
When Uhtred tries to explain the miracle of Jesus’s resurrection, Ragnar is not impressed: “Gods can do that, they die, they come back to life,” and refers to heaven as “Valhalla, without any of the amusements.” He has “no wish to bruise knees with praying”.
The influence of Beowulf is omnipresent in The Last Kingdom. Cornwell acknowledges the classic as a source. There is a reference to the shadow-walkers (sceadugengan—Grendel was a shadow-walker). Many sceadugengan were said to be shape-shifters, living in the forests of England. Their eyes were pure black and they sometimes took the form of children, settling in with local charitable families.
In battle, certain Viking warriors would sometimes hamask, or “change form”. Known as berserkers, they would enter a trance state of fury, become “shapestrong”, howl, foam at the mouth, and even chew the rims of their shields. They were terrifying to the enemy. As legend goes, when this hyper-state abated, many of these same warriors became weak and passive.
The Romans, their occupation faded into forgetfulness, are remembered as “a race of giants with extraordinary building skills”, as far distant from Uhtred’s generation as understanding of the engineering of the Egyptian pyramids might appear to our own. Contemplating an aqueduct, one warrior comments, “The gods alone know how the Romans had built such a thing.”
One difference between the novels and the television series is that in the books, Uhtred is pledged to serve under King Alfred, specifically on fighting ships constructed to resist the Viking dragonboats. Twelve ships were built in 875 and Uhtred’s was named Heahengel (Archangel). Sea battles, and sea battle strategies, described in exciting detail, occur in the first book, but they are left out of the series.
The main dramatic structure of the television adaption is taken from the novel The Last Kingdom, to which it remains faithful, with the sequel, The Pale Horseman, barely treading water dramatically, in my view, as a stand-alone read. But there is the occasional glimmer in The Pale Horseman of the creative imagination that made the first book so enjoyable, with reference to religious “relics” so prized by the clergy, like “the toe-ring of Mary Magdalene” and “a feather from the dove Noah had released from the Ark”, and there’s a fine description of law “trials” that might still apply today:
A trial relied heavily on oaths, but both sides would bring in as many liars as they could muster and judgment usually went to the better liars … gold is much the best argument in a law court.
There have been obvious comparisons of The Last Kingdom with the popular television phenomenon Game of Thrones. Cornwell is critical of this, commenting that Game of Thrones “doesn’t have that grounding in reality. Mine continually has to come back to this real story—the making of England.”
In an interview with the Radio Times, he said of Game of Thrones:
So many characters. So many strands. You have to have large sections where the plot is explained, just have to sit there and be told what’s going on. This is very, very dull. So they put a lot of naked women behind it all. They’re called “sexplanations” in the trade. My programmes won’t need sexplanations.
In Season Two, Alfred progresses with his vision to unite the disparate seven kingdoms into a single entity, England, and Uhtred continues with his blood-feud revenge over the death of his father and the return of his ancestral lands.
Season Three will be adapted from two more of Cornwell’s Saxon novels, The Burning Land, where Uhtred rises to become chief commander of Alfred’s forces, and Death of Kings, where the focus is on Alfred’s death (of Crohn’s disease) and the continued attempts by rivals to break his vision for national unity.
So how accurate, historically, is The Last Kingdom? One of Alfred’s goals was to reawaken national memory. He wrote things down prolifically. Historical documentation, from the Danish point of view, is sparse. According to Rebecca Pinner, in The Cult of St Edmond in Medieval East Anglia:
The Danish beliefs did not involve a strict moral code like Christianity. At times, this loose moral code allowed the Danes to be more playful than the Anglo-Saxons, but this lack of moral code also has a dark side. In one scene, the Danes killed the East Anglian king, Edmund, with a volley of arrows after he was captured. The Danes were testing whether Edmund’s god was as powerful as he claimed. Not only did this event occur, but Edmund was canonized for it.
After Guthrum the Unlucky was defeated by Alfred, he allowed himself to be baptised. In real life, a treaty was agreed upon allowing the Danes a kingdom north of Wessex called the Danelaw, which they ruled for a century.
A hypothesis always starts out as an educated guess. The British historian James Campbell once said: “Arrows of insight have to be winged by feathers of speculation.” There are plenty of arrows and feathers in The Last Kingdom.
Joe Dolce reviewed Michael Portillo’s railway series in the September issue.