History Behind the BBC Series “The Last Kingdom”

MV5BMjE1MzYzNjk3OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzk0MzYwNzE@._V1_SX214_AL_I am watching “The Last Kingdom” on BBC America (Saturday’s at 10 P.M.). It is a tale of Saxon history, with England struggling to become a “nation” in itself, without the rule by the Danes. Although I possess a “working knowledge” of the time period, this is not an era of which I am well versed; even so, I find the series fascinating, even though the author of the book upon which it is based is said to have taken great liberties. Again, I cannot speak to those liberties, but I am certain some of my history novel friends can.

From imdb we learn, “The Last Kingdom is an adaptation of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories. The books follow Uhtred of Bebbanburg from a boy taken from his birthright and raised by Vikings, later fighting for King Alfred the Great and his son Edward. Shield walls, blood, revenge and the forging of many Kingdoms into one nation, a dream of Alfred’s called England.”

According to several sources, in Bernard Cornwell’s series The Saxon Stories the protagonist is the Northumbrian Earl Uhtred of Bebbanburg. The story of the siege of Durham, which I mention below, and the severed heads on poles is told about the historical Uhtred (see Battles of the Dark Ages, Peter Marren), though it is perhaps possible to assume that the fictional Earl Uhtred of Bebbanburg is an ancestor of this Uhtred. In Bernard Cornwell’s series he adds a ‘historical note’ at the end, in which, especially in the first book, he mentions that Uhtred was his ancestor. He took the liberty of installing Uhtred earlier in history.” (Wikipedia51HD+PdbeML._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

My only complaint so far in the series is that the “delicious” Matthew Macfadyen, who portrayed Lord Uhtred, the boy’s father, is killed off in episode one.

If you missed the premiere episode (October 10) you may view it HERE.

There are several places that indicate streaming of episode two (shown on October 17), but I did not want to include a link that I felt was not safe.

Disclaimer: I plan to attempt to make sense of the real story of Uhtred. Please bear with me. There is a line in episode one where the Danes say something to the effect how the Saxons had unusual names. After reading this, you will likely agree. I admit that I have cited several sources below for I would not presume to portray myself as an expert on this material. 

“Uhtred, earl of Bamburgh (d. 1016), magnate, was the son of Waltheof (fl. c.994–1006) and an unknown mother. Waltheof was probably the son of Eadwulf, the son of Oswulf (d. 966), the son of Ealdred of Bamburgh (d. 933?); the family had ruled Bernicia (Northumbria north of the Tyne) since the Scandinavian invasion and settlement of the late ninth century. The northern part of their earldom (Lothian) was ceded to the Scots, probably by 973.” (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography)

Uhtred (the Bold) was an ealdorman of Northumbria from 1006 to 1016. Prior to that time, we have records of Uhtred assisting in the removal of St. Cuthbert’s remains from Chester-le-Street to Durham. An English chronicler and a monk of Durham Priory, Syemon of Durham, recorded Uhtred’s efforts in moving St. Cuthbert’s remains. Uhtred married Bishop Aldhun’s (founder of Durham cathedral) daughter Ecgfrida, earning Uhtred several estates once belonging to the church.

“According to the De obsessione Dunelmi, a Durham tract on the history of the earldom of Northumbria, the principal theme of which was the right of Durham to certain estates, Uhtred married Aldhun’s daughter, Ecgfrida, probably at about this time. The marriage brought Uhtred certain vills of the church of St Cuthbert, namely Barmpton, Skirningham, Elton, Carlton, School Aycliffe, and Monk Hesleden in the south of co. Durham. This marriage has been seen as part of the church of St Cuthbert’s policy of recruiting allies, although the earl would also have gained from an alliance with this powerful ecclesiastical institution. Uhtred was to retain control of these vills as long as he lived honourably in marriage with Ecgfrida.” (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography)

Alexander Dreymon, who portrays Uhtred in the series "The Last Kingdom"

Alexander Dreymon, who portrays Uhtred in the series “The Last Kingdom”

“In 1006 Malcolm II of Scotland invaded Northumbria and besieged the newly founded episcopal city of Durham. At that time the Danes were raiding southern England and King Ethelred was unable to send help to the Northumbrians. Ealdorman Waltheof was too old to fight and remained in his castle at Bamburgh. Ealdorman Ælfhelm of York also took no action. Uhtred, acting for his father, called together an army from Bernicia and Yorkshire and led it against the Scots. The result was a decisive victory for Uhtred. Local women washed the severed heads of the Scots, receiving a payment of a cow for each, and the heads were fixed on stakes to Durham’s walls. Uhtred was rewarded by King Ethelred II with the ealdormanry of Bamburgh even though his father was still alive. In the mean time, Ethelred had had Ealdorman Ælfhelm of York murdered, and he allowed Uhtred to succeed Ælfhelm as ealdorman of York, thus uniting northern and southern Northumbria under the house of Bamburgh. It seems likely that Ethelred did not trust the Scandinavian population of southern Northumbria and wanted an Anglo-Saxon in power there.” (Wikipedia) “Æthelred II added the earldom of York in succession to the Mercian Ælfhelm. The king’s grant effectively reunited the two parts of Northumbria under the earls of Bamburgh. In this respect Uhtred may have been seen as a political counterweight to the Scandinavians at York who may still have harboured thoughts of a separate Scandinavian-dominated north.” (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography)

Reportedly, Uhtred abandoned Ecgfrida to marry Sige, whose father (Styr) was a wealthy man residing in York. Sige presented Uhtred with two children, Eadulf III and Gospatric.

By 1013, King Sweyn of Denmark invaded England. Having made connections with the Danish in Deira, Uhtred submitted to Sweyn along with other Danes in the north. Sweyn was made king in December 1013, but he died on 2 February 1014. With Sweyn’s death, Ethelred, who had went into exile with Sweyn’s claim to the kingdom, returned to claim his throne. Therefore, Uhtred and others switched their allegiance once again. Uhtred supposedly married Ethelred’s daughter Ælfgifu.

“In 1016 Uhtred campaigned with Ethelred’s son Edmund Ironside in Cheshire and the surrounding shires. While Uhtred was away from his lands, Sweyn’s son, Cnut, invaded Yorkshire. Cnut’s forces were too strong for Uhtred to fight, and so Uhtred did homage to him as King of England. Uhtred was summoned to a meeting with Cnut, and on the way there, he and forty of his men were murdered by Thurbrand the Hold, with assistance from Uhtred’s own servant, Wighill and with the connivance of Cnut. Uhtred was succeeded in Bernicia by his brother Eadwulf Cudel. Cnut made the Norwegian, Eric of Hlathir, ealdorman (“earl” in Scandinavian terms) in southern Northumbria.” (Wikipedia)

“According to the De obsessione, the marriage was contracted [to Sige] on the understanding that Uhtred would kill Styr’s enemy Thurbrand. Similarly, the marriage of Uhtred’s first wife, Ecgfrida, to Kilvert, son of the Yorkshire thegn Ligulf, may also have been an attempt by Uhtred’s ally, Aldhun, to establish political support in Yorkshire.” (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography)

“Uhtred remained faithful to the West Saxon cause despite Cnut’s promise of substantial rewards, and accompanied Edmund Ironside on campaign in Staffordshire, Cheshire, and Shrewsbury against Eadric Streona. Cnut replied by invading Northumbria, forcing Uhtred to submit. Summoned to Cnut’s court and granted safe conduct, Uhtred was murdered by Thurbrand Hold, presumably that enemy of Styr. Forty of Uhtred’s men were slaughtered with him at Wiheal, identified as Wighill, near Tadcaster, in Yorkshire. Although a comparatively late source puts Uhtred at the battle of Carham leading the English to defeat by the Scots in 1018, it is now generally accepted that this was an error and that his death occurred in 1016.” (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography)

“The killing of Uhtred by Thurbrand the Hold started a blood feud that lasted for many years. Uhtred’s son Ealdred subsequently avenged his father by killing Thurbrand, but Ealdred in turn was killed by Thurbrand’s son, Carl. Eadred’s vengeance had to wait until the 1070s, when Waltheof, Eadred’s grandson had his soldiers kill most of Carl’s sons and grandsons. This is an example of the notorious Northumbrian blood feuds that were common at this time.

“Uhtred’s dynasty continued to reign in Bernicia through Ealdred, Earl of Bamburgh (killed 1038) his son from his marriage to Ecgfrida, and Eadulf (killed 1041) his son from his marriage to Sige, and briefly Eadulf’s son Osulf held the earldom of northern Northumbria 1067 until he too was killed. Uhtred’s marriage to Ælfgifu produced a daughter, Ealdgyth, who married Maldred, brother of Duncan I of Scotland and who gave birth to a son, Gospatric, who was Earl of Northumbria from 1068 to 1072.” (Wikipedia)


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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9 Responses to History Behind the BBC Series “The Last Kingdom”

  1. Pingback: History Behind the BBC Series “The Last Kingdom” | Rogues & Vagabonds

  2. tgruy says:

    I really suck at names, so you lost me around the second or third eu something…

  3. Barbara Monajem says:

    Thanks, I will make a point of watching the first episode. I have read a couple of the books in the series and enjoyed them very much — Cornwell’s Uhtred is a delightful character.

  4. nyc alexandra says:

    im watching the bbc series now. love history so this whet my appetite for more. im going to find some books on the real history of early england cira 800’s & the kingdoms. all thru 16 yrs of schools & we never touched on this history. shame that.

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