Bob’s Pick: The Last Kingdom (Season Four) on Netflix
One of the best writers today of historical fiction is Bernard Cornwell. His current series of books are collectively known as the “Saxon Chronicles”. If you’re at all interested in the history of medieval England before it actually became England, I highly recommend this series of books for you. Also if you’re an enthusiast of the historical King Arthur, I’m sure you would also enjoy reading about this latter day counterpart. Like “Game of Thrones” if you wish to skip the books and want to take a short-cut, there is also available a Netflix made for television series known as the “Last Kingdom”. The most current season is season four. Lastly, if you’ve been following the “Last Kingdom” since its inception, consider this a spoiler alert and don’t proceed any further.
It is further recommended that before proceeding to Season Four, you first watch the first three seasons. The series is based on the life of a fictional character named Uhtred. Uhtred is a complex character and the history of Saxon England wouldn’t be complete without first reviewing events that encompassed the reign of King Alfred the Great. There is much to admire about Uhtred. His is the classical “Horatio Alger” story and I do enjoy rooting for the underdog.
Born of a noble Saxon family in the fortress city of Bebbanburg, Uhtred has many adventures and life experiences that are intertwined with the Norse invasions of his country taking place during the late Ninth Century. His country is not yet known as “England” but consists primarily of separate warring Saxon kingdoms which are called Northumberland, Mercia and Wessex. Bebbanburg is located in the Northeast coastal corner of the kingdom of Northumberland, which itself is located in the north of England.
To digress some and add a little more perspective to this story, I would like to make note of some of the historical events that occurred prior to this time period. The Roman legions previously stationed there have departed and abandoned England. Saxon Tribes from Germany have already invaded and established their own separate kingdoms. King Arthur, a Briton warlord of that time, ultimately could not stem the tide of the Saxon invasions. Consequently, most of the native Britons and Romans have been pushed to the interior and west coast of England, part of which became known as modern day “Wales”.
Uhtred is experiencing a “deja-vu” situation as he, not unlike Arthur before him, has his life dedicated to being a warlord trying to stem the tide of foreign invasions. Early in his life, however, his fortunes rapidly dissipate. His father is killed, his inheritance is stolen by his uncle, and to top it all off, he becomes a slave to the “Norse” or more specifically “Danish” invaders.
The silver lining to this situation is that his captors are both benevolent and kind. He, as well as another Saxon slave, Brida, are raised the same as the children of the Danish family who holds them captive. Subsequently, they soon learn the language, religion, customs and traditions of the Danes. Uhtred grows into manhood, and using the skills taught him by his “Viking” relatives, he becomes a fierce warrior and warlord.
His loyalty to his newfound family is without question and he is to share many future adventures with his foster brother, Ragnar. Still, his main objective in life is to regain the inheritance stolen from him by his uncle, namely the fortress city of Bebbanburg.
To this end, he pledges his assistance to the Saxon king of Wessex, Alfred the Great. Even though raised as a Dane, in order to gain help in regaining Bebbanburg, Uhtred follows his roots. As a Saxon, Uhtred can earn future title and possession of the city he once called home. Not to go into too much detail, his exploits and adventures in the service of King Alfred can be followed in the first three seasons of “The Last Kingdom”.
Since I have provided you with a brief synopsis of the main character, his time and his place, I will now discuss some of the events of Season Four of the “Last Kingdom”. As previously mentioned, Uhtred is foremost a warrior. A brilliant strategist on the battlefield, he is respected by his enemy, the Danes, and is the warlord they fear the most among the Saxons.
It is ironic that he is often treated as an unwanted stepchild by the Saxons. They don’t trust him as they regard him a Dane and as an impious, irreverent non-Christian heretic. Uhtred is not a Christian. His attitude is that if he had a choice, he would rather go to Valhalla than to Heaven. Like a dose of castor oil, the Saxons seek him only when they are ill need of help and need a remedy.
The Danes are on the move, however, and the Saxons need Uhtred. The Christian kingdom of Mercia is a ripe target for the Danes as the Mercian king, Aethelred has foolishly left his kingdom unprotected to attack a neighboring Danish settlement. His brother-in-law, Edward, king of Wessex and son of the late king Alfred comes to the aid of Mercia and his sister, Aethelflaed. What draws Uhtred into the conflict is his love of Aethelflaed, the abused and long suffering wife of King Aethelred. The battle of Tettenhall ensues and the Saxon coalition is victorious. Arriving late to the engagement and mortally wounded is Aethelred, the embarrassed king of Mercia.
It is obvious that soon Mercia will need a successor to the throne. The successor is chosen by the Witten, a council of elders. As their most powerful ally and neighbor, King Edward tries his best to influence the Witten and the outcome of the election. He is thwarted by his sister, Aethelflaed, who along with the Witten want an independent leader whose primary loyalty is to the kingdom of Mercia. Frustrated in his desires, Edward eventually proposes a compromise candidate, none other than Uhtred.
His candidacy puts Uhtred in conflict with his friend and lover, the recently widowed queen of Mercia, Aethelflaed. Though prohibited from assuming the throne on her own because she is female, Aethelflaed is actually the best candidate. She is the one who organized the rescue of Mercia from the Danes and is regarded as a hero by the people of her country. Uhtred is elected and in a surprise move, he relinquishes the throne in favor of Aethelflaed. There is a catch, however, and that is Aethelflaed must remain chaste throughout her reign. In a single move, Uhtred loses both his throne and his love life.
As politics took center stage in Mercia, the Danes unbeknownst to the Saxons, raided and captured the capital city of Wessex, Winchester. Edward with his army rushes back to Wessex. Too late for him though as the royal family including both sons of Edward are captured. Among the captives is also Uhtred’s daughter, Stiorra. The Danes are well entrenched and a siege ensues.
Sigtryggr, the leader of the Danes, threatens to kill both of Edward’s sons unless Edward lifts his siege and departs. In a bold move, Uhtred offers himself in exchange for the two boy hostages. Sigtryggr sees advantage in depriving the Saxons of their best warrior and readily agrees. Instead of torturing or imprisoning Uhtred, Sigtryggr enters peace negotiations with him. As both Dane and Saxon, Uhtred is uniquely positioned as a diplomat and mediator between the two warring sides.
While Sigtryggr and Uhtred are negotiating, Edward, who is unaware of any negotiations, attacks and breeches the defenses of Winchester. In the middle of the fighting, both Uhtred and Sigtryggr convince both sides to lay down their arms. A treaty is concluded and as a bonus, Sigtryggr, who has fallen in love with Uhtred’s daughter, Stiorra, has Uhtred to gain as a possible future father-in-law.
Thus concludes Season Four of the “Last Kingdom”. Hopefully, my short recap whets the reader’s appetite to delve deeper not only into the film version but also the written version of the “Saxon Chronicles”. I have omitted much of the action and excitement as well as many of the supporting characters and sub-plots of the series. In the words of Uhtred, if you choose to know more and follow these pursuits, then “Destiny is all”.
Postscript: For “Game of Thrones” fans, “The Last Kingdom” has been favorably compared to it as a more “realistic” version. George R. R. Martin also praises Bernard Cornwell for writing what is in his opinion the most realistic battle scenes of any writer of that genre.