Events came at us thick and fast in Episode 1 of Season Two, The Last Kingdom, so I thought I would offer a few historical tidbits.
GUTHRED: The 10th century History of St. Cuthbert says that a Dane named Guthred was raised to kingship from a Viking army through the visionary intercession of the saint.
To show his thanks, Guthred granted St. Cuthbert’s community control over all the lands between the Rivers Tyne and Wear. Take away the element of miracles and visions, and we have a Viking warleader acknowledging the power and authority of this community of monks. In return, they offer him allegiance and St. Cuthbert’s approval of Guthred’s kingship. His sister, Gisela, is a character invented by Bernard Cornwell for his novels.
ST. CUTHBERT: He was as a 7th century bishop of Lindisfarne, the holy island off the east coast of Northumbria. He was inspired by a vision in his youth to become a monk. He lived at several different abbeys until, in the 670’s he joined the community at Lindisfarne. He was a hermit for a while, living outside the abbey on the remote island of Farne until he was persuaded to become a bishop. He returned to Farne in 687, which was where he wanted to be buried. When he died a few months later, though, he was buried first at Lindisfarne, and then his remains were placed in a wooden chest above the original burial ground so pilgrims could see his casket. The body was found to be incorrupt – a sign of his holiness. But Lindisfarne’s position off the eastern coast was exposed to continued Viking raids, and the community moved all their treasures, including the Lindisfarne Gospels and St. Cuthbert. He was taken first to Norham-upon-Tweed, then to Chester-le-Street and finally he was laid to rest at Durham, where you can see his shrine today at Durham Cathedral. It’s possible that he traveled more in death than in life.
WHAT IS PHYSICALLY WRONG WITH KING ALFRED? He has to be careful about what he eats, and he is frequently in pain. In an article in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine from 1991, G. Craig postulates from Asser’s description of his symptoms that Alfred suffered from inflammatory bowel disease, probably Crohn’s Disease from the time he was 19. Although this disease is chronic, the sufferer experiences periods of remission followed by relapses. The symptoms include abdominal pain, diarrhea, constipation and sometimes fever. It is an indication of Alfred’s fame (or of his desperate efforts to find a cure) that the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Elias, sent the king remedies that were intended to ease his symptoms.
NORTHUMBRIA: Most of the action in the first episode takes place north of the Humber, and the written records for Northumbria at that time are pretty scanty. When Guthrum was baptized (at the end of last season), he took the name Athelstan and settled in East Anglia. But there were still plenty of invaders attacking the island of Britain: crossing the Channel from France after the Franks had paid them off or kicked them out, sailing the North Sea from Scandinavia, and hopping across the Irish Sea from Ireland, not to mention the Scots. The northern end of Britain was a mess! So Alfred is trying to not only protect his borders, but also gain some control over his out-of-control neighbors in Mercia and Northumbria. Guthred – who is a Christian Dane – would be someone that he would perceive as perhaps able to help keep Northumbria peaceful.
HORSES: Jamie Jeffers at The British History Podcast reminded me that the horses in Anglo-Saxon England would have been much smaller than those in the show.
What I noticed, too, was that there were no saddles – or if there were, they were so heavily covered by fleeces that they couldn’t be seen. Saddles and stirrups did exist by this time. No sidesaddles, though.
GISELA’S GOWN: Gisela was dressed in Danish style, very different from what Aelswith is wearing back in Winchester.
Also, she didn’t drop to her knees when St. Cuthbert was carried in. So, she is a Dane and a pagan – and Uhtred definitely notices. His kind of girl!
Craig, G. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Volume 84, May 1991, pg. 303
Lapidge, Michael, ed. The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England, Blackwell Publishing, 2001
Higham, N. J. and Ryan, M. J. The Anglo-Saxon World, Yale University Press, 2013.