It is Sigtryggr versus Edward and Aethelflaed in the struggle for Winchester.
It was how clearly Sigtryggr stated his goal from the beginning that made him different from past Danish leaders. As he told Brida when she first tried to persuade him to push forward to Wessex, he would only ask his men to fight for things he believed in -- their families, food, or land. For too long, it almost seemed as though there was a lack of clarity in the various conflicts between Saxons and Danes. Saxons wanted to hold on to their lands and their way of life. Various Danish leaders wanted silver, territory, a fortress, reputation. Now, we have a Danish leader who marched into Wessex for a singular goal, peace, and he started his negotiation from an unarguable position of strength.
This of course leads to the question of how honest Sigtryggr had been to Brida from the beginning. Brida's goal was nothing less than the destruction of Saxons. She did not particularly care how this was done or if she lived or died through the fight; she just wanted to lash out. There was blind anger in Brida, specifically toward Uhtred, whom she believed betrayed her by allowing her to live and become a slave, rather than ascend to Valhalla as a warrior beside her beloved Ragnar. When Sigtryggr impressed upon Brida the importance of having one goal, it was a rare moment of dissonance in The Last Kingdom. Brida made no secret of how she felt about the Saxons. She despised them, she wanted to hurt them by hurting what was most precious to them, their faith. There was no point in any of their scenes together that would have made Sigtryggr believe that Brida backed his plans.
Therein lies the intriguing question -- How far ahead had Sigtryggr planned? Was his negotiation for a settlement in Eoferwic just the first step in a grander scheme? Or did he change his mind once he arrived in Winchester, spoke to Stiorra, and listened to the chronicles of Wessex that Alfred had painstakingly maintained in his lifetime? After all, the siege has been going on for 30 days before Sigtryggr made a move that led to Uhtred volunteering to surrender himself to the Danes in exchange for Edward's two sons. That was plenty of time for Sigtryggr to formulate a plan.
Uhtred said that Danes did not like sieges, but a siege was exactly what Sigtryggr planned for when they captured Winchester. He did not rest on his laurels as the Dane who captured Winchester; instead, he gathered information, most of them from or with the help of Stiorra. From her stories, he gauged his enemies. From her readings, he learnt about the land he meant to make his new home. When he and Uhtred spoke, he said he thought they might find common ground. Uhtred longed for the home he lost, just as Sigtryggr did. The difference was that Uhtred's home was named, it was Bebbanburg, whereas Sigtryggr was just about to identify the land that would be his.
He chose Eoferwic, which was for so long been under Danish control until Aethelflaed and her army forcibly took it back. It could not have been easy for Aethelflaed to let go of a territory her men died for, a territory that was just on the border of Mercia, but that was Sigtryggr's price, in exchange for a promise not to cross into Wessex, Mercia, and East Anglia. That would mean that Alfred's children would be in control of three kingdoms. That was an acceptable resolution to a conflict that wrested Winchester, the heart of the Saxon territories, away from them.
And here we find ourselves in a development that earned the ire of some The Last Kingdom fans. Sigtryggr did not just ask for Eoferwic, he also asked for one of the hostages, Stiorra. Note that Sigtryggr spent a lot of time talking to Uhtred. It was Uhtred he first needed to convince that he meant what he said when he spoke of peace. It was through Uhtred that he gained an audience with Edward and Aethelflaed. Yet he was smart enough not to demand a daughter from her father. No, he demanded her from a king and a ruling lady, and they did not say no.
I understand the anger of fans here. Edward and Aethelflaed owed their lives and their kingdoms many times over to Uhtred. At the very least, when Sigtryggr demanded Stiorra as a price of peace, they could have left the decision to Uhtred. It mattered not that Stiorra was technically no longer a child by their culture's standards. She was the daughter of the man they owed plenty to, and Uhtred deserved the respect of being able to say no.
Of course Uhtred said no, but it mattered not. Whilst Sigtryggr listened to Stiorra, Stiorra, too, watched him. From her introduction, Stiorra was shown as a restless spirit. She said that was Uhtred in her, but I have always felt that Stiorra was all Gisela. The arguments she made to Uhtred, including invoking the name of her mother, were strong. Stiorra wanted to be amongst her mother's people. She knew that she and Young Uhtred were not really Uhtred's family; his family was his men. Uhtred also could not have failed to notice that Stiorra had fallen in love with Sigtryggr. At the very least, the man Stiorra chose was as good a strategist as Uhtred; the father in him could take comfort in the thought that Sigtryggr was in a better position than most to keep his daughter safe.
More than the three previous seasons, it was the fourth that kept firm in its view the formation of England. England somehow felt more real, as though the season was a giant step toward it. In Stiorra was a half Saxon half Dane that showed such unions were possible. In Sigtryggr was the visionary leader who understood that England presented a more fertile land they could farm and wrest a living from, than the Daneland their ancestors abandoned, and negotiated peace and land for his people. Peace had previously been negotiated between Saxons and Danes, but there was always this sense that the peace was only temporary, and that all parties knew it was temporary. This was the first time that, at least on the surface, Edward, Aethelflaed, and Sigtryggr appeared to want the peace to last.
This, of course, did not mean that power plays had ceased. Through Sigtryggr, Edward learnt that it was possible to acquire territory outside of war. The capture of Winchester all but defeated Edward's spirit, but with both his sons alive, with the support of his sister, Edward found his strength again. Alfred had wanted to build England. Edward and Aethelflaed now had three kingdoms. Now, Edward set his sights upon Northumbria.
What was Edward liked in the finale? Panicked, initially, completely at a loss at what to do. When the episode began, Edward was ready to set fire to Winchester to retake it. He had even convinced himself that he had given up on the royal hostages, including his mother and two sons. When Sigtryggr tried to make him choose which one of his sons to save, Edward all but fell apart. He believed that it was God's vengeance for his failure to protect the children of Mercia. What Sigtryggr presented was an impossible choice for a young king and a father, and completely believable from a characterisation perspective. I have written this again and again, but when I take my fan lenses off and look at Edward from a writer's point of view, I do admire how The Last Kingdom writers handled his character. The writers even managed to sneak a bit of sibling rivalry there; when Edward heard of Aethelflaed's victory at Eoferwic, he wanted to retake Winchester before she arrived. The uneasy relationship between the siblings could also very well be historically accurate.
Edward calmed down considerably after he got his sons back, thanks to Uhtred. When Aethelflaed returned, he had someone who unequivocally backed him in the necessity of retaking Winchester. By this time, Edward was already convinced that Uhtred was dead. It was because Brida, who found out from Haesten that Sigtryggr meant to ask for a truce, tossed Uhtred's sword off the ramparts, to be found by someone from the Saxon camp. Though Uhtred's men begged him to reconsider, to give Uhtred more time, Edward was determined to attack Winchester.
It was an attack that need not have happened, because by that time, Uhtred and Sigtryggr had already come to an agreement. With the Winchester front gate breached, Uhtred had to wade through Danish and Saxon forces to reach Edward and let him know that Sigtryggr wanted to talk. The staging of intent amidst the chaos of battle was impressive. Sigtryggr called for a shield wall, and Edward did the same. The leaders retreated to negotiate.
Edward showed himself to be as ungrateful to Uhtred as Alfred was, but in the end it was, predictably, to Uhtred he turned, to solve another looming crisis in Wessex. Aelswith was ill, possibly dying. Edward did not yet know this, but Aelswith's condition was due to the poison Aethelhelm slipped into her water whilst they were captives. With Aelswith ill, and with Aethelhelm now fully aware of who young Aethelstan was, Edward needed someone to look after his son. Edward specifically asked Uhtred to teach Aethelstan the way of the Danes. Edward has not yet given up on annexing Northumbria to his kingdom, and for reasons not yet revealed, he saw his son Aethelstan having a part on it.
The fourth season of The Last Kingdom ended with intriguing prospects for the future. Would the peace with the Danes of Eoferwic hold? Was a home to call their own really what Sigtryggr was after, or did he have further plans for England? How fun would it be to watch Uhtred and his men raise bookish, intelligent Aethelstan into a Saxon lord and warrior with unique insights into the lives of the Danes? Would the show really take away Aelswith now that she was finally starting to learn to be nice? Would Alflaed ever be shown to have a single redeeming quality? Would Finan finally get the girl? Who would Uhtred's next lady be, now that Aethelflaed had sworn to remain chaste? Was Brida set up as the next major antagonist?
As of this writing, there has yet to be an announcement on whether there will be a fifth season or not. With coronavirus causing a global disruption, it is likely that the next season, and I am very hopeful that there will be a next season, will be delayed. I have made my peace with the long wait. What we have right now, what we were given, is the first season without the phenomenal David Dawson, and what a season it has been. Watch. Rewatch. Tell your friends, your family, your social media followers, to watch. The Last Kingdom is a jewel of a show that for some reason has not yet achieved the enormous popularity it deserves. For everyone who joined me on these recaps, thank you! I know I tend to write slowly, but thank you for sticking with me. See you next season!
▪︎ Young Aethelstan was just a kid, but he was already a King. When Sigtryggr wondered out loud which of the boys he should choose (the hostages had every reason to believe he meant to kill whomever he chose), Aethelstan said he was older and should be chosen. Aethelstan of history was the first Anglo-Saxon ruler of the whole of England; he was the one who achieved his grandfather Alfred's dream. I liked what we have seen of the kid so far, including his more playful moments with Finan.
▪︎ Cenric was shot by Brida with an arrow. Aw.
▪︎ There was a moment when Brida wanted to kill Stiorra to get Uhtred to come out. Sigtryggr put his body between Brida and Stiorra. Haesten's expressions through the entire exchange were precious.
▪︎ When Sigtryggr and Edward met up the first time, Sigtryggr said he had no wife or children, which made him stronger than Edward. He knew attachments amounted to weaknesses that could be exploited, yet he asked for Stiorra anyway. The minute shifts in Sigtryggr's face on his first conversation with Stiorra showed that he was captivated by her, but going further than romance, Stiorra also proved herself a very useful source of information for Sigtryggr. He was able to come up with his ultimately successful plan of gaining land for his people in large part because of the information he gathered from Stiorra. Also, unlike most people of the time, Stiorra could read. Stiorra was a wise choice for Sigtryggr, because she was his equal, her knowledge of England was valuable, and she was heiress to Bebbanburg.
▪︎ Sigtryggr ordered his men to gather water and mud and slather them over the roofs, to counter Edward's plan to set fire to the town. In his attack with Aethelflaed, Edward decided to use smoke instead of fire, to conceal the attack from the Danish warriors up the ramparts.
▪︎ Haesten has been keeping Eadith captive. When Edward's forces were at the gate, Haesten tried to get Eadith to leave with him, but she refused. She was wounded during the fighting and was later tended to by Finan.
▪︎ It was Aelswith who told her fellow hostages about the plant that grew in the gardens that was tasteless and poisonous, particularly to children. A month into captivity, and they believed they were being kept alive so the Danes could make a show of their deaths. When Aethelhelm saw Uhtred inside Winchester and found out that both of Edward's sons lived, he bribed one of the Danes to get him a plant. He poisoned Aelswith because, as he explained to his daughter, with Edward unable to choose between his sons, it might be best that young Aethelstan no longer had a powerful protector in Aelswith.
▪︎ Edward and Aethelflaed looked into the hostages before they began their negotiations with Sigtryggr. Aelswith smiled at her children, and gave no clue that she was already weak and in a lot of pain.
▪︎ Young Uhtred joined his father and the Saxon army outside the gates of Winchester. He sweetly told Uhtred that if the time ever came that he needed to choose, he wanted him to choose to save Stiorra. Aw.
▪︎ Young Uhtred is the new Father Beocca. He differed from Uhtred in faith, but their love for each other was strong.
▪︎ It was pretty funny how, by now, Uhtred's men already knew what he looked like when he had no clear plan.
▪︎ Haesten advised Sigtryggr to trade Edward's two boys for Uhtred. Haesten reasoned out that Edward could always make more sons, but he could not make another Uhtred.
▪︎ Brida attacked Uhtred, but of course Uhtred easily prevailed; she was heavily pregnant and was no match for Uhtred as a warrior. Uhtred could not kill her. Brida's words could very well be clues that she would be a major problem for Uhtred next season. Her bitterness was heartbreaking.
▪︎ Shield wall, everyone! Let's make some noise and help promote this incredible show.
Director: Ed Bazalgette
Writer: Martha Hillier
Original Release Date: 26 April 2020