Woe to thee, O land, when they king is a youth…Ecclesiastes 10:16
In Episode 10 of THE LAST KINGDOM Æthelwold’s argument against the naming of the ætheling Edward as the successor to King Alfred is that Edward is too young and inexperienced to rule, especially given that there is a viking army threatening Wessex. And Æthelwold, too, has a claim to the throne. (We do not know when Æthelwold was born, only that he was older than Edward—probably by only 5 or 6 years, though. Both cousins would have been in their 20’s, although there are scenes in which Edward looks much younger.)
Like Edward, Æthelwold is an ætheling (it means throne-worthy), the son of a king of Wessex. Æthelwold insists that it is the witan that must decide who will be king, and this was a fact in Anglo-Saxon England. Indeed, his attempt to persuade the ealdormen to support him was what happened whenever there was more than one man who had a blood right to the crown.
But in this series, in the books on which it is based, and historically, the odds are stacked against Æthelwold. Alfred has made certain of that, although it is a near thing. In the series Edward’s authority hangs on how he will deal with Uhtred. There is wonderful tension in that scene, where Uhtred claims that Alfred has given him his freedom, the queen wants Uhtred silenced, Beocca says Edward Rex must decide, Æthelwold argues that Edward is no king, and Uhtred hesitates when Edward asks why Alfred did not choose to publicly pardon him.
Uhtred seems at a loss for a response, and his men look worried. But Uhtred sees the ghost of his old friend watching from the back of the crowd, and it is the memory of Leofric’s words—the bastard thinks—that gives Uhtred his answer. Alfred may have foreseen that this would happen, and Uhtred lays the decision of his guilt or innocence at Edward’s feet. I was hoping we would see Leofric again before this season was finished.
The kings of Wessex and even, later, of England in the Saxon period, were proclaimed by acclamation. And we see it happen here. Edward is recognized as Alfred’s heir, and Æthelwold rebels. Historically, the rebellion began soon after Alfred’s death and Edward’s accession, but it was not resolved quickly. It took several battles and several years, and it must have been – as Uhtred’s voice claims in the opening scenes of this episode – a time of great turmoil in Wessex, Mercia and East Anglia. The battle scene follows is not the usual shield wall battle we’ve seen before. It is not as complicated as the battle that takes place in the book, but many of the same elements are there. It is an ambush of the unprepared viking army’s long line, and quite a scrum.The tension comes from the fact that despite their advantage of surprise, the Saxons are outnumbered. Will the Mercians arrive to aid Wessex? Which side will the men of Kent fight on? Sigebriht apparently wasn’t sure about that himself, and his hesitation added to the suspense.
Historically, both Æthelwold and Sigebriht were killed at this battle, although Æthelwold’s death on the screen was that of the craven he has always been, lower than a snake’s belly as Aldhelm so accurately observes.
There were some terrific set scenes in this episode: the argument in the marketplace, Uhtred’s stirring words about Alfred and Wessex, Edward’s rallying of his troops, the battle itself. But what makes a good story great is the way it wraps the characters and their fates around our hearts. This story surely does that.
Thyra’s end is not spelled out in the novels (that I recall; I hope someone will correct me if I’m wrong.) But screenwriter Stephen Butchard, honoring the Old English words wyrd byð ful aræd, has sent her in the footsteps of her parents—a fate she had escaped many years before—leaving us to grieve with Beocca.
Edward, as Uhtred’s voice-over tells us in the final scenes, must learn what a king needs to know in order to become a ruler in his own right. He must find his allies and mark his enemies.
Also, don’t forget that he has a son named Athelstan.
Æthelflaed has found a supporter in Aldhelm, but we do not even know if he is still alive. She has, too, a daughter that she must raise. Meantime the chasm between the Lord and Lady of Mercia is now vast.
In working with Uhtred to send Ragnar to Valhalla, Brida has come to a kind of acceptance of her old lover, for now.
But she has a new lover, Cnut. And if she was furious at Uhtred for betraying Ragnar (which he didn’t, not really), we can only imagine what she’s likely to do if she discovers that Cnut ordered Ragnar’s death even though it was Æthelwold who wielded the knife.
Uhtred’s men (Finan, Sihtric, Osferth) and supporters (Hild, Beocca, Pyrlig, and Steapa) appear to have survived that last battle, thank God and the gods.
As for Uhtred, although he followed Edward Rex into battle, at the episode’s end he identifies himself as both Saxon (Uhtred, son of Uhtred) and Dane (Uhtred Ragnarsson).
In the Author’s Note at the end of DEATH OF KINGS Bernard Cornwell says that Alfred’s dream of England “has not yet come true, so Uhtred must fight again.” We definitely want to see that. Netflix, take note.
Photos: Netflix, THE LAST KINGDOM