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The Last Kingdom, ep. 5: Ubba obviously loses, but who wins?

ubba loses but who wins   I know, I am far behind in updates and reviews- my sincere apologies for that! It is certainly not due to any disappointment or lack of interest in the show. No, far from that- in fact, my interest and my appreciation for this show has grown with each episode. Unfortunately, it has been just a matter of real life catching up with me-leaving me in the swamps, marshes and trenches of present day battle for survival in the world of work! I have also been battling the massive webs of ancestors in my family history. I have now clawed my way out of much of that mess, at least temporarily, until the next onslaught begins.  I have a bit of time for much needed respite, rest and reflection so I will try to catch us up on this awesome journey to the past with Uhtred.  If you have not watched any of the series yet, what are you waiting for, an engraved invitation from either Alfred, Uhtred, or possibly Guthrum???  Alfred or Uhtred could possibly accommodate you on the written invitation, but Guthrum as yet has not mastered the magic of the written word. Guthrum may have to send a messenger with a verbal invitation for you. He is currently running low on trusted and loyal subjects, however and he is in the process of changing some of his affiliations and alliances so who ever he sends as messenger may come as a surprise to you… and seeing as he is still Guthrum, you perhaps should be slightly wary of any messenger he sends?

guthrum and aethelwold3

aethelwold5

 

For those who have read the books and are now watching the show, there have of course been some changes to the details. After having watched all of it play out so far, my personal opinion is that the changes to details and characters have not  affected the overall story or plot line. In episode 5, we saw some differences but the outcome remained the same. Uhtred made his escape from the Danes and eventually made his way to  to warn Alfred of the coming danger. War is coming, Alfred is preparing for battle and Odda the younger has taken Mildrith and the baby Uhtred to safety. Before reaching Alfred, Uhtred made his way first to his home to find his estate being grossly used by the obnoxious and disgusting steward, Oswald who was in the process of “plowing a lovely field of barley” as in one serving wench. Uhtred discovers he has a son and that his wife and son have been taken by Odda.  Before he can reunite with his family he must find Alfred and his army,  face the battle of Cynwit hill… and Ubba. This battle played out differently than the books but it still reflected somewhat accurately the factual accounts of this battle.

 

The Battle of Cynwit, also spelt Cynuit, took place in 878 at a fort which Asser calls Cynwit. The location of the battle is uncertain. Possible sites include Cannington Hill, near Cannington, Somerset;  and Countisbury Hill (also known as Wind Hill), near Countisbury, Devon. A party of Vikings led by Ubba, brother of Ivar the Boneless and Halfdan Ragnarsson, landed on the coast at Combwich with 23 ships and twelve hundred men. There they observed that a number of English Thanes and all of their men had taken refuge in the fort of “Cynwit” for safety.  Ubba and the Vikings proceeded to besiege the fort, expecting the English to surrender eventually from lack of water (as there was no available source near the fort).    While the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle glosses over the battle of Cynwit, it is important for two reasons.

Firstly, it was an important victory for the English won by someone other than Alfred the Great, the king of Wessex at the time who was spearheading the English resistance to the Viking invasions. The Chronicle, in addressing the year 878, makes the claim that “all but Alfred the King” had been subdued by the Vikings. Secondly, at the battle of Cynwit, Odda and the English forces not only succeeded in killing Ubba, but they also captured the Raven banner called Hrefn or the Raven. While the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle only briefly mentions the battle, it does draw attention to the capture of the banner, which is interesting considering that it does not single out any other trophy captured by the English in the many other victories they had against the Danes.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Cynwit

Cannington Camp/Hill

Cannington_Camp4 Cynwits_Castle_Cannington_Somerset_Map

Cannington Camp is a Bronze Age and Iron Age hill fort near Cannington, Somerset, England. It is a Scheduled Ancient Monument.  The small hill rises to 80 metres (260 ft) above low lying land about 1.5 kilometres (0.93 mi) west of the tidal estuary of the River Parrett, near the ancient port and ford at Combwich. The hill fort is roughly square in shape, with a single rampart (univallate) enclosing 5 ha (12 acres), and the main entrance to the south-east. The north side of the hill has been destroyed by quarrying during the 19th and 20th centuries. Minor excavations were carried out in 1905, 1913 (Bezell), and 1963 (Rahtz).  It is possibly the site of Cynwit Castle (or Cynuit, Cynwith, Cynwits, etc.) and the Battle of Cynwit between Saxons and Vikings in 878 AD (see map). It may also be the location of an earlier battle in 845 AD, when the Saxons were led by Eanwulf and Ealstan, Bishop of Sherborne.

In our version of the oncoming battle, Uhtred arrived to warn and help but was again doubted and suspected of treachery because he managed to survive and escape the Danes. He must once again prove himself to the English army being led by Odda the elder, who is as Leofrich remarks, a good man but not such a capable leader. He is worried and doubtful while his son, Odda the younger is  spiteful, distrustful and willing to make any excuse or attempt to escape rather than fight…. except when they win- then he will happily take all credit for it!

odda the younger

While the English are arguing with each other over how to survive let alone win a battle against the Danes, Ubba is making judgement errors of his own. He is devoted and completely dependent on his sorcerer, Storrie for advice and listens to what ever Storrie might profess to see in the signs… Unfortunately, as we’ve seen before, Storrie is not all that accurate at his skill in prophecies and signs. Ubba is confident, perhaps overly so of a victory due to Storrie’s advice so he settles into wait and takes time for entertainment and pleasure before battle.

ubba and storri

ubba storri misreads the runes

 

Uhtred is unwilling to sit and wait, so devises a plan to out maneuver the Danes by attacking first… his plan is met with resistance and mistrust by Odda the younger, and doubt by Odda the Elder. He succeeds though in setting the Danish boats on fire and distracting them, all the while hoping that Odda the Elder will follow his directions and use the distraction to attack the Danes by surprise.

boats burning

Uhtred becomes trapped in the Danes’ camp and thus must face Ubba in a one on one battle to the death.

ubba is surprised by this attack ubba is angry very angry ubba has the upper hand here

This does play differently than the books where Uhtred kills Ubba from the shield wall during battle, but it works to advantage this way as we see this more as a personal battle of honor for Uhtred and for Ubba. Uhtred is defending his honor and his truth against Ubba who refuses to ever accept or believe that Uhtred did not have part in killing his family. Ubba had long before branded Uhtred as a family killer, a traitor and vowed to kill him… now he must uphold that vow and this becomes more of a blood feud than a battle between armies.

go to valhalla lord go to valhalla lord 2

As this battle plays out, we still see that Uhtred succeeds in killing Ubba more by luck than anything else. When he kills Ubba, he still respects Ubba as a warrior, places a weapon in his hand and sends him to Valhalla with honor… it is not until afterwards that he realizes the enormity and danger of what he has just done as he looks around and sees the Danes surrounding him. Fortunately, Odda the Elder has by that time conveniently come to his senses and led his men to a stealthy night attack- thereby allowing Uhtred to escape into the depths of their shieldwall.

the saxon shield wall shows up in the darkness

The English have won the battle and Leofrich advises Uhtred to proceed without haste to Alfred and inform him of his actions in this battle. Uhtred as usual, fails to listen to advice and insists that he must go first to find Mildrith and his son. Odda the elder has been gravely wounded in the battle and his son, Odda the younger is now in charge, a fact that Uhtred fails to take into serious enough consideration- a fact that will cause him much added trouble in the future.

odda the elder

Leofrich warns and advises Uhtred to head for Alfred and tell of the events...

Leofrich warns and advises Uhtred to head for Alfred and tell of the events…

 

Uhtred does find Mildrith and his son…they share a bit of family happiness that will quickly be short lived due to Uhtred’s slight problem with some anger issues.

baby uhtred

baby Uhtred

Unaware of treachery and deception taking place, the family happily heads towards Winchester where Uhtred assumes he will be welcomed with open arms and high rewards. Such is not the case and Uhtred’s anger issues come to light in response to that deception by Odda the younger and to the spitefulness of some others such as Alfred’s wife, Ealhswith. Eahlswith’s truer colors, her vengeful character and her purest hatred of anything remotely Pagan… namely and especially Uhtred begin to become much clearer as does Odda the younger’s truest less than honorable character.  She and Odda the younger make fine friends in their mutual hatred of Uhtred.

eilswith and odda

Alfred at prayer and peace

An unsuspecting Uhtred arrives in Winchester to tell Alfred of the victory and his role in it, unaware that Odda the younger has already arrived and taken credit for all, also unaware of new laws passed by Alfred to protect himself and his peace. Beocca attempts to warn him of such new laws but as per usual with Uhtred, he brushes off Beocca and plows headlong into yet another mess, created partly by his own actions or lack of them… He breaks into Alfred’s peace and his prayer, raises his weapon and loses his temper. As a result of this infraction, his punishment is penance and humiliation. This scenario played out much like the book, which I am immensely grateful for! He was joined in this groveling form of penance by Alfred’s nephew, Aethelwold who is much used to such punishments by now. Aethelwold steals the scene and provides some much needed comic relief while still managing to convey some deeper underlying meanings and messages. As they begin the trek of groveling, Aethelwold advises Uhtred to just follow and allow him to lead this procession while commenting that Uhtred will owe him for this act. As they grovel towards a waiting Alfred and company, Aethelwold commences to turn this act of contrition and humility into an all out laughable parade in which he begs forgiveness for his sins of ale, women, tits and asses. Throughout this charade, he points his words directly towards Alfred who understands completely his nephews references to seduction and sins of the flesh being directed towards him. He is not amused, nor is wife Ealhswith who presumably, probably also fully gets the intended reference. They quickly depart the scene and the penance event turns more into an entertaining interlude for all of the villagers watching.

 

tits and ass athelwold saves the day with humor alfred is not amused

I can not resist and neither can you uncle

Alfred’s wife Eahlswith has achieved her own personal ultimate success during this time by producing a male heir for the Kingdom… her status, importance and value to Alfred have greatly increased and her attitude will show it. We catch a glimpse of her attitude in a family scene with Alfred and daughter as they look upon this new baby. This is a quick glimpse at this family life and dynamic but it does show some foreshadow of how this attitude might affect the daughter’s life in the future.

Eilswith too smug

this is not going to go well for the girl children

Alfred’s relationship with his family, and in particular, this daughter will become of great importance and prominence in the future. We do not see it as yet in the show but hopefully there will be added seasons and you will see this girl child grow and take on her true importance in the story and in history. This young girl child is Aethelflaid who will one day be known as Lady of the Mercians.

alfred and family alfred and aethelfaid

Athelflaid, Lady of Mercians

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%86thelfl%C3%A6d

 

The shaming and humiliation have incited Uhtred’s anger at Alfred and at the church or anything related to it, including his wife. The bliss is definitely wearing off of this marriage… Mildrith is upset with Uhtred’s behavior and at his lack of control over his anger. Uhtred has had close to enough of Mildrith’s preaching ways and is disgusted with her rather continuous tears. Her attitude and behavior for him is almost as bad as Alfred’s pious better than thou actions. The final straw breaking their marriage apart happens on their return home to their estate when he discovers the thieving and slovenly steward, Oswald has been stealing trees off their land and selling them for profit. Now, to Uhtred’s credit, he did warn Oswald previously that should he ever catch him being so disrespectful and dishonorable to the estate and to Uhtred, that he would kill him with pleasure. By the time they arrived home, Uhtred’s mood was to say the least, not good… He was in a foul, rage filled mood and most likely anything would have set him off. Oswald’s theft from him was just the trigger that caused him to blindly release his rage and dispose of the man as promised in the name of Justice with no thoughts of consequence for the act. Mildrith was naturally horrified by the killing thus began yet another round of crying, wailing, and moral judgements. Clearly, Uhtred has lost this round of anger management… not that he was really making any effort towards managing his anger issues in the first place but realistically at some point he needs to realize that these uncontrollable fits of temper and anger are creating part of his problems! As Mildrith oft preaches to him, “You’re too ready with anger, there’s a bad spirit within you that needs to be exorcized… You should look to God!”   Mildrith can not fix this man right now, as Alfred can not either nor can their God. Uhtred’s demons are deep within him will take much time for some others to help him exorcize on his own.

uhtred has some marriage troubles

unhappy wife alert gif clip 02

I think it’s important to keep in mind that Mildrith is not a bad person, a bad wife in this situation…she and Uhtred are just not well suited for each other. Once the initial infatuation and lust wore off and they were put in a difficult desperate situation, they reacted in completely different ways and would never come to see things with a like mind or purpose. Faced with the same events as Mildrith, a majority of women would most likely react to Uhtred’s anger issues and violent tendencies in a much similar way as she did- even if we insist that we wouldn’t, that we would be fearless and bad ass strong in our reactions. We like to think we would be as strong as Brida or other shieldmaidens but in reality, few of us would truly be able to handle Uhtred’s outbursts without some fear, tears or meltdown of our own.

So, while Ubba very clearly and obviously lost his battles in this episode, Uhtred was not truly any winner. He only succeeded in killing Ubba by sheer luck, he suffered great humiliation and loss of pride at the hands of Alfred, he certainly lost any attempt at anger control and as a result of that loss, he also lost any chance or hope of some ongoing peace or even civility within his relationship with wife Mildrith. He also lost in a battle of thinking and wits to Odda the younger, and to Ealhswith. Unfortunately in this round, Uhtred must concede defeat to Odda the younger, to Ealhswith, and even to Aethelwold.  Odda has won a huge albeit temporary advantage for now with his deceptions and his sucking up to both Alfred and to Ealhswith. Ealhswith could and does consider herself a winner in all things right now just for the fact that she has scored high on any front by producing that precious heir. And, Aethelwold… well, although for all appearances sake, he is not a winner in anything, he has managed to achieve one thing for his actions. Aethelwold has won by fact that Uhtred now owes him a debt, a favor that he will be able to cash in on at some later time!

One last thought on all of the events and people of this history… our first thoughts and tendencies are to choose sides, label right or wrong and place blame or judgement upon the people involved. What we need to remember instead is that there is good and bad on both sides, in all peoples. This story is not so much about a good or bad, a right or wrong side but of the complexities that made up each of the choices and decisions made by both sides. Mistakes are made, poor judgement is used and immoral inhumane decisions are made by both sides as well. The majority of the people are not all good heroes, nor are they evil incarnate mad villains… you notice I say a majority because as in any society there are those few who display the very worst of what we are, and the few who reflect the very best of all of us.  No one in this story is a perfect ideal or portrayal of who we assume, think, or wish they should be. As in reality, these characters have flaws- they, just as we are, are shaped by the world they live in, the culture and society that has raised them, and the events that take place around them. And… some of them are just unlikeable people- such as Ealhswith and Odda the younger!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Last Kingdom episode 4: The Peace is over

At the end of episode 3, Leofrich and Uhtred watched the Danes leave and Leofrich had some serious words for Uhtred about his future… “This year, what you’re giving to Alfred, it’s not about a mail coat and helmet. It’s about you. The Bastard thinks, didn’t I say that? He wants more than a year’s service, he wants you. He wants you to help take back England, all of  England. Of course when the year is up, you could go back to the Danes… but what would you be, who would you be?”

You could go back to the Danes but who would you be

 

This question will haunt Uhtred throughout his life, it will tear at him as he tries to figure out the answer and it will ever be what causes him to fight both the physical battles and those battles within himself. As the land settles into some temporary peace before the storm Uhtred will find no peace within himself for a very long time. He has sold himself to Alfred for the vague rewards that Alfred promises and it eats at him continually. The anger, frustration, resentment and guilt are always there just beneath the surface for Uhtred. Of course, those underlying feelings are much of what makes him the warrior that he is and will ever be, but they also cloud his judgement and his reasoning.

Episode 4 deals with the peace being over in more ways than one. It is not so much about peace being over in the land with the Danes, but more about peace of mind, peaces of heart being torn and doubts creeping into cracks. It is about those underlying conflicts coming to surface as the larger storm of war approaches. It is about those differences of thought and opinion that can tear a land apart before it even begins to do battle with an enemy. Uhtred is now a part of Alfred’s army, but there is much resentment from some among Alfred’s inner circle about this decision.  Uhtred holds title of Ealdorman of Northumbria, but that is far to north and in Dane control.  His title is in name only and holds little value to those in the south. Uhtred needs land holding in the south to be considered of importance by the Ealdormen there. Alfred also needs to bind Uhtred to him by some deeper hold… so he “rewards” Uhtred with marriage and a landholding…  Uhtred accepts the bride and the land, sight unseen because he needs the land and it’s wealth in order to accomplish his one goal of reclaiming Bebbanburg someday in the future, and his goal to one day rejoin Ragnar and avenge their family’s deaths. He claims to Leofrich that his bride’s appearance is of no consequence, makes little difference because this is a marriage for title, land and wealth nothing more…

The wife chosen for Uhtred is God daughter of Odda the Elder and in the very beginning of episode, we see Odda the younger’s resentment of Uhtred and of this proposed marriage. We also see, by the way, a very clear view of Uhtred and some of his finer assets…

moon 01

I readily admit here that I enjoyed and appreciated the view even though it could be considered in some sense as gratuitous and pandering to the female viewers. There was a conversation between Uhtred and Odda that made attempt to connect our view and make it relevant… that conversation also served to irritate Odda even more so I will accept that this was the supposed purpose of our view! Uhtred’s response to Odda’s disparaging remarks were, “Have you been watching me, Odda the boy? Should I be marrying you?” Odda is disgusted and offers to pay Uhtred to not go through with the marriage. Uhtred’s final response to this nonsense is to ask Odda if his Father knows or approves of this offer… Odda the younger rides off in more disgust.

I will also admit here that I have never read of any sort of custom that requires a young woman of some noble standing to go to her marriage in such complete masking or coverage as Uhtred’s bride arrived.  One might assume that she was contagious or possibly an obsessed beekeeper. That is my rather minor complaint with this portion of the episode. I would have thought that heavy cloak and hood would suffice in keeping her under wraps… I think they went a bit overboard in this aspect!

mildrith in mask

None the less, we did discover that rather than being a carrier of some dread disease, the young Mildrith was instead a true prize… or as Alfred would mention, a consolation prize for Uhtred.

uhtred and mildrith meet mildrith

Uhtred is quite happy with his bride and wonders why she has not been already given to someone else… Mildrith is rather evasive about this and chooses to direct the conversation elsewhere. Uhtred is so happy that he fails to question what she might be avoiding.  He takes his bride and his new best friend, Leofrich and heads off to his new home, never once questioning why he has received such a prize…

Along their way, they find Guthrum’s warriors scouting deep within the boundaries of Wessex.  Meanwhile back in Wessex, Alfred and Odda the Elder are discussing Mildrith’s plight and Uhtred’s test. “He will not like being beholden to God and King, but if he is to become a true Ealdorman he must accept his burden. That is the test… Mildrith is his beautiful consolation.”

Uhtred does quickly discover that Alfred has set him up by marrying Mildrith to him and now he will owe the church a 2000 shilling debt that increases yearly.  Needless to say, Uhtred is not amused with the news! Damn Alfred, Damn his church, Damn everything he stands for! His added response to Mildrith… By all means, Call me Earsling for not seeing this sooner!  Ummm probably not the best way to start a marriage. This is one situation that I really can not quite settle with in regards to Alfred’s many actions to maintain control of Uhtred. Many of his other retributions and controls, I could always come to some understanding on but this one was one of the most underhanded and manipulative of his deeds. It set Uhtred up so that in some essence or way, he might never be free or clear of this overhanging debt. And, the debt is not to Alfred, but to the church- which Alfred knows Uhtred has no regard for. The church feels the same way about Uhtred and would love to see him fail on this debt- not only so as to be free of him, but to gain the land involved. I think too, this is one instance where Odda the Elder does not agree with Alfred’s actions concerning using Mildrith and her property in this plot to tie Uhtred even more tightly to him in both loyalty and debt. This action does not teach Uhtred any lesson really, other than to trust Alfred even less. It’s certainly not one which would encourage or inspire undying loyalty.

 

Uhtred arrives at his new landholding to discover that is not quite what he was expecting either. No large hall, not much of anything but a worn and ragged rather rundown farmstead with an overseer who seems too well fed and dressed to be altogether honest no matter what trusting and naïve Mildrith might think. His best bud Leofrich abandons him and reminds him that it’s his wedding night, then he finds out that not only has he been robbed, but his wife Mildrith has been as well- of half of her bride price. To top it all off, the ale is not even worth drinking… so much for this Wedding night! He does however, manage to contain his anger- which is a rather huge accomplishment for him.   He wakes up the next morning in a somewhat better frame of mind sets about making amends to Mildrith because as he tells her, none of this was her fault and she has a good heart.  Mildrith does have a good heart, she is pleasant natured (for now) and she’s good to look upon as well. God is Good, an admit from Uhtred himself! Well, perhaps there is some hope for this relationship after all… then again perhaps not? 

mildreth gif 02

They have a lovely honeymoon period with some peace and seem to be living happily ever after on the farm… there is even the prospect of a new addition to the family. God is Good, Life is Good… until the sisters of fate intervene!

 

uhtred and leofrich2 uhtred and mildrith make peace with each other

The Peace is over and the Danes are marching through Wessex… By the time word reaches Alfred, it will be too late!

ragnar and brida brida

 

The peace is over within Alfred’s sanctuary, his home, his church and his inner circle as well. Arguments and accusations begin as Wessex attempts to prepare for the Heathen invasion and a battle at Wareham. Odda the Elder is made aware of his son’s dubious honor and Eilswith shows her more vindictive, spiteful nature…along with her ability to reproduce.  Her less than Christian behavior includes welcoming Mildrith to pray with her and then wishing Uhtred a quick death upon the battlefield. Mildrith is still happy, optimistic and in love with her husband so she cares not what Eilswith thinks, she prays God will protect him even if he is a heathen!

Ealswith and mildrith ealswith is showing her spiteful side mildrith2

 

The conflicts between Alfred and Uhtred come to the surface as they debate the Hand of God and whether God is speaking to the Danes as well.  Alfred considers it God’s doing that Ivar has died across the sea in Ireland and Ubba will abandon this fight to go avenge his brother.  Uhtred confronts Alfred on the debt owed to the church and Alfred responds that Sacrifice and Penance are what separate us from the Heathens… I have my broth to suffer, you have your debt.  Alfred later admits to Father Beocca, “He can not be tamed” Father Beocca’s answer is that he can be trusted and Alfred assures Beocca that he will not abandon Uhtred because he may still be of some use.

Guthrum and his Danes, including Ragnar take Wareham and the Saxon army prepares for battle. Guthrum however, knows and understands that Alfred can easily win this siege by waiting them out. Guthrum spends time within the quietness of the Christian Church contemplating his situation and is confronted by Ragnar who wants to fight, “I did not march my men all the way across this country to sit here and starve!” Guthrum points out that Ubba has abandoned them and put all their lives at risk so now is not the time for war…. until Ubba returns, we must make peace. Doubts are setting in on the Dane side as well, doubts about each other and doubts about personal beliefs.  Guthrum feels them but manages to keep them at bay for the time being, mainly because when he calls out to the Christian God and asks for a sign, he gets nothing- “So, if you are there God of Rome, Strike me down… ahhh I thought naught!” It is becoming apparent though that Guthrum is having some thoughts about this God again and his peace of mind is shaken.

Guthrum God of rome strike me down

Alfred and Guthrum meet on the field at Wareham but both realize the futility of battle right now… neither side would truly win such a battle attempt and the result would be a weakening of their forces. There is negotiation over Guthrum leaving, and when… it is in Guthrum’s best interest to remain as long as possible in hopes that Ubba will return while it is in Alfred’s best interest to be rid of them as quickly as possible. They’re at a stalemate but come to some agreement that results in more loss of that inner personal peace of mind for a few people. Alfred has a plan to create more doubt in Guthrum’s mind. He has heard rumors of Guthrum’s questions about the Christian God so he decides to send a Priest to sway Guthrum and work towards converting him- a challenge that obviously plays havoc with Father Selbix’s peace of mind! Alfred also uses Uhtred once again and once more puts him in the middle of the Danes, and his family. Alfred’s decision to use Uhtred as a hostage casts yet another shadow on Uhtred’s heart and tears again at his loyalties.

hostages

Father Selbix must try to make peace with Guthrum and show him the way to the Christian God…

father selbix selbix and guthrum selbix to guthrum you are a miracle

While we might assume that Father Selbix failed in his mission, did he really? Yes, he met his death much as he expected he might at the hands of Guthrum and the Danes, but he met it quickly and mercifully as Guthrum sent him on his way to meet his God. There was no lengthy dragged out torture here. In fact, the torture seemed to be more on Guthrum’s face and possibly in his mind or heart as he did what he felt he needed to do in the killing of the hostages that included Father Selbix.

Guthrum gives Selbix a merciful quick death and meeting with his God

Uhtred and Ragnar battled their own inner wars as they faced each other again and had to work through guilt, feelings of betrayal and the heart ache of being a family divided by this coming war. Brida’s thoughts were and always will be more black and white, cut and dried on the issues. You are either a Dane and with them, or you are not, in her mind it will ever come down to that feeling. Ragnar is filled with frustration and rage at Uhtred’s oath and loyalty to Alfred but he does understand Uhtred’s need now to return to his family, his wife and the son that he has been given news of. In Ragnar’s mind and heart, they will ever be brothers, family- and that will come before anything else.  Uhtred admitted to Ragnar that he must try to escape if Ubba returned and although Ragnar is outraged at Uhtred’s disloyalty to the Danes, in his heart he knows that Uhtred is now doing what he feels he must to protect his own family. Ragnar and Uhtred will always have that certain deeper bond that even Brida does not have with Uhtred.

Uhtred waits out the hostage situation.

Uhtred waits out the hostage situation.

Ragnar is outraged

Ragnar is outraged

In the end, Ragnar can not stand by and allow Uhtred to be killed. He stands against Guthrum to protect Uhtred. Guthrum makes some attempt to reason with Ragnar but then once more he shows some compassion, some mercy… some charity.

ragnar will defend his brother at any cost

guthrum once agains shows mercy and charity he releases Uhtred without a horse

The Peace is over.  War will tear hearts and loved ones apart but compassion, mercy and family will forever be a tie that binds people together.

go and see your child

uhtred the peace is over

Some additional history about people events during this time:

odda with mildrith

In the Last Kingdoms books and on the show, we see Odda the Elder and Odda the younger… Odda the Elder is a historical figure connected to Alfred and to the Great Heathen Wars. We will see more of both of them in episode 5 along with the events at the Battle of Cynwit.

Odda, also known as Oddune,  was a ninth-century ealdorman of Devon. He is known for his victory at the Battle of Cynwit in 878, where his West Saxon forces defeated a Viking army led by Ubba, brother of the Viking chiefs Ivar the Boneless and Halfdan Ragnarsson.  Throughout the 870s Odda’s liege, Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, was engaged in constant war with the Vikings. They had begun their invasion of England in 865, and by Alfred’s accession in 871 the Kingdom of Wessex was the only Anglo-Saxon realm opposing them.  By 878 the conflict was going poorly for Alfred. In January of that year, the Danes made a sudden attack on Chippenham, a royal stronghold in which Alfred had been staying over Christmas, “and most of the people they killed, except the King Alfred, and he with a little band made his way by wood and swamp, and after Easter he made a fort at Athelney in the marshes of Somerset, and from that fort kept fighting against the foe”.

Guthrum and his men were holding Wareham…

Archaeological evidence exists of a small Roman settlement, though the current town was founded by the Saxons.  The Roman name is unknown, but the town is referred to as Werham in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry of 784, from Old English wer (meaning ‘fish trap, a weir’) and hām (‘homestead’) or hamm (‘enclosure hemmed in by water’).

  Wareham

waiting at Wareham

waiting at Wareham

The town’s oldest features are the town walls, ancient earth ramparts surrounding the town, likely built by Alfred the Great in the 9th century to defend the town from the Danes as part of his system of burh towns. The Danes had invaded Wareham in 876, only leaving after the payment of a ransom. In 998 they attacked again, and in 1015 an invasion led by King Canute left the town in ruins.  The town was a Saxon royal burial place, notably that of King Beorhtric (800 CE). Also in the town at the ancient minster church of Lady St. Mary is the coffin said to be that of Edward the Martyr, dating from 978. His remains had been hastily buried there and were later taken from Wareham to Shaftesbury Abbey in north Dorset (and now lie in Brookwood Cemetery, Surrey).

ragnar tells Guthrum my men they will not follow you

In 876 under their new leader, Guthrum, the Danes slipped past the Saxon army and attacked and occupied Wareham in Dorset. Alfred blockaded them but was unable to take Wareham by assault.  Accordingly, he negotiated a peace which involved an exchange of hostages and oaths, which the Danes swore on a “holy ring” associated with the worship of Thor The Danes, however, broke their word and, after killing all the hostages, slipped away under cover of night to Exeter in Devon.

Alfred blockaded the Viking ships in Devon, and with a relief fleet having been scattered by a storm, the Danes were forced to submit. The Danes withdrew to Mercia.

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The Last Kingdom episode 3

One King dies, another King rises… Armies march and Uhtred must choose

 In episode 3, we spent much of the time in Wessex seeing the fallout from the unseen battle that resulted in the death of one King and rise of another, Alfred. Althelred is mortally wounded in the battle and dies shortly afterwards.  Alfred is filled with doubts about his own abilities but is certain of one thing… he can surely hold the Kingdom together better than the incapable and drunken young man who insists that he is the true heir to the crown. Besides dealing with Athelred’s death, his impending kingship and the surly drunken Athelwold, he must also determine what to do with Uhtred and the rather surly outspoken Brida.

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a drunken Athelwold

a drunken Athelwold

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Uhtred and Brida await news of the battle’s outcome from a jail cell. Father Beocca brings them good news but Brida does not see it that way. In her mind, the best news would be of a loss and Alfred’s death.  Beocca assures Uhtred that they will be released soon, but Brida can not hold her frustration and anger in screaming, “We are Danes!”  probably not the wisest comment considering their current circumstances… 

brida can not and will not hold her tongue Brida thinks good news would be Alfred is dead Brida makes it clear we are Danes

Once they are finally released, Uhtred impatiently insists on a meeting with Alfred to discuss the battle win and his reward… Alfred calmly explains that he has a few other things on his mind right now like the death of his brother and his own impending kingship. Alfred is a little pre-occupied right now to have to deal with Uhtred. That will have to come later.

 

Episode 3 dealt with the fallout from the battle that took Athelred’s life and left Alfred and his nephew, Athelwold at some odds over who should rule the Kingdom. There is never really any question about that debate, other than what might be in Athelwold’s rather foggy and often inebriated mind. Athelwold does have one half hearted supporter, however and that young man’s actions should not be discounted or blown off… he will show his deviousness and untrustworthiness in the future. That young man is Odda the Younger and he is not quite so fuddled or incompetent as Athewold.  I only mention him here and now because in the beginning of episode we see a conversation between him and Athelwold that gives a huge clue as to how Odda the Younger’s mind works… when he encourages Athelwold in his ploy and suggests how  Athelwold should claim his Father’s backing of him no matter what Alfred or the Witan might say differently.

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Some people have made comments and voiced some concerns about the lack of battle scenes thus far. Episodes 3 and 4 do not include major battles, blood or gore. These two episodes deal more with setting up the future plot lines and twists that will become important in the future. They serve to give us a better look and understanding of the characters and of the underlying conspiracies that will run through the story. I think this is just as important to the story as attempting to include some major battle scene in every episode. First of all, the show is running on an extremely tight time and money budget for this first season- those massive battle scenes are expensive and time consuming to pull off in a believable, authentic manner or representation. I personally would prefer that rather than include battle, blood and gore in every episode just for effect, they save the battle scenes and provide them in a way that will truly be epic, standout and memorable to viewers. Yes, they could have shown the battle that killed Athelred in episode 3 but then they would have had to eliminate some of the other just as important but not so in your face violent scenes and segments. The results of the battle are important for everyone concerned there.  That aftermath needed to be addressed in the way it was because it sets up the future for all of them, Saxons and Danes alike.

Thanks in part to Uhtred’s advice, the Saxons did win the battle. Uhtred assumed that Alfred would be so grateful for that help that he would just automatically reward him and not question his reasons or motives at all. Alfred was not so gullible as to believe anything or anyone at face value… well, other than his priests. What you should be realizing even this early in the story is that Uhtred is not necessarily the stereotypical hero type. Uhtred messes up, a lot. He may be the main and central character that the story revolves around, he may be the “good guy” warrior of the battle but that does not mean that he always wins or that he conquers all. Right now, Uhtred has many lessons to learn in life. He will learn most of those lessons the hard way- as in “if at first you fail, then try again”  The person who ends up teaching Uhtred many of those difficult life lessons is Alfred the King. 

Are you offering your sword or selling your sword

On the subject of Alfred the King, we need to understand something very important about his role in the story and in general, I think. Alfred does express his own failings, his own doubts on being a successful King but he does not express these feelings to the public. Alfred is very clear about his goal, his dream for a united England. He also understands his role as leader of his people and knows full well that the worst thing he could do in his situation is show any sign of weakness or vulnerability to his subjects or to the Danes. It’s obvious to anyone who sees him that he is not a strong warrior who can go out and conquer battles/enemies physically. That leaves him with one other option… he must win with mind games, with words and out thinking his opponents. Alfred knows that his kingdom is in a precarious situation and that he will have to make difficult decisions which many of his subjects will not approve of or agree on.  As King, it is Alfred’s responsibility to lead his people and win this war that is beginning around them.  Alfred will inevitably often do things which may not endear him to everyone… he definitely is not the most likeable or jovial, fun loving kind of King. His court is certainly not one high on the A-list of parties or events. It will never be that kind of place even when there is peace in the land! Whether you like him or not is not really his ultimate concern or worry. He has far more important matters to be concerned with than whether he is well liked by all. Of course, he would like to be known as a fair and just ruler to his subjects but he needs his subjects, all of them- and that includes stubborn Uhtred- to trust him, to know that he is strong in mind and convictions, that he can not be taken advantage of or manipulated by factions who would seek to use him for their own benefits. Ohhh and yes of course, he does want to be liked by that one temptation of the flesh that he keeps near to him because of Father Beocca’s suggestion.   One might assume that Alfred’s likeability issues are due to the religious influences engrained in him and while that does play a huge part in his actions, I think it comes down more to the fact that he needs to win a war and make those often unpopular decisions that come along with any crisis. I think even without the religious influence, Alfred would have still been a serious minded individual who needed to be seen as a strong and firm leader.  Alfred’s idea of a good time is more along the lines of a philosophical discussion, a rousing taefl game of strategy or an evening of riddling… and then possibly a game of temptation involving earlier mentioned temptation of the flesh.

taefl game board

The term tafl  is the original name of the game. However, Hnefatafl became the preferred term for the game in Scandinavia by the end of the Viking Age, to distinguish it from other board games, such as Skáktafl (chess), Kvatrutafl (Tables) and Halatafl (Fox games), as these became known. The specific name Hnefatafl possibly arose as meaning “board game of the fist”, from hnefi (“fist”) + tafl, where “fist” referred to the central king-piece. The precise etymology is disputed, but hnefi certainly referred to the king-piece, and several sources refer to Hnefatafl as “King’s table”. In Anglo-Saxon England, the term tæfl also referred to many board games. It is not known if the Anglo-Saxons had a specific name for the game or if they generically referred to it as “tæfl” in the way that modern people might refer to “cards”.  Having spent time in Francia, Alfred may also have had some experience with early games of chess.

Riddling

One of the most popular games was riddling. A warrior was not considered to be up to much unless his word skill was as good as his weapon skills. Riddling was a good way of demonstrating this skill and many of the riddles of the time are full of double meanings which suggest two answers, one innocent, the other more ‘raunchy’. These riddles could be anything from a one to a hundred lines long and sought to describe everyday objects in an unusual way. Part of the skill of riddling was to be able to construct the riddle using the correct ‘poetic’ conventions. Obviously, as well as the correct construction, it was important to make sure that the description given was not too obscure. Here are some actual Saxon riddles. Alfred of course would have preferred the more innocent and correct poetic contexts and conventions!

  1. I’m by nature solitary,
    scarred by spear
    and wounded by sword, weary of battle.
    I frequently see the face of war, and fight
    hateful enemies; yet I hold no hope
    of help being brought to me in the battle,
    before I’m eventually done to death.
    In the stronghold of the city sharp-edged swords,
    skillfully forged in the flame by smiths
    bite deeply into me. I can but await
    a more fearsome encounter; it is not for me
    to discover in the city any of those doctors
    who heal grievous wounds with roots and herbs.
    The scars from sword wounds gape wider and wider
    death blows are dealt me by day and by night.
  2. I’m told a certain object grows
    in the corner, rises and expands, throws up
    a crust. A proud wife carried off
    that boneless wonder, the daughter of a king
    covered that swollen thing with a cloth.
  3. Wob’s my name if you work it out;
    I’m a fair creature fashioned for battle
    When I bend and shoot my deadly shaft
    from my stomach, I desire only to send
    that poison as far away as possible.
    When my lord, who devised this torment for me,
    releases my limbs, I become longer
    and, bent upon slaughter, spit out
    that deadly poison I swallowed before.
    No man’s parted easily from the object
    I describe; if he’s struck by what flies
    from my stomach, he pays for its poison
    with his strength – speedy atonement for his life
    I’ll serve no master when unstrung, only when
    I’m cunningly nocked. Now guess my name.
  4. On the way a miracle: water become bone.
  5. Favoured by men, I am found far and wide,
    taken from woods and the heights of the town,
    From high and from low. during each day
    bees brought me through the bright sky
    skillfully home to a shelter. Soon after that
    I was taken by men and bathed in a tub.
    Now I blind them and chasten them, and cast
    a young man at once to the ground,
    and sometimes an old one too.
    He who struggles against my strength,
    he who dares grapple with me, discovers immediately
    that he will hit the hard floor with his back
    if he persists with such stupidity.
    Deprived of his strength and strangely loquacious,
    he’s a fool, who rules neither his mind
    nor his hands nor his feet.
    Now ask me, my friends,
    who knocks young men stupid,
    and as his slave binds them
    in broad waking daylight?
    Yes ask me my name.
  6. On earth there’s a warrior of curious origin.
    He’s created, gleaming, by two dumb creatures
    for the benefit of men. Foe bears him against foe
    to inflict harm. Women often fetter him,
    strong as he is. If maidens and men
    care for him with due consideration
    and feed him frequently, he’ll faithfully obey them
    and serve them well. Men succour him for the warmth
    he offers in return; but this warrior will savage
    anyone who permits him to become too proud.
  7. The dank earth, wondrously cold,
    first delivered me from her womb.
    I know in my mind I wasn’t made
    from wool, skillfully fashioned with skeins.
    Neither warp nor weft wind about me,
    no thread thrums for me in the thrashing loom,
    nor does a shuttle rattle for me,
    nor does the weaver’s rod bang and beat me.
    Silkworms didn’t spin with their strange craft for me,
    those strange creatures that embroider cloth of gold.
    Yet men will affirm all over this earth
    that I am an excellent garment.
    O wise man, weigh your words
    well, and say what this object is.
  8. A woman, young and lovely, often locked me
    in a chest; she took me out at times,
    lifted me with fair hands and gave me
    to her loyal lord, fulfilling his desire.
    Then he stuck his head well inside me,
    pushed it upwards into the smallest part.
    It was my fate, adorned as I was, to be filled
    with something rough if that person who possessed me
    was virile enough. Now guess what I mean.
  9. A strange thing hangs by man’s hip,
    hidden by a garment. It has a hole
    in its head. It is stiff and strong
    and its firm bearing reaps a reward.
    When the retainer hitches his clothing
    high above his knee, he wants the head
    of that hanging thing to find the old hole
    that it, outstretched, has often filled before.
  10. I saw a creature: his stomach stuck out behind him,
    enormously swollen. A stalwart servant
    waited upon him. What filled his stomach
    had travelled from afar, and flew through his eye.
    He does not always die in giving life
    to others, but new strength revives
    in the pit of his stomach: he breathes again.
    He fathers a son; he’s his own father also.

ANSWERS:

  • Shield
  • Dough/Bread
  • Bow
  • Ice
  • Mead
  • Fire
  • Mail shirt
  • Helmet
  • Key
  • Bellows

Temptation of the flesh…

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So, we can rather safely assume that the majority of Alfred’s warriors would prefer to find their own entertainment and amusements elsewhere,  anywhere else but in Alfred or his wife Eilswith’s company for any evening. Let’s face it, as for Eilswith, even Alfred may have preferred to be anywhere else but in her company.  But, Alfred was a dutiful husband and really, he was not one to be outwardly cruel to his lawfully wedded wife who was devoted and loyal to him. He needs her on his side and in his bed at least occasionally… he does need heirs after all!  Even though Eilswith is about appealing as a mud fence and if possible, even more pious than Alfred, and has a sharp vicious tongue, she can do one thing well as it should become apparent… she can produce fine healthy babies! Historically, Eilswith’s alliance is of importance because she is from a Noble line of Mercia and the long range goal of Wessex rulers is to keep Mercia under their control. Her ability to provide heirs is also of importance. If you are familiar with the history of Alfred’s family- as in his siblings- he was one of six children and out of those six children, the only ones to produce any heirs were him and his brother Athelred. This is part of the reason there was little argument over who would rule. There was no one else left to lay claim to the crown but Alfred and two young nephews, who historically were assumed too young to rule. In episode 3, we begin to see just how unsuitable nephew Athelwold is for any leadership role let alone King. We also begin to see though that he is not going to go away quietly or give up on his claim, especially when he is encouraged by ones such as Odda the younger.  At times his speaking without thinking comes very close to treason. Leofrich bluntly reminds him of that. Uhtred is of the ongoing opinion that Alfred should have had him killed immediately and been done with any possibility of rebellion or attempt for the crown by Athelwold. Alfred reasons that, “If I killed him then it would make it appear as though he did have some legitimate claim.”    Ironically, of course, there are probably a number of Alfred’s supporters who have the same continuing thoughts about Uhtred. He is a vile, hated and untrustworthy Pagan that Alfred should have just killed and been done with him.

TLK_103_1 odda the older and Odda the elder from farfarawayTLK_103_20

 

So, as you can see, no matter how distasteful the thought of Eilswith is, Alfred must make attempt to keep her belly full of babies and her Mercian supporters on his side.

ailswyth Aelswith Father forgive me... go away I might not get another chance at this for a while I am your loving loyal wife

As I mentioned, episode 3 provides us with a better understanding of what is going on within the Kingdom of Wessex, from Alfred’s doubts and temptations, his inner circle of supporters and possible traitors, to his personal relationships, all of which will play their part in the decisions he makes in the future. This is a vulnerable and fragile kingdom verging on chaos and that is exactly what the Danes are hoping for and expecting in their plans for dealing with Alfred. Alfred must use what ever advantages he can come up with and that includes Uhtred, even though Alfred doesn’t trust him any further than he could throw him… which is obviously not very far.  Alfred needs Uhtred but he needs Uhtred loyal to him and he knows that Uhtred is loyal to no one but himself right now. Alfred must find a way, any way to keep Uhtred under control and he needs to do something else important… He needs to show Uhtred that he is the one in control, not Uhtred. This is extremely important in the context of Alfred’s overall rule because if Uhtred is able to best him, to outwit and out maneuver him then he will have lost control of not just Uhtred but others as well who are most likely watching the situation closely. In some ways, this battle of wills between Alfred and Uhtred is a battle that Alfred can not afford to lose. He has to prove himself to his warriors, his subjects, the Witan that put him on the throne, and most importantly, the Danes who are at the doorstep of his Kingdom waiting for him to fail.

The Witenaġemot (“meeting of wise men”), also known as the Witan (more properly the title of its members) was a political institution in Anglo-Saxon England which operated from before the 7th century until the 11th century. The witenagemots did not represent the political will of all England: before the unification of England in the 10th century, separate witenagemots were convened by the Kings of Essex, Kent, Mercia, Northumbria, Sussex and Wessex. The Witenagemot was an assembly of the ruling class whose primary function was to advise the king and whose membership was composed of the most important noblemen in England, both ecclesiastic and secular. The institution is thought to represent an aristocratic development of the ancient Germanic general assemblies, or folkmoots. In England, by the 7th century, these ancient folkmoots had developed into convocations of the land’s most powerful and important people, including ealdormen, thegns, and senior clergy, to discuss matters of both national and local importance.  The influence of the king, or at least of kingship, on the constitution of the assembly seems to have been immense. But on the other hand he (the king) was elected by the witan .. He could not depose the prelates or ealdormen, who held their office for life, nor indeed the hereditary thanes. .. At any rate, the king had to get on with the highest statesmen appointed by his predecessor, though possibly disliked by him, until death made a post vacant that he could fill with a relation or a favourite, not, however, without having a certain regard to the wishes of the aristocracy. In addition to having a role in the ‘election’ of English Kings, it is often held that the witenagemots had the power to depose an unpopular king. However, there are only two occasions when this probably happened, in 757 and 774 with the depositions of kings Sigeberht of Wessex and Alhred of Northumbria.

Uhtred is young, cocky, and rebellious. In Alfred’s thoughts he is like an unruly, untamed hound who must be kept on a very tight leash and taught to obey his master… or at least listen and recognize that he has a master otherwise he will be the most dangerous of all animals, a lone wolf. I don’t believe it is ever Alfred’s intent to completely tame Uhtred or break him… what good would that prove. I believe that Alfred knows the power and force that Uhtred will become and he wants to make sure that power is on his side, not the side of the Danes. He needs to teach Uhtred a lesson or two, or three or more as the case will be but I do not believe it is now or ever will be his intent to completely destroy Uhtred. What he needs to do is use any means possible maintain some semblance of control over this volatile weapon he has in Uhtred. Uhtred needs to learn that he does not have that upper hand with Alfred.  Alfred knows exactly how Uhtred thinks right now and calls him on it with his comment on Uhtred’s service to him. He asks Uhtred, “Are your offering me your sword, or are you selling me your sword?”

Are you offering your sword or selling your sword

In Uhtred’s mind right now, what matter should it make to Alfred as long as Alfred gets his service and he gets rewarded… He needs to recognize the difference and fully understand that difference between the loyalty of offering one’s sword and the selling and or trading of one’s sword to the highest bidder.  Uhtred does begin to understand this as we see him grow up emotionally in episode 3.

Uhtred and Brida both begin to grow more into their adult beliefs during episode 3 and as a result, they also begin to grow apart. Uhtred is learning to find a place, a purpose or at least a comfort level with the Saxons- well some of them anyway. He finds friendship and acceptance among the warriors that Alfred sets him to training in the fighting ways of the Danes. Uhtred, in his friendship with Leofric, quickly learns that liking Alfred is not a requirement of his service because many of the fighting men feel the same way about Alfred as he does.  Brida, on the other hand is learning that she will never fit in with these Saxon women, nor does she want to. They both attempt to hold on to their relationship but it seems as though they both have some realization that they are changing in some very fundamental ways. While Uhtred learns to adapt and more fully understand what Alfred’s vision of the future means to him and to his chances of reclaiming his birthright, Brida becomes more determined and set against the Saxons.  The turning point in their paths comes with Brida’s vision seeking and the loss of their child. With that loss, it seems as though they very quickly and harshly must grow up and accept their individual paths. 

Uhtred finds a friend, Leofrich

Uhtred finds a friend, Leofrich

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Brida knows one thing, she does not want to be a Saxon woman

Brida knows one thing, she does not want to be a Saxon woman

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Ragnar the younger has arrived to help the Danes in their fight and it is at their meeting with him that we see Uhtred’s better understanding and belief in the loyalty and honor of offering one’s oath or sword. We see the difference between Uhtred’s and Brida’s beliefs come to light as Brida tells him to break his word to Alfred, it means nothing. When Uhtred explains though to Ragnar that he gave his word, his oath, Ragnar understands and accepts it. Brida will join Ragnar and return to the Danes where her vision showed her she would go without Uhtred. Uhtred will remain with the Saxons for the time being because he has learned that oaths are honor. It will be his belief throughout his life, good or bad, he will feel honor bound by oaths he will make.

ragnar and brida

While Wessex was dealing with the fallout from that battle, so were the Danes as well. We saw argument and discord among them as their two leaders began to have differences of opinion.  Ubba questioned Guthrum on his action of going into battle without him and he questioned Guthrum’s ability to lead or win battles.

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They headed towards a negotiation with Alfred that they assumed would be easy to win. They assumed Alfred to be weak, spineless and willing to turn over his Kingdom to them. Alfred stood his ground and maintained control of the negotiations. He offered peace with the Danes and explained the importance of the written word that would be a part of history. Those written words would show that Alfred acted in good faith, that Alfred offered peace. Alfred would offer gold, silver and grain but not land, and not the head of Uhtred- which Ubba wanted. Alfred then began to play his mind games with Ubba telling him, “If you wish to occupy Wessex then go ahead, do it. How many Fortresses have you taken to date?”  This infuriated Ubba and he lost control of his emotions while Guthrum for the most part remained more restrained and calm during the meeting. If you pay close attention, you will see Guthrum thinking about what Alfred is saying rather than reacting violently to the words. Alfred ends the meeting reminding them that what will be written and remembered was that Alfred offered terms, Alfred offered payments and Alfred sought peace above all else.

TLK_103_33 uhtred and alfred

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The meeting ends and the Danes leave but everyone knows full well that this but a temporary and extremely fragile peace. Brida has chosen her path with Ragnar and the Danes. Uhtred will follow his own destiny or path that is with the Saxons for now because of his oath of service to Alfred, and also now too because Alfred has saved his life… When the Danes demanded Uhtred’s head as part of the agreement, Alfred refused. He could have easily turned Uhtred over to the Danes at that point, but Uhtred is far more valuable to Alfred alive than he is as a dead trade of peace. It was after that meeting that Alfred made it clear that he never had intent or thought of trading Uhtred’s life. It was also then that he made the offer to Uhtred of one year of service to him. “One year of service, oath and loyalty to me… And, in return you shall have your own reward Uhtred of Bebbanburg”

uhtred via farfar away

Uhtred believes Alfred, puts his trust in him and his vision for the future, and gives him that oath. One year does not seem such a long time. In the beginning, Uhtred was as optimistic as the rest of Wessex that they could fight the Danes and win… In reality, a year can be a very long time and fate will change all. This is merely a lull before the storm that would be known as the Great Heathen invasion and would last for generations beyond Alfred’s reign.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BBC Last Kingdom: So far, So Excellent!

Hopefully by now, many people have already seen the first few episodes of BBC’s The Last Kingdom series. If you have not seen it yet, please go find it and watch!  I did an initial review after the first episode premiered a few weeks ago and promised to give added thoughts after more people had a chance to view it. We are now up to episode 3 here in the states so I am going to give my thoughts on it up through that episode. Please be advised and warned that I will be including spoilers in this review! There is also some comparison and reference to the book series by Bernard Cornwell.

First of all before we go any further, I want to address the continuing comparisons to Game of Thrones. This is not GOT, this is not fantasy and should not be compared as such. This show is historical fiction/drama but by no means should it be considered and some sort of fantasy genre. Nor is it all about graphic sex for ratings. This is a dirty, grim, and often harsh look at history and life during the time of Alfred’s reign and the Great Heathen armies conquest of England. I have read some reviews in which the viewers complained that it felt dated and low budget as compared to some other shows. I completely disagree in that regard. As I mentioned, what it is, is a more realistic presentation showing the conditions that many- most people lived in during that time.

Are there some historical inaccuracies, of course there are- nothing is perfect and I don’t expect 100% historical authenticity or accuracy… if I did, I would refrain from television or fiction at all and read only text books about the events- and even then, I would never get exact because even text books make mistakes. I am far more interested in the story that is being told here and that story is keeping me interested and waiting for each new episode. If you have read the books, yes there are deviations and changes so I suppose that if you are book purist, this may cause you some frustration, annoyance or irritation. I appreciate the changes that have been made to make this story work in the compacted visual version that the creators are limited to. As far as I can see, the story is still falling into place and following a similar path as the books did, just getting there in a slightly different manner.

In my previous initial review, I did go over the highlights of episode 1. I am not going to repeat that here, you can read my previous review here:

https://timeslipsblog.wordpress.com/2015/10/12/uhtred-of-bebbanburg-has-arrived/

 

For those who have read the books, the first episode followed closely along the lines of the book. It included many of the important events and highlights of the book. Please keep in mind that this initial season is only 8 episodes and is trying to compact the events of two books into these 8 episodes. I do say initial season because from what I have read, if this season is successful, there are already plans for additional seasons! Obviously there is no way they can include every event that each reader might deem important in the filming of the show. While I do wish that we could have seen more of Uhtred’s early years with Ragnar and his family, I understand completely why they chose to present it the way they did. As an introduction to Uhtred’s adult life, the initial episode worked the way it was supposed to. It gave us that introduction to him, his life and the events that would shape his future. We saw the child Uhtred, heir to Bebbenburg, watch the Danes arrive. We watched with Uhtred, the battle between the Danes and the Northumbrians that destroyed Northumbria as a Saxon Kingdom and killed Uhtred’s Father. We were provided with the details of Uhtred’s Uncle’s treachery and deception to take Bebbenburg from Uhtred. Then we also saw Uhtred’s capture by the Danes along with his remaining childhood spent living with them, becoming for the most part a Dane himself.  That first episode provided us with the conspiracies and treasons between the Danes. It included the treachery of a family against Uhtred and his Danish family that will last long into the future. Events such as the actions of young Sven against Thyra, Ragnar’s retaliation, then the later hall burning and kidnapping of Thyra by Kjartin and Sven as well as their blaming of Uhtred for the event; those events are by far the most important parts of the initial story that will continue to haunt Uhtred and shape his path throughout the future.

With episode 2, book readers will see a change in the storyline and of course some may be critical of these changes. I have to say that I am not one of those critical people. I was highly impressed with the episode and the additional history/background it provided. In episode 2, Uhtred and Brida fled Northumbria and headed for the supposedly safer kingdom of Wessex and the one person whom Uhtred thought might be able to help achieve his goal of reclaiming his birthright of Bebbenburg. Uhtred’s one goal in life right now is claiming his rightful title and his lands from his traitorous Uncle.  Uhtred is young, brash and rash in his actions and thoughts, but he does clearly understand one thing… even were the Danes not against him at the moment because of their belief that he turned on his Danish family, they would not allow him to be the clear owner and ruler of Bebbenburg. The Danes might eventually help him to gain it, but it would forever be for their own purpose. They made that quite clear with their installation of Echbert, “King of Nothing”. They might allow someone to rule or hold a title, but they would be the ones in control of that person. Uhtred pins his hopes on the leaders of Wessex being willing or able to help him.

Ecghbert the ridiculous puppet king for Danish masters

In episode 2, we see Uhtred and Brida coming into their own beliefs and ideas as young adults on their perilous adventure to what they hope is some safety. We see them enjoying life but we also see both of them beginning to question the world around them and take steps towards the beliefs that will shape all of their future life decisions. Uhtred insists that their safety lies with Wessex for the time being but Brida is not so sure. The one thing they are sure about is that they are not safe with the Danes until they can find some way of proving their innocence in the murder of Ragnar and their family. They have lost everything except the wealth of Ragnar’s hoard and Uhtred is realistic when he tells Brida that they have no other option but Wessex for the time being… whether Brida likes it or not, they can no longer be Dane- they must be Saxons.

brida we are no longer danes

brida we are no longer danes

During their journey to Wessex, Uhtred purchases what will become his lifelong companion, possibly more important to him than anything else even Bebbenburg. Uhtred’s sword, Serpent Breath is born and is hungry for blood. Uhtred quickly begins to feed his sword’s thirst for blood as he and Brida are besieged and attacked Danes and Saxons both who are hunting for him.

I've given her some beauty but she is a tool first

I’ve given her some beauty but she is a tool first

Introducing Uhtred's best friend Serpent Breath

Introducing Uhtred’s best friend Serpent Breath

 

What Uhtred discovers in Wessex is that Alfred, brother to King Athelred, already knows well of Uhtred and the events of Northumbria. As Alfred later tells Uhtred, “I have ears and eyes everywhere in every Kingdom.”  Uhtred also discovers his childhood tutor and protector, Father Beocca is in Wessex as Alfred’s close advisor and priest. Father Beocca will forever be Uhtred’s friend, advisor, and in many ways, a Father figure for Uhtred whether he wants to adimit it or not. Beocca will eventually often become Uhtred’s inner voice of conscience and reason much as he is for Alfred. We see the beginning of this long relationship between the three men as Beocca introduces Uhtred to Alfred, makes attempts to defend Uhtred and makes no bones about reprimanding Uhtred for his misguided thinking. Beocca possibly knows Uhtred better than Uhtred knows himself and he stands firm in his belief in Uhtred despite Alfred’s doubts, misgivings and rightful mistrust of this adult man who as he puts it, is no longer a child but a man- a man who is selfish “soul-less” and without principle or solid belief. In many ways, Alfred’s current initial assumptions about Uhtred are correct whether we want to admit this of our hero or not.

Aethered and Alfred in last kingdom

I have eyes and ears everywhere in every part of Engleland

I have eyes and ears everywhere in every part of Engleland

Beocca saves Uhtred's ass

Beocca saves Uhtred’s ass

Beocca vouches for Uhtred and leads him to Alfred instead of the king.

Beocca vouches for Uhtred and leads him to Alfred instead of the king.

I look at you I see a Dane Uhtred of nowhere who cares about nothing but himself

I look at you I see a Dane Uhtred of nowhere who cares about nothing but himself

Father Beocca:I know this boy I know his soul Alfreds reply: Father Beocca he has no soul

Father Beocca:I know this boy I know his soul Alfreds reply: Father Beocca he has no soul

 

Uhtred is young, stubborn and strong willed. His thoughts are basic and primary during this time. He is guided by his lust for life, his need for revenge and his desire for what he believes is his rightful title and land. Uhtred must often be reminded of the bigger picture, of the realities and common sense reasonings by Brida, Beocca and by Alfred.  We do see the beginnings of that inner character, that inner man that he will become- the one that Beocca sees.

It is our destiny to hump

finding a way to pass the time

finding a way to pass the time

Brida to Uhtred: I am thinking you have a turd for a brain

Brida to Uhtred: I am thinking you have a turd for a brain

Brida's sound advice Uhtred you need to forget about Bebbanburg

Brida’s sound advice Uhtred you need to forget about Bebbanburg

Father Beocca believes you are an advantage but I believe you are here soley for yourself

Father Beocca believes you are an advantage but I believe you are here soley for yourself

Only by saving Wessex can we have a Northumbria or even a Bebbanburg

Only by saving Wessex can we have a Northumbria or even a Bebbanburg. Alfreds explanation begins to sink in to Uhtred

I mentioned earlier that the show takes a slightly different historical path than the books beginning in episode 2. While it takes a slightly different path, it works well toward taking us to the same events and ideas of the books.

Uhtred's first sight of Roman building skills

Uhtred’s first sight of Roman building skills

One of the most interesting smaller details that people should pay close attention to is Uhtred’s initial reaction to the buildings of Alfred’s domain. It is in this short scene that we see a glimpse of what will be Uhtred’s life long fascination, appreciation and love of building- and all things of that ancient Roman past that is deteriorating around them. This is actually very important because it sets up Uhtred’s view that the world is falling into the darkness and chaos of the Dane belief in Ragnarok.  Throughout Uhtred’s life he will look at the Roman wonders and ruins around him, see the loss of that greatness and compare it to the desolation and chaos of his time. He will see it as that comparison to Ragnarok, the end of time. This deep seated belief in the Old Gods, in the coming of Ragnarok, and in fate or destiny will remain with Uhtred throughout his life even as he makes the decisions to fight for the Saxons, the Christian Nailed God.

Ragnarök  was the doom of the gods and men, and heralded the destruction of the Nine Worlds. Nothing will escape the coming destruction, whether you live in heaven and on earth. The war will be wage between the goods and the evils. The goods were the Aesir, led by Odin, ruler of the gods. The evils, were the giants and monsters, led by Loki.  Yet the strangest things about Ragnarök was that the gods already knew what was going to happen through the prophecy: who will be killed and by whom, who would survive, what happen to those in the other world and so forth. Despite, knowing their fates, the gods will still defiantly face their destiny, as brave as any hero in a saga. The Norse gods knew what was to come, and knew they could not do anything to prevent prophecy coming to pass.

 

Episode 2 introduces us to the leaders and followers of Wessex, to their personal conflicts and to their flaws. We see Athelred as a King trying to hold on to his kingdom and we see the problem he faces with a son that he deems as unqualified and unfit to inherit the rule of Wessex in this most dire time. In history, Athelred did have two sons who should have been next in line to rule but a decision was made to place his adult brother Alfred on the throne instead. It is generally assumed that the decision was made because the boys were too young to rule and as an adult already proven in battle, Alfred would be the better choice to rule in such difficult times. We are introduced to Althelred’s son who does not show much capability to rule… Athelred’s doubts about him are apparent when he makes the comment, “I can not believe he is my son… if his Mother were not dead already, I would have her killed for adultery”

a drunken Athelwold

a drunken Athelwold

I do not think he is mine if his mother were dead already I might have her killed for adultery

I do not think he is mine if his mother were dead already I might have her killed for adultery

I ask that you become a man and quickly

I ask that you become a man and quickly

 

 

We see that Alfred has doubts about his own ability to rule because of his personal failures and sins. Alfred is tempted by sins of the flesh and Father Beocca advises him that this temptation is a sign, a test from God and he must put temptation in his midst so that he can ever be reminded of it and resist it… as a result, his temptation of the flesh is made a part of his household servants and we will eventually see that Alfred does not fare well in resisting it. Alfred’s foretelling and prophetic comment regarding his brother and kingship is, “Pray God that my brother does not die soon, for what kind of King would I be, sinner that I am!” 

temptation of the flesh

We also see Aflred’s other weakness, his very real physical weakness- the ailment and illness that will follow him throughout his life.

Join us for breakfast, I dare you!

Join us for breakfast, I dare you!

it is broth not gruel you should be thanking god for it's goodness!

it is broth not gruel you should be thanking god for it’s goodness!

But, aside from his temptations and his physical weakness, we are introduced to Alfred’s mind, his thought process and his unwavering belief in an idea of One united Kingdom of England. Alfred is intelligent, well studied in strategies of war, cunning and ruthless if he needs to be in order to survive this onslaught from the Danes. Uhtred is advised again and again not to underestimate Alfred. Brida wisely tells Uhtred not to trust him and Beocca warns him against thinking he can outsmart or outthink Alfred. Uhtred is stubborn and refuses to listen to either of them…

 

What we also see in episode 2 is the Dane side of events. We are given a better feeling and understanding of Ubba and of Guthrum, the two major leaders of the Dane army at this time. The massacre of King Edmund of East Anglia was presented in a gruesome segment that tells the story of that massacre and gives some insight to the mindset and thoughts of Guthrum and of Ubba. It is also the defining moment where Uhtred and Brida realize how impossible is for them to try to prove their innocence to the Danes. Ubba is the leader of the Danes and his mind is set against them, to him they are traitors of the worst sort. 

 

Ubba's sorcerer, Storri

Ubba’s sorcerer, Storri

It is during this segment though that we see Ubba’s one weakness.. his complete and unquestioning devotion and belief in his sorcerer, Storrie. Ubba will base all of his decisions on what his sorcerer tells him. If you watch the segment closely, you will also see the beginnings of some inner questions or doubts in Guthrum’s mind. It seems that Guthrum is merely amusing himself and others with his questions to Edmund about religion and this so called true God, but could be looked at as some foretelling of a  distant future in which Guthrum did indeed accept Christianity, at least on the surface. What it does foretell is a different mindset and thinking between these two leaders- one which will become more apparent as you see their differences take shape in episode 3.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guthrum

guthrum: tell me about this god are you not afraid

guthrum: tell me about this god are you not afraid

guthrum: I've heard mention of this heaven

guthrum: I’ve heard mention of this heaven

Guthrum I would say your God has left you hanging

In history, Edmund of East Anglia was was king of East Anglia from about 855 until his death in 869.  In 869, the Great Heathen Army advanced on East Anglia and killed Edmund. He may have been slain by the Danes in battle, but by tradition he met his death at an unidentified place known as Haegelisdun, after he refused the Danes’ demand that he renounce Christ: the Danes beat him, shot him with arrows and then beheaded him, on the orders of Ivar the Boneless and his brother Ubba. According to one legend, his head was then thrown into the forest, but was found safe by searchers after following the cries of a wolf that was calling, “Hic, Hic, Hic” – “Here, Here, Here”. Commentators have noted how Edmund’s death bears resemblance to the fate suffered by St Sebastian, St Denis and St Mary of Egypt.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edmund_the_Martyr

Edmund is still alive to face his fate

Edmund is still alive to face his fate

Edmund I've changed my mind I will make no demands

Edmund I’ve changed my mind I will make no demands

Let us try let us see if this god is all powerful if he will save you

Let us try let us see if this god is all powerful if he will save you

 

Uhtred’s and Brida’s escape from Ubba and Gutrum is managed only by their taking of Ubba’s sorcerer, Storri as hostage. Ubba is so fearful of losing his sorcerer that he allows Uhtred to leave but with a last warning that, “One day I will kill you”. 

Now let us see if Our Odin will protect you from the arrows

While on the surface, Brida’s treatment of Storri the sorcerer is humorous and shows her own warrior side, it also shows her deeper future path as a seer in her own right. It gives us an insight to her own personal beliefs that are in some ways, far stronger than Uhtred’s. This side of Brida had not really been addressed until this event where she mentions that he cursed her and she was simply stopping the curse. She does not mention what the curse was so she is beginning to keep her own counsel, her own secrets from Uhtred- which will also come into importance in episode 3.

Storri has learned the hard way do not mess with brida

Storri has learned the hard way do not mess with brida

There's a branch up his ass... which is why he's naked

There’s a branch up his ass… which is why he’s naked

He cursed me it was necessary to block the curse

He cursed me it was necessary to block the curse

 

It is towards the end of episode 2 that we see how serious Alfred is about his convictions and about his mistrust or doubts of Uhtred. We also see Uhtred begin to understand the warnings of both Brida and Father Beocca. Uhtred mistakenly believes that he can easily gain Alfred’s trust by going against all of those warnings, by going behind Alfred’s back to gain his own information on the Danes. He assumes that Alfred and the others will accept him, his words and predictions and that he will be rewarded for his actions. Alfred is not swayed by this action which he very realistically points out to Uhtred could very easily be just another trap by the Danes. How do they know for certain that Uhtred is not working for the Danes and that this is a ploy to send them all to defeat and death? Alfred is determined to keep Uhtred and Brida contained until the outcome of this battle is certain. If the Saxons are being set up and will meet their demise at this battle, then so shall Uhtred meet his own end as will Brida. Alfred is nobody’s fool and Uhtred would be wise to keep this in mind should he survive!

The Pagans need to feel the power of God

The Pagans need to feel the power of God

Uhtred goes behind Alfred back to spy on the Danes and finds his own evidence

Uhtred goes behind Alfred back to spy on the Danes and finds his own evidence

Alfred doesn't trust Uhtred2 if the Saxons lose this battle so does Uhtred2

Alfred chose to teach Pagan Uhtred a lesson in humility and show him that he is not in charge or in control of dealings with Alfred. Alfred then headed into the battle with his own plan but probably the ideas and thoughts of Uhtred as well.

Alfred thinking on his own plan and possibly remembering uhtred's advice

Alfred thinking on his own plan and possibly remembering uhtred’s advice

The battle that Alfred and his brother were headed to was one at a place that Alfred referred to as Asec’s hill… this corresponds to ‘Æscesdūn’ or Ashdown which is generally thought to be an ancient name for the whole of the Berkshire Downs. It is not known exactly where the two armies met, though it was around a lone thorn tree. Thorn Down at Compton, near East Ilsley — meaning Place of Conflict — is therefore a popular contender. Modern investigation suggests a site on the Ridgeway between Aldworth and the Astons.

In late 870, King Ethelred led the army of Wessex against the Danes in their stronghold at Reading. The attack failed, and the Anglo-Saxons were forced to retreat while the Danes pursued. The Danish armies caught up with the Anglo-Saxons on the field of Ashdown, located somewhere near the border of Oxfordshire and Berkshire (the precise location is unknown). It was January 8, 871. The weather was cold and damp, and the Berkshire Downs were soaked and boggy. King Ethelred divided his army in two, positioning the halves on either side of a ridgeway. Ethelred commanded one side, Alfred the other. As the Danes approached, they also split their army.

Alfred watched as the Danes drew nearer, waiting for the order to charge. However, his brother Ethelred had decided that he must pray before the battle and refused to advance until his prayer service was complete. Seeing that the Danish movement would cost him the advantage of high ground, Alfred decided to attack without help from his brother. The Anglo-Saxons’ charged on the Danes on their side of the ridgeway. Although nothing specific is known about the fighting, it is likely that both sides employed shieldwalls from which to push and batter against each other. Eventually the Danes broke and fled across the downs.

Only later did Ethelred launch his own troops into the attack. After more heavy fighting, his side was also victorious.

The West Saxons had a slight advantage in numbers (around 800 to 1,000 men), but the Danes held the high ground. The battle, little more than a great clash of shield walls, resulted in a victory for Alfred. The battle, however, was not decisive. This was a pyrrhic victory, for a great many lives were lost on each side and the Danes were subsequently able to win several battles after receiving reinforcements. Nevertheless, the hard fighting may have made the Danes more cautious in their raids into Wessex, preferring easier targets.

Historically, Athelred would actually die sometime later after the battle of Marton.  The Battle of Marton or Meretum took place on 22 March 871 at a place recorded as Marton, perhaps in Wiltshire or Dorset, after Æthelred of Wessex, forced (along with his brother Alfred) into flight following their costly victory against an army of Danish invaders at the Battle of Ashdown, had retreated to Basing (in Hampshire), where he was again defeated by the forces of Ivar the Boneless.

It was the last of eight battles known to be fought by Æthelred against the Danes that year, and the defeated King is reported to have died on 15 April 871. Whether he died in battle, or as a result of wounds suffered in battle is unclear. The site of the battle is unknown. Suggestions include the borders of the London Borough of Merton, Merton in Oxfordshire, Marden in Wiltshire or Martin in Dorset. The more westerly locations tend to be favoured because King Ethelred was buried in Wimborne Minster in Dorset shortly afterwards.

 

There are just a few last relationships to the book that I want to bring up right now. The first is Leofic because the character is introduced in episode 2 and will play an important part in Uhtred’s life in the future.  In episode 2, we meet Leofric who, though he is introduced in a different way than the book format, still will become a friend to Uhtred. In episode 2, we see him as one of the warriors/guards of Wessex and he does not hold Uhtred in much high regard. We will see the friendship develop more in episode 3.

meeting of Leofric and Uhtred

meeting of Leofric and Uhtred

Leofric still wants a piece of Uhtred

We also meet Odda the elder and his son, Odda the younger, who both will be important to events in future episodes. Odda the elder is  a well trusted and honorable landholder in Wessex, much as in the books.

I do not think he is mine if his mother were dead already I might have her killed for adultery

I do not think he is mine if his mother were dead already I might have her killed for adultery

Odda the younger… not so much, just as in the books as well! Their interactions and relationships with Uhtred will most likely play out in a similar fashion as the books. You should pay attention to them because I believe they will both important in the storyline being mapped and planned as the show continues.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Uhtred of Bebbanburg has arrived!

Yes, Uhtred of Bebbanburg has arrived on our small screens! In case you missed it, the premiere of The Last Kingdom aired on Saturday via the BBC America channel. It will make it’s debut in the UK on Oct. 22 by way of BBC2. Because of that short delay for many viewers, I will try not to give out too many spoilers in this initial review. If you know me at all, you will understand what an extremely difficult challenge this will be for me!

Before we get into the review, we should refresh ourselves on some basic information related to the premise of the show. Everyone who follows this blog should be well aware that the show is based on the Saxon Stories by Bernard Cornwell.  I have made numerous references to the author and the books here and have the utmost praise and appreciation for his work! You can visit his official site for more information on all of the books!

http://www.bernardcornwell.net/

The Last Kingdom is a contemporary story of redemption, vengeance and self-discovery set against the birth of England.

This historical drama comes from BBC America, BBC Two and the Golden Globe and Emmy award-winning producers of Downton Abbey, Carnival Films.  The series is an adaptation of Bernard Cornwell’s best-selling series of books ‘The Warrior Chronicles/Saxon Stories’ by BAFTA nominated and RTSD award-winning writer Stephen Butchard.

For more information:  http://www.bbcamerica.com/the-last-kingdom/

And to read a review of the programme: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/10/arts/television/review-the-last-kingdom-offers-a-fight-with-swords-for-identity.html?_r=1

The creator of the show are using the books as their guideline but will use their own creative license in telling the story. What this means is that there will be changes made in order to transition the stories to a workable format for the small screen. Bernard Cornwell is fine with this idea so you should be as well. Mr. Cornwell is not involved in this production at all and was happy with this arrangement. He created the initial story and is as excited as the rest of us to see how the show goes about creating this version of it. I am mentioning this now because I know full well how some book purists will make much fuss about the slightest variations to the story. There have already been complaints about such minor details as Uhtred’s hair color… Please believe me when I assure you that once you start watching this series, you will be so engrossed in the story that you will care little about the color of Uhtred’s hair!

Another point I want to be clear on for some viewers who may be interested in the series because of their fandom of the Vikings series on History Channel. I have had comments from a few viewers that would suggest some slight misconceptions or misunderstandings regarding these two very separate shows that are dealing with the same time period. The Last Kingdom is not in any way related to, linked to or based on the Vikings series. Other than the fact that they do deal with the same time period and a few of the same historical figures, they are two completely separate individual entities. They tell two very different versions of the same basic history and any resemblance between characters is simply due to similarities in somewhat common names of the time for the most part. The Vikings Saga is more along the lines of historical fantasy while The Last Kingdom is most definitely in the category of historical fiction. I recently read a comment that sums this up perfectly… there is history and then there is Hirstory! Hirst’s version is fun and entertaining- while it does contain some level of historical reference it has veered well into the fantasy realm. You can read more about my thoughts on the differences between historical fiction and historical fantasy here:

https://timeslipsblog.wordpress.com/2015/07/28/historical-fiction-vs-historical-fantasy/

historical fiction

As I mentioned, there are a few key historical figures that show up in both shows. For the time being those characters are limited to Ubba (son of Ragnar Lodbrok) and the adult sons of Aethelwulf- Athelred and Alfred.  The Ragnar in the Last Kingdom is not connected or related in any way to Ragnar Lodbrok. Ivar the Boneless has not yet made any appearance in Last Kingdom and depending on how the events play out, he may not appear at all. The importance in Last Kingdom is set more on Ubba and another Danish leader, Guthrum. 

ubbe of Vikings Saga

Ubbe of Vikings series

ubba of Last Kingdom

Ubba of Last Kingdom

Sons in Viking series vs Sons in Last Kingdom

Athelred and Alfred of vikings seriesAethered and Alfred in last kingdom

The last and important figure to clear up any confusion on is this King… This is Ecghbert of Northumbria, the ridiculous puppet King of Nothing set in place and allowed to rule by the Danes after their battle at Eorfic/York in which they defeated the Kings of Northumbria- Aelle and Osberht. This King is not related to or connected to King Ecbert of Wessex in any way!

Ecghbert the ridiculous puppet king for Danish masters

ecbert sends aethelwult to mercia to deal with queen kwentirith

Ecgberht (died 873) was king of Northumbria in the middle of the 9th century. This period of Northumbrian history is poorly recorded, and very little is known of Ecgberht.

He first appears following the death of kings Ælla and Osberht in battle against the Vikings of the Great Heathen Army at York on 21 March 867. Symeon of Durham records:

Nearly all the Northumbrians were routed and destroyed, the two kings being slain; the survivors made peace with the pagans. After these events, the pagans appointed Egbert king under their own dominion; Egbert reigned for six years, over the Northumbrians beyond the Tyne.

Historians presume that Ecgberht ruled as the Great Army’s tax collector and that he belonged to one of the several competing royal families in Northumbria. The next report of Ecgberht is in 872: “The Northumbrians expelled their king Egbert, and their Archbishop Wulfhere“. Finally, Ecgberht’s death is reported in 873, and it is said that Ricsige succeeded him.

I wanted to address this matter of Ecbhbert now because there has been a bit of confusion for some about him from those who are not quite so familiar with the history surrounding this time period.  It is details such as these that put Last Kingdom more firmly in the historical fiction category. Many of the events in this series have some verifiable historical basis and many of the characters you will see are there because of their documented  involvement in such events.

Now, with some of that basic information covered, I can give you my thoughts on this show. My first and primary thought is this- If you have not seen it, go find it now and watch it! The first episode is available on the official website:

http://www.bbcamerica.com/the-last-kingdom/

If you have not read the books, I would also highly suggest you go find them as well! While it is not necessary to have read the books in order to enjoy and understand what is going on in the show, the books are excellent and well worth the read. It’s difficult for me to make a realistic appraisal and determination on the importance of having read the books because I have read the books so it does bias my thought on that.  I do think that the creators have done a great job so far in telling this story on it’s own merit as a stand alone piece that can be viewed and immensely enjoyed without benefit of having read the books. It immediately immerses you in the harsh and gritty reality of the time period.  Even without having read the books, I believe that I would have been just as swept up and sucked in quickly to the story of Uhtred as he lives through the battles taking place around him for survival, for power and control of lives and land.  I read an interview with the writers/creator of the show where they stated their vision, their goal in wanting to create a world that are as realistic as possible- not fake or cliché representations or stereotypical images of this past. One writer commented on his initial doubts and how all he could foresee were the unrealistic images of  medieval type feasts with goose legs being waved around. I admit too that when I read about this attempted production, I had my own doubts. I had some serious worries that this would turn out as a slaughtering of Bernard Cornwell’s series. I also had concerns that maybe my personal expectations were far too high regarding any attempt to re-create this work on screen. Even as the premier episode approached and I saw glimpse of what it would be, I still had some fearful doubts about whether they could pull this off, whether I would be cringing in disappointment at what had been done to a story that I am so devoted to.  Those doubts quickly vanished as soon as the show began!

From the very beginning you are placed so quickly and firmly in Uhtred’s world that you forget about any minor details that might have caused you moments of doubt.  As I mentioned earlier, I could care less what color Uhtred’s hair is or any number of other insignificant details. I have the highest praise for the creators of this series and their successful efforts to pull us into the story and the world of the Danes and the Saxons as they both try to shape their futures and their destinies. They have done an incredible job of immersing us in that world, presenting a picture of not just a larger scale war on the horizon but of the smaller battles and confrontations on a personal level. Are there inaccuracies as far as clothing or weapons or fighting strategies… yes of course I’m sure there are and I am sure that any number of critics will be quick to point them out. Do those small inconsistencies really make such a difference in the telling of the story- no they do not! I was so involved in the story that I did not have time to sit and debate on whether those shields were exactingly accurate or whether the Viking army would have really used such a shield wall as was portrayed. 

There has been a bit of debate already on the validity or accuracy of the initial battle scene between the Danish army and the Northumbrians. It may not necessarily have been a truly accurate depiction but it worked so well in doing what I think it was intended to represent. The Danes and their army were a force to be reckoned with. They were well trained and prepared for battle at this time while still being cautious in their strategies. The Northumbrians were not prepared for this onslaught and not ready to deal with this attack. They were already in a weakened state of chaos due to the fighting between their two Kings. The Danes were well aware of this inner strife and the thought of many is that this why they chose to invade Northumbria first.  The initial battle scene in the show did an excellent job of portraying this lack of cohesion on the part of the Northumbrians.

a less battle ready or prepared Saxon army a well trained and prepared shield wall army

We also see from the beginning that this invasion by the Danes is not just one of raiding and pillaging for wealth and then returning to their homeland. This is also a personal journey, a seeking of land to settle, of a place to call home and to put down roots in. Ragnar the elder makes that clear at the beginning- for him is not so much a battle for just for wealth, but for a place to raise his family.

why they came in the first place

The show has only 8 episodes this first season to tell the story of the first two books from Cornwell’s series of 9 books. They have done an amazing job so far of compressing the storylines and moving us quickly along on the path of Uhtred’s life from childhood to adult, from heir of Bebbanburg to Danish slave boy to loved and recognized son of the Danish warrior, Ragnar and then to a young man who has lost everything whose only hope or chance of reclaiming any of it lies with the last Kingdom, Wessex and it’s leaders- Alfred and his brother Athelred. The episodes are fast paced, riveting and full of details and clues to the future so it’s important to pay close attention to some of those scenes and discussions!

Uhtred with his medallion young Uhtred refused to listen and followed Father to war... his uncle let him go with hopes that he will fall uhtred captured by danes2 Uhtred looks on as Ragnar threatens Kjartin with fighting within the hazel branches You bought me for how much Too much uhtred the dane comes out of the water Uhtred the Dane immerges from the water uhtred as a young adult

Book readers can rest assured that while there may be changes to the storyline, the most important and relevant details are still presented although in some altered ways. Cornwell’s spirit and style is still maintained throughout those adaptions and you will feel that essence within the changes. Episode one sticks very close to the book but compresses it into the one hour time frame. There is horror, heartbreak and humor enough to balance those most painful moments. There are also so many heart touching moments within the horror and humor that you can not help but feel like you are a part of this tapestry, this story of life.

Take her to Valhalla with you

One scene that caused some confusion for a few viewers was where the priest, Father Beocca is baptizing young Uhtred and appears to be trying to drown the boy… never fear, Beocca is simply teaching Uhtred a lesson and repaying him for his earlier disrespect of reading, writing and religion! Beocca will forever be Uhtred’s faithful friend and supporter even when Uhtred would prefer him not to be… and when Beocca is so frustrated with him that he would rather not support him!

baptizing Osbert to Uhtred

One other thing that I need to mention in my profound appreciation of the series creators is the way that they have provided us with some time frames and locations, and given us a translation from the Old English spellings/pronounciations to more modern versions! My undying gratitude for now knowing how to pronounce some of those words!

Eoferwic york Loidis Leeds

 

I have already watched episode 2 but I know there are a great many people who have not been able to view it yet so for now I am going to keep my review of it limited to my overall impressions and general thoughts on it. For me personally, it was even better than the first episode if that’s possible. I do think that this episode may rile up some of the book purists though in that this episode takes a distinctly altered path from the books. It presents us with some detailed history that was included in the books but which is still extremely valuable in setting up the future storyline. It takes us on a slightly different path through the events but I do believe it will still bring us to the same place and events. There are some variations on how or why certain things come about but they work so well that I was quite happy with how it is playing out. Ubba and Guthrum will begin to take on their value and importance in the story and the history. We will see the beginnings of Uhtred’s rocky relationship with Alfred forming and we will see Alfred’s beginnings of a leadership role. We will also see the difficulties he faces within his personal life…  One thing I would highly suggest- if you should ever be invited to dine with Alfred, you should probably just politely make some excuse and decline the offering. Even Alfred has trouble managing to swallow it or tell the difference between the offerings of broth and gruel!

ailswith

And, just one last thought… Really, Alfred considering what we know of your wife, who could blame you for being tempted by some others?

temptation of the flesh

For more information on the history of Wessex and Alfred, you can read my previous article:

https://timeslipsblog.wordpress.com/2015/09/23/from-ecberts-dream-to-alfreds-reality/

I hope you’ve enjoyed this introduction to The Last Kingdom and that you will continue to join me on this epic journey with Uhtred of Bebbanburg! In upcoming posts I will try to provide some helpful historical information including some maps and some additional reference material as I come up with it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From Ecbert’s dream to Alfred’s reality

From Egbert's fantasy to ruler of Wessex

In the previous article, From Charlemagne to Egbert and Wessex, we looked at the real Ecbert and some history of Wessex. I used  representations and comparisons from Michael Hirst’s Vikings Saga. In this article, I will continue with that and in addition, I will add some comparison to the upcoming BBCA Last Kingdom series based on Bernard Cornwell’s books about that time period. I hope this will gives fans a bit more real history on how Alfred actually came to inherit the crown of Wessex.

https://timeslipsblog.wordpress.com/2015/09/14/from-charlamagne-to-egbert-and-wessex/

Viewers and fans of the Vikings Saga by Michael Hirst are waiting to see what the fate of Ecbert, Aethelwulf, and little Alfred will be in Hirst’s version of history. Hopefully there will be some answers or resolution in the upcoming season. Right now, we are left with the puzzle of how Hirst will weave facts into his ongoing story of the Vikings. He has promised us and made assurances that baby Alfred is indeed based on the Alfred the Great of history and will eventually be King of Wessex. He has also made reference to a future in which the sons of Ragnar will grow up and become those well known warriors involved in the Great Heathen conquests of the Kingdoms of Britain, fighting against Alfred.

Fans and potential viewers of the upcoming Last Kingdom are aware of history from Uhtred’s personal point of view after Alfred has succeeded to the throne of Wessex and becomes embroiled in the fight to save Wessex from the Heathen Armies of Northmen. Cornwell does an excellent job of presenting the history from Uhtred’s perspective and of providing a look at the events taking place after Alfred inherited the Crown.

The unanswered question or puzzle remains… What happened in between those times? How did Wessex go from Egbert’s dream or fantasy of conquering it all and being that all powerful Bretwalda to being a last holdout against the Danes with a sickly young King stuck in a swamp having little hope of holding on to his own Kingdom let alone uniting all of them to defeat the Northmen, the Heathens.

We covered Egbert’s actual role in the events that led to his rise and his eventual fall in the previous article. Along with that, we also covered much of Aethelwulf’s role and history as it relates to Wessex.  We do need to look a bit closer at some of Aethelwulf’s history here because it does set up the path for his younger son Alfred to come into his own as King of Wessex.

aethelwulf vikings2

We know that Aethelwulf was the only child of Egbert and on Egbert’s death in 839,  Aethelwulf inherited the throne of Wessex.  his wife Osburh was the mother of all his children. She was the daughter of Oslac, described by Asser, as a man who was descended from Jutes who had ruled the Isle of Wight.  Æthelwulf had six known children. His eldest son, Æthelstan, was old enough to have been appointed King of Kent in 839, so he must have been born by the early 820s, and he died in the early 850s.  The second son, Æthelbald, is first recorded as a charter  witness in 841, and if, like other brothers, he began to attest or witness documents  when he was around six, he would have been born around 835; he was King of Wessex from 858 to 860. Æthelwulf’s third son, Æthelberht, was probably born around 839 and was king from 860 to 865. The only daughter, Æthelswith was probably born around 840 and married Burgred, King of Mercia in 853.  The other two sons were much younger: Æthelred was born around 848 and was king from 865 to 871, Alfred was born around 849 and was king from 871 to 899. 

aethelwulf with baby Athelred

aethelwulf with baby Athelred

In the interest of condensing the timeline and history, Hirst  conveniently eliminated some of these children in his version of the history. In Hirst’s story, we see depictions of only the youngest two sons and a change in the Mother from Osburh to Judith (Judith’s background has been completely changed presumably to allow for some added connection between Wessex and Northumbria).  Whether or not Judith will bear any more children is still unknown to viewers at this time… the only way this would play any importance in Hirst’s story depends partially on how he deals with the plaguing detail or issue of Mercia. We will see how the issue of Mercia was dealt with in the real history of Aethelwulf and his children. We  also see a slightly more accurate accounting of Mercia’s fate in Bernard Cornwell’s Last Kingdom series.

ecbert showers affection on alfred and wonders about athelstan

ecbert showers affection on alfred and wonders about Athelstan

I understand Hirst’s rationale for leaving the other children out of the story in his effort to tighten up the storyline and focus more on a future that directly involves those two youngest brothers in the wars against the Vikings.  Those other children however, are important to the history of Wessex, to how the real Alfred came to his power and how he maintained relationships and allies with such Kingdoms as Mercia.

In the previous article, we established that for the most part, Aethelwulf provided a well balanced and stable reign of Wessex from 839 until his death in 858.  He had limited encounters with Viking attacks or raids and other than a few defeats, he managed to contain any real threat from them. During his reign he took measures to improve his Kingdom’s relationship and alliance with Mercia by marrying his only daughter, Aelswith to King of Mercia, Burgred in 853. He then assisted Mercia in a successful attack on Wales to restore the traditional Mercian hegemony over the Welsh. These events helped to seal the formal  allegiance between Mercia and Wessex even after Mercia began to be taken over by the Danes. This alliance would become critical in later years when Alfred would be dealing with Mercia.  Personally, I would like to see Hirst address this ongoing alliance in his story because it is so important to later events.

Aethelwulf  provided a well balanced and stable reign for his Kingdom, and he attempted to maintain stability in his family life despite some rather difficult situations.  Aethelwulf had six children by his first wife Osburh.  It is not known what actually happened to Osburh… she probably died but then again, may have been set aside so Aethelwulf could make the advantageous marriage to Judith of Flanders. Which ever the case, to say that Aethelwulf’s older sons were unhappy with their Father’s second marriage is an understatement of the event! What caused much of the dissent  was the fact that as part of the marriage agreement, Judith would be given the status of anointed Queen, and therefore any offspring she might produce would immediately take precedence in the succession of rule. Fortunately, Judith never had any children by Aethelwulf so that issue did not come up.  By the time of his second marriage in 856, his older sons were adults and were already capable of ruling in some capacity. Oldest son, Athelstan was ruling as King of Kent up until the early 850s.  He would have been the first in line for succession after Aethelwulf but unfortunately died before any of this mess started. So, one son down- four to go… the two youngest, Athelred and Alfred were children during this time and would probably not have had any expectations of ever really ruling anyway. That leaves two remaining sons to be discontented with Father’s marriage and possibly take matters into their own hands.

Athelbald was the second son, and after his brother’s death in 851, he was next in line to rule Wessex.  In 855 he became regent of Wessex while his father, Æthelwulf, visited Rome. His younger brother Æthelberht became king of Kent.  When the sons learned of Aethelwulf’s marriage to Judith, there was a plot or threat of rebellion against Aethelwulf.  Æthelwulf returned to Wessex to face a revolt by Æthelbald, who attempted to prevent his father from recovering his throne. We need to give Aethelwulf some credit here as he went out of his way to appease Athelbald and avoid a civil war by allowing Aethelbad to continue to rule Wessex itself (or the western part of Wessex) while he took Kent and the other eastern parts of the kingdom.

In Aethelwulf’s will, he made provisions for the succession of rule. The kingdom was to be divided between the two oldest surviving sons, with Æthelbald getting Wessex and Æthelberht taking Kent and the south-east. The survivor of Æthelbald, Æthelred and Alfred was to inherit their father’s bookland – his personal property as opposed to the royal lands which went with the kingship – some historians argue that this probably means that the survivor was to inherit the throne of Wessex as well.  Other historians disagree. Nelson states that the provision regarding the personal property had nothing to do with the kingship,  and Kirby comments: “Such an arrangement would have led to fratricidal strife. With three older brothers, Alfred’s chances of reaching adulthood would have been minimal.”   This would have immediately discounted any children of the three older brothers for succession and set a dangerous precedent for any offspring in future lines. I do not believe that Aethelwulf would have willingly set up such a precedent and have to agree that he most likely assumed it to mean that Athelred and Alfred would receive shares of his personal holdings.  What is interesting to note here is that in this basic history of Aethelwulf, his reign, his trip to Rome, or his will , there was no mention of any writ or provision that may have been made for Alfred’s future accession of the crown.

Æthelwulf died on 13 January 858. He was succeeded by Æthelbald in Wessex and Æthelberht in Kent and the south-east. The prestige conferred by a Frankish marriage was so great that Æthelbald then wedded his step-mother Judith, to Asser’s retrospective horror; he described the marriage as a “great disgrace”, and “against God’s prohibition and Christian dignity”.  When Æthelbald died only two years later, Æthelberht became King of Wessex as well as Kent, and Æthelwulf’s intention of dividing his kingdoms between his sons was thus set aside. In the view of Yorke and Abels this was because Æthelred and Alfred were too young to rule, and Æthelberht agreed in return that his younger brothers would inherit the whole kingdom on his death, whereas Kirby and Nelson think that Æthelberht just became the trustee for his younger brothers’ share of the bookland.

It was shortly after Aethelwulf’s death that the Danes would begin to have their impact on all of the Kingdoms including Wessex. As Aethelbald’s reign was so short and marred by the scandal of his marriage to his Father’s wife, Judith, there little is known of his reign.  Only one charter survives, witnessed by king Æthelbald, king Æthelbert and Judith, suggesting that he was on good terms with his brother.  Æthelbald died at Sherborne in Dorset on 20 December 860. Asser, who was hostile to Æthelbald both because of his revolt against his father and because of his uncanonical marriage, described him as “iniquitous and grasping”, and his reign as “two and a half lawless years. Asser was of course, biased in his opinion and would have considered anything done by Aethelbald as lawless. He died childless so the rule of Wessex went to his brother Aethelberht.

With the death of Aethelbald, the separate rule of Wessex and Kent was set aside.  Unlike his predecessors, Æthelberht did not appoint another member of his family as under-king of Kent probably because his brothers were too young to take over that role and there were no other family members. A charter issued in the first year of Æthelberht’s reign reflects an extraordinary new kind of assembly: it was the first charter of a West Saxon king to include a full complement both of West Saxon and of Kentish witnesses.  Aethelberht ruled Kent from 858 and then ruled all of Wessex from 860 until 865.  The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes Æthelberht’s reign as one of good harmony and lasting peace. Though this was true of internal affairs, the Vikings were becoming a great threat, unsuccessfully storming Winchester and ravaging eastern Kent. He died in 865 leaving no children.

If you look at the rule, the early deaths and the lack of offspring by any of the older sons, it’s probably easy to see why Hirst chose to eliminate them from his storyline as being unimportant to the overall story. While they may indeed seem insignificant or unimportant, they do show how Wessex suffered from some instability and lack of true leadership or guidance after Aethelwulf’s death. There was a quick succession of rulers who had little time to get a firm grasp on the events that were taking place around them. This all led directly to the turmoil and disarray that would suddenly leave Alfred in charge. 

A number of other things contributed to Alfred’s unique and unexpected inheritance besides his brothers’ untimely deaths.  Aethelwuth for all practical purposes had planned well for the future of Wessex but as much as he had planned, some things just did not go according to those plans. Take for instance, the marriage of his daughter to the King of Mercia… this marriage should have well sealed that alliance and put a descendant of Aethelwulf on the throne of Mercia.  Unfortunately, the marriage did not result in any children. Her marriage did probably signal the subordination of Burgred to his father-in-law and the Saxon kingdom at a time when both Wessex and Mercia were suffering Danish (Viking) raids.  Repeated Danish incursions over the years gradually weakened Mercia militarily and in 868 Burgred was forced to call upon Æthelswith’s brother King Æthelred of Wessex to assist him in confronting an entrenched Danish army at Nottingham.  In 874, the Danes would achieve some victory in Mercia when they succeeded in driving Burgred out of the country. He fled to Rome along with wife Aethelswith.  Bergred died in Rome and Aethelswith died sometime later at Pavia, Italy. If the name of Pavia sounds a bit familiar, that is because it is the same place that the earlier Queen Eadburh ended up at!  

On the surface, the failure of Ealswith to produce an heir and the abandoning of his Kingdom by husband Bergred might look like part of the bad luck and worst case scenarios for Aethelwulf’s plans. In reality though, they went along with all of the other coincidental events that became part of Alfred’s miraculous fortune or seemingly blessed fate. These events left Mercia without a stable or strong King and extremely vulnerable to later Viking attacks and conquest. They also left Mercia easily open to later being taken over and controlled by Alfred.  The situation with Mercia could have, and almost did go so wrong, yet somehow it ended up working in Alfred’s favor just as other events did.

As I mentioned, Aethelwulf planned well for the future and could hardly be blamed for the events that changed those plans. Earlier I mentioned Aethelwulf’s trip to Rome and the mysterious writ or document that would come to play such an important part in Alfred’s claim to the crown later. Much is made of this document as some proof that Aethelwulf was paving a way for Alfred’s ascent to the crown.  In reality, why would he have done such a thing? He could not have foreseen the events that would take place in his Kingdom and had already paved the way for his older sons to inherit. Since this document did play such an important part in the future, we should look at what really happened on that trip to Rome and what that writ actually was.

In 853, Aethelwulf sent not just Alfred, but his older brother Athelred as well to Rome, probably in connection and preparation for his own forthcoming visit. So, first of all this was not some special visit set up just for young Alfred’s benefit. Later historians and biographers such as Alfred’s own monk, Asser would lessen the focus on Athelred and alter the facts to the promotion of  Alfred. The reality is that both sons were sent on this early trip as emissaries of goodwill in preparation for Aethelwulf’s future trip in 855. Some historians argue that the journey suggested Alfred was intended for the Church. Others argue that the trip and a declaration by the Pope were actually intended for just the opposite purpose by Aethelwulf. By gaining the Pope’s favor and affirmation of throne worthiness for them, he was protecting both of them against the possibility of being forcibly tonsured to the Church by the older brothers. 

 The document was simply a letter from Pope Leo IV in which he responded to Aethelwulf’s goodwill gesture of presenting his sons to the Pope. Pope Leo IV most likely invested both boys with a belt of consul and referred to them as his spiritual sons thus creating a spiritual link or alliance between the two Fathers.   Alfred, and possibly Æthelred as well, were invested with the “belt of consulship”. Æthelred’s part in the journey is only known from a contemporary record in the Liber Vitae of San Salvatore. What this term consul meant at that time was that the Pope was  simply recognizing them as official Diplomats. This investiture was by no means any bestowal of anointment to Kingship.  At some later point historians such as Asser would misconstrue or misrepresent the term (probably on purpose) and the letter from the Pope to mean that Alfred was being confirmed as anointed King.   There is absolutely no evidence, reason, or justification for such an action by the Pope at that time nor any reason that Aethelwulf would ever have had such intent or plan in mind for his youngest son. No one could have foreseen any future that would call for such an action that would spell disaster for any Kingdom and certain death for those two youngest sons should the Pope take such a controversial and extreme step.

No one, not even the Pope could foresee a future for Wessex that would involve three adult sons- three Kings dying in quick succession with no heirs and a grown daughter married to a King also producing no heir! No one could foresee a Kingdom so wealthy and so stable, falling so quickly into disarray that it was left basically to the two youngest sons who were never expected or  trained to rule the Kingdom. No one could foresee a future that included all of the other Kingdoms quickly falling to Viking conquests and leaving that last Kingdom of Wessex with it’s unprepared new rulers to fend off such a similar attack and fate. No one, certainly not Aethelwulf, the Pope or even young Alfred himself  could foresee or envision a future that would require a frail and sickly last son (who would probably have preferred a quieter, more churchly life) to step forward, become the leader of his Kingdom and all of the other Kingdoms against an invading army intent on conquering all of Britain.

The trips to Rome were not special treatment or favor shown to Alfred or his brother Athelred. The trips were part of Aethelwulf’s plan to improve his own alliances with Rome and with the Frankish Empire. The youngest sons were allowed to go on these trips because they were considered expendable… the succession to the throne was already firmly set in place and if something should happen to either Aethelwulf or the boys during their trip, the throne was safe in the hands of the older brothers. Aethelwulf took the boys on his trip and there was no ulterior motive to any of it other than what may have possibly been Aethelwulf’s own plan to secure himself a second wife and a closer alliance with Francia. The boys would most likely have looked at the entire trip as a grand adventure.  Athelred was born in 848 and Alfred in 849, so at the time of these trips they were very young children of no more than 6 or 7 years old. They were not destined to be rulers so would have been allowed some greater freedom from political and reigning indoctrinations… meaning they would have probably enjoyed the trip for what it was to them, not much more than a family vacation. They went on this extended vacation with their Father and returned home to Wessex with a new Step Mother who was not all that much older than them.  That event also would not have been such an odd occurrence and the boys would have just went on with their lives as usual.   Even their Father’s death in 858 would not have had all that great of impact on these youngest boys’ lives. Aethelwulf had made solid plans and arrangements for everyone’s futures and as the boys were so young and not considered really important to the matter of succession, once again they would probably have carried on as usual with their studies and little thought toward the future.

At the time of their trips to Rome with Aethelwulf, the boys would have been close in age to these two young boys who will portray Athelred and Alfred in season 4 of the Vikings.

Athelred and Alfred Judith's sons

The two boys who will portray Athelred and Alfred in season 4 of Vikings.

Little is known about the childhood of either Athelred or Alfred other that their trip Rome and Francia with Aethelwulf. There is mention that Alfred was sickly from the time of his childhood and it is thought that he probably suffered from Crohn’s disease. There is also some mention that he spent time in Ireland seeking cures for his ailments. As such a sickly child, he probably spent much of his time doing things that did not require a great deal of physical ability- such as reading or studying with tutors and Priests.  He may not have been expected even to survive to adulthood and so less attention would have been paid to his overall training or expectations of him. He was probably left much in the care and raising of those tutors and Priests who would have assumed that should he survive to adulthood, he would naturally choose a life with the church. What other option or choice would there be for him realistically as a youngest son too frail and sickly to fight and make a name or wealth for himself on his own?  His older brother Athelred was given more recognition and attention. Athelred held the title of Aetheling at least as early as 854.  He first witnessed his father’s charters as an Ætheling in 854, and kept this title until he succeeded to the throne in 865. There is no evidence or mention of this title being attached to Alfred during his childhood, so one would have to assume that at that time, Alfred was deemed of far less importance than even his brother that was so close in age to him.

During the earliest years of the Anglo-Saxon rule in England, the word ætheling was probably used to denote any person of noble birth. Its use was soon restricted to members of a royal family. The prefix æþel- formed part of the name of several Anglo-Saxon kings, for instance Æthelberht of Kent, Æthelwulf of Wessex and Æthelred of Wessex, and was used to indicate their noble birth. According to a document which probably dates from the 10th century, the weregild of an ætheling was fixed at 15,000 thrymsas, or 11,250 shillings, which was equal to that of an archbishop and one-half of that of a king.

 

Everything began to change for Wessex and for the two youngest sons of Aethelwulf when those older brothers died in such quick succession leaving no heirs. In addition to those untimely deaths, the Danes decided to take their conquest of Northumbria further south into Mercia and were paying close attention to what was happening within Wessex. Wessex, after all was the true prize. Wessex was the wealthiest and the most stable of all the Kingdoms thanks to Egbert and to Aethelwulf.  In the early 860s, the Northmen which included Norse as well as Danes began to arrive on the isle of Britain in great numbers seemingly with the sole intent of conquering it for their own. Prior to this time, there had been Viking raids or attacks throughout the Isle in limited numbers and for the most part the Kingdoms of Britain had always been able to defend themselves and keep the attacks contained. Wessex was so successful in their prior defenses that when the Heathen Army decided to strike in full force in the 860s, they chose to avoid Wessex and begin their assaults further north instead. Some might assume or suggest that this initial assault was more of a personal revenge attack designed and orchestrated by the sons of Ragnar Lodbrok as a retaliation against Aelle of Northumbria for his killing of their Father.

What one needs to do though is look at the invading forces and the initial assaults for what they actually were and what they entailed or involved. This was not a simple onslaught or personal attack led by one particular family or country against one person or Kingdom. The Great Viking Army or Great Danish Army, known by the Anglo-Saxons as the Great Heathen Army was a coalition of Norse warriors, originating from Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, who came together under a unified command to invade the four Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that constituted England in AD 865. Since the late 8th century, the Vikings had settled for mainly “hit-and-run” raids on centres of wealth, such as monasteries. However, the intent of the Great Army was different, it was much larger than the usual raiding party and its purpose was to conquer and claim land more so than just spoils or riches. This was a well planned campaign to settle, not to seek revenge or wealth and leave.  These forces had no intent devour, destroy and depart, they were determined to conquer and remain.

During early campaigns, the Danes had made attempts to take Wessex and were always defeated, this would suggest that they chose instead to focus on the Northern areas first, build up their forces and conquests before again attempting to defeat the prize of Wessex.  The Vikings had been defeated by the West Saxon King Æthelwulf in 851, so rather than land in Wessex they decided to go further north to East Anglia.  Legend has it that the united army was led by the three sons of Ragnar Lodbrok: Halfdan Ragnarsson, Ivar the Boneless, and Ubba. Norse sagas consider the invasion by the three brothers as a response to the death of their father at the hands of Ælla of Northumbria in 865, but the historicity of this claim is uncertain.

King Aella of Northumbria

As I mentioned, this was a well planned campaign, probably years in the making and involving a great deal of intense preparation and forehand knowledge of what was going on in the Kingdoms of Britain. The Danes did not go into this war on a whim or a sudden and intense desire for personal revenge… if the possibility for such personal revenge happened to come up during such battles then so be it, that would just be an added bonus for those who were able to carry that revenge out in addition to their overall goal. Just as with any well planned, organized campaign, the Danes would have had their own spies deep within the kingdoms to keep them apprised of the situations in each area and allow them to determine which places would be most easily defeated first. They probably knew full well the weaknesses of the various kingdoms and made their initial decisions based on those weaknesses. This would have been their reasoning for starting further north and working down towards Wessex, all the while paying close attention to the critical events taking place in Wessex… namely the weakening and demise of capable rulers.  The Danes were in no hurry to grab and go this time, and as they quickly managed to conquer the other kingdoms, they could settle in and wait for Wessex to weaken because they had every assumption that these last two rulers of Wessex would be easily defeated and controlled just as the other kingdoms had been.

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If you look at a map of the Army conquest that includes a timeline, you can see that their initial focus was East Anglia and then to move on to Northumbria before attempting to gain control of Mercia and Wessex. Obviously, East Anglia was an important coastal territory for them and as we will see in a future discussion of Northumbria, that kingdom was already in serious disarray because of feuding between royal families, so would have been an easy target. If Ragnar’s sons chose to extract some type of personal revenge during that assault, well so much the better for them on a personal basis, but I do not think that Northumbria was singled out specifically for just that reason!

800px-England_Great_Army_map_svg

 

Right now, we are only focusing on the events of Wessex that led up to the frail and most unlikely candidate for King anyone might imagine, Alfred to end up as ruler of Wessex. We’ll look at the events of Northumbria, Mercia and East Anglia in separate discussions.

As I already mentioned, the third brother Aethelberht was King of Wessex from 860 to 865 when he died with no heirs. In 865, Athelred  became King. Keep in mind that with the demise of those three older brothers, Wessex was left with the two youngest sons who no one, not even they themselves had ever expected to become King. Athelred would have been about 17 at the time he took over the rule. He was young and most likely somewhat inexperienced, and at same the time he took the crown, the Heathen Army arrived. Within only a few short years, that army would take over East Anglia, Northumbria and move into Mercia. In 868, Athelred’s brother in law, Bergred of Mercia appealed to Wessex for help against the Danes. Æthelred and his brother, the future Alfred the Great, led a West Saxon army to Nottingham, but there was no decisive battle, and Burgred bought off the Vikings. In 874 the Vikings defeated Burgred and drove him into exile.

Despite Athelred’s youth, he did manage to accomplish something his older siblings failed at… he produced heirs! A charter of 868 refers to Wulfthryth regina and there were two known sons,  Æthelhelm and Æthelwold.  Æthelwold disputed the throne with Edward the Elder after Alfred’s death in 899. The accepted assumption on them not succeeding to the rule is that they were too young so the crown passed to Alfred instead.

From 868 on, Wessex was deeply involved in the war against the Heathen Armies, assisting in the fight to keep Ivar the Boneless out of neighboring Mercia. By 870, the Vikings turned their attention to Wessex, and on 4 January 871 at the Battle of Reading, Æthelred suffered a heavy defeat.  Although he was able to re-form his army in time to win a victory at the Battle of Ashdown, he suffered further defeats on 22 January at Basing, and 22 March at Meretun.

Surprisingly, despite the youth and inexperience of both Athelred and his younger brother Alfred, they were capable fighters and defenders. Alfred joined his older brother in the battles, fighting along side him and was credited with the success of their battle at Battle of Ashdown on the Berkshire Downs, possibly near Compton or Aldworth. Even though they seemed to be fighting a losing war, the two young brothers proved themselves to be worthy opponents.  They were not about to just give up and run like their brother in law Bergred would do.

alfred is crowned and england is born

alfred is crowned and england is born

 

In April 871, King Æthelred died, and Alfred succeeded to the throne of Wessex and the burden of its defence, despite the fact that Æthelred left two under-age sons, Æthelhelm and Æthelwold. This was in accordance with the agreement that Æthelred and Alfred had made earlier that year in an assembly at Swinbeorg. The brothers had agreed that whichever of them outlived the other would inherit the personal property that King Æthelwulf had left jointly to his sons in his will.  The deceased’s sons would receive only whatever property and riches their father had settled upon them and whatever additional lands their uncle had acquired. The unstated premise was that the surviving brother would be king. Given the ongoing Danish invasion and the youth of his nephews, Alfred’s succession probably went uncontested.

Last kingdom full trailer

While he was busy with the burial ceremonies for his brother, the Danes defeated the Saxon army in his absence at an unnamed spot, and then again in his presence at Wilton in May. The defeat at Wilton smashed any remaining hope that Alfred could drive the invaders from his kingdom. He was forced instead to make peace with them, according to sources that do not tell what the terms of the peace were. Bishop Asser claimed that the ‘pagans’ agreed to vacate the realm and made good their promise.   the Viking army did withdraw from Reading in the autumn of 871 to take up winter quarters in Mercian London. Although not mentioned by Asser or by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Alfred probably also paid the Vikings cash to leave, much as the Mercians were to do in the following year.  Hoards dating to the Viking occupation of London in 871/2 have been excavated at Croydon, Gravesend, and Waterloo Bridge. These finds hint at the cost involved in making peace with the Vikings. For the next five years, the Danes occupied other parts of England as well.

updated pics3

Because this discussion is meant only to give us some insight into how Alfred came to rule, I am not going to go into how he proceeded with his reign and his long battle to defeat the Heathen Army despite insurmountable odds. We’ll save that for a future discussion.  The only additional and important matter to remember right now is his alliance, however shaky at the time, with Mercia. In 868, when his brother in law Bergred asked Wessex for help against the Heathen Army, Alfred married a member of the Mercian Royal family. This move would back up the alliance already  put in place with his sister’s marriage to Bergred. While his sister’s marriage produced no offspring which would further firm the alliance and put a Wessex descendant on the throne of Mercia, Alfred’s marriage would prove fruitful and enable him to gain sufficient control of Mercia. When Alfred took over his rule and managed to regain enough power to take back Mercia, he took control of Mercia by marrying his daughter Aethelflaid to an Ealdorman of Mercia who was one of his supporters in the English part of Mercia.

Alfred’s battles against the Danes would continue for most of his life. He died in 899 and the Danes did not give up on the thought to conquer Wessex completely until around 896. At the end of this year and early in 895 (or 896), the Danes drew their ships up the River Thames and River Lea and fortified themselves twenty miles (32 km) north of London. A direct attack on the Danish lines failed but, later in the year, Alfred saw a means of obstructing the river so as to prevent the egress of the Danish ships. The Danes realised that they were outmanoeuvred. They struck off north-westwards and wintered at Cwatbridge near Bridgnorth. The next year, 896 (or 897), they gave up the struggle. Some retired to Northumbria, some to East Anglia. Those who had no connections in England withdrew back to the continent.

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Alfred, against all odds managed to basically be the last man or heir standing in line for the rule of Wessex. Fortunately for Wessex and the rest of England, he was by no means as weak or frail as everyone supposed him to be. He was a highly intelligent, well educated man who was keenly adept at the strategies of warfare. While he was devoutly religious, he was open minded and not so rigidly set in past “acceptable” doctrines or rules. This mindset enabled him to often think outside the box and do what ever he deemed necessary to find solutions to the situation with the Heathen Armies. From 879 on, Alfred carried out a dramatic reorganisation of the government and defences of Wessex, building warships, organising the army into two shifts which served alternately and establishing a system of fortified burhs across the kingdom. This system is recorded in a 10th-century document known as the Burghal Hidage, which details the location and garrisoning requirements of thirty-three forts, whose positioning ensured that no one in Wessex was more than a long day’s ride from a place of safety. In the 890s these reforms helped him to repulse the invasion of another huge Danish army – which was aided by the Danes settled in England – with minimal losses.

Alfred also reformed the administration of justice, issued a new law code and championed a revival of scholarship and education. He gathered scholars from around England and elsewhere in Europe to his court, and with their help translated a range of Latin texts into English, doing much of the work in person, and orchestrated the composition of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. As a result of these literary efforts and the political dominance of Wessex, the West Saxon dialect of this period became the standard written form of Old English for the rest of the Anglo-Saxon period and beyond.

The Danish conquests had destroyed the kingdoms of Northumbria and East Anglia and divided Mercia in half, with the Danes settling in the north-east while the south-west was left to the English king Ceolwulf, allegedly a Danish puppet. When Ceolwulf’s rule came to an end he was succeeded as ruler of “English Mercia” not by another king but by a mere ealdorman named Aethelred, who acknowledged Alfred’s overlordship and married his daughter Aethelfaid. The process by which this transformation of the status of Mercia took place is unknown, but it left Alfred as the only remaining English king.

 

To see more of Alfred’s battle for Wessex, you should plan to watch BBCA’s upcoming series, The Last Kingdom based on those novels of the Viking era by Bernard Cornwell! I would also suggest that you read the books! You knew I would get this plug in eventually- It starts on October 10 and I will be here with my thoughts on all of it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From Charlemagne to Egbert and Wessex

The beginnings of Egbert's power plots

The beginnings of Egbert’s power plots

Since we’ve recently spent a great deal of time discussing Charlamagne, Roland along with matters of Saxons and Danes, I find this a perfect time to bring us back to Egbert and Wessex.  There is a definite connection or relationship between the real Egbert and Charlamagne that we will see as we learn more about Egbert… the real Egbert as opposed to the more fictional creation of Michael Hirst.  I give Hirst credit though, as he has captured much of what may have been part of Egbert’s character or personality.  Although Hirst has played much with the timeline and numerous other events, I believe that he and Linus Roache have done an excellent job of portraying this King with a rather dubious or sketchy past and a highly questionable set of ethics or morals.  To aid and illustrate some points of this discussion, I have taken the creative liberty and license of using some of the Vikings Saga characters as representatives of the actual history!

ecbert's response Indeed Thank God

This discussion will pertain to the real history of Egbert, his connections to Charlamagne and some history of Wessex.  Where ever possible I will attempt to relate it to Hirst’s version but that will be a bit difficult as very little of Egbert’s true history matches Hirst’s portrayal of him other than his possible personality flaws and the fact that he does have a son named Aethelwulf!  My intent with this article is twofold. First, it will give you a clearer picture of the real history surrounding this King that we all love to hate. Second, the factual information concerning Wessex may  be helpful  as many of us prepare for the premiere of Bernard Cornwell’s Last Kingdom series which will begin next month!  If the series stays somewhat close to the books, we should get a slightly more factual accounting of the events taking place in the four kingdoms during the Viking era.  Keeping that in mind, I am trying to transition us a bit from the historical fantasy of Hirst’s Vikings Saga to the more realistic historical fiction of Cornwell’s version.

For those of you anxiously waiting on the premiere of Last Kingdom series, here is the most recent preview!

Some time ago, I began a series of articles about Kingship- a look at some of our Characters and the historical facts related to their Kingship. You can read the previous articles here:

I am King

https://timeslipsblog.wordpress.com/2015/05/15/i-am-king-really-why-and-how/

horik and ragnar2

https://timeslipsblog.wordpress.com/2015/05/27/horik-and-ragnar-part-of-the-oldest-monarchy-in-europe/

In those previous articles we looked at some of the Danish history and rights to rule. This article is part of that series in that it will answer Egbert’s supposed right to rule in Wessex… I say supposed because there is some debate among various historians about his actual right to that Kingship.

ecbert gets carried away with his description of kwentirith's fate if she does not comply ecbert listens he can do nothing to stop this unless she admits in public who is the father

 

The most important thing to remember about Egbert’s true history compared to our Vikings Saga is the timeline factor. Egbert in reality had little or no documented involvement with those Northmen raiding or Viking in other areas such as Northumbria. Egbert had more than enough to contend with in keeping his own Kingdom under his control and he was far more focused on his goal of conquering all of the other Kingdoms. He would not have been concerned about the occasional expected Viking raids during his lifetime. That matter of Lindisfarne… that was a matter for Northumbria to deal with and besides, he was not even in the country at the time so why should it concern him!  Hirst has set his version of the events to encompass anywhere from the earliest raid in 793 to raids in the 900s. During Egbert’s lifetime the raids on the British Kingdoms were mainly limited to the more northern areas and would not really have affected Egbert and his southern concerns that much.  England had suffered Viking raids in the late eighth century, but there were no attacks between 794 and 835, when the Isle of Sheppey in Kent was ravaged.  

Egbert of Wessex was born some time in the 770s , was King of Wessex from 802 until his death in 839. His father was Ealhmund of Kent. In the 780s Egbert was forced into exile by Offa of Mercia and Beorhtric of Wessex, but on Beorhtric’s death in 802 Egbert returned and took the throne. In reality, Egbert would not have had any connection to Ragnar or for that matter Aelle of Northumbria- they both appeared on the scene after his death. During Egbert’s lifetime, the Kingdom of Northumbria was ruled by a King named Eanred who ruled for over 30 years. Given the instability and turbulence of Northumbria or any of the Kingdoms at the time, this would have been a significant accomplishment! There are records of Egbert’s involvement with Northumbria.  in 829 Egbert of Wessex “led an army against the Northumbrians as far as Dore, where they met him, and offered terms of obedience and subjection, on the acceptance of which they returned home” thereby  temporarily, extending Egbert’s hegemony to the entirety of Anglo-Saxon Britain.  Within a generation of Eanred’s death, Anglian monarchy in Northumbria had collapsed and would be under the control of the Danes.  Eanred and Egbert both had close connections with Charlemagne and thus would most likely have maintained some sort of peace or alliances with each other at least until after Charlemagne’s death in 814. For example, Egbert’s march against Northumbria did not take place until many years after Charlemagne’s death.

Stone_of_Ecgbert_-_Dore_19-07-05

 

Very little is actually known about Egbert’s early life. The first 20 or so years remain somewhat shrouded in mystery possibly due to the fact that he was sent into exile at a fairly young age. There is also some discrepancy over how long he spent in exile. Some put the amount of time at 3 years while others propose that may have actually 13 years. My personal thought is that it was probably somewhere in between. He is assumed to have been exiled in about 789 and little was mentioned of him until his return around the year of 802 when he finally managed to gain the crown of Wessex. The place of his exile is extremely important and we will get to that shortly.

Before we get to his exile, we should look at what little we do know about his early life and his possible qualifications for said crown of Wessex as well as a possible reason for his feelings of resentment against  Mercia.  I did mention that his supposed qualifications for the crown seem to be a bit vague or sketchy and historians debate whether he had actual claim or if some of his lineage was padded, even completely fabricated to give him legitimate right to the crown. He did not hold a direct line inheritance because there was at one point some break in the line and he was a descendant of a brother to a previous King,  Ine of Wessex, who abdicated the throne in 726. Some debate that he was actually of Kentish descent while others insist that he truly was of West Saxon Royal blood going back to the originator of the Kingdom, Cerdic. That link to Cerdic was vital to his claim because it was a requirement set by the Papal authorities centuries before when they gave their stamp of approval to Kingship and divine right in those early Kingdoms being set up by the newly Christianized Saxons.

cerdic is not happy

In 784, Egbert’s Father appeared in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as a King of Kent.  According to a note in the margin, “this king Ealhmund was Egbert’s father [i.e. Egbert of Wessex], Egbert was Æthelwulf’s father.” This is supported by the genealogical preface from the A text of the Chronicle, which gives Egbert’s father’s name as Ealhmund without further details. The preface probably dates from the late ninth century; the marginal note is on the F manuscript of the Chronicle, which is a Kentish version dating from about 1100. This would suggest or attest to Egbert’s Kentish ties rather than any to Wessex.  It was not until the crown of Wessex came into dispute and up for grabs that Egbert conveniently had those earlier ties to Wessex.

To better understand what was going on during Egbert’s early years before he would have been capable of making any bid or move for himself, we need to look at the most important other power players of the time… Offa of Mercia and Cynewulf of Wessex.   Offa of Mercia, who reigned from 757 to 796, was the dominant force in Anglo-Saxon England in the second half of the eighth century. The relationship between Offa and Cynewulf, who was king of Wessex from 757 to 786, is not well documented, but it seems likely that Cynewulf maintained some independence from Mercian overlordship.  Cynewulf appears as “King of the West Saxons” on a charter of Offa’s in 772;  and he was defeated by Offa in battle in 779 at Bensington, but there is nothing else to suggest Cynewulf was not his own master, and he is not known to have acknowledged Offa as overlord.  Offa did have influence in the southeast of the country: a charter of 764 shows him in the company of Heahberht of Kent, suggesting that Offa’s influence helped place Heahberht on the throne. The extent of Offa’s control of Kent between 765 and 776 is a matter of debate amongst historians, but from 776 until about 784 it appears that the Kentish kings had substantial independence from Mercia.

Egbert’s Father, Ealhmund became King of Kent in 784 but seems to have suffered one of those all too common “convenient”  accidents  or illness causing his demise or disappearance shortly afterward. This would have left the rule of Kent vulnerable as Egbert was most likely a child at the time.  There is evidence that Offa then conveniently stepped in to dominate Kent during the 780s with the goal apparently going beyond overlordship to outright annexation of the kingdom. He has been described as “the rival, not the overlord, of the Kentish kings”. It is possible that the young Egbert fled to Wessex in 785 or so; it is suggestive that the Chronicle mentions in a later entry that Beorhtric, Cynewulf’s successor, helped Offa to exile Egbert.

Cynewulf was murdered in 786. His succession was contested by Egbert, but he was defeated by Beorhtric, most likely with Offa’s assistance. Egbert was probably exiled in 789, when Beorhtric, his rival, very conveniently  married the daughter of Offa of Mercia. In reading about Offa’s daughter, Eadburh, those who are familiar with Kwentirith of Hirst’s saga may see some similarities between Eadburh and our lovely Kweni…

Am I corrupt Why yes I am kwentirith

Am I corrupt Why yes I am… kwentirith

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eadburh

For a more in depth look at Eadburh and Kweni, you can also read my previous article here:

https://timeslipsblog.wordpress.com/2015/01/05/vikings-trivia-who-is-princess-kwenthrith/

 Offa essentially managed to take control of both Kent and Wessex with Egbert’s exile and his daughter’s marriage to Beorhtric.  From 789 until after his death, he and his successor, Cenwulf maintained control of the three Kingdoms- Mercia, Kent and Wessex.  During most of that time, we would have to assume that Egbert remained in exile in a very important place developing very important allies to assist in his claim to hopefully eventually regain control of Wessex.

In 789, Egbert was exiled and went to Francia which of course was ruled by the all powerful Charlemagne. Charlemagne maintained Frankish influence in Northumbria and is known to have supported Offa’s enemies in the south. Another exile in Gaul at this time was Odberht, a priest, who is almost certainly the same person as Eadberht, who later became king of Kent. According to a later chronicler, William of Malmesbury, Egbert learned the arts of government during his time in Gaul. My reason for believing that Egbert was there for closer to 13 years than just 3 is that the time frame fits with the 13 years. He left in 789 and did not make a reappearance until 802. Also, it would have taken him longer than just 3 years to learn as much as he did and for Charlemagne to have such influence on him and his future actions. One other piece that adds to this theory is the thought by some historians that his wife was a woman named Redburga and she was a relative of Charlemagne’s. Virtually nothing is known about her other than this name so we can only assume that possibly she died in childbirth in Francia.  If this were the case, her being a relative of Charlemagne’s it would make sense or explain better the connection and alliance between Charlemagne and Egbert- especially if you take into account that Egbert’s only child was presumably Redburga’s and would inherit any crown that Egbert managed to claim. Charlemagne would surely have seen this as a benefit to his own empire and would have been even more induced to help Egbert claim a crown.   My last reasoning for the 13 year period is that for much of that time of the late 80s to 90s Charlemagne would not have been at his court to develop any sort of connection with the young exiled Egburt, or the other exiled Priest Eadberht who he would later back as successor to the crown of Kent. The time period of just three years is just too short for all of these things to have happened and for Egbert to return to Wessex with the backing of Charlemagne.

 

During Egbert’s time in exile, Offa died in 796 and passed the rule  of Mercia on to Cenwulf. Cenwulf was King of Mercia from December 796 until his death in 821. He was a descendant of a brother of King Penda, who had ruled Mercia in the middle of the 7th century. He succeeded Ecgfrith, the son of Offa; Ecgfrith only reigned for five months, and Cenwulf ascended to the throne in the same year that Offa died.  Immediately after his succession, Cenwulth had to deal with  rebellion from Kent. In 796 when Offa died, Eadberht III Praen, the exiled priest returned to claim his rule of Kent. During the years of 785 to his death, Offa completely ruled Kent.  The confusing point here for me is why Egbert did not claim Kent? It was his Father that was King of Kent when he died in 784 so really by all rights, Egbert should have been next in line for Kent not Wessex.  What ever the reason or case, it was Eadberht who took Kent in 796 with the support and protection of Charlemagne. Charlemagne supported Northumbria and thus opposed any actions of Offa and the southern Kingdoms. It is thought that he saw Eadberht’s rule of Kent as being good for Frankish interests.  There was a serious difference of opinion or agreement though between Charlemagne and Pope Leo on this matter. Pope Leo sided with Offa, accepted a Mercian reconquest of Kent and excommunicated Eadbert, on the grounds that he was a former priest. Cenwulf  captured Eadberht in 798. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Cœnwulf “ravaged over Kent and captured Eadberht Præn, their king, and led him bound into Mercia.” A later addition to the Chronicle says that Eadberht was blinded and had his hands cut off,  but Roger of Wendover states that he was set free by Coenwulf at some point as an act of clemency.  Eadberht Praen’s death marked the end of Kentish independence or separate rule. The question still remains for me as to why Charlemagne backed Eadberht in the first place to rule Kent rather than Egbert… unless the plan all along was to put Eadberht on the throne of Kent and Egbert on the throne of Wessex when an opportunity arose. The process of proving one’s legitimate rights and lineage to the Papal authorities would have been lengthy and involved. It was not a process that could have been accomplished quickly- nothing involving the Papal authorities was quick, easy or cheap.  Gaining this stamp or seal of approval from the Pope for Egbert’s right to rule Wessex could very well have been a slow one that started far earlier than 802 when Beorhtric died. In order for Egbert to step in so quickly after his death and assert his rights would suggest that the process had already been going on for some matter of time and Egbert was merely waiting for the right time to make his claim.

 

In 802, Beorhtric of Wessex died. Beorhtric’s dependency on Mercia had  continued into the reign of Cenwulf. At Beorhtric’s death, Egbert returned and took the crown of Wessex. Egbert came to his rule probably with the support and backing of both Charlemagne and the Pope because there was never any dissent or argument from them over his rule. I’ve already mentioned Charlemagne’s support and interest in Northumbria. It could be feasibly assumed that Charlemagne was looking at ways to gain a power base and dominating interest in those southern Kingdoms as well to upset Offa’s control of those areas. He first backed the priest, Eadberht in the take over of Kent. When that take over turned out to be a disaster, Charlemagne would probably have put more thought and planning into any next move. He did still have one exile left with a somewhat weak claim to Kingdoms in Britain. He could feasibly support Egbert in some attempt to regain that small Kingdom of Kent, but Beorhtric’s death brought a much bigger treasure or Kingdom into the picture. If Egbert’s lineage or link to that Royal line of Wessex could be strengthened and approved by the Papal officials, Charlemagne would end up with a strong, formidable ally in Wessex which would benefit both the Church and the Frankish Empire.  Egbert would have easily seen the advantages and benefits of Wessex over Kent and readily agreed with any plan presented to him that might assure him the Crown of Wessex.  Perhaps he was thinking from the very beginning that Wessex would prove a much better deal than the smaller Kingdom of Kent if he could manage to pull it off. All one has to do is look at the map of kingdoms in 800 to see it’s obvious which Kingdom Egbert would take the chance to fight for, given chance or opportunity! The key to any success in a venture such as this would have been proving and promoting his legitimate lineage and claims to the Papal authorities so he would have their stamp of approval on such an acquisition.

anglo-saxon_kingdoms

Anglo-Saxon kingdoms circa 800

 It was most likely during this time that Egbert’s supposed lineage back to the first King of Wessex was brought up, promoted and presented to the Papal authorities as his proof that he had a legitimate claim to the Kingship of Wessex. This was crucial because the Kingship of Wessex was based on that lineage. In the earlier centuries when Saxons were settling and building Kingdoms in Britain, even they understood the benefits of having some Christian backing or approval to seal their claims and thereby avoid more wars.

just a representation of the early Saxon ruler Cerdic and his son Cynric... courtesy of King Arthur movie!

just a representation of the early Saxon ruler Cerdic and his son Cynric… courtesy of King Arthur movie!

This is where we need to look at the history of Wessex and it’s Saxon origins to better understand or comprehend the importance of Egbert’s claim that his lineage could be traced back that far. Wessex was originally founded by the Saxon Cerdic and his son Cynric. Cerdic and Cynric took rule over the area known as Wessex in 519. At that time, they were of course Pagans and not necessarily all that concerned with the Christian approval. The Christian Church however quickly proved it’s strength, power and dominance in Britain and many rulers would eventually be converted to Christianity or profess that they were in order to avoid more conflicts and to reap the obvious benefits of being connected to and protected by the Church. The church, in effort to convert and gain influence or control in Pagan Kingdoms would eventually come up with a way to Christianize or legitimize those Pagan rulers claims of  right or reason to rule by some divine right God given right. In Wessex, this  process of legitimizing  the Royal line probably came with the conversion and baptism of a King Cynegils in about 630. Cynegils was a descendent of Cerdic and Cerdic’s line was then  eventuall given legitimacy and approval by a move that would cause disagreements within the church from then on. As part of their conversion process in Britain and later some areas of Scandinavia, the Church set up the process of accepting a supposed lineage back to Wodin or Odin as a form of that Divine right to rule. In Cerdic’s case the supposed lineage was given even more approval by creating a lineage that went so far back as Biblical Patriarchs. This lineage of his is also connected to one found in the history of Kings of Northumbria so it seems that it was a useful tool in creating a Divine lineage for many of those once Pagan Angle and Saxon Kings in Britain. That presumed and supposed lineage might also have set up the ongoing relationship or dynamics between Wessex and Northumbria.   Cynegils’ successor (and probably his son), Cenwealh, who came to the throne in about 642, was a pagan at his accession. However, he too was baptised only a few years later and Wessex became firmly established as a Christian kingdom. Cynegils’s godfather was King Oswald of Northumbria and his conversion may have been connected with an alliance against King Penda of Mercia, who had previously attacked Wessex.  Northumbria and Wessex seemed to have an ongoing close working relationship.

In those early years of Wessex, the successors followed the lineage of Cerdic but at some point there were breaks in the line. That lineage however, was used over the centuries of rule as a general precedent in determining rulers for Wessex. One of those successor was Ine of Wessex, whom Egbert would later claim his lineage link to. Early sources agree that Ine was the son of Cenred, and that Cenred was the son of Ceolwald; further back there is less agreement.  Ine’s siblings included a brother, Ingild, and two sisters, Cuthburh and Cwenburg. Cuthburh was married to King Aldfrith of Northumbria,  and Ine himself was married to Æthelburg.  Bede tells that Ine was “of the blood royal”, by which he means the royal line of the Gewisse, the early West Saxon tribal name. Gewisse was the name of the early tribe that Cynegils descendent of Cynric and Cerdic ruled.  Ine ruled Wessex for almost 40 years and laid a foundation for the future success of Wessex.  Ine was the most durable of the West Saxon kings, reigning for 38 years. He issued the oldest surviving English code of laws apart from those of the kingdom of Kent, and established a second West Saxon bishopric at Sherborne, covering the territories west of Selwood Forest. Near the end of his life he followed in Caedwalla’s footsteps by abdicating and making a pilgrimage to Rome. The throne then passed to a series of other kings who claimed descent from Cerdic but whose supposed genealogies and relationship to one another are unknown.

During the 8th century Wessex was overshadowed by Mercia, whose power was then at its height, and the West Saxon kings may at times have acknowledged Mercian overlordship. They were, however, able to avoid the more substantial control which Mercia exerted over smaller kingdoms. During this period Wessex continued its gradual advance to the west, overwhelming the British kingdom of Dumnonia. At this time Wessex took de facto control over much of Devon, although Britons retained a degree of independence in Devon until at least the tenth century.   As a result of the Mercian conquest of the northern portion of its early territories in Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire, the Thames and the Avon now probably formed the northern boundary of Wessex, while its heartland lay in Hampshire, Wiltshire, Berkshire, Dorset and Somerset. The system of shires which was later to form the basis of local administration throughout England (and eventually, Ireland, Wales and Scotland as well) originated in Wessex, and had been established by the mid-eighth century.

The biggest blow of course for Wessex was when Cynewulf of Wessex was murdered in 786 allowing Offa to step in and take control of the Kingdom. The interesting thing about Cynewulf is that he may have come to his reign in the first place under the influence or support of  Mercia.  Cynewulf became king after his predecessor, Sigeberht, was deposed. He may have come to power under the influence of Æthelbald of Mercia, since he was recorded as a witness to a charter of Æthelbald shortly thereafter. It was not long before Æthelbald was assassinated, however, and Mercia fell into a brief period of disorder as rival claimants to its throne fought. Cynewulf took the opportunity to assert the independence of Wessex: about 758, he took Berkshire from the Mercians. Cynewulf was also often at war with the Welsh.

Sigeberht succeeded his distant relative Cuthred, but was then accused of acting unjustly. He was removed from power by a council of nobles, but given control of             Hampshire. There, he was accused of murder, driven out and ultimately killed. It is possible that this happened under the influence of Æthelbald of Mercia. His brother Cyneheard was also driven out, but returned in 786 to kill Sigeberht’s successor Cynewulf.

The Story of Cynewulf and Cyneheard in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

Entry for the year 755 AD in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

A.D. 755. This year Cynewulf, with the consent of the West-Saxon council, deprived Sebright, his relative, for unrighteous deeds, of his kingdom, except Hampshire; which he retained, until he slew the alderman who remained the longest with him. Then Cynewulf drove him to the forest of Andred, where he remained, until a swain stabbed him at Privett river, and revenged the alderman, Cumbra. The same Cynewulf fought many hard battles with the Britons; and, about one and thirty winters after he had the kingdom, he was desirous of expelling a prince called Cyneard, he who was the brother of Sebright. But he having understood that the king was gone, thinly attended, on a visit to a lady at Merton, rode after him, and beset him therein; surrounding the stronghold without, ere the attendants of the king were aware of him. When the king found this, he went out of doors, and defended himself with courage; till, having looked on the etheling (prince), he rushed out upon him, and wounded him severely. Then were they all fighting against the king, until they had slain him. The king’s warriors were alerted by the woman’s cries to the tumult and, whosoever became ready fastest, ran to where the king lay slain. The etheling (prince) immediately offered them life and riches; which none of them would accept, but continued fighting together against him, till they all lay dead, except one British hostage, and he was severely wounded. When the king’s thanes that were behind heard in the morning that the king was slain, they rode to the spot, Osric his alderman, and Wiverth his thane, and the men that he had left behind previously; and they met the etheling at the town, where the king lay slain. The gates, however, were locked against them, which they attempted to force; but he promised them their own choice of money and land, if they would grant him the kingdom; reminding them, that their relatives were already with him, who would never desert him. To which they answered, that no relative could be dearer to them than their lord, and that they would never follow his murderer. Then they offered that their relatives may have safe passage. They replied, that the same request was made to their comrades that were formerly with the king; “And we are as regardless of the result,” they rejoined, “as our comrades who with the king were slain.” Then they continued fighting at the gates, till they penetrated it, and slew the etheling and all the men that were with him; except one, who was the godson of the alderman, and whose life was spared, though he was often wounded. This same Cynewulf reigned one and thirty winters. His body lies at Winchester, and that of the etheling at Axminster. Their proper paternal ancestry goes in a direct line to Cerdic.

In 779, Cynewulf was defeated by Offa of Mercia at the Battle of Bensington, and Offa then retook Berkshire, and perhaps also London. Despite this defeat, there is no evidence to suggest Cynewulf subsequently became subject to Offa (as his successor, Beorhtric, did).

In 786 Cynewulf was surprised and killed, with all his Thegns present, at Merantune (now called Marten, a hamlet in the county of Wiltshire), by Cyneheard the Atheling, brother of the deposed Sigeberht. Some historians have speculated that the relation of this in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle may be an application of a traditional story and not accurate in its details.  The murder of Cynewulf was also considered to have taken place at Merton in Surrey, but modern historians, including the Rev G. H. Godwin now ascribe it to some place of the same name near Winchester.

So, Mercia most probably had a hand in putting Cynewulf on the throne of Wessex,  then possibly when Offa took over the rule of Mercia he decided that Cynewulf may not be so much of a puppet ruler as previously thought. It’s highly probable that Offa had a hand in the later murder of Cynewulf which enabled him to place a more easily controlled Beorhtric on the throne of Wessex.  From all accounts, Beorhtric seems to have been an obedient and loyal “Puppet” King of Wessex. Beorhtric died in 802 from unknown cause. The only details of his death were written much later by Asser the Scholar/Monk advisor to Egbert’s grandson, Alfred the Great. Asser recorded the story that Beorhtric had died from being accidentally poisoned by his wife, Eadburh. She fled to a nunnery in Francia, from which she was later ejected after being found with a man. The provenance of this story is dubious. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that Beorhtric was buried at Wareham in 802, possibly at the church of Lady St. Mary. Asser’s story is of questionable accuracy since his chief motive was to slant or bias all history in favor of Alfred and his family.

Just a hint here Kwentirith when everyone throws empty cups at you you may have a few friend problems!

A comparison of Kweni’s poisoning her brother to that of Eadburh’s poisoning of her husband… it always leaves a lasting impression on one’s subjects!

The story does pose an interesting line of thought or theory however.  Please keep in mind that the following thoughts are  my own personal view and speculation on the situation and the events. Little is actually known about Beorhtric, his wife Eadburh or the events surrounding his death. We do know that Eadburh was the daughter of  King Offa and she married Beorhtric in 789 around the same time that Egbert was sent or fled on his own to exile in Francia. Two possibly authentic charters of 801 show Eadburh as regina (queen), a title which was rarely used for king’s wives in Wessex in the ninth century. So, Eadburh was given the high status of being a recognized and anointed Queen of Wessex- probably thanks to much behind the scenes scheming by Offa. As a recognized Queen, she would have held a great deal of power along side her husband, and she most likely would have used that power to benefit Offa and promote his causes. Or perhaps she harbored ambitions of her own once she was given such a position. As the anointed Queen, she would still hold her place as Queen of Wessex if her husband should happen to die. Any offspring that she might have would of course be heirs to the throne. As far as anyone knows, she did not have any children so there was no continuing line to pass the rule on to.

 According to Asser, Eadburh became all powerful, and often demanded the executions or exile of her enemies. She was also alleged to have assassinated those men whom she couldn’t compel Beorhtric to kill through poisoning their food or drink. In 802, according to Asser, Eadburh attempted to poison a young favourite of the king but instead killed both of them. The young man may have been called Worr, as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records the death of both men shortly before the succession of Egbert.  So, in 802 Beorhtric died of some unknown circumstance and that would have left Eadburh in sole power of Wessex. By this time, Eadburh’s Father, Offa was dead so there was no family loyalty or agenda between Eadburh and the new King of Mercia, Coenwulf . Coenwulf was only distantly related to Offa’s line and it would seem that he may have had less loyalty to that old lineage.  He had a stable working relationship with Beorhtric and numerous surviving documents suggest that he was making attempts to repair relations with the Papal authorities after the various events and actions that Offa was involved. In the earlier case of  Eadberht Præn and Kent, Coenwulf made no move to intervene or retake Kent until he had specific approval from Pope Leo. In light of these facts, Coenwulf probably would have made no move to side with Eadburh, promote any claim of hers to rule of Wessex or even offer her protection unless he had approval from those Papal authorities.

If we view Asser’s recounting of  Eadburh in the context of it possibly starting out with some shreds or grains of truth to it, we get a basic picture that the Queen Eadburh did have some high regard for her status and she eventually began to rule in a similar fashion as her Father, Offa. She was probably not all that well liked by the citizens of Wessex who would have most likely viewed both her and Beorhtric as Offa’s puppets. She had the misfortune to not have any offspring that would guarantee her a continued spot on the throne either as Queen in her own right or as Regent for a young heir. And the third strike against her was of course that she was a woman… granted there were a few female Queens during this period but it was extremely rare, and those that were allowed to hold that status were usually some direct blood descendent of the original ruling line- Eadburh was not a blood descendent and she had to have known that should Beorhtric die, her chances at holding on to the crown were slim to none.  Perhaps her poisoning of Beorhtric was accidental and she was just unlucky? Or, perhaps she did have some loftier ambitions and knowing that her rule of Wessex was not going to ever be a truly achievable goal, so she chose another route or goal instead…

During the time of Beorhtric’s rule, Egbert was residing in Francia presumably under the guidance and tutoring of Charlemagne and other powerful leaders of the Frankish Empire. He was not a prisoner there, he was free to come and go as he pleased, free to seek out whatever guidance or support he could gather from any number of sources such as those all important Papal authorities. He also probably maintained some clandestine contacts with people of Wessex and Kent throughout this time. He did have a half sister named Alburga who was married to Wulfstan, and ealdorman of Wessex. When Egbert returned to Wessex after Beorhtric’s death, Wulfstan fought a battle against a group of Mercians who were rebelling against Egbert’s reign. Wulfstan probably had some prior knowledge of Egbert’s plan and was a supporter of him.  What we have is a situation or case of Egbert waiting patiently in Francia for his chance to return and claim a crown… He obviously made good use of his waiting period and was able to devise a well laid plan that included the backing of  such people as Charlemagne and the Pope. He merely had to sit back and wait for the right moment to implement his plan. It’s rather clear that he had no interest in claiming Kent, but was after the bigger prize of Wessex, which would be more benefit to his supporters in the long run. 

His problem was how to conveniently get rid of those already sitting on the throne of Wessex without resorting to all out war? War would be a messy and expensive situation . There was always the chance that he might not win, and besides that he wanted to make a good impression on the residents of Wessex. He wanted the subjects of Wessex to be on his side and for there to be no question as to his legitimate right to the throne.  He probably wanted to be seen as the rightful ruler, the heir apparent, the mistreated true King who would save Wessex from the control of Mercia. How could he go about such a scheme and ensure his success in this venture?

My personal speculation on this scenario is that he would have used his covert connections in Wessex,  and thus would have had some knowledge or inkling of Eadburh’s actions, behaviors and possible ambitions. It’s entirely possible or plausible that Egbert may even have some contact with Eadburh herself. Perhaps Egbert in some way influenced or insinuated to Eadburh that it might be to her benefit to involve herself in his plan for Wessex.  Possibly Egbert offered her some loftier reward in return for her assistance, some higher status or ranking than she could hope to achieve remaining in Wessex…

The first key to his overall plan would have been to get rid of Beorhtric in some way that did not lead back to him or place any hint of  suspicion on him. The convenient “accidental” death of  Beorhtric placed all of the blame or suspicion on Eadburh… she was held responsible for the death and would never be able to rid herself of that suspicion in the eyes of her subjects. Maybe she made a serious blunder in her plan or in Egbert’s supposed plan. Had she been more careful about this death, perhaps there would have been some other option for her than the eventual exile.

There is never any mention of when Egbert’s first wife died, but we would assume that she died prior to his return to Wessex. The most reasonable option for Egbert and Eadburh both would have been for him to just marry her after Beorhtric’s death, but her role in his death pretty much ended that option. Egbert wanted Wessex to like him and trust him. That was certainly not going to happen if he then married Eadburh with her stain of blame on her.  So, what was he to do with this inconvenient Queen now? He couldn’t send her back to Mercia, they probably did not condone her actions either and would most likely have been insulted and even more ready to wage war.  By all rights, he could have had her executed for her part in Beorhtric’s death, or at the very least had her permanently confined to some nearby Nunnery where he could keep an eye on her.

Kwenthrith1

Strangely enough, he chose another option that almost seemed more of a reward than any punishment! What Egbert did was send her immediately into exile to the Court of Charlemagne where he had just returned from. For me, that suggests that in some way, she was actually being rewarded for any possible involvement. By sending her to Charlemagne’s personal Court, he was getting her out of Wessex away from any continued questions or suspicions, and he was giving her ample opportunity to create a better situation for herself. What she did with that opportunity was up to her… if she made a mess of it such as she did with Beorhtric’s death, that was on her shoulders not Egbert’s! In his mind, he probably justified his actions as being the best option left in repaying her assistance or involvement in this messy secret operation. He now had Wessex, and had she behaved herself and not botched things up, she most likely could have been either continued Queen of Wessex or one of Charlemagne’s wives instead of dying in the streets of Pavia, Italy.

kwentirith seems overly upset at seeing uncle killed

An unfortunate side note and result of Eadburh’s supposed wicked and despicable behavior… after her exile, very few women in the 9th century would ever be allowed or granted the title of regina (queen). According to Asser this was because of the shame Eadburh had brought on the position. However, Offa and Beorhtric had driven Egbert into exile in the 780s, and the blackening of her name may also have been partly due to a desire to discredit Beorhtric.  Asser also writes  that as a result of the aristocracy’s resentment for Eadburh, the status and influence of the subsequent queens was diminished and they were titled not ‘queen’ but ‘king’s wife’; the queen was also prohibited from sitting beside the king on the throne. This changed again when Charles the Bald insisted that his daughter Judith, who married King Athelwulf, be properly crowned queen.  This presents an interesting idea in connection to Hirst’s storyline surrounding Judith. We all know that he has presented a scenario where his version of Judith has the potential to possibly be endowed with such  status by bearing such a blessed, special and Saintly child, Alfred.  The way he has written the story so far does seem to leave this window open for Judith as option that would give her that very loose thread of historical connection.

judith holds her own in this game of power panic and fear on judith's face

https://timeslipsblog.wordpress.com/viking-saga-judiths-story/

Now, back to the reality of Egbert and Wessex! In 802 the fortunes of Wessex were transformed by the accession of Egbert. With his accession the throne became firmly established in the hands of a single lineage.  Egbert quickly established a firm hold of the Kingdom and proved his dominance and far reaching power. Early in his reign he conquered the remaining western Britons still in Devon and reduced those beyond the River Tamar, now Cornwall, to the status of a vassal. In 825 or 826 he overturned the political order of England by decisively defeating King Beornwulf of Mercia at Ellendun and seizing control of Surrey, Sussex, Kent and Essex from the Mercians, while with his help East Anglia broke away from Mercian control. In 829 he conquered Mercia, driving its King Wiglaf into exile, and secured acknowledgement of his overlordship from the king of Northumbria. He thereby became the Bretwalda, or high king of Britain. This position of dominance was short-lived, as Wiglaf returned and restored Mercian independence in 830, but the expansion of Wessex across south-eastern England proved permanent.

aethelwulf and ecbert

 

Map of Kingdoms during Egbert's reign

Map of Kingdoms during Egbert’s reign

 in 825 that one of the most important battles in Anglo-Saxon history took place, when Egbert defeated Beornwulf of Mercia at Ellendun—now Wroughton, near Swindon. This battle marked the end of the Mercian domination of southern England.  The Chronicle tells how Egbert followed up his victory: “Then he sent his son Æthelwulf from the army, and Ealhstan, his bishop, and Wulfheard, his ealdorman, to Kent with a great troop.” Æthelwulf drove Baldred, the king of Kent, north over the Thames, and according to the Chronicle, the men of Kent, Essex, Surrey and Sussex then all submitted to Æthelwulf “because earlier they were wrongly forced away from his relatives”This may refer to Offa’s interventions in Kent at the time Egbert’s father Ealhmund became king; if so, the chronicler’s remark may also indicate Ealhmund had connections elsewhere in southeast England.  This would also  suggest that Egbert had certainly not forgotten or forgiven Mercia and Offa’s earlier actions against Kent and Wessex.

The consequences of Ellendun went beyond the immediate loss of Mercian power in the southeast. According to the Chronicle, the East Anglians asked for Egbert’s protection against the Mercians in the same year, 825, though it may actually have been in the following year that the request was made. In 826 Beornwulf invaded East Anglia, presumably to recover his overlordship. He was slain, however, as was his successor, Ludeca, who invaded East Anglia in 827, evidently for the same reason. It may be that the Mercians were hoping for support from Kent: there was some reason to suppose that Wulfred, the Archbishop of Canterbury, might be discontented with West Saxon rule, as Egbert had terminated Wulfred’s currency and had begun to mint his own, at Rochester and Canterbury, and it is known that Egbert seized property belonging to Canterbury.  The outcome in East Anglia was a disaster for the Mercians which confirmed West Saxon power in the southeast.

Michael Hirst actually provides  a very good portrayal or representation of this important battle with his episode “Wanderer”.  If you discount the use of our Vikings as mercenaries in the battle, it does seem to be a good depiction of the overall event and the resulting defeat of Mercia. I have a previous article that details the episode along with the actual events and location of that battle of Ellendun.

they're at the top of that hill

they’re at the top of that hill

https://timeslipsblog.wordpress.com/2015/02/28/vikings-wanderer-part-one-let-us-speak-of-ecbert/

By 829, Egbert had reached the high point of his power and gained the much sought after control and domination that he seemed so intent on. His victory over Mercia enabled him to once and for all claim the title of  bretwalda, meaning “wide-ruler” or “Britain-ruler”, in a famous passage in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

And the same year King Egbert conquered the kingdom of Mercia, and all that was south of the Humber, and he was the eighth king who was ‘Wide Ruler’.

His domination  was short lived.  The very next year in 830, Mercia rebelled and regained it’s independence.  Both Wessex’s sudden rise to power in the late 820s, and the subsequent failure to retain this dominant position, have been examined by historians looking for underlying causes. One plausible explanation for the events of these years is that Wessex’s fortunes were to some degree dependent on Carolingian support. The Franks supported Eardwulf when he recovered the throne of Northumbria in 808, so it is plausible that they also supported Egbert’s accession in 802. At Easter 839, not long before Egbert’s death, he was in touch with Louis the Pious, king of the Franks, to arrange safe passage to Rome.  So, throughout most of his rule, it would seem that Egbert reaped the benefits of support and backing from the Franks. Beginning in  the late 820s though, the Franks started to experience their own problems.  the Rhenish and Frankish commercial networks collapsed at some time in the 820s or 830s, and in addition, a rebellion broke out in February 830 against Louis the Pious—the first of a series of internal conflicts that lasted through the 830s and beyond. These distractions may have prevented Louis from supporting Egbert. This would have leveled the power play field between Wessex, Mercia and East Anglia and meant that Egbert no longer had the upper hand or deeper resources as his winning edge.

Despite the leveled playing field,  Wessex retained control of the south-eastern kingdoms, with the possible exception of Essex, and Mercia did not regain control of East Anglia. Egbert’s victories marked the end of the independent existence of the kingdoms of Kent and Sussex. The conquered territories were administered as a subkingdom for a while, including Surrey and possibly Essex.  Kent lost it’s independence early on but in 825, after the defeat of Mercia, Egbert sent Æthelwulf with an army to Kent, where he expelled the Mercian sub-king and was appointed sub-king. After 830 he maintained good relations with Mercia, and this was continued by Æthelwulf when he became king in 839, the first son to succeed his father as West Saxon king since 641.

aethelwulf's christian zealotry over takes all other thoughts

Although Æthelwulf was a subking under Egbert, it is clear that he maintained his own royal household, with which he travelled around his kingdom. Charters issued in Kent described Egbert and Æthelwulf as “kings of the West Saxons and also of the people of Kent.” When Æthelwulf died in 858 his will, in which Wessex is left to one son and the southeastern kingdom to another, makes it clear that it was not until after 858 that the kingdoms were fully integrated.  Mercia remained a threat, however; Egbert’s son Æthelwulf, established as king of Kent, gave estates to Christ Church, Canterbury, probably to counter any influence the Mercians might still have there.

aethelwulf and ecbert athelstan with aethelwulf and ecbert

In 838, Egbert and Æthelwulf granted land to the sees of Winchester and Canterbury in return for the promise of support for Æthelwulf’s claim.  These agreements, along with a later charter in which Æthelwulf confirmed church privileges, suggest that the church had recognised that Wessex was a new political power that must be dealt with.  Churchmen consecrated the king at coronation ceremonies, and helped to write the wills which specified the king’s heir; their support had real value in establishing West Saxon control and a smooth succession for Egbert’s line.  Both the record of the Council of Kingston, and another charter of that year, include the identical phrasing: that a condition of the grant is that “we ourselves and our heirs shall always hereafter have firm and unshakable friendships from Archbishop Ceolnoth and his congregation at Christ Church.    Egbert died in 839, and his will, according to the account of it found in the will of his grandson, Alfred the Great, left land only to male members of his family, so that the estates should not be lost to the royal house through marriage. Egbert’s wealth, acquired through conquest, was no doubt one reason for his ability to purchase the support of the southeastern church establishment; the thriftiness of his will indicates he understood the importance of personal wealth to a king.  The kingship of Wessex had been frequently contested among different branches of the royal line, and it is a noteworthy achievement of Egbert’s that he was able to ensure Æthelwulf’s untroubled succession.

 

In 853 Aethelwulf improved his alliance with Mercia by marrying his daughter Æthelswith to King Burgred of Mercia, and in the same year he joined a Mercian expedition to Wales to restore the traditional Mercian hegemony. In 855 Æthelwulf went on pilgrimage to Rome. In preparation he gave a “decimation”, donating a tenth of his personal property to his subjects; he appointed his eldest surviving son Æthelbald to act as King of Wessex in his absence, and next son Æthelberht to rule Kent and the south-east. He spent a year in Rome, and on his way back he married Judith, the twelve- or thirteen-year-old daughter of the West Frankish King Charles the Bald. When Æthelwulf returned to England, Æthelbald refused to surrender the West Saxon throne, and Æthelwulf agreed to divide the kingdom, taking the east and leaving the west in his son’s hands. On Æthelwulf’s death in 858 he left Wessex to Æthelbald and Kent to Æthelberht, but Æthelbald’s death only two years later led to the re-unification of the kingdom. In the twentieth century Æthelwulf’s reputation among historians was low, and he was seen as pious and impractical, but historians in the twenty-first century regard him as one of the most successful West Saxon kings, who laid the foundations for the success of his son, Alfred the Great.

family dinner in wessex Ecbert's somewhat rude and condescending comments A toast to my son.

family dinner in wessex Ecbert’s somewhat rude and condescending comments A toast to my son.

Egbert’s conquests brought him wealth far greater than his predecessors had enjoyed, and enabled him to purchase the support which secured the West Saxon throne for his descendants.  The stability brought by the dynastic succession of Egbert and Æthelwulf led to an expansion of commercial and agrarian resources, and to an expansion of royal income.  The wealth of the West Saxon kings was also greatly increased by the conquest of south-east England, and by the agreement in 838–39 with Archbishop Ceolnoth for the previously independent West Saxon minsters to accept the king as their secular lord in return for his protection.  Aethelwulf  continued to maintain the close relationship with the Franks that Egbert had formed and based his ruling system on their traditions. There were strong contacts between the West Saxon and Carolingian courts. The Annals of St. Bertin took particular interest in Viking attacks on Britain, and in 852 Lupus, the Abbot of Ferrières and a protégé of Charles the Bald, wrote to Æthelwulf congratulating him on his victory over the Vikings and requesting a gift of lead to cover his church roof.

aethelwulf threatens kwentirith's men and demands they take him to kwentirith

Despite earlier historians’ accounts and views of him being a religious fanatic or zealot, for all practical purposes Aethelwulf  maintained a stable and balanced reign. He managed to successfully set up long lasting alliances that would lay the foundations of Alfred’s future success. He seemed to understand the importance of  building working relationships in order achieve stability and success in the long run rather short term accomplishments.

 

It was not until the end of Egbert’s rule that the Danes began to make their presence felt in Wessex. In the southwest, Egbert was defeated in 836 at Carhampton by the Danes, but in 838 he won a battle against them and their allies the West Welsh at the Battle of Hingston Down in Cornwall. In 843 Æthelwulf was defeated by the companies of thirty-five Danish ships at Carhampton in Somerset. In 850 sub-king Æthelstan and Ealdorman Alhhere won a naval victory over a large Viking fleet off Sandwich in Kent, capturing nine ships and driving off the rest. Æthelwulf granted Alhhere a large estate in Kent, but Æthelstan is not heard of again, and probably died soon afterwards. The following year the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records five different attacks on southern England. A Danish fleet of 350 Viking ships took London and Canterbury, and when King Berhtwulf of Mercia went to their relief he was defeated. The Vikings then moved on to Surrey, where they were defeated by Æthelwulf and Æthelbald at the Battle of Aclea. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle the West Saxon levies “there made the greatest slaughter of a heathen that we have heard tell of up to the present day”. The Chronicle frequently reported victories during Æthelwulf’s reign won by levies led by ealdormen, unlike the 870s when royal command was emphasised, reflecting a more consensual style of leadership in the earlier period. In 853 a Viking army defeated and killed ealdermen Ealhhere of Kent and Huda of Surrey at Thanet, and in 855 Danish Vikings for the first time stayed over the winter on Sheppey, before carrying on their pillaging of eastern England. However, during Æthelwulf’s reign Viking attacks were contained and did not present a major threat.

 

Æthelwulf died on 13 January 858. According to the Annals of St Neots, he was buried at Steyning in Sussex, but his body was later transferred to Winchester, probably by Alfred the Great.  He was succeeded by Æthelbald in Wessex and Æthelberht in Kent and the south-east. The prestige conferred by a Frankish marriage was so great that Æthelbald then wedded his step-mother Judith, to Asser’s retrospective horror; he described the marriage as a “great disgrace”, and “against God’s prohibition and Christian dignity”.  When Æthelbald died only two years later, Æthelberht became King of Wessex as well as Kent, and Æthelwulf’s intention of dividing his kingdoms between his sons was thus set aside. In the view of Yorke and Abels this was because Æthelred and Alfred were too young to rule, and Æthelberht agreed in return that his younger brothers would inherit the whole kingdom on his death, whereas Kirby and Nelson think that Æthelberht just became the trustee for his younger brothers’ share of the bookland.   After Æthelbald’s death Judith sold her possessions and returned to her father, but two years later she eloped with Baldwin, Count of Flanders. In the 890s their son, also called Baldwin, married Æthelwulf’s granddaughter Ælfthryth.

Unfortunately for Wessex and the sons of Aethelwulf, the Danes would soon arrive on the scene in full force and everything would quickly change.  We will save that for the chapter in our real and imagined history of Wessex and the Viking invasion where we will look at how that blessed infant Alfred ended up with the crown of Wessex and what he had to do to keep that crown on his head. We will go from Hirst’s version to Cornwell’s and piece  it all together with the more real history.

his name is Alfred He shall be great

ecbert showers affection on alfred and wonders about athelstan

ecbert showers affection on alfred and wonders about athelstan

alfred is crowned and england is born

alfred is crowned and england is born

Alfred the Great