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The Last Kingdom, Episode 3: The New King of Wessex

Despite the fact that the main character of Bernard Cornwell’s books is our hero Uhtred, it is Alfred who is the focal character of this episode. Everything and everyone revolves around him, and actor David Dawson does a spectacular job of bringing Alfred to life. As the title of this episode suggests, the theme this week is kingship and what it means.

In the very first scene Alfred arrives in Winchester, tense and troubled after the battle of Æsc’s Hill. His brother, the king, is badly wounded, and Alfred is clever enough to foresee what his brother’s death will mean: he will have to take the crown, and the crown of Wessex will be a burden because Wessex is under attack. It’s the last kingdom to resist the Danish invaders.

But wait! The dying king has a son named Æthelwold. Shouldn’t HE get the crown? He certainly thinks so. The crown is mine; my birthright, he says. A son comes before a brother.

Actually, the concept of primogeniture doesn’t take hold in Britain until after 1066, and historically, long before Æthelred’s death, Alfred had been second in command in Wessex. The brothers had an agreement, approved by the king’s council (the witan) that Alfred would rule should his older brother die. The show is true to that historical fact. (And years later, a somewhat ruthless Alfred would prepare a will that would guarantee that his own son, and not the sons of his brother, would succeed to the throne of Wessex when Alfred died.)

We don’t know what Alfred’s nephew was really like, but the Æthelwold we see here rings true to Cornwell’s depiction of him. Our first glimpse of him this week is when he wakes up in a stable beside a sow, and he’s such an obnoxious little jerk that we feel sorry for the sow. He gives us an excellent example of what a king is not, in contrast to Alfred who is, at the very same moment, in attendance at his brother’s deathbed, taking care of business.

But this Alfred is no saint. We know this because he says so. He is tempted by the pleasures of the flesh, in the form of a pretty servant girl. You stand for everything that is precious, always to be cherished, he tells her.

Alfred isn’t quite as tempted by his wife, and we don’t blame him because Ælswith is exactly like Cornwell portrays her – pious, self-righteous, and spiteful. Nevertheless, Alfred treats her with courtesy and deference. She is his helpmate. It’s a pretty good picture of what a political marriage might have been like, although there’s reason to believe that there was personal attraction between the real Alfred and Ælswith. As for the pretty servant girl, she is his temptation, and Fr. Beocca, who interrupts him when he is trying to give in to temptation, is his conscience.

So what is Uhtred? Uhtred is Alfred’s Dane – his pet Dane, Brida would probably say – and his sword. Alfred needs to understand the Danes in order to beat them, and so he needs Uhtred. Despite the fact that Uhtred can be churlish, Alfred is patient with him, another mark of his kingship. The king never loses his temper, not even when he’s negotiating with the Danes and Ubba starts throwing things. Alfred is cool and collected, and he can talk rings around everybody, especially Ubba. Ubba is a raging viking, and actor Rune Temte is having a heckuva good time playing the role. I’m loving this Ubba. But, back to Alfred.

The bastard THINKS, didn’t I tell you? Leforic says of Alfred. And having seen the king in action, out-thinking, out-talking and out-maneuvering everyone, we absolutely believe him.

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