From my blog...

The Great-Sea Flood

Woodcut of a 1607 flood in E. Anglia

A.D. 1014 This year on the eve of St. Michael’s Day, came the great sea-flood, which spread wide over this land, and ran so far up as it never did before, overwhelming many towns, and an innumerable multitude of people. THE ANGLO-SAXON CHRONICLE

The date of this event in 1014 was 28 September. The wave described by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle swept through the English Channel, impacting England’s southern coast as well as areas of what is now the Netherlands. But the wave also moved northward along the coasts of Cornwall and Wales, rounded the northern coast of Scotland and then continued south along England’s eastern coast. We do not know if this disaster took place in the daytime or at night. We only know that it was sudden, and that those affected never saw it coming. Scholars theorize that in Britain more than 80,000 people died in a matter of minutes.

What could have caused such a great sea-flood? We tend to link tsunamis with earthquakes, but there is no record of any earthquake in September, 1014. We tend to associate flooding with storms, but the annals make no mention of a storm

M. Baillie, in an article published in the Journal of Quarternary Science, 2007, speculates that the 1014 tsunami recorded by chroniclers in Britain and at Quedlinburg Abbey in Saxony was caused by a meteor that landed in the mid-Atlantic. You can see a simulation of the comet impact here.

In the 11th century there was no Red Cross. There was no FEMA. Who cared for those left homeless? Who buried the bodies of the dead? How long did it take for the devastated towns and villages to recover, and is it possible that some might never have recovered? Might they have simply been washed away and, eventually, forgotten?

We can only guess at the answers to those questions as we stand in awe of Mother Nature’s fury even now, one thousand years later.


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Of Runes and Repetition

Today I’m sharing something about my writing process. One of the difficulties that a writer faces in penning a trilogy is the problem of repetition. Frankly, it’s almost impossible to avoid when you have the same characters and the same settings in three consecutive books that tell a lengthy story. Nevertheless, it is up to the author to make each scene significantly different from any that have gone before.

In the second novel of my trilogy about Emma of Normandy, THE PRICE OF BLOOD, I created a scene in which Tyra, a gerningakona (Old Norse, meaning a woman who practices magic) casts rune sticks on the floor and tells her mistress, Elgiva, what she sees there. Here is an edited excerpt from that scene:

Elgiva sat on the floor of Catla’s bedchamber, hands clasped about her knees. Two arms’ length in front of her Tyra knelt among the rushes, frowning intently at the rune sticks scattered in the space that had been cleared between the two of them. Elgiva flicked her gaze between Tyra’s face and the rune-marked pieces of bone.

“Well?” she whispered to Tyra.

But the Sámi woman made no reply. Oblivious to everything but the rune sticks, she began to chant softly, words that Elgiva did not understand although the mere sound of them – eerie and in some strange tongue – made her flesh crawl.

She contained her impatience. Scrying the future, it seemed, could not be rushed.

Tyra had closed her eyes and was running her hands lightly across each fragment of bone, fingering them, touching whatever power emanated from the scored ivory. Then her eyes opened, focusing with such needle-like sharpness on Elgiva that she shuddered.

“Two sons,” Tyra said, in a voice so strange it seemed borrowed from some other world. “Both will grow to manhood. Both will leave this middle earth before you.”

Both will grow to manhood.

Her sons, then, would not all wither in the womb as the last child had.

Tyra had closed her eyes again, slumping against the bed frame as if she were a poppet made of rags and straw. The power that had been within her had withdrawn, and she looked haggard, her face so pale that even her lips were white. Elgiva clenched her fists with impatience, but she knew better than to press Tyra any further. The woman was exhausted and all her power fled.

For a long moment she gazed thoughtfully on that drawn and pallid face, gnawing on an idea that she had been considering ever since the first time she had seen the cunning woman’s hands play across the shards of bone with their mysterious markings. Slowly she moved her stiffened limbs, repositioning herself so that she was on her knees, mimicking the slave woman’s stance when she had been reading the runes. She leaned forward just as she’d seen Tyra do it, fingering the small, scored rods, hoping to feel some kind of power emanating from them.

She felt nothing. She sat back on her heels, and when she looked at Tyra again, the Sámi woman was eyeing her.

“You have lusted after my power for many months now, have you not? Her voice was normal again, no longer filled with magic. “Look at me. Each time I use the power, there is less of me afterward. Is that what you long for?”

I had to look at that scene again because I needed to bring the runes back and at the same time make the new scene that I wanted to include in my third book (not finished yet!) different from the one in the previous novel.

I went back to my research. First, I consulted a book on Nordic Religions by Thomas DuBois that I’d picked up on one of my trips to the Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo – a book that appealed to me as much because of its cover as its Table of Contents.

Runes, as you may know, were used by pagan Germanic peoples, not so much as a means of communication, but as a set of magical symbols associated with healing and magic. In cultures that had no written language, like that of Viking Age Scandinavia, words – and even letters – had an element of mystery about them because so few people understood them. And so they were associated in people’s minds with magic and charms that could cure or curse. For instance, a rune could be written on something, then scraped off into a cup of mead so that the drink became a healing elixir. Or runes could be carved on to something to protect it – the mast of a ship, for example, or the hilt of a sword.

I shall teach you the runes of triumph
To have on the hilt of your sword
From the Eddaic poem Sigrdrifomál

I also turned to a book by Horik Svensson that identified each rune and explained how it might be understood and interpreted.

By taking the information that I was able to glean from my research materials, adding it to the clear idea I had about what I wanted the runes to say to Tyra and Elgiva, and throwing in a dollop of pure imagination, I produced what I hope is a realistic and dramatic scene that is still quite different from the scene in the earlier book, yet builds upon it. Here, again, is an edited excerpt:

“Hagall. Nied. Othel. Tire. Elgiva mouthed the names of the few runes that she could recall and edged forward on her chair, narrowing her eyes to search the markings on the narrow, yellowed shards at her feet. After a few moments, frustrated, she thrust herself back against the cushions.

What did it matter that she knew what they were called? The bits of scored bone scattered on the floor looked to her like nothing more than kitchen refuse. She did not have Tyra’s gift and never would.

She watched her Sámi slave bend over the rune sticks, hands outstretched. Tyra’s braid of dark hair pooled into her lap, and candlelight sent shadows flickering over her thin face. The sight made Elgiva’s flesh creep and, knowing what must come next, she wrapped her shawl about her head so that it covered her ears. Tyra would start chanting soon, the sound so familiar now that Elgiva sometimes heard it in her sleep. Mournful and eerie, it turned her dreams to nightmares. She did not like it, did not want to hear it. But it was part of the ritual. If she wanted an answer to her question, it had to be endured.

When the chanting began she gritted her teeth and, eager to distance herself from it, she pushed herself to her feet and paced to the far end of the chamber, frowning at the barren state of the walls that surrounded her. This was the queen’s outer apartment, and it should have been draped with lavishly embroidered hangings. Emma, though, had taken everything of value or beauty with her when she fled. Only the large wooden bed had been left behind, and even that had been stripped of its curtains and linens…

When Tyra’s chanting sudden stopped she sat, unmoving, her head bent and drooping like a wilted blossom on a thin stalk. Her face was so grey that Elgiva feared she might faint. Moving swiftly to a bench that held a flagon of wine, she poured some of the spiced liquid into a cup and, kneeling, she placed it in Tyra’s hand. She waited while Tyra sipped some of it and a little color returned to her sallow cheeks.

“Well?” she said. “How long will it be until I can return to London?” Tyra stared at the cup in her hand, her mouth shut in a tight line. “Answer me!”

“What you desire may be beyond your reach.” The voice was Tyra’s, but it sounded strange and hollow, as if it came from the back of a cave or the bottom of a well. Tyra’s eyes still did not meet hers. She looked into the middle distance with an unfocused gaze and a face blank as stone. It was the face of prophecy, Elgiva realized, and she held her breath, waiting for it.

“The road that lies before you is strewn with difficulties – far more than just weather and time. There are malignant forces at work over which you have no control.”

Tyra’s voice – flat, dead, and empty – did not even sound human. Elgiva had to force her hands into her lap to keep from covering her ears.

But now Tyra’s eyes fixed upon her at last, and she whispered, “I cannot promise that you will ever return to London.”

Elgiva felt a chill creep along her spine. Never before had Tyra given her a reading such as this. Nor had she ever before avoided her gaze. There was something wrong here. Could it be that she was not lying, yet not speaking all the truth?

She crouched above the bones scatter on the floor and picked up the one that lay in the middle of the grouping. She held it in front of Tyra. “What does this mean?”

Tyra blanched and shook her head.

“By itself it is meaningless.”

“Perhaps,” Elgiva said. “but it is not by itself. It is at the heart of everything you have just told me. Tell me what it means!”

Tyra clenched her lips tight, and Elgiva thought she would have to slap her to get her to speak. The silence built between them, but finally Tyra’s eyes met hers and she murmured, “It means death.”

Elgiva stared at the piece of bone in her hand, then dropped it as if it had burned her.

The scene, hopefully, echoes the reading of the runes from the earlier book. Both are written from Elgiva’s point of view, but although her motives in each scene are the same – answer a question – the questions she has asked are vastly different, as are her reactions to the answers she receives. Tyra’s reticence about even giving her an answer adds conflict to the second scene that sets it apart from the first one. Both scenes, though, end on a dark note. That is meant to keep readers turning the pages!


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What Historical Novelists Do at a Conference

The historical novelist’s life is a lonely one. We spend our days at our desks, arguing with computer screens, wrestling with words, engulfed by books and files, and holding conversations with characters who never existed or who have been dead for a thousand years. Is it any wonder that, when given the chance, we throw ourselves a party?

hns1That’s what happened last week when 400 plus members of the Historical Novel Society convened in Portland for a conference. Well, we call it a conference, and in fact there are panels about writing and publishing and history, but in between the panels and the pitches there are dinners and lunches and drinking and, well, it’s a 3-day long party. And a very big party, with writers, readers, agents, editors and booksellers in one place, frequently all of them talking at once.

There was the welcome cocktail costume party, where attendees were invited to come in fancy dress and many did! Medieval kings and queens, 18th century militia, Roman goddesses, ladies in exquisite gowns from a myriad of centuries and men in elegant garb complete with hats and spats or boots and neck-cloths when called for. I must confess that I was absolutely smitten by Susan Shay as Eleanor of Aquitaine, and once I’d followed her about and finally snapped her photo I was so thrilled I didn’t even attempt to corner anyone else. Happily, other people did!



Photo Credit: David D. Levine








Panels held over the next two days were on a variety of topics, and it was always horribly difficult to choose among them as there were seven or eight sessions held at the same time. Here are some examples:

Inventing Convincing Medieval Heroines
Truth in Fiction
Using Modern Tools to Tell Historical Stories
Writing in Multiple Genres
Writing the Celtic World
How Well Does Your Dialogue Work?

You see what I mean?

On Friday I led an intimate session, billed as a Koffee Klatch but, alas, without coffee and cakes, on ENGLAND BEFORE THE CONQUEST, which went in an altogether different direction than I had imagined it would, which was actually delightful. Our little group of 18 was much less bloodthirsty than I had anticipated. Not much talk of swords and warriors despite our collective fascination with events in England during the Viking Ages. We discussed things like the marriages of æthelings, and touched on Alfred and Æthelred, and considered the role of Anglo-Saxon queens, especially Emma. The Brits in the room informed me that TIME TEAM is available on YouTube, and I gave a shout out to the group about THE BRITISH HISTORY PODCAST. (I’ve just watched the very first, 1994, episode of TIME TEAM, The Guerilla Base of the King. It’s all about the fort at Athelney where Alfred the Great spent a winter hiding out in 878; that’s exactly the historical event currently under discussion at THE BRITISH HISTORY PODCAST – Alfred’s guerilla war against the Danes. So, how’s that for synchronicity?) The hour flew by and, like a fool, I took no pictures and did not even turn on my bloody phone/recorder so I could provide a more in-depth report in this post. Bother.

The following day was Saturday, and we did it all again. I was on a panel titled PUTTING THE HER IN HISTORY which was the brainstorm of author Stephanie Lehmann, who moderated. Co-panelists were Rebecca Kanner, Mary Sharratt, and Nicole Evelina.

Putting the Her in History: Stephanie Lehmann, Bracewell, Rebecca Kanner, Mary Sharratt, Nicole Evelina. Photo Credit: Jessica Knauss

Putting the Her in History: Stephanie Lehmann, Bracewell, Rebecca Kanner, Mary Sharratt, Nicole Evelina. Photo Credit: Jessica Knauss

And although there are no recordings, I can tell you that my fellow panelists were passionate and eloquent about the roles of women throughout history, about the definition of POWER, and the difficulties that historical novelists face in bringing all-but-forgotten women to life.

The conference board always arranges for special guest speakers and this year was no exception. I don’t know that we’ve ever had a Pulitzer Prize winner speak to us before, but this year we did. Geraldine Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for her novel MARCH. She has also written the best sellers YEAR OF WONDERS, PEOPLE OF THE BOOK, and most recently, THE SECRET CHORD. I have read and loved all of these. She is a marvelous writer, an inspiring speaker, and her stories about her pre-novelist life as a journalist in war zones like Bosnia and the Middle East were hair-raising.

David Ebershoff spoke on the second day. He is the author of THE DANISH GIRL (I highly recommend it) as well as THE 19TH WIFE which I have not read yet, but I’m told it’s remarkable. It was utterly fascinating to hear him speak about Lili Elbe and her life. And it was incredibly moving to hear him describe his return to Dresden to visit her grave after the making of the film THE DANISH GIRL.

In between and after the sessions and during the meals there were conversations among old friends, among friends who knew each other only from their head shots on Facebook, and among friends newly made; there were visits to Powell’s Bookstore; there was laughter, and camaraderie, shared stories about the publishing world and the writer’s life.

For those who wished to explore the many different libations imbibed down the centuries there was a tasting session titled HOOCH THROUGH HISTORY: FROM MEAD TO MARTINIS. (An extra fee for this, and it was sold out. We are writers, after all!)

At the final banquet Australian novelist Kate Forsyth, who is a marvelous storyteller with an advanced degree in Fairy Tales, had us on the edges of our seats with her rendition of the Scottish tale, TAM LIN. (Word to the wise: Beware the fairy queen!)

Geraldine Brooks and Kate Forsyth, HNS Conference 2017

Geraldine Brooks and Kate Forsyth, HNS Conference 2017

The final event of the conference was A REGENCY MASQUERADE BALL. A wonderful trio of musicians accompanied our dance master as he led us through the steps of English Country Dances.
hns16 hns17
The musicians were extraordinary, and it was such a treat to be able to dance to live Regency music. Off to one side of the ballroom a group from the Jane Austen Society taught the card sharks among us how to play Whist. Domino masks were handed out at the door, but I brought my own, and I have to say, it made me feel both elegant and mysterious as I danced the night away.


Next year the party moves to Scotland!

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Warning: Spoilers ahead.

The final episode of The Last Kingdom, Season 2, is filled with action and conflict: King vs. ealdormen, brother vs. brother, Saxons vs Northmen. Although I’m not particularly fond of battle scenes, I have to admit that my favorite moment in this episode is when King Alfred – in the dark of night and up against a horde of howling northmen – cries “Shieldwall!”

But, back to the beginning. As Uhtred and his men ride toward Winchester Uhtred looks worried and pensive, and he is no doubt thinking of Æthelflæd and of the request that she has made that he help her flee with the Northman, Erik. It’s risky business for all of them.

Ep2.8LoveaFather Pyrlig, who has heard Æthelflæd’s confession, probably knows that she’s in love with her captor. As he rides beside Uhtred he pointedly muses – and I am quoting him word-for-word because it is so important:

What binds a man to a land? You have a poor wretch toiling in the fields, burning in summer and shivering in winter. He works all day every day for nothing more than a loaf of bread and a pot to piss in. His children die of disease, his wife dies giving him children, yet when that land is threatened, something stirs. It can only be love. ‘Tis a powerful thing. Would you not agree, Lord Uhtred? From wretch to warrior, love gives a man strength, often at the cost of his mind.

It is love that underlies this episode – a father’s love for his child, a leader’s love for his land and people, a man’s love for a woman.

The story begins, though, with lust: for silver, for fame, for power. Uhtred and his companions inform Alfred that the Northmen want 3000 pounds of silver and 500 pounds of gold to ransom Æthelflæd.

Ep2.8RansomaAlfred, with less than a month to make the first payment, has three options.

Option One: Ignore the ransom demand. Outcome: The king’s daughter will be paraded, probably naked, before mocking crowds; men will pay to use her. It would mean humiliation for her, for the king, for Wessex. But Alfred loves his daughter too much to abandon her to that, nor will he allow that humiliation to be the story of his reign.

Option Two: Lead an army against Sigefrid and Erik.
Ep2.8BrothersaOutcome: the brothers will kill the king’s daughter. This is the option that Ealdorman Odda would choose. Fight, dammit, and never mind what happens to the girl. Odda, who was badly wounded fighting the Danes at Cynuit, sacrificed his own, traitorous son for Wessex, and Alfred, he thinks, should sacrifice his daughter. Let her be a martyr for Wessex. After all, Odda claims, Alfred still has his son Edward. But Odda is speaking from the perspective of a man who has nothing left to lose, and Alfred has a very great deal to lose if he makes the wrong decision.

Option Three: Pay the ransom. Outcome: the Danes will use the silver and gold to bring more Northmen to Wessex who will unite and destroy Alfred’s kingdom. As Æthelwold observes, the Saxons will pay for the swords that will kill them.

All of the choices are bad, but Alfred gambles that if he pays, God will help him find a way to beat the Northmen when the time comes, despite their vast numbers. This is not, on the face of it, a bad plan. He has paid tribute to the Northmen before to buy an alliance (with Guthrum) or to buy himself time to prepare for war. Odda, though, continues to demand that the king attack now, and Alfred struggles with misgivings, not at all certain that he has made the right decision. Finally, though, he is frustrated by Odda’s refusal to accept the decision he has made. He tells the old man that his injury and his love for wine have robbed him of any value and that he no longer serves a purpose.  Odda must leave Winchester.

Ep2.8OddaaThere are times when Alfred’s insistence on obedience is a weakness; it will not allow him to bend when sometimes bending is the only solution to a problem. It happens here, with Odda, and it happens a lot with Uhtred. We have seen it before, and we will see it again. Alfred told us in Season 1 that he is no saint. This is a reminder.

Meantime, Odda is convinced that Alfred is wrong, and despite Uhtred’s pleas that he do nothing – for Uhtred alone knows that if Æthelflæd gets away, no ransom need be paid – Odda has already sent for the Devonshire fyrd. If Alfred won’t lead his warriors against the Danes, Odda will. When Alfred finds out – because Odda sends Father Pyrlig to tell him – Alfred gathers his warriors and sets out to try to stop Odda, playing right into Odda’s hands because they all meet near the Northmen’s fortress at Benfleet.

I’ve told my men that we are here on your orders, lord, Odda tells Alfred. Now that you’ve marched an army to the Northmen’s door, they will not believe that you’re not here to fight. And he’s right.

Ep2.8AlfredaUnknown to the king and Odda, though, inside the fortress Erik and Æthelflæd have been planning their getaway, and Uhtred has arrived in secret to help. But Sigefrid and Hæsten have become suspicious of Erik’s too obvious affection for his prisoner and they have taken steps to make sure that their prize doesn’t escape.

Ep2.8CageErik’s plan goes awry, and when brother is pitted against brother, it’s up to Uhtred to improvise the rescue of Æthelflæd, which he does brilliantly. They are pursued, of course, and under a night sky lit by flames, a Northman maddened by grief and howling for vengeance rallies his men against the Saxons – for death and glory. And Alfred the king, who has brought a Saxon army to stop a Saxon army, turns on the Northmen and cries, “Shieldwall!”

Alfred was a great king. He survived months in a swamp, he rallied his people to save Wessex from destruction by Viking raiders, and he began the task of fulfilling his dream of a united England. He was also ruthless, because a 9th century king had to be ruthless. That is the Alfred that we see in this episode when, back at Winchester, he is forced to turn his ruthlessness on an old friend.

Uhtred returns to Cookham, and it is his voice that reminds us of the theme that Pyrlig introduced at the beginning.

What binds a man to his land? What power within allows him to give his life to preserve his land and the lives of the families who work it? It can only be love. It will not be written that Odda gave his life to save Wessex, but that is the story I will tell – that he gave his life to save the lives of many and ensured that King Alfred of Wessex became more powerful than ever.

Ep2.8UhtredaDid it happen this way in Cornwell’s novel? No. There are enormous differences. For one thing, ODDA WASN’T EVEN THERE! But both versions of this story are beautifully told. If you haven’t read the books, now would be a good time to start while we hope that Uhtred and The Last Kingdom will be back for a third season next year.

  1. The Last Kingdom
  2. The Pale Horseman
  3. The Lords of the North
  4. Sword Song
  5. The Burning Land
  6. Death of Kings
  7. The Pagan Lord
  8. The Empty Throne
  9. Warriors of the Storm
  10. 10. The Flame Bearer

Photos: Netflix/BBC2/TheLastKingdom


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Warning: Spoilers ahead.

In the opening scene, Uhtred and his companions arrive at the Saxon camp to find no one left alive. It is heartrending to watch Beocca calling Thyra’s name over and over and getting no reply. That entire scene had me all misty-eyed.

Despite having read Bernard Cornwell’s Sword Song, I did not know how Beocca’s search was going to turn out because the book handles this event quite differently. The screenwriters are, of course, forced to compress and revise because of time and because they are dealing with a different medium; at the same time it allows them to toss in some surprises for those of us who have read the novels on which the show is based. I’m enjoying the changes/additions because they remain true, I think, to the world, the characters and the story that Cornwell created.

Now, back to that ravaged Saxon camp. Unfortunately for Æthelred, he has to go back to Winchester and face Alfred’s wrath when the king learns that his daughter is missing. Serves him right, the weasel. Luckily for Æthelred, who apparently has only half a brain, his buddy Aldhelm is there in every scene, murmuring instructions in his ear about what to do, say and think. Æthelred is one step up from a ventriloquist’s dummy.

Alfred is royally outraged upon learning that
a) his daughter accompanied her husband to battle and
b) she is probably a hostage of the Danes.
He is, though, amazingly self-controlled, and all the good lines are given to Odda. He snarls that Æthelred has put the kingdom at risk and gets to call him useless, arrogant, a toad, an idiot and a fool. We are cheering Odda on, and we cheer again when Æthelwold pipes up and adds that the only man capable of cleaning up this puddle of shit that Æthelred has created is Uhtred.

Uhtred has wasted no time in sending spies to Benfleet to discover if the king’s daughter lives, but he doesn’t go to Winchester because Alfred has banished him from court. Instead he goes to Cookham and he tells Gisela what happened. Now we are treated to a couple of scenes that illustrate the close relationship between them. She tells him, You will be Æthelflæd’s hope, and she urges him to go to  to Winchester right away to take part in the search for the girl. He counters that they will go, but not yet. He wants no part of the court intrigue until he has news. (Is he just a little pissed off at the king? You bet!)

Ep2.7GiselaaWe go to Winchester, next, to witness a scene between Alfred and his wife Ælswith. She is no friend of Uhtred’s but, fearful of what the Danes will do to her daughter, she gently echoes what Gisela has said. Send Uhtred to Benfleet. If our daughter is there, and alive, Uhtred will raise her spirits. Alfred, though, is as stubborn as Uhtred. His hope must be in God, not in Uhtred.

In the Anglo-Saxon culture, it was expected that a good wife would counsel her husband and that he should listen. He may not follow her counsel, but he should listen. This is where Uhtred, Alfred and Beocca differ from The Weasel. They listen to their wives, even if they don’t agree with the advice they’re given. The Weasel, though, doesn’t want Æthelflæd’s advice about anything. She’s just supposed to shut up and do as she’s told.

When the Witan meets to discuss the problem of Danish armies and a captive royal daughter, Ælswith is at her husband’s side.


Ælswith is never called a queen, but she has been present at every Witan session.

Uhtred arrives with news that Æthelflæd is alive, and Alfred orders The Weasel to negotiate with the Danes for her release. Odda, Æthelwold and Beocca counsel that Uhtred should go as well, and now Alfred’s doubts are whirling in his mind and we see them reflected on his face. Can he trust Uhtred? He sought counsel over that and prayed over that, and he still does not know. It is Ælswith who, with a single, pleading look, convinces him. Yay Ælswith! (Eliza Butterworth, can you hear us applauding your portrayal of Alfred’s wife?)
I have to say, though, that like that snake, Aldhelm, I am wondering how Erik knew where Æthelflæd was or even that she would be with her husband’s army. All I can think of is that he must have had spies shadowing the force from Mercia and Wessex, and that would certainly make sense.

In the Viking camp at Benfleet, Æthelflæd has drawn some unwanted attention. Hæsten and Sigefrid have both been leering at her, and Erik seems to be puzzled and bemused by his own growing feelings for the Saxon king’s daughter. Hæsten tries to rape her (this is practically a requirement, right?), and she defends herself using whatever comes to hand: first a bucket of piss, then the bucket itself, and then a knife.

Æthelflæd's strike would have been lethal if Erik hadn't stopped her.

Æthelflæd would have knifed Haesten if Erik hadn’t stopped her.

Erik steps into the fray and, to her surprise, he’s on her side. One thing leads to another, and although the relationship that springs up between them seems to happen very quickly, it probably develops over many weeks. Besides, Erik is far more tender toward her than The Weasel ever was.

In Winchester Odda suggests to Alfred that if the ransom demanded for Æthelflæd is too costly in silver or blood, perhaps she should be encouraged to take her own life. She would be one of God’s martyrs, rewarded in heaven. You are a king before you are a father, Odda says.

Whoa! I did not see that coming. Alfred didn’t either, and he is not exactly receptive to this suggestion.

Note the drawings on the walls. The Anglo-Saxons loved bright colors, and the writer worked the paintings into the dialogue.

Note the drawings on the walls. The Anglo-Saxons loved bright colors, and the script writer worked the paintings into the dialogue.

Let’s talk about Odda for a moment. I do not know if I’m right here, but I think this is an illustration of Odda’s concern for Wessex. He puts Wessex first always. He supports Uhtred not because he’s fond of the warrior, but because he recognizes Uhtred’s value to Wessex. And let us remember that in Season 1, Odda killed his own son because he had been a traitor to Wessex.

Æthelwold overhears Odda’s conversation with Alfred, and later Odda accosts him and says that if Æthelwold is anything like his father, Alfred’s brother, I may need you. For what? Æthelwold asks. And I’m wondering, too. For what?

I do not know what Odda is going to do next. We know that he feels as if his life has been wasted – he is always drinking  –  so what is going on in his head?

When the negotiation team from Wessex arrives at Benfleet, the Danes totally humiliate The Weasel and we are cheered to see him wake up naked in a pig pen, which means that he and Æthelwold now have something in common. While The Weasel has been unconscious, Uhtred has been negotiating a price for Æthelflæd as well as watching Erik with interest and concern because he intuits that something may be going on between Erik and his hostage. In private, Erik confesses to this. Then Æthelflæd puts Uhtred in a really tight spot because she and Erik want to run away and she wants Uhtred to help them. He uses all the arguments against it that he can think of – and they are really good arguments. Your husband, your father and Sigefrid will all come after you. You’ll die. Your family will die. I am sworn to your father. If I help you and succeed, he will have me killed, and besides that you are asking me to assist in getting you killed.

But Æthelflæd is not just a young girl in love. She tops all his arguments with I will not be the treasure that builds an army against my father.

Whoo boy. Now what?

Photos: Netflix/BBC2/TheLastKingdom


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There are numerous plot lines weaving through this series now, and here’s a look at how they develop in this episode.

ÆTHELRED vs UHTRED: There is never going to be a bromance between these two.
Ep2.6UhtredÆthelred is jealous of Uhtred’s skill as a warrior and of his friendship with Æthelflæd.  Uhtred sees Æthelred for what he truly is – not the good and godly man that Alfred imagines, but a smarmy, preening, egotistical, treacherous, lying, smooth-faced weasel. And that’s before Uhtred learns that Æthelred is cruel to Æthelflæd. Oh, and he’s stupid. Did I forget anything?

ÆTHELRED vs ALFRED: Æthelred wants to be king of Mercia AND Wessex, and his buddy Aldhelm (James Northcote), who is a viper in men’s clothing, reminds him that he can only accomplish this goal if Alfred is dead. Also, he says, a war between Wessex and the Danes would help. With these guys as allies, Alfred needs no enemies, although he has lots more.

ÆTHELRED vs. ÆTHELFLÆD: Æthelred reveals his true nature on their wedding night. Yes, it was a very brief honeymoon. When it comes to his wife, Æthelred is suspicious, possessive, controlling and mean.  Æthelflæd has allies, though, in Hild, Beocca, Thyra and Uhtred. She is politically savvy, so she understands how important her marriage is to her father’s plans for Wessex. This puts her in a bind because it forces her to submit to her husband’s control. Nevertheless, she is determined that he will not break her. And remember, she’s only 15.

The unhappy couple

The unhappy couple

BEOCCA and THYRA: We see them wed in this episode, and it’s a striking contrast to the marriage of Æthelflaed and the weasel. I don’t know about you, but at the end of the episode I’m really worried about Thyra.

The happy couple

The happy couple

ÆTHELWOLD vs HIS MOUTH: This guy is the show’s comic relief. In Season 1 he was sleeping with a pig, and that pretty much says it all. His one-liners are terrific, though, and he can occasionally be quite bright although we are constantly reminded by his companions that he has the spine of a jellyfish. Sometimes, though, he just can’t shut up, and in this episode he is continually yammering at Uhtred about how they could be kings of Wessex and Mercia because Dead Bjorn said so. Uhtred knows Bjorn was a trick, but he won’t reveal that to Æthelwold because of his big mouth.

OSFERTH and HIS CAREER PATH: This is Alfred’s illegitimate son. Osferth (Ewan Mitchell) is a monk who wants to be a warrior like his Uncle Leofric, Uhtred’s best buddy from last season who introduced us all to the word earsling.

ALFRED vs UHTRED: Alfred spends most of his screen time in this episode trying to resolve his doubts about Uhtred. David Dawson is terrific in this role of a man conflicted, a king beset by enemies and unable to quite bring himself to trust the warrior who stands at his right hand.
Ep2.6AlfredprayerabHe’s given some fabulous dialogue, all of it to do with Uhtred. He wonders if Uhtred is
a seemingly loyal and brave man who piece by piece is eating at my soul and clouding what I believe to be right and wrong.

Alfred flings accusations at Uhtred about his relationship with Sigefrid and Erik, and he argues with Odda about whether Uhtred is a spy, calling him
a sword I would rather wield than face.
At one point Alfred asks Steapa, Do you trust Uhtred?
And Steapa’s answer is simple and eloquent. With my life, lord. 
I love that.

Alfred flanked by Steapa & Odda, who support Uhtred

Alfred flanked by Steapa & Odda, who support Uhtred

But Alfred is still not convinced that he can trust Uhtred. That is because Alfred’s mind works in a way that Uhtred’s does not.
I do not understand you, he says to Uhtred. And it’s true.
But he also says, I do not know you, and Uhtred looks as if Alfred has slapped him. My mind immediately went back to last season and those moments at Athelney when Alfred’s son was at the point of death and the two men spoke long into the night together. They knew each other then. And it seems to me that Uhtred is thinking of that, too, for soon he asks Odda,
How can I serve a man who doesn’t trust me?
Face twisted with grief Uhtred continues,
A man to whom I have given so much?
Alexander Dreymon and Simon Kunz were absolutely wonderful in this scene. Heart wrenching, the both of them.

UHTRED vs SIGEFRID & ERIK: In Bernard Cornwell’s novel Sword Song, written in Uhtred’s first person viewpoint, our hero is tempted by the idea of joining Sigefrid and Erik, and of becoming king of Mercia. The moment that he realizes that he cannot do that is when he sees the brothers about to crucify Fr. Pyrlig. Things develop a little differently in this tv series, and although Uhtred strings the brothers along for a while, we know early in the episode that Uhtred is going to stick by Alfred. Even though he is embittered by Alfred’s lack of trust in him, Uhtred is no oathbreaker. He bows to Alfred’s irritating and unwise decision to put Æthelred in charge of scouring the Danes out of London, and is the first to realize that the Danes are after a different prize that leaves us with a cliffhanger of an ending.

Trouble One and Trouble Two.

Trouble One and Trouble Two


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LastKingdom.2aTHE DEAD SPEAK

Three years have passed since the rescue of Thyra and the banishing of Sigefrid and Erik. Ragnar and Brida are in Dunholm (Durham), Guthred rules at Eoferwic (Jorvik/York), Guthrum/Athelstan) is sitting like an old hen in East Anglia, Æthelred is Lord of Mercia, and Uhtred is an ealdorman and is living at Coccham (Cookham). The action has moved south now. Want a map? Here.

Map from THE PRICE OF BLOOD by Patricia Bracewell

Map from THE PRICE OF BLOOD by Patricia Bracewell

The first scene, of Uhtred’s attack on some ravaging Danes, is wonderfully faithful to the Prologue of SWORD SONG, the book that is the basis for this episode and for those that will follow. Uhtred is protecting his land and the nearby villages from Danish raids. As ealdorman, that is his responsibility – protect the people, maintain bridges and roads, keep the peace, punish offenders. As you can see on the map, Cookham is on the Thames and not far from Watling Street, which is the border between Saxon Mercia and the Danelaw – called the Danelaw because those living there were governed by Danish laws, not Saxon laws. Alfred reprimands Uhtred, at one point in this episode, for following the wrong law. We are west of Watling Street, Alfred snaps. Also, remember that London, at this point, is part of the Danelaw. Alfred’s royal city was Winchester, not London.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Uhtred is now a family man, married to Gisela, with two lovely children – his son Uhtred and his baby daughter Stiorra.
Ep2.5FamilyaCookham itself is Uhtred’s holding, but it is also a settlement and, somewhere, there’s a burh. A burh is a large, fortified enclosure where the people can go for safety/defense in case of attack. They were a defensive network that Alfred built all across England, and many of them eventually became towns. We don’t see the burh, but at one point we’re told that that’s where Uhtred is.

And I’m getting ahead of myself again because… Æthelwold! He’s waiting to see Uhtred to give him a message that is, essentially: I’ve been told by a dead man that I’m to be king. He wants to talk to you because you’re going to be a king, too.

Now, just when we thought that maybe Æthelwold was showing some promise, he slips back into stupidity. I don’t mean the talking dead. The Anglo-Saxons believed in ghosts, as did the Danes, the Celts – heck, everybody in the 9th century, pagans and Christians, believed in supernatural beings, both benevolent and evil. No, I mean, Æthelwold has been colluding with Danes. He’s gone into the Danelaw – forbidden territory – and we know that Alfred is keeping him on a short leash and he’s been very naughty. Uhtred knows it too, so he’s in no hurry to go talk to the Danish dead. Alfred would not be happy about it, and Gisela warns him probably 3 times in this episode not to get on Alfred’s bad side.

Next thing you know, Alfred arrives at Cookham, and we have a couple of scenes in which the discussions range from Æthelflæd’s upcoming marriage (Odda: The purpose of marriage is not to be happy); to Æthelwold’s naughty excursion into the Danelaw (Uhtred: Put him on trial, lord, and then kill him. Just saying.); to the Viking threat at the mouth of the Thames that should be Guthrum/Athelstan’s problem but about which he is doing nothing (Uhtred: Guthrum won’t stop them, lord. Send ships and men to Benfleet before they find a leader and become an army).
Ep2.5Uhtred'sHallaAlfred doesn’t like Uhtred’s suggestion about Benfleet because he doesn’t want to break the peace that he has worked so hard to build. He is not a preemptive strike kind of guy. But before the episode’s end, Æthelwold will observe that Alfred’s peace is already over, and early on we are given the reason why. Erik, brother of Sigefrid, arrives at Cookham while the king is there (I don’t know why Uhtred isn’t more nervous about this) and makes nice with Uhtred for a few minutes, letting him know that the power structure in southern England is about to change.

Erik is the friendly brother; nicer than the surly, now one-handed Sigefrid. Remember that.

Erik is the friendly brother; nicer than the surly, now one-handed Sigefrid. Remember that.

Sigefrid, Erik says, is bringing 19 ships (that’s 500 men) from Frankia to the fort that the Danes have built at Benfleet. They are not going to stay at Benfleet but will make bold inroads on Wessex. It’s clear that Erik wants Uhtred to join them. Well, we’ll see.

In this episode we meet, at last, Fr. Pyrlig (Cavan Clerkin), a Welsh priest who appeared in the books much earlier. Alfred sends him to East Anglia to goose Guthrum/Athelstan into action against the Danes in Benfleet. He’ll be back. (Which reminds me, what’s happened to Brother Asser? He was Uhtred’s bane last season, but he seems to have disappeared.)

In Winchester preparations for Æthelflaed’s marriage to Æthelred are under way, and Alfred tears himself away from his work for a moment to look fondly upon his daughter in her wedding finery before going back to his parchments. Alfred is definitely a Type A personality.

Æthelflæd, who already looked 22 three years ago when she was 11, hasn’t aged a bit. She still looks 22, but now she’s 15. Nobody else has aged either, certainly not Uhtred. Apparently, I’m the only one who has aged since the last episode.

Look at the map on the wall! There are maps everywhere, but we don't have any maps from the 9th c.

Look at the map on the wall! There are maps all over Alfred’s chamber, but we haven’t found any maps from the 9th c. Sad.

Æthelflæd’s intended, Æthelred, is bad-mouthed by just about everyone. Ælswith, who rarely has a good thing to say about anyone, thinks he’s a little too fond of himself. Someone else calls him a peacock while Alfred tries to convince himself that Æthelred is a good and godly man. (He’s wrong.)

Ep2.5AethelredaRegarding the upcoming nuptials, Gisela observes that a peace cow is just a whore in a wedding gown. Peaceweaver is the Anglo-Saxon term, but Cornwell uses peace cow and I’m glad that writer Stephen Butchard managed to work that in.

Father Beocca, though, has found love with Thyra. In the book this happened much sooner, and they already had children by this time. I was afraid that Stephen Butchard was going to cut this relationship, but I need not have worried. Priests, by the way, could marry in 9th century England, but the stunned reaction of the royal family to Beocca’s announcement is hilarious. And we need some hilarity because things are about to get dark.

Uhtred finally decides to go visit the ghost. He heads into the Danelaw with Æthelwold, and when Alfred learns of it he puts a guard on Gisela. I feel the need to defend Alfred here. He’s a worried man. Danes are traveling through Mercia to hit Saxon villages; Lord Æthelred, in Mercia, is ambitious and has his eye on Alfred’s throne (his reason for marrying the king’s daughter, duh); there are Danes gathering at Benfleet but Guthrum/Athelstan is doing nothing to stop them; Æthelwold thinks he is the rightful king and is apparently plotting with powerful Danish warlords; Uhtred is married to a Dane, has a powerful Danish brother in the north, and now is hanging with Æthelwold and his Danish buddies. Alfred is, like the king on that Tæfl board last episode, surrounded by enemies and does not know who he can really trust.

And then there’s Dead Bjorn. Uhtred and company arrive at Eilaf’s hall, and the dead guy couldn’t possibly be any scarier than these thugs hanging out with Eilaf. Haesten is there – Uhtred saved his life at Eoferwic – and the lead-up to the meeting with the undead is appropriately creepy. Now, Uhtred himself has played an undead horseman, so he’s appropriately skeptical. He orders Sihtric to hide and keep an eye on what happens after the meeting with the dead guy is over. Sihtric, the ninny, will get scared and run away. But they are all scared, Finan probably most of all because, hey, he’s Irish and probably more superstitious than anyone. Things get under way when a man is killed to beckon the Dead Bjorn, and, yes, that was gross, but he was a thief and by Danish law he was doomed, so no one bats an eye except Æthelwold who is a dweeb. Dead Bjorn is remarkably eloquent in his prophecy: Tonight, London’s streets are red with Saxon blood. And Uhtred, he says, will one day be the Mercian king of both Saxons and Danes.

And so we anticipate that London – beautiful London – had better look out.

I love this model of London but that massive stone entrance way into the city with its round towers? No. Nice bridge! And the Thames is appropriately WIDE. But no towers like that until the Normans post 1066.

I love this model of London. Cornwell describes the wall surrounding the city as studded with circular bastions, built by the Romans, so you can see two of them here. There is a model of Roman London in the crypt of All Hallows that shows a similar gateway into the city. Nice bridge! And the Thames is appropriately WIDE.

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The title I’ve given this episode distills, I think, the moving force – not only in this episode, but in the entire series. Uhtred is the hero of the story, but the larger background is the history of England and the character of King Alfred.

At the end of Episode 3, Uhtred had been freed from slavery, and had once again sworn his oath to Alfred as his king. You may recall that Uhtred’s earlier pledges to the king were for a specific period of time or to accomplish a specific task. But this oath, made under duress to keep the king from punishing Ragnar for a murder that Uhtred committed, appears to be open-ended. Uhtred is now Alfred’s man. Period.

Ragnar, who had expected that Uhtred would help him rescue their sister from Dunholm, is resentful, claiming that in making that oath, Uhtred has made himself a slave again; he is not free to follow his own aims. This is a very Viking way of looking at the matter. The Scandinavians had no kings at this time – only war lords whose goals were to achieve wealth and fame for themselves and their followers by preying upon others. Men might bind themselves to such a lord, but only for as long as he was a worthy warrior and ring giver, and sometimes only for a specific campaign or season. And, if the leader couldn’t provide the expected rewards, they could turn to someone stronger and more successful. The brothers Erik and Sigefrid represent this type of leader; they have no wish to settle and rule, only to prey upon those weaker and unprotected. It is why Alfred wants them out of England. Later in this episode, Brida speaks for the Danes when she complains that Guthred – whom Alfred supports as king in Northumbria – is weak, and that the Danes won’t fight for him against Erik and Sigefrid.

This difference between the Viking view of a man’s bargain with his lord and the Saxon view of his oath to a king is at play throughout this episode. It begins with Ragnar’s quip that Uhtred is a slave. Then Odda refers to it when he warns Alfred that Uhtred’s desire to regain Bebbanburg may have a greater hold on him than his oath to Wessex. Alfred’s response is that, should Uhtred disobey him and try to claim Northumbria, Steapa has been instructed to kill him. That sounds very cold-blooded, but Alfred has a grandiose plan and Uhtred as king of the north is not part of it. Uhtred is too pagan and too strong, unlike Guthred who, although a Dane, is also a Christian and, just as important, a weak leader who will not turn on Wessex.

Interestingly, it is Æthelwold, Alfred’s disinherited nephew, who articulates Uhtred’s role in Alfred’s plan: Uhtred, you more than anyone, will bring about Alfred’s dream of England. He wants Guthred to be the lord of the north, and you will make that happen. Then he adds, I see it as a king sees it.

Ep2.4AethelwoldAnd that is to remind us that Æthelwold, too, has a stake in this game: Alfred is a sick man and Æthelwold sees himself as the rightful king of Wessex and hopefully Alfred’s successor. Æthelwold also believes that Alfred is sending him north with Uhtred in the hope that Æthelwold will get killed, thus ridding Alfred of an inconvenient relative. Whether this is in fact Alfred’s plan, we do not know. Alfred himself claims that Æthelwold has proven himself in battle and in the witan, and that this assignment is recognition and reward.

We are given insight into Alfred’s mind when he is playing Tæfl with Æthelflæd. There is a lot going on in that scene, so let’s unpack it.

First, there is the game of Tæfl itself, which is, essentially, a war game of this period played on a board similar to a chessboard. It is a precursor of chess, and the ivory pieces used in play are similar to the late 12th century Lewis Chessmen.

Photo Credit: The Lewis Chessmen by James Robinson, The British Museum Press, 2004.

Photo Credit: The Lewis Chessmen by James Robinson, The British Museum Press, 2004.





Alfred is teaching his daughter war strategy, and here writer Sophie Petzal is foreshadowing Æthelflæd’s role in the distant future as the Lady of the Mercians. That Alfred compliments her on making a bold move in the game is a really nice touch, for she will be bold and she will command warriors.

The insight into Alfred’s mind comes when he explains to her that the king is placed in the center of the board, surrounded by his enemies. Now, I do not know how to play Tæfl or if this is how the game actually begins, but you can see how Alfred perceives himself – as a king surrounded by his enemies. The camera immediately goes to Æthelwold, who is watching. He hears this and gives Alfred a penetrating look because Æthelwold is aware that, as a man with a claim to the throne, he is a threat to the king. It’s why he thinks Alfred is sending him north – to get him out of the way and put him in peril. But Æthelwold will remember the set-up of that Tæfl board in a later scene, and will give Uhtred advice on where, amid the tents of the Danes, their leader will be found: in the center. Again, it’s a nice touch.

Then Alfred gives Æthelwold a token – a symbol of Alfred’s kingship – to indicate Æthelwold’s authority. I squealed when I saw what the token was: the Alfred Jewel.

Ep2.4JewelaWell, a facsimile anyway. This object was discovered in Somerset in 1693, and it has an inscription in Old English around the central crystal that says, in gold, ‘Alfred ordered me to be made’. It’s actually believed to be the handle of an æstel, which is a manuscript pointer used in formal readings and in teaching from manuscripts, and it would have been very valuable.

The Alfred Jewel. Photo Credit: The Ashmolean Museum.

The Alfred Jewel. Photo Credit: The Ashmolean Museum.

Like the Tæfl game and like the scored candles of the previous episode, the Alfred Jewel is a distinct reference to the Anglo-Saxon world of Alfred the Great. And the presence of these items is so wonderful that I am willing to overlook the gown that Gisela is wearing which is neither Danish nor Anglo-Saxon nor 9th century. She does look lovely in red, though.
Gisela’s brother Guthred gets the chance to say “Sorry” to Uhtred for selling him into slavery, and Uhtred gets to slap him. In the book Uhtred calls him a bastard, an earsling and a piece of weasel-shit, and then forgives him. The two men actually like each other. I kind of like that Uhtred, here, hits him. He should have hit him harder though.

The episode is all about how Uhtred manages to boot Sigefrid and Erik from Northumbria per Alfred’s instructions, and also manages to help Ragnar rescue Thyra and punish Kjartan. Ragnar’s berserker savagery toward Kjartan shocks everyone, but remember that Kjartan murdered Ragnar’s father, mother and grandfather, and drove his sister to near madness. In the novel, Thyra is much worse off than we see her in the series. In the book she is naked except for a deerskin cloak; her body is covered with scars and sores; her hair is matted, greasy and tangled; her fingernails are long as knife blades, and she is like something out of a nightmare. In both series and book, it is Beocca who calms her, who pulls her back from insanity. Good old Beocca!

Missions accomplished, Uhtred returns to Winchester where Gisela is waiting. He leaves Northumbria to Ragnar, Brida and Guthred. But Alfred, too, is waiting in Winchester, and because Uhtred is Alfred’s man, we can be pretty sure that his work is not yet done. And besides, there are four more episodes!

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Beware! Spoilers ahead, big time. DO NOT read this if you have not seen Episode 3 of Season 2. Even if you’ve read the book, this episode differs enough from the novel that I don’t want to spoil it for you, so proceed at your peril. Go watch the episode, but don’t forget to come back.

Guthred made a bargain with Uhtred’s Uncle Ælfric to trade Uhtred’s freedom in return for 200 armed warriors. Too bad for Guthred that the fine print specified that Ælfric wanted Uhtred’s head, and selling him to a slaver wasn’t good enough.

Guthred's hall at Eoforwic. Interesting throne.

Guthred’s hall at Eoforwic. Interesting throne.

So right away we have everyone pissed at Guthred, especially Ælfric. Ælfric, the Viking brothers Sigefrid and Erik, and even Gisela desert Guthred. His plan to lay siege to Kjartan at Dunholm was likely to fail in any case. So, the vikings run amok through his kingdom, with Sigefrid gleefully calling himself the Lord of Chaos. Guthred is helpless without Uhtred’s sword and cleverness. He’s left with no friends but Abbot Eadred and Brother Trew, and the three of them deserve each other. Before she leaves, Gisela gives Sihtric (Kjartan’s bastard son who is sworn to Uhtred) a note to give to Hild, trusting that the nun will eventually return to Eoforwic. Presumably it has the name of the slaver who has taken Uhtred.

In Winchester, Alfred and Æthelflæd are looking at a map (I love maps) as a way of bringing up the idea of a marriage alliance with Mercia.


If you have never seen the Gough Map, you should take a look at it. I think it may have been the model for the one we see here. Æthelflaed, of course, is prepared to do her duty in the marriage market, which makes her the exact opposite of Gisela who balks at any mention of marriage, although Abbot Eadred is clearly leaning toward such an alliance with Ælfric.

Every so often in this episode we check in with Uhtred and Hallig and their new friend Finan (Mark Rowley). We see them rowing. We see them baling to keep their feet from rotting. We see them shivering violently in rain and snow. We see them whipped. There is nothing on the ship in the way of comfort or sanitation or even room to move. We see them growing more and more physically wretched and mentally/emotionally damaged.

Ep2.3aShip2According to Paddy Griffith’s The Viking Art of War, an extended voyage on a longship (they go to Iceland!) was an endurance test, even if you weren’t a slave. If you were clothed for bad weather, in skins or wool that had been treated with fish oil to repel water, you would still have gotten soaked. And baling in rough weather was not only a matter of keeping your feet dry, but of keeping the ship afloat. Uhtred and his friends are not dressed for the weather and they are clearly ill treated, underfed, suffering, and barely clinging to hope. The show did a darned good job of portraying the abject misery of the slave crew’s plight. The shipmaster is a horribly inhuman creature, and although the writers cannot duplicate what occurs in the novel, they invent a particularly heart-wrenching incident to get the point across.

In Winchester Alfred gives a feast for Ceolwulf (David Gant). This is not in the novel, and it is a wonderful addition, wonderfully written and acted. Ceolwulf was the ruler of Western Mercia, and in this scene he is yammering about wanting men to fight the Danes while Alfred is trying to nudge him toward an alliance. We are one, Alfred says gently. We are not one! Ceolwulf barks. I want warriors to help me against the Danes, and you want to make Mercia an appendage of Wessex. He’s right. That is exactly what Alfred wants.

The fact that Ceolwulf is even in the story is awesome because his reputation has been one of a puppet king put in place by the Danes; but two years ago a coin hoard was found that seems to indicate that Ceolwulf was much more significant than has been thought, and that Alfred and his chroniclers have, until this discovery, pretty much rubbed him out of history. So the writers are really digging into the actual history of the period to add depth to the show. And then Ceowulf keels over dead, and for the first time, we see a stunned, speechless Alfred. It’s priceless. Oh, and we meet Æthelred (Toby Regbo), who will soon be pledged to wed Æthelflæd, and he is gently bullied by her parents into offering a bride price that involves land. Alfred is all about the land.

What did you think of Æthelred? In the novels he is Uhtred’s cousin on his mother’s side, and Uhtred calls him a “bumptious little shit”. (Æthelwold now – Alfred’s nephew – he’s a bumptious little shit. He hasn’t said much so far, but whatever he does say is always pissy.) We haven’t seen much of Æthelred yet, so the jury is still out, but I’m wondering if they’ll make him as bad as he appears in the books. Sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself, and poor Uhtred is still on that boat.

When Uhtred is finally freed (it’s been a year!) there is a tender moment with Ragnar, and then an even more tender scene with Hild. It is set in Northumbria instead of in Hild’s Winchester convent, but this works just as well.


Now there are two strings still left hanging: Gisela, and Ragnar’s oath to return Uhtred to Alfred. Gisela has taken refuge in a convent but Abbot Eadred finds her and proxy marries her to Ælfric. What happens next plays out pretty much as in the novel, except that Hild is there. And the shocked look on Hild’s face as she watches Uhtred’s savage attack on the abbot will likely lead to the convent that, in the novel, she founds in Winchester.

And then Uhtred goes to Winchester to see Alfred, who is messing with candles.

Ep2.3aCandlesYes, Alfred – along with everything else he did – was a kind of inventor. He experimented with candles until he found the exact candle height, width and weight that would burn for four hours. He scored the candle at approximately one hour intervals so that he could gauge the passing of each hour.

Photo credit:

Photo credit:

He also designed the horn lantern to protect his candle by inserting pieces of thinly sliced horn into a wooden frame around it so that a stray breeze would not affect the burn rate.

Where was I? Oh yes. In Winchester canny Alfred uses Uhtred’s murder of Eadred to force Uhtred into his service again. Kings can do that, and Alfred does it while he is messing with his candles. I love this show!

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Our Uhtred is many things: a Saxon, a sometime-Dane, a pagan, a baptized Christian (well, not really), a canny warrior, a lady’s man (Beocca: ‘even his scars are handsome’), and sometimes a downright fool. Gotta love the guy.

In this episode he is all of the above and, unfortunately for Uhtred, the foolishness comes at the episode’s end. But, to begin…

We are again in Cumbraland. Where, you may ask, is Cumbraland? Well, it’s near the western end of Hadrian’s Wall. Bernard Cornwell calls it Caer Ligualid, or Carlisle. It was on the border of Saxon controlled land, and everything west of it, all the way down to Chester, was controlled by Scandinavians (Danes or Norse, take your pick).

So, in lovely Cumbraland Guthred is king and Uhtred is Guthred’s war leader and he is making friendly with the king’s sister Gisela.

Gisela ♥ Uhtred, although this moment happens a bit later...

Gisela ♥ Uhtred, although this moment happens a bit later…

A big fellow named Clapa (Magnus Samuelsson) is helping Uhtred train his troops, and here comes Tekil with 6 friends to offer their swords to Guthred. Really, though, they’ve been sent by Kjartan to capture and maim Uhtred. They might have succeeded but for Hallig, Hild and Clapa who come to the rescue. The thugs are dispatched, but it turns out that one of them is Kjartan’s bastard son, Sihtric (Arnas Fedarvicius), and when he begs to swear allegiance to Uhtred, Uhtred takes him on. Does Uhtred really trust Sihtric? Apparently. Do we? We are not altogether sure.

Much of this episode is pulled straight from Cornwell’s Lords of the North, but once again, Stephen Butchard has had to condense or collapse events and combine several characters into one. For example, the Danish war leader Ivarr, grandson of Ragnar Lothbrok, has been replaced by the brothers Sigefrid & Erik who first appear in the following novel, Sword Song. This works, at least so far. Also, Abbot Eadred seems to be doing triple duty as Uhtred’s religious nemesis without any help from the novel’s creepy monks Jænberht & Ida, and he does just fine all by himself. He badmouths Uhtred to Guthred every chance he gets and schemes against him in secret. The abbot definitely has the king’s ear, which worries Uhtred, but not as much as it should. Nice habit, he’s wearing. I quite like the colorful trim, and we know that the Anglo-Saxons were fond of bright colors.

Abbot Eadred looking good.

Abbot Eadred looking good.

Hild’s role is a bit more martial than it was in the novel. In exchange for a butchery lesson conducted on one of Kjartan’s dead Danes, (eww) she nabs herself a byrnie. She chooses one that is combo chain mail and leather. It certainly has a nice, lacey look to it, and is probably much lighter than a chain mail byrnie (even a small one weights 25 lbs), but will it stop a sword? Hild! Fashion isn’t the key consideration here!

Clapa & Hallig next to Hild who is sporting her new byrnie.

Clapa & Hallig next to Hild who is sporting her new byrnie.

Despite the changes and substitutions, though, the bones of the story are the same. Uhtred gives Guthred good advice, but Guthred listens instead to the sly, serpent-tongued abbot who secretly sends an offer to Uhtred’s nasty uncle Æfric up in his Bebbanburg fortress. Ælfric, I have to say, is looking quite natty in his handsome new tunic. He’s clean and quite good looking. He actually reminds me a little of Alfred. Too bad he’s a bad guy.

Uncle Æfric

Uncle Æfric

Speaking of Alfred, he is down in Winchester standing with his wife, Ælswith, watching his daughter Æthelflaed practice her sword skills with Steapa. Steapa (Adrian Bouchet) is a significant character. Keep an eye on him. Alfred remarks fondly that he does not wish to see his daughter wed. Practical Ælswith says that she must be wed and in any case,

“Steapa would kill any man who dared to harm her. Even a husband. He’s as much her man as he is yours.”

And then Alfred – pious, intense, serious Alfred the Great – makes a joke! Even Ælswith can barely believe it.

We need a little levity right about now because back up north Uhtred is putting the severed heads of Tekla and his men to good use. I’m sorry that the writers did not have Uhtred describe himself as a shadow walker, a sceadugengan, because I’d love to hear that word said out loud. How do you pronounce it again? However you say it, a sceadugengan is what he is, and when Kjartan and his men find those severed heads the background music is a total creep out. Uhtred, disguised as the dead horseman, rides again, and even though Kjartan shouts that he knows it’s Uhtred, the cry comes back, “I’ll have your soul!”

And then it’s time for Uhtred to be a darned fool by making a bid for Gisela’s hand in marriage. He does this by explaining to his friend Guthred that he, Uhtred, is a lord of the north just like Sigeferth; that he might easily become Guthred’s rival. He says this half in jest, half in earnest, and really it’s his timing that is so horrible because he has just unwittingly (Uhtred, you dimwit) played into the hands of Abbot Eadred who’s been hissing to Guthred that Uhtred wants to be king.

So, in the final scenes, Guthred turns on his friend like a snake, turns on the man who saved him from slavery and who was responsible for making him king. He trades Uhtred for 200 of Ælfric’s warriors so he can defeat Kjartan by besieging Dunholm. Sure, he knows it’s wrong and he feels some guilt. But, let’s face it: all the grit in Guthred’s bloodline went to his sister.

Here is Guthred feeling guilt for what he's about to do.

Here is Guthred feeling guilt for what he’s about to do, the snake.

All is not lost, though, because Hild has gone to Alfred for help. She covers the 200+ miles to Winchester in practically the blink of an eye, and although there are some there who are pretty eager to say it would be impossible to save Uhtred so why even try? – I’m looking at you, Ælswith – and although Alfred can’t imagine how to go about finding our sold-into-slavery hero, good old Odda the Elder has a brilliant suggestion. Way to go Odda!

But help for Uhtred and his trusty companion Hallig is, of course, a long way away, and we’re left with a lovely cliffhanger of an ending until the next episode. Oh, well done!

All Photos: Netflix/BBC2/TheLastKingdom

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