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The Last Kingdom 5.4: Fade to Black

Anyone who has read Bernard Cornwell’s novels Warriors of the Storm and The Flame Bearer must know by now that the series is straying significantly from the story lines of the books. Nevertheless, the series has embraced Cornwell’s characters, his larger story of the making of England, and the history in which it is embedded.

And for me, this 4th episode of Season 5 was a very difficult one to watch because it was so moving. There are several plots unfolding here. The largest is the struggle for political control in Britain. The most emotionally gripping, though, are the intimate relationships between Alfred’s family members and followers, and those between Uhtred’s family members and companions—relationships that weave together as the story moves from Northumbria to Mercia to Wessex and back again.

It begins in York where Rognvaldr undergoes a cruel trial by ordeal set by Sigtryggr and Stiorra. At the same time, somewhere in the Yorkshire wolds Fr. Pyrlig faces his own ordeal—a maddened and venomous Brida. She taunts and tortures the priest, and for her it seems important to prove that her god is more powerful than Pyrlig’s Christian god. And in fact this entire episode is infused with the concept of trust in the gods, accurately reflecting early medieval beliefs.

We pick up another thread of the story as Uhtred arrives in Aylesbury and finds Aethelflaed rallying. He still cannot believe that she is dying, but Eadith cautions him that she has little time left. Aethelflaed ignores Uhtred’s insistence that she use her strength to fight her illness. She wants her daughter on the Mercian throne, and she wants his promise that he will protect Aelfwynn. Young Aelfwynn is maturing before our eyes, but although she’s her mother’s daughter, we know she is in a tough spot, especially because that worm Aethehelm is plotting against her.

In Winchester Queen Aelflaed is considering traveling to Lindisfarne with a tapestry she has made despite the political implications of such a visit. Edward has forbidden her to go, but she likes to have her own way. So, why is Lindisfarne important? It is the Holy Isle, the monastery where St. Cuthbert lived, and the heart of Northumbrian religious belief. Now, I just want to point out that if you go to Durham Cathedral today you can see an embroidery made by Queen Aelflaed (she embroidered her name on it) among the cathedral treasures that were given to the shrine of St. Cuthbert. It seems the showrunners have incorporated that tangible bit of history into their story.

In Yorkshire Brida continues to mourn her daughter. She threatens Pyrlig and one of her own men, and rails against the gods. She wails that she is alone, and this may actually be true because her warriors  have disappeared or they may just be giving her space. Pyrlig is unafraid, and he persistently seeks to comfort her. There is a generosity in this man and a lack of fear—a strength that isn’t physical.

Brida’s raging is intertwined with the quiet tenderness shared between Uhtred and Aethelflaed in the little time they have left together. That is a beautiful scene, what I saw of it through my tears.

Edward arrives, too late to speak with his sister. He is grieving for her, but when he swears that he will ensure Alfred’s dream of a united England it sounds ominous for Mercia and not at all what his sister had in mind.

The death of her daughter throws Aelswith into a crisis of faith and, surprisingly, it is Uhtred who goes to her in the chapel. Actress Eliza Butterworth gives a wonderful performance here. Her character has had to shuttle back and forth between eliciting our sympathy or our rage and she’s done a remarkable job. In this scene she is nearly broken, but she is also politically astute. The sometime bond she shares with Uhtred is visible when he touches her shoulder and she grasps his hand.

Athelstan, King Edward’s son who has been essentially hidden away most of his life, confronts his father who puts him off. Some simmering resentment there on Athelstan’s part. Aelfwynn shows some sense when she recognizes Aethelhelm’s determination to undermine her. She’s resolved to fulfill her mother’s wishes about the future rule of Mercia, but poor Aelfwynn is outmatched. In the great hall beside the empty throne there is a power struggle going on between King Edward and that weasel Aethelhelm, neither one a Mercian. Edward is waiting for something, and when some turmoil breaks out in the yard Athelstan, who IS a Mercian, gets caught up in it.

Edward has ordered his men to murder the ealdormen of Mercia. While Uhtred, Edward, Aldhelm and Aethelhelm shout at each other, Uhtred nods to Aelswith to slip away with Aelfwynn who is likely in danger now, too. Edward claims that the ealdormen had already been bribed and he has merely acted to remove the corruption. He will be the king of the Angles and the Saxons, and he sits on Mercia’s throne.

What we’ve just seen is probably pretty close to what actually happened in Mercia after Aethelflaed’s death in 918. Although I’m not certain about the murder of the ealdormen, Edward could be ruthless. In 917 he stormed a Danish camp in Tempsford and slaughtered all those who refused to surrender including two jarls and possibly the king of the East Angles. So yes, Edward could be this bloody. When Athelstan tells Uhtred that this was no way to become a king he replies, “I think it might be the only way.” Eleventh century politics in a nutshell.

Up in York Rognvaldr has survived his ordeal, but there are still tensions between the brothers and certainly between Rognvaldr and Stiorra. In the Yorkshire wolds Brida and Pyrlig have buried her daughter and mournful music swells as the scene moves to Aylesbury. Uhtred speculates to Athelstan about the future of Britain, and after Aethelflaed’s body is carried past them on a flower draped bier the scene fades to black.

Historical Note: Aethelflaed actually died in Tamworth and was buried in Gloucester in a church that she founded. Mercia, by the way, has not forgotten Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians. Look at this.

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The Last Kingdom 5.3: The Road to Aylesbury

At the end of the last episode we were holding our collective breath as Stiorra left hiding to face Brida. Thankfully, this third episode did not keep us in suspense for too long. Uhtred’s daughter has learned how to taunt, and she provokes Brida into single combat by suggesting twice that Brida is a coward.  Stiorra doesn’t look all that confident that she will win this battle, and the imprisoned citizens of York aren’t either as they shout at her not to fight Brida. Unknown to everyone but us, Uhtred and company have made it into the compound, and just as Brida raises her sword to strike a fallen Stiorra, Sigtryggr sends an arrow into one of Brida’s Beloveds, and Brida freezes.

In the midst of the ensuing mayhem, Brida’s daughter makes her way to a rooftop. Uhtred and Brida both try to reach the child, and Brida shouts that the girl must jump to her, not to Uhtred. Is this a measure of her blind hatred toward Uhtred that she believes he would harm the child? Or is she reacting to Uhtred’s earlier shout that she should not have gone after his children, that she heard it as a threat to her daughter? We cannot read Brida’s mind, but I’m guessing that whatever her thinking, she’s going to blame Uhtred for her daughter’s death.

When the dust has settled Stiorra upbraids her father for allowing Brida to walk away from York, her dead child in her arms. And although there is surely a desire for vengeance in Stiorra’s cold words because she saw so many of her innocent people die, there is also a very large grain of truth. She warns Uhtred that Brida will find more people to follow her, and Uhtred realizes that his pity for Brida’s loss of her child has led him into an error that he is going to have to correct. Yet even as he searches for Brida, we discover that he may pay dearly for his mistake. Poor Fr. Pyrlig has gone off with the refugees from York in search of safety, and suddenly he’s surrounded by Brida’s men. The blasted priest is on foot again, darn it. I KNEW he needed to have a horse!

Before we can learn Pyrlig’s fate we’re back in the compound at York. Uhtred tries to calm Sigtryggr as he bitterly castigates himself for ever trusting the Christians. He wants Uhtred’s oath, while Stiorra, sensing her husband’s disquiet and need for guidance, wants her father to stay in York.  And Uhtred is pulled in two directions because while his daughter needs him, his son is lying wounded down in Runcorn. And he doesn’t even know about Aethelflaed yet.

King Edward in Winchester is clueless about  Aethelflaed, too; but that snake  Aethelhelm has learned of her condition, and he is plotting to get his grandson on the Mercian throne that Aethelflaed wants for her daughter.

In Mercia, Aethelflaed’s mum is still living in denial, convinced that God will heal her daughter. That swine Fr. Benedict gives Aethelflaed Extreme Unction which, as seen here, looks a little voodoo-like and threatening, especially since we do not trust Fr. Benedict. But there have been instances when the administering of that sacrament did sometimes result in the restoration of health. Aethelflaed, though, is resigned to her fate and insists on traveling to her capital of Aylesbury; it is 150 miles away and would have taken at least 10 days, perhaps 2 weeks, to reach in an uncomfortable covered wagon.

News of her illness, though, is spreading. It’s Aethelhelm who tells Edward about his sister, interrupting a tender moment between the king and his new lady, Eadgifu. Edward can’t believe it at first, but he finally accepts that his elder sister, ruler of a neighboring kingdom, is about to die. There will be enormous consequences personally and politically.  

At the same time, Uhtred is preparing to continue his search for Brida; we’re really worried about Pyrlig; and Finan at last gets Uhtred’s attention by whispering, “It’s the Lady Aethelflaed.”

One major difference between this series and the books on which it is based is that the series is not bound to Uhtred. The novels are written in first person, in Uhtred’s point of view. The reader sees only what Uhtred sees or is told. We are constantly in his mind and reading his opinions about everybody and everything. But this filmed series can be with each of the main characters, can explore each of their personalities and intentions and difficulties, one after another. It can take us from Edward in Winchester to Uhtred in York to Aethelflaed in Aylesbury within a few minutes. It uses those jumps in time and space, as it does right now, moving from Uhtred and Finan in York to Eadith and Aldhelm in Aylesbury, in order to prolong suspense even as it moves the story forward. It also makes effective use of close-up to capture the expressions of the characters in their moments of relief, terror, or anguish.

At this moment Uhtred is expressing disbelief, then confusion, then anguish as he listens to Finan. He’s going to have to go south. To Aylesbury. To Aethelflaed.

And only now do we discover that Pyrlig is still alive, although even Brida doesn’t yet know why. And I can’t help remembering how, many seasons back, Pyrlig was about to be crucified by Danes in London until Uhtred, knowing that the priest had been a warrior, suggested he be given a sword and told to fight for his life. Will he be given another chance to do that? Here’s hoping…

Aethelflaed’s daughter, overprotected from the truth of her mother’s illness by her grandmother, finally gets an earful from Aldhelm who, we know, has long borne an unrequited passion for Aethelflaed. What follows is a beautifully sad scene as Aelfwynn finally understands what is happening to her mother. Last season Aethelflaed lay beside her ailing daughter, afraid for her life; now the scene has been reversed. Yet even as Aethelflaed assures her daughter that the witan will support her as ruler of Mercia and asks a grieving Aldhelm to protect the girl, Aethelhelm’s assassin is bribing the Mercian elders to betray her.

In Winchester Edward’s queen is making an ill-timed move with political implications that earns her disapproval from Edward and a rebuke from her poisonous father. Eadgifu overhears Aethelhelm say that his grandson will be king of Mercia in a week and reports it to Edward. The king intuits that Aethelhelm is bribing the Mercians for his own purposes, but Edward clearly has a plan, as well, and probably not the same plan. Personally, I don’t trust either one of them!

So Edward, his son, and his father-in-law are headed for Aylesbury just like Uhtred and company. Clearly, there’s going to be some kind of showdown around the dying Aethelflaed. Meanwhile, in York, Sigtryggr is putting his brother to a trial by ordeal. Ow.




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The Last Kingdom 5.2: Death, Danger and Heartbreak

Every single episode of The Last Kingdom has elements of tenderness, threat, heartbreak, tension and fear. The show pulls us into the lives of its characters and enfolds us in the history into which they’re mired; makes us care about them, worry about them, laugh with them, and grieve with and for them. Yes, it’s just a story. But it touches us and moves us because it is based in the truth of human experience. Stories like this happened, and not only in some other century. They are happening today.

Episode 2: We’re back in York on the night of Brida’s surprise attack. Her men are ravaging, plundering, slaughtering.  One of them finds Stiorra and her handmaid, but they escape his hands even as Rognvaldr continues searching for them. Stiorra and a few of her women takes refuge in an underground chamber, and she watches from hiding as Sigtryggr, outnumbered, is forced to submit. Brida humiliates him, laughing and cooing, luxuriating in bloodshed and cruelty. Emily Cox is doing her very best to make us despise Brida, and she’s succeeding brilliantly.

The showrunners tighten the screws of tension by having Brida toy with Sigtryggr and also with his brother who is supposed to be her ally. At scene’s end Sigtryggr is thrust alone into the fog-drenched night beyond the city with Brida’s promise that Stiorra will live only if Sigtryggr returns with Uhtred in tow. But Brida still hasn’t found Stiorra. And who trusts Brida, anyway?

In Runcorn winter is setting in and Uhtred, agonized for his unconscious son, is watching as Eadith tends the boy. And the showrunners, by combining the two sons of Uhtred from the book into this one son, have created a further anguish for Uhtred. His son will not be able to give him grandsons. There will be no more Uhtreds, son of Uhtred. (Remember, in this period, priests could marry and have children. But Young Uhtred has been gelded.)

Scouts are searching for Brida; all of Runcorn is on the alert, except for Cynlaef who is canoodling with Aelfwynn, but there has been no sign of Brida or her men. Uhtred knows that he’s been outplayed because while he expected Brida to come for him, he did not expect her to attack his children. So when Aldhelm rushes up with bad news, Uhtred already knows what it is. Brida is after his bloodline, and Stiorra must be in danger.

But there are other dangers besides Brida, and Eadith is stunned to discover that Aethelflaed has, apparently, late stage breast cancer. This is tragic news for Aethelflaed and everyone who loves her. Eadith is weeping, and anyone who’s read the books knew this was coming, but we’re weeping, too. True to her character, Aethelflaed, like her father, accepts her fate and steels herself to accomplish whatever she can before the end. In particular, she has a daughter who must take her place when the time comes. The death of a ruler is always a dangerous time for a kingdom, so she doesn’t want the news made public. The secrecy that Aethelflaed demands becomes a very big issue when Uhtred comes asking for troops to help save his daughter but Aethelfaed, anguished, denies him, throwing these once lovers into bitter conflict. Uhtred is on his knees begging her for men, but she has to refuse him sternly because, as Aldhlem confirms, if Uhtred knew of her illness he would be fighting Brida with a broken heart.

And this is one of the strengths of this show: the historical and the political are made personal. The dialogue in this show is terrific as conflict upon conflict builds in every single scene.

Down in Winchester Edward orders troops sent to support his sister in aid of Sigtryggr, insisting that they be under her command alone. And we wonder what sort of trouble that’s going to cause.

That weasel Aethelhelm tries to convince Edward to send men to kill Sigtryggr as well as Brida. When Edward doesn’t listen, Aethelhelm sends his favorite assassin to throw a spanner in the works up north, so we haven’t heard the last about that. Meantime Edward sends Fr. Pyrlig north to assess the situation. I’m hoping that this year they give poor Pyrlig a horse when they send him across country. Last season he had to walk to Wales!

In Runcorn there are farewells as Uhtred’s men prepare to leave, and the acting is so very wonderful as there is so much expressed yet unspoken. Eadith, practically broken herself, confides Aethelflaed’s secret to  Finan because someone has to be warned that there is going to be trouble in Mercia.

Once Uhtred is gone Aethelflaed’s troubles increase, coming from those who should be supporting her: her mother, her daughter and her priest. Aelfwynn and Aelswith we can understand, but the priest makes me gnash my teeth.

And while we’ve been sobbing over Aethelflaed, poor Stirorra has been hiding in that hole for days, and now she watches more of her women cut down, although Brida does face a little hiccough when her blindfolded daughter messes up. Nevertheless, the tension and anguish are ratcheting up for Stiorra.

In Winchester Edward makes friendly with a woman who manages to impress him, and she impresses us, too, by neatly turning the tables on that weasel Aethelhelm when he tries to bribe her to go away. Eadgifu was, historically, quite a woman. We don’t see her in the novels, (that I can recall), but I think it was a masterstroke to add her to the show. I hope we’ll see more of her.

Up in the northern woods Sigtryygr and Pyrlig find each other, and when Uhtred and company show up the tension is relieved by some humorous byplay between Finan and Pyrlig, thank goodness! We needed a little lightness.

Sitryggr is outraged that Aethelflaed hasn’t given Uhtred an army and Finan is literally wringing his hands because he’s the only one who knows why. Even with so few men, Sigtryggr says he knows a way that will lead into the compound—perhaps. Meantime Stiorra has just been spattered with the blood of another murdered woman, and she’s had enough. Her disembodied voice calls to Brida, “I’m coming for you. You will pay for this.”

Brida shouts for her to show herself, and as the credits rolled I wondered how many people were sitting on the edges of their seats, breathlessly waiting for the next episode to start. More than a few, I suspect.







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The Last Kingdom 5.1 Old Friends

This 5th Season of The Last Kingdom, if it follows the pattern we’ve seen in the past, will be based loosely on two of Bernard Cornwell’s novels: Warriors of the Storm and The Flame Bearer. Episode 1 opens with Uhtred (Alsexander Dreymon) giving us a quick voice over review of the events that took place in Season 4, which most of the rabid fans of this show have just spent 10 hours re-watching, am I right?

A number of years have passed since we last saw this group, and we last saw Brida (Emily Cox) giving birth to Cnut’s child and swearing  vengeance on all Christians in Britain. There have been rumors that she has died and been reborn, and Uhtred senses that he’s not seen the last of her.

The real action of this new season begins in Iceland where Brida looks ageless among her gathered warriors. Standing near a smoking fumarole, Brida refers to her daughter (Emili Akhchina) as a seer and, blindfolded, the girl chooses one of the gathered men who willingly throws himself into the fumarole as a sacrifice to the gods for the success of their upcoming endeavor. In the distance a volcano erupts violently to Brida’s delight. She interprets this as a sign from the gods, and she gleefully urges her viking warriors toward their ships. We’ve seen Brida headed in this mad direction over the past season, and now it’s clear that the poor sacrificial viking is not the only one who’s gone over the edge.

Meanwhile, in the village of Runcorn which lies on the border between Mercia and Northumbria, It’s November, the Blood Month, so called because this was when the herds were culled in order to guarantee enough feed so that the remaining stock would survive the lean winters. Uhtred is uneasy. He senses a change in the air – something wrong, although Finan (Mark Rowley) tries to lighten his mood. Uhtred’s merry men are preparing to hunt wild boar as part of the Blood Month celebration, and we’re re-introduced to all of them, including King Edward’s eldest son Athelstan (Harry Gilby) , now about 17 who has been raised and trained by Uhtred at Edward’s request.

When Athelstan, alone in the woods, is attacked yet manages to kill two of his assailants and drive off a third, the tension between a protective Uhtred and an eagerly ambitious Athelstan is revealed. Uhtred’s unease increases as, gazing up at a murmuration of sparrows, he sees birds falling from the sky. Like Brida, Uhtred reads omens in nature.

In York we have our first significant departure from the events of Warriors of the Storm. Uhtred’s adventure to Ireland to rescue Stiorra (Ruby Hartley) and Sigtryggr (Eysteinn Sigurdarson) has been edited out. They are already king and queen in York, ruling over both pagans and Christians. The tension between these two groups is reflected in the tension between Stiorra and Sigtryggr. A pagan like her father, Stiorra is not quite as sanguine about the Christians as Uhtred has become, while Sigtryggr tries to be more even-handed than his wife. Their peaceful reign is threatened, though, by the arrival of Rognvaldr the Raider (Micki Stoltt) , Sigtryggr’s brother from Ireland. Right from the get-go, Stiorra doesn’t trust him, and the threatening sound-track warns us that Rognvaldr is up to no good. A few scenes later, when we hear him chanting in Icelandic, we are as worried as Uhtred and convinced that Stiorra should be even more worried than we are.

Back in Runcorn another old friend, Eadith (Stefanie Martini) , arrives unexpectedly from Frankia. Last time we saw Eadith she was making merry with Finan, and although he’s married now Finan seems to be recalling past adventures with Edyth. Although she’s welcomed, Uhtred is still uneasy because the Lady Aethelflaed is expected and anyway, he doesn’t like or trust surprises.

That night Eadith is out clandestinely picking herbs and when she returns to her quarters she finds a surprised Uhtred in her bed. He’d been expecting someone else—an honest mistake—and he leaves right away. Even so, there’s a glance between them that makes me raise my eyebrows.

Just outside of Rumcorn we are re-acquainted with Aethelflaed (Millie Brady), her mother Aelswith (Eliza Butterworth), her daughter Aelfwynn (Phia Saban) and Lord Aldhelm (James Northcote). They are our old friends, each one in perfect character, just like we remembered them, and we’re so happy to see them again, especially Aelswith who we weren’t sure survived the last season. We also meet the priest Benedict (Patrick Robinson) who is going to settle with Uhtred’s people—a gift from Aethelflaed that we know Uhtred is going to just love. There is still an obvious tenderness between Uhtred and Aethelflaed, and a strong bond between them, exemplified by the fact that Uhtred senses that there is something that Aethelflaed knows but is not telling him.

Aldhelm brings news of raiders on the coast who massacre, not for silver, but for their gods. We know who this has to be, but Uhtred doesn’t and he’s more worried than before.  

Down in Winchester we are disgusted but not surprised to find that Aethelhelm (Adrian Schiller), King Edward’s father-in-law and the grandfather of Edward’s son Aelfweard (Ewan Horrocks) was behind the attack on Athelstan. As he explains, when two boys have one claim, both cannot thrive; and he wants to make sure that his grandson comes out on top and Athelstan, hopefully, dead.

We’re overjoyed to see Fr. Pyrlig (Cavan Clerkin) at the king’s court. Personally, I’m enormously fond of Pyrlig. And Edward (Timothy Innes) is there as king of Wessex, doing kingly things as well as shmoozing with beautiful women and taking digs at the wife he does not love (Amelia Clarkson as Aelflaed). She knows all about the attempt on Athelstan’s life and is disappointed at its failure because, she asserts, the boy is being trained as a killer who will one day come after her son. She’s projecting her own impulses on Athelsatan, of course.

It’s festival time at Runcorn and we’re holding our breath because Fr. Benedict is making interminable benedictions and we just know that something bad is about to happen because we can see warriors making toward the settlement from the river. Sure enough, there’s a party-crasher. It’s Uhtred’s son (Finn Elliot) the priest (who stumbles into the gathering badly wounded and in pain, his garments bloodied below the waist. Brida’s work, he tells his anguished father. (Those of us who’ve read the book might, like me, have been hoping that this scene would be edited out. Alas, no.)

At presumably the same time up in Jorvik, Brida and her followers, in collusion with Rognvaldr, take the town by surprise. A battle rages, but it’s looking bad for the good guys, and as the camera cuts away we do not know what has happened to Sigtryggr or Stiorra.  In Runcorn Uhtred is standing at the river’s edge, shouting for Brida. But Brida’s is 100 miles away, in Jorvik.

A few notes:
Although in the books Uhtred has two sons—the eldest originally named Uhtred but taking the name Fr. Oswald when Uhtred disowns him—in this show the two sons are combined into one.

Uhtred’s settlement of Runcorn is on the River Mersey about 21 miles east of where Cornwell has imagined Brunanburh to be. Nobody knows where Brunanburh was actually located.

Brida has been flipping out in Iceland in this show, instead of in Dunholm (Durham) which had been, in the novels, ruled by Ragnar until he died. In the novels she has no daughter, but she is attended by two little girls she calls seers who have been blinded rather than blindfolded. Thank you, TLK, for sparing us that!

Aside from the youngsters who are now played by older actors, the only character in the show who appears to have aged at all is King Edward. In the book Uhtred has grey hair and Brida is a veritable crone. But hey! These characters have to live through this season as well as a feature film, so I for one am cutting them some slack. Edward! The beard suits you. Gravitas. You needed it.

In the novel there were some thrilling scenes having to do with the trip to Ireland and some amusing scenes having to do with a woman named Mus. The scenes about Mus especially added a bit of humor to the story, and without that this episode is quite, quite dark. Good, yes! Foreboding and tension-filled, yes! But dark. Excellent writing and dialogue, and the acting, as usual, top notch. Welcome back, The Last Kingdom!


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Vikings Valhalla 1.8: Trust No One

The Norway scenes in this episode are mostly invention, based loosely on saga material.

For your edification, here is a very simplified account of historical events in Norway from 1000 to 1030 pulled from The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings by Peter Sawyer:

In the year 1000, Swein Forkbeard defeated Olaf Tryggvasson, King of Norway, at the Battle of Svold where Olaf T. died. Forkbeard’s allies, the Norsemen Erik of Lade and his brother Sven Hakonsson began joint rule of Norway, with Forkbeard as their overlord. To seal the alliance Erik married Forkbeard’s daughter Gytha.

When Forkbeard died in 1014, Olaf Haraldsson took advantage of it by attacking Norway and defeating the Hakonsson brothers at the Battle of Nesjar. Sven Hakonsson soon died, and his brother Erik joined Cnut in his conquest of England and was made Earl of Northumbria. Meanwhile, Olaf ruled as king in Norway.

Question: Was the Battle at Kattegat in this episode based on the Battle of Nesjar, and is Jarl Haakon of Kattegat meant to be a stand-in for Erik Hakonsson? Answer: I don’t know.

Moving forward with history, in 1026 Cnut fought the kings of Norway (Olaf) and Sweden (Anund Jacob) at the Battle of the Holy River. Nobody really knows who “won”. It’s complicated, but Olaf was still ruling in Norway. In 1028 Cnut expelled Olaf from Norway by bribing the Norwegian chieftains to abandon him. Cnut appointed Hakon son of Erik Hakonsson Earl of Northumbria as his agent to rule in Norway. When Hakon died in a shipwreck Olaf returned with an army and faced Cnut again at the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030. At this point Cnut’s 27-year-old son by Ælfgifu of Northampton entered the picture in Norway.

In this episode of Vikings Valhalla we saw Swein Forkbeard (who died in 1014) arrive in Norway with Cnut’s and Ælfgifu’s son, who looks about 17 years old. How does this relate to history? I don’t know. It might help if we knew in what year Cnut’s son was about 17. Most historians think he was born in 1013 which would make him 17 in 1030. I believe he may have been born as early as 1011, which would make him 17 in 1028. So, when this scene is set is up for grabs, but whether it was 1017, 1028 or 1030–Forkbeard was dead.  

Much of what we know about Norway is pulled from the Heimskringla Saga, and the dates in that saga are a confusing mess. So the events that take place in Norway in this show are a lot like that saga. Don’t try to keep things straight. Just sit back and enjoy the battles.

There is plenty of invention going on in the London scenes as well. Emma appears to have lost Swein Forkbeard’s support, and Team Ælfgifu is in control. It tickled me to see Emma’s brother Duke Richard arrive in London to fetch Emma home to Normandy. While his arrival in England at any time would have been highly unlikely, it’s possible that there was some kind of communication between Richard and Cnut regarding the fate of Emma’s sons at the time of Cnut’s marriage to the queen. As Emma and her sons sail from London the boys look almost like twins, although Edward would have been 7 years older than Alfred.

As for Ælfgifu, portrayed with relish by Polyanna McIntosh, she was in fact a member of a powerful Merican family, and historian Timothy Bolton describes her as “a powerful and ruthless Anglo-Saxon noblewoman who played a number of significant roles in the English and Scandinavian political scenes.”1   Certainly that is how she is portrayed here as she convinces the Mercians that she understands the intimate needs of Cnut and of Mercia, and so can represent the Mercians at court. Something akin to this no doubt happened a couple of decades later, and this event is being modelled on that. I had to laugh when she commiserated with the Mercians, saying soothingly, “I know you aren’t happy with a Viking king,” and Godwin snapped at them, “You weren’t happy with a Saxon king. You were never happy!” I can’t help liking this Godwin, wonderfully portrayed by David Oakes.  I was especially intrigued by Ælfgifu’s suggestive invitation to Godwin to join her for some wine. It made me wonder if a) the rest of this scene was edited out and b) if the showrunners had read my first 2 books.

For this huge fan of Queen Emma, the face-off between Cnut’s wives was a delight. The showrunners set it up beautifully, and I’ve watched it several times, gloating as Emma smoothly pulls the rug out from under Ælfgifu. Although much of the focus of future episodes will have to be on the Vikings, I hope that we haven’t seen the last of these two rivals.

In the final scenes over in Norway, Olaf is on the run. Harald and Freydis are making their way from Kattegat along the cliffs, heading we know not where, although I could take a guess. Swein Forkbeard has landed his fleet (Forkbeard is dead, you know. He died in 1014. Just sayin’) and we’re left with a cliff-hanger moment as young Swein inadvertently runs into a grieving and maddened Leif Eriksson. I hope Swein knows how to duck.

Now, if you want more Anglo-Saxon vs Dane mayhem, Season 5 of THE LAST KINGDOM airs on March 9. Thank you, Netflix!

1 “Ælfgifu of Northampton: Cnut the Great’s Other Woman,” Nottingham Medieval Studies, 2007.



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Vikings Valhalla 1.7: And Now–Too Many Kings

Let me begin with the Norway plot and then put it aside while I deal with events in England.

Almost everything that happens in Norway is invented. Kattegat itself is invented and I suppose that having this imaginary place as the tie-in between this series and VIKINGS! makes the showrunners feel that they have license to make up whatever they want about it. Fair enough. Watchers should just remember that Kattegat is a place apart. It’s like Never Never Land.

As for Uppsala, yes, there was a very large temple there. And yes, there was very probably conflict between the pagan Norse and the Christian Norse throughout this period, and yes Christian Olaf—later St. Olaf–was a major player in that. Yes, the temple at Uppsala was burned down, but it was in the late 11th century after all the historical figures we’re seeing here were dead. And it was not burned down by Jarl Kåre. Jarl Kåre is an invention, like Jarl Haakon and Kattegat.

Did Harald Hardrada join his older half-brother Olaf to challenge Cnut for the throne of Norway? Yes, at the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030. Harald was 15. The struggle for the control and unification of Norway was actually ongoing for the first half of the 11th century, and control of Norway went back and forth between the Norwegians and the Danes. Alliances switched back and forth as well. The history is complicated by the fact that much of it is conflicting as its drawn from sagas, eddas, and chronicles written long after the events took place. My own understanding of it is limited.

But we know a lot about what was going on in England, and I just want to say that there are way too many kings in this episode. We have Cnut as King of England and Denmark. We have Edmund as King of Wessex. We have Swein Forkbeard as king of Denmark but acting as king of England. And by the way, Cnut had an older brother named Harald who was actually King of Denmark from 1014 to 1020, only he’s been replaced here by Ælfgifu who  was never queen of Denmark.

So let me do some clarifying: Swein Forkbeard was dead by the time his son Cnut conquered England in 1016/17, so Swein never sat on a throne beside either Edmund Ironside or Queen Emma. And it puzzles me why the showrunners decided to use Swein at all in this episode. A much better choice would have been Thorkell the Tall. He was powerful, he had a huge fleet, he’d helped Cnut conquer England, and he was the Viking that Cnut left in charge early in his reign when he had to leave England to take care of business in Denmark. Also, Thorkell was at least alive, as opposed to Swein who by this time was dead and buried in Roskilde. Go figure.

As for Earl Godwin, he absolutely did not kill King Edmund Ironside. In fact, one of the stories that seeps down through the centuries is that Eadric Streona murdered Edmund to gain Cnut’s favor, adding to Eadric’s list of betrayals; so the showrunners are using that tale and simply inserting Godwin into the Eadric role. Only, the story of Edmund’s murder is likely apocryphal, and it’s more gruesome than the way it’s been portrayed here. (You don’t want to know.) The rumor of his murder probably started because Edmund’s death on Nov. 30, 1016 was pretty convenient for Cnut. If Edmund had lived it’s very likely that he and Cnut would have eventually gone to war again, throwing England once more into chaos. It’s far more likely, though, that Edmund died of wounds that he suffered at Assandun. Sepsis was deadly and not uncommon. Almost 200 years later it would kill King Richard the Lionheart. Nevertheless, when the character of Swein Forkbeard tells Emma that Edmund’s death was crucial to Cnut’s power and hers – that’s true.

It disturbs me, though, that this murder pits Godwin against Emma, who suspects him of the murder and isn’t happy about it. It also throws plenty of shade on Godwin’s character which I feel is unwarranted. Swein rewards him for the act; and while Godwin early on became Cnut’s most trusted advisor, he was rewarded with an earldom because of his good counsel and skill in battle, not because he murdered Edmund. That’s the kind of thing that Æthelred would have done, and Cnut was trying very hard not to repeat Æthelred’s mistakes.

Yes, King Cnut married Queen Emma in 1017. In fact, there are 5 different historical accounts of how that marriage came about, and none of them agree. The way this series presents their relationship is just as good as any that’s come down to us from the 11th and 12th centuries.

Cnut’s earlier handfast marriage to Ælfgifu was part of an alliance between her family and the Danes when they invaded in 1013. She was considered a concubine, and the Danes and even the English at this time had no problem with this kind of relationship; it meant that her children could inherit even if Cnut later married someone else in a ceremony blessed by the church. Ælfgifu no doubt had a problem with it when Cnut took another wife, and Emma certainly had a problem with that first marriage. The two women were rivals for power, and this would play out in the politics much later when their sons by Cnut were grown up. But we don’t know what their personal interaction would have looked like at this time. We don’t even know where Ælfgifu was, but I doubt that she had a fleet at her disposal. The showrunners are simply playing chess here with 2 queens and filling in the historical blanks with their own story. It makes for a good drama.

Did you notice the very short scene with Emma and her sons in her bedchamber? She is playing with them, but when there’s a knock on the door, she hides them. It shows her awareness of the peril they are in, and it’s confirmed when Edmund is murdered with Swein’s tacit approval. Emma’s children, like Edmund, are royal sons with claims to the English throne, and even though they’re children they are a threat to Cnut’s rule. They are also a threat to Ælfgifu’s sons’ claims to the thrones of Denmark and England. That’s historically accurate. Queen Emma had to be pretty canny about forging alliances. She’s decided that she can trust Cnut, but can she trust this Swein?

And Emma for sure can’t trust Ælfgifu. First wife makes that clear with a threat: “Surely you know that if a wolf is roaming your halls and warming itself by your fire, it must be considering you its dinner.”

I love it that Emma immediately goes to Swein who says, “I have troubles,” and she responds dryly, “Yes, I’ve just met them.”

Now, we know that by 1017 Emma’s sons had been sent to her brother in Normandy, but we don’t know exactly how that came about. So once again, the showrunners are filling in historical blanks.

By episode’s end we have “Team Emma & Swein-Who-Really-Wasn’t-There” facing off in England against “Team Ælfgifu & Godwin-Who-Wasn’t-This-Sinister”; we have Cnut somewhere in Denmark fighting off the Wends, which he probably wasn’t; and we have 15-year-old Harald looking 30 if he’s a day and rushing to help his brother Olaf grab the throne of Norway. The showrunners are very careful not to tell us when this is all taking place because it happened over 15 years; and I doubt that any of this will be resolved in the next episode. Stay tuned.


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Vikings Valhalla 1.6: Too Many Queens

The episode begins in Norway as Freydis arrives at the healer’s cabin, alarmed and in search of her friend Yrsa. Unfortunately, she finds her. She also finds the Christian zealot who we learn is named Jarl Kåre. Later we will learn that as a boy he witnessed  his brother being sacrificed at Uppsala, which is what’s made Kåre a Christian zealot. By the end of the episode, after he has consulted the spámaðr,  it looks like Jarl Kåre and his minions will destroy the temple at Uppsala and perhaps take their vengeance to Kattegat.

In the sagas, Freydis is a female warrior and daughter of Erik the Red, and yes, that is how she is portrayed in this series.  But her plot line, as far as I can tell, while fascinating, is unrelated to the Icelandic sagas in which she appears. If someone knows otherwise, please alert me.

Back to London where we are tantalized by the hint that Olaf, as he prepares to depart England and return to Norway, is planning something that might provoke Cnut to try to destroy him. As yet we don’t know what Olaf is planning.

Harald, too, is leaving England. He asks Cnut, who is remaining in England to rule as king,  if he’s sure he knows what he’s doing. So, let’s look at the history. Although Cnut’s invasion of England is presented in this series as retaliation for the 1002 St. Brice’s Day Massacre, it is now 1016/17. Cnut’s father Swein Forkbeard died in 1014 which made Cnut’s elder brother, Harald (Yes!!! Another Harald) King of Denmark. Although Swein Forkbeard died 2 months after he  conquered England, Cnut nevertheless claimed his right as Swein’s heir to the English throne. Unfortunately for Cnut, Æthelred and his viking allies (Olaf and Thorkell) drove Cnut from England back to Denmark in 1014, but Cnut returned in 1015 to try to capture what he considered his rightful claim to England. He had no other choice, really. His brother was already king in Denmark, so Cnut had to grab a kingdom for himself, and he chose England. So yes, he knew what he was doing.

Now, about those nobles who bent the knee to Cnut, persuaded by the sight of Earl Leofric of Northumbria hanging from a noose, presumably chosen by Godwin as the sacrificial lamb.  That’s really interesting because, yes, there were a number of English nobles executed by Cnut in 1017. Leofric wasn’t one of them, although a relative of his was. A gentleman named Northman. Leofric’s father and then Leofric himself (who was not hung by Cnut) eventually were installed as earls of Northumbria by Cnut, so the thinking is that Northman might have been involved, along with Eadric and several other nobles, in fomenting a rebellion against Cnut. Leofric and Godwin, by the way, were enemies through Cnut’s reign and beyond.

But why is Edmund Ironside still alive? He died on Nov. 30, 1016, probably from wounds that he received at Assandun on October 16. He died about a full year before Eadric Streona was executed. This series is going to have to dispose of him somehow. I’m curious to see how it will happen.

And now we see Cnut and Emma bonding over his need for England’s wealth in order to build his great northern empire. Yes, Cnut was ambitious, and it’s quite likely that Emma was an advisor. Cnut did, apparently, try to balance his need to reward his Danish followers with his need to reconcile himself to the English nobility. Emma would have been instrumental in assisting him with that because she had personal connections to the English elite. She probably spoke Danish because her mother was Danish so she could communicate easily with Cnut. She saw herself as a peaceweaver between Cnut and the English people. What’s really missing here are the ecclesiastics. The archbishops of Canterbury and especially Wulfstan of York would have been close advisors to Cnut at this time. But, you know, you just can’t include everybody when you’re trying to write a historical drama. An archbishop in all his ecclesiastical finery cannot hold a candle to the sight of Emma in bed with Cnut. I get it.

Harald and his fleet arrive in Kattegat, and when he meets with Jarl Haakon he asks for her help against his elder half-brother, Olaf. They both want to be king of Norway, and this will be a problem. This is true. My Norse history is spotty, but I know that Cnut, Olaf, and Harald were all rivals for the Norse throne over several decades.

The next scene takes us into Fantasyland because Olaf arrives in Jelling and meets with Cnut’s wife Ælfgifu, queen of Denmark, who is flanked by her 2 sons. Did Cnut have a wife named Ælfgifu? Yes. Was she a Mercian? Yes. Did they have 2 sons? Yes. Was she queen of Denmark? Never.

While Ælfgifu of Northampton may have been in Denmark at this time, the king of Denmark was—as I mentioned earlier– Cnut’s older brother, Harald. This imaginary meeting between Olaf and Ælfgifu, where he has the thankless task of reporting what Cnut is up to with Emma in England, sets up both a coming conflict between Olaf and Cnut, but also a coming conflict between Ælfgifu and Emma. And that certainly existed. I’ll tell you more about Ælfgifu after I’ve seen the next episode.

Episode 6 ends with Cnut receiving a long and apparently alarming missive from Denmark. He tells his huscarle to summon a priest and prepare his ship for departure. Then he turns to Emma who’s waiting for him in bed and he says slowly, “I must ask you a question. Please. Answer carefully.”

And THAT is an excellent cliff-hanger.

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Vikings Valhalla 1.5: Just Your Typical Viking Feast

This episode begins with Freydis at the temple in Uppsala, praying before Thor and Odin. This is all part of the Norse gods vs. Christian God theme that runs through the series. And yes, this was a time of change in the Scandinavian countries, with Christianity making inroads into the Norse belief system.

Most of the episode, though, takes place in London. The Danes are taking vengeance on the English after their victory, and the women in Emma’s household are frightened. The queen, though, seated on her throne, is steely as Olaf enters. In reality, Olaf was in Norway making himself king there, but Emma was very likely a prisoner in London. The accounts from that time are conflicting, but I believe she was in London.

What’s interesting about this episode is that Cnut really steps into the leadership role in a way that we haven’t seen before. He stops Harald from killing Edmund with a threat that he immediately follows with a bribe. Closed fist, open hand. That, according to my understanding of Cnut, was how he worked. He also had spies, so he knew what was happening when others didn’t. One biographer describes him as being at “the center of a spider’s web of personal compacts and competing interests.”1 We see this when he informs Harald that his half-brother Olaf has a son that Harald didn’t know about.

Cnut takes control now, testing Edmund and finding him lacking. Cnut has intuited that it wasn’t Edmund who planned London’s defense, but Emma. And in reality, she may well have done that although I doubt there were dragon’s teeth involved. Nice image, though, to describe those iron spikes on the bridge. But Cnut doesn’t know where the queen is, and he has to use Harald to find her. Harald goes to Godwin for help, and Godwin says something interesting. He calls himself a survivor, and he calls Emma a survivor, too. This is exactly how history has perceived both of these figures so it’s a nice bit of dialogue.

But Emma has been squirreled away by Olaf, and he raises an issue for the queen: that if she is sent back to Normandy, she will be nothing more than a piece of property. This is true. She would have been subject to her brother the duke, and it’s one reason why I think that Emma remained in England during this period. Emma is unfazed by this threat, so he ups the ante and brings in her sons, threatening to murder them if she doesn’t tell him where her treasure lies.

So, first, about that treasure. Much later in her life Emma would be one of the richest women in England, although her wealth wasn’t all gold and silver. It was income from properties that she owned. But she did have moveable wealth, and it was stolen from her twice: once in 1036 and once in 1043. That’s another story, but that’s where this particular threat is coming from. Any treasure at this time would have been royal treasure, and although she may have known where it was, it was most likely in the treasury in Winchester, which was the royal city. I’m guessing here. Who knows? Still, she’s wearing a really nice crown with pearls and all, but Olaf doesn’t seem to notice.

Now, about Emma’s sons: Edward would have been older, about 12. He had already acted as his father’s emissary, so he was no innocent child. Childhood in the 11th century was very, very short. Alfred was about 4. I don’t have any argument with their being in London and at risk at this time because we don’t know where they were. It’s a good opportunity for drama, and this is fiction. They also had a sister, Godgifu, but she doesn’t appear in the annals because, you know, she’s a girl. My guess is that she had been sent for safety to Normandy at some point in this decade and did not return to England. We won’t be seeing her in this show, but she existed!

Now the story jumps back to Uppsala where Freydis is meeting with someone we recognize from VIKINGS! He’s a spámaðr – a male diviner who figures frequently in the sagas. His prophecy and Freydis’ dream are not hopeful for the future of pagan beliefs. Another sign: over in London, Leif puts a cross in the hand of the badly wounded Greenlander, Liv. Back in Episode 3 we saw an injured Leif visited by a woman – an angel? – who gave him the cross. Was this woman the Christian counterpart of the spámaðr? Possibly.

Now Cnut is throwing a feast to celebrate his victory, handing out gifts and compliments as a proper Viking warlord should. He’s drawn Emma from Olaf’s clutches and, to the apparent consternation of his men, he introduces her as the one whose battle plan almost defeated them. She joins the party, but she doesn’t look as though she’s having fun, and why should she? She is, essentially, one of the spoils of war, and she knows it. But if she’s afraid, she hides it well.

Eadric has arrived for the feast, and he offers his support to Cnut. Amid the celebrating and congratulating, though, Cnut claims that there is one among them who is an oathbreaker, and he sends for a chopping block. Olaf, Harald, Edmund and Leif all look nervous, but it’s Eadric who dies. If anyone was shocked by what happened to Eadric, well, it actually happened. And possibly just like that! But not until 1017, after Eadric probably began planning a rebellion against Cnut. Mind you, during the battle for England in 1015-16 Cnut and Eadric were sometimes allies. Eadric, in fact, changed sides 3 times; Cnut had him executed “so that soldiers may learn from this example to be faithful, not faithless, to their kings.”2

But hey, no point in getting maudlin over a little spilled blood, so the feast continues with toasts to Cnut, the first Viking king of England. Actually, he wasn’t. His father Swein Forkbeard was the first, although only briefly. Cnut explains that he and Edmund will share the kingship of England. This did happen. After the Battle of Assandun in October 1016 the two men met and signed the Treaty of Olney, splitting England between them. Cnut would rule in the north and Edmund in the south.

But now we see a rupture between the half-brothers Olaf and Harald. Cnut has promised Harald that he will make him king of Norway. It didn’t happen until 1047, so Harald has to wait a long time. As I mentioned before, neither of these men would have been in England in 1016, and they were both always enemies of Cnut, fighting over the throne of Norway which at this time was a fragmented kingdom. I think we’ll be seeing some of that conflict.

And now Cnut begins his wooing of Emma. According to the Encomium Emmae Reginae he gave her gifts and promises, but in this show he presents her with her sons, who have been rescued from Olaf’s thugs. There’s a lot more to this story. For one thing, Edmund had sons, too, and all of the sons of Æthelred and Edmund would have been a threat to Cnut’s takeover of England because they would have been rallying points for rebellion. I have to wait to see where the showrunners are taking this before I go into what happened next.

The final scenes return to Uppsala and the Christian vs pagan theme which is pitting the Scandinavians against each other, and it’s not looking good for the pagans.

1 Bolton, Timothy. Cnut the Great.Yale University Press, 2017.

2 Campbell, Alistair. Encomium Emmae Reginae. Cambridge University Press, 1998.


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Vikings Valhalla 1.4 The Battle at London Bridge

Question One: Did Olaf Haraldsson pull down London Bridge? Yes. But he did it in 1014. In that year the armies of  Swein Forkbeard had taken control of England and London. Æthelred, Emma and their sons had fled to Normandy. But Swein died in February of 1014, and Cnut, who had been wintering with the army in northern Mercia, took command of the army as his father’s heir. In about April Æthelred returned to England from Normandy along with fleets led by Olaf and Thorkell the Tall. To help Æthelred re-capture London, Olaf pulled down the bridge.

Question Two: Did Cnut lay siege to London? Yes. 3 times, in 1016. And Edmund came to the rescue every time. How did Cnut surround the city when he couldn’t get ships past the bridge? The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle explains:

“They sunk a deep ditch on the south side (of the bridge) and dragged their ships to the west side. Afterwards they trenched the city without, so that no man could go in or out, and often fought against it: but the citizens bravely withstood them.”

That’s the background concerning London Bridge. Now, let’s get into this episode. Early on, the Vikings are examining a map of London. It’s beautiful, and pretty accurate, although there would have been large spaces in London where there were fields, for example the area known as Cornhill; and there would have been settlements outside the wall on every side. That’s my only quibble. If you go into the undercroft of All Hallows Church by the Tower you can see a beautiful model of Roman London that looks a lot like Cnut’s map.

I have a map, too. It shows the various battles between Cnut and Edmund in 1015-16. All of these have been condensed into this one episode—at least I think so. I haven’t watched Episode 5 yet!

So, a lot has been left out.

Early on, Olaf says that London is the key to taking England, and Harald replies that the key is taking the king. I can see where they’re going with this. It reflects that idea that Edmund is at risk, which is what really concerns Emma and Godwin. And Harald is right. While London was really, really important—it was the financial powerhouse of England even then—the real key to capturing England was getting the nobles to submit—to become dispirited and give up the fight. Yes, if the king was killed or captured, that would do it. Cnut’s father, Swein Forkbeard, captured England, though, by taking its fortified cities one after the other. Sometimes they submitted without a fight because his army was so strong. Finally, all that was left was London, and once Æthelred fled to Normandy, London submitted, too.

Meantime, we’re getting to know Cnut a little better. He’s asking questions, listening to his advisors, thinking. Thinking, as Leif (not Olaf) lays out a plan to pull down the bridge. And a couple of scenes later he has a heart to heart talk with Leif about his plan. He’s trying to fathom Leif; can he be trusted? And something like a bond is formed between them. Cnut was a good leader, and he valued loyalty. I hope we’re going to see that play out in this series.

At the same time, over in London, Edmund is being a petulant child and Eadric Streona is negotiating for power. He’s not going to risk his men while the king stays behind London’s walls. Emma stands firm, telling him to go ahead and leave, but warning him that if Cnut takes Wessex, Mercia will be next. Streona calls her bluff, making to leave, and it’s Edmund who caves, offering to double Mercia’s lands.

Emma is staring at Streona and we don’t know what she’s thinking; but even though she’s the queen and Edmund’s step-mother, Edmund is still the king. He’s been crowned and anointed, and they have to present a unified front. But neither Emma nor Godwin appear to like what Edmund is agreeing to.

Emma is a uniter. Streona is a divider. And I can’t get over that they keep calling him Streona. I really don’t think that anyone would have called him that to his face. It was a derogatory name meaning The Grasper. He had a bad reputation among the nobles of England. There were factions that did not like him because he was Æthelred’s henchman and he grew wealthy and powerful at others’ expense. 

I was impressed by the scenes of the Vikings making preparations for the taking of the bridge. It looks just like a scene from the Bayeux Tapestry where the Normans are building ships to conquer England.

Except, here they are making what look like surfboards. Now, today, we don’t really know exactly how that bridge was brought down. We have to look at what they could reasonably do in the 11th century and speculate. This show has set up the idea that there is a swamp that needs crossing, and apparently this is how they plan to do it—move an entire army in the dark. On rafts. Don’t look at the logistics too closely. Just enjoy the ride.

At dawn the trap that Cnut and his leaders have concocted is set into motion while Emma, Edmund and Godwin are watching from the walls. Everybody is playing a waiting game: Cnut parleying as he’s waiting for the tide, Emma urging Edmund to keep Cnut busy while they are waiting for Eadric to attack. Edmund, though, can’t take Cnut’s needling and Emma can’t stop him from leading the city guard out on to the bridge.

I like that Emma–played  by actress Laura Berlin–recognizes the Danish trap, and is directing the English army from atop the city wall. Here is a quote from the Lidsmannaflokkr, a skaldic poem describing Cnut’s capture of London in 1016:

“The chaste widow who lives in stone will look out…[to see] how the Danish leader, eager for victory, valiantly assails the city’s garrison; the sword rings against British mailcoats…Each morning, on the bank of the Thames, the lady sees swords stained with blood; the raven must not go hungry…Every day the shield was stained with blood, lady, where we were out early on our expedition with the king…”

Screenwriter Jeb Stuart has clearly read this poem. He’s brought it to life.

Always remember that Emma’s mother was a Dane and that her father’s grandfather was Rollo. Emma knows how the Vikings fight. They are tricksters.

Final question: Did Eadric Streona run from battle, thus guaranteeing Cnut’s victory? Yes. Here is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s description of the Battle of Assandun, the real showdown between Edmund and Cnut in 1016:

“The king collected for the fifth time all the English nation and went behind the Danes, and overtook them in Essex, on the down called Assandun; where they fiercely came together. Then Ealdorman Eadric, as he often did before, first began the flight, and so betrayed his natural lord and all the people of England.”

My biggest complaint with this episode is the portrayal of King Edmund Ironside. He was not a callow young man, but a fierce warrior and about the same age as Cnut. He won several battles against Cnut, and had the Danes on the run for 18 months; he only lost at Assandun because Eadric Streona fled with his Mercians from the battlefield.

13th century depiction of Cnut, covered in ravens, battling with King Edmund. (Wikimedia Commons)



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Vikings Valhalla 1.3: The Viking War on England Begins

Remember, we’ve telescoped time in this series. Events that happen in the course of a year are actually pulled from an entire decade between 1002 and 1015.  Episode 3 starts with gruesome scenes of battle and plundering in Kent. We are given a miniscule hint of Cnut’s character when he reaches a hand down to help a captured English lady to her feet. It’s a kind act after scenes of mayhem and cruelty.

In London Edmund is praying at his father’s bier. There is a fire burning in a fireplace. Note: there were as yet no such things as fireplaces and chimneys. Just saying.

There is a brief meeting between Godwin, Edmund and Emma as she thanks them for gaining Eadric Streona’s cooperation in defense of London. Although Edmund wants to fight the Viking army, Emma insists that as king-in-waiting he is too valuable to put his life at risk. This works beautifully in the scenario that’s been set up here, as we watch a young Edmund and a young Leif come into their own. But actually, when Cnut invaded England—for conquest—it was 1015. Edmund and Cnut would both have been about 26 years old.

Near the end of this conversation Edmund suggests that if Eadric Streona is successful at vanquishing the Vikings, the nobles might look to him as a more suitable king. This was unlikely. No noble would have been chosen over an adolescent son of the king. Æthelred’s half-brother took the throne at about 13 when their father died in 975. Æthelred himself was crowned at age 10. Nevertheless, this works within the framework that the showrunners have set up. And, in fact, in 1066, when King Edward the Confessor died childless, it was a wealthy noble—a son of Godwin—who was crowned king of England because there were precious few alternatives (that anybody really liked, anyway).

This show is making much of the conflict between the Christian Vikings and the pagan Vikings. Poor Freydis is running into this as she makes her way to Uppsala, and that acrimony would have been an issue, certainly. There were definitely indications that pagan Scandinavians were coerced into accepting Christianity about this time, sometimes at sword point. Cnut doesn’t really take part in this conflict—at least, not that we’re seeing—but he was, in fact, a Christian. His mother was very definitely Christian, and later in his life he made a pilgrimage to Rome.

I liked how Godwin put young, arrogant Edmund in his place, humiliating him at sword play. Still, it wouldn’t have been Godwin doing this, who was probably about the same age as Edmund, and Edmund wouldn’t have needed the lesson because he was, you know, Edmund Ironside. 

In one scene we find Queen Emma seated at the head of a council table in London, meeting with the ealdormen of Sussex, East Anglia, Northumbria, and Kent. One of them worries that Streona of Mercia might not want to fight London’s battle against the Vikings. And this was a real issue in 1010 when Thorkell’s army ravaged England. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mourns, “Then all the privy council were summoned before the king to consult how they might defend the country. But whatever was advised, it stood not a month; and at length there was not a chief that would collect an army, but each fled as he could: no shire would stand by another.”

In 1010 the Vikings were raiding, but at the council we’re witnessing Emma points out that what England is facing is not raiding, but war. And this is true. By 1013, Swein Forkbeard was already king of Denmark and Norway, and he’d made up his mind to conquer England. When he did, Cnut sailed with him.

So then we see Cnut, Olaf and Harald on a ridge looking across a marsh toward the Thames, with London in the far distance. Cnut is dubious. How do we get an army across that? Actually, there was a fortress on the south side of the bridge, and there had been a village there since Roman times. In Æthelred’s day there was even a mint in Southwark. Yes, there was a marshy area right along the River Thames, but an army would have to pass through Southwark first.

Now, about that bridge. When Harald and Leif cross it, they are stopped in the middle because it is a bascule bridge, meaning that part of it is hinged to raise up, like a drawbridge, so that ships could pass through. Leif stared at it, stunned. Me too! In medieval times, London bridge had a bascule section, but that was much later. In the 11th century, ships made it past the bridge in either direction at low tide, when they could go underneath it. There is going to be more about that bridge in future episodes, I’m certain.

And I want to say something about Cnut. In this episode he is finally given some character-revealing dialogue. He recognizes that the English know they are coming, and that they are actually daring the army to go ahead and strike from the south; he gives the English credit: “They may be smarter than we are.” I’m a little confused by how little we have seen of his capabilities so far. Cnut was a brilliant strategist. His biographer Timothy Bolton* describes him as “…a cunning and resourceful military leader…” We haven’t really seen much of that yet.

At another council session in London the ealdormen, with Godwin’s tacit approval, agree to crown Edmund, and they call him the Bretwalda. This is an Old English term referring to the ruler of all Britain, first used in the 9th century back when a united Britain didn’t even exist yet. But that’s what it means: ruler of Britain. It’s a little Anglo-Saxon garnish. Nice. Emma, though, is not happy. She’s worried about Edmund being too impulsive. Godwin disagrees with her, telling her that they must make sure Edmund succeeds. Like it or not, he insists, she has a stake in this because she has much to gain if Edmund wins against the Vikings, but even more to lose if he fails.

So, they both have the same goal in mind, but they’re not agreed on how best to attain it. This is reflective of the relationship, over 30 years, between Emma and Godwin. He was a strong supporter of the queen until….well, spoilers. It will be interesting to see how this relationship is explored as the series continues.

*Bolton, Timothy. Cnut the Great. Yale University Press, 2017.


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