Bernard Cornwell’s ‘Last Kingdom’ books, and the related TV series, has generated a huge amount of interest and a considerable fan-base. As Bamburgh features so prominently in the story, as the original home of the protagonist – Uhtred – and its recovery by him was one of the main long term plot drivers, its fair to say that Bamburgh is now more widely known than it was before. We experienced this during our excavation seasons, as every year we seemed to chat to more and more fans, many of whose visit to Bamburgh had been inspired by the books and the TV series.
We are of course delighted that so many people have been inspired to learn more about the early medieval period as a result, but its not always easy to give simple answer to some of the more common question – such as: how much of the story is real? That is not an easy question to answer as the books are very well researched and draw a great deal from historical reality, but of course in the end they are a work of fiction telling a good yarn! In the next few blogs we will aim to cover the areas where the story touches on historical reality and what Bamburgh would have been like at that time. We very much hope that the answers will be interesting and if it leads to a few more people learning about an extraordinary place then we see that as a very good thing.
Was there a historical Uhtred?
This is one of the most frequently asked question we hear. And the answer is annoyingly both yes and no! There is, as it happens, more than one Uhtred in this period associated with Bamburgh and one of them stands out as having inspired the character of the books. He lived at a later time and so was not present for the real historical events described in the books but much of his story and character will seem familiar. In fact in the historical note at the end of the first book Bernard Cornwell informs us that although his Uhtred is a fictional character he represents a real family who did indeed have a member called Uhtred. He also tells us that he has an ancestral link to this family. With these few clues its easy to identify the historical Uhtred that lies behind the character of the books and who has gone down in history as Uhtred the Bold.
He was born some time in the later 10th century and became the Alderman or Earl of Northumberland in the early 11th century. These two terms represent a noble of great rank, alderman being the Old English (OE) title and earl the Old Norse (ON), we will use earl in this blog as it very much became the norm in this later period. He is clearly the inspiring character as there are many elements of his story that will seem familiar. He was of course first and foremost a renowned warrior and was also connected to the kings of the house of Wessex, even marrying a daughter of that royal house. His king was Aethelred the Unready, a king descended from Alfred the Great but of very different character indeed! This Uhtred, like the Uhtred of the books, was married a number of times and had enemies and allies within the Viking descended community of the Danelaw and the north.
Part of an illustrious family
So far so very like the Uhtred of the books, but what else do we know of him? He was the son of the Earl of Northumberland called Waltheof and had a brother called Eadulf. Uhtred’s Father’s name – Waltheof – was an OE name derived from and ON name and the name Uhtred itself was from OE. This mix of Viking and Anglo-Saxon naming within the family was very typical of a hybrid culture that developed over many generations within the Danelaw and the North of England. Our historical knowledge of the period is very dependent of course on those who were literate and what they thought important enough to write down. As literacy was very much a church thing, the records are often a little biased towards what was important to a monastic community. The idea of keeping a year by year historical record of events had started in the 8th century as an attempt to compile follow on records continuing on from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. This tradition of record keeping was given a great boost when Alfred the Great encouraged the keeping of such annals in order to promote literacy and to ensure that the deeds of his dynasty would be remembered. The results of this initiative survives to us today as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (in fact a series of parallel chronicles compiled in different monasteries) but these only became properly detailed in the 11th century. We will see that gaps in our knowledge are a real problem for earlier times and we will often be left to speculate.
We know from such records that our historical Uhtred had connections with Aldhun the Bishopric of Durham as he married Ecgthryth the bishop’s daughter. This is a reminder that the world of the 10th and 11th centuries was rather different to how we often imagine the medieval period. Perhaps this is because we are generally more familiar with the better documented later Middle Ages, where a celibate clergy was the norm. At this earlier time the church, particularly in the north (where so much had been disrupted during the Viking Age) could be something of a family business with clerics a little like landed aristocrats. This seems to have been the background to Uhtred’s marriage as it was associated with a number of estates going to Uhtred as a dowry. Through this connection Uhtred was involved in the creation of the new site of the church of St Cuthbert at Durham, and was noted to have helped to clear the area for the new monastery in AD 995. This may be a clue as to the period in which that marriage occurred and suggests to us that Uhtred was of a grown up at this time. Before the creation of this new monastery in the loop of the River Wear at Durham the relics of St Cuthbert and his monastic community had been centred on a church at Chester-le-Street where they had settled in AD 883. This religious community of course had begun its monastic existence on Lindisfarne, a site closely associated with Bamburgh geographically and historically. During the later 9th century they travelled for many years across Northumbria seeking a new home, before settling in County Durham. We are told that the community undertook this long journey fleeing the Vikings whilst looking for a new and safer place of residence. That they ended up closer to the Viking Kingdom of York than when they started may tell us that the location of the new monastery and its lands may have had more to do with the creation of a religious buffer zone between York and Bamburgh than the story that comes down to us and why the some of the most powerful dynasty in the region had such a close connection with the Bishop’s family.
We are not sure how long Uhtred was married to Ecgthryth but we hear of a second marriage that took place before 1005. This was to a woman called Sige, daughter of Styr son of Ulf. Marriages of aristocrats at this time were mostly very political affairs or even just something of a business transaction. This second marriage seems to have been very much political, connecting Uhtred with a powerful and wealthy Danish family. Perhaps this was intended to generate leverage and influence to the south of their own heartland that lay north of the River Tees. We will see that this political relationship between those who controlled the two former parts of the Kingdom of Northumbria, north and south of the Tees River, will be a theme that we see again and again. We will also see that this second marriage of Uhtred will have huge ramifications for his fate and that of his decedents for several generations.
Invasion and battle
The story of Uhtred’s third marriage begins with a conflict from further north. Malcolm II who had just become King of Scotland, raided into Northumbria in 1005 AD. Perhaps this was an attempt to show off his military ability and add to his prestige, as he had come to the crown having killed his predecessor in battle and may not have felt entirely secure on the throne. Whatever the reason behind the conflict it did not go to plan. Uhtred’s father seems to have been old and infirm and chose to seek refuge in Bamburgh rather than seek battle. The same could not be said of his son Uhtred who raised a force and met Malcolm in battle relieving a siege of Durham and inflicting a defeat on Malcolm. It was reported that Uhtred then decorated the walls of Durham with the heads of his defeated enemy.
As a result of this victory Aethelred king of England, who had had few military successes against a new generation of Viking enemies, clearly desired a connection with this successful warrior and therefore arranged a marriage of Uhtred to one of his daughters. This would have involved Uhtred setting aside his current wife Sige, an action that surely damaged or broke the connections with her family. It is very likely that this weakened Uhtred’s position in the north, loosing him important allies that seem to have played a part in his recent victory, and all for an alliance with a weak king whose reign would end with his own heir in rebellion against him.
At the time a connection by marriage to Aethelred was likely to have seemed a good route for him to have political influence at the royal court. At first it seems to have have worked well for both Uhtred and Aethelred. It did not though, stand in the way of Uhtred making a ruthless decision when needed. Such as when in 1013 he switched allegiance to Swein of Denmark when Aethelred’s position became so weak Uhtred must have felt it threatened his remaining in power as Earl. He changed sides again when Swein died, but this time he appears to have been more closely associated with Edmund (later called Ironside) Aethelred’s oldest surviving son who was in a position of near open rebellion to his sick and ailing father. Ruthless politics as this may have been it did not work out well in the longer run.
Betrayal and murder
Cnut, Swein’s son who had taken control of his father’s army at his death was now the rival that Uhtred and Edmund must resist, but things did not go well. Cnut outflanked Uhtred and invaded Northumbria when Uhtred was in the midlands with Edmund. Uhtred being one of the most important and powerful figures in the north was always going to be key to how Cnut dealt with the north, he needed him as at least something of an ally or he needed him out of the picture. Finding his enemy in a position to cut him off from his land and earldom Uhtred opened negotiations. Hostages were exchanged between them to assure good conduct and a meeting arranged. At a place called Wiheal – that might be modern Wighill in Yorkshire. We are told that Uhtred arrived with 40 of his followers only to be attacked and killed in ambush by the forces of one of his enemies who had been lying in wait for them concealed behind the hangings in the hall! A suitably dramatic end to a life of adventure. This act was likely a consequence of both one of Uhtred’s earlier marriages and the complex power politics of the North. More of this later.
The historical Uhtred was clearly a warrior like his namesake in the book and had indeed some points that the fictional version may have drawn on, but he was a man of a very different era. This brings us back to his family, its connection to Bamburgh and the question – can this be traced back to the same time of the books, when the kingdom of Northumbria fragmented under attack from a Viking army in the middle of the 9th century and the later reign of Alfred the Great? We will look at this next time.
If anyone is intrigued to learn more, get some hands on experience of archaeology and a tour of the site there are still places available on the Taster Week and all are welcome.