From my blog...

My Favorite Reads in 2023

Ben Fox at Shepherd.com polled hundreds of authors to discover their 3 favorite reads of 2023. My 3 favorites are pictured above, and you can read why I loved them at this link:

https://shepherd.com/bboy/2023/f/patricia-bracewell

Take a look, too, at the full list of books recommended by the nearly 1000 authors who were polled:  https://shepherd.com/bboy/2023

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Wandering Through History

The brilliant historical novelist Hilary Mantel once defined History as “the method we have evolved of organizing our ignorance of the past. It is the record of what’s left on the record…It’s what’s left in the sieve when the centuries have run through it—a few stones, scraps of writing, scraps of cloth. It is no more the past than a birth certificate is a birth.”*

I quoted this evocative definition when I spoke in South Carolina in September, 2023, to a warm and receptive audience of about seventy avid readers. I wanted to make the point that while History tells us the who, when and where, if we want to know what the past felt like, smelled like or tasted like, we must turn to Fiction. I used a few other quotes in my talk as well, from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, from the Encomium Emmae Reginae, and from two 12th century chronicles. Most of the words, though, were my own as I spoke about the relationship between History and Historical Fiction, and how Historical Facts and Historical Gaps informed the writing of my trilogy about Queen Emma.

Near the opening of my talk I asked for a show of hands from those who had never heard of Emma of Normandy before. You can see the response in the photo below.

They know about Emma now!

I stayed in Charleston for nearly a week, and because Charleston is a hotbed of American History, I had History on my mind. Of course, we are living through History all of the time; our Present is tomorrow’s History. But we rarely think about how the artifacts that surround us today might one day be curiosities in a future museum. At least, I do not!

An example of this was on display at Middleton Place, a plantation not far from Charleston built in 1755 that survived both both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. 

Can you identify this item? Look for the answer at the end of this post.**

Another example comes from Charleston’s Heyward-Washington House, built in 1772. The house bears Washington’s name because the president slept there for a week in 1791 and apparently enjoyed afternoon tea with most of the fine ladies of Charleston during his visit. (See banner photo above.) But what attracted me was NOT the lovely tea service in the parlor, but a white ceramic article sitting on a table in one of the bedrooms. Can you spot it in the photo?

Here’s a close-up shot.

For the life of me, I cannot remember what it was called, or even if it was given a name on my tour. But I remember what it was for: a candle would have been placed in the front opening making it a combined night light and tea/soup warmer for the nursery or the sick room. It was not until I returned home that I realized I have the modern equivalent for use in my office. It keeps my tea warm as I write, although I have yet to use it as a night light.

I suspect that in the 11th century Queen Emma had fewer THINGS in her world than we surround ourselves with today, but I’ll bet that many of the items that were familiar to her would be mysterious to us now.

I am home in California now, and on my daily walks I can see the changing of the seasons marked by the golds and reds of the leaves on the trees that line the sidewalks and grace backyard gardens. Autumn is upon us, and I am looking forward to cocooning—to chilly days, cold nights, candles in the fireplace and curling up under a blanket with a good book.

But as this year nears its end, I find myself reflecting on the violent History I revisited on my recent travels—about America’s Civil War, its Revolutionary War, and—looking much further back, even the 11th century conflicts I write about in my novels. Today, in lands far away from my home, a great many people are suffering from those terrible ravages that war inflicts. And I can’t help but wonder what History will have to say about us, who could not find a way to learn from our Past.

*BBC Reith Lecture—The Day is for the Living. 13 June, 2017

 

 

 

 

**It’s an 18th century rope key for tightening the sagging ropes beneath a mattress. Be glad you don’t need one!

 

 

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Vikings Valhalla Season 2 Review

BEWARE SPOILERS!!!

Season 2 of Netflix’s VIKINGS VALHALLA follows the further fanciful adventures of Vikings in the 11th century and, unfortunately, presents us with a bucket full of ridiculous nonsense over in London. The series bears little resemblance to what actually happened in the 11th century except that there were wars, deaths, births, and an inordinate amount of bloodletting. VALHALLA is far more concerned with offering titillating entertainment (often gruesome) rather than exploring intriguing historical possibilities. Nevertheless, historical figures who actually existed take the central roles in this drama with its numerous plot lines and story settings, and the characters themselves are worth considering to try to differentiate how they are presented in VALHALLA from what we actually know of them.

Bushy bearded OLAF HARALDSON, having lost his bid for kingship of Norway to Swein Forkbeard is now focused on ridding the world of pagans. This fits more or less with what we know of the historical Olaf. He won and lost (more than once) the throne of Norway over many years; and he gained a reputation for being a fierce anti-pagan. VALHALLA has him killed in single combat by Freydis at Jomsborg. In fact he died at the Battle of Stiklestad, and Freydis had nothing to do with it. VALHALLA also hints that despite his somewhat bloodthirsty reputation Harald would be canonized a saint, and that’s true. You can see churches in England today dedicated to St. Olaf. Was he ever the guardian of Cnut’s son Svein? Good lord, no! Was he the lover of Cnut’s concubine Ælfgifu as in VALHALLA? This is one of those historical gaps where fiction writers like to create intriguing relationships, and because of the lack of documentation for this period, such a relationship, while extremely unlikely, is not completely out of the realm of possibility. I’m giving the showrunners a pass on that one, but the relationship doesn’t really move the story forward except to remind us that Ælfgifu has landed in Norway with her son. More on her below.

HARALD SIGURDSON, like his half-brother Olaf, wants to be king of Norway. That is what drives him first to Russia and then to Constantinople. (He actually went to those places, but I doubt that he sailed a knarr over a very high waterfall. The showrunners must have been desperate for dramatic impact.) Because he is a Viking, Harald can withstand near drowning, terrible beatings, and incredible torture (is anyone else wondering how the heck they filmed that pec piercing??? Yikes!). He is unlucky in love, but at the series finale, with his older half-brother Olaf now gone, (Olaf was 20 years older, by the way although he doesn’t look it) we can intuit that he may one day get to be king of Norway. (Which he did, in fact; although if VALHALLA continues, I suspect he may have more adventures before he settles down in Oslo.) Did he ever hang out with Leif Erickson or Leif’s sister Freydis and father her child in a rustic bungalow in the woods? No. That’s pure fantasy and not remotely possible.

LEIF ERIKSON seems a bit purposeless in this series, going wherever happenstance takes him and even following a ghost up to a rooftop. This seems odd for a man who has been known as a famous  Norse explorer for a thousand years now. The showrunners decided to make him utterly brilliant since he goes from being illiterate to reading and writing Arabic in about an hour, and he learns how to use an astrolabe in minutes. He never seems driven or passionate about anything, and the bouts of manic ferocity he had in Season 1 have all disappeared. His brilliance is, presumably, leading to his eventual journey west and his discovery of America (Vinland), which is what he was actually doing instead of smoking hashish in Novgorod and sailing knarrs over waterfalls on the way to Constantinople. If the series does show him sailing to Vinland in future seasons he will surely make good use of that astrolabe. But Leif’s adventures in the early 11th century (he was dead by about 1025) all take place way west of Norway, not in Russia or Constantinople.

FREYDIS ERIKSDOTTER, Leif’s sister, is a fierce woman warrior. She wants to preserve the pagan beliefs and pagan people that Olaf is trying to eradicate, and this sets up her final fight with Olaf. She is tough and fearless, and the scene in which she gives birth alone to Harald’s son is reminiscent of Brida’s similar scene in THE LAST KINGDOM. I can’t even imagine what was done to cure her of childbed fever; there were no antibiotics in the 11th century, and that was what she needed. In the end Freydis accepts the role as priestess and leader that was foretold for her by the spamaðr and that she has been resisting. In a way, she has been running from something rather than toward something. Freydis is mentioned briefly in two 14th century Icelandic sagas as going on an expedition from Greenland to Vinland like her brother Leif. In one saga she earns a reputation for treachery and murder; in the other she is portrayed as a fierce leader, and it is that second saga that the showrunners apparently turned to for inspiration about her character. However, all of her story in VALHALLA is invented.

ÆLFGIFU arrives in Norway and is made regent there by Forkbeard (who is years past his ‘sell by’ date by this time), and she is holding down the fort in the name of her son Svein while he is off killing pagans with Olaf. We never see her other son, Harold, and frankly history is silent about where Harold was while his mum was with Svein in Norway, so it’s anybody’s guess what he was up to. We don’t see her do much in Norway except worry about her son and sleep with Olaf. In the final scene of the season, grateful to Freydis for returning Svein to Norway instead of killing him,  she makes peace with Freydis. Will that last? I’m guessing it will not. Yes, Ælfgifu did, historically, rule in Norway, sent there by Cnut, not by Swein Forkbeard. It did not end well.

Meanwhile, over in England, the showrunners have made up a plot that is implausible when it’s not utterly ridiculous.

EARL GODWIN in this season is an enigma. It’s not really clear to us if he can be trusted. And let me assure you that everything that happens in England in this season is invented, except for Godwin’s marriage to Gyða. The plot to poison Queen Emma, Godwin’s relationship with the tragic Ælfwynn, the simmering distrust between Godwin and Emma, Godwin’s relationship to someone named Bear, all of that is a figment of someone’s fevered imagination. It’s too bad that they couldn’t fill the historical gaps with a more plausible story line. I had to laugh when Godwin confided first to Ælfwynn and then to Gyða that his dream was to have a son who would be king. Talk about foreshadowing! Yes, we got it. Historically Godwin would have a son who would, for a very short time in 1066, be king of England. Godwin was dead by that time and never knew about his son’s coronation, but given that this show is supposedly going to take us all the way to 1066, I guess the showrunners felt they had to drop that little nugget into the script. Still, it’s hardly motivation for murdering the queen, supposing that Godwin was behind that. But was he? We don’t know. And if he wasn’t, then who was? (I’d put my money on Ælfgifu, but if you’ve read my novels you’ll know that I’m prejudiced.) Yes, Cnut did arrange Godwin’s marriage to Gyða. Everything else is nonsense.

GYÐA has been lurking in the shadows for most of this series until her marriage to Godwin. She is smitten by the handsome, loving, gentle Godwin (she didn’t see him murder poor Edmund Ironside last season) and wants to give him a son who will be England’s king. (Historically they had 9 children together, so she certainly did her bit.) Who was she really? In the show they’ve made her Cnut’s niece, but actually her older brother Ulf was married to Cnut’s younger sister Estrith, so she was Cnut’s sister-in-law, not his niece, and therefore not EXACTLY of royal blood. Nevertheless, she was part of Cnut’s extended kin group and she was, like Emma and Ælfgifu, a very formidable woman in this period.

CNUT wanted to conquer England back in Season 1, and once he accomplished that he wanted to use its wealth to conquer other places as well. In Season 2 he is off doing just that. Eventually he returns to London to act as mediator between Godwin and Emma. Also, he arranges the marriage between Godwin and Gyða, something that Cnut in all likelihood, did. And he would rule a northern empire of England, Denmark and Norway. He also sent his son Swein and his former concubine Ælfgifu to Norway to act as his regents there. As I mentioned above, that did not turn out well.

When it comes to QUEEN EMMA, the showrunners have gone completely off the rails by deciding to send her to The Dark Side. In search of drama they have invented an attempt on Emma’s life via a poisoned communion wafer delivered by an assassin disguised as a priest. Godwin intervenes to save her, and Emma is absolutely determined to discover who is trying to kill her. SHE SUSPECTS GODWIN! Learning that the assassin has a sister, Ælfwynn, in her household the queen is so obsessed with discovering what the girl knows that she watches coldly as Ælfwynn is tortured to death even as she protests her innocence. Feeling guilty at having murdered the poor girl, yet convinced that Ælfwynn’s sweetheart, Godwin, is behind the assassination attempt and wanting to convince herself, God and the world that she was not wrong in having her servant murdered, Emma rides all over Sussex with only one guard looking for some proof to bring against Godwin, and she finds A RING! Although when Cnut returns to England and he explains patiently that the ring does not prove Godwin’s guilt, Emma is not convinced, and she sends a subtle threat to Godwin so that he knows she doesn’t trust him. This entire plot line is outrageous nonsense, and even less believable than a knarr shooting over a waterfall. The showrunners expect us to believe that the savvy queen who in the last season directed the defense of London, counselled her stepson on how to preserve his kingdom, allied with Cnut when all else failed, and then worked in secret with Forkbeard and Godwin to outwit Ælfgifu’s plan to rule as England’s queen, has suddenly turned witless and paranoid. It makes no sense! It’s as if the showrunners never watched Season 1. Even their grasp of 11th century English culture is faulty. In the first place, Emma would never have been threatened by a poisoned communion wafer because the priests saying Mass would have been clerics that she knew well; no stranger would have been allowed to approach her. Ælfwynn, who is portrayed as a women with no wealth or standing, would actually have been a member of an elite Anglo-Saxon family in order to be a member of the queen’s household, so that’s all wrong. And instead of riding around Sussex talking to alewives, Emma was at this time likely pregnant or giving birth to her 2 children by Cnut. Where are they?

In the first season of VIKINGS VALHALLA the showrunners vilified the heroic Edmund Ironside by making him a spoiled brat, and they vilified Earl Godwin by making him Edmund’s murderer. In this second season they have vilified Emma by turning her into a darkly cruel and merciless queen. Essentially, VIKINGS VALHALLA is rewriting English history. Don’t believe it.

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April Adventures in Wales: A Medieval Dyke, a Carnival & Bookylicious

The bridge at Holt, Wales

In late April 2022 my husband and I made our first post-pandemic trip to Europe. We flew from San Francisco to Palermo, Sicily, making a scheduled stop first in Wales. It’s on the way, right?

Back in January I had wondered if we would ever be able to visit Britain again, given the pandemic and the difficulties of travelling abroad, yet 4 months later, there we were. Will wonders never cease?

We’d stopped in Wales so that I could participate in the annual literary festival, the Wrexham Carnival of Words on April 23. But that was still a few days away, and we’ve never been content to just sit about and twiddle our thumbs while on vacation. Soon we were out and about, nosing our way from our hotel in the village of Rossett to the nearby village of Holt and a stroll along the River Dee.

The next day we explored a little further afield, driving to Erddig, a National Trust Property. And, trust me, driving anywhere in Britain is always an exciting adventure! At Erddig we met up with old friends Paul Jeorrett, David Ebsworth, and David’s wife Ann McCall. Paul Jeorrett, a former librarian at Wrexham Glyndŵr University, is a founding member of the Wrexham Carnival of Words and the host of the not-just-another-book-podcast Bookylicious. David Ebsworth, too, is on the Carnival of Words board, and he is also a historical novelist. I hope that you will visit his WEBSITE and learn more about David and his books. Although we chatted about writing, publishing, and the Carnival, we had come to Erddig for a hike and some history. And our three companions really knew their Welsh history!

Erddig is an estate with a 17th century manor house that actually sits atop a coal seam. In 1733 ownership passed to the Yorke family, who owned it for 5 generations until the death of its last owner, a recluse, Simon Yorke IV. By that time the mansion was in a deplorable state of disrepair, and was actually sinking into the coal seam beneath it. The property was donated to the National Trust with the stipulation that nothing inside the house was to be removed, and that included apparently a vast collection of items gathered over the generations. The building was renovated by the Trust and now offers public tours of its rooms and the numerous items within, from the magnificent to the everyday.

Erddig Hall. Photo: Geoff Evans Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Wikimedia Commons

But we were not there to tour the house. Instead we set out for Wat’s Dyke, a  40-mile-long man-made earthen fortification from the 7th or 8th century (archaeologists are not sure) that runs through the property and down the length of much of Wales. This was my first introduction to one of Britain’s dykes, and I was surprised at how high it was—15 feet at Erddig. That’s a lot of early medieval spade-work! A few miles east is Offa’s Dyke, much more famous, and probably newer. We know who built Offa’s Dyke, (that would be King Offa) but not Wat’s Dyke, or how it got its name, or if the Anglo-Saxons built it to guard against the Welsh or vice versa. Along with the exact age of the dyke these are Anglo-Saxon mysteries that are yet to be solved!

Lloyd Bracewell, Paul Jeorrett, Ann McCall, David Ebsworth &, looming behind them, Wat’s Dyke.

We also explored a late 11th century Norman motte and bailey that stand astride the dyke. No buildings, of course, just the mound for the motte and the flat area below for the bailey, clearly visible to us as we made our way through the woods atop the dyke.

From Erddig we went with David and Ann to Wrexham and St. Giles church where Elihu Yale, founder of Yale University, is buried. David Ebsworth is a walking Elihu Yale encyclopedia, having conducted extensive research about him for the historical trilogy he wrote about Yale’s wife Catherine, who struck David as just as interesting—if not more so—than her husband. The first novel of his trilogy is titled The Doubtful Diaries of Wicked Mistress Yale.

On the morning of April 23 Paul Jeorrett and I met again, this time at Rossett Hall (built, 1750) to record an interview for his podcast Bookylicious.

View from our window at Rossett Hall.

We chatted about a great many things: Queen Emma, my novels, “Vikings Valhalla”, the Rollright standing stones, and strong female leads in fiction to name a few. You can listen to our conversation on Bookylicious HERE.

That night my husband and I drove into Wrexham for the Carnival of Words Historical Fiction Night at the Wrexham Library. In the green room we found Paul Jeorrett chatting with historical novelist Barbara Erskine and Dylan Hughes—Dylan being the main organizer of the Festival. It was Dylan who later welcomed the audience – in Welsh! – and introduced Paul, who introduced and interviewed Barbara and me one at a time before we both sat on the dais together to be queried again by Paul before the floor was open to questions from the audience. Barbara is a lovely woman, by the way, with 16 novels published. Her latest is The Dream Weavers, a novel I enjoyed very much. 

With Paul Jeorrett & Barbara Erskine at the Wrexham Carnival of Words.

We had a very warm and receptive audience of over 40 attendees for our event. During my segment I asked all those who had never before heard of Emma of Normandy to please raise their hands. Nearly 40 hands shot into the air. I was not surprised, and I am happy to report that they know about Emma now! All in all it was a most pleasant evening, and I am eternally grateful to David Ebsworth, Paul Jeorrett, Dylan Hughes, and the board of the Wrexham Carnival of Words for inviting me to take part in their wonderful event.

Our next adventure took place the following morning when we set out for England and Delamere Forest, about 15 miles from the Welsh border. It was a beautiful day and, as its name implies, there was a mere to be found in the middle of the park. The mere, when we reached it, was black, looking more like a mire than a mere – like something out of Lord of the Rings. I couldn’t help thinking of Frodo and Sam.

Delamere

But it was a lovely day, and there were no midges to bite us and no footpad named Gollum to worry us. Instead the forest park was filled with families and doggies and, to my astonishment, three vikings. I don’t know what else to call them. I was sitting on a bench enjoying the sunshine when they strode past me: three young men, one carrying a sword, one an ax, and the third a seax–or at the very least, a long knife. They were not otherwise dressed in medieval garb, so I have absolutely no idea what they were about. And as I had already walked 6 miles by that time, I did not attempt to follow them. I decided to leave it as another unsolved Anglo-Saxon mystery!

Our next adventure on this European journey would begin in Palermo, but that’s another story.

 

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Wrexham Carnival of Words

On April 23, 2022 at 5:30 p.m. I will be joining novelist Barbara Erskine for Historical Fiction Night at the Wrexham Carnival of Words in North Wales.

Barbara will be talking abour her latest novel The Dream Weavers, and its unique blend of history and supernatural. Her novel is set along the borders between England and Wales, and moves back and forth between the 8th and 21st centuries. 

I will be talking about Emma of Normandy and the history behind my trilogy. We will both be discussing queens of Anglo-Saxon England.

For more information see the Carnival of Words Website

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The Last Kingdom 5.10: Destiny is All

The final episode of this season takes place at Bebbanburg, where the show and the novels have been leading from the beginning. How that return to Bebbanburg plays out in this series bears little resemblance to what happens in the novel The Flame Bearers on which it is very loosely based. Nevertheless, I think it’s safe to say that Bernard Cornwell must be pleased with this entire series and the direction it’s taken, given that he dedicated his final novel about Uhtred to Alexander Dreymon and the cast and crew of The Last Kingdom.

Now, let’s go to Bebbanburg.

The final scene of TLK Episode 9 left us with Athelstan facing the fortress and waiting for an answer to King Edward’s ultimatum: Give us Aethelhelm and Aelfwynn or we will besiege and kill you all. The response is an arrow bolt that lands a few feet from the aetheling. We take that as a no.

Inside the fortress Wihtgar makes an executive decision about the best way to avoid an attack and in time-honored villainous fashion he drags Aelfwynn to the ramparts where Edward can see her threatened with  a knife and then orders her to be pitched over the palisade. But Uhtred’s been lurking and Wihtgar is not only foiled he’s terrified because now his dang cousin is stalking him within his own walls.

The mood inside the fortress is snarky because Wihtgar hates having to obey the Scots king, and the king and Wihtgar both hate Athelhelm. Well, everybody hates Aethelhelm.

While teams of Edward’s warriors batter the fortress gates Uhtred and his cohorts including, to his surprise, Hild, manage to get Aelfwynn down to the sea gate and out of the fortress. We are reminded along the way that before Hild was a nun she was one of Uhtred’s companions and she was good with a sword. The guard who tries to stop her finds that out the hard way. Meantime Constantin sets a plan in motion that he hopes will lure Edward’s army toward the fortress even as the Scotts are approaching them from behind. Young Uhtred tries desperately to stop Edward from taking the bait, but the king refuses to listen. The Wessex men are about to be fighting on two fronts. I KNEW this was going to happen. But I didn’t foresee that Edward’s army would be outflanked and driven toward the cliff-edge. The show runners are cruel.

I don’t know how many minutes of screen time this gruesome battle lasts but a lot of warriors fall off that cliff. Uhtred is helpless to aid them until he spots Stiorra in the distance. It takes an awfully long time for him, with Finan and Sihtric at his heels, to grab a horse and dash to where Stiorra is about to retreat. And then he takes the time to tie his horse’s reins to a branch! Uhtred! Really?

It might not matter, though, because Stiorra is not in a fighting mood. It’s too late, she tells her father. The risk is too great. But Uhtred’s eloquence and promises persuade Stiorra and her Danes, and soon it’s the Scots who are fighting on two fronts. Some of them abandon the field and when Constantin sees them running he knows he’s beaten. He orders his men to burn the fortress and take as many hostages as possible.

Uhtred wants hostages, too, and he gives Pyrlig (who thankfully didn’t drown at sea) that task, then runs to the fortress where his cowardly cousin has been watching the battle from the ramparts. Athelstan hares after Uhtred, and the next several scenes take place inside the fortress and they are all about family discord. Uhtred stalks his cousin, while Athelstan confronts his half-brother and that snake Aethelhelm.  

Athelstan (Harry Gilby) is a very engaging figure, just like the youthful Athelstan of the novels. The showrunners have given him a chance to reveal his character in several of this season’s episodes, and he really shines in this scene. He’s furious with Aethelhelm, yet compassionate toward Aethelweard. Luckily for the brothers, Aethelhelm himself delivers his own just reward. There is no family blood on the boys’ hands.

Speaking of a family’s bloody hands, when Uhtred catches up with his cousin, Wihtgar taunts him: “Kill me as I killed my father, as your son will kill you. That is the destiny of our family.” Uhtred has a curt, simple, apt reply: “No it is not.” It’s fitting that Wihtgar’s end is the same one that he threatened to give Aelfwynn.

Did I mention that the fortress is on fire? And we don’t like fire because it reminds us of what happened to the elder Ragnar and to Thyra. Athelstan tries to get Uhtred to leave, but Uhtred refuses. He will not just stand outside and watch his inheritance burn. Let the gods decide his fate. And they do, because moments later it starts to rain.

With the fire out thanks to Odin’s intervention, Uhtred and the Scots king parley about hostages and terms as Edward of Wessex makes his way across the slaughter field toward the fortress. Ignoring the bodies lying all around him, the king claims victory, and only Finan hints at the cost of that victory. It’s interesting that the Scots king negotiates with Uhtred, not with King Edward at battle’s end.

The penultimate scene in the fortress yard is one of rejoicing, reunions, and a sly remark from Aelswith that makes Uhtred look like he’s been gut-punched and makes me laugh out loud. Are you wondering about the youth Osbert who is led toward the fortress by Hild and has obviously been in her care for some time? Think back to when Hild had to tell Uhtred that his wife Gisela had died in childbirth, and Uhtred wanted nothing to do with the baby. We never knew what happened to that child. Now we do.

King Edward the Oblivious presumes that he has just unified the three kingdoms—that Northumbria will now be part of England. It’s up to Uhtred to set him straight and Edward does NOT like what Uhtred has to say: “The man who will unify England must be someone behind whom the people will stand together as one. You are not that man.”

In the final minutes there are some flashes forward as Uhtred contemplates what might lie ahead. The most surprising of these is a glimpse of Aethelweard locked behind bars in a very well appointed chamber and apparently looking quite content. My favorite, though, is the glimpse of swordplay between Uhtred and Athelstan.

There are a good many flashes backward, as well, as Uhtred recalls those who have been part of his life, and I’m guessing that Uhtred is not the only one getting all teary-eyed. One of the last images is of a dying King Alfred, and we know that, in Bernard Cornwell’s words, “this tale of England’s making, of Alfred’s dream, has not yet come true, so Uhtred must fight again.”

The final chapter of Uhtred’s saga still lies ahead. The filming of “Seven Kings Must Die” has just wrapped, so Uhtred and his companions will return.

Now, a historical note about Aelfwynn: When her mother Aethelflaed died in June, 918, most of the Mercian nobles accepted King Edward as their lord, but some wanted to preserve Mercian independence, so they recognized Aelfwynn as their ruler. But the following winter, in a violent act of power, Edward had his niece carried off into Wessex. We never hear of Aelfwynn again. She may have been planted in a convent—the fate of so many royal women. But it’s pleasant to think that she may have married and raised a family with a Saxon warrior. Who knows? Maybe even one named Cynlaef. Why not?

Wyrd bið ful aræd.

Castle Bamburgh, 2019.

 

 

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The Last Kingdom 5.9: The Best Laid Plans…

 

TLK Episode 9 begins with Uhtred’s men and the Mercian Guard preparing to ride out from the burh at York to make for Bebbanburg under Uhtred’s command. Uhtred has plenty of reasons for leading a force against Bebbanburg: the fortress is his birthright, stolen by his cousin Wihtgar and he wants it back; he wants to avenge Wihtgar’s murder of Fr. Beocca; he wants to rescue Lady Aelfwynn; and he wants to seize and punish Ealdorman Aelfhelm for his repeated treacheries.

That King Edward has threatened to violently prevent anyone from leaving the burh is a concern, and the queen’s mother takes it upon herself to address it. She teams up with her new daughter-in-law Eadgifu who I’m liking more and more, and they gang up on Edward with a complex mix of sober arguments and, from Aelswith, motherly encouragement. When the fortress gate opens the next morning and Uhtred leads his men out to find Edward and his army arrayed in front of them, Uhtred looks worried; but we’re not. We know that this season has to end at Bebbanburg. We’re just not sure how we’re going to get there.

Turns out Edward has relented, so he, Uhtred and Aldhelm lead their army to within 5 miles of Bebbanburg, intending to skirt the fortress and meet the Scots king on the road before he and his army can get inside. Of course, nothing goes as planned. To the consternation of everyone both inside and outside Bebbanburg, the Scots king lands at the fortress in a small boat practically alone. When the Saxon leaders learn this they argue about what to do next and Uhtred has to fall back on Plan B. He doesn’t really explain what his part of Plan B will be, probably because, as Finan pointed out last season, Uhtred flies by the seat of his pants. (I’m not sure he used those exact words.) Uhtred merely tells Edward, “Do not attack until I give the word.”

Well. We can already guess how THAT is likely to play out.

And then something totally unexpected happens. At least, I wasn’t expecting it. Uhtred, Pyrlig, Finan and Sihtric enter a convent. No, they don’t take the veil, they just go inside. This move was foreshadowed in an earlier episode when Uhtred said he had a friend near Lindisfarne and sent Haesten there with Aalys. Now we know who that friend is. Abbess Hild (Eva Birthistle–I love her!) greets them, willingly aids them, and drops a few brief words that solve an earlier mystery that has been gnawing at me. Did you hear the penny drop?

That villain Haesten—the guy we love to hate—must have had a Come To Jesus moment because he’s hanging out in the abbey and getting rich as a trader. Trading at an abbey is only a little far-fetched, because anyone trying to reach Lindisfarne would have had to wait for the tide to recede in order to cross to the Holy Isle (they still do), and the abbey would be a good spot to spend time and money. After some persistent urging from Uhtred, Haesten reluctantly agrees to help retrieve Aelfwynn from Bebbanburg. Hild isn’t too sure about Haesten, given his history of betrayals and, knowing that a leopard doesn’t easily change its spots she goes along for the ride.

So we have King Edward and his army waiting for word from Uhtred: we have Fr. Pyrlig sitting in a boat somewhere offshore waiting to convey Aelfwynn and company to her uncle; we have Haesten and Hild unloading goods on the beach; and we have Uhtred leading Finan and Sihtric on a secret, treacherous cliff path toward the fortress. What could go possibly wrong?

When our cliff-crawlers reach a spot where a slide has wiped out the trail, leaving a perilous drop just beyond their toes, I can hear Samwise Gamgee in my head muttering, “Rope. I knew I’d need a rope.” But looking at that cliff face I’m not sure that even a rope would have helped.

And while Uhtred and his companions are making like flies on a wall, Edward is getting nervous. The Scots army is getting close, and when he starts making noises about attacking before Uhtred gives the word, Aelswith decides again that she has to act to prevent a slaughter. She and Eadith ride south and I have no idea what she is planning to do. Neither does poor Eadith.

Down on the beach Haesten and Hild are confronted by guards who offer them shelter inside the fortress and won’t take no for an answer. So now Team Hild is inside Bebbanburg while Team Uhtred isn’t. Yeah. We knew this wasn’t going to go to plan; and it gets worse.

The following series of events that take place inside the fortress are beautifully orchestrated to raise tension. Uhtred’s team gets in, but Finan and Sihtric are captured and sent to be tortured until they reveal what they’re up to. Hild spots Aelfwynn, but loses her. Haesten, who Cornwell describes as having a tongue that could turn turds to gold, gets to Aelfwynn but can’t convince her that he’s with the good guys, and that’s hardly a surprise. His eloquence fails him again when he faces a suspicious and menacing King Constantin. In this, his final scene, Uhtred’s old enemy is given a moment of grace. He could have turned on Uhtred (again), but he didn’t and he pays the ultimate price. In the novel Warriors of the Storm Haesten dies in the same way, a sword thrust through his belly. But it’s not King Constantin who holds the sword; it’s young Athelstan as he faces Haesten in a single battle to the death. There’s no redemption for Haesten in the novel.

Somewhere in the woods nearby, Aelswith is searching for someone who is rumored to be living rough among the trees. When she finds her quarry she gazes pleadingly at a very unwelcoming Stiorra and says, “We need your help.”

They’ll need help fast because Edward’s army is already approaching Bebbanburg. Uhtred, watching from his hiding place, agonizes that they’ve come too soon, but the Saxons’ appearance at least distracts Constantin’s men from torturing Finan and Sihtric. Athelstan rides forward with a message from Edward: Give us Aethelhelm and Aelfwynn and we will not attack. Refuse, and we will besiege and kill you all.

But we know that Bebbanburg is impregnable, and I’m worried that there’s a Scots army approaching from the north that might trap Edward’s force  up against the walls of the fortress. I’m also worried about poor Pyrlig sitting alone in a boat on the North Sea; I hope they’ve at least given him a hat.

Athelstan’s chilling and possibly empty ultimatum is still unanswered when the credits roll and, darn it, there’s only one more episode left.

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The Last Kingdom 5.8: Daughters and Sons

 

In the previous episode (Ep. 7), while I was totally fixated on Brida, the other story threads inched forward.

Aethelhelm approached the Scots king with the offer of a Mercian bride (Aelswith) in return for putting his grandson on Edward’s throne. King Constantin was intrigued but, wisely, didn’t trust Aethelhelm any farther than he could throw him. So he sent the lying swine to Bebbanburg with Wihtgar, and if these two guys were cats they’d be hissing at each other with bared teeth.

Aelfwynn, to no one’s surprise, managed to fall into the hands of Aethelhelm’s goons and bring Aelswith and Eadith along with her. Aelswith was canny enough to recognize who was behind their abduction and that their lives were in danger. She decided to act, and probably everyone watching raised dubious eyebrows when she claimed that she was schooled in how to protect herself. Aelswith???? But she was as good as her word, and I had to laugh when after disposing of her enemy she breathed that she felt like Michael the Archangel when he slew Satan’s armies. She forgot, though, that her grand-daughter was not schooled in much of anything, or maybe Aelfwynn missed the class on self-preservation, because Goon Number Two snatched her up and rode off into the night.

Uhtred, too, was having adolescent daughter problems, and even before Stiorra killed Brida. The former queen of York wanted nothing to do with her father, with the Saxon King, or with Christians. She called her father the arseling of the House of Wessex, rejected Edward’s offer as ruler of York and managed to get herself and her people exiled, to Uhtred’s anguish and consternation.

King Edward couldn’t escape the rebellious teenager problem, either, but his response was quite different from that of Uhtred and Aelswith. While they refused to give up on their wayward children, Edward wasn’t going to stomach his son’s disobedience. So despite the fact that Aelfweard was ignorant of the treachery of his grandfather, when the boy went north in a huff to find his dear grandpapa, Edward responded by marrying his mistress to legitimize her unborn child and more or less washed his hands of his misbehaving lad.

As Episode 8 opens Uhtred is confronting his daughter and getting absolutely nowhere. She is planning to settle with her people in the north, not go with her father back to Runcorn. For most of this episode Uhtred obstinately insists that his companions and his daughter must return to their shattered village even though everyone he trusts attempts to dissuade him. Even Fr. Pyrlig – yes! Pyrlig lives!  

Fr. Benedict delivers Aelfweard to Bebbanburg and his disgustingly doting grandfather. With Aelfweard’s blackmail threat behind him, the priest listens to Aethelhelm’s talk of rebellion with misgiving and slips away in the night.

When Edward learns that his wayward son is nowhere in Wessex and has probably run to grandpa, the king is so wounded that he waxes philosophical. Why is this happening to him? He intuits that Aethelhelm is provoking him, and that there is a trap waiting if he should take the bait. So he makes a very firm decision that he is not going to move his army north but return to Winchester. He holds to that decision even when his mother storms in with news of Aelfwynn’s abduction and demands that Edward save the girl.

And while Edward’s position sounds like obstinacy, we have to remember that last season he nearly lost Winchester because he tarried too long in Mercia and left Wessex unprotected. He’s not about to make that mistake again.

I found myself warming to Eadgifu in this episode. She doesn’t come across as a schemer as she takes on the role of wise counsellor to the king. She honors Edward’s mother, and I especially like that she acts the straight man for Aelswith by giving her the perfect set-up for Aelswith’s boast about slaughtering a man with her bare hands. I laughed out loud.

A defiant, barely-a-lady Aelfwynn is delivered to Bebbanburg, but her threat to kill herself rather than wed the Scots king only earns her Aethelhelm’s scorn. The final image of the scene—the two of them seated in gloom with Aelfwynn the central figure in the key light—is held for a long time. It seems portentous, but I don’t know what to make of it.

Fr. Benedict brings word of Aethelhelm’s whereabouts and schemes to Aylesbury, and at the mention of Bebbanburg Uhtred begins to re-evaluate his next move. Like Edward he turns philosophical, and Fr. Pyrlig nudges him gently toward a decision.

In the final, tense scene of the episode Uhtred presents Edward with a plan to stop Aethelhelm and fortify the lands near the Scots border. Edward is mulish, refusing to be drawn north into a trap just so Uhtred, he points out, can regain Bebbanburg. He stays calm, firm, kinglike. He’s more like Alfred than we’ve ever seen him.  But when he announces that he will offer the Scottish king half of Northumbria plus Aelfwynn in exchange for Aethehelm’s head, absolutely nobody supports the plan. Uhtred, Aldhelm, Aelswith, Fr. Pyrlig, Athelstan—all of them raise their arguments. Stymied by this opposition Edward pulls rank, nods to his guards, and swords are drawn, although there’s no blood spilled yet. Edward reminds what is essentially his witan how he dealt with the witan of Mercia, and he threatens to execute anyone who attempts to leave the city. Uhtred and Aldhelm are still defiant, and now Uhtred offers the king an ultimatum in return. Join us now while we have the advantage of time on our side, or stay here and flounder. Choose.

It’s a Mexican Mercian stand-off.

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The Last Kingdom 5.7: Brida

The scripts for The Last Kingdom are based on the novels of Bernard Cornwell, on the history of 10th century England, and on what emerges from the creative minds of the showrunners. This final season has four previous seasons of accumulated story and character development on which to draw. It has, in essence, its own history.

We have seen beloved heroes die: Alfred, Leofric, Ragnar, Beocca, Aethelflaed, Steapa, Osferth, Gisela—the list goes on. So many wonderful characters, each with a compelling story. We have seen children grow, have seen the bond among Uhtred’s companions tighten and strengthen amid danger and heartbreak. We have watched loathsome villains pay the ultimate price for their deeds—characters we loved to hate: Skade, Aelfric, Aethelwold, Cnut, Kjartan, Bloodhair, Sigefrid. My vote as THE WORST goes to Skade.

And then, of course, there’s Brida.

In the early seasons Brida’s character development and her story were similar to what we saw in the novels. She was a Saxon child captured by the Danes and raised with Uhtred in Ragnar’s household, and she became Uhtred’s first lover. She was taught to hate the Saxons. Cornwell writes, in Uhtred’s voice: “Start your killers young, before their consciences are grown. Start them young and they will be lethal.” That surely applies to Brida. And while Uhtred struggled continuously between identifying with his Saxon roots and his Danish upbringing, constantly wavering back and forth—was he Saxon or Dane?– Brida never wavered. Brida was more Danish than the Danes! She was a woman warrior and even a sorceress. She was a kick-ass, sometimes foul-mouthed, irreverent, sometimes erratic spitfire. Yet even as fans of the early seasons embraced her fiery, obstinate, passionate nature, those of us who had read the novels already knew that Cornwell would slowly darken and twist that nature into something hateful.

In the novels we don’t really see all of Brida’s backstory and the incidents that embitter her, but the series invents many of them. She is imprisoned by the Saxons. The armies she leads against them are beaten again and again. Her beloved Ragnar does not die a natural death, as in the books, but is butchered by a Saxon in league with Ragnar’s Danish ally. She is captured, enslaved and tortured by the Welsh. Her ally Sigtryggr betrays her by making peace with the Saxon king. Her daughter meets her death in that fatal, heartbreaking leap at York. In Brida’s mind, these are a litany of crimes against her personally, and against her gods. Yet as she wanders through the wilderness of Mercia with Pyrlig she responds to his gentle prodding, unburdening herself. “I’m lost. There is no life for me after this. I am alone.”

There was no such unburdening in Cornwell’s novel The Flame Bearer. He describes Brida as “an enchantress, white-haired and wizened now, chanting her skald’s songs about dead Christians and of Odin triumphant. Songs of hate.” In her final scene in the novel she is a malignant, cackling crone who has ordered Stiorra’s little daughter to be blinded with a metal spike.

Yes, the Brida of both the series and the book cruelly gelds young Uhtred; in this episode she goes further and turns viciously on Fr. Pyrlig. But in the novel there is no final, private sword fight between Brida and Uhtred at the site of Ragnar’s burned hall where she goads him to kill her and, when he will not, pleads with him for death. In this scene we are given an aspect of Brida that the novel did not offer. There is despair: “Something has died within me, Uhtred.” And from Uhtred, surprisingly, there is forgiveness: “If my son could forgive you after what you have done to him, then I must do the same.” There is a moment of remembered tenderness as Uhtred places his forehead against hers and whispers, “Trust me.”

And this final scene between them does something that cannot be done in a book, at least, not quite like this. The flashbacks that intersperse the sword fight between Brida and Uhtred take us into Uhtred’s memories of her—the cruel avenger; the bitter enemy; the heartbroken friend weeping over Ragnar’s grave; the lover; the little girl who has, like the boy Uhtred, just witnessed the destruction of her entire world.

I’ve never seen anything quite like it, that I can think of. I thought it was brilliant and a masterful use of the history of this series.

The hand that takes Brida’s life is the same one as in the novel, but the circumstances are utterly different. Anyone watching with attention must have known that it was coming even if they hadn’t read the book. I don’t see how it could have ended any other way and still be true to Cornwell’s vision.

Actress Emily Cox had to go through strenuous physical training for this role. Along with that very physical portrayal of a viking warrior, she brilliantly explored the many facets of Brida’s personality. We loved her, hated her, pitied her. I suspect I’m not the only one who wept for her.  

As for Alexander Dreymon, his acting chops have expanded over this series, and this season in particularly  he must be commended for his stunningly powerful performance.

Yes, there were other things that happened in this episode. I’ll deal with them tomorrow.

 

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The Last Kingdom 5.6: The Herepath

Most of this episode takes place in Mercia, somewhere between York and Aylesbury. Mind you, there are 200 miles between York and Aylesbury if one follows the ancient Roman roads that the Anglo-Saxons called herepaths. These were the roads that the armies used as they made their way around England to wage war. Our first several sightings of Uhtred in this episode show him riding with Sihtric and Finan south through Mercia. Their goals are to find the king at Aylesbury, to avert war, and to seize Aethelhelm and make him pay for the havoc and death that he has caused. And because of the distance they have to cover, this episode takes place over many days, possibly weeks. It doesn’t feel like it to us because we’re watching comfortably from our sofas, not traipsing up or down the length of England.

The Danish army led by Sigtryggr and Stiorra is somewhere behind Uhtred. An army on foot traveled only about 10 miles a day; a man on a swift horse might do 25. This army has a destination that I think is near Leicester. The plan is to meet the Saxon army there, and despite his brother’s objections, Sigtryggr is convinced that if they take the high ground it will give them enough advantage to win, even if the Saxons outnumber them. He calls Edward arrogant, yet it is Sigtryggr who is thinking and acting with viking arrogance.

Far to the south, in Aylesbury, Edward is making his own battle plan. And Sigtryggr is right about him. He, too, is arrogant. We will have to lose many men, he says, but they will die in a noble cause. His cause. And he is counting on help coming from the worst possible quarter—from Aethelhelm.

But Aethehelm, his army camped somewhere in Mercia, intends to delay until the last minute to ride to Edward’s assistance; that way he will be a hero and Edward will be in his debt. He suggests to his man Bresal that the king’s bastard son Athelstan, in this very camp, should fall victim to a mortal accident. And he also wants Edward’s niece Aelfwynn found and “rescued”, now that they know where she is.  

Aelfwynn is – oh, maybe 70 miles to the west in a village called Buxton, across the hills in Derbyshire, where she and her  grandmother are waiting nervously for her bridegroom to show up. Instead they learn of the massacre at Runcorn and immediately start arguing about where they should go next. Aelswith insists on a convent. Aelfwynn reacts to that like a stubborn, mouthy 16-year old, and when Eadith arrives to warn that they are being followed, we’re not surprised that Aelfwynn has escaped. Eventually we see her riding off alone through the forest, grinning, utterly pleased with herself and her freedom. We suspect that won’t last long.

Poor Fr. Pyrlig, still without a horse, is hiking vaguely southward with Brida in hopes of finding Uhtred. They run into refugees from Runcorn making for Aylesbury who warn Pyrlig that the peace between Saxons and Danes is ended. He keeps this bitter news from Brida presumably because it would mean that the two of them—he a Saxon and she a Dane—are now at war. And she’s the one with the weapon.

Uhtred finally reaches Edward’s camp with proof of Aethelhelm’s treachery. That he was responsible for the death of the queen and for the death of Edward’s half-brother, Osferth. Once he’s convinced, Edward prepares to go north to forge a new union with Sigtryggr because his quarrel now is with Aethehelm.

Only, Sigtryggr doesn’t know any of that. He only knows that he has spotted Aethehelm’s Saxon war camp on the other side of a frozen lake. Rognvaldr urges his brother to cross the ice and attack. So what if it’s not Edward? They’re Saxons! But Stiorra argues that the Danes can’t afford to lose men. And what if the ice doesn’t hold? This is Mercia, not Iceland. Rognvald tests the ice to proves it will hold, and the army starts across the ice at night, led by Sigtryggr. Although we can hear the sound of ice cracking they make it across.

None of this was in the novels, none of it! So I have no idea what is going to happen next. I’m worried that Stiorra won’t make it across the ice to the hill where she’s supposed to wait out the battle, and I’m hoping that Aethelhelm will end up head first in icy water.

None of that happens.

Instead, the Danes surprise the sleeping Saxon camp and Stiorra watches the ensuing battle from a distance, wide-eyed with horror. She’s not like Brida. She does not revel in bloodshed. Uhtred gets there, finds his daughter, then heads into the fray with Finan and Sihtric, searching for Athelstan. That Swine Aethelhelm gets away just before Edward and his cavalry arrive to overwhelm the Danes.

At battle’s end Uhtred plays the diplomat, trying to broker peace between Sigtryggr and Edward. He’s done this before and succeeded. Not this time. The king takes a page from his father’s playbook and offers to restore the peace between them if the Danes will be baptized, but Sigtryggr refuses. And in ordering Sigtryggr’s execution, Edward extends his rule beyond Mercia and into Northumbria. (Historical note: it was actually Aethelflaed who, in 918, received pledges from the people of York that they would be under her rule. She died, though, that same year and York fell under Danish control again.)

Stiorra’s promise to her husband to take back York may be the plot of a future episode, but for now she is defeated and widowed on the order of the king and, at Sigtryggr’s request, by the hand of Uhtred. Remember how, a couple of seasons back, Brida begged for Uhtred to kill her but he couldn’t bring himself to do it? This time the poor man can’t refuse. The show runners really put him through the wringer, and actor Alexander Dreymon is brilliant at conveying the emotional trauma of a man forced to murder a friend.

Speaking of Brida, when she stumbles across a wounded Dane who’s escaped the carnage of that battle and she’s told that Uhtred fought with the Saxons against the Danes, she turns on Fr. Pyrlig. She leaves him, gut-wounded, on the side of the road, but we’re certain to see her again. She’s not done with Uhtred yet. As for Pyrlig, I’m hoping he lives, but it’s not looking good.

It’s a somber group that leaves that battlefield in an endless line along the herepath.  Uhtred, Athelstan, Stiorra, even the king have bitter regrets. Only Aethelhelm, swilling ale in some far off tavern, is sanguine. He’s heading for Scotland to canoodle with King Constantine about putting an end to Edward’s tyranny. And at the Scottish king’s table in Sterling, sitting among the lords of Northumbria who’ve come to consult with that king, is Uhtred’s cousin, Wihtgar of Bebbanburg. Uh-oh.

With Constantine, Wihtgar, Aethelhelm, and Brida ranged against him, there’s a whole load of trouble ahead for Uhtred.

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