Throat-grabbing, visceral, brilliantly shot and cut… I hope you’ve been enjoying The Last Kingdom – the BBC’s dramatisation of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxons v Viking stories – as much as I have. On occasion it has made Game of Thrones look as buttoned up as Downton Abbey but, at the same time, introduced a whole new generation to a vitally important period in the British story.
We wouldn’t be who we are today if it weren’t for the Anglo-Saxons, and the very bloody – but incredibly creative – times they lived through over 1,000 years ago, when Alfred was King of Wessex, the Last Kingdom of the title. Ever since I read about him in a Ladybird book when I was a child, I’ve always thought that Alfred the Great is the best story in our history.
He came to the throne by accident aged 22, after his older brothers had died one after the other in the Viking Wars; but he saved Wessex in battle, revived learning, and paved the way for his grandson Athelstan to become the first king of all England. And Alfred is still the only English ruler we call “the Great”.
This story, then, is at the root of England as a nation, the very idea of England. It is when the English language and literature emerge; the beginnings of governance, local organisation, the counties and – under King Athelstan, of the first national assemblies or parliaments – and of a national English law and coinage. So many of the great things we gave to the world can be traced to this time.
Television is above all a medium for telling stories: and the Viking Age is a time of incredible drama, heroism, triumphs and disasters. The battle scenes in the series are riveting. Don’t ever think ancient battles are romantic: fighting at close quarters with axe, sword and spear, “making carrion for the ravens”, was a grim business: Viking armies rampaging through our Saxon villages like testosterone-fuelled football hooligans, Saxon captives finished off with gleeful sadism. And, as an Anglo-Saxonist, I love the way that real events weave in and out of the story: the fall of York in 869, the martyrdom of St Edmund in 870, even King Alfred’s obsessive guilt about his sex life is true to life.
So is much of the rest of the show. You may have watched the murder and mayhem, the beheadings and burnings, and thought the producers have taken a few liberties with history, sexing up the Saxons, so to speak, but actually there is no need to – things like this really happened. A famous passage in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells how in 1012 the Archbishop of Canterbury was killed at a feast at Greenwich by being pelted to death with animal bones by drunken Vikings.
The period doesn’t just announce England’s beginnings. Rhodri the Great, founder of the kingdom of Wales, fought many battles with the Vikings and died fighting the English. In Scotland Kenneth MacAlpin (nicknamed “the Conqueror”) fought battles with the Vikings; and in Ireland, how about the legendary Ui Niall clan, who won a series of great victories to keep the Vikings out of Ulster?
So the struggles with the Vikings are at the root of the story of how this small island off the shore of Europe became such an influence across the planet; especially in its ideas about law and democracy, and also its literature and poetry. That is one of the most fantastic tales in world history, and it all goes back to this time. The Last Kingdom has done that story a great service and we need more television like it.
What next? King Harold and the Norman Conquest? There wouldn’t be a dry eye in the house. And then there are the legends of King Arthur. They are made for TV, and Bernard Cornwell, it just happens, has already written the book!
Historian Michael Wood’s new series, The Story of China, will be shown on BBC2 next year.