Den of Geek is speaking to Professor Ryan Lavelle about Early Medieval ruler ealdorman Aethelred of Mercia. “The leading question I think you’re asking,” he laughs, “is was he really such a complete shit?”
That’s exactly the question we’re asking. In Netflix historical drama The Last Kingdom, “complete shit” doesn’t begin to cover Aethelred. Toby Regbo’s character in the series is a cowardly, scheming, abusive rapist who tries to have his wife murdered and plots to overthrow his father-in-law, King Alfred of Wessex. Aethelred’s a dangerous egotist driven by self-regard, with no concern for his people. But what say the history books? Is there evidence that the real Aethelred was such a swine?
There is not. In fact, sources suggest that Aethelred cooperated with his wife, and may well have done the bidding of King Alfred as a kind of puppet king. The TV series, and the Bernard Cornwell novels on which it’s based, have clearly employed dramatic licence. Does the portrayal worry Lavelle, a lecturer in Early Medieval History at the University of Winchester, and The Last Kingdom’s historical advisor?
“There is an inevitability that people sometimes engage more with the characters as they’ve been represented in the drama than with the actual historical characters, but this is something that allows a kind of hook,” says Lavelle. “I want people to use it to engage with the actual history.”
With that in mind, Professor Lavelle clues us in on the actual history and separates The Last Kingdom’s fact from fiction…
Uhtred is fictional, but inspired by a real historical figure
“Uhtred is a significant person in Northumbria in the early 11th century so there certainly was a historical Uhtred, just not in the 9th century. Most of the Northumbrians in this period had to have some kind of Danish connection in order to survive, so it’s likely he did.”
King Alfred did suffer from ill health
“There’s enough evidence to be able to say that Alfred was affected by bouts of chronic ill health. That could be part of Alfred’s outlook as a Christian ruler in terms of his sense of intense internal Christianity and his sense of introspection as a ruler.”
Alfred did seek to unite the kingdoms into one England
“Towards the end of his reign, Alfred is calling himself the King of the Anglo-Saxons, ‘Rex Angul-Saxonum’ is the term. It’s potentially a term that means him being a king of the Angles in Mercia and the Saxons in Wessex, looking towards a larger kingdom, a larger realm.”
There may be historical evidence for Osferth being King Alfred’s illegitimate son
“That came from a suggestion by Jinty Nelson back in the 1980s. There was the appearance of a certain Osferth in the will of King Alfred where he’s referred to as ‘my kinsman’. It’s possible, but it’s equally possible that he might just be some more distant relation. It does bring in the historical evidence for Alfred as a young man – as indicated in Asser’s biography of Alfred – that he is said to have regretted his earlier wild youth!”
An Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was written during Alfred’s reign
“There’s a lot of evidence for a kind of new form of kingship in Alfred’s reign, a lot of thinking about what it means to be a king, and the king of a Christian people. With that went this idea of the works of the English – things that were associated with English culture and the English language. It’s not so much turning away from Latin, it’s more thinking about the use of English as something which could unite, initially, his subjects in Wessex.”
Alfred probably didn’t burn the cakes, but it’s part of historical legend
“It’s apocryphal in the Anglo-Saxon period, but there is a 10th century account of Alfred burning the cakes in the life of an obscure Cornish Saint called Saint Neot. It probably didn’t happen with Alfred, but it shows that people in the 10th century were talking about Alfred’s life and retelling stories which then weave their way into legends within four or five generations of his lifetime.”
Aelswith would have advised son Edward on how to rule
“The idea of a Queen’s guidance is an important aspect of early Medieval royal power. Sometimes royal women were provided with far more legal authority as a result of a queenly title. That aspect of a Queen, or King’s wife being there at the court emerges in the historical records at different times in the Anglo-Saxon period.”
There’s no reason to think that Aethelflaed’s daughter wasn’t Aethelred’s biological child
“Historical question about the paternity? Sadly, I don’t think there is. I think that’s invented. I can’t remember whether it’s invented by Bernard or invented for the series.”
Aethelflaed, Lady of Mercia, was a real inspirational leader
“There is a version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle written from a Mercian perspective that really plays up Aethelflaed’s achievements, which indicates that there were people looking toward her as an inspirational leader.
In a version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in the 10th century, there’s a reference to the loss of the thanes, or warriors, who were dearest to her at the taking of Derby, so there’s a sense of that lordly relationship. It’s interesting that the word ‘Lady’ or ‘hlǣfdīġe’ is used for her because that is the female equivalent of the word ‘Lord’, and lordship is that bond that holds the warrior society together in this period.”
Aethelred likely worked for Alfred and didn’t plot against him
“Aethelred is a figure who sort of becomes beholden to Alfred. There is a suggestion that he’s not actually from a royal lineage and may have been from a noble family in Western Mercia. Potentially Alfred was doing the same as the Vikings did with puppet kings elsewhere and bringing in Aethelred. Aethelred was basically Alfred’s man in Mercia.
The disappearance of the shadowy Ceolwulf II, the King of Mercia, is one of the great mysteries of the late 9th century. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – so, Alfred’s perspective on it – plays Ceolwulf down and talks of him as a foolish king’s thane, but actually he seems to have been reasonably independent. Just after the battle of Edington – Ethandun – Ceolwulf is disappeared and Aethelred appears on the scene.”
There’s no evidence that Aethelred was a cruel husband to Aethelflaed
“The thing to mention here is that Aethelred and Aethelflaed seem to have cooperated, they seem to have had a joint position and that’s probably because in order for Aethelred to have some sort of quasi-royal authority in Mercia, he’d have to emphasise Aethelflaed, his legitimate wife with royal blood, in his position there.”
Roman-style Shield Walls may not have been as popular a military tactic with the Danes
“There seems to be evidence for closely overlapped shields in Early Medieval warfare, but the shield wall is a very literal interpretation of an old Norse term of ‘skjaldborg’ or ‘shield fortress’. It’s probably just a poetic term, though it does get interpreted by a few books about Viking age warfare. I’m not convinced that they would necessarily do that kind of ‘holding the shields above their heads’ with quite the sense of Roman military precision. Partly, because it would make you very vulnerable to being charged very quickly. But it’s an interpretation.”
Read more from Professor Lavelle on The Last Kingdom at History Extra.