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Tracing the path to England through the Danish lords of The Last Kingdom

NOTE: This post contains SPOILERS for the first four seasons of The Last Kingdom.

At its core, The Last Kingdom is a tale of the messy process of nation building, told via the storytelling anchor that was Uhtred of Bebbanburg, also known as Uhtred Ragnarson. At the beginning of the series, the England that Alfred dreamt of was just that, a dream. Alfred was not even yet king, but the brother of a king who had a legitimate son with a strong claim to the throne. The Saxons were divided into four kingdoms -- Wessex, Mercia, East Anglia, and Northumbria -- and by the time Uhtred had become a man grown, only Wessex remained unconquered by the Danes.

By the end of the fourth season, the Saxons and the Danes were already at peace. Edward and Aethelflaed, the children of Alfred, controlled three kingdoms -- Wessex, Mercia, and East Anglia. The Danes led by Sigtryggr settled in Eoferwic. The creeping sense of the Saxons being surrounded by Danes that was the beating heart of the first season was gone. Alfred's England was within view.

How did The Last Kingdom get from a show where the Saxons were overwhelmed by the sheer force of the Danes, to a series where Saxon leadership was on firmer footing, whilst a large part of the Danish population was truly interested in settling down rather than raiding? I thought it would be fun to look back at the show's journey traced through the various Danish lords of war that made their impact on the show. Again, if you have not yet seen all four episodes of The Last Kingdom, please stop reading now, and experience the show with fresh eyes via Netflix.

England Surrounded

The very first Danish leader we met was the man who would become a father to series lead Uhtred. At the beginning of The Last Kingdom, Earl Ragnar the Fearless had just arrived in England with his family, including his father Ravn and son Young Ragnar. Like other Danes before him, Earl Ragnar left home because it was too difficult to wrest a living from their lands. England, with its rivers teeming with fish and soil rich with produce, represented both a fresh start and a better future. Earl Ragnar did not come to England just to raid, his purpose was to settle.

At the time that Earl Ragnar arrived, the most powerful Danish warlord in England was Ubba, already a famous warrior and the one person Ravn warned the then young Uhtred never to fight. In the fight for Northumbria, Earl Ragnar allied with Ubba and Earl Guthrum. Already, we could see that there was no centralised power amongst the Danes, only a loose coalition of convenient alliances.

Northumbria, too, was not a united kingdom; it was divided between two kings, Aelle and Osberth, and one powerful lord whose ancestors used to be kings, Uhtred. Amongst these three Saxon leaders, it was Uhtred whom the Danes identified as the best warrior and leader. Uhtred, however, was killed in the battle at Eoferwic. Thus, Northumbria fell, with the remaining Saxon lords forced to pay tribute to the Danes who were in control of the kingdom.

Alfred became king at a time when Wessex was the sole Christian kingdom in England. The land he controlled became even smaller when Guthrum, with the help of Young Ragnar, took over a Wessex fortress. If Ubba's brother Ivar had not been killed in Ireland, forcing Ubba to abandon his plan with Guthrum in Wessex, there was a chance that Alfred's kingdom would have fallen under the Danes. With a smaller number than they anticipated, Guthrum was forced to negotiate with Alfred. Guthrum was to remain inside the fortress for a month, to be supplied with food and ale by Alfred. Guthrum expected that his ships would arrive within a month, ships that supposedly would carry him and his men to East Anglia, where he had been declared king.

The one month truce included an exchange of hostages, so that through that time, Guthrum was able to listen to the teachings of a priest Alfred sent over explicitly to try to convert the Danish lord into Christianity. Two things happened that made Guthrum break the peace: his ships carrying more men were nearby, and Ubba had returned from Ireland with his army.

Peace at this time was too fragile a concept. Both the Danes and the Saxons knew too little of each other to accept the differences in their faiths. There were Saxon leaders who accepted Danish control in exchange for keeping their titles; Wessex was the one kingdom that stood firm in its independence. Alfred divided his army into two; Lord Odda the Elder would lead the army against Ubba's forces, whilst Alfred himself faced Guthrum.

Ubba relied on the guidance of his sorcerer Storri, but that did not make him a fool or a weak commander. His army camped not far from his ships, whilst Lord Odda had the high ground, but the high ground was not an advantage, not when its very position meant the Saxon army was cut off from food and water sources. Had Uhtred not arrived, it was very likely that Ubba would have defeated Lord Odda's army of well-meaning and loyal farmers.

Uhtred at this time was still a young man, but he had the easy arrogance of the sharp minded. It was Uhtred who goaded Ubba and clouded his mind with doubts. It was Uhtred who proposed to go down alone to the Danish camp and set their ships on fire as a distraction. It was Uhtred who fought Ubba in single combat, the very thing that the kindly Ravn once warned him never to do.

The great warrior Ubba was killed by Uhtred, who later on tried to ensure that Ubba was buried with respect. Unsatisfied with his lot in life under Alfred and bothered with the crushing debt to the church that became his upon his marriage to Mildrith, Uhtred, along with Leofric and a few other Saxon warriors, went raiding to earn some wealth. It was during their travels that they ran into Skorpa.

The first time we met Skorpa, he only had a handful of men with him. He seemed like a relatively small time warlord, one who raided poor villages and petty kings like Iseult's husband Peredur. Skorpa's introduction gave a clearer view on what life was like outside of Alfred's Wessex. There was no central authority, and a man like Peredur whose house (for it was a house, not a castle) did not even have a hall, could call himself king, and be vulnerable to raiding Danes.

The next time we see Skorpa, he already had ships, a thousand men, and Wessex noblemen ready to strike a deal with him. Guthrum and Young Ragnar's successful assault into Winchester left Wessex without a king. Alfred was forced to flee to the marshlands with his family; accepting Danish rule whilst calling oneself king was Aethelwold's move, not Alfred's. With England's last Christian kingdom appearing to have fallen, Alfred decided that the only way Wessex could endure was via a single, massive battle. The Saxons must win decisively and force the Danes to surrender.

The Battle of Ethandun was a fight between Saxons of Wessex, Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria, and Danes led by Guthrum, Young Ragnar, and Skorpa. It was interesting that at a particularly low point for Wessex, men from the three other kingdoms, kingdoms that were mostly under Danish rule, heeded their call to arms. The result was a decisive victory for the Saxons. Skorpa was killed. Earl Guthrum, King of East Anglia, was baptised into Christianity. Ragnar and Brida were amongst the hostages held at Winchester. For some time, it was almost as though the last Christian kingdom was about to be consigned to history. Yet one battle led to a stronger Wessex, and another kingdom, East Anglia, now ruled by another Christian king.

Wessex and Mercia, United

The rise to power of the brothers Sigefrid and Erik showed the fragility of the peace Alfred managed to win at the end of the first season. With his choice of Aethelred, the new Lord of Mercia, as husband to his daughter Aethelflaed, Alfred created a fresh bond between the kingdoms; Alfred's wife Aelswith was also Mercian. Technically, Mercia remained a separate kingdom, with its own Witan, able to forge a road for itself. At the court of Wessex, however, even with Mercian nobles present, Alfred presided and was treated as king. With East Anglia under the now Christian King Aethelstan (formerly known as Earl Guthrum), Alfred's dream of a united England appeared closer.

Then came the biggest challenge to Alfred's rule.

Erik was the brains behind the brothers' successful (for a time) foray into England. Mild mannered and goal oriented, he was early on shown as not particularly interested in his brother's mindlessly cruel ways. When the brothers took over Lunden, it was not with the intention of attempting to hold on to a territory that was too big to defend. Instead, the brothers captured a price far bigger than any of the four kingdoms of the time -- Aethelflaed, daughter of Alfred of Wessex, wife of Aethelred of Mercia.

It was not the wealth of Aethelflaed they were after, it was the wealth her ransom could command, and the power of that promise. The brothers did not even set demands early on; they simply allowed word of Aethelflaed's capture to spread throughout England. Alfred may have thought that supporting Guthrum's rule in East Anglia was a wise choice, but Guthrum was not the leader he once was. He could not even stop the raids that Danes continued to do within his territory. A leader deemed weak gave way to restless warriors. Uhtred's prediction was correct; the Danes were just raiders, but once they found their leader, they became an army.

Thus, without losing a man, without having to do anything but hold Aethelflaed within the walls of their fortress at Beamfleot, Sigefrid and Erik assembled a fearsome army. When Alfred finally sent Aethelred and Uhtred to negotiate for Aethelflaed's release, the brothers named a price that was the ruin of Wessex and Mercia. The problem was not in raising the funds; the two kingdoms could do it. Yet handing over that treasure meant that Wessex and Mercia were effectively paying for the army that would annihilate them.

Sigefrid and Erik came very close to seeing Wessex fall. Was it Erik's love for Aethelflaed that doomed the plan? In a large part, yes, because the division between the brothers severely weakened them. Sigefrid would not have been half as successful without his brother Erik's cunning. After Sigefrid killed Erik, he was broken to the point that he ordered a charge against the larger Saxon army; he was mad with grief, he was furious at Aethelflaed, but he was also ready for Valhalla.

Yet the salvation of Wessex and Mercia, of the dream of England, was also because of one good man who was ready to sacrifice his life for his love of his land and his people. For as much as we give credit to Alfred for England, at a time when he could not see beyond the fatherly desire to save his daughter, it was Lord Odda, Odda the Elder, who consistently advocated for the people of Wessex. Odda's not unkind suggestion that Aethelflaed should kill herself to save herself from the indignity and torture that the Danes would inflict upon her if the ransom was not paid was something that Aethelflaed herself was determined to do; she was adamant that she was not going to be used to fund a campaign against her own people. Odda raised the Devonshire fyrd against the express orders of the king, the king raised the Wessex and Mercian armies to stop Odda. Together, their numbers were more than enough to defeat what was left of Sigefrid's forces.

Wessex and Mercia survived the kidnapping of Aethelflaed, but the two kingdoms remained vulnerable, especially with Alfred's rapidly deteriorating condition. The third season introduced Earl Sigurd, also known as Bloodhair, pushed into the belief that he was destined to kill Alfred and rule Wessex by his seer Skade. Bloodhair allied with Haesten, who took over Beamfleot after the death of the brothers Sigefrid and Erik. Young Ragnar, now Earl Ragnar of Dunholm, would have joined them in attacking Wessex, had he not been killed by Aethelwold at the behest of his treacherous cousin Cnut. With a few poisonous words, and with Brida's reluctant agreement, Cnut took over as leader of Ragnar's army.

Bloodhair died because of Skade's machinations. Cnut and Haesten led the army that marched following the news that Alfred had indeed died. At this time, Edward was not yet crowned king, but he wisely accepted Uhtred's help, and he, and his sister Aethelflaed, led their men to victory. The Danes expected Wessex to weaken following the death of their beloved king, but it was almost as though the Saxons found fresh strength to fight for their land and their way of life. Thus, the status quo remained -- Wessex and Mercia as allies, Edward as King in Wessex, Aethelflaed steadily gaining influence in Mercia not just as Aethelred's wife, but as a leader in her own right.

Three Kingdoms, and One

Mercia was temporarily lost to the Danes because of the foolishness of Aethelred. Chafing at being perceived as being a lesser power than Wessex, Aethelred took the ambitious Eardwulf's advise and marched his army to East Anglia to capture it whilst the Danes under Cnut and Brida were away. With Mercia unprotected, the Danes tore through villages, imprinting their brutality on the minds of the few who survived.

Wessex, at this time, was hardly a diminished power, but the fact that Edward hesitated about sending his army to save Mercia meant that the Danish forces were considerable. It was the combined armies of the Welsh King Hywel, the Mercian army under Aethelred and Aethelflaed, and Wessex under Edward, that defeated the Danes. That Cnut sent for his sons from Denmark, that the number of his men only appeared to have grown, meant that for a time between Alfred's death and the Battle of Tettenhall, Cnut and his forces thrived in East Anglia. It was Cnut's miscalculation at Mercia and his own treacherous past that doomed him.

With the Danish army under Cnut decisively defeated, Wessex and Mercia had time for some domestic politics. Edward all but parked his army in Mercia whilst he fought to ensure that whoever succeeded Aethelred as leader of Mercia was one he chose and approved. The distraction allowed a relatively small force of Danes to conquer Winchester, the heart of Saxon power.

Unlike some of the Danish warlords who vied for power in England, Sigtryggr did not start his conquest from a position of strength. He and his men had to flee Ireland after they were defeated and their settlement destroyed. With the Welsh king's eyes trained at defending his kingdom against the Saxons, the arrival of the Danes came as a brutal surprise.

We have seen tactically good Danish warlords in The Last Kingdom, but in young Sigtryggr, it finally felt like there was someone who could match Uhtred plan for plan. He was a clever commander who was clear eyed in what he was trying to achieve; it was not mindless slaughter nor the destruction of all that was Saxon. More than once, he spoke of not giving in to anger. His ability to keep his emotions in check despite his earlier defeat, the death of the women and children at his settlement in Ireland, his cousin Cnut's failure to come to his aid, the prickly relationship he thought Danes and Saxons were doomed to have for the rest of time, allowed him to evaluate his position in Wessex, and bargain.

Sigtryggr did not just probe Uhtred's daughter Stiorra with his questions, he also asked her to read from the chronicles that Alfred had the monks painstakingly record. It was a lovely display of a leader who put prime importance in making informed decisions. From inside the Winchester that was besieged by Edward's army, Sigtryggr learnt about the England that he had only just arrived in. When the time came for negotiations, he was ready.

Sigtryggr's bargain with Edward and Aethelflaed marked the first time when it felt that the peace between Saxons and Danes was going to last. Edward and Aethelflaed controlled Wessex, Mercia, and East Anglia. Sigtryggr asked for and got Eoferwic, the very town that Aethelflaed's army had only just recently wrested from Danish control, the site of the first ever battle we saw in The Last Kingdom between the newly arrived Danes and the Northumbrians led by Uhtred's father. It was not a bad outcome for the children of Alfred, but it was also a win for Sigtryggr. He wanted peace and land, and got them. Whilst the bargain meant that Daneland would be right at Aethelflaed's border, it also felt like a huge step toward a multi-cultural land where Saxons and Danes lived together in relative harmony.

The Third Generation

When The Last Kingdom introduced Edward's young son by his first wife Ecgwynn, he was identified as Aethelstan, the first king of all England and all the English. Neither Alfred nor his children achieved the dream of England in their lifetimes. The journey, however, has been such a thrilling ride. The story of The Last Kingdom was centred on Uhtred, but around him was this strong array of Danish leaders through whom we saw a culture that was alien to the Saxons, but whose people shared much the same hopes. England was slowly taking shape. May Netflix soon announce the next two to three seasons already.

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