Uhtred of Bebbanburg and the Real Lords of Bamburgh

Michael McComb

The Last Kingdom and Alfred's Mercenaries?

Uhtred of Bebbenburg, played by Alexander Dreymond in The Last Kingdom (2015-2022), has become one of the most well-known and well-liked characters in historical fiction over the last decade. Throughout the show, he adapts to life in the chaos of Anglo-Saxon England, playing his part in whatever cause he believes in. As a boy, he was the heir to a mighty northern fortress. Yet after the Viking invasions of the late ninth century, he was captured by the Danes, adopted by a Viking father and fell in love with the new culture he grew up in. When disaster struck his new family, he was forced south to seek refuge in the last surviving English kingdom, Wessex. Under Wessex's new King, Alfred (871-899), Uhtred becomes the chief commander of the English army, teaching his troops Viking battle tactics and leading them to victory at the Battle of Ethandun 878. After a failed northern venture, he reluctantly returns to Alfred's service, becoming the king's primary instrument of war, keeping Wessex safe and furthering Alfred's dream of a united England. He comes to equally hate and respect Alfred, mainly because of Alfred's abhorrence of Uhtred's pagan beliefs. However, he ensures Alfred's son Edward (899-924) succeeds to the West Saxon throne. Uhtred likewise had a problematic relationship with Edward and failed as the peacemaker between the Danes and the English, leading to an expansion of English power in the north. He would, however, use English power in the north to take back his ancestral fortress, a position from which he found himself caught between a united England dominated by Wessex and independence for his northern realm. Uhtred would, however, eventually remain faithful to the project of English unity he helped build and was a key ally of Edward's son, King Æthelstan (924-939), England's first king. This article will discuss certain aspects of Uhtred's life, analysing the historical accuracy of the roles he at times played in the show, such as the use of mercenary-like warriors in Alfred’s reign, the history of the Lords of Bebbanburg and will look at the historical figures who possibly serve as inspiration for his Uhtred. When Uhtred enters the service of King Alfred, he initially agrees to provide one year of service as a commander of the West Saxon army and a military advisor to the king. In exchange, he is told he will be rewarded for his service. Such arrangements, while vague and undefined, may not have been out of place during Alfred's reign. A contemporary biographer of the king, Bishop Asser, in The Life of King Alfred, praised the king for attracting 'foreigners' into his service. Amongst them included 'Franks, Frisians, Gauls, heathen, Welsh, Irish, and Bretons', who were 'enriched with money and power' by Alfred. We know that some of them served the king as soldiers, as the contemporary Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded the deaths of three Frisians serving in Alfred's navy in 897 (Wulfheard, Ebb and Æthelhere). Like Uhtred, they arrived in Wessex seeking to serve the king in exchange for monetary reward. However, we might assume that some were given land with the expectation that they would remain in Wessex in the long term, while others may have been paid for a short-term agreed-upon period of time. Alfred was likely not the only English king to do this. Two of his successors, Æthelstan and Æthelred II are thought to have both hired foreign mercenaries to fight against Viking invasions, too. Frankish and Breton rulers also made similar arrangements.
Uhtred of Bebbanburg and the Real Lords of Bamburgh
Map of the kingdom of Northumbria c. 700 AD, showing the two former kingdoms of Bernicia (north) and Deira (south)

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Uhtred of Bebbanburg and the Real Lords of Bamburgh
Map of England c. 878-900 AD. The yellow region in the north titled ‘Northumbria’ represents the domains of the lords of Bamburgh (Wikimedia Commons).

The Lords of Bamburgh

Uhtred's ultimate ambition was to reclaim his ancestral inheritance as Lord of Bebbanburg, which, after his father's death, had gone to his uncle Ælfric. Bebbanburg, or Bamburgh as it was called in the 9th century, was a significant fortress on northern England's east coast. It was once the seat of power for the Kings of Bernicia (northern Northumbria) before the Bernician kingdom was absorbed into the much larger kingdom of Northumbria in the 7th century. After the Viking conquest of York in the 860s, Bamburgh likely suffered Viking overlordship for a period. Yet, by the late ninth century, Bamburgh was established as the seat of power of an independent English realm, which covered the northern half of the old kingdom of Northumbria, roughly corresponding to the ancient borders of Bernicia (from the River Tyne to the River Forth). To the south of Bamburgh was the Viking kingdom of York, to the north was the kingdom of Alba (Scotland) and to the west was the Britonnic kingdom of Strathclyde. The first sustained independent ruler of Bamburgh to emerge from the Northumbrian chaos created by the Viking conquest was named Eadwulf. He ruled from the fortress until 913. The status of these rulers of Bamburgh, like Eadwulf, while they were independent is uncertain. Irish sources call them the Kings of the Northern English/Northern Saxons. Contemporary English sources do not give them a title, but later, English sources refer to them as Earls. We, unfortunately, do not have any contemporary land grants, law codes or coins produced in their name. Thus, we do not know what title they used for themselves. The primary opponents of the rulers of Bamburgh were the Viking kings of York; the rulers clashed on several occasions. The House of Wessex had come to dominate southern England by the end of the ninth century and shared the same anti-Viking agenda as Bamburgh. The two Houses of Bamburgh and Wessex, according to an 11th-century source, were on good terms with one another, perhaps due to this common anti-Viking goal and their shared English heritage: ‘Ealdred [of Bamburgh], son of Eadwulf ...was loved by King Edward [of Wessex] just as his father Eadwulf had been loved by King Alfred’. - Historia de Sancto Cuthberto: A History of Saint Cuthbert and a Record of his Patrimony Indeed, the rulers of Bamburgh, when compared to their neighbouring northern rulers, welcomed West Saxon hegemony over the north. When King Æthelstan of Wessex conquered Viking York in 926, Ealdred of Bamburgh (913-933) submitted to West Saxon overlordship and attended Æthelstan court in Wessex several times from 930-933, where he was given the title 'Dux', the equivalent to Ealdormen/Earl. When the Viking dynasty of York returned to claim their throne in 937, they were backed by several northern rulers, eager to rid themselves of West Saxon overlordship, but Bamburgh did not join them. It was also Oswulf of Bamburgh (934-954/63), Ealdred's brother, who was responsible for the death of the last Viking king of York in 954, allowing the House of Wessex to re-establish their power in northern England for the final time that century. The House of Bamburgh were among the few noble families that survived and remained in power from England's unification until the Norman Conquest. They became targets for England's foreign conquerors. Both King Cnut (1016-1035) and King William I (1066-1087) executed Earls of Bamburgh. Yet they stoutly resisted the Norman conquest, making the north almost ungovernable for the men William I appointed to tame the region: Earl Copsi was beheaded by Oswulf II, Earl of Bamburgh in 1067, Robert de Comines was burnt to death by the northerners, and Bishop Walcher of Durham was murdered by Eadwulf Rus of Bamburgh in 1080. William's response was equally as brutal; several members of the Bamburgh family met a gruesome end. Waltheof, Earl of Northumbria, was executed in 1076. His kinsmen, Ligulf and Eadwulf Rus, were killed by William's followers in the 1080s and two more Bamburgh Earls, Gospatric and Dolfin, were also expelled from England by the Normans. The House of Bamburgh was finally deposed in 1092. Some of the family later settled in Scotland, one of whom, Maud, became Queen of Scotland in the 12th century.
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Historical Inspiration for Uhtred of Bebbanburg?

Two prominent members of the Bamburgh family had the name Uhtred. The first is a younger brother of the aforementioned Ealdred of Bamburgh. This Uhtred in 911, with the help of King Edward, purchased land in Derbyshire, on the border of Mercia, a vassal of Edward. He fought at the Battle of Corbridge in 918, when Ealdred allied himself with the Scots and was defeated by the Viking warlord Ragnall. Uhtred was with Ealdred in 920 at a peace conference in Bakewell, Derbyshire, where Edward oversaw a treaty ending the war between Ragnall and the Bamburgh-Scots alliance. He was also with his brother at King Æthelstan's court in the 930s, where he was recorded as a Dux (Ealdormen/Earl). An Ealdormen named Uhtred regularly attended the court of Wessex until 949, but it is unknown if this is the same Uhtred or not. The more well-known Uhtred of Bamburgh is the Ealdormen Uhtred, who presided over the fortress of Bamburgh from 1006 to 1016, commonly referred to as Uhtred the Bold. Bernard Cornwell, the author of the original Saxon Stories novels, on which The Last Kingdom is based, claims he is descended from Uhtred the Bold and that discovering this fact late in life was his reason for writing the novels. This Uhtred was the son of Waltheof, Ealdormen of Bamburgh. When the Scots invaded in 1006, besieging the town of Durham, Waltheof was too ill to lead his troops; thus, the responsibility fell to Uhtred. At Durham, Uhtred won a decisive victory, which earned him the favour of King Æthelred II of England (978-1016). The battle was later made famous as Uhtred had the heads of the dead Scots displayed upon stakes on the walls of Durham. For his victory, the king appointed Uhtred Ealdormen of Bamburgh despite Waltheof still being alive. He was later given the lordship of Yorkshire, making him Ealdormen of all Northumbria and one of the most powerful men in the kingdom. Uhtred's loyalty to his king would be tested in 1013 when King Sweyn I of Denmark invaded England in pursuit of conquest. Upon Sweyn's arrival near the Northumbrian border, Uhtred submitted to the invader at Gainsborough to preserve his lands and title. Meanwhile, Æthelred fled to Normandy. When Sweyn died the following year, Uhtred was likely amongst those who welcomed back Æthelred upon the condition that he 'govern them better than he did before'. Acknowledging his weak position and to bind the Northumbrian Ealdorman closer to the crown, Æthelred gave his daughter in marriage to Uhtred in 1015, enhancing his status by making him a member of the royal family and son-in-law to the king. Yet, with the return of the Danes in 1016, the Anglo-Danish conflict was renewed by Æthelred's son, Edmund and Sweyn's son, Cnut. Uhtred once again could not be counted upon by the House of Wessex. He began on Edmund's side, supporting him with a northern army. Together, they plundered the lands of the Ealdormen of Mercia, who had sided with Cnut, as a warning to anyone who harboured similar intentions. Yet, once again, when Cnut marched north, threatening Uhtred's land, he abandoned Edmund and submitted to the Danes. Cnut, who became England's new king, distrusted Uhtred due to his previous treachery and wanted his own Scandinavian ally, Eirik of Hlathir to govern the north instead. Thus, in 1016, Cnut invited Uhtred to meet him; during the journey, he was ambushed and murdered along with his retinue. The killer, Thurbrand the Hold, had struck the first blow of a long-lasting blood feud; he was killed by Uhtred's son, who likewise was killed by Thurbrand's son, who's sons were killed by Uhtred's great-grandson, Earl Waltheof. Waltheof, ironically, shared his great-grandfather's fate, being executed on the orders of a foreign conqueror, King William I, in 1076, as referred to earlier. After Uhtred's death, his domains were split into two, and the future lords of Bamburgh's authority would remain north of the River Tyne. Bernard Cornwell's Uhtred, while not entirely based upon these two historic Uhtreds, shares many elements of their story. The first Uhtred, who had land in Derbyshire, was active for the periods covered in seasons four and five of The Last Kingdom. He became an Ealdormen in Mercia and served at King Æthelstan's court as the show's Uhtred did. However, we have such little information on this Uhtred that it is difficult to make comparisons. For Uhtred the Bold, while he was from a later historical period, we find some parallels between him and the show's Uhtred. Both were celebrated warriors who won significant battles at Durham. They both were senior figures in the regime of a West Saxon king who's kingdom was threatened by Viking invasion. Both Uhtreds also betrayed their English kings (Alfred and Æthelred II), siding with the Danes and then siding with the English again. These figures may have been the historical inspiration for Uhtred in some ways. Yet, the defining aspects of Uhtred's character that make him stand out in The Last Kingdom: his mix of knowledge of both Dane and Saxon cultures, his military victories, his awkward relationships with the kings he served, his devoutness to the Norse Gods, while living in a Christian crusading kingdom, which regarded Pagans as the eternal enemy and his undying determination to win back his ancestral fortress, all comes from Bernard Cornwell's imagination, rather than any historical figure(s).
Uhtred of Bebbanburg and the Real Lords of Bamburgh
Bamburgh Castle today
Uhtred of Bebbanburg and the Real Lords of Bamburgh

Michael McComb

Michael McComb is a recent History MA graduate from Manchester Metropolitan University. He specialises in Anglo-Saxon History and recently wrote his dissertation on the relationship between the kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex in the ninth and early tenth century. He can be found on Instagram @michaelpatrickmccomb.
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