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Sneak Peek: The Steel Beneath the Silk

Release Date: 2 March 2021
Paperback, E-book, Audiobook

SNEAK PEEK AT WHAT’S INSIDE

Excerpt from Chapter One:

Emma heard the faint rasp of footsteps on gravel, and she turned around, expecting to see someone from her household come in search of her. But it was a man who approached, one whose image had been graven on her heart years before. And as she watched him stride purposefully toward her she felt torn between elation and despair.

She had steeled herself for this meeting three days before, when the king’s council had first gathered. But of all the king’s sons, Athelstan alone had not answered the summons nor sent any explanation for his absence. Now he had arrived at last, and she was unprepared. She guessed that he must have been traveling for days, for his boots and cloak were caked with mud, his fair hair disheveled, and his face bronzed from long hours in the sun.

He had looked much the same when last she had seen him, on the day that he had stormed into All Hallows Church to find her standing with Thorkell near the body of the murdered archbishop. For several heartbeats she was inside the little church again, caught between Athelstan’s drawn sword and a handful of Danes who were weaponless except for one grim-faced shipman who stood well beyond her reach holding a knife to her son’s throat.

She shivered at the memory and at the alarm triggered now by the fierce light in Athelstan’s blue eyes as he drew closer.

“What has happened?” she demanded, certain that he brought news of some new calamity.

 “We have unfinished business, you and I,” he snapped, seizing her wrist and turning her hand palm up to reveal the scars that slashed red and raw across her fingers and thumb. She wanted to pull her hand away, but she did not try. She knew that she could not match his swordsman’s strength.

“I took no lasting hurt from your blade, my lord,” she said stiffly, “if that is what concerns you.” She had grasped his sword to prevent a slaughter and the murder of her son, but the only thing that had perished that day had been the trust between them. There had not been a single day in the three months since that she had not grieved its loss.

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Cnut’s Mum

In The Steel Beneath the Silk, the novel that concludes my Emma of Normandy Trilogy, several characters appear who are new to the story. One of them is Cnut’s mum. Who was she? Of course, her son Cnut is well known as a Danish warrior king of Denmark, Norway and England.

Cnut as he appears in E.S. Brooks’ Historic Boys

But the DANISH part of that description is not precisely accurate; because although Cnut’s father, Swein Forkbeard, was Danish, Cnut’s mum was a Polish princess. I hope you’re sitting down, because what I’m about to relate is complicated.

Historians agree that Cnut’s mum was the second wife of King Swein, but other than that she is shrouded in mystery. It’s not clear if Swein was her first husband or her second husband. It’s not clear when they were married, or where and when she gave birth to her children, or how many children she had. We’re not even certain of her name.

What we do know is that Cnut’s mother was the sister of Boleslaw the Brave, King of Poland…

Boleslaw Chobry. Wikimedia Commons

and that their parents were Mieszko of Bohemia of the Piast dynasty…

Mieszko. Wikimedia Commons

and a Bohemian princess named Doubravka who, through her marriage, brought Christianity to Poland.

Doubravka of Bohemia. Wikimedia Commons

Which means that Cnut’s mum was a Christian, and therefore her children, if they spent any time with their mother at all, would also have been Christian. Indeed, Cnut’s baptismal name was Lambert.

But what was Cnut’s mother’s name? Of that we can’t be sure. The names that have been suggested are Swietoslawa, Gunhild, and Sigrid. Professor Timothy Bolton in his recent biography of Cnut suggests that she was Swietoslawa, a name common in the Piast dynasty. The name appears Anglicized as Santslave in the Liber Vitae of New Minster, Winchester, in reference to a sister of Cnut who, it’s suggested, might have been named after her mother. Ian Howard, author of Swein Forkbeard’s Invasions, suggests that, whatever her birth name might have been, she was given the Scandinavian name Gunhild when she married Swein. This seems quite plausible, for it was not unusual for a woman to take a new name when she married into a new culture. Emma of Normandy, for example, was given the name Ælfgifu when she married the English King Æthelred, and sometimes both of her names, Ælfgifu Emma, appear in the records. Such may be the case with Swietoslawa Gunhild. But she’s also been identified with Sigrid the Haughty, a lusty queen who appears in the Norse sagas. More about her in a moment.

Ian Howard claims that Swein’s Polish wife with the new, Scandinavian name Gunhild, gave birth to two sons, Harald and Cnut, and possibly a daughter named Estrith, but he doesn’t attempt to suggest when or where her children were born. Presumably it was in Denmark in the late 980s because in 990, according to Howard, Swein and his family were driven out of Denmark by a Swedish army led by King Erik the Victorious. While Swein took to the seas—he was ravaging in England in 991 and 992—Gunhild fled to Pomerania (part of Poland) on the southern Baltic coast. 

Swein eventually returned to Denmark when his Swedish enemy King Erik the Victorious died (in 993, 994, or 995—not sure) and was no longer a threat. According to Ian Howard, Swein ensured his sovereignty over Sweden by marrying Erik’s widow, Sigrid the Haughty,  conveniently ignoring the fact that he had a wife in Pomerania. Sigrid, as described by James Reston, Jr. in The Last Apocalypse, was a lusty older matron with several grown children, who enjoyed the company of bawdy drinking men. She must have been a handful, even for Swein. According to Howard, Swein’s daughter Estrith might have been Gunhild’s daughter or she might have been the daughter of the bold Sigrid.

Sigrid the Haughty. From 1899 translation of Heimskringla, Wikimedia Commons

Professor Bolton, though, doesn’t accept the existence of Swein’s wife #3, Sigrid the Haughty. He suggests that Swein had only two wives. His first wife, name unknown, was the mother of Swein’s daughter Gytha, who all agree was Cnut’s elder half-sister. Swein’s second wife was the Polish sister of Boleslaw, and she, not the saga queen named Sigrid, was married first to the Swedish king Erik the Victorious, and after the death of her husband in 993, 994, or 995, she wed Swein. Her three children by Swein were Harald, Cnut and Estrith. If Bolton is right, all three of these children must have been born in the mid-to-late 990s, after the death of King Erik and Swein’s marriage to his widow, instead of the in the 980s, as Howard suggests.

But according to the Encomium Emmae Reginae, written at the behest of and with information provided by Cnut’s widow, Queen Emma, after Swein Forkbeard died in 1014 his sons Harald and Cnut went to “the land of the Slavs” and brought their mother back with them to Denmark, implying that at some point Cnut’s mother had left Denmark and been separated from her husband and sons. If this is true, Cnut and Harald must have spent enough time with their mother when they were children to have formed some filial attachment to her. In my mind that argues for a marriage to Swein in the 980s, per Howard’s thesis, not the 990s as Bolton suggests. Either way, though, her name probably wasn’t Sigrid.

So, was Swietoslawa/Gunhild, as Howard claims, Swein’s virginal young bride who gave him two sons and possibly a daughter in the 980s, only to be eventually set aside for the lusty Sigrid? Was she, as Bolton believes, the grieving Polish widow of a Swedish king, forced into marriage with Swein as one of the spoils of war, yet somehow confused with a character in the Norse sagas? And if she wasn’t the haughty, strong-minded Sigrid of the sagas, might she have had some of her characteristics? 

The answer depends on whether your primary sources are the German chroniclers, the Icelandic Sagas, the Encomium Emmae Reginae, or some combination of them. Certainly, she was the sister of the Polish king Boleslaw the Brave. That much is clear. I’m inclined to think that her name was Swietoslawa, and that she took the name Gunhild upon her marriage to Swein in about 980, as Howard suggests. She gave Swein at least three children, but Swein eventually set her aside in the mid-990s, sending her back to ‘the land of the Slavs’ in order to make a political marriage to Sigrid, the widow of King Erik the Victorious. It’s the only way I can make all the names, the dates, and the relationships work out.

In my upcoming novel The Steel Beneath the Silk Cnut’s mother’s name is Gunhild, and as the dowager queen of Denmark and mother of its king, Harald, she is arrogant and domineering toward the other women at court. (Unconsciously, it seems, I allowed a little bit of Sigrid to leak into her character.) Cnut’s sister Estrith appears in the novel, too, as does their elder half-sister Gytha. Together with queen mother Gunhild, these three women are Cnut’s tall, formidable, flame-haired female kin.

Sources:

Bartlett, W. B. King Cnut and the Viking Conquest of England 1016. Amberley Publishing, 2016.
Bolton, Timothy. Cnut the Great. Yale University Press, 2017.
Howard, Ian. Swein Forbeard’s Invasions and the Danish Conquest of England, 991-1017. Boydell Press, 2003.
Reston, Jr., James. The Last Apocalypse: Europe at the Year 1000 A.D. Doubleday, 1998.
Sawyer, Peter. The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings. Oxford University Press, 2001.
Wikipedia: Swietoslawa of Poland.

 

 

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The Steel Beneath the Silk

The third novel in my EMMA OF NORMANDY TRILOGY will be published on 2 March 2021.

THE STEEL BENEATH THE SILK continues the story of 11th century queen of England Emma of Normandy during the final, desperate years of her husband’s reign. As the Danish King Swein and his son Cnut attempt to drive the English king from his throne, the royals of England grapple with internal tensions and external strife. Aided in secret by Cnut’s scheming concubine Elgiva, the Danish invaders undermine the English defenders and bring the kingdom to its knees. Faced with English treachery, viking savagery, and even nature’s wrath, Emma must outwit enemies who threaten her children and who seek to destroy the very fabric of England.

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Book News!

 

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The Great Famine

I have been doing some research while I shelter in place, dipping into books that I’ve been meaning to read but haven’t had the time to until now. One of them is The Third Horseman by William Rosen. The title is based on the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: pestilence, war, famine, and death. The book deals with famine, specifically, the Great Famine of the 14th century, brought about when the four previous centuries of what have come to be known as the Medieval Warming Period came to an end. The book is also concerned with war, because the author goes into great detail about the reign of Edward I and Edward II of England, their determination to conquer Scotland, and the terrible impact that their wars had on the populace of both countries. It is a book that is not for the faint of heart, but it is illuminating and worth considering during this difficult time that we are living through.

According to Rosen’s book, the summer and fall of 1314 saw so much rain that men could scarcely harvest the wheat that was the staple food source of that time, or store the grain safely in the barns. The bad weather continued for two terrible years in northern Europe when life was difficult even when things were good. A single bridge destroyed by floods could starve an area for months. In 1315, fourteen bridges on the River Mur in Austria were swept away. In England, four mills along the River Avon were destroyed by floods, and in Saxony more than 450 villages were inundated and destroyed, along with the villagers and their cattle. Quarries couldn’t be mined. Fields couldn’t be sown or meadows mowed. Wood and peat—necessary fuel for heat and smelting—were too wet to burn. One thing impacted another. For example, salt, which was used as a preservative for fish and meat, became scarce because the fuel that was used to fire the salt pans and evaporate sea water wouldn’t burn. Without salt they couldn’t make another staple: cheese, which was the only way to keep milk from spoiling.

Not enough food could be grown or raised to feed the populace whose numbers had skyrocketed during the earlier Medieval Warm Period as a result of longer growing periods and increased food production. Rosen speculates that the tale of Hansel and Gretel, cast out of their home because there was not enough food for them, may have originated at this time–a folk memory of “children starving for a crust of bread”.

Rosen tells stories even more horrible than what the Brothers Grimm recorded, but this one, hinting of cannibalism, is bad enough.

The Great Famine was exacerbated by war and by leaders who were inept or incompetent. People died of starvation or of illness that they could not fend off because their bodies were so weakened from lack of nourishment. To add to their woes, in 1319 an epidemic of rinderpest killed two-thirds of the cows, oxen, sheep and goats of northern Europe. In 1320 a disease called glanders took out nearly half the horses.

It would not be until 1322 that the food supply returned to something resembling normal, and during the Great Famine years of 1314-1321 the excess mortality rate was somewhere between 5 and 12 percent for all of northern Europe. Twenty-two years and a generation later, Europe would be hit by the Black Plague. Out of the frying pan…

The 14th century was a terrible time; nevertheless, all of us living today have ancestors who lived through it.

Humanity is resilient. We’re still here.

 

Sources: Rosen, William. The Third Horseman: Climate Change and the Great Famine of the 14th Century. Viking, Penguin Group U.S.A., New York. 2014.

Banner Photo: Medieval Town by Water. Karl Friedrich Schinkel. Wikimedia Commons

Hansel and Gretel by Arthur Rackham, Wikimedia Commons

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The Last Kingdom 4, Episode 10

The final episode of this season’s The Last Kingdom is set in Winchester where events cascade breathlessly one after another. Winchester has been under siege for 30 days, and the no man’s land between the Saxon camp and the city walls is littered with bodies, spent arrows, and rats. Ugh. Imagine the stench! Because King Edward’s repeated efforts to throw men against the town have failed to dislodge the Danes, he’s about to set fire to the city, which is exactly what his mother predicted he would do. In his mind the people trapped within the walls are already lost, and he’s willing to sacrifice them and Winchester so that Wessex can grow stronger from the ashes. Uhtred tries to talk him out of this mad idea, but Edward is adamant. Fr. Pyrlig observes that Edward is a boy who is suffering, and it is an apt description. All through this episode the king acts like a spoiled, furious, irrational child.

Inside the city, Brida is no more rational than Edward. When the king sends an emissary with an ultimatum she casually fells him with a single bow shot, so that even that creep Haesten looks at her askance. She is spiteful and angry, still hot for revenge. Frustrated by Sigtryggr’s inaction, Brida announces that they need to kill Uhtred’s daughter in front of his eyes to force Uhtred into action.

Sigtryggr, though, is as calm and thoughtful as Brida is fierce and frenzied. Unlike her, he is after a much bigger prize than mindless vengeance. He’s spent the past month listening to Stiorra read to him from Alfred’s Chronicle and he’s not only gained an understanding of his enemies, but he’s formed a bond with the daughter of the man likely to be his most formidable adversary.

Eysteinn Sigurdarson as Sigtryggr and Ruby Hartley as Stiorra

So he chides Brida for her anger and orders his men to protect the city against fire while he chooses the most valuable royal captive to use to coerce Edward into giving him what he wants.

The captives are looking somewhat the worse for wear. Edward’s queen is whining, but not his mother. Aelswith is stoic, fully expecting to die and prepared for it. Death is all they’ve been talking about, and Edward’s sons have been listening, especially Athelstan.

Caspar Griffiths as Athelstan and Eliza Buterworth as Aelswith

When Sigtryggr stalks in and asks which royal child Edward loves best, the adults are certain that whichever child he takes will be doomed. Athelstan, as stoically unafraid as his grandmother, calmly announces, “I’m the elder brother. I should be chosen.” What a kid! He’d make a great king!

Sigtryggr is on a mission, and he climbs to the city parapet and shouts for Edward to approach and talk with him. Edward refuses. I would, too, because a few minutes ago we saw Brida fire an arrow at the last guy who went out there. But then both of Edward’s sons join Sigtryggr, and although Aldhelm warns him not to approach them, Edward does, drawn by the sight of his boys. (Children in peril. I hate when that happens.)

Sigtryggr holds all the cards: both of Edward’s sons.

Edward orders Sigtryggr to leave, but the Dane only laughs because he holds all the cards. Edward makes wild, empty threats—I’ll find your children and take out their eyes—and is met with Sitryggr’s chilling response: retreat, and I’ll let one of your sons live. You choose which one. Faced with such a horrible choice, Edward breaks down. (And this is a terrific performance by Timothy Innes.) Never once, though, has Edward thought to ask Sigtryggr directly what it is that he wants. It will be up to Uhtred to do that.

Young Uhtred has arrived at the Saxon camp, and as father and son listen to Edward’s tormented search for a way out, Uhtred comes to a bold decision. He knows that if he can talk to Sigtryggr, he can end the standoff. With bravado that amuses Sigtryggr, he offers himself in place of Edward’s boys.

Arnas Fedaravicius, James Northcote, Ewan Mitchell, Alexander Daemon, Mark Rowly. “Uhtred has no plan. That’s his look when he’s making it up!”

Sigtryggr agrees, and everyone in the Saxon camp except Uhtred’s men believes that our hero is about to die. And if Brida had her way he would die. But Aelswith nailed it last episode when she perceived that it was the MAN, not Brida, who was really calling the enemy’s shots. Sigtryggr promises bloodthirsty Brida that she can have Uhtred when he’s finished with him, and he takes Uhtred off for a little chat.

Their meeting begins with a 10th century male bonding ritual that involves one man swinging a large sword and the other trying not to be gutted. Once  they are satisfied that they have each other’s measure Uhtred asks Sigtryggr what he wants and a long bargaining session begins.

Alexander Draemon as Uhtred; Eysteinn Sigardarson as Sigtryggr

Haesten, who is a horrible human being that we hate—but in a good way—is important in this episode as a catalyst for moving events along. He’s already hidden poor Eadith in an attic. Now he’s spying on Uhtred and Sigtryggr, and he tells Brida they’re talking about a truce, which is the last thing she wants. Disgusted, and possibly hoping to goad the Saxons into attacking the city, she throws Uhtred’s sword over the wall. Edward sees it as a sign that Uhtred’s efforts have failed, and when Aethelflaed arrives with an army offering him her full support, the Saxons attack.  Winchester’s gates are battered open and in the midst of a fierce battle, Uhtred has to make his way, swordless, to Edward and convince him to negotiate. It was pretty sweet, watching the two forces form shield walls to stop a battle rather than start one.

The haggling begins then between Sigtryggr and the Wessex royals, and Uhtred leaves them to it, only to be viciously attacked by Brida. All her fury and hatred spills out, and when Uhtred overpowers her she warns him that if he lets her live she will be his undoing. Of course he lets her live, and the last time we see her she is laboring alone to deliver the child that she will breed to hate all Saxons.

At episode’s end, Sigtryggr is given lands in York along with a willing hostage in Stiorra, who sees an exciting future beckoning and grabs it with both hands. Haesten has disappeared, having fled when the fighting began, and Eadith, who was wounded in the confusion, is being tenderly cared for by Finan. Aelswith is dying, poisoned by that snake Aethelhelm whose attempt to rid Athelstan of his grandmother’s powerful support backfires when Edward finds the boy an even better protector: Young Uhtred may be going back to his abbey, but now Uhtred has Athelstan, eldest son of the king, in his care.

Caspar Griffiths as Athelstan, future king of England

Teach him of Northumbria, Edward tells Uhtred. It is the last kingdom. Without it, there will be no England. 

Destiny is all, Uhtred’s voice booms over the final shot. Hopefully, the destiny of this terrific series, with its excellent scripts, talented and creative production crew, stunning settings, and brilliant actors, will bring it back for more seasons to come. Wyrd byð ful aræd.

Photo Credits: Netflix, THE LAST KINGDOM

 

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The Last Kingdom 4, Episode 9

Episode 9 opens in Aylesbury where Edward is lingering (too long) to witness Aethelflaed become Lady of Mercia in what looks like a wedding ceremony.

Millie Brady as Aethelflaed becomes the Lady of Mercia

Eventually we learn that the king is going to return to Wessex (finally) and Aethelflaed will lead an army in the opposite direction to secure Mercia’s northern border.

Meanwhile, Brida and Sigtryggr are attacking Winchester. In his novels Bernard Cornwell doesn’t make much use of archers (that I can recall), but they were an essential part of viking warfare, and Sigtryggr has used them against the Welsh and now against Winchester. Also, the vikings’ favorite strategy was to pop up unexpectedly and strike swiftly before an alarm could be raised, and we see that here, too.  In King Edward’s absence, Aethelhelm is in charge of the royal city’s defenses, and he finds himself surrounded and forced to yield. What surprised me in this scene was the slaughter of the kneeling Saxon warriors even though Aethelhelm has yielded. Normally, vikings were out for loot, and once a town surrendered they took everything of value, including slaves, and went on to hit the next target. But Brida isn’t out for plunder. What she wants is vengeance against everything Saxon. She wants to rip out the Saxon heart, and she pursues that goal with gleeful malice. Sigtryggr seems content to let her have her way for now, but we wonder how long it will be before he sours on her. We sure have!

Eysteinn Sigurdarson as Sigtryggr. How endless is his patience?

Uhtred and company are camping in a forest in Wessex on their way to Lady Aelswith’s estate at Bedwyn. Aelswith is trying to bond with Uhtred, but she’s going about it all wrong and irritating him and everyone else because, well, she’s Aelswith. Then we have another viking coup de main, with Haesten’s men popping up almost out of nowhere to surround Uhtred’s band. Actor Jeppe Beck Laursen makes such a great Haesten because he’s so deliciously nasty and stupid and we hate him so much. He reveals with fiendish relish that Sigtryygr has captured Winchester; he strings Uhtred and his men upside down from tree limbs; and he hauls Aelswith, Athelstan and Stiorra with him to Winchester, leaving 2 men behind to watch the warriors dangle slowly to their deaths.

Uhtred and his men just hanging around

And they would have died, (the lungs start to fail if the body is hung upside down for too long) except that Eadith, who is really good at lurking in the shadows, comes to their aid. It’s not easy for her, but she manages to free them, and then they’re off at a run because Uhtred is frantic about what might happen to Stiorra if she’s discovered to be his daughter. Poor Pyrlig is sent to find Edward and, once again we see him climbing up a dang hill.

Aelswith shows that her good angel can be somewhat cunning because before entering Winchester she removes the cross that marks Athelstan a Christian from around the boy’s neck. And there’s a sweet verbal knife thrust when she’s led to Brida and Sigtryggr:
Aelswith: “I want to speak with whoever leads you.”
Brida: “I lead here.”
Aelswith: “No. I mean the MAN in charge of this.”

Aelswith holds her own in this little byplay, and she gets high marks for lying to protect Stiorra and Athelstan. But sparrow-brained Eardwulf is there and he reveals who Stiorra is.  It’s a wonderful scene, with Sigtryggr alert to every word, every dire threat that spills ever so calmly from Aelswith’s mouth. It made me remember what Leofric used to say about King Alfred: “The bastard thinks.” Sigtryggr is thinking, and he intervenes when Brida orders Stiorra’s head sent to Uhtred. It’s the first crack in his alliance with Brida.

‘Know your enemy’ is an ancient military strategy, and Sygtryggr must realize that he’s going to have to fight Uhtred. So far, all he knows of Uhtred is what he’s heard, presumably, from Brida. So when he questions Stiorra about the Saxons, the Danes, and her father, he sees a different picture.

The fearless Stiorra, played by Ruby Hartley

Stiorra tells him that the enmity between Saxons and Danes is foolish. It’s a game for old men. And Sigtryggr, who we are reminded over and over is a young, new breed of Dane and is not out for revenge like Brida but wants to settle in Britain, listens.

Outside the walls of Winchester, hidden among the trees, Uhtred recognizes that the Danes are preparing for a siege and he is searching for some strategy that will help him defeat Sigtryggr and rescue his daughter.

Uhtred (Alexander Draemon) and Finan (Mark Rowley) search for a strategy to rescue Stiorra & come up empty

Eadith shows her mettle again by offering to enter the city because she’s the only one who won’t be recognized. They send her in, and then they have an agonizing wait. Uhtred blames himself for Beocca’s death, and it’s taught him to be cautious, especially with this young, cunning Dane.

Pyrlig finds Edward and alerts him to what’s happened at Winchester, and Edward reverts to his 2-year-old self. It’s all about him. MY heirs are captives! Someone must have betrayed ME! And the worst of it is, he’s realizing that he’s done exactly the same thing that Aethelred did: he left his stronghold in Wessex for too long and didn’t leave enough troops behind to defend his people. He’s furious and hot headed and doesn’t give himself the time that he needs to think about what he should do next.

Edward shouts that to re-take Winchester he’ll even raise the dead and, Oh Look! That’s exactly what Brida is doing as she digs up a graveyard to spite the Saxons and their religion. Eardwulf protests, and Brida takes this opportunity to tell him that he’s despised by everyone.

Brida (Emily Cox) taunts Eardwulf (Jamie Blackley)

That sends him to the ale house, and once he’s drunk he decides it might be fun to abuse Stiorra. Sigtryggr catches him at it, and when he learns from Stiorra that Eardwulf murdered his oath lord, Athelred, and thus can’t be trusted, it’s all over for Eardwulf. Sigtryggr has him dragged out to the courtyard to listen as the brash young warlord harangues against the dangers of anger and ambition, and against men of the old generation who pursued their own glory and went down to defeat. Brida doesn’t like what she’s hearing, and another crack appears in the Sigtryggr/Brida alliance.

Brida’s response to Sigtryggr’s pep talk

Eadith, who has been doing a good job of lurking in secret so far, sees her brother about to be executed and gives herself away. She can’t help it; she pleads for mercy. Eardwulf earns some redemption by telling Sigtryggr scornfully that she’s just a whore he once knew, possibly saving her life.

A distraught Eadith (Stefanie Martini)

Haesten, though, stupid as he is, intuits that she’s Eardwulf’s sister, and just when she’s found Aelswith, Haesten nabs her, for purposes of his own no doubt.

In the final scenes, Edward arrives with his army and despite Uhtred’s protests he throws his men recklessly and pointlessly against the walls of Winchester. Somewhere in heaven, Alfred is weeping.

Photo Credits: Netflix: THE LAST KINGDOM

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The Last Kingdom 4, Episode 8

Episode 8 of The Last Kingdom 4 begins in Wales. And by the way, these Welsh segments of the series are unique to the tv drama. They are not based on events in Bernard Cornwell’s books, and this is one time when having read the books makes it more difficult for me to be objective about what’s happening on the screen. Personally I found most of the scenes in Wales this episode hard to watch, but they do accomplish several important things.

To begin with, Brida’s baby bump gives us an idea of the passage of time. At least 3 months, maybe 4, have passed since we saw her in Episode 2 before the Battle of Tettenhall when she was newly pregnant. And I think that another month goes by over the course of this episode. None of this is a surprise, given the distances that the characters have had to travel this season, but it helps to have the time frame reinforced.

The Welsh segments introduce the character of Sigtryggr, who is not quite as boyish and exuberant as I imagined him when I read the novels. I hope he lightens up.

The Dane Sigtryggr (Eysteinn Sigurdarson)

The violence and viciousness of Brida, the Welsh, and Sigtryggr are a pretty heavy-handed contrast to the discussions about God, sacrifice, leadership and responsibility taking place in Aylesbury. Even as I understood what the writers were doing here, I didn’t really enjoy it. It’s a little like having to take a bad-tasting medicine. Nevertheless, the character of Brida is the Brida that we know from the novels. The difference is, we’re witnessing her descent into savagery, while in the novels it was sprung on us.

I have a couple of quibbles about that unlikely nighttime battle between the Welsh and the Danes. Back in Season 2 there was a nighttime battle beneath a full moon, remember that?

Preparing for battle beneath the moon in Season 2.

The full moon made that earlier battle somewhat believable, although in reality battles would have ended when night fell. This time King Hywel is using darkness to cover his movements, and that’s REALLY stretching believability for me. Go take a walk in the woods in the dark and see how far you get without tripping over something or bumping into a tree. Still, Sigtryggr’s response makes for exciting watching, with its flaming pit and fire arrows, (and he didn’t even need Melisandre to ignite that trench). Coal would have been abundant in Wales, and coal tar fumes are highly flammable; the Danes (and the script writers) are making use of that, although that looks like oil in the trench, but okay. This reveals Sigtryggr’s cleverness and ingenuity. It’s the longbows, though, that bother me. Sigtryggr shouts for his men to raise their longbows and, yes, it’s a quibble, but it is the Welsh who used longbows, not the Danes. Just sayin’.

At the end of the Welsh segments sparrow-brained Eardwulf shows up like a bad penny, and the Danes are heading into Wessex to take Winchester and make Brida happy.

Eardwulf (Jamie Blackley) and Brida (Emily Cox)

Meantime, in Aylesbury, the search for a new Lord of Mercia is playing out in a way that’s different enough from the books to make me a little regretful that the series didn’t stick closer to Cornwell’s story line. Aethelflaed has more agency and more ambition in the novel, and in this series I missed the conversations and the collaboration between Aethelflaed and Uhtred about putting her on that empty throne that took place in the book. Here, Uhtred’s decision to relinquish the throne to her seems to be something he thinks of on the spot. It’s a surprise to everyone, including Aethelflaed, and it makes her seem far less assertive than I’d like to see her.

The theme of royal family politics is in play again, with Edward deciding that Uhtred should rule Mercia, Aethelflaed opposing it, and Aelswith telling her daughter to accept her lot as a woman with no voice in the decisions of men. Aelswith’s expression of astonished approval when Aethelred takes the throne is priceless.

Eliza Butterworth as Lady Aelswith

Edward, of course, behaves like a jealous kid whose big sister has just snatched his favorite toy, Uhtred has to raise the Mercian fyrd to support Aethelflaed, and when Edward is still grumpy his mom has to step in once again and reason with him. She persuades him, too, that it would be dangerous to take Athelstan to Winchester, and Edward approves of her plan to take the boy to Bedwyn and raise him there.

Aelswith with her grandson Athelstan (Caspar Griffiths)

Uhtred’s son and daughter, who’ve only just been re-united, are bidding each other farewell. Young Uhtred is following his priestly calling and returning to his abbey in Wessex, so now instead of being Uhtred’s warrior son, he is going to be the priestly son. Young Uhtred has to play two roles at once. Stiorra has been hanging out in the tavern with Finan and company, a bit of a wild child and the polar opposite of her brother. Young Uhtred regretfully refuses to take her with him into Wessex, and she watches him leave, convinced she’s going to be married off to someone she despises. Stiorra has no illusions about the fate that awaited most young women in the 10th century: marriage or a convent.

Stiorra (Ruby Hartley) faces a life of boredom as her brother sets out for exciting adventures in an abbey

Eadith is rewarded for her care of Aelfwynn with a bag of silver and Aethelflaed’s promise of a comfortable cell in a convent. She takes the coins but turns down the convent and instead asks Finan to let her travel with Uhtred’s merry band when they leave Aylesbury. Eadith is no dummy.

Eadith (Stefanie Martini) and Finan(Mark Rowley)

So at the end of the episode, Young Uhtred is riding alone into Wessex. Uhtred and company will be escorting Aelswith and Athelstan into Wessex. Presumably, Edward will soon be returning into Wessex. And what they don’t know  is that Brida, Sigtryggr and an army of Danes are also making for Wessex. Hold on tight. There’s trouble ahead.  

And just in case you’re wondering, I very much doubt that catechumens in Anglo-Saxon England had to get buck naked when they were baptized.

Photo Credits: Netflix, THE LAST KINGDOM

 

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The Last Kingdom 4, Episode 7

Early in Episode 7 of The Last Kingdom 4 Uhtred arrives in Aylesbury, a town beset by hunger, fear, sickness, mistrust and a lack of leadership. The ealdormen who should be running the place are at odds with the king and with each other. Uhtred interrupts their wrangling to announce that Aethelred was murdered by sparrow-brained Eardwulf and that Aethelflaed’s daughter is safe, but he won’t say where she is.

Uhtred addresses the wrangling witan

Poor Aelfwynn is ninety miles away, lying sick in the Wyre Forest and being treated with a mixture of wormwood and holy water. Osferth is concerned that the concoction will kill her.

Osferth (Ewan Mitchell) watches over Aelfwynn (Helena Albright)

But although wormwood sounds creepy, it is still used today for stomach ailments. Its German name is vermouth, so basically Eadith was giving Aelfwynn a martini without the gin. But when Aelfwynn can’t be wakened, Eadith insists that they take her back to Aylesbury where a healer can treat her. So back they go, on a very long hike. Several scenes later Sihtric (Arnas Fedaravicius) finds Aethelflaed (Millie Brady) and leads her to the Wyre Forest, where the woman who sheltered the girl tells them that Aelfwynn died and was taken to be buried at Aylesbury. So Aethelflaed, stricken, rides toward Ayelsbury.   

Edward is busily blaming Uhtred for the problems he’s currently facing with the Mercians. He insists that there would have been a smooth transition of power if Uhtred and Aethelflaed had not fled Aylesbury. He conveniently forgets that the man he chose to take power was a murderer and a thief. Yet even as he sends Uhtred to be caged until he reveals Aelfwynn’s whereabouts, Edward is thinking ahead, showing some signs that he is his father’s son—and his mother’s. He orders the Wessex guards to take grain from the ealdormen that are hoarding it and distribute it among the townsfolk. When Ealdorman Burgred shows up to confront the king about it, Edward not only pulls rank (“I’m anointed by God and I’m a son of Alfred”), he informs Burgred that his son is on the way to Wessex to be held hostage for Burgred’s good behavior.  Edward: 1, Burgred: 0

Uhtred has been placed in the gentle hands of slimy Aethelhelm who orders his man Cenric to beat the whereabouts of Aelfwynn out of Uhtred while Aethelhelm just sits and enjoys the show.

Aelswith, under the influence of both her bad and her good angels, tells her son that although he was callous to send Burgred’s son away, it was a smart move. Edward has averted a fight and shown himself to be decisive. But don’t try to conquer the Mercians, she advises. They will resist. Slimy Aethelhelm interrupts to report that despite their efforts to persuade him Uhtred refuses to reveal where Aelfwynn is. Alarmed, Edward goes to see what condition Uhtred is in.

We are about 30 minutes into the show at this point, and now we have come to what I think is one of the very best scenes of this season so far. It is a conversation between King Edward and a battered but defiant Uhtred. In his earlier dealing with Burgred, Edward played his ‘I’m the king’ card. But in this scene with Uhtred, Edward shows his vulnerability. He starts by entering Uhtred’s cage and sitting on the floor to face him. And THAT was astounding.

Edward (Timothy Innes) joins Uhtred (Alexander Draemon) in his cage

These two men, remember, have a long history. Uhtred taught a young Edward how to wield a sword; Edward observed, for years, his father’s struggles with Uhtred; Edward knows that Uhtred loves Aethelflaed; and clearly, Edward respects this man. In this scene Edward is given the opportunity to think out loud about courage, fate, Alfred’s dream of a united England, and Edward’s own mistakes. In the end, he gives Uhtred his freedom and asks him to keep Aethelflaed and her daughter safe until the conflict in Mercia is settled, because he’s afraid that things are going to get bad.

Edward also sends that snake Aethehelm away, a sure sign that the king is wising up. When he is alerted that his niece is outside the gate he orders her brought inside and sends for every healer in the town.

In the scene that follows Edward watches, unseen, as Uhtred contains a growing riot by telling the Mercians that they must work as one. Aelswith, her bad angel on her shoulder, is standing behind Edward muttering, “See how he influences them. He will make them rise against you.” Edward’s response is to have Uhtred brought to him.

And now Edward and Uhtred have another heart to heart that appears at first to be confrontational, but Edward has something else in mind. He needs a good man to act as interim ruler in Mercia, and he makes Uhtred an offer that Uhtred can’t refuse. It would mean, though, that Uhtred would once again have to give his oath to a Saxon king, and he’s reluctant. While Uhtred is thinking it over, even Aelswith agrees with Edward that it may be the only good solution. And although Aethelflaed’s name has been mentioned several times in this episode, the penny hasn’t dropped yet that she is the obvious choice to lead Mercia.

Aelswith brings Athelstan to his father, telling Edward that the boy needs his protection.

Aelswith (Eliza Butterworth) & Athelstan (Caspar Griffiths)

Edward is angry because he has a queen and a son by her to deal with, and he orders Aelswith to take the boy back to wherever he was hidden. But he hasn’t really refused to do what his mother has asked. And we are learning that Edward needs to process things, so stay tuned.

In Wales Brida (Emily Cox) is rescued by Cnut’s cousin Sigtryggr (Eysteinn Sigurdarson). I laughed out loud at what happened when Rhodri (Nigel Lindsay) insisted that Brida was dead. Once out of her pit Brida tells Sigtryggr that she has a score to settle with Uhtred for allowing her to be taken by the Welsh, and then she tosses her tormentor Rhodri into the pit. Turn about’s fair play.

Aethelflaed is reunited with her daughter who is cured of her illness and Aelswith tells us that The Sickness is fading.

Mother & child reunion

Uhtred meets with Edward and agrees to become the temporary lord of Mercia. On learning of this, Uhtred’s companions are jubilant. Uhtred, though, is not happy. What, we wonder, is he thinking?

The not too happy Uhtred of Mercia

Photo Credits: Netflix, THE LAST KINGDOM

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The Last Kingdom 4, Episode 6

 

Episode 6 brings us right into the present day as Uhtred and his company, on the road to Chester with 4 children in their midst, discover that folk in Mercia are dying of The Sickness. The showrunners couldn’t possibly have known when they wrote this script that their audience would be watching this episode while sequestered in their homes due to Covid-19. Oh, the irony!

I was surprised by the decision to use the phrase, The Sickness, to describe the contagion wreaking havoc in Mercia. Pestilence is the first word that comes to my mind, and The Sickness sounds odd to me. But I did some research and discovered that the words pestilence and plague derive from Old French and do not appear in the English language until the 14th century. Sickness, though is an Anglo-Saxon word, seocnesse, and absolutely appropriate for this 10th century setting. That’s some pretty impressive research on the part of the writing staff!

There is still political unrest in Aylesbury even as Aethelred is laid to rest because the Mercian ealdormen suspect that King Edward wants to conquer Mercia. His troops are inside the city, and why else would they be there? When refugees fleeing The Sickness arrive at the city gates Edward believes that they should be given refuge, but he has to bow to the wishes of the ealdormen who insist on closing the gates against their own people to save the town. The political unrest worsens when Edward’s mum arrives and, denied entry into the city, insists on seeing her son.

Aelswith (Eliza Butterworth) escaped her captivity in Winchester to journey to Aylesbury to see her newly widowed daughter.

The ealdorman, along with slimy Aethelhelm (Adrian Schiller), want her to go back to Wessex, but Edward overrides them all and orders the gates opened, which confirms the ealdormen’s fears that he wants to take over Mercia.

Edward (Timothy Innes) over-rides the Mercian ealdormen

As if Edward doesn’t have enough problems, his mother tells him that Aethelhelm is scheming against her and must have ordered her confined in Winchester. Edward insists it was all a mistake, and when Aelswith asks why Aethelflaed has left Aylesbury he uses a child’s time-honored tactic to avoid getting into trouble with his mother: he lies to her. It’s all Aethelflaed’s fault, he says. She’s run off with Uhtred and abandoned her life as a widow. His tactic might have worked, except that Aelswith searches out Fr. Pyrlig (Cavan Clerkin) and gets the true story, that his sister fled because Edward had imprisoned her. Even worse, Edward’s insistence on Aelfwynn’s marriage to Eardwulf has put two of Aelswith’s grandchildren on the road and in harm’s way because of the sickness abroad in the land. Edward is not in his mother’s good books right now.

Meantime, in Wales, Brida is being mistreated by King Hywel’s brother. 

A tethered Brida (Emily cox) is not enjoying the feast in Wales

Her lot is pretty dismal until word arrives that a Danish fleet has landed. Brida pricks up her ears—rescue might be on the way!

So, several scenes in, we have the Welsh about to face a Danish infestation. We have Mercian ealdormen, some of them pretty surly and threatening, at odds with King Edward. We have the all too politically innocent Edward still believing that slimy Aethelhelm can be trusted. We have Aethelflaed and Aldhelm riding north hoping to meet up with Uhtred and company. We have armed men searching for Aethelflaed and her daughter Aelfwynn per Edward’s command. We have weaselly Eardwulf (Jamie Blackley) disobeying the king’s instruction that he stay in Ayelsbury by setting out to find Aelfwynn himself because he’s so eager to marry her and become Lord of Mercia that he can’t sit still. And we have Uhtred (Alexander Daemon) riding toward Chester with a few men and four children.

It is those children and their defenders who are really at the heart of this episode because bonds are being forged among them.

Young Uhtred (Finn Elliot) & his sister Stiorra (Ruby Hartley) get re-acquainted

Uhtred’s men are in good humor, bantering with each other to our amusement as, like mother ducks, they guide their young charges northward.

Uhtred & company, on the road

The mood darkens when the company is abruptly made aware of the contagion, and Finan, who has seen it before, is so agitated he’s practically beside himself. Forced to abandon the road and travel overland, their journey becomes more and more grim, and Aelfwynn (Helena Albright) sickens. She is the youngest, and there is nothing quite so heartrending as a young child in danger. Just when the little group finally reaches the outskirts of a village where they can rest, Eardwulf and his warriors spot them, and Eardwulf promises the terrified Aelfwynn that if she doesn’t come to him he’ll kill all her friends and her mother, too. Why wouldn’t any little girl run into the arms of a guy like that?

The children are plucky, though, and Uhtred’s men are ready to defend them to the death.

Finan (Mark Rowley) and Sihtric (Arnas Fedaravicius)

But before blood is spilled, Eadith (Stefanie Martini) has finally had it up to here with her brother, and she turns on him. Eadith’s accusation that he murdered Aethelred, confirmed by the ring he stole from the body, sends her brother packing, although we can’t be certain where he’s going or if he’s utterly defeated. Nor can we be certain that the children will get to Chester or that Aelfwynn will survive.

Sparrow-brained Eardwulf should never have taken Lord Aethelred’s ring.

But the children are safe for now, and Uhtred and Finan are returning to Aylesbury to bear witness against Eardwulf, and to keep the men of Mercia and Wessex from turning on each other.

Photo Credits: Netflix, THE LAST KINGDOM

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