Aethelflaed and Uhtred face Cnut and Brida in the Battle of Tettenhall.
In the end, Edward did the right thing, though he was almost too late. The Mercian fyrd assembled in the woods. The Welsh came. Even Aethelred arrived from his East Anglia jaunt to lead his men in reclaiming his territory. It was a gathering of Christians fighting against the Danes that outnumbered them. And the son of Alfred the Great, who dreamed of a united England, did not lead them.
Edward's concern about not fighting a war on Cnut's terms was valid. Yet this episode also showed that at a critical point in his kingship, he was paralysed with inaction because he thought the problem at hand had only two roads -- march into Cnut's trap, or do nothing at all. He refused to consider that perhaps his sister, his mother, his priest, or even his best warrior may have thoughts on how to even the fighting field. Meanwhile, Aethelhelm continued to whisper in his ear.
It was to Edward's credit that the course he chose after much prayer was his, not Aethelhelm's. He accepted that his sister had forced his hand. He could not allow a battle to end without Wessex being part of it. Yet there, too, he showed that he still had much to learn. Mercians have marched and died alongside the men of Wessex. At a time of great Mercian need, Wessex ought to have mobilised; that was Wessex's duty as part of the alliance. Yes, it was understandable for the King of Wessex to want to preserve the lives of his people as much as he could, to ensure to the best of his ability that the war he would lead them to would result in victory and casualties that would not break the land's spirit. However, that Edward marched ever so reluctantly might have even led to more Wessex deaths; he lost the chance to strategise with Uhtred and Aethelflaed.
So, it was more than a little galling to hear Edward and Aethelhelm scold Aethelflaed after the battle. Aethelflaed did not have to seek out the love of her people; she earned it because she was a leader who genuinely cared about the welfare of her people. If the people of Wessex were truly mad at Aethelflaed for forcing the battle, shouldn't the Mercians feel the same way? If Aethelhelm felt that Aethelflaed would not be welcome in Wessex, shouldn't he also consider that Wessex nobility were also not welcome in Mercia? Mercian blood was spilt for Wessex cause, too. It was a rather colonialist view to think that it was all right for Mercians to die for Wessex, but Wessex soldiers dying for Mercia was a grievous sin.
Just to be clear -- my comments about Edward in this recap are my mostly thoughts when viewing the show through the lens of a fan. When I view Edward more critically, I still think there is an admirable balance in the character. Edward is smart, but not Alfred smart. He is proud, but he also knows when to back down. He considers the advise of his powerful father in law, but he makes his own decisions. It takes a certain level of careful control to write a character like this (and I imagine, to perform it), so kudos to The Last Kingdom's writers. This tension between Edward and Aethelflaed may also be historically accurate, so bonus points for that.
The show's battle scenes are always a treat to watch, and the Mercian/Welsh forces versus Cnut and Brida's army that happened in this episode did not disappoint. Aelswith gave Aethelflaed a viable suggestion on where to draw Cnut out, where a smaller force had a chance to prevail; how to convince Cnut to leave his strategic position was another matter. Uhtred and Aethelflaed did not have to exert any effort at all. The moment Cnut got word of where they were, he ordered his army to march.
On the previous episode, Cnut ordered his man to capture Aethelflaed in Aylesbury. Trapped by a larger force, Uhtred threatened the lives of Cnut's two sons. To show that he was serious, he pretended to behead Cnut's oldest son. Part of the cruelty Cnut inflicted amongst the Mercians was the beheading of the children of Mercian nobility. The body Uhtred threw down to sell his ruse was one of these bodies. After Cnut's men left, Uhtred freed his sons.
Cnut went mad with grief when he heard the news that one of his sons was dead, and the other was held captive by Uhtred. He ordered his men to find Uhtred. Brida protested against marching, but Cnut insisted that the location of a battle did not matter given the sheer number of their forces.
When Uhtred, Aethelflaed, and their small force arrived at Tettenhall, they were greeted by an empty landscape. Despite Aelswith's promise, Edward was not there. Eventually, the forces of the Welsh King arrived, along with Father Pyrlig. Aethelflaed thought her brother requested the alliance with Wales for her, but Father Pyrlig said no, it was Aelswith's doing. Even without Edward, Aethelflaed was determined to fight.
A ditch that ran across the field gave Uhtred an idea. He set the men to chopping branches in the woods, which they used to cover the ditch. Blind with rage, Cnut immediately ordered a charge as soon as they arrived at Tettenhall (Brida tried to stop him). The fragile cover collapsed under the weight of the horses, Cnut, and his men, so that they fell before they could reach Uhtred and Aethelflaed's group. Just like that, Uhtred managed to unhorse a significant portion of Cnut's army.
Aethelred arrived at the head of the Mercian forces. He may have been an armchair general in East Anglia, but to his credit, Aethelred himself led his men this time. He was at the thick of battle. At some point, he fell down the ditch and hit his head. Even with that gruesome wound at the back of his head, however, Aethelred still rallied his troops to keep fighting.
The sheer number of Cnut's forces was overwhelming, however. Before the battle, Uhtred told Aethelflaed to choose someone to kill her softly, should it appear that they were losing. Aethelflaed assured him that she had already chosen a man, Aldhelm. Surrounded by Cnut's forces, however, Aldhelm found that he could not kill the woman he loved and the leader he admired. It was then, when the battle seemed lost, that Edward and his Wessex army arrived.
The combined forces of Mercia, Wales, and Wessex won, but at a great cost. Too many men died, including loyal Steapa. Edward tried diplomacy with King Hywel, but the Welsh king was not interested. Wales fought because they got Father Pyrlig to agree that they would take all the silver from the Danes. It was this treasure King Hywel was after, not an alliance, not good relations with the kingdom of Wessex. It was yet another development that galled Edward; he felt he had been forced to pay tribute to King Hywel. He also could not reward his own men, since the spoils of battle were all taken by the Welsh.
The Welsh did not just take silver, they took slaves as well, including Brida. Even as Cnut furiously tried to reach Uhtred during the battle, Uhtred could not wait to kill him as well. In the woods, they finally fought. Brida found them there, just in time to hear Cnut confess to killing Ragnar. Her heart broken by yet another man in her life, Brida shoved a sword through Cnut. Before Cnut died, Uhtred told him his boys lived.
With the battle lost and with Welsh soldiers surrounding her, waiting to take her as a slave, Brida begged Uhtred to kill her. She did not want to be a slave. She wanted to be with Ragnar. Uhtred, however, could not bring himself to kill his childhood love. As the Welsh soldiers dragged her away, there was this pained look on Brida's face, as though she could not believe yet another betrayal happened to her. It was clear even then that this was one act of Uhtred she could never forgive.
▪︎ Uhtred: ‘I do not seek battles. Battles just seem to seek me.’
▪︎ Aethelred was furious when Eardwulf finally confessed that he was duped by Haesten. Aethelred vowed that Eardwulf would be publicly castrated once they were back in Aylesbury.
▪︎ After the battle, Eadith wanted to use the commotion as cover so she and her brother could run away with their lives. Eardwulf, however, did not fight with everything he had just so he could leave the comfort of his courtly position. That Aethelred was gravely injured in battle was a hopeful sign for them.
▪︎ Aethelhelm found out that Aelswith arranged a meeting between Ecgwynn and her son Aethelstan. He told his daughter that another son would make her position more secure.
▪︎ Uhtred advised Aethelflaed to tell her men that Edward was coming, though by that time they had both lost hope that he would arrive.
Director: Sarah O'Gorman
Writer: Jamie Crichton
Original Release Date: 26 April 2020