Positive Pedantry: The Last Kingdom

            It seems that it is impossible to produce historical fiction without provoking a swarm of online pedantry. From the angle of thatch to armour, from battle tactics to clothing, finding videos and content criticizing the reality of this or that facet of historical shows is sadly easy. Now while pedantry is satisfying in a very self-congratulatory way, I’ve always found it to be half a bridge. It (often pompously) highlights problems without giving credence to why the producers or author might have made the choices they made. So I thought I would correct the balance in my own small way, and provide some ‘positive pedantry’, and highlight what the show and the author got right.

Wyrd biõ ful ãræd

            Destiny is all: the tagline of Bernard Cornwall’s series The Last Kingdom, which charts the adventures of Uhtred, a dispossessed Ealdorman whose life becomes entwined with the deeds and descendants of Alfred the Great. The books are flavored with Cornwell’s characteristic attention to historical detail, and ability to tell an engrossing and exciting story, and like his Sharpe series, have been made into a TV series. The first series of the show covers the material of the first two books in the series, The Last Kingdom and The Pale Horseman, and they faithfully re-create Cornwell’s story, aided by a magnificently haunting and otherworldly score by composer John Lunn and singer Eivor Palsdottir.

            Before I begin, I do commend accuracy and believe in its importance. While not a fan of excessive pedantry, neither am I giving the producers of historical fiction carte blanche. I believe that, if you are undertaking to write fiction in a historical context, then thorough and detailed research is absolutely essential. So, like a well-forged sword, we must find the point of balance between accuracy and the necessary suspension of disbelief.

What’s in a Name

            One of the first things The Last Kingdom does exceptionally well is the names of peoples, places and occupations. Cornwell’s research allows him to make a brave stab at Anglo-Saxon names, which can be confusing, as there were few naming conventions at the time, and the names of kings, cities and people were not standardized. In the words of Cornwell himself, ‘The spelling of place-names in Anglo-Saxon England was an uncertain business, with no consistency and no agreement even about the name itself. Thus London was variously rendered as Lundonia, Lundenberg, Lundenne, Lundenwuic, Lundenceaster and Lundres’. The same was true of personal names. Their alphabet, while broadly similar, contained two different letters to Modern English. These were the letter ‘Thorn’ (written þ) and ‘Eth’ (written ð). There were also inconsistently applied Latinate traditions, so that Alfred might be spelt Ǣflred, Alfraed or Aeflred to name but a few. In all of this, Cornwell does an excellent job of navigating to a spelling that is period appropriate but able to be understood and pronounced by a Modern English audience, and that is no mean feat. He also acknowledges that the Saxons and the Danes would have had different names for cities and settlements. The city of York is named Eoforwic by the Saxons (pronounced Eff-or-witch) and Jorvik by the Danes (pronounced Your-vick).

            When it came to people groups, as a geek, one of the first things I noticed was that Uhtred’s father correctly labels the Danish attackers who come from the sea in the first episode. After identifying them as Danes, he then says, ‘They come as Vikings’ (italics added). This is period-correct, because Viking was a profession, not a racial description, in the same way we would say pirate or raider (which is probably what the original word Vikingr meant).

            The show Vikings is a good deal more slipshod with names and historical accuracy, but The Last Kingdom takes pains to use the correct terms for ethnic groups. The Danes call their enemies ‘Saxons’ or ‘Christians’, while the English (a term that came gradually into use as Alfred’s vision of a single people become established through his descendants) call their enemies, ‘Danes’, ‘Pagans’ or ‘Heathens’. The religious monikers are important, as Christianity during this period was becoming tightly bound up with Anglo-Saxon national and ethnic identity. England is a term that is not used because it did not exist in its modern form; the Anglo-Saxons would have recognized their regional identities of West Seaxe (Wessex), Mierce (Mercia), Northymbre (Northumbria) and East Engle (East Anglia).

Stop Making Videos about Back Scabbards: Armour, Weapons and Tactics

            Enough already. We know back-scabbards weren’t a thing, but they are visually impressive. It is a trope of online commentators to decry the inaccuracy of swords worn across the back. There are a number of entertaining videos by those who have invented ingenious scabbards that allow swords to be drawn from the back, but this is one of those areas where I am willing to suspend my disbelief more fully. While the accuracy of medieval weaponry is a fascinating subject, I acknowledge that a sword worn across the back just looks exciting and heroic. Whether it’s Uhtred or the Witcher Geralt, there’s nothing like a hero drawing a sword from a back scabbard to make a scene dramatic.

            In fact, The Last Kingdom’s depiction of weaponry is very accurate. There are a few differences from the historical reality, but these are mostly made so that the viewer can more easily identify the combatants or individuals  in battle. The vicious Saxon fighting-knife, the straight-bladed saex, is prominent, and swords are limited to higher-class warriors and nobility, as they were expensive and time-consuming to produce. The spear was the weapon of the common fyrd soldier (the local levy troops raised at time of need by Ealdorman), and various styles of axe are common amongst Scandinavian warriors, as they would have been. The large, round shield was carried by all troops of all social classes, as it was versatile, cheap and quick to produce, and an excellent defence for otherwise ill-armoured soldiers. When locked together in the famous shield-wall of that time, it was a nigh-unbreakable obstacle.

            Another warfare detail The Last Kingdom gets right is the lack of dedicated missile troops. Neither the English nor the Danes fielded row upon row of slingers, javelin throwers or archers, as was common in either antiquity or the middle and late Medieval periods. It simply was not how they fought. Archery was primarily a hunting weapon. Most battles would start with a shower of spears and axes, but these would be thrown by the bulk of soldiery, who carried them as secondary weapons. They were used to weaken and probe the enemy shield-wall for weaknesses and weaken morale before moving in for the death-struggle. If you wanted to bring down your enemy in the Northern World you had to get shield-to-shield with him, close enough to smell his breath. Warfare in that period was brutally personal.

            Similarly, neither side employs cavalry in The Last Kingdom. Horsemanship was a common and useful skill for message carriers, transport and scouting, but the terrain of England simply was not suited to large formations of horsemen. They are expensive to maintain, hard to replace and take a long time to train. The combat in The Last Kingdom is nearly entirely on foot, shield-to-shield, and victory depends as much on stamina, discipline and endurance as on skill.

            The books and show also demonstrate the prevalence of duels in the Scandinavian cultures. It was seen as an honourable and quick way of resolving disputes about land, honour or other crimes, but it was far from an undisciplined brawl. There were strict rules, which we know from primary and secondary sources at the time. Single combat as a means of legal redress slowly died out throughout the tenth century, but in the time Uhtred is alive, it was common.

            The Last Kingdom shows also that battles of that era consisted of several phases. Only in fiction can men fight for endless hours; men need rest and battles are not continuous. There are breaks; the tide of battle ebbs and flows. Reserves are moved in and broken or exhausted troops withdrawn. Wearing armour and carrying a full set of weapons is exhausting, even for a Saxon or Danish warrior at the peak of his fitness. As a battle ground on, the earth would become trampled into slippery mud, wet with blood, and littered with fallen, thrown or discarded weapons, along with the dead and wounded. Wet, hot, windy or cold weather could further sap morale, strength and the ability to hold a line. Cornwell depicts this in his reconstruction of the battle of Ethnadum, where a rainstorm has as much to do with the outcome as  the decisions of the kings.

Life, Death & Land

            My final heading deals with a more subtle topic than the other two, and that is the vital importance of land in those societies. This is an oft-missed truth in recreations of that time, but The Last Kingdom, particularly the books, shows this rural life in some detail. At the time of Alfred’s reign, something like 85-90% of the entire population were entirely concerned with farming and working the land, and a person’s land was very much part of their identity. It is a time where food production was done by hand, and took a large amount of time. The destruction of harvests by enemy action, bad weather or disease could be disastrous, which is why Viking raids were so destructive. Much of warfare was curtailed and controlled by the need to disband levies to maintain their land and bring in the harvest. Anglo-Saxon kings could not keep armies in the field for any length of time, and this had a huge influence on strategy and tactics. In fact, it was one of Alfred’s developed strategies for defeating Danish invaders; by not giving battle and encircling Viking armies by the sea, he denied them the ability to raid local farms for forage, food and plunder. Their morale drained away and they often dispersed of their own volition.

            There was a likewise complex process and structure of terminology for classifying land. The most basic unit of land was a hide, which was defined as enough land to support one family. Above that was the hundred, which was enough land to support one hundred families, or an approximately similar amount. These were not only units of food production and sustenance, but also a measure of approximately how many fighting men could be yielded by an Ealdorman. Originally an Ealdorman was a local leader responsible for a hundred, or a smaller amount of land, but eventually administrative power coalesced into fewer hands as England became a larger, more centralized political entity, and Ealdorman became responsible for the Shires, which were a West Saxon method of dividing up a country into administrative units. England’s network of Shires, as undertaken by Alfred’s ancestors and descendants, is still largely unchanged to this very day. To the Anglo-Saxon mind, land meant both security for family and household, and wealth. The giving of land was a common act of kings to reward warriors and allies, and giving over command of estates and territory to loyal followers was a common method of shoring up support. It is this culture that The Last Kingdom captures so well, and it is a telling detail that the Saxon war-cry at the battle of Ethandum is not for their king or their families, but, ‘This is our land!’

I am intending to write more detailed articles on the topics covered in this article, but I hope this has whetted your appetite to find out more, or simply to pick up a fantastic book series, and escape to a weird and wonderful world of dragon-ships, shield-walls and stories by the fire.

The Last Kingdom book series is published in the UK by HarperCollins. If you want to read in more depth, then I recommend the following books:

  • The King in the North by Max Adams
  • The Anglo-Saxon Age: The Birth of England, by Martin Wall
  • The Warrior Queen: The Life and Legend of Athelflaed, Daughter of Alfred the Great, by Joanna Arman

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