The Last Kingdom – BBC 2

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Two episodes into this, I still can’t make my mind up about it – although I do wish that people would stop drawing comparisons between this, a historically-based series, and Game of Thrones, which is fantasy. Our hero, Uhtred, is fictional, even if he is partly based on Uchtred The Bold (who lived a century and a half later), but the events of the time were real enough, and so were many of the other main characters – notably, of course, Alfred The Great. So it should not be being compared with fantasy!

I’m afraid I haven’t read the book – I’ve read a couple of Bernard Cornwell’s books, but his style doesn’t particularly work for me – but I’m very pleased to see the BBC covering this often-neglected period of English history, i.e. the second half of the ninth century. Uhtred, originally Osbert, the son of a Northumbrian Anglo-Saxon ealdorman is taken prisoner by the Danes and raised as the foster son of a Danish earl, but later tries to regain his own lands and title from his uncle. The History Channel’s entertaining Vikings series does an excellent job of covering things (although a generation or so earlier than this) from a Viking viewpoint, but the Anglo-Saxons get rather neglected.

One major problem, and the directors of Vikings have pointed this out when criticised for alleged historical inaccuracies, is that so much about the “Dark Ages” is … well, dark! OK, we’ve got the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, but really we know far less about the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms than we do about, say, Rome in the age of the Caesars. And fact and legend are all muddled together! However, one Anglo-Saxon name with which surely everyone in England is familiar is that of Alfred the Great, the only monarch of England (unless you count Canute, and he’s better known as Canute the Dane than Canute the Great) to be known as “the Great”, and he turned up part-way through last night’s second episode.

It’s a shame (a great shame, in fact!) that the “Willy, Willy, Harry, Steve,” rhyme and those royal family trees you can buy at historic places only ever seem to go back as far as William the Conqueror. OK, it gets very confusing before then, with different kings in different parts of England, but it’s significant that both William and his son Henry I chose wives, queens, who were descended from Alfred the Great, and the fact that the Royal Family can trace its lineage back to Alfred is important, because Alfred and his immediate descendants were so important.

He was only a prince at this stage, so he hadn’t burnt any cakes yet! Come on, these traditional stories are important too! And the way he’s being portrayed in the programme, as someone quite small and slight, and scholarly rather than soldierly, is probably pretty accurate … more so than the image we tend to have of Alfred as a tall, blond, strapping warrior king, as he’s depicted in his statue in Winchester :-).

Anyway, we shall see how things progress now that Uhtred and Alfred have teamed up. So far, it hasn’t really been all that gripping, but it’s early days yet and hopefully it will get better. I hope so, anyway. The Anglo-Saxons deserve some attention!

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