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Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms Exhibit Catalogue


I could not make it to London to see the highly acclaimed exhibit at the British Library, ANGLO-SAXON KINGDOMS, so I purchased the catalogue, which arrived yesterday.

I have a lot of reading ahead of me over the next weeks as I delve into this background material about the hoard of marvels brought together from Italy, France, Sweden, the U.S., Ireland, the Netherlands, and all over Britain for this exhibition.

The cover of the catalogue is a gorgeous reproduction of King Edgar’s charter for the New Minster, Winchester.

I have seen photographs of many of the exhibit items over the years in the course of my research. A few of the actual items I have seen on earlier visits to the British Library where I stood and stared bug-eyed, for example, at a page of one of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles or at the reddish, goatskin-covered, 8th century volume of the St. Cuthbert Gospel found in the saint’s coffin back in 1104.

One item I had never seen, and never even read about before, is The Cnut Gospels. The manuscript was produced at some time in the early 11th century, and the first page of each of the 4 Latin gospels is gorgeously illustrated.


Above is the first page of the Gospel of St. John, decorated in gold. It is not the page, the Gospel of St. Mark, that appears in the exhibit and the catalogue, but is similar to it.  Photos in the catalogue are under copyright protection, so what you see here is a page that the British Library has uploaded and is in the public domain.

The manuscript has been given Cnut’s name because two records made during his reign were added to the manuscript some time before 1019. One of them was a copy of a writ of King Cnut in Old English confirming earlier grants to the archbishops of Canterbury, and it was included in the exhibit and it appears in the catalogue as well.

The catalogue description of The Cnut Gospels, written by Alison Hudson, Project Curator of the exhibition, explains that documents were sometimes copied into sacred books to keep them safe or to indicate that they were under God’s protection. I’d known, vaguely, of this practice, but had never before thought about why it was done, so this was new information.

If, like me, you could not make it to London to see the exhibit, consider purchasing the catalogue from the British Library Shop. The beautiful photographs and the in-depth descriptions that accompany them make this book a treasure all by itself.

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War. Edited by Claire Breay and Joanna Story. British Library, 2018.

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The Death of Swein Forkbeard

Candlemas, February 2

On this day in 1014 Swein Forkbeard died; although it might actually have been in the early hours of Feb. 3. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, written a decade after Swein’s death reported, confusingly:

Swein ended his days on Candlemas, February 3rd.

Only, Candlemas is on Feb. 2. You’d think that the scribes (monks) who wrote and copied the Chronicle would have known the date of Candlemas. Yet the Chronicle insists that he died on Candlemas, on Feb. 3. Odd, that. Scribal error that just kept getting re-copied? Impossible to know.

What else do we know (or not know) about the death of England’s  viking king?

The Encomium Emmae Reginae, written about 30 years after Swein died (with input from Queen Emma), went into more detail in describing his death, even though neither Emma nor the encomiast was there to witness it:

“Feeling, therefore, that the dissolution of his body was threatening him, he summoned his son Knutr and said that he must enter upon the way of all flesh. He exhorted him much concerning the government of the kingdom and the zealous practice of Christianity, and committed the royal scepter to him. Soon afterwards he paid the last dues to nature, returning his soul to the heavens, and giving back his body to the earth.”

William of Malmesbury, writing in the 12th century added some color:
“The invader soon met his end, by what form of death is disputed. It is said that while he was ravaging the lands of St. Edmund, the martyr himself appeared to him in a vision and complained mildly about the miseries of his community; and when he (Swein) returned an insolent reply, the saint struck him on the head a blow from the pain of which he shortly afterwards died.”

Here is Swein, on the left, celebrating the death of his father, Harald Bluetooth, and Swein’s accession to the throne of Denmark.. The child on the far left, in yellow, is Swein’s younger son, Cnut, future king of England, Denmark and; Norway.

John of Worcester, also writing in the 12th century, added even more details, and he clearly had a dim opinion of Swein:
“After many cruel atrocities, which he perpetrated both in England and in other lands, the tyrant Swein filled up the measure of his damnation by daring to demand enormous tribute from the town where the incorrupt body of the precious martyr Edmund lay. At last, at the general assembly which he held at Gainsborough, he alone saw St. Edmund, armed, coming towards him. When he had seen him, he was terrified and began to shout very noisily, saying: ‘Help, fellow-warriors, help! St. Edmund is coming to kill me!’ And while he was saying this he was run through fiercely by the saint with a spear, and he fell from the stallion on which he sat, and, tormented with great pain until twilight, he ended his life with a wretched death on 3 February.”

Snorri Sturluson, 12th c Icelandic poet wrote quite unimaginatively that King Svein suddenly died at night in his bed.

I ran into Snorri Sturluson in Bergen, Norway last fall.

Symeon of Durham writing in the early 12th century reported that Swein was buried at York, and this may be some indication that Swein had journeyed there from his camp at Gainsborough, and that he died at York, some fifty miles from Gainsborough. Because Symeon was a Northumbrian, he may have had knowledge of local hearsay that other chroniclers did not have. It seems quite plausible that the assembly Swein was attending, mentioned by John of Worcester,  was at York, not Gainsborough. Swein would have gone there to be recognized and crowned at a gathering of the witan under the guidance of Wulfstan, Archbishop of York. (The previous king, Æthelred, had already taken shelter with his in-laws in Normandy).

Finally, a 13th century artist depicts Swein’s last moments this way:

St. Edmund puts an end to the ambitions of Swein Forkbeard.

Swein was the first Danish king of England. He would not be the last.


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THE LAST KINGDOM 3, Episode 10

Woe to thee, O land, when they king is a youth…Ecclesiastes 10:16

In Episode 10 of THE LAST KINGDOM Æthelwold’s argument against the naming of the ætheling Edward as the successor to King Alfred is that Edward is too young and inexperienced to rule, especially given that there is a viking army threatening Wessex. And Æthelwold, too, has a claim to the throne. (We do not know when Æthelwold was born, only that he was older than Edward—probably by only 5 or 6 years, though. Both cousins would have been in their 20’s, although there are scenes in which Edward looks much younger.)

Timothy Innes as Edward

Like Edward, Æthelwold is an ætheling (it means throne-worthy), the son of a king of Wessex. Æthelwold insists that it is the witan that must decide who will be king, and this was a fact in Anglo-Saxon England. Indeed, his attempt to persuade the ealdormen to support him was what happened whenever there was more than one man who had a blood right to the crown.

But in this series, in the books on which it is based, and historically, the odds are stacked against Æthelwold. Alfred has made certain of that, although it is a near thing. In the series Edward’s authority hangs on how he will deal with Uhtred. There is wonderful tension in that scene, where Uhtred claims that Alfred has given him his freedom, the queen wants Uhtred silenced, Beocca says Edward Rex must decide, Æthelwold argues that Edward is no king, and Uhtred hesitates when Edward asks why Alfred did not choose to publicly pardon him.

Alexander Dreymon as Uhtred

Uhtred seems at a loss for a response, and his men look worried. But Uhtred sees the ghost of his old friend watching from the back of the crowd, and it  is the memory of Leofric’s words—the bastard thinks—that gives Uhtred his answer. Alfred may have foreseen that this would happen, and Uhtred lays the decision of his guilt or innocence at Edward’s feet. I was hoping we would see Leofric again before this season was finished.

Adrian Bower as Leofric

The kings of Wessex and even, later, of England in the Saxon period, were proclaimed by acclamation. And we see it happen here. Edward is recognized as Alfred’s heir, and Æthelwold rebels.  Historically, the rebellion began soon after Alfred’s death and Edward’s accession, but it was not resolved quickly. It took several battles and several years, and it must have been – as Uhtred’s voice claims in the opening scenes of this episode – a time of great turmoil in Wessex, Mercia and East Anglia. The battle scene follows is not the usual shield wall battle we’ve seen before. It is not as complicated as the battle that takes place in the book, but many of the same elements are there. It is an ambush of the unprepared viking army’s long line, and quite a scrum.The tension comes from the fact that despite their advantage of surprise, the Saxons are outnumbered. Will the Mercians arrive to aid Wessex? Which side will the men of Kent fight on? Sigebriht apparently wasn’t sure about that himself, and his hesitation added to the suspense.

Ed Birch as Sigebriht

Historically, both Æthelwold and Sigebriht were killed at this battle, although Æthelwold’s death on the screen was that of the craven he has always been, lower than a snake’s belly as Aldhelm so accurately observes.

There were some terrific set scenes in this episode: the argument in the marketplace, Uhtred’s stirring words about Alfred and Wessex, Edward’s rallying of his troops, the battle itself. But what makes a good story great is the way it wraps the characters and their fates around our hearts. This story surely does that.

Thyra’s end is not spelled out in the novels (that I recall; I hope someone will correct me if I’m wrong.) But screenwriter Stephen Butchard, honoring the Old English words wyrd byð ful aræd, has sent her in the footsteps of her parents—a fate she had escaped many years before—leaving us to grieve with Beocca.

Ian Hart as Fr. Beocca

Edward, as Uhtred’s voice-over tells us in the final scenes, must learn what a king needs to know in order to become a ruler in his own right. He must find his allies and mark his enemies.

Edward (Timothy Innes), Fr. Pyrlig (Cavan Clerkin) & AElswith (Eliza Butterworth). Allies or enemies?

Also, don’t forget that he has a son named Athelstan.

Æthelflaed has found a supporter in Aldhelm, but we do not even know if he is still alive. She has, too, a daughter that she must raise. Meantime the chasm between the Lord and Lady of Mercia is now vast.

In working with Uhtred to send Ragnar to Valhalla, Brida has come to a kind of acceptance of her old lover, for now.

Brida (Emily Cox) and Uhtred (Alexander Dreymon)

But she has a new lover, Cnut. And if she was furious at Uhtred for betraying Ragnar (which he didn’t, not really), we can only imagine what she’s likely to do if she discovers that Cnut ordered Ragnar’s death even though it was Æthelwold who wielded the knife.

Uhtred’s men (Finan, Sihtric, Osferth) and supporters (Hild, Beocca, Pyrlig, and Steapa) appear to have survived that last battle, thank God and the gods.

As for Uhtred, although he followed Edward Rex into battle, at the episode’s end he identifies himself as  both Saxon (Uhtred, son of Uhtred) and Dane (Uhtred Ragnarsson).

In the Author’s Note at the end of DEATH OF KINGS Bernard Cornwell says that Alfred’s dream of England “has not yet come true, so Uhtred must fight again.” We definitely want to see that. Netflix, take note.

Photos: Netflix, THE LAST KINGDOM


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“To Uhtred, the true lord of Bebbanburg; a man I have never understood but without whom I would not die a king.” King Alfred in THE LAST KINGDOM.

THE LAST KINGDOM is a tv drama based on a series of novels about a hero named Uhtred. It is FICTION set in a historical time and place, peopled with fictional characters like Uhtred, Finan, Sihtric, Brida and Hild, as well as characters based on historical figures such as King Alfred, members of Alfred’s family, and viking warlords like Haesten and Guthred. It frequently dramatizes documented or legendary historical events such as Alfred’s flight into the fens of Somerset or the battles at Ethandun and Benfleet. The dramatic story of Uhtred is set against the backdrop of a much larger story, which is the making of England. We know this much from the words of the novelist, Bernard Cornwell.

So, while Uhtred has his own overall goal (to retake his rightful place as lord of Bebbanburg), as well as a number of varied plot goals along the way (to avenge the death of the elder Ragnar, to free Thyra from imprisonment at Dunholm, to rid himself of a curse) he is at the same time caught up in the larger goal that is Alfred’s: the preservation of Wessex and the creation of a single Anglo-Saxon kingdom that will span the island of Britain from the southern coast to the boundary of Alba in the north.

Therefore, while Uhtred is the hero of this series, he must interact with historical figures, especially with Alfred. In this Episode 9 of Season Three, their sometimes bitter, occasionally amicable, mostly rancorous long-standing relationship is brought to a moving and satisfying climax.

The greater part of this episode is taken up with a face to face meeting between the king and Uhtred. It is beautifully written and superbly acted by Alexander Dreymon and David Dawson. I cannot say enough about David Dawson’s remarkable portrayal of Alfred throughout the series, but his work in this episode is especially powerful. The action in this scene is muted, but both actors convey depths of emotion through their expressions alone: surprise, regret, defiance, fear, doubt, despair, determination, hope, grief.

Actress Eliza Butterworth’s fine portrayal of Ælswith as Alfred’s officious, obnoxious  wife has made her the harpy that fans love to hate. But her character has always been complex–tender in her sometimes smothering care of her family but inconsistent in her attitude toward Uhtred. Sometimes she hates him and all that he stands for; sometimes she accepts him grudgingly as a necessary evil. Sometimes she has even urged the king to trust him; but not this time.

Still, her unwelcome interruption serves to move the action further forward, leading to a glance of mutual understanding between the two men; to Alfred’s defense of his wife, “She is angry that I am dying”; to Alfred’s plea that Uhtred protect Edward; and to the pardon he gives to Uhtred that, for the first time, has no strings attached. At the end of that scene I was watching with tear-filled eyes.

A great many other plot strings were left hanging at the end of this episode: Will Uhtred get out of prison? (I’m counting on Finan.) What will happen to Thyra? (I don’t want to think about Thyra. It hurts.)  What will Brida do in the Danish camp? (Dispense with Cnut, one hopes.) Will Edward be crowned? (Historically, yes.) Will Ragnar get to Valhalla? (We’re rooting for him.) Will the Danes attack? (There is always a battle at the end, so yes.) Will someone please put an end to Æthelwold? (Perhaps not yet, unless Brida gets her hands on him.)

It appears that Episode 10 has a lot of ground to cover.


All photos: Netflix, THE LAST KINGDOM

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“I cannot resist Skade,” Uhtred’s voice intones during the teaser at the opening of Episode 8. “She has invaded my heart and my mind.”

Surely I am not the only one who, upon hearing this, sat up abruptly and thought, REALLY??? His MIND, maybe. But his HEART?

There is a royal wedding about to take place in Wessex, and in this episode screenwriter Stephen Butchard explores the rather fraught marital—and in the case of Uhtred and Skade, extra-marital—relationships of his characters, beginning with our hero and the witch.

Uhtred appears to be a man obsessed with his woman. On shipboard after snatching  Skade from Haesten, Uhtred wakens to find Skade holding a knife above him. (Excuse me? After what she did to Bloodhair, who left them alone together with Uhtred asleep and Skade holding a knife? Yikes!) But Skade merely slices her palm and allows Uhtred to lick blood from her fingers as she foretells his victory over a dying Alfred. Finan watches, worried, from a distance. Presumably Uhtred is sleeping with Skade, although we don’t see it. At Cookham he tells Hild, “Who I bed is no business of an abbess,” and later “A man needs a woman.” Finan observes, “A GOOD woman,” and calls Skade the Devil.

Hild (Eva Birthistle) is unfazed by the witch Skade

Finan and Osferth are both worried about Uhtred’s liaison with Skade, and all the men fear her. As well, they should. She is cruel, unpredictable and dangerous. She’s like a venomous serpent–beautiful, quick to strike and deadly. The monkish Osferth wants to know why the evil woman isn’t dead yet and Finan is clearly of the same opinion. Nevertheless, Finan goes to Winchester on Uhtred’s orders, although he’s uneasy leaving Uhtred behind in Cookham with Skade.

Now, in THE BURNING LAND, a maddened and raging Skade meets her end coiled atop a heap of treasure like a dragon, lovingly embraced by Bloodhair as he sinks his knife into her belly. But in the show Bloodhair is already dead, and Brida has said that in order to break Skade’s curse Uhtred must kill her without shedding blood or breaking the skin. So when we see Skade waist deep in a mere and Uhtred wading in to join her, anyone who has been paying attention is pretty sure about what’s going to happen next.

Skade (Thea Sophi Loch Naess) and Uhtred (Alexander Dreymon) in a tender, watery moment.

Skade, though, has not been paying attention. As Uhtred embraces her she gloats, “I own you.” They are the final words of a woman who talked way too much. Uhtred acts to rid himself of Skade’s curse. It’s not punishment for her deeds; it’s not anger; it’s purely self-preservation.  The scene that follows, between Uhtred and Osferth, reveals how shaken he is by what he’s done. Also, it’s a nice touch to have Uhtred, who has been putting on an act about Skade, to enter Winchester with a band of players.

Next we look in on Æthelred and Æthelflaed as they arrive in Winchester for the royal wedding. He’s taunting her. She’s nagging him. All is not well between the Lord and Lady of Mercia, but this is nothing new. Meantime, Aldhelm is watching, and I am wondering what is going to happen with him. In the novel he is Æthelred’s unapologetic, loyal hound and already dead at Uhtred’s hands by this time. Here he seems to be going in another, more sympathetic direction, loyal to Mercia, and one has to wonder where that might lead.

Even Beocca and Thyra, who adore each other, are having a bumpy ride in this episode thanks to Uhtred. He needs her blood to send Ragnar to Valhalla, and she happily agrees. Beocca, as we would expect, is outraged because he sees it as a disgusting pagan ritual. He storms out of the house wanting no part of what they’re doing. But despite his fear for his wife and his anger at Uhtred, Beocca immediately becomes their defender against Æthelwold’s gang of thugs and then goes to the king to plead with him on Uhtred’s behalf. Of course, he does walk perilously close to danger’s edge when he informs the king that the outlawed Uhtred is in Winchester and “You can have him found and executed, or you can speak with him.” We do not know yet how that interview will go, but the final image, of Alfred watching Uhtred from the shadows, is chilling.

Uhtred examines the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as King Alfred (David Dawson) examines Uhtred

The couple that gets the most attention, though, is the royal pair: Alfred and Ælswith. Even when they agree, they disagree–take Æthelwold for example. Alfred says he should be watched. Ælswith says he should be dead. They are constantly wrangling—over Æthelwold, over Edward, over whether the ailing Alfred should even be standing upright, but mostly over Uhtred. Alfred’s insistence that when he is gone Edward will need Uhtred at his side is a bitter pill for her to swallow.

Aelswith (Eliza Butterworth) does not appreciate being reprimanded by King Alfred

As Alfred grows increasingly ill, he becomes less patient with the woman he has never loved but has always endeavored to respect. At the same time her growing despair in the face of his approaching death makes her more overbearing, overprotective and outspoken, and earns her frequent rebukes from the king. This ongoing and increasing conflict between them is not in the novels because they are written from Uhtred’s point of view and Uhtred is seldom at court to see it. Ælswith’s dislike of Uhtred is there, yes. And it’s mutual. But the show has really focused a harsh light on the marriage made purely for political reasons—as most (maybe all?) royal marriages at that time were—and it does not bode well for Edward and his new bride. (His second bride. He will be known in history as Edward the Elder who married 3 times and had 13 children. That we know of. Where did he find the time???)

Photos: Netflix, THE LAST KINGDOM

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It’s interesting to consider the women in this episode—Æthelflaed the Lady of Mercia; Brida the Danish war leader; Ælswith the wife of the Wessex king; and Skade the sorceress—because all of them act with agency. Not Edward’s betrothed, alas. She is very young and totally under Daddy’s thumb.

Look at Æthelflaed, who has gone from ASKING Uhtred for help to commanding him. “You will walk with me. That’s an order.” And on that walk, when they are attacked by men led by Offa, Æthelfled is the one who tells Uhtred, “We split up,” and takes out two of the assassins.

Alexander Dreymon as Uhtred & Millie Brady as Aethelflaed. She’s holding a knife, honest.

Uhtred takes out the other two, including this thug, a cameo appearance by author Bernard Cornwell.

Later she crosses verbal swords with her bladderwrack of a husband, and there is the hint of a political alliance forming between Æthelflaed and Aldhelm, who has lost all respect for the bladderwrack. Hopefully, Æthelflaed has learned not to trust anyone completely, except for Uhtred. She is, though, fast becoming the Æthelflaed who will one day lead armies against the Danes.

Brida is hanging out at the Danish camp with the viking warlords, just one of the guys; but she’s disgusted by their incessant quarreling over who has the rights to Skade. “She has you all by the balls. Believe it.” Ragnar’s men now follow her, and she accepts Cnut’s suggestion that they form an alliance in order to combine their forces.

Emily Cox as Brida; Magnus Bruun as Cnut

If Cnut was looking for sweet words from his new woman, he must have been disappointed. Brida is tough as nails and all business; and we can’t forget that she must suspect that one of this gang murdered Ragnar, and that she needs to find out which one. And we already know that Brida is capable of murder when she thinks it’s deserved or necessary.

Lady Ælswith, when she’s not telling Edward to stop fidgeting or to stand up straight, is Alfred’s chief counselor. She may not have the title of QUEEN—the West Saxons avoided honoring women with that title, QUEEN, until the mid-10th century because they had a bad experience with a queen once—but she is always at Alfred’s side. At the Witan sessions, in negotiations over Edward’s marriage, during Æthelwold’s trial, and in Alfred’s moments of doubt she is right there in a place of high honor.

Timothy Innes as Edward, David Dawson as King Alfred, Eliza Butterworth as Aelswith.

Whatever we may think of Ælswith—and sometimes I want to slap her because she is so prudish and such an enemy of Uhtred, she is a woman of her time and place who adores her husband. She foists her opinions on Alfred, and occasionally he listens. Frequently he does not follow her advice, but that doesn’t stop her giving it. And woe to anyone who she deems a threat to her family.  Did you see her face when she thought that Alfred was going to pardon Æthelwold? And when her nephew is screaming under the hands of the torturer, there is only one person among the onlookers who is smiling: Ælswith.

And then there is Skade who has some kind of mystical power over men so that they fear her. Never mind that her prophecies don’t come true, they still believe she has some unearthly power, and she is certainly liberal with her curses. Sihtric says that she is poison to all men, and it’s hard to disagree. Speaking of poison, she helps Bloodhair during his weird preparation for his battle to the death against Haesten, and although I could see that she was indifferent to Bloodhair, I didn’t realize until later what she was actually doing. It’s hard to understand the motivation behind her action, other than revenge because Bloodhair abandoned her, and the fact that Skade is a merciless, depraved monster who is fond of blood, blood-letting, blood-spilling, blood-drinking, etc.

Thea Sofie Loch Naess as Skade

At the end of the episode she is all Uhtred’s, and I wanted to gag when he kissed her. Note to Uhtred: keep all weapons, like knives, well out of Skade’s reach. And don’t lick her fingers.

All photos: Netflix, THE LAST KINGDOM

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Even before the opening credits, the action of Episode 6 picks up right where it left off in Episode 5. What is at stake here for Uhtred? First, he has to survive the desperate, lopsided battle he’s fighting. Second, he has to re-capture Skade in order to break the curse she’s placed on him. With Edward’s help, he manages to live. But Haesten escapes with Skade, so the curse remains, and it leads to unrest among Uhtred’s followers. Finan tries to act the peacemaker between Uhtred and Sihtric, but he fails. Sihtric’s departure raises the possibility of more conflict to come.

Arnas Fedaravicius as Sihtric, Mark Rowley as Finan, Alexander Dreymon as Uhtred

Uhtred’s brief meeting with Alfred after the battle at Benfleet (no bees, by the way) is once again a wonderful portrayal of the man who is this king—his obsession with the idea of an ENGLAND, his determination to rule by law, his painstaking preparations for what must happen after his death, and his pitilessness toward those he perceives as enemies. He lived in a brutal time, in a brutal world, when a God-fearing Christian king saw it as his duty to bring heathens to heel or to destruction. He tells Uhtred that he was tempted to delay giving the order that would prevent the slaughter of Uhtred and his men because “I would have seen victory without you, and it would have been all you deserved.” Harsh.

Yet Alfred is still trying to bind Uhtred to Edward because he knows that Edward will need him.

Haesten arrives at the Danish camp with Skade in tow and the news that Alfred lives. Æthelwold, duped by the devious, double-crossing Cnut, is ordered to Wessex to beg forgiveness from Alfred for his treachery and while he’s at it to murder Uhtred, thank you very much.

Magnus Bruun as Cnut. Uhtred calls him a weasel. He’s much worse than that.

Æhelwold realizes he’s been stupid to trust the Danes, but he has a plan. We do not know what it is, but his plans have not worked out very well in the past so it’s hard to believe he’ll do any better this time.

Meanwhile in Wessex, some of what Uhtred has said to Alfred has gotten through to the king. He gives Edward full credit for his actions at Benfleet—but with Alfred, nothing comes without strings. Plans for Edward’s marriage are in place, and Edward, mollified by his father’s approval, accedes to them.

Timothy Innes as Edward, Eliza Butterworth as Aelswith, David Dawson as King Alfred

Much of this episode is spent with Uhtred and Brida as they mourn Ragnar. Information shared between them leads to some thawing on Brida’s part, but not quite forgiveness.

Uhtred and Brida (Emily Cox): an uneasy peace.

And now there is something else demanding Uhtred’s attention. In addition to defending Mercia from the Danes, defending Æthelflaed from her sniveling rat of a husband, and finding Skade so he can break her curse, he promises to help Brida get Ragnar to Valhalla, which means finding out who killed Ragnar, which means bad news for Æthelwold. As for Skade’s curse, Brida tells Uhtred, “To break a curse you must kill the sorcerer without shedding blood or breaking the skin.” (Something she models for him in a surprising twist that re-visits events from Season One.) “You must do that to Skade,” she says. “Either that, or make her your woman.”

Both options unappealing, I’m thinking.

THE BURNING LAND ends with the battle at Benfleet, and things play out rather differently in the book than they do in this show. I suppose there are purists who want THE LAST KINGDOM to be exactly like the novels, but I’m not one of them. As long as the characters have the same motives, personalities and attitudes, I am happy to see the story line go in a direction that is somewhat different from the novels. As Episode 6 wraps up we are moving into the pages of DEATH OF KINGS, and from the title alone you must know what’s going to happen. I’m already in mourning.

Photos: Netflix, THE LAST KINGDOM

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Spoilers Ahead. BEWARE!

It’s an interesting exercise to try to imagine how long it took for news to go from place to place in the early medieval period. For example, how long did it take for word of the death of a king to travel the length of England in the 9th century? Days, perhaps weeks. And when word of such a significant event spread, was it in fact true? In Episode 5 of THE LAST KINGDOM 3 the Danes learn that Alfred is dead, except that we’ve just seen him preparing for war. Someone is in for a surprise.

But the arrival of news of Alfred’s death is immediately followed by the discovery of Ragnar’s murder – a departure from the plot line of THE BURNING LAND. Emily Cox is wonderful as Brida, conveying grief, anger, fury, despair and suspicion all at once. Cnut has promised Æthelwold that he will protect him, but if Brida ever learns that he murdered Ragnar, the dweeb doesn’t stand a chance and Cnut doesn’t seem like the type who would expend much energy protecting a sniveling Saxon. The viking army stays together, though, despite Ragnar’s death. Meantime Haesten is down in Benfleet trying to impress Skade and getting nowhere. They trade boasts, threats, and promises, and although Haesten is a brute Skade has no trouble keeping him off balance and wary of her. It’s hard for us to know if she wants Haesten to kill Uhtred or the other way round. It seems what she really wants is the winner, and she doesn’t much care who it is.

Æthelflaed, though, knows who she wants, and it’s not her husband.

Uhtred and Aethelflaed consider possibilities

Uhtred is only unwilling to take what she is offering because he believes that Skade has power, that Skade will know if they become lovers, and that she will destroy anyone he cares for if he doesn’t find a way to prevent her; and when Brida arrives with news of Ragnar’s death Uhtred is even more convinced that Skade’s malevolent power is responsible. Which means he has to go after her. But he needs men if he’s going to attack Haesten at Benfleet. So at Æthelflaed’s urging they go to Alfred – or rather, into a mare’s nest.

Aethelflaed and Uhtred; she’s ready to tangle with the king and with her treacherous husband

Æthelred is there, and he’d just as soon see Uhtred and company dead; and Alfred, who is drawing on all his strength just to stand upright is unwaveringly hostile. He refuses Uhtred’s request to mount an attack on Haesten.

David Dawson as an ailing Alfred the Great

And now we have another significant change from the novel, but it still works beautifully. Instead of Æthelflaed riding with Uhtred to defend Mercia by attacking Benfleet and Alfred later sending Edward with an army as in the novel, it is Edward who goes to Uhtred and promises him that he will have the men he needs. It is Edward who tells the king that he is not yet ready to defend Wessex against a massive Danish army. He needs more time. So Uhtred goes to Benfleet with a small company, although he has no way of knowing if Edward and a large army will follow as promised.

At this point we are given a couple of terrific images that foreshadow the future. The first is that moment when Æthelflaed and Edward stand together, watching as Alfred’s troops cheer their king.

Aethelflaed and Edward; an amazing historical sister/brother duo

Anyone who knows the history knows that brother and sister will rid Wessex and Mercia of the Danish threat, that they will finish what their father has begun.

And then there is that moment when Alfred painfully reaches for his sword and raises it to the shouts of his warriors. It’s a moving image that is a nod to the statue of the king that stands on Winchester’s High Street today.

This entire series—its story, its haunting landscapes and dark, brooding interiors–seems to echo the stark, sad beauty of the poetry of the Anglo-Saxons.

So Uhtred leads his small band to Benfleet. There’s some trash talking between Haesten and Uhtred, and anyone who has read the novel is asking, “Will there be bees???” And then we forget about the bees because Haesten attacks and Alfred, hidden with his army among the trees, watches in grim silence as Uhtred and his men are surrounded and the slaughter begins. Edward is protesting, and Alfred is unmoving until, at last, we perceive what Alfred is doing, except he seems to be taking things too far, and then—the credits roll.

On to Episode 6. And who knows? There may still be bees!

Photos: Netflix, THE LAST KINGDOM

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In Episode 4 scriptwriter Stephen Buchard takes all the elements of the plot of THE BURNING LAND and mixes them up to tell essentially the same story but in a way that will hold quite a few surprises for those who have read the novel. And that’s all to the good! We like surprises.

This episode is rife with conflicts and shifting alliances.  Uhtred’s face-off against Bloodhair is the first and most visible conflict, but before long the Danish leaders are plotting against each other in secret just as Uhtred said they would. Cnut, who has just been itching to make trouble of some kind, allies with lickspittle Æthelwold—an unlikely pairing.

Aethelwold the dweeb gazes up at Cnut the mighty

It leads to a savage and cruel act that certainly took me by surprise, especially considering the dweeb responsible for it. Listen close and you’ll hear the Norns singing. And given how events play out by the end of the episode, we are sure to see the leaders of the Danish army exacting vengeance on each other before long.

On the Saxon side, Æthelred bows to Alfred’s command to join him in defending the south against the Danes, but hopes that Alfred will stop malingering and die already. Uhtred arrives in southern Mercia and has his hands full, not just with Danish enemies but with 3 women—4 if you count the abbess of Winchcombe who wants no truck with pagan Danes. “I don’t like you,” she snarls at Uhtred, looking just like everybody’s worst nun nightmare. That’s just before the convent at Winchcombe becomes Battle Abbey.

There’s some nice parallelism in the portrayal of Uhtred’s interaction with Æthelflaed and then Skade, and I was glad to see how that played out. But poor Uhtred has been cursed again, and even worse, he’s had to make a promise to Skade that, from where I’m sitting, sounds like a fate worse than death. With any luck he won’t have to keep it, but he hasn’t been terribly lucky of late and that curse is just hanging over his head like a naked sword.

The ætheling Edward does his best to rebel against his father, but he’s outgunned. Dad pulls out the old “Do you think I wanted to be king when I was your age?” argument (we’ve all heard that one, right?) and Edward wilts. Matters of the heart are not important in royal Wessex; only duty. And in the blink of an eye, the old adage ‘Like father, like son” is played out before our very eyes.

Alfred & Edward. Like father, like son

Edward’s soon-to-be father-in-law Æthelhelm shows up, and because even Beocca thinks he’s a prick we know he absolutely must be. But as if to offset the contemptuous, full-of-himself Æthelhelm, that rapscallion Welshman Fr. Pyrlig returns to Winchester, too. Hurrah!

Now, let’s talk about the Danish camp. It’s pretty darned luxurious. Way too luxurious to be believable. There is some grumbling among the warlords that the army is travelling too slowly, and it must be because of all the stuff they’re dragging along with them. Tents, beds, tables, ale flagons…honestly, the vikings were really good at quickly raising fortified camps, but I don’t think their camps were this lavish. Ragnar’s tent looks practically like a big top. And did you notice the candle lanterns on the table?

Pretty stylish for vikings—they look like they’re made of glass and metal, although in the 9th century they would have been made of horn and wood. They were an invention of…wait for it…Alfred the Great. Yeah, probably the Danish army didn’t have candle lanterns on their tables. Or even tables. But the tents make a nice backdrop for the skullduggery going on in the camp that night. We have to wait until Episode 5, though, to see what comes of it.

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Episode 3 begins at Dunholm, where Uhtred has been reunited with Ragnar and Brida. Along with Uhtred’s companions is an old friend from Season 1, who is a wonderful stand-in for Uhtred’s conscience, pricking him about who he is and what he is, and arguing on the side of Alfred and the Saxons.

Perhaps the most surprising  reveal in this episode is the discovery that Æthelred’s right hand man, Aldhelm, is actually a Mercian who loves Mercia, and who has realized that Æthelred is not the king Aldhelm had hoped he would be. Aldhelm is given the best line in this episode when Æthelred guts the messenger who brings him some bad news.

“Lord, you cannot simply execute your subjects as you please. This is the 9th century.”

Alfred is busy with a scribe who is writing down the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. I love it when the show refers to an actual historical item. Yes, Alfred was the one who commissioned the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles as they have come to be known, giving us a contemporary account of what was happening in England at that time. He had several copies made and sent to various monastic centers, and some of them kept updating the chronicle through the following decades. We have six different versions of it, in different lengths. One version continues into the 12th century.

The picture shown here is not, alas, copied from one of the Chronicles but from a 10th century manuscript describing the duties of kingship. Today it lives in the British Library.

There is a wonderful scene at Dunholm with Ragnar playing ringmaster at games pitting the Saxons against the Danes. Hilarity ensues until Hæsten, Bloodhair and Æthelwold show up to urge war against an ailing Alfred and the atmosphere gets immediately tense. As if Uhtred didn’t have enough trouble from the shade haunting him, his conscience is goaded, unwittingly, by Æthelwold and Ragnar. “We are both traitors, but for a good cause,” Æthelwold tells him. Later Ragnar tells him that they can form a great army and take Wessex, and “you have made it possible by abandoning Alfred.” Poor Uhtred is miserable, and nobody else looks particularly happy at this gathering, either.

The Danes agree to unite and attack Wessex, but Uhtred’s men are not happy about being part of it and Uhtred is still struggling with his conscience when who should show up but Beocca and Thyra with a plea from Æthelflaed that we know Uhtred is not going to be able to ignore. Some oaths are made with love, and those we cannot break. (The Burning Land)

Meantime Skade has been trying to get inside Uhtred’s head with promises of kingship. I like Stephen Buchard’s move to have Uhtred kiss Skade merely for the purpose of spiting Bloodhair. I think I know where this is going, but I’m not saying and I could be wrong.

Down in Winchester poor Alfred is struggling against the disease that is killing him, and there is a tender scene with Ælswith that I found moving.

He is also troubled by his wayward son who has gone and wed some girl without permission. Just an fyi: the girl has twins, a son and a daughter. And that son, Athelstan, will grow up to be one of the greatest kings of England ever. But not in this season, or even next. Meantime, we have Episode 4 to watch.

Photos: Netflix, THE LAST KINGDOM

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