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The Last Kingdom: Putting Bernard Cornwell’s epic on screen

By Murray Dahm

One of the most popular medieval-based television series in recent years has been The Last Kingdom. Let’s take a look at the show and the novels it was based on. Spoilers ahead!

In October 2020, the thirteenth and final installment of Bernard Cornwell’s historical novel series, The Saxon Stories, was released. This was War Lord, the finale of the tale of the fictional Uhtred of Bebbanberg, a pagan warrior who fought for successive English Kings from Alfred the Great to Aethelred. The books span the seventy-year period from AD 866 to 937. It is one of my favourite book series (the first book came out in 2004 and I don’t know what I will now anticipate since it has ended). In one sense, however, that question has been answered since the novels began to be adapted into a television series in 2015: The Last Kingdom. The fourth season has now aired and a fifth has been confirmed.

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Cornwell is no stranger to the adaptations of his novels to the small screen; his first fictional character, a British rifleman from the Napoleonic Wars, Richard Sharpe, was adapted for television between 1993-1997 and then again from 2006-2008. The Sharpe series of novels (1981-2006) covers 24 books. The adaptation of Sharpe to the screen, however, saw Cornwell distance himself from the series – the attitude expressed being that television adaptation was not the same genre as his books and he should not be held responsible for its shortcomings (he was not involved in the scripts for the sixteen episodes). His relationship to The Last Kingdom has been somewhat different (and more positive), however, and he even took on a role in the series, playing Beornhead in the third season. Cornwell was still not involved in the scripts for the series  – he has stated more than once that he is aware of how different the genres are and that he is a writer of novels, not of television scripts. Still, Cornwell is named before producer and director in the credits.

The first season of The Last Kingdom encompassed the first two novels (The Last Kingdom and The Pale Horseman), the second novels three and four (The Lords of the North and Sword Song), the third novels five and six (The Burning Land and Death of Kings), and the fourth novels seven and eight (The Pagan Lord and The Empty Throne). Based on this system, season five will probably encompass novels nine and ten (Warriors of the Storm and The Flame Bearer). A sixth season might try and cover the last three novels (War of the Wolf, Sword of Kings, and War Lord) or, more likely, they might be expanded into one season each. A sequel series is also possible (time will tell) with Uhtred’s son (Uhtred) able to continue the tale.

The TV series had an interesting gestation and one which is a sign of the times with various viewer platforms now vying for our eyes and dollars, even for television series of medieval history. The first two seasons were produced by BBC Two and BBC America. Filming began in November 2014 and the first season premiered in October 2015. The second season premiered in March 2017. The third season, however, was announced to be in production exclusively for Netflix although by the same production company, Carnival Films. This premiered in November 2018 and the same team then produced the fourth season which premiered in April 2020. The fifth season was confirmed in July 2020.

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Cornwell’s main characters are usually capable warriors from difficult and/or lowly origins who then prove themselves even though they continue to face prejudice from their more well-born peers. They also have tumultuous love lives. This is true of Sharpe and Uhtred and several of Cornwell’s other main characters. Uhtred is the son of the Ealdorman (Earl) of Bebbanburg (Bamburg Castle) but is captured by Vikings and kept as a slave before rising out of those circumstances (not without some ups and downs). For Uhtred, however, we have a firm foundation in a tumultuous period of the formation of England (or Englaland Cornwell refers to it). This period saw Alfred emerge as an unlikely king of Wessex and then as an even more unlikely successful resistor to the conquests of the Vikings from the 870s onwards. Having Uhtred as a pagan creates an automatic crisis as he serves successive Christian kings. Many of the villains of the work are also Christians whose conduct does not live up to tenets of their preachings.

Having Viking invasions and battles everywhere makes for the action to come thick and fast – one of the great aspects of the series. Much of it is firmly rooted in the actual history of the expansion of Wessex to become the English kingdom and the resistance of successive Viking invasions. Alfred also formed the first English navy and this allows Uhtred to be involved in that endeavour as well (and one of Cornwell’s other great loves is the sea and sailing and this shows in his passages set on the sea).

The phrase ‘wyrd bið ful æred,’ one of the opening lines from the Anglo-Saxon poem The Wanderer, can be found in both the books and television series. It is translated as ‘fate is inexorable’ in the books but as ‘destiny is all’ in the series (although it doesn’t turn up nearly as often in the series as it does in the books). This theme is introduced to contextualize many of the twists and turns Uhtred’s career takes although, looking at the actual history of the period, his career follows those twists and turns closely. One issue with these twists and turns is that no one (except Uhtred) seems to have any honour – this really affects Alfred the worst – he comes across as conniving and Machiavellian, not at all great or wise. So we have a character (Uhtred) who is honourable but surrounded by dishonour and who is forced into loyalty based on deceit. It is actually the Vikings who are shown to have more honour than the founders of Christian England, those founders are shown to be undeserving of any admiration at all.

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The first episode of Season 1 opens with Vikings ships rounding ahead land and being seen by the local Northumbrians. This is an evocative and entirely appropriate way to open a series about the Vikings and reminds us of the terror that their sails would have prompted; there is a sense of urgency and desperation to prepare for their approach. The Viking crews are a little too uniform (all in grey linen except for ‘named’ characters, many of whom are named after historical characters (Guthrum, Ubba, Ragnar). Some details are taken from history. Guthrum for instance does show an interest in Christianity – Guthrum was the first Viking king baptized (in 878 after the battle of Ethandun, or Eddington as it is called).

One of the elements Cornwell insisted upon in the books is the use of Anglo-Saxon names for places -so Eoferwic (pronounced ‘Eferwich’) for York (not the Viking Jorvik) and others like Lundene for London. This does give a sense of the authentically Anglo-Saxon, even when the locations themselves may be familiar (such as for anyone who has visited York, Chester, or Winchester). The series refers Eoferwic, but uses modern placenames for the rest (although when we first see a place, we get the original Anglo-Saxon name in a subtitle which then dissolves into the modern equivalent) so we get Winchester rather than Wintanceaster. We get England referred to consistently rather than Cornwell’s Englaland. When a place is unknown, like the site of the battle of Ashdown (871), we get ‘Ash’s Hill.’

One issue I had between book and series was that the books are written from Uhtred’s perspective, something the series does not even attempt, showing instead various characters’ perspectives. In the books, we therefore get Uhtred’s reasons for his actions, especially those which are headstrong, possibly illogical or irrational (these occur regularly). In the series we do not get such justifications and it can jar as to why the character makes those choices. Everything is also very dirty, the people, the streets, which ties into ideas that this was how the ‘dark ages’ looked. The medieval world was probably a much cleaner place than we are shown. Nor is the world as colourful as we know it was from medieval dyes, but everything is presented in muted colours, with many shades of grey and brown. There are no roads or trackways (the Roman roads which crisscrossed Britain are nowhere to be seen, not even in CGI) – the system of travel in Anglo-Saxon England was far more organized and systematized than it is shown.

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The shield wall when we see it is perhaps one of the most impressive put on film – three rows of interlocking Viking shields (actually based on descriptions of the testudo formation from Roman sources). It is, however, also made into a tactic, part of an ambush strategy or needing to be ordered. We see two shield walls with the space between becoming a kill zone (there is no evidence of such a use of them – although it looks great shown with a drone-shot flying above). Other shieldwalls are made with rectangular shields – these are to differentiate between Viking (round shields) and the Anglo-Saxon shields – they are, however, uniformly built.

Another Anglo-Saxon shield wall is made of kite-shaped shields again to differentiate it from the Vikings whereas in reality, most shields on both sides will have been round, perhaps the decoration being the only thing that offered differentiation. Here, there is a fanciful shield wall made with alternating kite shields held upside down – this looks impressive but did not happen. The kite shield is also probably later – associated with the Normans in the 11th century rather than Anglo-Saxons in the 9th.

There are also, inexplicably, burning trees on the battlefield – there only to give the field some element of fire (something many medieval films share but which is a peculiar necessity of visual depictions of battles we have come to expect – most medieval battles would have not had anything burning at all). A later battle is fought at the burning ships, again a seemingly an opportunity to offer flames in a battle as part of modern expectations of what battle looked like.

One of the challenges of the series is how to put so many battles on screen differently so that they do not all look the same (the different types of shield add to this variety). In the books, this first battle was actually in the streets of York but that city is entirely missing here. The shield wall was not some special tactic, however, (we do have references to a wedge formation) but the standard practice of all the battlefields of the age so ‘forming a shield wall’ was the norm, rather than some specialised tactic – and it would have involved a single line of shields (usually round) rather than anything more complex. We also see fights disintegrate into one-on-one melees which is another expectation although this series keeps formation fighting for far longer than any other depiction.

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Uhtred’s sword in the books is a personal talisman of luck, as well as the mighty weapon of a famous warrior. In the series he builds the amber gem of his lineage of Bebbanburg into the hilt of his sword. It looks great as it catches the light, but actually gives his journey a less personal feel (and the constant references in the book to Uhtred touching his sword hilt to ward of ill-luck are therefore removed). Uhtred’s sword is also worn across his back, epic-fantasy-hero style, rather than at his side – everyone else wears their swords at their side, as they should.

There are, nonetheless, some lovely touches – Alfred’s signalling system of beacon fires to announce an invasion force are well done (and reminiscent of the way the signal fires are shown in The Lord of the Rings). We also get a duelling square which is an authentic touch (and one which would have been easy to overlook or omit). With other elements, however, such as armour which is not period-authentic but marks out individuals, fur worn on the outside for that barbaric pagan look, ‘long’ swords, we thus have a mixture of beautiful authentic touches and inauthentic expectations of what a medieval series should look like being delivered. It is a peculiar mix.

It is, however, great to see so much Anglo-Saxon history being put on our screens and this offers an antidote to the propensity for medieval fantasy series (Game of Thrones and now The Witcher especially) and Viking history (with The Vikings and Norsemen) which was, for a while, just as in history, the dominant force before the Anglo-Saxons showed their resilience and won through. Hopefully, Last Kingdom will be with us to the end of Uhtred’s story (and maybe even beyond). Happy viewing.

Murray Dahm is the movie columnist for Medievalists.net. You can find more of his research on Academia.edu or follow him on Twitter @murray_dahm

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Top Image: The Last Kingdom – Carnival Films

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