Aethelred is at his deathbed. In Mercia, politics is a powder keg.
I was just about resigned to writing a recap about men in power whilst being idiots when Stiorra came on screen near the end of the episode. Halfway through the season, and Stiorra is so far the best new character in The Last Kingdom. It was as though Gisela lived again, but now as a mouthy bored teenager. I love her.
But I suppose we have to discuss the politics so here goes.
With Aethelred dying, and with the wounds of Cnut's savagely still raw, Mercia was a powder keg. As Uhtred pointed out, 'An empty throne provokes more trouble than a weak king'. Burgred, an Earldorman whose eldest son was amongst those beheaded, wanted his second son to be the next lord of Mercia. He was often at odds with Ludeca, who also had his eye on the throne and who claimed to be in control of the Witan.
Then there was Eardwulf. Aethelred's head injury left him with memory gaps, so that Eardwulf conveniently escaped blame for his part in the march to East Anglia. Eardwulf even claimed that he did his best to convince Aethelred to return to Mercia as soon as possible, though we of course knew this was bull. Aethelred's march back to Mercia was delayed because Eardwulf concealed Edward's message from him. Eadith had to force him to tell Aethelred the truth.
But Eardwulf had already caught the eye of Edward, who headed to Aegelesburg intent on making Aethelred pay for his tragically wrong decision to leave Mercia undefended. At one point during the Battle of Tettanhall, Eardwulf saved Edward's life. Edward also noted how Mercian soldiers obeyed and respected Eardwulf. The feedback Edward got about Eardwulf was not bad; the man worked hard, because he wanted his family to rise from still unspecified disgrace.
Initially, it looked as though Edward was considering betrothing his niece Aelfwynn to the elderly Ludeca, to strengthen Ludeca's claim as lord of Mercia. Edward, however, offered Aelfwynn to Eardwulf. With Eardwulf as lord of Mercia, the lands that were his family's would be transferred to Ludeca. It was a clever way of putting a man of Edward's choosing on the throne, a man who was relatively young, whilst also keeping Ludeca happy, so that he would enjoin the other members of the Witan to back Eardwulf.
Aethelflaed, however, objected to the match. She and Uhtred witnessed Eardwulf being abusive to his sister Eadith. Aetheflaed knew he was not a good man. She had secured Aethelred's agreement that she would have to approve any match made for Aelfwynn. Arguing against her brother, Aethelflaed headed to Aethelred's chambers to get his support, and found him already dead.
I despised Aethelred for much of his time in The Last Kingdom, though he was portrayed by Toby Regbo, whom I stanned pretty hard when he was Francis in Reign. The final conversation between Aethelred and Aethelflaed, however, was surprisingly moving. Being near death did not turn Aethelred into a good person, but it did strip him of much of his pride and gave him the courage to view life with clarity. Aethelred acknowledged his cruelty toward Aethelflaed, though he stopped short of apologising outright. He wished her well. His agreement that Aethelflaed would have to approve a match for Aelfwynn was tantamount to giving his blessing for his wife to choose the next lord of Mercia. The love and loyalty that Aethelflaed could not offer to Aethelred because of his cruelty, she wholeheartedly gave to Mercia; he knew that. As Aethelflaed left, the air was thick with regret, for these two people who could have been partners rather than enemies.
Confident that Aethelred's memory gaps kept him safe, Eardwulf told him that he was chosen by Edward to marry Aelfwynn and become the next lord of Mercia. Aethelred immediately objected. He could not remember much, but he was certain Eardwulf could not be trusted. 'You are not worthy of MY daughter', he grasped with fierce protectiveness from his deathbed, the first time he acknowledged that Aelfwynn was his. Fearful of his dreams crashing, Eardwulf brutally killed Aethelred.
Eadith was at that time about to return to Aethelred's quarters. To Eadith, Aethelred apologised for his mistreatment. Eadith left his bedside to fetch the relics of Saint Oswald; it was then that her brother came in. For the second time, Eadith watched in horror as her brother committed murder. Eadith also saw Eardwulf take Aethelred's ring and place it in a pouch around his neck. Eardwulf was about to become lord of Mercia, but he could not resist taking a bit of treasure for himself.
With Aethelred's death, Edward ordered that Aethelflaed be confined to her quarters, the latest in a series of bad decisions through this episode. Aethelflaed found an unlikely ally in Eadith. Eadith helped her escape with Aldhelm. Aethelflaed promised Eadith a reward if she found Uhtred on the road to Ceaster and told him to meet her at the ruins of Saint Milburg’s Priory.
At Aethelflaed's estate in Saltwic, Stiorra remained with Aelfwynn, Young Uhtred, and Aethelstan, guarded by Finan, Sihtric, and Osferth. When she spotted Edward's soldiers arriving (they were there to fetch Aelfwynn), Stiorra stopped the men from drawing their swords. As she confidently assured them, they (Stiorra, Aelfwynn, and Aethelstan, who were left without guard at the estate during the Battle of Tettenhall) had a plan.
Stiorra greeted the soldiers alone. She told them Aelfwynn had already left, taken to Winchester by a man named Uhtred. The soldiers searched the house and found no one but Stiorra. They had just left when Uhtred arrived. It was a clever plan, because Uhtred's reputation would make the soldiers believe that he outsmarted them. It meant that they would not really search the property that thoroughly, believing that it was already a lost cause. Finan, Sihtric, and Osferth hid in the house. Young Uhtred took Aelfwynn and Aethelstan to hide in the field outside the house.
In an episode whose examples of 10th century misogyny annoyed me, Stiorra was such a breath of fresh air. May we see more of her in the next episodes.
▪︎ Aethelstan was a quiet, watchful kid. He has not been given much to do yet, but The Last Kingdom has been so far on point with casting. His 'I am no one' was another loaded line; it spoke of who he was at that time and who he was going to be in English history.
▪︎ The mood amongst the Mercian Earldormen was anger. They blamed Aethelred for deserting them and Edward for not coming to their aid.
▪︎ There was talk amongst the nobles of severing ties with Wessex.
▪︎ Uhtred argued for Aethelflaed to leave. The new lord of Mercia could very well set her aside, even send her to a nunnery, and marry Aelfwynn to whomever they chose. At first, Uhtred tried to convince Aethelflaed to go with him to Coccham, then to Ceaster. For Aethelflaed, however, Mercia was home.
▪︎ When Uhtred suggested speaking to the Witan -- Aldhelm: 'Times are feverish. Now is a moment for calm negotiation.' Uhtred: 'The men who play politics always say that. And then they come running for my help.' He's right.
▪︎ Burgred protested that Edward brought his entire army to Aegelesburg. He read it for what it was, a show of Wessex force.
▪︎ Edward told Aethelhelm to have his mother publicly rebuked for her interference in asking for King Hywel's forces. Aethelhelm interpreted that as punishment. Aelswith was confined to quarters. Her simple request to have a bible brought to her was pretense so she could speak to a soldier she trusted, whom she then bribed.
▪︎ Before she was effectively arrested, Aelswith joined the people waiting for the Wessex soldiers who died in the Battle of Tettenhall. Every time she saw a widow fall to her knees in grief, Aelswith would approach and hand coin. It was the politic thing to do in her position, and one that Aelflaed anointed queen did not understand.
▪︎ I have yet to see a redeeming quality in Aelflaed, to be honest.
▪︎ So much political manoeuvring when Aethelflaed is RIGHT THERE. There's your leader of Mercia, gents.
Director: Andy Hay
Writer: Martha Hillier
Original Release Date: 26 April 2020