I think I’ve been as reasonable and as generous as it is possible to be in my previous three blog posts about the portrayal of the late ninth century in the 2015 first series of The Last Kingdom. I focused on the show’s depiction of fiery destruction, burial practices and megalithic monuments. However, if you thought the way the hilltop fortress of Bamburgh was represented left almost everything to be desired, you will despair at how cremation is shown in TLK.
With the representation of cremation practices, we descend into the well-worn cliche of historical drama of a forlorn yet dramatic single-phase ceremony with few in attendance. There is no dance, no song, no words or other ritual actions. Even more confusingly, there is no material culture. The whole event taking place at night, which is not in itself implausible and adds for dramatic effect. The decapitated woman must have had her head wrapped tight in a shroud to bind it into anatomical position.
In technological terms, the cremation takes place with an implausibly small pyre. The body is laid on a platform of sufficient height, but rather than on top of a carefully stacked pile of wooden logs, it is suspended over an empty space. Within this space there is simply… straw. This surely wouldn’t burn sufficiently to transform an entire human cadaver?! Game of Thrones have a better sense of the scale required for a cremation pyre. As usual, there are no post-cremation practices shown.
I do like that there is some kind of basic superstructure: it serves no practical purpose, but there are numerous ethnographic and historical examples of such arrangements, notably for Burma and Bali.
What to say about this? It seems that Bernard Cornwell, and the producers of the show, don’t seem to realise, or don’t care, that the Cornish had long been Christian for centuries before the 9th century, but that there is unquestionably no archaeological or historical evidence that anyone was practicing cremation in South-West England in the 8th or 9th centuries AD. Instead, west-east supine extended inhumation burial is ubiquitous.
So when the Cornish Queen Isuelt dies at Edington, her head taken off by the Dane Sorpa and thrown at Uhtred to provoke his wrath, the last thing I anticipated was that Uhtred would mourn her by cremating her as described, let alone with the Christian King Alfred the Great of Wessex in attendance. Is this supposed to be Uhtred acknowledging a fellow pagan in Danish style? Or is it representing some unfathomable fantasy that the ‘Celtic’ Cornish are still pagan in the 9th century?
This is as historically accurate as showing Winston Churchill’s hearse shaped like a giant plastic flymo and his coffin comprised of a superlambanana.
Again though, this is part of a broader trend I’ve highlighted elsewhere. It shows the enduring obsession of TV dramas and films to show a stylised open-air cremation, from Star Wars to Game of Thrones, from The Walking Dead to Peaky Blinders. So in this regard, TLK goes where every fantasy, horror and historical drama seems to feel it has to go… Frustratingly they rarely take things past a single scene. Still, if only they’d taken their cue from the first two seasons of Vikings, then the cremation would at least have been technologically and culturally more accurate and interesting..