I started watching “The Last Kingdom” during my freshman year of college. My friend and I would hijack Allegheny’s 7th floor lounge and lose ourselves in the story of Uhtred of Bebbanburg, a Saxon-born boy raised by Danes. Though I have changed tremendously since my freshman year, my obsession with the series remains the same, and after conducting a bit of research, I have concluded that the only thing more interesting than the show’s protagonist is the history behind the handsome heathen. Bernard Cornwell, author of the “Saxon Tales” that inspired the series, created Uhtred of Bebbanburg as a way to chronicle the accomplishments of Saxon King Alfred the Great. And while Uhtred himself is a work of fiction, the complex circumstances that inform his story are not.
Cornwell installed Uhtred of Bebbanburg in the late 800s, about a century before the real Uhtred the Bold was born. Though sources disagree on the exact date of his birth, most concur that the historical Uhtred was born sometime in the 970s in Mamburgh, Northumbria. Unfortunately, little is known about Uhtred the Bold’s childhood. English monk Symeon of Durham first detailed Uhtred the Bold in the historical work “De Obsessione Dunelmi,” which is considered somewhat of a biography of Uhtred the Bold. Durham notes that the warrior traveled with him in 995, assisting in transferring the remains of Saint Cuthbert from Chester-le-Street to Durhman. After their arrival, Uhtred helped clear a site for a new cathedral, earning the respects of its founder, Bishop Aldhun. Uhtred went on to marry Aldhuln’s daughter, Ecgfrida, and Aldhun gifted him several estates that used to belong to the church. Uhtred and Ecgfrida soon had two children together, Eldred and Eawulf.
In 1005, a new king came into power in Scotland. The warrior king, Malcom II, deemed the instability in southern England as an invitation to ravage the lands. Only a year after his coronation, Malcom II of Scotland lay siege to Durham in 1006. The Saxon King, Ethelred II, failed to send aid to his Northumbrian subjects. Uhtred, exhibiting the strength and effectiveness that the King lacked, raised an army in his father’s stead and defeated the Scots. He then decorated Durham’s walls with the heads of the Scots, earning the title “Uhtred the Bold” and putting my Halloween decorations to shame. Though Uhtred’s father was still alive, Ethelred II named Uhtred the new Ealdorman of Bamburgh for his acts of heroism. Ealdorman Aelfhelm of York took no part in Northumbria’s defense, and Ethelred II ordered his death as punishment. After Aelfhelm’s death, Uhtred became Ealdorman of York as well as Bamburgh, uniting the northern and southern regions of Northumbria.
Uhtred was born into a time of rivalry and bloodshed, and marriages were one of the most reliable ways to navigate political friction and strife. In 1007, Uhtred divorced his wife Ecgfrida and married Sige, the daughter of the influential York citizen Styr. They had two sons, Eadulf and Gospatric. But his marriage to Sige did little to protect England from foreign invaders, and in 1013, King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark invaded England. Besides boasting a better nickname than King Ethelred the Unready, he also boasted a better reputation. Though Ethelred II and Viking leader Thorkell the Tall tried to hold London, other English nobles and thanes willingly supported Sweyn, seeing him as a chance to bring Ethelred’s ineffective rule to an end. After the Western Thanes conceded to Sweyn, the Londoners followed suit. By Christmas 1013, Sweyn was crowned King of England.
Forkbead met his death only two months after becoming king, dying of apoplexy. Ethelred, ever the opportunist, slunk back to England to assert himself as king once more. He offered his daughter Aelfgifu to Uhtred in an attempt to win his support back, and Uhtred accepted Aelfgifu as a peace offering. Though two divorces seems a considerable amount, Ross Geller still has him beat, and Uhtred remarried for the last time in 1014.
Ethelred II held the throne for only a year before being challenged yet again. This time, it was Forkbead’s son Canute who made a claim to the throne. Uhtred and Ethelred’s son, Edmund Ironside, were busy campaigning the countryside when Canute invaded, and they returned with too small an army to overthrow the new King Canute. After pledging himself to King Canute, Uhtred was summoned to the King, and he was ambushed and killed en route to the ruler. His killer, Thurbrand the Hold, was allegedly an enemy of Styr and had the permission of Canute to perform the killing. Uhtred’s death was the beginning of a blood feud that lasted well into the latter half of the century.
Cornwell revealed in a 2015 interview that he is related to the infamous Uhtred the Bold. I, being related to Smedley Darlington Butler (United States Marine Corps major general, the most decorated marine in U.S. history at the time of his death in 1940), know how enthralling it is to find a little acclaim in your genes. Luckily for us, Cornwell put his ancestral interest to good use, fathering a wildly successful series of novels that inspired one of my favorite shows, “The Last Kingdom.” And while Uhtred of Bebbanburg is a purely fictional figure, he perfectly embodies the battle and bloodshed that characterize England’s infancy.
Celine Butler is a second-year student majoring in psychology with minors in French and Fine Art. CB869017@wcupa.edu