Uhtred breaches the gates of Bebbanburg and Aelswith meets young Aethelstan, the future King of England.
'I am Uhtred of Bebbanburg.'
For four seasons now, we have gotten used to hearing Alexander Dreymon's Uhtred introduce himself in the name given to him following his brother's death, using the place where he was born but has not seen since he was a child. Bebbanburg was Uhtred's unbreakable connection to the England that Alfred tried to build. It was the home he has been trying to reach, though he has long turned away from its land's predominantly Christian faith. For years, Bebbanburg was just a far off dream for Uhtred. Now, he was at its gates.
Yet it was not Uhtred the Dane-Slayer who uttered those words that both declared his identity and staked his claim to one of the great fortresses of England. No, it was his son Young Uhtred. Face to face with the man who wrenched his father's inheritance from him, threatened with the same gruesome death imposed upon the two monks he traveled with, Young Uhtred claimed what he had previously turned away from. He was his father's son. The legacy of Bebbanburg was in his blood. When Aelfric ordered him killed, Young Uhtred fought his attacker with surprising determination; before his father Uhtred had him kidnapped, after all, this kid lived a life of prayer, far away from a warrior's bloodied existence. Yet, he met what he must have thought was his end with courage.
Did Uhtred think that sending his son inside the walls of Bebbanburg would place his life in such danger? I honestly do not know. I wrote in the previous recap of how Uhtred's Bebbanburg assault just did not feel right. We have repeatedly seen Uhtred come up with creative plans that work, just when all seemed lost. Yet there was a lack of his usual swagger in the way Uhtred planned the retaking of Bebbanburg. It was not really a plan, more of a shot in the dark and a hope that things would turn out fine, as they often did with him and his battles. He sent his son, untrained in battle, alone to talk his way into joining the two monks Aethelred dispatched to negotiate for the heart of St. Oswald. Young Uhtred was supposed to send a signal, then open the sea gate to Uhtred and his men. It was a plan that hinged on a boy that liked neither violence nor his father. Even if Young Uhtred made it to the sea gate (he didn't), would he have had the strength to pull the lever to open the gate? This plan just seemed to lack Uhtred's usual flair.
Young Uhtred did show that he had a sharp mind, in the way he convinced the monks to allow him to accompany them and Aelfric to open his gate to them. He sent the signal, as agreed. What Young Uhtred did not see were the group of warriors Wihtgar brought with him. Wihtgar found Young Uhtred after he had already given the signal for Uhtred and company to proceed with the assault, but before he could open the sea gate. Wihtgar dragged Young Uhtred to the courtyard. The boy did not break even after Wihtgar killed the two monks, nor did he flinch when Aelfric ordered his death.
It was Beocca who talked Young Uhtred into giving his father a break. In his kind, fatherly way, Beocca explained how Uhtred was wrenched from his home as a boy and made to live amongst the Danes. Beocca did not really intend for Young Uhtred to think that he could help Uhtred return to the Christian life -- Beocca knew Uhtred much better than that -- but that was what Young Uhtred took from the conversation. Instead of running home as Finan predicted, Young Uhtred did as Uhtred asked.
Uhtred and his men found a way to open the sea gate without Young Uhtred's help. With Aelfric and Wihtgar's men assembled in the courtyard, Uhtred and his band encountered little resistance as they made their way through the fortress. Though he saw the large number of men assembled, a force they did not anticipate, Uhtred held Aelfric at sword point. He declared himself the true lord of Bebbanburg, and promised the men he would look after them. His quarrel was with Aelfric and Aelfric alone.
Uhtred did not count on Wihtgar's lack of love for his father. Aelfric was no shield for Uhtred; Wihtgar shot a crossbow directly at his eye. Just like that, the man who long held the post that was rightfully Uhtred's was dead. Now, Uhtred and his small group of men, including his young son, were surrounded by a far more formidable force.
Meanwhile, Aelswith continued with her quest to right some of the wrongs she did by allowing Edward's first wife Ecgwynn some time with her son Aethelstan, whom she has not seen since he was dragged from her arms when he was a baby. I liked that the show included the caption 'First King of all England and all the English' when the boy Aethelstan was first shown on screen; it was helpful for people like me who like history, but who does not exactly have all the kings memorised. This way, every time young Aethelstan was on screen, we already know his significance in the wider story.
Aelswith has really flowered as a character post Alfred, and not just because we saw a kinder, humbler version of her in this episode (notably, she accepted that Father Beocca and Hild were correct to call her out for her mistreatment of Ecgwynn). The proud, politically certain Aelswith remained, however, and this was a testament to both the general excellent writing in The Last Kingdom and Eliza Butterworth's subtly powerful performance. When young Aethelstan asked her if she were an Abbess, she replied, 'No. I am... a friend. Though many great abbesses feel I could have been one of their number'. Her pride in her faith and her practice of her faith, the bedrock and justification of her every action, was still there. Aelswith, however, allowed that she had been wrong, at least in her choice of a bride for her son. To be fair to Aelswith, her judgment of Aelflaed's vanity and Aethelhelm's ambition was not simply borne out of her lost place as counselor to a King. Under Aethelhelm's influence, Edward refused to send troops immediately to aid Mercia, which was ravaged by Cnut and Brida's forces. Aethelhelm also dismissed an Alfred-esque education for Edward's son Aelfweard, preferring instead to have the boy instructed solely as a warrior. It was clear to everyone except Edward that his wife and father in law were putting in danger the legacy that Alfred built and his dream of a united England.
What Aelswith had as an ace up her sleeve was Edward's true firstborn son, a child of a marriage priests would swear was legitimate. Aelswith knew that she needed to keep the boy Aethelstan safe, and so she told Ecgwynn that he would be moved from the monastery he currently lived. Ecgwynn was initially happy and grateful to see her son, but her heart broke at Aelswith's words that she would never see Aethelstan again. Ecgwynn was a gentle girl who only wanted a happy home with the man she loved and their children. Aelswith correctly if cruelly pointed out that made her unsuitable for the court at Winchester. She may not have had the temperament necessary for a consort to a King struggling to build a united country whilst battling foreign invaders, but it still hurt to see Ecgwynn torn from her child.
■ One of the things I have always loved about The Last Kingdom is how it always finds a way to stage even complex battle scenes coherently. The assault of Bebbanburg happened at night time, but we could clearly see Uhtred and his men gingerly move against the rock wall to the sea gate, then climb the stone steps up the courtyard whilst fighting a handful of men.
■ Uhtred: 'Is it a trap?'
Finan: 'Is it a trap we can fight our way out of?'
■ Aelfric's monk's name is Aidan, and he has been at Bebbanburg even when young Uhtred was there.
■ Aelfric initially considered selling the heart of St. Oswald to Aethelred so he could use the silver to hire more men. When his son Wihtgar arrived with warriors, however, it seemed that Aelfric's problems were sorted. We still don't know why Aelfric banished his son or what happened to Wihtgar whilst he was away.
■ It is important to note that it wasn't just Uhtred who got to go home in this episode; Father Beocca did as well. It had been years since he last breathed the cool northern air that was his home prior to his service to Alfred.
■ Edward was not happy that Aethelred kept referring to himself as King of Mercia.
■ To be fair to Edward, his decision not to send men to Mercia immediately was not just because of Aethelhelm's advise. He was also conscious of not allowing Cnut to set the terms of battle.
■ Haesten did not join Cnut and Brida in conquering Mercia. He claimed he did not wish to fight anymore, and simply wanted silver and women. Cnut sent his two sons with Haesten, who was headed north. Cnut was clearly very fond of his children.
■ Haesten knew that Brida was pregnant, though Brida has not yet told Cnut.
■ Cnut and Brida did not anticipate that Aethelred would move to conquer East Anglia.
■ Brida approvingly told Cnut that he was 'inventive in [his] cruelty' when Cnut had the noblemen of Mercia marched naked. I want to remember this for later recaps.
■ Cnut was fine with Aethelred killing his people in East Anglia. With Aelthelred and his army gone, it was easier to conquer Mercia. The slaughter of Mercians would lure Edward out of Winchester sooner.
■ On their boat ride to Bebbanburg, Uhtred paid tribute to the goddess Rán, which of course did not sit well with the Christian Young Uhtred.
■ The moment Aelswith heard that Aethelred was collecting the relics of St. Oswald, she knew it was a serious sign that Aethelred meant to break with Wessex. Aelswith was Mercian and she was well aware of how important St. Oswald was to Mercians.
■ Edward's wife and now crowned Queen Aelflaed was disturbingly proud of how their son Aelfweard kicked Steappa. Not cool.
■ Aelswith meant to speak to Father Beocca but Father Pyrlig told her he left. She did banish him, after all. When Aelswith tried to claim that God guided her in her decisions, Father Pyrlig bluntly said perhaps God did not. People at court knew that Aelswith's power was waning and they felt freer to speak their mind to her.
■ If you read my Reign recaps back in my old blog, then you'd know that I was such a Toby Regbo stan. I loved him as Francis in Reign. I rarely write about him in The Last Kingdom, however, because his role here is Aethelred, a rather despicable ruler and husband. Aethelred in this episode was already in East Anglia, safe within his camp whilst Eardwulf led his army for him. Aethelred had a dress cut low down the chest made for Eadith and wanted her to wear it. He also mentioned killing his wife Aethelflaed so he could marry Eadith.
■ To her credit, the murder of Aethelflaed was clearly way beyond what Eadith was willing to do for a relatively comfortable life following her father's disgrace. She told Eardwulf that if Aethelred asked him to attack Aethelflaed, he should refuse. Eardwulf, however, was more than willing to do anything Aethelred asked if it meant his continued influence at court.
■ When Aelswith asked Aethelstan who his family was, the boy replied, 'I've been told not to answer that'. It was such a simple sentence that told much about the boy, the life he has lived, and the danger he was in. The Last Kingdom is one of the best written shows on TV right now.
Director: Ed Bazalgette
Writer: Martha Hillier
Original Release Date: 26 April 2020