One King dies, another King rises… Armies march and Uhtred must choose
In episode 3, we spent much of the time in Wessex seeing the fallout from the unseen battle that resulted in the death of one King and rise of another, Alfred. Althelred is mortally wounded in the battle and dies shortly afterwards. Alfred is filled with doubts about his own abilities but is certain of one thing… he can surely hold the Kingdom together better than the incapable and drunken young man who insists that he is the true heir to the crown. Besides dealing with Athelred’s death, his impending kingship and the surly drunken Athelwold, he must also determine what to do with Uhtred and the rather surly outspoken Brida.
a drunken Athelwold
Uhtred and Brida await news of the battle’s outcome from a jail cell. Father Beocca brings them good news but Brida does not see it that way. In her mind, the best news would be of a loss and Alfred’s death. Beocca assures Uhtred that they will be released soon, but Brida can not hold her frustration and anger in screaming, “We are Danes!” probably not the wisest comment considering their current circumstances…
Once they are finally released, Uhtred impatiently insists on a meeting with Alfred to discuss the battle win and his reward… Alfred calmly explains that he has a few other things on his mind right now like the death of his brother and his own impending kingship. Alfred is a little pre-occupied right now to have to deal with Uhtred. That will have to come later.
Episode 3 dealt with the fallout from the battle that took Athelred’s life and left Alfred and his nephew, Athelwold at some odds over who should rule the Kingdom. There is never really any question about that debate, other than what might be in Athelwold’s rather foggy and often inebriated mind. Athelwold does have one half hearted supporter, however and that young man’s actions should not be discounted or blown off… he will show his deviousness and untrustworthiness in the future. That young man is Odda the Younger and he is not quite so fuddled or incompetent as Athewold. I only mention him here and now because in the beginning of episode we see a conversation between him and Athelwold that gives a huge clue as to how Odda the Younger’s mind works… when he encourages Athelwold in his ploy and suggests how Athelwold should claim his Father’s backing of him no matter what Alfred or the Witan might say differently.
Some people have made comments and voiced some concerns about the lack of battle scenes thus far. Episodes 3 and 4 do not include major battles, blood or gore. These two episodes deal more with setting up the future plot lines and twists that will become important in the future. They serve to give us a better look and understanding of the characters and of the underlying conspiracies that will run through the story. I think this is just as important to the story as attempting to include some major battle scene in every episode. First of all, the show is running on an extremely tight time and money budget for this first season- those massive battle scenes are expensive and time consuming to pull off in a believable, authentic manner or representation. I personally would prefer that rather than include battle, blood and gore in every episode just for effect, they save the battle scenes and provide them in a way that will truly be epic, standout and memorable to viewers. Yes, they could have shown the battle that killed Athelred in episode 3 but then they would have had to eliminate some of the other just as important but not so in your face violent scenes and segments. The results of the battle are important for everyone concerned there. That aftermath needed to be addressed in the way it was because it sets up the future for all of them, Saxons and Danes alike.
Thanks in part to Uhtred’s advice, the Saxons did win the battle. Uhtred assumed that Alfred would be so grateful for that help that he would just automatically reward him and not question his reasons or motives at all. Alfred was not so gullible as to believe anything or anyone at face value… well, other than his priests. What you should be realizing even this early in the story is that Uhtred is not necessarily the stereotypical hero type. Uhtred messes up, a lot. He may be the main and central character that the story revolves around, he may be the “good guy” warrior of the battle but that does not mean that he always wins or that he conquers all. Right now, Uhtred has many lessons to learn in life. He will learn most of those lessons the hard way- as in “if at first you fail, then try again” The person who ends up teaching Uhtred many of those difficult life lessons is Alfred the King.
On the subject of Alfred the King, we need to understand something very important about his role in the story and in general, I think. Alfred does express his own failings, his own doubts on being a successful King but he does not express these feelings to the public. Alfred is very clear about his goal, his dream for a united England. He also understands his role as leader of his people and knows full well that the worst thing he could do in his situation is show any sign of weakness or vulnerability to his subjects or to the Danes. It’s obvious to anyone who sees him that he is not a strong warrior who can go out and conquer battles/enemies physically. That leaves him with one other option… he must win with mind games, with words and out thinking his opponents. Alfred knows that his kingdom is in a precarious situation and that he will have to make difficult decisions which many of his subjects will not approve of or agree on. As King, it is Alfred’s responsibility to lead his people and win this war that is beginning around them. Alfred will inevitably often do things which may not endear him to everyone… he definitely is not the most likeable or jovial, fun loving kind of King. His court is certainly not one high on the A-list of parties or events. It will never be that kind of place even when there is peace in the land! Whether you like him or not is not really his ultimate concern or worry. He has far more important matters to be concerned with than whether he is well liked by all. Of course, he would like to be known as a fair and just ruler to his subjects but he needs his subjects, all of them- and that includes stubborn Uhtred- to trust him, to know that he is strong in mind and convictions, that he can not be taken advantage of or manipulated by factions who would seek to use him for their own benefits. Ohhh and yes of course, he does want to be liked by that one temptation of the flesh that he keeps near to him because of Father Beocca’s suggestion. One might assume that Alfred’s likeability issues are due to the religious influences engrained in him and while that does play a huge part in his actions, I think it comes down more to the fact that he needs to win a war and make those often unpopular decisions that come along with any crisis. I think even without the religious influence, Alfred would have still been a serious minded individual who needed to be seen as a strong and firm leader. Alfred’s idea of a good time is more along the lines of a philosophical discussion, a rousing taefl game of strategy or an evening of riddling… and then possibly a game of temptation involving earlier mentioned temptation of the flesh.
The term tafl is the original name of the game. However, Hnefatafl became the preferred term for the game in Scandinavia by the end of the Viking Age, to distinguish it from other board games, such as Skáktafl (chess), Kvatrutafl (Tables) and Halatafl (Fox games), as these became known. The specific name Hnefatafl possibly arose as meaning “board game of the fist”, from hnefi (“fist”) + tafl, where “fist” referred to the central king-piece. The precise etymology is disputed, but hnefi certainly referred to the king-piece, and several sources refer to Hnefatafl as “King’s table”. In Anglo-Saxon England, the term tæfl also referred to many board games. It is not known if the Anglo-Saxons had a specific name for the game or if they generically referred to it as “tæfl” in the way that modern people might refer to “cards”. Having spent time in Francia, Alfred may also have had some experience with early games of chess.
One of the most popular games was riddling. A warrior was not considered to be up to much unless his word skill was as good as his weapon skills. Riddling was a good way of demonstrating this skill and many of the riddles of the time are full of double meanings which suggest two answers, one innocent, the other more ‘raunchy’. These riddles could be anything from a one to a hundred lines long and sought to describe everyday objects in an unusual way. Part of the skill of riddling was to be able to construct the riddle using the correct ‘poetic’ conventions. Obviously, as well as the correct construction, it was important to make sure that the description given was not too obscure. Here are some actual Saxon riddles. Alfred of course would have preferred the more innocent and correct poetic contexts and conventions!
- I’m by nature solitary,
scarred by spear
and wounded by sword, weary of battle.
I frequently see the face of war, and fight
hateful enemies; yet I hold no hope
of help being brought to me in the battle,
before I’m eventually done to death.
In the stronghold of the city sharp-edged swords,
skillfully forged in the flame by smiths
bite deeply into me. I can but await
a more fearsome encounter; it is not for me
to discover in the city any of those doctors
who heal grievous wounds with roots and herbs.
The scars from sword wounds gape wider and wider
death blows are dealt me by day and by night.
- I’m told a certain object grows
in the corner, rises and expands, throws up
a crust. A proud wife carried off
that boneless wonder, the daughter of a king
covered that swollen thing with a cloth.
- Wob’s my name if you work it out;
I’m a fair creature fashioned for battle
When I bend and shoot my deadly shaft
from my stomach, I desire only to send
that poison as far away as possible.
When my lord, who devised this torment for me,
releases my limbs, I become longer
and, bent upon slaughter, spit out
that deadly poison I swallowed before.
No man’s parted easily from the object
I describe; if he’s struck by what flies
from my stomach, he pays for its poison
with his strength – speedy atonement for his life
I’ll serve no master when unstrung, only when
I’m cunningly nocked. Now guess my name.
- On the way a miracle: water become bone.
- Favoured by men, I am found far and wide,
taken from woods and the heights of the town,
From high and from low. during each day
bees brought me through the bright sky
skillfully home to a shelter. Soon after that
I was taken by men and bathed in a tub.
Now I blind them and chasten them, and cast
a young man at once to the ground,
and sometimes an old one too.
He who struggles against my strength,
he who dares grapple with me, discovers immediately
that he will hit the hard floor with his back
if he persists with such stupidity.
Deprived of his strength and strangely loquacious,
he’s a fool, who rules neither his mind
nor his hands nor his feet.
Now ask me, my friends,
who knocks young men stupid,
and as his slave binds them
in broad waking daylight?
Yes ask me my name.
- On earth there’s a warrior of curious origin.
He’s created, gleaming, by two dumb creatures
for the benefit of men. Foe bears him against foe
to inflict harm. Women often fetter him,
strong as he is. If maidens and men
care for him with due consideration
and feed him frequently, he’ll faithfully obey them
and serve them well. Men succour him for the warmth
he offers in return; but this warrior will savage
anyone who permits him to become too proud.
- The dank earth, wondrously cold,
first delivered me from her womb.
I know in my mind I wasn’t made
from wool, skillfully fashioned with skeins.
Neither warp nor weft wind about me,
no thread thrums for me in the thrashing loom,
nor does a shuttle rattle for me,
nor does the weaver’s rod bang and beat me.
Silkworms didn’t spin with their strange craft for me,
those strange creatures that embroider cloth of gold.
Yet men will affirm all over this earth
that I am an excellent garment.
O wise man, weigh your words
well, and say what this object is.
- A woman, young and lovely, often locked me
in a chest; she took me out at times,
lifted me with fair hands and gave me
to her loyal lord, fulfilling his desire.
Then he stuck his head well inside me,
pushed it upwards into the smallest part.
It was my fate, adorned as I was, to be filled
with something rough if that person who possessed me
was virile enough. Now guess what I mean.
- A strange thing hangs by man’s hip,
hidden by a garment. It has a hole
in its head. It is stiff and strong
and its firm bearing reaps a reward.
When the retainer hitches his clothing
high above his knee, he wants the head
of that hanging thing to find the old hole
that it, outstretched, has often filled before.
- I saw a creature: his stomach stuck out behind him,
enormously swollen. A stalwart servant
waited upon him. What filled his stomach
had travelled from afar, and flew through his eye.
He does not always die in giving life
to others, but new strength revives
in the pit of his stomach: he breathes again.
He fathers a son; he’s his own father also.
- Mail shirt
Temptation of the flesh…
So, we can rather safely assume that the majority of Alfred’s warriors would prefer to find their own entertainment and amusements elsewhere, anywhere else but in Alfred or his wife Eilswith’s company for any evening. Let’s face it, as for Eilswith, even Alfred may have preferred to be anywhere else but in her company. But, Alfred was a dutiful husband and really, he was not one to be outwardly cruel to his lawfully wedded wife who was devoted and loyal to him. He needs her on his side and in his bed at least occasionally… he does need heirs after all! Even though Eilswith is about appealing as a mud fence and if possible, even more pious than Alfred, and has a sharp vicious tongue, she can do one thing well as it should become apparent… she can produce fine healthy babies! Historically, Eilswith’s alliance is of importance because she is from a Noble line of Mercia and the long range goal of Wessex rulers is to keep Mercia under their control. Her ability to provide heirs is also of importance. If you are familiar with the history of Alfred’s family- as in his siblings- he was one of six children and out of those six children, the only ones to produce any heirs were him and his brother Athelred. This is part of the reason there was little argument over who would rule. There was no one else left to lay claim to the crown but Alfred and two young nephews, who historically were assumed too young to rule. In episode 3, we begin to see just how unsuitable nephew Athelwold is for any leadership role let alone King. We also begin to see though that he is not going to go away quietly or give up on his claim, especially when he is encouraged by ones such as Odda the younger. At times his speaking without thinking comes very close to treason. Leofrich bluntly reminds him of that. Uhtred is of the ongoing opinion that Alfred should have had him killed immediately and been done with any possibility of rebellion or attempt for the crown by Athelwold. Alfred reasons that, “If I killed him then it would make it appear as though he did have some legitimate claim.” Ironically, of course, there are probably a number of Alfred’s supporters who have the same continuing thoughts about Uhtred. He is a vile, hated and untrustworthy Pagan that Alfred should have just killed and been done with him.
So, as you can see, no matter how distasteful the thought of Eilswith is, Alfred must make attempt to keep her belly full of babies and her Mercian supporters on his side.
As I mentioned, episode 3 provides us with a better understanding of what is going on within the Kingdom of Wessex, from Alfred’s doubts and temptations, his inner circle of supporters and possible traitors, to his personal relationships, all of which will play their part in the decisions he makes in the future. This is a vulnerable and fragile kingdom verging on chaos and that is exactly what the Danes are hoping for and expecting in their plans for dealing with Alfred. Alfred must use what ever advantages he can come up with and that includes Uhtred, even though Alfred doesn’t trust him any further than he could throw him… which is obviously not very far. Alfred needs Uhtred but he needs Uhtred loyal to him and he knows that Uhtred is loyal to no one but himself right now. Alfred must find a way, any way to keep Uhtred under control and he needs to do something else important… He needs to show Uhtred that he is the one in control, not Uhtred. This is extremely important in the context of Alfred’s overall rule because if Uhtred is able to best him, to outwit and out maneuver him then he will have lost control of not just Uhtred but others as well who are most likely watching the situation closely. In some ways, this battle of wills between Alfred and Uhtred is a battle that Alfred can not afford to lose. He has to prove himself to his warriors, his subjects, the Witan that put him on the throne, and most importantly, the Danes who are at the doorstep of his Kingdom waiting for him to fail.
The Witenaġemot (“meeting of wise men”), also known as the Witan (more properly the title of its members) was a political institution in Anglo-Saxon England which operated from before the 7th century until the 11th century. The witenagemots did not represent the political will of all England: before the unification of England in the 10th century, separate witenagemots were convened by the Kings of Essex, Kent, Mercia, Northumbria, Sussex and Wessex. The Witenagemot was an assembly of the ruling class whose primary function was to advise the king and whose membership was composed of the most important noblemen in England, both ecclesiastic and secular. The institution is thought to represent an aristocratic development of the ancient Germanic general assemblies, or folkmoots. In England, by the 7th century, these ancient folkmoots had developed into convocations of the land’s most powerful and important people, including ealdormen, thegns, and senior clergy, to discuss matters of both national and local importance. The influence of the king, or at least of kingship, on the constitution of the assembly seems to have been immense. But on the other hand he (the king) was elected by the witan .. He could not depose the prelates or ealdormen, who held their office for life, nor indeed the hereditary thanes. .. At any rate, the king had to get on with the highest statesmen appointed by his predecessor, though possibly disliked by him, until death made a post vacant that he could fill with a relation or a favourite, not, however, without having a certain regard to the wishes of the aristocracy. In addition to having a role in the ‘election’ of English Kings, it is often held that the witenagemots had the power to depose an unpopular king. However, there are only two occasions when this probably happened, in 757 and 774 with the depositions of kings Sigeberht of Wessex and Alhred of Northumbria.
Uhtred is young, cocky, and rebellious. In Alfred’s thoughts he is like an unruly, untamed hound who must be kept on a very tight leash and taught to obey his master… or at least listen and recognize that he has a master otherwise he will be the most dangerous of all animals, a lone wolf. I don’t believe it is ever Alfred’s intent to completely tame Uhtred or break him… what good would that prove. I believe that Alfred knows the power and force that Uhtred will become and he wants to make sure that power is on his side, not the side of the Danes. He needs to teach Uhtred a lesson or two, or three or more as the case will be but I do not believe it is now or ever will be his intent to completely destroy Uhtred. What he needs to do is use any means possible maintain some semblance of control over this volatile weapon he has in Uhtred. Uhtred needs to learn that he does not have that upper hand with Alfred. Alfred knows exactly how Uhtred thinks right now and calls him on it with his comment on Uhtred’s service to him. He asks Uhtred, “Are your offering me your sword, or are you selling me your sword?”
In Uhtred’s mind right now, what matter should it make to Alfred as long as Alfred gets his service and he gets rewarded… He needs to recognize the difference and fully understand that difference between the loyalty of offering one’s sword and the selling and or trading of one’s sword to the highest bidder. Uhtred does begin to understand this as we see him grow up emotionally in episode 3.
Uhtred and Brida both begin to grow more into their adult beliefs during episode 3 and as a result, they also begin to grow apart. Uhtred is learning to find a place, a purpose or at least a comfort level with the Saxons- well some of them anyway. He finds friendship and acceptance among the warriors that Alfred sets him to training in the fighting ways of the Danes. Uhtred, in his friendship with Leofric, quickly learns that liking Alfred is not a requirement of his service because many of the fighting men feel the same way about Alfred as he does. Brida, on the other hand is learning that she will never fit in with these Saxon women, nor does she want to. They both attempt to hold on to their relationship but it seems as though they both have some realization that they are changing in some very fundamental ways. While Uhtred learns to adapt and more fully understand what Alfred’s vision of the future means to him and to his chances of reclaiming his birthright, Brida becomes more determined and set against the Saxons. The turning point in their paths comes with Brida’s vision seeking and the loss of their child. With that loss, it seems as though they very quickly and harshly must grow up and accept their individual paths.
Uhtred finds a friend, Leofrich
Brida knows one thing, she does not want to be a Saxon woman
Ragnar the younger has arrived to help the Danes in their fight and it is at their meeting with him that we see Uhtred’s better understanding and belief in the loyalty and honor of offering one’s oath or sword. We see the difference between Uhtred’s and Brida’s beliefs come to light as Brida tells him to break his word to Alfred, it means nothing. When Uhtred explains though to Ragnar that he gave his word, his oath, Ragnar understands and accepts it. Brida will join Ragnar and return to the Danes where her vision showed her she would go without Uhtred. Uhtred will remain with the Saxons for the time being because he has learned that oaths are honor. It will be his belief throughout his life, good or bad, he will feel honor bound by oaths he will make.
While Wessex was dealing with the fallout from that battle, so were the Danes as well. We saw argument and discord among them as their two leaders began to have differences of opinion. Ubba questioned Guthrum on his action of going into battle without him and he questioned Guthrum’s ability to lead or win battles.
They headed towards a negotiation with Alfred that they assumed would be easy to win. They assumed Alfred to be weak, spineless and willing to turn over his Kingdom to them. Alfred stood his ground and maintained control of the negotiations. He offered peace with the Danes and explained the importance of the written word that would be a part of history. Those written words would show that Alfred acted in good faith, that Alfred offered peace. Alfred would offer gold, silver and grain but not land, and not the head of Uhtred- which Ubba wanted. Alfred then began to play his mind games with Ubba telling him, “If you wish to occupy Wessex then go ahead, do it. How many Fortresses have you taken to date?” This infuriated Ubba and he lost control of his emotions while Guthrum for the most part remained more restrained and calm during the meeting. If you pay close attention, you will see Guthrum thinking about what Alfred is saying rather than reacting violently to the words. Alfred ends the meeting reminding them that what will be written and remembered was that Alfred offered terms, Alfred offered payments and Alfred sought peace above all else.
The meeting ends and the Danes leave but everyone knows full well that this but a temporary and extremely fragile peace. Brida has chosen her path with Ragnar and the Danes. Uhtred will follow his own destiny or path that is with the Saxons for now because of his oath of service to Alfred, and also now too because Alfred has saved his life… When the Danes demanded Uhtred’s head as part of the agreement, Alfred refused. He could have easily turned Uhtred over to the Danes at that point, but Uhtred is far more valuable to Alfred alive than he is as a dead trade of peace. It was after that meeting that Alfred made it clear that he never had intent or thought of trading Uhtred’s life. It was also then that he made the offer to Uhtred of one year of service to him. “One year of service, oath and loyalty to me… And, in return you shall have your own reward Uhtred of Bebbanburg”
Uhtred believes Alfred, puts his trust in him and his vision for the future, and gives him that oath. One year does not seem such a long time. In the beginning, Uhtred was as optimistic as the rest of Wessex that they could fight the Danes and win… In reality, a year can be a very long time and fate will change all. This is merely a lull before the storm that would be known as the Great Heathen invasion and would last for generations beyond Alfred’s reign.