The Last Kingdom Seaons 2 shows the viewer the practice of taking the heads of captured and executed enemies and placing them on stakes. This takes place at ‘Dunelm’ (Durham). The TV show represents this as conducted by the hero as a means of asserting his revenge against, and intimidating, the Danes. Yet is there evidence such head-taking and staking took place? I would suggest that, while not a precise and accurate representation, this is indeed clearly inspired by historical and archaeological research into the Viking-period and the execution of criminals. Well done TLK!
However, it’s not that simple. While it is ambiguous in the TV show, I do feel that the viewers are supposed to be seeing this as something particularly ‘barbaric’ and ‘pagan’: Uhtred resorting to the ‘language the Danes would understand’. On the contrary, it is important to note that the majority of the evidence indicates that Christian Anglo-Saxons were interested in displaying the heads of executed individuals as much as, or more than the Danes.
For example, at the heart of Wessex, the site of Old Dairy Cottage, NW of Winchester, has three surviving sets of charter bounds that mention ‘head-stakes’ at this location. Professor Andrew Reynolds has argued these refer to, not pollarded trees, but the long-term display of criminals’ decapitated heads at this prominent position on multiple boundaries and on the old Roman road. This would have been a unavoidable and memorable feature of the landscape for all travellers and locals visiting the royal capital.
If further proof were required, excavations on the site did actually reveal a later Anglo-Saxon execution cemetery with over three-quarters of the bodies decapitated. As Dr Victoria Thompson has argued, such head-stakes are also elements of land granted to monasteries, so ecclesiastical and lay estates might have been framed by the display of heads on stakes.
Other archaeological evidence affirming this practice includes a skull from an Anglo-Scandinavian settlement context at Cottam, North Yorkshire. Execution cemeteries frequently include evidence of bound and hanged individuals, but also decapitants. For example, the execution cemetery investigated by Dr Jo Buckberry and Professor Dawn Hadley at Walkington Wold, among others, has the heads buried separately from bodies, hinting that heads might have been displayed. Often located at prominent prehistoric monuments, on boundaries, upon routes, and skylined from settlements, these sites would have been prominent features of the later Anglo-Saxon landscape.
The now-famous Weymouth Ridgeway massacre site, like judicial execution sites, this latter site was on a prominent ridge and route, on estate boundaries, and close to prehistoric monuments. This was done to Vikings by the West Saxons, not by raiders. Moreover, there are fewer heads than bodies, suggesting that some heads might have been taken away for display above ground or curation as trophies.
In a forthcoming book chapter by myself and Alison Klevnäs, we reflect on the TV show Vikings in relation to head-taking and staking: suggesting it wasn’t a ‘Viking’ thing. Indeed, within that show, head-taking is mostly an expedient thing to scare enemies, rather than judicial practice. When decapitation takes place, we are not shown the Norsemen giving a hoot what happens to the head itself. Using evidence like that discussed above, we suggest that the Christian Anglo-Saxons, and other early medieval peoples, were probably more keen on head-taking than the Vikings. Indeed, the Dutch Anglo-Saxonist has already penned a superb blog-post outlining the historical and archaeological background to these in Christian Anglo-Saxon England. So, it is important to see this as Christian judicial practice, not a trait of enduring ‘paganism’. Alfred more than Ragnar would have wanted his enemies’ heads on stakes!
Returning to The Last Kingdom, the stakes fixed were along the path outside a settlement, and this doesn’t precisely match the archaeological evidence; as we have seen they are instead likely to be away from settlements, if indeed alongside routes. Moreover, as mentioned above, Uhtred does this alone as retribution, not as a part of judicial practice. He stakes the victims’ heads implausibly close to the walls of the settlement overnight without detection: hardly plausible! Still, the rooting of this practice in historical and archaeological evidence makes this one of the more evocative and authentic material dimensions of Season 2.
Head-stakes are not alone in the show in alluding to early medieval judicial practice. While only briefly shown, later in Season 2, hanging is also depicted. As the Danes row upriver, they pass by a hanging corpse from a tree, marking their entry into the estate of Cookham and, supposedly, the border of the West Saxon kingdom defended by Uhtred. While a riverside location might not conform with our archaeological and historical data, the use of a prominent boundary on a thoroughfare does. In this prominent landscape situation, the public display of the cadaver as a symbol of lordly authority and marking a prominent boundary: symbol of authority, plus a challenge as well as a deterrent to would-be enemies and miscreants.
So, in general terms, through the display of corpses and heads, The Last Kingdom does afford a more accurate sense of the later Anglo-Saxon landscape more than its portrayals of towns, rural settlements and agricultural land.