I have been doing some research while I shelter in place, dipping into books that I’ve been meaning to read but haven’t had the time to until now. One of them is The Third Horseman by William Rosen. The title is based on the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: pestilence, war, famine, and death. The book deals with famine, specifically, the Great Famine of the 14th century, brought about when the four previous centuries of what have come to be known as the Medieval Warming Period came to an end. The book is also concerned with war, because the author goes into great detail about the reign of Edward I and Edward II of England, their determination to conquer Scotland, and the terrible impact that their wars had on the populace of both countries. It is a book that is not for the faint of heart, but it is illuminating and worth considering during this difficult time that we are living through.
According to Rosen’s book, the summer and fall of 1314 saw so much rain that men could scarcely harvest the wheat that was the staple food source of that time, or store the grain safely in the barns. The bad weather continued for two terrible years in northern Europe when life was difficult even when things were good. A single bridge destroyed by floods could starve an area for months. In 1315, fourteen bridges on the River Mur in Austria were swept away. In England, four mills along the River Avon were destroyed by floods, and in Saxony more than 450 villages were inundated and destroyed, along with the villagers and their cattle. Quarries couldn’t be mined. Fields couldn’t be sown or meadows mowed. Wood and peat—necessary fuel for heat and smelting—were too wet to burn. One thing impacted another. For example, salt, which was used as a preservative for fish and meat, became scarce because the fuel that was used to fire the salt pans and evaporate sea water wouldn’t burn. Without salt they couldn’t make another staple: cheese, which was the only way to keep milk from spoiling.
Not enough food could be grown or raised to feed the populace whose numbers had skyrocketed during the earlier Medieval Warm Period as a result of longer growing periods and increased food production. Rosen speculates that the tale of Hansel and Gretel, cast out of their home because there was not enough food for them, may have originated at this time–a folk memory of “children starving for a crust of bread”.
Rosen tells stories even more horrible than what the Brothers Grimm recorded, but this one, hinting of cannibalism, is bad enough.
The Great Famine was exacerbated by war and by leaders who were inept or incompetent. People died of starvation or of illness that they could not fend off because their bodies were so weakened from lack of nourishment. To add to their woes, in 1319 an epidemic of rinderpest killed two-thirds of the cows, oxen, sheep and goats of northern Europe. In 1320 a disease called glanders took out nearly half the horses.
It would not be until 1322 that the food supply returned to something resembling normal, and during the Great Famine years of 1314-1321 the excess mortality rate was somewhere between 5 and 12 percent for all of northern Europe. Twenty-two years and a generation later, Europe would be hit by the Black Plague. Out of the frying pan…
The 14th century was a terrible time; nevertheless, all of us living today have ancestors who lived through it.
Humanity is resilient. We’re still here.
Sources: Rosen, William. The Third Horseman: Climate Change and the Great Famine of the 14th Century. Viking, Penguin Group U.S.A., New York. 2014.
Banner Photo: Medieval Town by Water. Karl Friedrich Schinkel. Wikimedia Commons
Hansel and Gretel by Arthur Rackham, Wikimedia Commons
The final episode of this season’s The Last Kingdom is set in Winchester where events cascade breathlessly one after another. Winchester has been under siege for 30 days, and the no man’s land between the Saxon camp and the city walls is littered with bodies, spent arrows, and rats. Ugh. Imagine the stench! Because King Edward’s repeated efforts to throw men against the town have failed to dislodge the Danes, he’s about to set fire to the city, which is exactly what his mother predicted he would do. In his mind the people trapped within the walls are already lost, and he’s willing to sacrifice them and Winchester so that Wessex can grow stronger from the ashes. Uhtred tries to talk him out of this mad idea, but Edward is adamant. Fr. Pyrlig observes that Edward is a boy who is suffering, and it is an apt description. All through this episode the king acts like a spoiled, furious, irrational child.
Inside the city, Brida is no more rational than Edward. When the king sends an emissary with an ultimatum she casually fells him with a single bow shot, so that even that creep Haesten looks at her askance. She is spiteful and angry, still hot for revenge. Frustrated by Sigtryggr’s inaction, Brida announces that they need to kill Uhtred’s daughter in front of his eyes to force Uhtred into action.
Sigtryggr, though, is as calm and thoughtful as Brida is fierce and frenzied. Unlike her, he is after a much bigger prize than mindless vengeance. He’s spent the past month listening to Stiorra read to him from Alfred’s Chronicle and he’s not only gained an understanding of his enemies, but he’s formed a bond with the daughter of the man likely to be his most formidable adversary.
So he chides Brida for her anger and orders his men to protect the city against fire while he chooses the most valuable royal captive to use to coerce Edward into giving him what he wants.
The captives are looking somewhat the worse for wear. Edward’s queen is whining, but not his mother. Aelswith is stoic, fully expecting to die and prepared for it. Death is all they’ve been talking about, and Edward’s sons have been listening, especially Athelstan.
When Sigtryggr stalks in and asks which royal child Edward loves best, the adults are certain that whichever child he takes will be doomed. Athelstan, as stoically unafraid as his grandmother, calmly announces, “I’m the elder brother. I should be chosen.” What a kid! He’d make a great king!
Sigtryggr is on a mission, and he climbs to the city parapet and shouts for Edward to approach and talk with him. Edward refuses. I would, too, because a few minutes ago we saw Brida fire an arrow at the last guy who went out there. But then both of Edward’s sons join Sigtryggr, and although Aldhelm warns him not to approach them, Edward does, drawn by the sight of his boys. (Children in peril. I hate when that happens.)
Edward orders Sigtryggr to leave, but the Dane only laughs because he holds all the cards. Edward makes wild, empty threats—I’ll find your children and take out their eyes—and is met with Sitryggr’s chilling response: retreat, and I’ll let one of your sons live. You choose which one. Faced with such a horrible choice, Edward breaks down. (And this is a terrific performance by Timothy Innes.) Never once, though, has Edward thought to ask Sigtryggr directly what it is that he wants. It will be up to Uhtred to do that.
Young Uhtred has arrived at the Saxon camp, and as father and son listen to Edward’s tormented search for a way out, Uhtred comes to a bold decision. He knows that if he can talk to Sigtryggr, he can end the standoff. With bravado that amuses Sigtryggr, he offers himself in place of Edward’s boys.
Sigtryggr agrees, and everyone in the Saxon camp except Uhtred’s men believes that our hero is about to die. And if Brida had her way he would die. But Aelswith nailed it last episode when she perceived that it was the MAN, not Brida, who was really calling the enemy’s shots. Sigtryggr promises bloodthirsty Brida that she can have Uhtred when he’s finished with him, and he takes Uhtred off for a little chat.
Their meeting begins with a 10th century male bonding ritual that involves one man swinging a large sword and the other trying not to be gutted. Once they are satisfied that they have each other’s measure Uhtred asks Sigtryggr what he wants and a long bargaining session begins.
Haesten, who is a horrible human being that we hate—but in a good way—is important in this episode as a catalyst for moving events along. He’s already hidden poor Eadith in an attic. Now he’s spying on Uhtred and Sigtryggr, and he tells Brida they’re talking about a truce, which is the last thing she wants. Disgusted, and possibly hoping to goad the Saxons into attacking the city, she throws Uhtred’s sword over the wall. Edward sees it as a sign that Uhtred’s efforts have failed, and when Aethelflaed arrives with an army offering him her full support, the Saxons attack. Winchester’s gates are battered open and in the midst of a fierce battle, Uhtred has to make his way, swordless, to Edward and convince him to negotiate. It was pretty sweet, watching the two forces form shield walls to stop a battle rather than start one.
The haggling begins then between Sigtryggr and the Wessex royals, and Uhtred leaves them to it, only to be viciously attacked by Brida. All her fury and hatred spills out, and when Uhtred overpowers her she warns him that if he lets her live she will be his undoing. Of course he lets her live, and the last time we see her she is laboring alone to deliver the child that she will breed to hate all Saxons.
At episode’s end, Sigtryggr is given lands in York along with a willing hostage in Stiorra, who sees an exciting future beckoning and grabs it with both hands. Haesten has disappeared, having fled when the fighting began, and Eadith, who was wounded in the confusion, is being tenderly cared for by Finan. Aelswith is dying, poisoned by that snake Aethelhelm whose attempt to rid Athelstan of his grandmother’s powerful support backfires when Edward finds the boy an even better protector: Young Uhtred may be going back to his abbey, but now Uhtred has Athelstan, eldest son of the king, in his care.
Teach him of Northumbria, Edward tells Uhtred. It is the last kingdom. Without it, there will be no England.
Destiny is all, Uhtred’s voice booms over the final shot. Hopefully, the destiny of this terrific series, with its excellent scripts, talented and creative production crew, stunning settings, and brilliant actors, will bring it back for more seasons to come. Wyrd byð ful aræd.
Photo Credits: Netflix, THE LAST KINGDOM
Episode 9 opens in Aylesbury where Edward is lingering (too long) to witness Aethelflaed become Lady of Mercia in what looks like a wedding ceremony.
Eventually we learn that the king is going to return to Wessex (finally) and Aethelflaed will lead an army in the opposite direction to secure Mercia’s northern border.
Meanwhile, Brida and Sigtryggr are attacking Winchester. In his novels Bernard Cornwell doesn’t make much use of archers (that I can recall), but they were an essential part of viking warfare, and Sigtryggr has used them against the Welsh and now against Winchester. Also, the vikings’ favorite strategy was to pop up unexpectedly and strike swiftly before an alarm could be raised, and we see that here, too. In King Edward’s absence, Aethelhelm is in charge of the royal city’s defenses, and he finds himself surrounded and forced to yield. What surprised me in this scene was the slaughter of the kneeling Saxon warriors even though Aethelhelm has yielded. Normally, vikings were out for loot, and once a town surrendered they took everything of value, including slaves, and went on to hit the next target. But Brida isn’t out for plunder. What she wants is vengeance against everything Saxon. She wants to rip out the Saxon heart, and she pursues that goal with gleeful malice. Sigtryggr seems content to let her have her way for now, but we wonder how long it will be before he sours on her. We sure have!
Uhtred and company are camping in a forest in Wessex on their way to Lady Aelswith’s estate at Bedwyn. Aelswith is trying to bond with Uhtred, but she’s going about it all wrong and irritating him and everyone else because, well, she’s Aelswith. Then we have another viking coup de main, with Haesten’s men popping up almost out of nowhere to surround Uhtred’s band. Actor Jeppe Beck Laursen makes such a great Haesten because he’s so deliciously nasty and stupid and we hate him so much. He reveals with fiendish relish that Sigtryygr has captured Winchester; he strings Uhtred and his men upside down from tree limbs; and he hauls Aelswith, Athelstan and Stiorra with him to Winchester, leaving 2 men behind to watch the warriors dangle slowly to their deaths.
And they would have died, (the lungs start to fail if the body is hung upside down for too long) except that Eadith, who is really good at lurking in the shadows, comes to their aid. It’s not easy for her, but she manages to free them, and then they’re off at a run because Uhtred is frantic about what might happen to Stiorra if she’s discovered to be his daughter. Poor Pyrlig is sent to find Edward and, once again we see him climbing up a dang hill.
Aelswith shows that her good angel can be somewhat cunning because before entering Winchester she removes the cross that marks Athelstan a Christian from around the boy’s neck. And there’s a sweet verbal knife thrust when she’s led to Brida and Sigtryggr:
Aelswith: “I want to speak with whoever leads you.”
Brida: “I lead here.”
Aelswith: “No. I mean the MAN in charge of this.”
Aelswith holds her own in this little byplay, and she gets high marks for lying to protect Stiorra and Athelstan. But sparrow-brained Eardwulf is there and he reveals who Stiorra is. It’s a wonderful scene, with Sigtryggr alert to every word, every dire threat that spills ever so calmly from Aelswith’s mouth. It made me remember what Leofric used to say about King Alfred: “The bastard thinks.” Sigtryggr is thinking, and he intervenes when Brida orders Stiorra’s head sent to Uhtred. It’s the first crack in his alliance with Brida.
‘Know your enemy’ is an ancient military strategy, and Sygtryggr must realize that he’s going to have to fight Uhtred. So far, all he knows of Uhtred is what he’s heard, presumably, from Brida. So when he questions Stiorra about the Saxons, the Danes, and her father, he sees a different picture.
Stiorra tells him that the enmity between Saxons and Danes is foolish. It’s a game for old men. And Sigtryggr, who we are reminded over and over is a young, new breed of Dane and is not out for revenge like Brida but wants to settle in Britain, listens.
Outside the walls of Winchester, hidden among the trees, Uhtred recognizes that the Danes are preparing for a siege and he is searching for some strategy that will help him defeat Sigtryggr and rescue his daughter.
Eadith shows her mettle again by offering to enter the city because she’s the only one who won’t be recognized. They send her in, and then they have an agonizing wait. Uhtred blames himself for Beocca’s death, and it’s taught him to be cautious, especially with this young, cunning Dane.
Pyrlig finds Edward and alerts him to what’s happened at Winchester, and Edward reverts to his 2-year-old self. It’s all about him. MY heirs are captives! Someone must have betrayed ME! And the worst of it is, he’s realizing that he’s done exactly the same thing that Aethelred did: he left his stronghold in Wessex for too long and didn’t leave enough troops behind to defend his people. He’s furious and hot headed and doesn’t give himself the time that he needs to think about what he should do next.
Edward shouts that to re-take Winchester he’ll even raise the dead and, Oh Look! That’s exactly what Brida is doing as she digs up a graveyard to spite the Saxons and their religion. Eardwulf protests, and Brida takes this opportunity to tell him that he’s despised by everyone.
That sends him to the ale house, and once he’s drunk he decides it might be fun to abuse Stiorra. Sigtryggr catches him at it, and when he learns from Stiorra that Eardwulf murdered his oath lord, Athelred, and thus can’t be trusted, it’s all over for Eardwulf. Sigtryggr has him dragged out to the courtyard to listen as the brash young warlord harangues against the dangers of anger and ambition, and against men of the old generation who pursued their own glory and went down to defeat. Brida doesn’t like what she’s hearing, and another crack appears in the Sigtryggr/Brida alliance.
Eadith, who has been doing a good job of lurking in secret so far, sees her brother about to be executed and gives herself away. She can’t help it; she pleads for mercy. Eardwulf earns some redemption by telling Sigtryggr scornfully that she’s just a whore he once knew, possibly saving her life.
Haesten, though, stupid as he is, intuits that she’s Eardwulf’s sister, and just when she’s found Aelswith, Haesten nabs her, for purposes of his own no doubt.
In the final scenes, Edward arrives with his army and despite Uhtred’s protests he throws his men recklessly and pointlessly against the walls of Winchester. Somewhere in heaven, Alfred is weeping.
Photo Credits: Netflix: THE LAST KINGDOM
Episode 8 of The Last Kingdom 4 begins in Wales. And by the way, these Welsh segments of the series are unique to the tv drama. They are not based on events in Bernard Cornwell’s books, and this is one time when having read the books makes it more difficult for me to be objective about what’s happening on the screen. Personally I found most of the scenes in Wales this episode hard to watch, but they do accomplish several important things.
To begin with, Brida’s baby bump gives us an idea of the passage of time. At least 3 months, maybe 4, have passed since we saw her in Episode 2 before the Battle of Tettenhall when she was newly pregnant. And I think that another month goes by over the course of this episode. None of this is a surprise, given the distances that the characters have had to travel this season, but it helps to have the time frame reinforced.
The Welsh segments introduce the character of Sigtryggr, who is not quite as boyish and exuberant as I imagined him when I read the novels. I hope he lightens up.
The violence and viciousness of Brida, the Welsh, and Sigtryggr are a pretty heavy-handed contrast to the discussions about God, sacrifice, leadership and responsibility taking place in Aylesbury. Even as I understood what the writers were doing here, I didn’t really enjoy it. It’s a little like having to take a bad-tasting medicine. Nevertheless, the character of Brida is the Brida that we know from the novels. The difference is, we’re witnessing her descent into savagery, while in the novels it was sprung on us.
I have a couple of quibbles about that unlikely nighttime battle between the Welsh and the Danes. Back in Season 2 there was a nighttime battle beneath a full moon, remember that?
The full moon made that earlier battle somewhat believable, although in reality battles would have ended when night fell. This time King Hywel is using darkness to cover his movements, and that’s REALLY stretching believability for me. Go take a walk in the woods in the dark and see how far you get without tripping over something or bumping into a tree. Still, Sigtryggr’s response makes for exciting watching, with its flaming pit and fire arrows, (and he didn’t even need Melisandre to ignite that trench). Coal would have been abundant in Wales, and coal tar fumes are highly flammable; the Danes (and the script writers) are making use of that, although that looks like oil in the trench, but okay. This reveals Sigtryggr’s cleverness and ingenuity. It’s the longbows, though, that bother me. Sigtryggr shouts for his men to raise their longbows and, yes, it’s a quibble, but it is the Welsh who used longbows, not the Danes. Just sayin’.
At the end of the Welsh segments sparrow-brained Eardwulf shows up like a bad penny, and the Danes are heading into Wessex to take Winchester and make Brida happy.
Meantime, in Aylesbury, the search for a new Lord of Mercia is playing out in a way that’s different enough from the books to make me a little regretful that the series didn’t stick closer to Cornwell’s story line. Aethelflaed has more agency and more ambition in the novel, and in this series I missed the conversations and the collaboration between Aethelflaed and Uhtred about putting her on that empty throne that took place in the book. Here, Uhtred’s decision to relinquish the throne to her seems to be something he thinks of on the spot. It’s a surprise to everyone, including Aethelflaed, and it makes her seem far less assertive than I’d like to see her.
The theme of royal family politics is in play again, with Edward deciding that Uhtred should rule Mercia, Aethelflaed opposing it, and Aelswith telling her daughter to accept her lot as a woman with no voice in the decisions of men. Aelswith’s expression of astonished approval when Aethelred takes the throne is priceless.
Edward, of course, behaves like a jealous kid whose big sister has just snatched his favorite toy, Uhtred has to raise the Mercian fyrd to support Aethelflaed, and when Edward is still grumpy his mom has to step in once again and reason with him. She persuades him, too, that it would be dangerous to take Athelstan to Winchester, and Edward approves of her plan to take the boy to Bedwyn and raise him there.
Uhtred’s son and daughter, who’ve only just been re-united, are bidding each other farewell. Young Uhtred is following his priestly calling and returning to his abbey in Wessex, so now instead of being Uhtred’s warrior son, he is going to be the priestly son. Young Uhtred has to play two roles at once. Stiorra has been hanging out in the tavern with Finan and company, a bit of a wild child and the polar opposite of her brother. Young Uhtred regretfully refuses to take her with him into Wessex, and she watches him leave, convinced she’s going to be married off to someone she despises. Stiorra has no illusions about the fate that awaited most young women in the 10th century: marriage or a convent.
Eadith is rewarded for her care of Aelfwynn with a bag of silver and Aethelflaed’s promise of a comfortable cell in a convent. She takes the coins but turns down the convent and instead asks Finan to let her travel with Uhtred’s merry band when they leave Aylesbury. Eadith is no dummy.
So at the end of the episode, Young Uhtred is riding alone into Wessex. Uhtred and company will be escorting Aelswith and Athelstan into Wessex. Presumably, Edward will soon be returning into Wessex. And what they don’t know is that Brida, Sigtryggr and an army of Danes are also making for Wessex. Hold on tight. There’s trouble ahead.
And just in case you’re wondering, I very much doubt that catechumens in Anglo-Saxon England had to get buck naked when they were baptized.
Photo Credits: Netflix, THE LAST KINGDOM
Early in Episode 7 of The Last Kingdom 4 Uhtred arrives in Aylesbury, a town beset by hunger, fear, sickness, mistrust and a lack of leadership. The ealdormen who should be running the place are at odds with the king and with each other. Uhtred interrupts their wrangling to announce that Aethelred was murdered by sparrow-brained Eardwulf and that Aethelflaed’s daughter is safe, but he won’t say where she is.
Poor Aelfwynn is ninety miles away, lying sick in the Wyre Forest and being treated with a mixture of wormwood and holy water. Osferth is concerned that the concoction will kill her.
But although wormwood sounds creepy, it is still used today for stomach ailments. Its German name is vermouth, so basically Eadith was giving Aelfwynn a martini without the gin. But when Aelfwynn can’t be wakened, Eadith insists that they take her back to Aylesbury where a healer can treat her. So back they go, on a very long hike. Several scenes later Sihtric (Arnas Fedaravicius) finds Aethelflaed (Millie Brady) and leads her to the Wyre Forest, where the woman who sheltered the girl tells them that Aelfwynn died and was taken to be buried at Aylesbury. So Aethelflaed, stricken, rides toward Ayelsbury.
Edward is busily blaming Uhtred for the problems he’s currently facing with the Mercians. He insists that there would have been a smooth transition of power if Uhtred and Aethelflaed had not fled Aylesbury. He conveniently forgets that the man he chose to take power was a murderer and a thief. Yet even as he sends Uhtred to be caged until he reveals Aelfwynn’s whereabouts, Edward is thinking ahead, showing some signs that he is his father’s son—and his mother’s. He orders the Wessex guards to take grain from the ealdormen that are hoarding it and distribute it among the townsfolk. When Ealdorman Burgred shows up to confront the king about it, Edward not only pulls rank (“I’m anointed by God and I’m a son of Alfred”), he informs Burgred that his son is on the way to Wessex to be held hostage for Burgred’s good behavior. Edward: 1, Burgred: 0
Uhtred has been placed in the gentle hands of slimy Aethelhelm who orders his man Cenric to beat the whereabouts of Aelfwynn out of Uhtred while Aethelhelm just sits and enjoys the show.
Aelswith, under the influence of both her bad and her good angels, tells her son that although he was callous to send Burgred’s son away, it was a smart move. Edward has averted a fight and shown himself to be decisive. But don’t try to conquer the Mercians, she advises. They will resist. Slimy Aethelhelm interrupts to report that despite their efforts to persuade him Uhtred refuses to reveal where Aelfwynn is. Alarmed, Edward goes to see what condition Uhtred is in.
We are about 30 minutes into the show at this point, and now we have come to what I think is one of the very best scenes of this season so far. It is a conversation between King Edward and a battered but defiant Uhtred. In his earlier dealing with Burgred, Edward played his ‘I’m the king’ card. But in this scene with Uhtred, Edward shows his vulnerability. He starts by entering Uhtred’s cage and sitting on the floor to face him. And THAT was astounding.
These two men, remember, have a long history. Uhtred taught a young Edward how to wield a sword; Edward observed, for years, his father’s struggles with Uhtred; Edward knows that Uhtred loves Aethelflaed; and clearly, Edward respects this man. In this scene Edward is given the opportunity to think out loud about courage, fate, Alfred’s dream of a united England, and Edward’s own mistakes. In the end, he gives Uhtred his freedom and asks him to keep Aethelflaed and her daughter safe until the conflict in Mercia is settled, because he’s afraid that things are going to get bad.
Edward also sends that snake Aethehelm away, a sure sign that the king is wising up. When he is alerted that his niece is outside the gate he orders her brought inside and sends for every healer in the town.
In the scene that follows Edward watches, unseen, as Uhtred contains a growing riot by telling the Mercians that they must work as one. Aelswith, her bad angel on her shoulder, is standing behind Edward muttering, “See how he influences them. He will make them rise against you.” Edward’s response is to have Uhtred brought to him.
And now Edward and Uhtred have another heart to heart that appears at first to be confrontational, but Edward has something else in mind. He needs a good man to act as interim ruler in Mercia, and he makes Uhtred an offer that Uhtred can’t refuse. It would mean, though, that Uhtred would once again have to give his oath to a Saxon king, and he’s reluctant. While Uhtred is thinking it over, even Aelswith agrees with Edward that it may be the only good solution. And although Aethelflaed’s name has been mentioned several times in this episode, the penny hasn’t dropped yet that she is the obvious choice to lead Mercia.
Aelswith brings Athelstan to his father, telling Edward that the boy needs his protection.
Edward is angry because he has a queen and a son by her to deal with, and he orders Aelswith to take the boy back to wherever he was hidden. But he hasn’t really refused to do what his mother has asked. And we are learning that Edward needs to process things, so stay tuned.
In Wales Brida (Emily Cox) is rescued by Cnut’s cousin Sigtryggr (Eysteinn Sigurdarson). I laughed out loud at what happened when Rhodri (Nigel Lindsay) insisted that Brida was dead. Once out of her pit Brida tells Sigtryggr that she has a score to settle with Uhtred for allowing her to be taken by the Welsh, and then she tosses her tormentor Rhodri into the pit. Turn about’s fair play.
Aethelflaed is reunited with her daughter who is cured of her illness and Aelswith tells us that The Sickness is fading.
Uhtred meets with Edward and agrees to become the temporary lord of Mercia. On learning of this, Uhtred’s companions are jubilant. Uhtred, though, is not happy. What, we wonder, is he thinking?
Photo Credits: Netflix, THE LAST KINGDOM
Episode 6 brings us right into the present day as Uhtred and his company, on the road to Chester with 4 children in their midst, discover that folk in Mercia are dying of The Sickness. The showrunners couldn’t possibly have known when they wrote this script that their audience would be watching this episode while sequestered in their homes due to Covid-19. Oh, the irony!
I was surprised by the decision to use the phrase, The Sickness, to describe the contagion wreaking havoc in Mercia. Pestilence is the first word that comes to my mind, and The Sickness sounds odd to me. But I did some research and discovered that the words pestilence and plague derive from Old French and do not appear in the English language until the 14th century. Sickness, though is an Anglo-Saxon word, seocnesse, and absolutely appropriate for this 10th century setting. That’s some pretty impressive research on the part of the writing staff!
There is still political unrest in Aylesbury even as Aethelred is laid to rest because the Mercian ealdormen suspect that King Edward wants to conquer Mercia. His troops are inside the city, and why else would they be there? When refugees fleeing The Sickness arrive at the city gates Edward believes that they should be given refuge, but he has to bow to the wishes of the ealdormen who insist on closing the gates against their own people to save the town. The political unrest worsens when Edward’s mum arrives and, denied entry into the city, insists on seeing her son.
The ealdorman, along with slimy Aethelhelm (Adrian Schiller), want her to go back to Wessex, but Edward overrides them all and orders the gates opened, which confirms the ealdormen’s fears that he wants to take over Mercia.
As if Edward doesn’t have enough problems, his mother tells him that Aethelhelm is scheming against her and must have ordered her confined in Winchester. Edward insists it was all a mistake, and when Aelswith asks why Aethelflaed has left Aylesbury he uses a child’s time-honored tactic to avoid getting into trouble with his mother: he lies to her. It’s all Aethelflaed’s fault, he says. She’s run off with Uhtred and abandoned her life as a widow. His tactic might have worked, except that Aelswith searches out Fr. Pyrlig (Cavan Clerkin) and gets the true story, that his sister fled because Edward had imprisoned her. Even worse, Edward’s insistence on Aelfwynn’s marriage to Eardwulf has put two of Aelswith’s grandchildren on the road and in harm’s way because of the sickness abroad in the land. Edward is not in his mother’s good books right now.
Meantime, in Wales, Brida is being mistreated by King Hywel’s brother.
Her lot is pretty dismal until word arrives that a Danish fleet has landed. Brida pricks up her ears—rescue might be on the way!
So, several scenes in, we have the Welsh about to face a Danish infestation. We have Mercian ealdormen, some of them pretty surly and threatening, at odds with King Edward. We have the all too politically innocent Edward still believing that slimy Aethelhelm can be trusted. We have Aethelflaed and Aldhelm riding north hoping to meet up with Uhtred and company. We have armed men searching for Aethelflaed and her daughter Aelfwynn per Edward’s command. We have weaselly Eardwulf (Jamie Blackley) disobeying the king’s instruction that he stay in Ayelsbury by setting out to find Aelfwynn himself because he’s so eager to marry her and become Lord of Mercia that he can’t sit still. And we have Uhtred (Alexander Daemon) riding toward Chester with a few men and four children.
It is those children and their defenders who are really at the heart of this episode because bonds are being forged among them.
Uhtred’s men are in good humor, bantering with each other to our amusement as, like mother ducks, they guide their young charges northward.
The mood darkens when the company is abruptly made aware of the contagion, and Finan, who has seen it before, is so agitated he’s practically beside himself. Forced to abandon the road and travel overland, their journey becomes more and more grim, and Aelfwynn (Helena Albright) sickens. She is the youngest, and there is nothing quite so heartrending as a young child in danger. Just when the little group finally reaches the outskirts of a village where they can rest, Eardwulf and his warriors spot them, and Eardwulf promises the terrified Aelfwynn that if she doesn’t come to him he’ll kill all her friends and her mother, too. Why wouldn’t any little girl run into the arms of a guy like that?
The children are plucky, though, and Uhtred’s men are ready to defend them to the death.
But before blood is spilled, Eadith (Stefanie Martini) has finally had it up to here with her brother, and she turns on him. Eadith’s accusation that he murdered Aethelred, confirmed by the ring he stole from the body, sends her brother packing, although we can’t be certain where he’s going or if he’s utterly defeated. Nor can we be certain that the children will get to Chester or that Aelfwynn will survive.
But the children are safe for now, and Uhtred and Finan are returning to Aylesbury to bear witness against Eardwulf, and to keep the men of Mercia and Wessex from turning on each other.
Photo Credits: Netflix, THE LAST KINGDOM
The first four episodes of this 4th season were based on Bernard Cornwell’s novel The Pagan Lord, and they followed its two major story lines: Uhtred’s attempt to seize Bebbanburg and Cnut’s attempt to seize Mercia. The Netflix series, however plays fast and loose with the plots and the characters. Why? Because it must. Cornwell’s novels are narrated by Uhtred, which means that he has to witness everything. He cannot relate in detail what is happening in Winchester while he is in Bebbanburg. But because the narrator of the tv series is, essentially, the all-knowing camera, it can be in both places and explore the personalities and motives of a large number of characters in much greater depth than we get in the novels. For example, King Edward and Lord Aethelred are distant figures in this book. We never really get inside their heads. We only see them, when we see them at all, through Uhtred’s point of view. Neither character makes more than a brief appearance in the pages of The Pagan Lord, but in the tv series we see them up close and personal, revealing themselves through their dialogue, their actions, their expressions and body language. The acting is top notch. Is one medium richer than the other? Not in my mind. They are both rich, just in different ways.
At the end of Episode 4, the Battle of Tettenhall is over and we’ve reached the conclusion of the two story lines of The Pagan Lord. (By the way, that battle ended very differently in the novel. If you haven’t read the book, you should. You will be astounded!)
Now, in Episode 5, the story line concerns the decision about who will rule Mercia, based on Cornwell’s book, The Empty Throne. The theme of royal family politics is still in play, complicated by the grievous injury and impending death of Lord Aethelred (Toby Regbo) and the marriage prospects of his young daughter who, he reminds Aethelflaed (Millie Brady), is not his (at least, not in this Netflix series).
Unrest among the nobles, always a factor in the face of regime change, is vexing both Lady Aethelflaed and King Edward (Timothy Innes), and there are two snakes in this thorny garden in the form of Ealdorman Aethelhelm (Adrian Schiller) and Commander of the Mercian Guard, Eardwulf. They are both deadly, but Aethelhelm is sinister and intelligent while Eardwulf is mean-spirited and sparrow-brained. Eardwulf’s sister Eadith tries to persuade him that they should leave before Aethelred dies, but her brother scoffs at the suggestion. He sees opportunity in the chaos that will result from the death of the Lord of Mercia.
A younger generation has already been introduced in the characters of young Uhtred and of Edward’s son Athelstan, and now Uhtred’s daughter Stiorra and Aethelflaed’s daughter Aelfwynn join them. All the children are sheltered at one of Aethelflaed’s estates, and Uhtred leaves men there to protect them while he and Aethelflaed go with Aldhelm to deal with the political mess in Aylesbury.
King Edward and that snake Aethelhelm are making their way to Aylesbury, too, because Edward wants to make certain that there will be no more instability in Mercia. Aethelred needs to be reprimanded for deserting his people, Edward opines, and in response to a query from Aethelhelm, Edward casually mentions that his mother must be publicly rebuked for asking the Welsh for help.
Several scenes later, slimy Aethelhelm, who has it in for Aelswith (Eliza Butterworth), will twist Edward’s remark and use it for his own treacherous ends. Down in Winchester, Aethelhelm’s daughter Queen Aelflaed, in a showdown with Edward’s mother, has Aelswith locked up, per Aethelhelm’s order which goes way beyond what Edward wanted.
Aelswith, undeterred, speaks to a palace guard, hands him a bag of money and tells him he will be well rewarded if he follows her instructions, but we don’t know what those instructions are. What is Aelswith plotting?
Back in Aylesbury Edward discovers that he can’t reprimand Aethelred because he’s dying, and Aethelred’s character is given some grace in his final scenes because his head injury prevents him from remembering very clearly what a creep he was.
We even feel a little sorry for him, especially when he agrees to Aethelflaed’s request that she will have approval over who her daughter will marry. Edward, though, hasn’t agreed to any such thing, and under the influence of slimy Aethelhelm he declares that his niece will marry Eardwulf which will make Eardwulf the next ruler of Mercia.
Eardwulf, sparrow-brain that he is, goes jubilantly to Aethelred’s bedside to share this wonderful news with him and is astonished when Aethelred, who can’t remember much of anything, but does remembers something about Eardwulf that he doesn’t like, says, “You have a stench about you. You will never rule Mercia.” And those are his final words. Eardwulf’s sister Eadith sees her brother murder Aethelred and, because he is venal as well as stupid, Eardwulf takes a ring from the dead man’s hand and slips away.
No one, except Eadith, sees anything suspicious about Aethelred’s death because his wound was mortal. Edward, despite his sister’s protests, is determined to wed his niece to Eardwulf. He sends men to fetch Aelfwynn. When Aethelflaed learns of this, she still thinks she can dissuade her brother, but she doesn’t want her daughter in Aylesbury. She sends Uhtred to take the children to Chester where she will meet him.
The men sent to fetch Aethelflaed’s niece are outwitted by Stiorra without any help from her father, revealing a character that is brave as well as clever.
Edward, under the insidious influence of Aethelhelm, has his sister locked up so no one will see her lack of grief at her husband’s death. But although Aethelflaed has been abandoned by her brother and by the Mercian ealdormen, she still has friends. Eardwulf’s sister Eadith, who knows that her weaselly brother cannot be controlled and will bring nothing but disaster, works with Aldhelm to spring Aethelflaed. “I’ll ensure you never go penniless for this,” Aethelflaed says as she sends Eadith to find Uhtred so they can all meet up at St. Milburg’s Priory where no one will think to look for them.
So it looks like, in the next episode, many of the major characters will be hitting the road while the throne of Mercia sits empty among squabbling Mercian ealdormen who might add even more trouble to what’s already in play.
Photo credits: Netflix, THE LAST KINGDOM
In this episode of The Last Kingdom, women are the prime movers behind the events that lead to the Battle of Tettenhall. Kudos to this production for imagining the role of women as something more than hapless victims needing rescuing.
The first thing we see, though, is Fr. Pyrlig (Cavan Clerkin) making his way to the Welsh king Hywel. And although the image of Pyrlig climbing a hill toward a massive fortress is stunning, it seems pretty harsh that the poor guy has to get there on foot. It’s 150 miles from Winchester to Deheubarth! Couldn’t Lady Aelswith give the man a horse?
In any case, it’s Lady Aelswith, not King Edward, who’s sent Pyrlig to Wales in secret to ask for help against the Danes. She’s promised her daughter Aethelflaed that an army would come to her aid at Tettenhall. And because Aelswith’s son Edward refuses to lead his men into Mercia, she has to get help elsewhere. Fr. Pyrlig finds himself in a tough spot, though, when King Hywel (Steffan Rhodri), assuming that the priest has Edward’s authority, demands all the war spoils in return for his help. Pyrlig knows he’s already in trouble with Edward just by being in Wales without the king’s permission, and we’re left not knowing whether he agrees to Hywel’s demand or not.
In Winchester, Lady Aeslwith (Eliza Butterworth) takes heat from Edward as soon as he learns from that snake Aethelhelm where Pyrlig has gone. Edward (Timothy Innes) wasn’t able to stop his sister from going to Mercia to fight the Danes, and now his mother is making alliances behind his back! “You’ve made us look divided!” he rails at his mother. “The Welsh will think we are weak!”
Poor Edward. He is always worried about his reputation, and his mother, who has always adored her son, nevertheless is aware of his weakness. She lets him have it right between the eyes for refusing to come to Mercia’s aid.
“If you wanted men to speak your name in awe,” she tells him, “this was not the way.”
Summing up: Lady Aelswith has advised Aethelflaed where in Mercia to make her stand against Cnut. She has sent Pyrlig to the Welsh for help. And although Edward doesn’t know it yet, she has reached out to Edward’s estranged wife and son.
Lady Aelswith: 3. Edward: 0.
Lord Aethelhelm (Adrian Schiller), though, knows that Aelswith has been visiting Athelstan and his mother. The man must have a flock of little birds who keep him informed on all his enemies’ activities. He shares some of what he learns (although probably not all of it) with his whiney daughter, Aelflaed (Amelia Clarkson). She’s given Edward a son, and he’s given her a crown, but he’s already bored with her. This is a little surprising, since she’s the only woman who actually obeys him. She is clearly daddy’s girl, though, and we don’t trust her.
The Danish gang that Cnut sent to Ayelsbury to grab Aethelflaed (Millie Brady) wasn’t expecting to find Uhtred and his men with her. Aethelflaed’s refusal to flee forces Uhtred (Alexander Draemon) to perform a little sleight of hand that convinces the Danes that he’s beheaded Cnut’s eldest son. That will certainly draw Cnut from the place he’s chosen for the upcoming battle and bring him roaring after Uhtred to take his revenge. Uhtred has bought the Mercians some time and a more favorable battleground, while Aethelflaed is hoping that her brother will meet them at Tettenhall.
At King’s Lynn Aethelred (Toby Regbo) is wearing his pointy crown and playing at king while that handsome weasel Eardwulf (Jamie Blackley) has been busy subduing East Anglia.
Aethelred is still unaware that Cnut’s army has been ravaging in Mercia, but Eardwulf knows, although he’s too afraid of Aethelred to tell him. Eardwulf’s sister, though, has gritted her teeth and submitted to Aethelred’s lust just to soften him up. Eadith (Stefanie Martini), sends Eardwulf to Aethelred to break the bad news about the Danes and the upcoming battle.
Like Edward, Aethelred is mostly worried about how he’s going to look if he misses the battle. “My reputation will be ripped to shreds while my wife is revered as the savior of my kingdom!” Nevertheless, he orders his army to head back to Mercia. It will take a while. It’s 123 miles from King’s Lynn to Tettenhall.
Brida, meanwhile, is at the Danish camp with Cnut (Magnus Brun), and as she tries to tell him that she’s carrying his child they are interrupted when the men he’d sent to capture Aethelflaed return, tongue-tied. It’s Brida (Emily Cox) who strides forward, ordering their leader to speak.
When Cnut hears that Uhtred has beheaded his son he goes predictably crazy. Although Brida tries to reason with him, pleading with him not to give up their battle position, Cnut is too enraged to listen. He wants Uhtred’s blood.
So, the battle for Mercia will take place at Tettenhall, just as Aelswith and Aethelflaed wanted. But when Aethelflaed, Uhtred and their handful of men arrive, there is no sign of Edward. King Hywel’s Welshmen appear, though, and the Mercian fyrd, responding to Aethelflaed’s summons, is waiting in the nearby woods. But Cnut has a thousand men, and Uhtred worries that even with the aid of the Welsh, the Mercians can’t win. “What should I tell my men?” Aethelflaed asks him. “Say that Edward is coming. They need to have hope.” Uhtred and his men set a trap that will give Aethelflaed’s troops some advantage in the battle to come, and Aethelflaed is watching, and learning.
When Cnut’s army arrives, it is Brida who senses that something is wrong, Brida who shouts at the Danes to stop while Cnut leads them straight into Uhtred’s trap. What we see here is not the meeting of shield walls that we’ve seen before. It’s more of a melee, and quite wonderfully choreographed and filmed. The late arrival of Aethelred and Edward adds to the tension.
The bad news: Steapa (Adrian Bouchet) is one of the casualties, (No!!!!) and his death gives Edward more bitter accusations s to throw at Aethelflaed when the battle is over.
Brida learns of Cnut’s part in the murder of Ragnar, and Cnut falls to her sword. She is captured by the Welsh, and although she pleads with Uhtred to kill her because she cannot bear to be a slave, he hesitates and she is dragged away. If we see Brida again, which I suspect we will, this will likely be yet another crime that she will hold against her old friend and lover.
Finally, just before the episode ends, we see Aethelred carried off the field with a massive head wound. So hey! Happy ending.
Photo credits: Netflix, THE LAST KINGDOM
Episode 3 of Season 4 of The Last Kingdom is permeated with threat, devastation and loss. There is no place in the dialogue for ribald humor or even wry jests among Uhtred’s companions. The father/son theme continues, and the contrast between Uhtred and his cousin Wihtgar could not be greater.
It begins at Bebbanburg. The cliff hanger we were clinging to, wide-eyed, at the end of Episode 2 is almost immediately resolved when both Uhtred and Beocca try to defuse the tense situation between Uhtred and his cousin, who apparently has never learned to play nicely with others. We do not know why the father he’s just murdered had expelled him from Bebbanburg in the first place, but perhaps it was because of an overarching ego, ambition, cruelty, and a total lack of compassion and reason. We’ve been getting those vibes from Wihtgar, and now they’re confirmed. Uhtred’s response when Beocca throws himself in front of Wihtgar’s arrow aimed at young Uhtred is one of maddened outrage and despair, and as his men make their desperate escape, with Finan dragging Uhtred from the slaughter yard, it starts to rain. Or maybe I was just getting all teary-eyed.
Shipwrecked, sick, and wounded, the men finally make landfall. Uhtred is heartsick and devastated. Even Finan can’t comfort him, at least not right away. I was impressed with the dialogue here, especially Uhtred’s despair that he could not retrieve Beocca’s body, that the priest would lie among strangers. Burial rites were important to all peoples in this age, and we are reminded of Uhtred’s rage when his pagan wife Gisela was given a Christian burial, and how he exhumed her body to place it on a pyre as she would have wished. (Historical aside: 100 years later King Swein Forkbeard’s body, buried in England, would be exhumed and borne to Denmark for fear the English would find his English grave and desecrate his corpse.)
We don’t know where in England Uhtred and his companions are, and neither do they. Uhtred is lost—physically and emotionally. He has lost Bebbanburg, and he has lost Beocca, who was the one constant in his life. Over the course of the episode, as he and his men appear to wander aimlessly, Uhtred grapples with his loss, with his role as a leader of men that he believes he can no longer fill, and with his strained relationship with his son. Finan is now the one constant in his life from the days when they were slaves together, and it’s Finan who holds the team together and seeks to ease the antipathy between young Uhtred and his father.
Finan finally gets through to Uhtred, too, as he buries the cross Hild gave him because he cannot bury Beocca. “If Beocca were here he would tell you this is not the end,” Finan insists. “We’ll get more men and return to Bebbanburg. We’ll batter down the gates!” The insertion of scenes of Beocca with Uhtred from earlier episodes was quite moving. Ian Hart, we will miss you!
In Winchester the father/son theme is playing out in an altogether different way as family politics continue to roil. King Edward is attempting to out-think Cnut, and he’s spot-on, actually. Cnut is trying to lure him into a battle that Edward knows he can’t win, not without Aethelred’s Mercians who are in East Anglia where Aethelred is pretending to be a king. (Have you noticed how Aethelred is almost always wearing that pointy crown, yet he’s not a king?) Wessex, though, not Mercia, is Edward’s first concern. His mother, a Mercian, insists that his father Alfred would go to Mercia’s aid, and that only puts Edward’s back up. The most he’ll do is send a messenger to demand that Aethelred hightail it back to Mercia, which doesn’t please the Mercians in the family one bit.
Aethelflaed, remembered historically as a Mercian leader whose close and constant cooperation with her brother Edward against the Danes was a brilliant coordinated strategy, at this point in our story decides that she has to force Edward’s hand. She sets out for Mercia to raise the fyrd against Cnut. When Edward finds out what she’s doing he’s angrier than ever because she’s forcing him to send troops to help her. Father-in-law Aethelhelm, though, counsels that there’s an advantage to just sitting back and allowing Mercia to lose to the Danes and letting Aethelflaed meet whatever fate awaits her, thus revealing himself to be the snake that Beocca said he was.
Concerned for her daughter and frustrated by her son’s refusal to lead his army against Cnut, Aelswith sends Fr. Pyrlig to the Welsh king to enlist his aid against the Danes. She perceives this as a battle for the soul of England—Christians against pagans. And if Fr. Pyrlig gets in trouble with King Edward for bringing the Welsh into the mix, well, it’s God’s will. Oh Aelswith! You are so hard to love!
Edward’s messenger to Aethelred runs into that handsome weasel Eardwulf first and is murdered before he can tell the ealdorman that Mercia is in trouble and that Eardwulf was an idiot for trusting Haesten’s information about Cnut’s departure for Ireland. Speaking of Haesten, we’ve known for some time that he had to spill the beans to someone about Cnut’s involvement in Ragnar’s murder, and it’s no surprise that when Haesten and Uhtred meet on a trail in a forest somewhere in England (what are the chances of that?) he fills Uhtred in on all that’s been happening in Mercia and Wessex, he gleefully vilifies Aethelflaed, then slyly reveals Cnut’s crime to prevent Uhtred from gutting him.
Haesten’s news that Aethelflaed is in trouble sends Uhtred toward Aylesbury, with Cnut’s sons in tow as hostages. On the way he has a heart to heart with his own son, and they come to an understanding.
In Aylesbury Uhtred finds that Aethelflaed is desperately short of defenders. She doesn’t know if Edward is coming. She doesn’t know if Aethelred is coming. She doesn’t have a clue about Pyrlig’s mission to the Welsh.
And on a ridge outside of Aylesbury, a gang of Cnut’s men are preparing to attack, with orders to capture the Lady of Mercia.
All photos: Netflix, THE LAST KINGDOM