Anyone who has read Bernard Cornwell’s novels Warriors of the Storm and The Flame Bearer must know by now that the series is straying significantly from the story lines of the books. Nevertheless, the series has embraced Cornwell’s characters, his larger story of the making of England, and the history in which it is embedded.
And for me, this 4th episode of Season 5 was a very difficult one to watch because it was so moving. There are several plots unfolding here. The largest is the struggle for political control in Britain. The most emotionally gripping, though, are the intimate relationships between Alfred’s family members and followers, and those between Uhtred’s family members and companions—relationships that weave together as the story moves from Northumbria to Mercia to Wessex and back again.
It begins in York where Rognvaldr undergoes a cruel trial by ordeal set by Sigtryggr and Stiorra. At the same time, somewhere in the Yorkshire wolds Fr. Pyrlig faces his own ordeal—a maddened and venomous Brida. She taunts and tortures the priest, and for her it seems important to prove that her god is more powerful than Pyrlig’s Christian god. And in fact this entire episode is infused with the concept of trust in the gods, accurately reflecting early medieval beliefs.
We pick up another thread of the story as Uhtred arrives in Aylesbury and finds Aethelflaed rallying. He still cannot believe that she is dying, but Eadith cautions him that she has little time left. Aethelflaed ignores Uhtred’s insistence that she use her strength to fight her illness. She wants her daughter on the Mercian throne, and she wants his promise that he will protect Aelfwynn. Young Aelfwynn is maturing before our eyes, but although she’s her mother’s daughter, we know she is in a tough spot, especially because that worm Aethehelm is plotting against her.
In Winchester Queen Aelflaed is considering traveling to Lindisfarne with a tapestry she has made despite the political implications of such a visit. Edward has forbidden her to go, but she likes to have her own way. So, why is Lindisfarne important? It is the Holy Isle, the monastery where St. Cuthbert lived, and the heart of Northumbrian religious belief. Now, I just want to point out that if you go to Durham Cathedral today you can see an embroidery made by Queen Aelflaed (she embroidered her name on it) among the cathedral treasures that were given to the shrine of St. Cuthbert. It seems the showrunners have incorporated that tangible bit of history into their story.
In Yorkshire Brida continues to mourn her daughter. She threatens Pyrlig and one of her own men, and rails against the gods. She wails that she is alone, and this may actually be true because her warriors have disappeared or they may just be giving her space. Pyrlig is unafraid, and he persistently seeks to comfort her. There is a generosity in this man and a lack of fear—a strength that isn’t physical.
Brida’s raging is intertwined with the quiet tenderness shared between Uhtred and Aethelflaed in the little time they have left together. That is a beautiful scene, what I saw of it through my tears.
Edward arrives, too late to speak with his sister. He is grieving for her, but when he swears that he will ensure Alfred’s dream of a united England it sounds ominous for Mercia and not at all what his sister had in mind.
The death of her daughter throws Aelswith into a crisis of faith and, surprisingly, it is Uhtred who goes to her in the chapel. Actress Eliza Butterworth gives a wonderful performance here. Her character has had to shuttle back and forth between eliciting our sympathy or our rage and she’s done a remarkable job. In this scene she is nearly broken, but she is also politically astute. The sometime bond she shares with Uhtred is visible when he touches her shoulder and she grasps his hand.
Athelstan, King Edward’s son who has been essentially hidden away most of his life, confronts his father who puts him off. Some simmering resentment there on Athelstan’s part. Aelfwynn shows some sense when she recognizes Aethelhelm’s determination to undermine her. She’s resolved to fulfill her mother’s wishes about the future rule of Mercia, but poor Aelfwynn is outmatched. In the great hall beside the empty throne there is a power struggle going on between King Edward and that weasel Aethelhelm, neither one a Mercian. Edward is waiting for something, and when some turmoil breaks out in the yard Athelstan, who IS a Mercian, gets caught up in it.
Edward has ordered his men to murder the ealdormen of Mercia. While Uhtred, Edward, Aldhelm and Aethelhelm shout at each other, Uhtred nods to Aelswith to slip away with Aelfwynn who is likely in danger now, too. Edward claims that the ealdormen had already been bribed and he has merely acted to remove the corruption. He will be the king of the Angles and the Saxons, and he sits on Mercia’s throne.
What we’ve just seen is probably pretty close to what actually happened in Mercia after Aethelflaed’s death in 918. Although I’m not certain about the murder of the ealdormen, Edward could be ruthless. In 917 he stormed a Danish camp in Tempsford and slaughtered all those who refused to surrender including two jarls and possibly the king of the East Angles. So yes, Edward could be this bloody. When Athelstan tells Uhtred that this was no way to become a king he replies, “I think it might be the only way.” Eleventh century politics in a nutshell.
Up in York Rognvaldr has survived his ordeal, but there are still tensions between the brothers and certainly between Rognvaldr and Stiorra. In the Yorkshire wolds Brida and Pyrlig have buried her daughter and mournful music swells as the scene moves to Aylesbury. Uhtred speculates to Athelstan about the future of Britain, and after Aethelflaed’s body is carried past them on a flower draped bier the scene fades to black.
Historical Note: Aethelflaed actually died in Tamworth and was buried in Gloucester in a church that she founded. Mercia, by the way, has not forgotten Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians. Look at this.