To watch The Last Kingdom is to step back in time to an England before there was England. An age where men live and die by the sword, but also by their wits – which is where the series goes beyond being just another historical epic. Telling a story that is both familiar, that of Alfred the Great, and yet unfamiliar, in terms of the world he lived in and where he forged the beginnings of England – and it is definitely worth your time.
Alfred however is not the main character. That honour goes to Uhtred Ragnarsson, once a Saxon, once a Dane, now an outcast, who must win the trust of his new lord if he is to reclaim his birthright of Bebbanburg from his treacherous uncle, in what is now Danish controlled Northumbria. The Last Kingdom is about far more than dynastic struggles though. It is about a clash of nations, of civilisation and barbarism, of myth and belief, of dreams about the future and a half-remembered past, of those who wish to build and those who want nothing more than to plunder.
These last two are found on both sides. Ubba, lord of the Danes, is a man who takes his orders from the Gods only and has a penchant for re-enacting any stories he finds interesting, such as that of the arrow-strewn Saint Sebastian, as Edmund, king of East Anglia finds to his cost. Set against that is Ragnar who, more than conquest, simply wants a new land to call home, Denmark being somewhat inhospitable apparently. On the English side, for every fool who, like Edmund, believes the power of the word is enough for salvation, there are prescient men like Alfred and his brother, King Aethelred, whose vision extends beyond simply saving their Kingdom of Wessex, towards forging a whole new country. England.
Alfred, as played by David Dawson (best known as Fred Best in Ripper Street), is a fantastically realised character. Look at the statute of him in Parliament and you might think that he was a classic warrior king. Here though he is a man tormented, in both the physical and the spiritual worlds; on the one hand he suffers from a condition severe enough that the fact he doesn’t just take to his bed is a sign of his character according to his brother. On the other, he constantly beseeches poor Father Beocca (Ian Hart) to let him slink off to a monastery.
Both Alfred and Father Beocca represent the struggle for civilisation that lies behind their dream of England. Both can read and write, with Alfred, who has ‘eyes and ears in every kingdom’ acting as Spymaster General for his brother, while Beocca attempts to impart his wisdom into any who will listen, including young Uhtred, whom he was teaching how to read. Each looks back to the time of Rome and imagines something greater than simply trying to avoid being hauled up to the ceiling and dropped to your death to satiate Ubba’s need for entertainment.
Such entertainment is on show often in this show, and flecked with dark humour for good measure. When Edmund, having written the nature of his own death by relating the story of Saint Sebastien to the Danes, screams at their archers to shoot, Ubba interrupts – “No. I am their lord. Only I may tell them when to shoot”. Such humour is found on the English side too. Expressing disappointment over his wayward son, Aethelwold, Aethelred jokes that “the boy’s not mine. If his mother weren’t already dead, I’d have her beheaded for adultery”.
Amusing as such moments are, the real joy to this series, besides the fantastic acting on display, is the setting. Being rooted in history as it is, The Last Kingdom brings a lost world back to life. As we travel south through England for the telling of Uhtred’s story, we see how places now so familiar to us had such humble beginnings. York has not yet won its Viking character and is still Eoferwic. Oxford is little more than a tiny village. London, or Lundene as it was then, is just another town rather than a capital of the world. All of this in an England that is almost shrouded by forests and accessible only by rough dirt roads.
It takes the familiar and renders it utterly alien, brilliantly revealing not just that there is a rich world to explore in the so called Dark Ages, but also how little of it we, the English, know, even though it is our national story.
By Gareth Wood
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