Historical shows and movies frequently come under heavy criticism for their historical accuracy, with the likes of Vikings in particular getting dinged often. However, one series that at least makes some effort to represent the medieval period accurately is Netflix’s The Last Kingdom.
Set during the Viking invasions of England and the many wars against the various English realms in the ninth and tenth centuries, The Last Kingdom is an adaptation of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon/Warrior Chronicles. The author specializes in historical fiction; he also wrote the popular Sharpe series.
Speaking with Den of Geek, University of Winchester Professor Ryan Lavelle says that such shows can give the public the wrong idea about historical characters and situations. But they can also draw people into learning more about history. “There is an inevitability that people sometimes engage more with the characters as they’ve been represented in the drama than with the actual historical characters, but this is something that allows a kind of hook,” said Lavelle. “I want people to use it to engage with the actual history.”
The Last Kingdom focuses on Uhtred of Bebbanburg and his efforts to secure his position in a world where he is neither Dane nor Anglo Saxon. Lavelle says that while this Uhtred is fictional, a real man by that name did exist two centuries later, and that “Northumbrians in this period had to have some kind of Danish connection in order to survive, so it’s likely he did.”
The Last Kingdom does a good job with King Alfred and his family
However, while Uhtred may be primarily fictional, most of the other characters on the show existed in reality. These include King Alfred, who dominated the first three seasons, the first two o which were coproduced by the BBC.
David Dawson won many plaudits for his portrayal of Alfred, who is depicted as far from another warrior king. Lavelle says this was based in reality: “There’s enough evidence to be able to say that Alfred was affected by bouts of chronic ill health,” he said. “That could be part of Alfred’s outlook as a Christian ruler in terms of his sense of intense internal Christianity and his sense of introspection as a ruler.”
Alfred’s goal to unite the many English kingdoms under one banner was also true. Alfred was “calling himself the King of the Anglo-Saxons” late in his reign, hoping to expand the realm beyond the confines of Wessex and Mercia. Likewise, his devotion to learning while many around him preferred to place their faith in the sword alone seems to have been true. Alfred was a new sort of monarch.
There’s a lot of evidence for a kind of new form of kingship in Alfred’s reign, a lot of thinking about what it means to be a king and the king of a Christian people. With that went this idea of the works of the English – things that were associated with English culture and the English language. It’s not so much turning away from Latin. It’s more thinking about the use of English as something which could unite, initially, his subjects in Wessex.
Following the death of Alfred, his inexperienced son Edward takes the throne. His indecisiveness leads to a viper’s nest in the royal court, with many trying to win favor and influence the young king. One is his mother, Aelswith, who by season 4 is far less vindictive than she seemed in the first few seasons before Alfred died.
While Edward may not always heed her advice, Lavelle says that “[t]he idea of a Queen’s guidance is an important aspect of early Medieval royal power.”
Sometimes royal women were provided with far more legal authority as a result of a queenly title. That aspect of a Queen, or king’s wife being there at the court emerges in the historical records at different times in the Anglo-Saxon period.
The Last Kingdom’s version of Aethelred isn’t historically accurate
With Aelswith not be the villain she once was, Aethelred arose as one of the show’s primary antagonists. His slimy self-serving nature made him one of the genuinely unredeemable bad guys of The Last Kingdom. This, however, is where the show truly deviates from history. “Aethelred is a figure who sort of becomes beholden to Alfred,” Lavelle said of the real historical figure. “There is a suggestion that he’s not actually from a royal lineage and may have been from a noble family in Western Mercia. Potentially, Alfred was doing the same as the Vikings did with puppet kings elsewhere and bringing in Aethelred. Aethelred was basically Alfred’s man in Mercia.”
There is also no evidence that Aethelred was a poor husband, whereas in the show he raped and plotted to kill his wife Aethelflaed. In reality, such behavior would have endangered his position in Mercia. Lavelle says that in truth, the two “seem to have cooperated” and had a joint position.
In order for Aethelred to have some sort of quasi-royal authority in Mercia, he’d have to emphasize Aethelflaed, his legitimate wife with royal blood, in his position there.
However, it is undoubtedly Aethelflaed who is the more notable to history, with the “people looking toward her as an inspirational leader.”
In a version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in the 10th century, there’s a reference to the loss of the thanes, or warriors, who were dearest to her at the taking of Derby, so there’s a sense of that lordly relationship. It’s interesting that the word ‘Lady’ or ‘hlǣfdīġe’ is used for her because that is the female equivalent of the word ‘Lord,’ and lordship is that bond that holds the warrior society together in this period.
So while dramatic license may be taken in places, The Last Kingdom is certainly more true to life than many other shows. That looks set to continue as we head into the fifth and final season, where we will see Uhtred “charged with training King Edward’s first-born son Aethelstan as a warrior.” With the fate of England in the balance, Uhtred will “realize his destiny is more than just Bebbanburg.”
The fifth and final season of the Last Kingdom is expected to air on Netflix in 2022. You can read more from Professor Ryan Lavelle at History Extra.