Uhtred of Bebbanburg is a significant figure from the Anglo-Saxon period.
After his death, a blood feud began which lasted for generations. Uhtred ruled Bamburgh as the ealdorman (a chief officer of a district during Anglo-Saxon England) of Northumbria from 1006 to 1016.
But is he a real hero like the television series The Last Kingdom portrayed him to be? Let’s get to know this Old English protagonist.
The Historical Uhtred
The Uhtred in history books is more popularly known as Uhtred the Bold. He was the son of Waltheof I, the ealdorman of Bamburgh. This was previously known as Bebbanburg.
While the historical Uhtred is technically also Uhtred of Bebbanburg, the latter is more popular as the protagonist in Bernard Cornwell’s The Saxon Stories, a 13-part series of novels about the birth of England. Uhtred of Bebbanburg is based on Uhtred the Bold.
Cornwell wrote the novels after learning that he is a descendant of Uhtred the Bold.
What Makes Uhtred the Bold Special?
Ealdorman Waltheof I’s ancestors ruled Northumbria, now Northern England and southeast Scotland, from their coastal castle of Bamburgh. Uhtred the Bold ruled the kingdom from 1006 until he died in 1016.
He led a storied life with several accounts of conquests, both in land and in romance.
Uhtred the Bold’s heroism was first noticed when the King of Scots, Malcolm II, tried to invade Northumbria through the city of Durham. Unfortunately, Saxon King Ethelred II failed to send aid to Northumbria. He was known as a weak and ineffectual leader.
It was thus up to Uhtred to assemble the troops since Waltheof I was too old to lead or fight. Uhtred raised an army from Bernicia and Yorkshire to fight the Scots, who lost severely. Uhtred and his men decorated Durham with several Scot heads on spikes as a reminder of their decisive victory.
A happy King Ethelred II appointed Uhtred the ealdorman of Bamburgh even when Waltheof I was still alive.
Symeon of Durham recorded most of the historical accounts that involved Uhtred. Symeon was a chronicler and monk at Durham Priory and had a special friendship with Uhtred. Because of their camaraderie, Uhtred helped transfer the remains of Northumbrian St. Cuthbert to Durham from Chester-le-Street.
Uhtred traveled with Durham and the other monks to clear the site for a new cathedral where St. Cuthbert’s remains were eventually laid to rest. It was here that Uhtred met and married his first wife, Ecgfrida. She was the daughter of Bishop Aldhun, the man who commissioned the new cathedral. They eventually had one son whom they named Ealdred.
A United Northumbria
King Ethelred II arranged for the death of York Ealdorman Ælfhelm. When it was done, Uhtred succeeded him as ealdorman of York. This united northern and southern Northumbria under Bamburgh.
For political reasons, Uhtred divorced Ecgfrida and married Sige, the daughter of a wealthy Yorker named Styr. The marriage resulted in two children, Eadulf and Gospatric.
As Uhtred the Bold ruled the united Northumbria, the King of Scots was stewing about his defeat and began planning another war.
Scotland and Northumbria worked and fought to expand their kingdoms. Northumbria conquered the areas covered by the River Tees and River Forth. At that time, the territory from Tees to Humber was under Danish control.
Scotland gained control over Lothian, an area between River Forth and River Tweed. It was a huge territory that marked a major expansion for the Scots. It resulted in the movement of the border between Scotland and Anglo-Saxon England with the latter getting the shorter end of the stick.
The Danish Invasion
King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark conquered England in 1013. Except for the Londoners, most residents submitted to Denmark with ease. Uhtred knelt before King Sweyn at Gainsborough while Ethelred fled with his family.
Sweyn officially became England’s first Danish king on Christmas Day of 1013. However, he only ruled for five weeks as he suddenly died of apoplexy on February 3, 1014.
Ethelred quickly returned to England and Uhtred pledged allegiance to the king who made him ealdorman. Not only that, but Uhtred got a third wife, Ethelred’s daughter, Ælfgifu. The union produced a daughter whom they named Ealdgyth.
The Death of Uhtred the Bold
Uhtred had now become more than just a right-hand man for King Ethelred; he was also family. Along with Ethelred’s son, Edmund Ironside, Uhtred campaigned to gain control of Cheshire and neighboring shires sometime in 1016.
As the brothers-in-law were busy ensuring that the Anglo-Saxon lands were intact, Sweyn’s heir, Canute or Cnut, invaded Yorkshire. Left without a choice, Uhtred decided to lay down his arms and acknowledge King Cnut as ruler of England.
Once on the throne, King Cnut summoned Uhtred, one of the most influential leaders of England, to a meeting. But en route to the dialogue, Uhtred and his men were ambushed by Thurbrand the Hold, a Northumbrian nobleman. King Cnut orchestrated the murder because he knew of Uhtred’s loyalty to Ethelred as a soldier and son-in-law.
Uhtred’s brother Eadwulf Cudel succeeded him and became the leader of Bernicia.
Decades of Blood Feud
The death of Uhtred the Bold brought about a blood feud that went on for generations. Uhtred’s first-born Ealdred avenged the ealdorman’s death by killing Thurbrand the Hold. Meanwhile, Thurbrand’s son, Carl, retaliated by killing Ealdred.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that Ealdred’s death was also avenged by his grandson Earl Waltheof. His grandson also ordered his men to kill most of Carl’s sons and grandchildren.
The Fictional Uhtred
Uhtred the Bold’s descendant, Bernard Cornwell, is an English-American author of historical novels.
Aside from The Saxon Stories, he also wrote about the Waterloo Campaign and Napoleonic Wars. Cornwell was so fascinated by his ancestry and blood ties to Uhtred the Bold that he decided to write a series of novels about it.
The series’ protagonist is Uhtred, the second son of the Saxon lord of Bebbanburg in the kingdom of Northumbria. Bebbanburg is described to be an impregnable fortress but Danish raiders successfully breached it and killed Uhtred’s father and older brother.
Danish leader Ragnar the Fearless spared Uhtred’s life because he was amused by his bravery — Uhtred tried to attack Ragnar for the death of his family. Ragnar took Uhtred home and raised him as his son.
Published from 2004 to 2020, the saga uses Uhtred’s first-person perspective. It depicts his ambitious endeavors to regain control of Bebbanburg, his legacy which was stolen from him by his uncle.
Here are Cornwell’s novels from The Saxon Stories:
- The Last Kingdom
- The Pale Horseman
- The Lords of the North
- Sword Song
- The Burning Land
- Death of Kings
- The Pagan Lord
- The Empty Throne
- Warriors of the Storm
- The Flame Bearer
- War of the Wolf
- Sword of the Kings
- War Lord
The first novel’s title was used as the name for the television series that was released in 2015.
The Last Kingdom
The series The Last Kingdom spanned five seasons and comprised 46 episodes. It is set to end with the movie, Seven Kings Must Die, which is scheduled to premiere on April 14, 2023, on Netflix.
The series’ main protagonist is originally named Osbert but was re-baptized as Uhtred following his elder brother’s death. Just like in the books, Uhtred’s father, brother, and many Saxons were killed by Danes. Uhtred was taken as a slave by Earl Ragnar but was later treated like a son.
The series stars Alexander Dreymon as Uhtred, David Dawson as King Alfred, Emily Cox as Brida, Tobias Santelmann as Ragnar the Younger, and Adrian Bower as Leoforic, among others.
The books and series are works of fiction but based on facts. Cornwell always puts a historical note at the end of his novels explaining that while the stories are based on real events in history, he took liberties with their depiction.
Entertainment website Screen Rant enumerated the different ways the series veered from historical facts. One such change is the timeline. The Last Kingdom is set 100 years before Uhtred the Bold’s reign in Northumbria. While many of the characters from the series had real-life counterparts, it exaggerates Uhtred’s relationship with the Danes.
Overall, The Last Kingdom didn’t achieve the same popularity as other HBO shows like Game of Thrones and The Last of Us but it still pulled in decent numbers. When its last season was launched on Netflix in 2022, The Last Kingdom garnered 1.423 billion minutes of viewing time. The movie that will conclude The Last Kingdom is also expected to earn impressive numbers.
Whether you’re talking about the historical Uhtred or his fictional counterpart, most people who learn about him are captivated by his story.
The historical Uhtred the Bold is brave. He was an excellent leader who could amass a following and inspire them to fight for their kingdom.
His love life was also fascinating. With three marriages under his belt, one marriage seemed to be for wealth while another for influence. Uhtred the Bold’s loyalty — or the lack of it — is also an interesting aspect to note.
Despite sparse accounts, the role of Uhtred in the history of England is enough to inspire 13 novels, a TV series that lasted five seasons, and an upcoming feature film. Not all Anglo-Saxon leaders who have gone down in history can state the same.