Having commented on this blog about the mortuary archaeology of five series of Vikings, I’ve finally decided to engage with The Last Kingdom (2015) season 1, despite multiple previous unsuccessful attempts to watch segments. Set in late 9th-century England, this dramatisation of the Bernard Cornwell novels follows the adventures of Uhtred – born a Saxon, raised a Dane. The show takes us from Northumbria to Cornwall via East Anglia and Wessex as he battles Saxons, Danes and the Cornish, culminating in the Battle of Edington in 878.
I haven’t read the books, so this is simply a discussion of the TV show. As usual, the show’s creators have put great credence in their world-creation: the historical accuracy of the settings and material culture in the show. They have been at great pains to furnish both period-specific architectures and costumes. The show itself, including the actors, claim to be successfully ‘stepping back in time’ into the sets and costumes created with energy and ingenuity for The Last Kingdom. The broader story line is fiction by Cornwell of course, and thus only loosely woven around a series of known historical events. Still, the show claims that what we are seeing is a late 9th-century world.
Is this true?
The wonderfully hilarious pendant’s guide by Lindybiege takes this apart for Episode 1 and suggests manifold problems with the portrayal of clothing, fittings, furniture and buildings. Crucially, his criticisms are not confined to the costume and sets – i.e. how they look – but also with what actually happens in the environments portrayed, including how the battles were conducted in practical and tactical terms. So despite his self-deprecation, the criticisms of The Last Kingdom‘s material world matter at multiple levels. Lindybiege is not simply being pedantic, tackling these issues shows that many academics, researchers and the public care about what is portrayed and why it is being portrayed that way. It is not simply an academic matter, it concerns how global modern audiences perceive the Early Middle Ages and many might take this at face value as a modern, albeit fictional, attempt to envision the late 9th century. This is not simply a fictional story about heroic deeds in a forgotten past: this is seemingly about England’s birth and Englishness, Alfred the Great vs. Guthrum and the Danes. Therefore, its portrayal has manifold connections to contemporary politics, identities and senses of nationhood: a stirring story for Brexit Britain.
For other perspectives on TLK, see the Dutch Anglo-Saxonist blog.
We are blessed to be early medieval archaeologists at a time when two TV shows, now both with multiple series, attempt to depict the Viking Age. They have the budgets and a clear expectation to be showing broadly accurate historical settings and costumes. They can, should they wish, be informed by rich and detailed historical and archaeological research, including much publicly available online, or else freely (or readily) available in museums and publications. So do they deliver on this?
Well, I can’t say they do deliver in full. The acting is fine and I thought Ian Hart rocked as the priest Beocca, Emily Cox was effective as the warrior-woman Brida, Harry McEntire was very funny, debauched and cunning as prince Aethelwold, and Adrian Bower solid and entertaining as the warrior Leofric. The bad-guys – both Saxon and Dane – were bad, but not ridiculously so. Alfred is portrayed in a truly fascinating way, far more interesting than the Alfred in Vikings. The storyline is fun, well-paced and entertaining. I bet teenagers will enjoy this as much as Sharpe or Hornblower. There is some decent humour: the best lines are of course the repeated use of ‘arseling’ and Aethelwold’s phrase ‘a titless angel’.
However, there are many painful moments, in historical and archaeological terms. To my eye, we really don’t seem to have moved far beyond mid-20th century attempts at recreating settings and costumes for the Early Middle Ages. I’m thinking in particular of the 1969 film Alfred the Great which my student Victoria Nicholls has compared favourably to The Last Kingdom. There is only occasional evidence that historical or archaeological consultants and evidence have been given a powerful voice to guide choices regarding the appearance of the material world. This stands in contrast to Vikings where significant attempts have been made to include archaeological, historical and later legendary and mythological sources in the representation of the early Viking Age.
Getting beyond the repetitious and infuriating wailing of the sound track, the needless fur shoulder-pads, the fly-infested amber in sword-hilt, and weird stiff woollen hats is tough. Likewise, I felt challenged, even ‘triggered’, by the seemingly ineffective Saxon rectangular shields, the rarity of spears, the headache-inducing small-sized Vendel-style toy helmets without nose guards that the Danes wear, the needless rust-inducing thrusting of bare sword blades into the ground ad nauseum, and the rage-inducing back-scabbard. In terms of architecture and landscapes, I’m still not forgiving the show for how it portrays the topography and appearance of Bamburgh, the lack of any agricultural land, nor the rubbish-looking Roman statuary in the Roman villa urbana that Alfred lives in at the heart of Winchester. I judge you The Last Kingdom!
Shall we mention the brooches? Let’s briefly state some bald points, taking my lead from one of my keen-eyed students – Victoria Nicholls – who recently discussed this issue at the Digging into the Dark Ages conference. She noted that the key Saxon ealdormen (Odda the Younger and Odda the Elder) and a Saxon king (Alfred’s brother and predecessor Aethelberht), display good solid transgender fashion sense. Not only that, but they display both extremely archaic, and visionary futuristic fashion sense. This spans from early sixth-century Kentish small square-headed brooches to Urnes-style brooches, all generally presumed to be female-gendered when found in funerary and other contexts. Thanks to Victoria for these observations!
King Aethelbald has a Scandinavian style trefoil brooch to wear…
Perhaps, however, we should reserve our criticism not for the portrayal of the Danes or Saxons, but in the representation of the ‘Celtic’ Cornish as a backward, poor and semi-pagan people with only a missionary Christian presence, with needless holes in the middle of their shields, and limewash pasted all over their faces and in their dreadlocked hair. They have a sorceress/seer as ‘shadow-Queen’. There is also a king who looks like Ray Purchase (Toast of London…).
Many Good Points
Let’s be positive though shall we? If I were to commend The Last Kingdom, I’d point out that the general sense of the timber architecture – in its volume as much as its detail – is powerful and instructive. Like Lindybiege and Victoria Nicholls, I agree that the Danish longships are really good.
I also liked the filth and the animals populating public spaces. Dirt, disease and death are never far away.
Also, I like how the show recognises the centrality of the church and its material wealth. The church is caricatured as greedy, but ironically kings and ealdormen are not. Still, the inequalities and wealth are palpable.
Wealth is shown in buildings and land, but the show portrays repeatedly that silver is a key and mobile medium of wealth and exchange in Anglo-Saxon England in the 9th century. This is key to our understandings of the period.
There’s plenty more archaeological themes to be explored. For example, the Dutch Anglo-Saxonist pays attention to the Episode 1 reference to swearing on St Cuthbert’s comb, and also points out the inspiration of King Alfred’s inaugural cross resembles the whetstone sceptre from Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo.
But it is fire that I liked best! One of the main things I also liked the use of fire to define key moments in the show, including a wonderful if mildly implausible hall-burning in Episode 1. The protracted drama of the hall-burning annoyed Lindybiege, but I liked it and the resonances with the 13th-century Njal’s Saga in which hall-burning is dramatically portrayed as a terrifying yet memorable demise of principal characters. Hall-burning was actual and metaphorical as a means of articulating violence and instituting regime-change, and it was central to the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf.
I also liked that Episode 4 has Uhtred lighting a warning beacon to communicate the arrival of an invading Danish army. Yes, it was rather small and perhaps should have been burned at night rather than during the day (is it morning or evening?). And yes, it doesn’t seem to have been defended or lit by anyone other than Uhtred itself. Still, it does show the fire as part of a well-built chain of beacons that spread warnings of invaders across the land. Why they weren’t used by Alfred earlier and subsequently is rather more frustrating… The point is that this relates to a real phenomenon: archaeological, historical and place-name evidence has explored the importance of beacons for civil defence in Alfred’s Wessex.
And, of course, Uhtred sets fire to the Danish ships, not once, but twice, both in plausible, striking and memorable fashions. This isn’t simply a dramatic visual display, the ship-burnings rob the enemy of their transportation and escape route. This resonates with historical evidence in crude terms and in the fictional story affects directly the morale and the success of the West Saxons in subsequent battles.
Firing halls, ships and beacons are thus offered to us as vivid and key moments of destruction and communication in the late 9th-century world. This is not only spot-on, but takes place in a medium that simply would not, and cannot, be replicated in other media for both academic and public debate. So, if nothing else, that is something well-worth celebrating and enters territory that the rival TV show Vikings doesn’t seem to have ventured (beyond burning granaries in Season 2). This is a good example of how, no matter how infuriating TV shows can sometimes be in adapting historical fiction, they can still provide educational and accurate dimensions of early medieval life, if deployed carefully and cautiously. Indeed, we might add that nowhere can one experience such dramatic uses of fire and representations of early medieval conflict, alongside more quotidian uses of fire for blacksmithing and cooking, than in shows like this.
Oh and spoiler alert: Alfred does burn the bread! Another key historical use of fire! And there’s no archaeological evidence conclusively demonstrating he didn’t 🙂
In a few future blogs, I’ll come back to this series, and give you some thoughts on the megaliths, funerary practices and graves represented. Look forward to seeing you there!