So what happened?
In honour of the feast day of one of his favourite saints, King Alfred offers to call the fight to the death off between his two of his greatest warriors, Uhtred and Leofric, but only if the former agrees to resume the debt to the Church he recently paid off and to send Queen Iseult back to Cornwall. He agrees to shoulder the responsibility for the debt again, but point blank refuses to send the ‘Shadow Queen’ back to where she was ‘plundered’ from, leaving the King to reluctantly allow the fight to go ahead. Even though the Wessex crowds are on Leofric’s side, the two men engage themselves in an evenly matched battle, which is cut short after Uhtred’s former lover, Brida, enters Winchester unnoticed and ascertaining that the time is right, heads back to Guthrum and Ragnar’s armies and gives the signal for them to attack.
With the whole place in Viking-induced chaos, the two duelling friends call a truce and find safety for themselves and Iseult in a hayloft, determining that they can stay there until things calm down and then escape unnoticed under the cover of darkness. Things don’t go to plan however, when a nun is dragged into the house they’re hiding in by a group of Danes and is raped. Unable to contain her anger and disgust at the sight below her, the Cornish Queen jumps down on the attackers with a dagger and stabs them repeatedly as Leofric and Uhtred follow suit and kill the other two. With the nun, Hild, now in tow, the two men disguise themselves as two of the pillagers and tie the two women up as if they’re their prisoners, before attempting to leave town without being caught. They’re stopped though by a much colder, remote Brida, who mocks them and then refuses to pass on Uhtred’s message to Ragnar that he still considers himself his brother, and that he’ll be there when he seeks to take revenge on Kjartan for killing their Father. Nevertheless, she does point them in the direction of the town gates, and tells them they’ll be able to get through because all the guards will be drunk. Heading out into the woods, the four of them take shelter there overnight and muse whether or not the King is still alive, as Iseult utilises the darkness to use her gift.
In the meantime, as Guthrum has taken control of Alfred’s court and terrorised his priests, Aethelwold sees his chance to seize some sort of power for himself, finding the crown that was left behind by his Uncle and placing it on his own head in the Viking general’s presence, before pledging his allegiance to him. Fully aware that the young man has little to offer him, Guthrum knocks the crown off his head and takes it for himself, leaving the disgruntled heir to his father’s throne in a heap on the floor after he’s assaulted. Miles away, Uhtred, Leofric, Iseult and Hild have found themselves in the marshlands and soon encounter a group of priests being chased down by Danes on horseback. Stepping in, the two men fight with the assailants, giving them time to get on the boats and get away. Fleeing themselves, all four of them find themselves sharing one of the boats with one such ‘man of the cloth’ only to realise it’s actually Alfred, who Uhtred brands ‘King of Nothing’ after the loss of his Kingdom when the deposed monarch demands more respect.
Once they reach the small village where Alfred’s family had sought refuge before him, his son’s health continue to fail, just as his resolve to fight back does. With his stomach complaint still bothering him, Iseult creates a tonic to help him, leading to deluge of mistrust and harsh words from the King’s wife, Aelswith, who is struggling to come to terms with their current situation and her baby son’s poor health. As Alfred becomes increasingly withdrawn, Uhtred urges him not to flee to France and become another King in exile, instead telling him to propel his priests to every corner of his kingdom to inform his people that he’s still alive and in need of a great army to take back what belongs to him. Agreeing to do so, he also proposes that the best, and perhaps only way, to fight the Danes would be to condense the bloodshed into one major battle. Meanwhile, back in Winchester, Guthrum is thumbing his way through Alfred’s scrolls and resolving to learn to read so that he can harness the power of this written knowledge, as well as telling Ragnar in no uncertain terms that there’ll be no suicidal invasion of the swamplands by their forces.
With Edward’s health taking a stark decline, and the possibility of what his death extinguishing Alfred’s will to fight, Uhtred asks if there’s anything Iseult can do to save the boy’s life. She’s says there is, but that it’s not a ‘good way’, later explaining that she’ll be asking for the regal baby’s life to be spared in return for the life of somebody else’s baby being taken away. After Alfred and Aelswith’s resolve not to rely on heathen ways eventually weakens, the virgin Queen takes the boy and places him in a mysterious sculpture by the swamp which is fashioned out of the mud. The following morning he’s cured, just as Beocca and Wulfhere arrive with an army to reinforce the King. Having previously spotted Viking ships sailing along the river near where they’re sought refuge, Uhtred hatches a plan to send Skorpa and his men running to Guthrum, thus creating the right circumstances for the single battle he and Alfred wanted and felt they had the best chance of winning. Taking archers to where the Vikings who would be guarding the ships would be, he taunts them by getting his men to fire arrows at the Danes, then lures them into bogs when they give chase, giving his allies the opportunity to kill them and the time to burn the unguarded ships. As they all look on at their handiwork, Alfred deems the alight ships a ‘beacon of hope’.
Scene of the Week
Marieke: To me it felt like the entire episode was one scene of the week. Wait, first things first: LEOFRIC LIVES! As you read last week, it was our biggest worry and through a clever mode of storytelling, he lives! Fezzy cheer! I like how the Danes interrupted the fight. It could have been a cliché to save Leofric, but this showed how clever and fearsome the Danes are. It also made Guthrum a little less of a cliché villain for a moment, because he demonstrated great tactical skills. Uhtred had to fight and flee for his life and had to end up on a boat with Alfred. Even so, our attention was kept. It was nice to see Queen Iseult being trusted somewhat by Alfred. She knows how to deal with his bowels! And then the luring of the Danes and the burning of the ships… This episode was great story wise, because it was so centred around Uhtred and Alfred without ignoring the other characters. Also I did not expect that this episode would go like this at all, where in the previous episodes we were able to predict events to come from time to time. I really thought Leofric had to die to give Uhtred the ability to progress, but I am certainly glad that he didn’t and no cliches were used to keep him breathing. I actually think I have to give minus points to Aethelwold this week, since he seemed to be back to his old, prideful self. Although it showed some balls to try to negotiate with Guthrum… Stupid balls, but still.
Danielle: The history nerd in me loved the fact that they included the scene where Alfred burnt the cakes and was scolded for it, but the stand out sequences in this week’s episode were where Uhtred and Alfred put aside their differences and addressed each other on an equal footing without the usual sniping for not living up to each other’s expectations of one another. The scene where the Elderman finally convinced his King to trust Iseult and give his son a chance at life was especially poignant, as he got him to recognise that God, the creator of everything and everybody, had to be responsible for the pagans too; all the while equating the risk to keep his heir alive with the risks that need to be taken to get Wessex back under Saxon rule. Judging by their success with the child, listening to one another and working together, instead of against one another, seems to prove fruitful, which bodes well for the oncoming battle in the finale.
Hild, the nun rescued by Iseult, Uhtred and Leofric is played by Eva Birthistle, and aside from the guest role we recognise her from on Ashes to Ashes, (the show which brought the Fezzy team together), she’s also had larger parts on Waking the Dead and Strike Back. Here’s hoping she and her crazy-knife-wielding-Julie-Andrews-Maria-nun vibes stick around for a while!
Last week we suggested that something needed to happen because Uhtred, and the show in general, was going round in circles. That circle has not only been broken, it has been burned and buried for now. In a fraught episode that kept us on the edge of our seats, we were taken by surprise by the Danish invasion of Wessex and its unexpected consequences. The bond between Uhtred and Alfred seems to have been mended, as the Elderman’s advice about the King’s son and his priests was heeded. We are afraid, however, that saving the royal baby means Uhtred has now lost his son, because there have to be unsavoury consequences to that pagan magic, right? Iseult seemed distraught as a result of what she’d done., and perhaps with good reason. Wouldn’t that tragedy afford an awful, but apt symmetry to events in light of Uhtred’s impulsiveness and eagerness to do whatever needs to be done? If Alfred’s lesson has been to consider other perspectives, our protagonist’s own must be that all actions, no matter how seemingly innocuous, have a knock on effect on everything else. Until Uhtred learns that, he’s a danger to himself and everybody around him, and this, a horrible cruelty, could be his steep learning curve.
Sadly the final episode of this series is imminent, but we hope to see more of these Saxons and Danes. Unexpectedly this show has become a prime time BBC gem, which we started looking forward to each week as it shed its lazy comparisons with Game of Thrones and firmly stood on its own two feet. Whether those feet are Danish, Saxon or both is something we are eagerly waiting to find out. Come on Auntie Beeb! Do the honourable thing and renew the show!