Watch out! Major spoilers ahead.
“The preachers tell us that pride is a great sin, but the preachers are wrong. Pride makes a man, it drives him, it is the shield wall around his reputation… Men die, they said, but reputation does not die.”
The Netflix series The Last Kingdom is often compared to Game of Thrones, and for good reason — both are inspired by real British history. But while GoT took the War of the Roses as a loose template for the War of the Five Kings and threw ice zombies, dragons, and direwolves at it, The Last Kingdom traces fascinating true events by focusing on legendary figures who really lived, weaving a bit of believable mysticism in along the way.
Who were these people and how did they measure up in real life? We’ve rounded up some of the most interesting characters to see where they stand in the books The Last Kingdom is based on, the show itself, and actual history. For part one, we’ll be focusing on the royal family of Wessex.
King Alfred The Great
In the books:
We first see Prince Alfred through the eyes of young Uhtred, who has stumbled upon his camp during a reconnaissance mission for the Danes. Alfred is on his knees weeping for forgiveness for having committed adultery yet again. “He sends women to test us,” he laments to his priest Beocca, “and we fail, and then he sends the Danes to punish us for our failure.”
Uhtred thinks him weak, foolish, and overly pious. He is tall, thin, calculating, ever calm, and constantly followed by priests who write everything he says down. He is plagued by horrible stomach cramps, which he sees as punishment from God for giving in to temptation. His illness is described in great detail and people talk about it (anal pains included) without embarrassment. While he’s serious and humorless most of the time, he is playful with children and known to laugh at a bad joke or two.
In the show:
The Last Kingdom stays faithful to the book’s description, mostly. In the series, Alfred is much less inclined to believe Uthred’s lies about being a fervent Christian, likely because he meets him as an adult rather than as a preteen. Alfred still loves his servant girls, though you never see him weep shamelessly while prostrate on the floor about it. He’s cagey about his illness and not visibly sick until near his death. He has a suspicious nature and never laughs.
In real life:
Alfred was indeed King of Wessex from 871 to 899 and the only English ruler to be gifted with the title “The Great.” Like in the show, he was known to be a level-headed, respected, and patient ruler who was deeply religious. After East Anglia, Mercia, and Northumbria fell to Viking invasions, Alfred was tasked with beating them back and keeping Wessex under Anglo-Saxon control.
His reign was extremely significant. During his time as king, he reorganized his military to great advantage, enacted legal reforms, championed education, and much more. He preserved the Anglo-Saxon way of life and won several military victories, just like in the show. He hid in the Somerset marshes (driven from Chippenham, not Wintanceaster) and mounted a successful resistance campaign from there. A popular legend states that during this time, a peasant woman, unaware of his true identity, reprimanded him for burning some cakes — which The Last Kingdom translated into a charming scene with Iseult doing the scolding instead.
Alfred did suffer stomach pains for most of his life, suspected by some historians to have been Crohn’s Disease, which he likely died from at age 50 or 51. He was married to Ealhswith, had several children that included Edward and Aethelflaed, and usurped his nephew Aethelwold to become king. Life under Alfred was relatively good for ordinary people.
Aethelflaed, Lady of Mercia
In the books:
Aethelflaed is just a baby in the first book of the series but grows into a capable woman like in the show. From the beginning author Bernard Cornwell makes it a point to single her out, foreshadowing that she will become significant to Uhtred and Anglo-Saxons at large.
(Mostly) everyone fancies her, and she sees marriage as a chance to escape the dour seriousness of her father’s court and come into her own. Bodyguard Steapa cries at her wedding, Uhtred is fond of her, and such is her beauty and elegance that her jealous husband cannot bear to leave her at home when he marches off to battle. When she is captured by Danes, warlord Erik can’t resist her charms and they fall in love.
In the show:
The show follows the books with Aethelflaed, although it plays with a few storylines. In the The Last Kingdom, Aethelflaed is rescued by Uhtred numerous times from several foes. She falls in love with Erik but was pregnant before being captured. And while Aldhelm ends up becoming her close confidante/ardent admirer in the show, he doesn’t quite get the same heroic treatment in the books, which is bad news for the Lady of Mercia.
She’s strong, regal, and capable. She wastes no time in getting Uhtred to swear oaths to her, realizing his importance the same way her father had. Safe to say, Uhtred feels a bit differently about Aethelflaed than he did Alfred. (Despite his and Alfred’s amazing chemistry — we’d ship it.)
In real life:
Aethelflaed was a force to be reckoned with. The elder sister of Edward and daughter of Alfred and Ealhswith, she married Aethelred of Mercia to strengthen the alliance between their kingdoms. There’s not a ton of evidence to back up the idea that her marriage was loveless and abusive. She and Aethelred jointly ruled and showed a united front, fortifying Mercia against invasions and involving their daughter Aelfwynn in political business.
When the much older Aethelred fell ill, Aethelflaed took up the mantle and ruled in his stead. She was recognized by many as a ruler of Mercia, and when her husband died, the ruler of Mercia. She led her troops into successful battle time and time again and received fealty from conquered regions. Like her father, she oversaw the construction of carefully planned, fortified towns. When she suddenly died at the Mercian capital Tamworth, she was in her thirties and at the height of her power. Her brother King Edward and a retinue of soldiers just so happened to be visiting at the exact same time. Her daughter succeeded her but was deposed within months by Edward.
Aethelflaed’s success as a ruler made an indelible mark on history. Her efforts, along with her brother’s, helped seal the deal on Alfred’s dream of a united England. Edward’s eldest child Athelstan was raised in the Mercian court with his aunt, and this proved to be essential to achieving loyalty from the Mercians to later become England’s first true king.
Edward The Elder
In the books:
As you might have noticed by now, the show toes the line with the books relatively well when compared to the likes of Game of Thrones. We first start paying attention to Edward in The Burning Land when his father tries to manipulate Uhtred into swearing an oath of loyalty to him. Knowing he will likely die soon, Alfred is desperate to ensure Edward’s success. Like in the show, Uhtred refuses at first.
He does, however, take him under his wing a bit. Edward is eager to learn, relatively level-headed, and tries to think like his father. Once king, Edward stumbles at first but finds his footing as he gains experience through conflict and governing.
In the show:
Edward begins his tenure in The Last Kingdom as a sick infant who is slowly deteriorating in the marshes of Somerset where his family is hiding. Desperate and hopeless, Alfred allows shadow queen Iseult to take his baby and work some pagan magic. It’s effective, but Edward survives at great cost — another child must die in his place. The show heavily hints that Uhtred’s firstborn son was given up in this cosmic exchange.
We see Edward take the throne at the end of season three when Alfred is freshly dead and all hell is starting to break loose. His mother, Aelswith, tries her hardest to have Uhtred killed for sneaking into Wintanceaster to see Alfred (at his request), while Edward mourns his father and prepares to be king. Despite his mother’s intense yearning for blood, Edward restores the pardon his father gave Uhtred and in turn, Uhtred swears an oath of loyalty.
As king, Edward is badly advised and ends up making horrible decision after horrible decision. He leaves Wessex undefended to dabble in Mercian politics for a ridiculous amount of time. He does everything he can to stop his sister from taking the throne, and meanwhile, Danes take Wintanceaster (again) and hold his sons, wife, and mother hostage. Per the usual, Uhtred ends up cleaning up the mess.
In real life:
Born to Alfred and Ealhswith in the 870s, Edward the Elder took the throne after his father died in 899. He styled himself as the King of the Anglo-Saxons and had over a dozen children with three wives. His son and successor, Athelstan, was born to his first wife Ecgwynn. When Alfred died, Edward immediately faced competition from his rebellious cousin Aethelwold.
Edward swiftly crushed Aethelwold’s uprising, forcing him to flee north. He allied himself with Vikings and returned with an army, but died in an ensuing battle. With this threat now under control, Edward was able to rule relatively unchallenged. He dealt with Vikings swiftly and fiercely, beating them back often and slowly regaining control of parts of England. He continued his father’s fortification projects, and when his sister Aethelflaed died, he usurped her daughter and imposed control over Mercia.
Edward tried and failed to exert direct control over all the kingdoms of the day, but he paved the way for Athelstan with the help of his father and sister. He died in 924. Between Alfred and Athelstan, Edward is often overlooked, but he was a key piece of the English puzzle.
In the books:
It may come as a surprise to fans of the show, but in the books, Aethelwold is hot stuff. Uhtred meets the young noble on a boar hunt, and right away notices how similar they are. Aethelwold is close to the same age, tall, and strong, with long dark and an intense gaze that draws in servant girls. The Last Kingdom describes him as “wild as an unbroken colt.” Uhtred, Leofric, and Aethelwold spend ample time together drinking and whoring, and whenever Aethelwold curses Alfred for usurping his crown, Uhtred sympathizes.
This cursing comes often, as Aethelwold complains of Alfred constantly, saying that he should step aside. He knows he could join the Danes, but that they would use him, proving him to be angry and treacherous, but no fool. Alfred prevents Aethelwold from learning to fight and becoming a warrior so that he can’t earn a reputation.
In the show:
Aethelwold is a combination of every bad quality you don’t want in a family member. With pockmarked skin, a scheming nature, and arrogant demeanor, he manages to get on the nerves of everyone around him. He’s lazy and entitled, but intelligent, and spends much of his time whoring and drinking. He’s also hilarious at certain points, but don’t let that distract you from this ruthlessness.
In The Last Kingdom, Aethelwold isn’t shy about his desire to be king or his hatred of Alfred. No one takes him seriously, however, until Alfred begins to get visibly ill. Aethelwold seizes his chance and tries to woo over ealdormen who don’t like Edward, as well as Danish invaders looking to conquer Wessex. He spreads enmity and discord wherever he goes. When he murders Ragnar, who was Uhtred’s brother and Brida’s lover, the two work to bring him down in revenge. In the end, Uhtred kills him.
In real life:
All this huffing and puffing about Alfred wasn’t conjured from thin air. The real Aethelwold, born to Æthelred I, King of Wessex, was too young to take the throne when his father died. He and his elder brother (who disappeared from history) were babies at the time, and so Alfred took over.
After Alfred died in 899, Aethelwold disputed that his son Edward should take over. In the eyes of many, as the atheling, Aethwold’s claim to the throne was stronger than Edward’s. He staged a revolt similar to what we see at the end of season three. His first move was to gather a small force and seize the village where his father was buried. After taking control of some surrounding lands, he awaited Edward’s response. When his cousin showed up with an army, Aethelwold refused to engage, preferring to hold out with his men and a kidnapped nun. When this didn’t work, he escaped in the night and rode north.
He found Danish support in Northumbria. They accepted him as a king, but that wasn’t enough. He traveled to East Anglia, found more Danish men, and raided Mercia and Wessex. Edward responded in kind, razing East Anglian land. Aethelwold met his end shortly after that in December of 902 during the Battle of the Holme. RIP you wily guy.
In the books:
Aelswith, as her name is spelled in the Saxon Stories and The Last Kingdom, was the woman you loved to hate. When questioned about what she’s like, Brida describes her as having “a pinched face, and piggy eyes and a pursed mouth.” She is pious, jealous, and pompous. She keeps Alfred’s illegitimate child Osferth in a monastery and ensures father and son never spend time together.
After meeting Uhtred and Brida as children in the first novel, Aelswith quickly takes it upon herself to decide what should be done with them. She decides to ship them off to religious orders to become devout to Christianity. She wants Brida, who she takes an instant dislike to, hidden away for good.
In the show:
Aware of her husband’s wandering eye, Aelswith makes a point to ingratiate herself into his life more and more. She’s extremely vocal about how she thinks he should rule, and constantly dispenses judgment on others. She calls for Uhtred to be killed on multiple occasions, and is more zealous than her priests and husband combined.
She’s almost as irritating as Aethelwold, and it’s not until season four that she redeems herself ever so slightly. She takes on the role of caregiver for Edward’s son, Athelstan, and finally appreciates some of Uhtred’s good qualities. At very least, she isn’t demanding he be executed every other minute. Way to grow.
In real life:
A product of noble Mercian blood, Ealhswith was married to Alfred in 868 as part of an alliance between their kingdoms. When he became king, she was not given the title of queen per Wessex custom. That’s thanks to a former West Saxon queen named Eadburh, who became so power hungry that she poisoned her husband on accident. After that, the only title a woman like Ealhswith could have was “wife to the king,” which doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. She was not given an active role in governing, mentioned on any charters, or allowed to sit beside the king on the throne.
After Alfred died in 899, she founded the convent of St Mary’s Abbey at Wintanceaster. She didn’t have long to enjoy her newfound passion project, however, as she passed away just a few years later in 902. Alfred had left her three important symbolic estates in his will, including his birthplace.
Alfred, Edward, Aethelflaed, Ealhswith, and Aethelwold were each instrumental to English history. Now that we’ve gotten to know more about the royal family of Wessex, Part Two will dive into the rest of The Last Kingdom’s historical figures. (We’re looking at you, Uhtred of Bebbanburg.)