The BBC’s historical drama The Last Kingdom has just begun its long awaited second series. The first series aired in 2015 and quickly gained a large fan following, including myself. Based on the Saxon Stories series by Bernard Cornwell, the series takes place in 9th century Britain, a land divided, and dominated by the Danes. The main protagonist, Uhtred of Bebbanburg, is partly based on a real Anglo Saxon man, Uchtred or Uhtred the Bold.
Origins of Anglo Saxon settlers
In the fifth century, Britain was divided by loosely defined borders, the communities ruled by chieftains or kings. After the Romans left for good in 408 AD, the Britons faced wave after wave of invaders, the Anglo-Saxons being among them. After failed invasion attempts during the 4th century, they succeeded and settled in around 450 AD. Britain was then split into regions, known as The Heptarchy, from the Greek hepta for seven, and arkho, ‘to rule’. The first mention of these kingdoms comes from a 12th century manuscript, Historia Anglorum. These regions were Mercia, East Anglia, Essex, Sussex, Kent, Northumbria and Wessex, each with their own King. The Vikings first invaded in 793 AD.
Origins of Viking settlers
By the 9th century, eviscerated by the Danes, only Wessex remained solely under Saxon rule when the story takes place, led by King Aethelred (865–871). His brother Alfred, however, is the main focus. A pious Christian, and his brother’s heir, he is intent on uniting the country; one England, worshipping one God, under one king. He became king of Wessex in 871 on the death of King Aethelred, and would later become known as Alfred ‘the Great’. His brother Aethelred had left two young sons, Aethelhelm and Aethelwold. However, the brothers had agreed that whoever outlived the other would inherit the property that King Aethelwulf, their father, had left them both in his will, and thus the throne (this agreement is not mentioned in the episode). By translating the works of Bede, Alfred would begin to create a country that knew its history, and which was governed by unified laws and justice for the first time since the Romans departed. But it would not be him, but his grandson, that would be crowned the first king of England.
Fact and fiction
In the series, ten year old Uhtred Uhtredson, born Osbert, becomes ealdorman (the equivalent of an earl) of Bebbanburg in the kingdom Northumbria after losing his elder brother and soon after, his father, in the struggle against the Danes. During the battle that killed his father, young Uhtred is kidnapped and taken as a slave by Ragnar ‘the fearless’, a Danish warlord. Admiring his fighting spirit, Ragnar refuses Aelfric, Uhtred’s uncle, in his attempt to buy him back, and raises him as his own, as a Dane. Uhtred embraces their lifestyle and beliefs, casting aside his Christian upbringing.
His namesake, Uhtred ‘the Bold’ of Northumbria, was the ealdorman of Banburg, what we now know as Bamburgh, from 1006 till his death in 1016. Uhtred’s birth date is unclear; various sources claim 971, or 989. He is recorded as helping to move the remains of St Cuthbert in the year 995, which would make 971 seem the most likely, putting his age at the time at 24. He was born to Waltheof of Bamburgh, the son of Osulf I, the first recorded high-reeve (believed to be a deputy to an ealdorman) of Bamburgh. His is a Scandinavian name, which suggests Viking heritage. His mother appears to be unknown. At this point, Ethelred II ‘the Unready’ (978–1016) was king of England.
Little is known of Uhtred’s earlier years. As aforementioned, he is recorded by Symeon of Durham, a chronicler and monk at Durham Priory, in his Historia Eccleiae Dunelmensis as helping the monks move relics from Chester-le-Street to Durham in 995, and clearing a site for the cathedral. One Bishop Aldhun founded the cathedral, and Uhtred would marry his daughter, Ecgfrida around this time. In doing so he inherited a portion of church lands in Durham. He and Ecgfrida would have two children together, Eldred and Eawulf. In 1006, Durham was taken under siege by Malcolm II of Scotland. Uhtred’s ageing father left the defence to him. Uhtred rallied men from all over Bernicia (Northern Northumbria, consisting of Northumberland and Durham, also Berwickshire and East Lothian, now belonging to Scotland) and Yorkshire. It was a heavy defeat for the Scots, their severed heads displayed on Durham’s walls. Malcolm however lived. As a reward for his actions, Uhtred was appointed ealdorman of Northumbria by King Ethelred in 1007, while his father still lived. Aelfhelm of York, who had taken no action during the siege, was murdered on the king’s orders. Uhtred then succeed Aelfhelm as ealdorman of York, uniting northern and southern Northumbria.
In 1016, Uhtred faced King Malcolm once more. The Scottish king allied himself with Owain the Bald, King of Strathclyde. Together they razed much of Northumbria to the ground, and faced Uhtred’s local force at the Battle of Carham, which took place south of the River Tweed. Symeon of Durham describes the battle:
“In the year of our Lord’s incarnation ten hundred and eighteen, while Cnut ruled the kingdom of the Angles, a comet appeared for thirty nights to the people of Northumbria, a terrible presage of the calamity by which that province was about to be desolated. For, shortly afterwards, nearly the whole population, from the river Tees to the Tweed, and their borders, were cut off in a conflict in which they were engaged with a countless multitude of Scots at Carrun.”
It was Uhtred’s forces this time who suffered heavy losses. By this point, parts of north Northumbria had been reclaimed by the Scots. The date of the battle is disputed, between 1016 and 1018. Uhtred however, is believed to have been murdered in 1016, but it is also claimed that he was killed in the battle. Bishop Aldhun, his father in law, is said to have died of grief after hearing of his death. This seems slightly odd, considering that in 1007 Uhtred dismissed his first wife Ecgfrida after roughly 12 years of marriage, in order to marry Sige, the daughter of Styr, a rich York citizen. In doing so he consolidated his place as ealdorman of York, and fathered a further two sons, Eadulf and Gospatric. All did not go to plan however, as the marriage did not sit well with Styr’s enemy, Thurbrand the Hold. This leads us onto Uhtred’s supposed murder. When Sweyn Forkbeard landed his army in 1013, many of the nobles, disillusioned with Ethelred, submitted to him, Uhtred included. Sweyn was declared King of England, but his reign was short. After he died in 1014, Elthelred returned. In a bid to win back Uhtred’s support, he offered his daughter Aelfgifu to Uhtred as his bride. He accepted, divorcing Sige. Women of the era were often seen as ‘peace weavers’, and marriages such as Uhtred’s were common. When in 1015, Sweyn’s son Cnut made a claim to the throne, Uhtred of course sided with his brother in law, Ethelred’s son Edmund Ironside. But Cnut had allied with Thurbrand. Cnut’s forces were too large, and Uhtred was forced to submit to him as king. He attempted to negotiate his position, and was summoned to a meeting with the new King Cnut. On his way, he and 40 of his men were murdered by Thurbrand, with Cnut’s consent. Uhtred’s brother, Eadwulf, inherited Bamburgh, but Cnut created Norwegian Eric of Hlathir, his brother in law and ally, ealdorman of southern Northumbria. North and south, united under Uhtred, were now separate again. Uhtred’s murder triggered a blood feud, and Uhtred’s son Ealdred would eventually avenge his father by killing Thurbrand, only to later be murdered by Thurbrand’s son Carl. Years later, in 1070 Ealdred’s grandson would avenge him by having Carl’s sons and grandsons killed.
Uhtred’s sons would continue to rule Bernicia; Ealdred until his murder in 1038, and Eadwulf until his death in 1041. It then passed to his son, Osulf, until 1067, when he was killed. Uhtred’s third marriage produced a daughter, Ealdgyth,(Edith) who married Maldred, the brother of Duncan I of Scotland. Their son, Gospatric, was Earl of Northumbria from 1068 to 1072. (Another possibility is that Gospatric was Uhtred’s youngest son, born to his second wife Sige. A third possibility is that he was a grandson of Ecgfrida, through her second marriage). With battles, changing political alliances and murder, the life of Uhtred the Bold was just as dramatic as that of his fictional counterpart.
A Biographical Dictionary of Dark Age Britain: England, Scotland and Wales, C.500-c. 1050, Ann Williams, Alfred P. Smyth, D.P Kirby, 2014
Battle Trails of Northumbria, Clive Kristen, 2004
Bloodfeud: Murder And Revenge In Anglo Saxon England, Richard Fletcher, 2004
The Anglo Saxon Chronicles, translated by Rev. James Ingram, 1823.
Horrible Histories: Vicious Vikings, Terry Deary.
History of Britain by Simon Schama, documentary.