The Last Kingdom: Notable Figures In Real Life Pt. 2
Watch out! Major spoilers ahead.
“Our ancestors took this land. They took it and made it and held it. We do not give up what our ancestors gave us. They came across the sea and they fought here, and they built here and they’re buried here. This is our land, mixed with our blood, strengthened with our bone. Ours!“
People often compare the Netflix series The Last Kingdom to Game of Thrones, and for good reason — real British history inspires both. 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. Part one focused on the royal family of Wessex — now we’re going to look at a few Danes and Anglo Saxon ealdormen.
Uhtred of Bebbanburg
In the books:
As a young boy, Danes rip Uhtred from his ancestral lands after they kill his father. He seems not to mind, openly admitting that he doesn’t miss him and rarely giving thought to the family he lost. Being with the Danes means adventure at every turn, and the young lord enjoys the respite from stuffy prayers and controlling priests.
Uhtred grows up tall and strong, a natural warrior with a mischievous side. After a fellow Dane kills his adoptive father, he and his companion Brida escape to Mercia, where Uhtred has an uncle. Once he proves his mettle there, he moves on to Wessex. His only drives in life seem to be war, women, and ale.
In the show:
The Uhtred we get in the show has a lot more depth than what the books convey. Although at first he’s exceedingly arrogant and makes stupid mistakes, he learns and grows, especially after he spends time in enslavement. His greatest strength is his ability to lead and inspire, and he picks up a string of loyal men and women on his journey. (RIP Halig.)
The love-hate relationship between Uhtred and Alfred is intensely complex and very well portrayed in the television series, as is Uhtred’s duality and struggle to reconcile who he is. As the seasons progress, he becomes the mop of Wessex, then Mercia, and basically all of pre-England as he continuously cleans up messes and solves problems for the ruling class.
By the end of season four, he still hasn’t reclaimed his home of Bebbanburg and has lost almost every loved one he’s ever had. His daughter has gone to Daneland with her new beau, and his son devotes himself to pious life at a monastery. With future king Athelstan under his charge, he has an open path ahead of him for the first time in quite a while. With this new cleared schedule, (minus training young royal boys to become vicious warriors), we can only wait for Uhtred to have to rescue Anglo Saxons once more.
In real life:
Sadly, Uhtred was not real. He is a fictional character and his deeds and victories are all made up, woven into real history with real people. While he isn’t the reincarnation of a real Saxon-Dane hybrid from history, he is indirectly based on someone who lived.
When author Bernard Cornwell discovered an ealdorman named Uhtred who held Bebbanburg among his distant ancestors, he decided he wanted to weave that into his story. Ths Uhtred held court in the early 10th century, over 100 years after The Last Kingdom’s events, and we don’t know much about him. Our fictional hero’s remarkable upbringing and adventures are just that — fiction. But we like to think the real Uhtred had his fair share of escapades, too.
Aethelred, Lord of Mercia
In the books:
The books throw a little extra family drama in when it comes to Aethelred — he’s Uhtred’s cousin. When Uhtred and Brida arrive in Mercia after their adoptive father Ragnar is killed, they are begrudgingly welcomed by Uhtred’s uncle, the lord Aethelred. (Who happens to be Aelswith’s uncle as well.) His son, also named Aethelred, hates Uhtred on sight.
Aethelred the Younger is Uhtred’s junior by a year. He loathes Danes and detests Brida after trying to seduce her and getting a knee to the groin instead. When Brida is sent to the kitchens as punishment she warns Uhtred not to touch the gruel. Uhtred heeds her advice and evades a night of “liquid bowels.”
Uhtred and Aethelred are forever quarreling. When Uhtred discovers Aethelred hitting Brida’s dog, he beats him savagely. Aethelred treads carefully after that, resenting his cousin more than ever.
In the show:
Aethelred is the worst. Even after Aethelwold’s treacherous machinations and Aelswith’s stubborn arrogance, Aethelred of Mercia still takes the cake. He is cruel without conscience, a toxic husband who mistreats his wife from the moment they’re married, a power-hungry lord who has no interest in the people he rules, and a jealous prat who puts others down at every chance.
The show never mentions Uhtred’s mother or Mercian uncle, so there’s no clear familial relationship between the two. Aethelred seems to be at least somewhat competent as a ruler in the first three seasons, however disconnected. By the time season four rolls around, his right-hand man, Eardwulf, gives him bad advice obtained from a duplicitous Dane named Haesten. Things go downhill from there. On a quest for Danish land in East Anglia, power-hungry Aethelred leaves his kingdom wide open to Danish assault. Mercians drop like flies, his wife Aethelflaed and some burgundy-caped Welshman are forced to come to the rescue, and all he has to show for it is empty land and bleating sheep.
In real life:
No one is quite sure how Aethelred became Lord of Mercia around 879 when its last king, Ceolwulf II, died. Some believe he descended from past Mercian kings, or else was related to King Alfred in some way.
However it happened, it did so with Alfred’s support, and Mercia under Aethelred’s rule conceded overlordship to Wessex. A marriage to Alfred’s daughter Aethelflaed cemented their alliance. We’ve noted elsewhere that there’s not too much evidence that the two had an unhappy union, and at the very least it was cooperative. They put up a united front, and Aethelred thankfully never dragged his wife to a battleground, ensuring she would get kidnapped by Danes. (Miss you, Erik.)
Aethelred led troops into battle after battle against Viking invaders with both Alfred and his successor Edward. The two kingdoms existed harmoniously, and when London was extensively attacked by Vikings, Alfred reclaimed it and handed it back to Aethelred as a show of respect.
At some point between 899 and 909, historians suspect Aethelred’s health began to fail and that Aethelflaed took up the mantle in his stead. There are indicators that other leaders recognized her as the de facto ruler of Mercia. She also worked in conjunction with her brother Edward on military campaigns. When Aethelred died in 911, she assumed responsibility for Mercia until she passed away a few years later. Their daughter Aelfwynn succeeded her, but Edward deposed her within months.
In the books:
Guthrum is the opposite of a good time. He’s morose, gloomy, and kills the vibe of whatever room he walks into. Physically, he is burly, formidable, and clean-shaven. Despite wearing fine black clothes and numerous gold arm rings, people call him Guthrum the Unlucky. He walks around with a bone tipped with gold in his hair, which we later discover is his mother’s rib. He wears it so he can take her with him wherever he goes.
Guthrum is creepily devoted to his dead mom, lamenting that nobody ever wrote songs and poems about her. Uhtred thinks he’s “mad as an owl at midday,” but no one can deny Guthrum’s ruthless, steely thirst to conquer and kill Saxons.
In the show:
Guthrum is much more endearing in The Last Kingdom. He’s still gloomy and morose, but also curious and calculating. He wears a bone in his hair, but never speaks about his mother or gives anyone reason to suspect he’s a nut. Other men, including Ragnar the Younger, respect and listen to him. (Except when Guthrum tries to have Uhtred executed as a hostage.)
Guthrum finds solace in the quiet spaces that churches provide. He wants to know more about the Christian faith and presses Anglo Saxon priests for explanations and answers. He’s not convinced, however, until Alfred’s army defeats them. When the twisted Skorpa murders Uhtred’s lover Iseult and Uhtred breaks through the shield wall in a fury, Guthrum is shocked. As the Saxons push the Danes back, Father Beocca expertly throws a spear and Uhtred catches it, then hurls it into Skorpa’s chest. It all happens so seamlessly that Guthrum is finally convinced. As his army stands down, he mutters, “Their god is with them.” Shortly after he’s baptized and renamed.
In real life:
Guthrum arrived on English shores during the Danish invasion of 865 and never left. He was a big deal, having consolidated his rule over the other powerful Danish chieftains in Danelaw (English land ruled by Danes), and waged war against Alfred. By the time he set his sights on Wessex in 876, he had already acquired parts of Mercia and Northumbria.
Guthrum started strong, winning the initial battle and attracting Viking allies along the way. After brokering a peace deal with Alfred, Guthrum went back on his word and pushed further into Wessex, coming out on top in skirmish after skirmish. When the Danes captured Exeter, Alfred brokered another peace treaty, and Guthrum left to spend the winter in Gloucester. And they lived happily ever after.
Just kidding, Guthrum broke the treaty again. In a surprise night time offense on January 6th, 878, (which happened to be Epiphany) he attacked Alfred’s forces at a fortress at Chippenham. By choosing a feast day, the Danes caught the Saxons unawares and very nearly captured Alfred.
Instead, Alfred escaped into the marshes of Somerset, where he hid out for months contemplating how best to defeat the Vikings. In the spring of 878, he called his allies to meet him at Egbert’s Stone, determined to vanquish his enemies. The Saxons traveled to Ethandun and engaged Guthrum’s army there, wearing them down over the course of a day. They beat them back to Chippenham and trapped them inside.
After the Saxons besieged him for two weeks, Guthrum agreed to another peace treaty. Alfred did not play around this time. The Treaty of Wedmore distinguished hard borders between Saxon land and Danelaw and required Guthrum to convert to Christianity, which he did with much pomp and circumstance. He took the name Aethelstan and Alfred stood as his godfather.
Guthrum/Aethelstan respected the treaty this time around and remained in his lands until he died in 890.
In the books:
The first word of advice Uhtred receives once he is captured by Danes is to never fight Ubba. And he should take that advice. Ubba is terrifying, with black hair, a chest like a barrel, and a penetrating gaze that shows pure hatred. He’s superstitious and only takes orders from his gods, which his sorcerer Storri helpfully translates.
Ubba, along with his brother Ivar the Boneless, has come from Daneland with a great army to conquer Saxon lands. Ubba mostly keeps to himself, is a fearless fighter, and cunning if not impatient. When Uhtred successfully spies on an enemy camp, an impressed Ubba gives him an arm ring. Then he calls him a mongrel.
In the show:
Ubba may be blonde in the series, but he’s still huge and foreboding. Like in the books, Uhtred is advised never to fight him, and his superstition is matched only by his rage and thirst for killing. Ubba’s sorcerer, Storri, is present, but not his brother Ivar the Boneless.
While Ubba seems to hate everyone in the books, he particularly detests Uhtred in the show. During negotiations, he demands Alfred give him Uhtred’s head and promises peace in return. In another meeting, this time with Odda the Elder, Uhtred goads Ubba by taunting him about his superstitions, resulting in the giant Dane becoming unhinged.
When Uhtred sneaks into Ubba’s enemy camp to fire some of his ships, the Danes surround him. Against all the wisdom of the day, he does indeed fight Ubba. After a tense battle, he slices Ubba’s Achilles heels, and the man falls harder than a redwood tree. Uhtred places his ax in his dying hand, then deals the final blow.
In real life:
Born in the Kingdom of Denmark, Ubba was a son to the legendary Viking Ragnar Lothbrok. He, along with his commander brother Ivar the Boneless, invaded Anglo Saxon England in the 860s as part of the Great Heathen Army. They landed in and made peace with the Kingdom of East Anglia in 865, overwintering there and continuing on to Northumbria. Fractured by two warring kings, Northumbria provided a relatively easy target.
Ivar installed a puppet king in Northumbria and set his sights on raiding into Mercia. Burgred, the Mercian king, had the sense to pay them off. Wessex wasn’t quite on the table yet, and so the army turned back to East Anglia. During their attacks, they captured King Edmund, and this is where the legend that Ubba was present while they shot him with arrows springs from. While these claims are dubious at best, it did make for a tensely comedic scene in the show.
Ubba made quite a career out of raiding and pillaging, which eventually led to the decisive Battle of Cynwit near Countisbury, Devon. He may have landed on the coast at Combwich with over two dozen ships and around 1,200 men. They saw that the English had retreated into a fort for safety and attempted to starve them out. Things didn’t quite work out as planned, and the ensuing battle, led by Odda of Devon, saw Ubba’s demise. While there was no Uhtred there to slice his heels open, we’re pretty sure it was gruesome nonetheless.
Odda, Ealdorman of Devon
In the books:
When Uhtred is betrothed to a pious woman named Mildreth, he rides out to a place called Defnascir to meet her. He says he loves Defnascir almost as much as Bebbanburg for its soft hills, lush fields, and quick streams. The lord of this picture-perfect locale is the ealdorman Odda. An elderly man of around 40, Odda has grey hair and a face disfigured by boils. His son, also named Odda, is not so unlucky — he’s good-looking, elegant, and well-dressed. It’s no surprise that he and his father immediately dislike the heathen at their door.
Haughty and proud, Odda the Elder hates the idea of Uhtred marrying his goddaughter and tries to set a bride price too high for Uhtred to pay. To his chagrin, the heathen has the silver. To spite him, Odda doesn’t allow Uhtred to see his bride, claiming she’s at prayer. The only time he’s allowed to glimpse his future wife is at the altar. Uhtred decides the best course of action is to get stinking drunk the night before. He shows up to his nuptials hungover, wearing dirty and crumpled clothes. And poor Mildred cried.
In the show:
Things start much the same way in the show, with Odda and his son both haughty, proud, and distrustful of Uhtred. Thankfully, he’s at least missing his disfiguring boils. After getting on everyone’s nerves and openly taunting young Odda, Uhtred eventually gains the older Odda’s trust by sneaking into Ubba’s camp and killing him. When it’s all over, Uhtred returns to his wife and Odda convalesces from an injury at home. Meanwhile, the snakelike Odda the Younger returns to Alfred and takes all the credit.
Odda the Younger proves to be a treacherous menace over time, forcing his ever-loyal father to dispatch him in full view of the room with a knife. With his heir gone, he turns to alcohol, earning the disapproval of Alfred. He drives the wedge further between himself and the king during Aethelflaed’s captivity, when Odda suggests she commit suicide. Finally, when Alfred seems willing to give up the kingdom’s riches to get his daughter back, Odda raises his army in defiance. Alfred throws him in jail, and he kills himself before he can be tried as a traitor.
In real life:
Odda seems like the perfect character to create for a show like The Last Kingdom — he’s an excellent buffer who helps showcase character development in others and deepen the Anglo Saxon world for the audience. But he was actually a real person.
We don’t know much about his early life, but sometime before 878, he became the ealdorman of Devon. His liege, Alfred, constantly fielded attacks from Vikings and went into hiding after his defeat at Chippenham. This put the question of loyalty to many ealdormen of the realm. On one side, there was the not-yet converted Guthrum, who conquered tons of Anglo Saxon land and rewarded turncoats. Historians speculate that another ealdorman, Wulfhere of Wiltshire (he was real, too!), defected to Guthrum for a royal title.
Odda decided to back Alfred in the end. When Ubba landed near Devon with his forces, Odda gathered an army and took a defensive position on the top of a hill. Realizing Ubba meant to starve them out (or rather, dehydrate them) Odda led his forces in a surprise attack at dawn. It was hugely successful, with the Saxons taking out nearly 1,000 Vikings and Ubba himself. They took Ubba’s raven banner, a symbol of Odin, and claimed a great victory. The battle became known as the Battle of Cynwit, or the Battle of the Raven Banner.
The Show Must Go On
We can only imagine what life was life in the era The Last Kingdom takes place. The records we have of the time are scant and at times indecipherable, but historians have done their best to put the pieces together. Author Bernard Cornwell certainly did his research, plucking these men and women from the annals of history and giving them new life today.
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