I’ve just watched Season 1 of The Last Kingdom – the television dramatisation of Bernard Cornwell’s novels following the adventures of the Northumbrian Uhtred in late 9th-century England. I’ve written a general overview of what I thought of the series. I was particularly struck with the ability of the series to portray dimensions of early medieval conflict and civil defence that haven’t been shown in any other popular medium: namely the fiery destruction of ships and halls, and the use of beacons.
I haven’t yet discussed the burials of Season 1, so that’s my focus here.
Now I’m interested in the complex and changing mortuary practices and burial geographies of the Early Middle Ages, and so I was excited to see how funerals and burial grounds might be portrayed in The Last Kingdom.
Maybe they’d be a church with a churchyard shown amidst the rich material world of settlements and landscapes that the show takes pride in recreating.
I wondered whether the settlements or towns will have burial grounds away from churches, since there is now increasing evidence that multiple burial grounds, most without chapels or churches, were a feature of urban and rural settlement in the middle Anglo-Saxon period.
Perhaps burial grounds will be shown in isolated windswept locations, or on tops of ridges some distance from settlements, maybe focusing on prehistoric burial mounds, given the evidence that burials in such situations might persist in the later Anglo-Saxon period, and not only for execution cemeteries (see below).
Sadly, there was none of this. In short, it seems burial landscapes are simply not factored into the thinking of television series. When TV shows think of the past, they think primarily of buildings inhabited by people, and maybe for towns there is the bustle of streets. We are shown Oxford, Exeter, Wareham, as well as rural vills. The dead, however, are largely absent.
The TV show Vikings shows it can be done. This historical drama has shown rich and varied Norse ‘pagan’ funerals: depending on how you count them they number 12 or so. Admittedly less commonly, in five series, 3 burial monuments have been depicted:
- the grave of Floki’s father;
- the ship-shaped stone-setting of Earl Kalf;
- the boat-grave of Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye.
Christian burial contexts get better treatment in Vikings than in TLK too, with:
- the relics of St Birinius shown at Winchester (in Season 2);
- the isolated burial of Aethelstan (Season 3);
- the aborted church-burial of Ragnar in Paris (Season 3);
- the relics of Saint Denis (Season 3);
- a semi-subterranean mausoleum (presumably at Repton) (Season 4 part 1);
- a burial ground adjacent to the church at Dorchester (Season 4 part 2);
- the church burial at Winchester of King Egbert and later prayers shown at his tomb (Season 5 part 1).
Even with all this, I’d still say that burial monuments and cemeteries are under-represented in Vikings. Still, the show does indicate that it is possible for TLK to do this if they’d wanted to within the story line. They’ve chosen to keep the late 9th-century landscape largely free of the dead, which is a shame.
However, all is not lost. TLK Season 1 does show two isolated graves and both prompt discussions of themes in early medieval mortuary practice that Vikings does not. Both these graves are situated within the same West Saxon farmyard context and both are marked by meagre wooden crosses. They look very similar to the cross raised over Aethelstan’s grave by Ragnar in Vikings Season 3. The graves resonate with the romance of the isolated grave in modern filmic representations (so many in The Walking Dead but also I’m thinking of graves in Logan, but also in Vikings we have the forlorn isolation of the graves of Aethelstan and Angrbotha), as well as possibly inspired directly or indirectly by early medieval archaeological evidence.
Let’s take each in turn.
In Episode 5, Uhtred slays his servant for stealing his property and refuses to pay his wergeld to the family. At the start of Episode 6, we are shown the grave, seemingly buried where the unarmed servant fell, trampled beneath Uhtred’s horse and then slain with his seax. This is a particularly nasty deed by the supposed ‘hero’ of the show.
In all senses, the servant’s death and burial might be regarded as ‘deviant’, with Uhtred, as the man’s ealdorman but also incongruously for Wessex also a pagan, refusing to afford him either a trial or a Christian burial. Also, looking at the shadow, the grave is orientated N-S (with cross at the N end) if depicted in the morning, or E-W (with the cross at the E end) if shown in the afternoon/evening. I’m not sure that is intentional but this would mark it out as counter to the normative W-E orientation of later Anglo-Saxon graves.
As stated, the grave gets a simple wooden cross, presumably raised by the servant’s family. Yet the choice of a farmyard burial with chickens hopping over his grave is presumably Uthred’s, not theirs. Presumably in such a location, at the location of death, the grave is exposed to accidental damage and lies without fences to protect it. In short, the servant’s grave is doomed to oblivion within a year or two.
The grave is thus publicly situated yet in a potentially disreputable location, away from a Christian churchyard or formal burial ground. This might be seen as vaguely plausible in the odd circumstances of the servant’s death, since Uhtred can deploy the grave by shaming the dead man and his family. In this fashion he also retains his lordly control over the body in defiance of the family.
Clifford Soffield (2015) has recently reviewed the evidence for burials from settlement contexts between the 5th and 9th centuries AD from southern and eastern England. They are uncommon but far from rare. He identifies 30 graves containing 35 individuals in his survey, coming from 16 of the 142 settlements investigated. Unlike the TLK grave, most were found inserted into settlement features, suggesting they were interred into abandoned structures or, in some cases, at the base of post-holes ahead of building construction.
Soffield regards some of his sample as ‘deviant’ burials, particularly associated with settlement boundaries, as at Higham Ferrers. This example shows evidence the body had been displayed before burial and dates to the 9th-century abandonment of the site, in other words to a comparable date to the time TLK is set. Still, these are relatively rare instance, and we’d expect criminals to be tried and then formally executed and buried away from settlements, often on territorial boundaries and beside routes; we have extensive archaeological and place-name evidence for formalised execution cemeteries established in such locations away from settlements. These have been extensively studied, most notably by Professor Andrew Reynolds (2009). This kind of public display and burial of the deviant dead in later Anglo-Saxon England has been discussed by the Dutch Anglo-Saxonist in relation to Season 2 of TLK which I haven’t seen yet.
The servant’s burial in a farmyard setting doesn’t fully match the archaelogical evidence, but equally we cannot label it ‘wrong’. Rather than in a boundary, or in an execution cemetery away from a settlement, the farmyard location makes us reflect on the human agencies involved in the choice of a domestic setting for the burial of the dead. In this case, the grave’s presence speaks of the lord and slayer’s power and control over the deceased’s identity in death, in defiance of his kin and to defame his memory. Whether it is ‘accurate’ or not, is narrative of corporeal control is perhaps more interesting for us to think about.
An Infant Grave
Uhtred son of Uhtred son of Uhtred is born but dies an infant in Episode 8 and without clear explanation. The characters speculate that he has died on account of the Cornish seer’s magical transference of Edward the Elder’s disease to baby Uhtred: one unknown must die to let baby Edward live.
The infant had been baptised, but his mother, Mildrith, departs having buried the baby in a shallow burial marked by a simple wooden cross behind the house and beside the lake next to her settlement. We aren’t shown the burial, but we are shown Uhtred coming back to the farm to find his wife gone and the grave. Distraught, he digs up the infant’s cadaver to confirm it is his son’s grave.
Now this is reasonably plausible in relation to Soffield’s investigations. Most of Soffield’s examples of infant burial, however, date far earlier, to the 5th/6th centuries, so there isn’t overwhelming evidence that infants were regularly buried adjacent to houses in the 8th/9th centuries. Yet there are instances, as at Yarnton (Oxfordshire), where 9th-century graves were found close to the settlement. These included a 2-5 year-old, a child aged 6-8 and a teenager.
Still, baptised infants, especially the offspring of the aristocracy, would normally be interred on consecrated ground, as is clear from the 10th/11th-century churchyard at Raunds, Northants. Here and elsewhere, we also have clusters of burials just outside the church walls: considered ‘eavesdrip’ burials to gain posthumous baptism from the water dropping from the church roof (Craig-Atkins 2014).
Neither fully confirmed or countered by archaeological evidence, TLK‘s infant burial is certainly a wretched and tragic scene that, at the very least, reminds us of the emotional trauma of losing a child, even for an estranged father, as well as the mother. It is a very human story from a distant time, and is also instructive in showing us the emotional connections involved in exhuming a recent burial to confirm its identity: something that shouldn’t normally happen since the identity of the deceased should be known.
Craig-Atkins, E. 2014. Eavesdropping on short lives: eaves-drip burial and the differential treatment of children one year of age and under in early Christian cemeteries, in K. A. Hemer and D. M. Hadley (eds) Medieval Childhood: Archaeological Approaches. Oxford: Oxbow.
Reynolds, A. 2009. Anglo-Saxon Deviant Burial Customs, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Soffield, C. 2015. Living with the dead: human burials in Anglo-Saxon settlement contexts, Archaeological Journal 172: 351-88.