Last year the BBC released The Last Kingdom, an adaptation of the first two books of Bernard Cornwell’s The Saxon Stories. I really like those books, as for the most part they’re historically accurate, what changes there are are perfectly understandable and none too egregious, and they’re exemplary stories. So I was really excited when I heard that the BBC would be adapting those books for television. “It’s the Beeb,” I thought cheerfully. “They’ve got lots of money and researchers and stuff, it’ll be great.”
And while the acting and the story are both very commendable, the historical accuracy is … not. I know that TV dramas aren’t made for historians, but for people who want what’s cool rather than what’s accurate, but even so a little bit of historical accuracy wouldn’t go amiss, surely?
Anyway, here are what I think are the 20 most glaring historical errors in The Last Kingdom.
- Bebbanburg (Bamburgh) is portrayed as being a small, not very defensible, palisaded fort. In reality Bamburgh Castle sits on a headland, overlooking cliffs and is extremely easy to defend.
2. The Danes are referred to as ‘Vikings’. This is not a term that would have been used at the time. They are also referred to as ‘Danes’, which would have been used at the time. So, points for accuracy there. Credit where it’s due.
3. The Saxons use rectangular shields. No. The Saxons would have used circular shields, or just possibly tear-shaped kite shields (some of these do make an appearance, so points for accuracy again), jut like the Danes. I think the logic here was to make the Saxon and Danish armies obviously distinguishable from one another – which they wouldn’t have been to anyone watching a battle between them – so I can understand this one even if I don’t much like it.
4. Plenty of main characters wear their swords in scabbards strapped to their backs. This is not only inaccurate, it’s also impractical. It’s just so much easier and quicker to draw from the hip, as soldiers of the time would have done, than from the back.
5. A lot of the Danes, but not all, wear copious amounts of eyeliner and eye shadow. I can’t think of a good reason why.
6. The horses the Danes ride are modern stunt horses, often the size of draught horses. Compared to the horses that the Danes would have actually ridden these are enormous. Danes and Saxons of the period would have ridden little ponies. Modern Icelandic horses are what those ponies would have looked like.
7. The shield wall. Almost everything about the shield walls in the series is wrong. It’s portrayed as a three or four-layered solid mass of wood that completely encases the men at the front, when in reality it would have been rank after rank of men overlapping their shields across one another. Also, the Saxons appear to be unfamiliar with the shield wall at the beginning of the series, when in fact it had been a standard Saxon battle tactic for centuries, and remained so until the Norman Conquest.
8. The costumes are a nonsense. There’s lots of inexplicable leather, ragged furs that just appear to have been stuck onto the characters, fancy knitting in the 9th century, filthy clothes all the time (people did still take pride in their appearance in the Middle Ages you know), the battle armour appears to be mostly leather scales when in fact iron chain mail or just normal clothes would dominate battlefields, and the Danish horses have headgear that gives the impression they have horns. No such horse armour has ever been discovered or even attested.
9. The Danes all look like they haven’t washed in months. In reality Danes washed at least once a week. This is commented on by Saxon sources who consider the Danes strange and effeminate for it.
10. Most of the soldiers on both sides use swords, while just a few men have spears or axes. In this period, almost everyone would use a spear or an axe. There a couple of very simple reasons for this. For one, a spear or axe is much easier to use than a sword. Secondly, it’s much easier to make a spear or an axe than a sword, and a normal person at the time was quite likely to have one lying around the house. A sword was a status symbol reserved for the rich and powerful.
11. In some close-up shots you can clearly see that some of the supposedly iron shield edges have just been painted on.
12. A lot of the Danish shields have crosses on them, and not enough have things like dragons, ravens, axes and snakes.
13. The Cornish appear to speak English. While Cornwall is an almost-entirely English-speaking region NOW, in the 9th century they’d have all spoken Cornish. English was the language of the hated Saxon enemies who’d been conquering their land for the better part of 400 years, and even Cornishmen who spoke it wouldn’t have spoken it to each other.
14. The Welsh monk Asser (a 100% historical figure and in fact our main source for all things Alfred the Great) has an English accent. And he’s played by a Scot (not a problem, just mentioning it).
15. ‘Leeds’ is comprised of a hall and some cattle sheds. By 866 Leeds was already a large and wealthy town.
16. The thatching on most buildings is wrong. It tends to be both too thin and too flat. Thatch isn’t waterproof. It works by being thick enough that rain water will rest on it rather then seep through and slopes at such an angle that water rolls off it. In the series the thatch we see tends to be two straws thick (a foot is more realistic) and almost completely flat (when it needs to slope at about 45 degrees at the very least).
17. Nobody throws anything in any of the battles. Why not? You’ve got Danes/Saxons advancing on you, throw a spear!
18. Lots of characters wear battle armour in completely ordinary situations where there’d be no call for armour. Why bother?
19. Nobody wears any proper head protection. The helmets are all really small and nobody wears a coif (that’s the chain mail hood that should go over the head but never does in films and TV).
20. The character Leofric, apparently a born and bred Wessex man, is supposed to come from the south of England. He speaks with a heavy Yorkshire accent. Meanwhile, Uhtred the Elder, who is supposed to be from Northumberland, has a southern accent. What?
24 thoughts on “20 Things The Last Kingdom Got Wrong”
Of course there is poetic licence. ‘Vikings’ is a word we all recognise and with it the scary image. Leather and fur costumes and the make-up make the characters look very attractive. The castle would have been built of wood at that time, not stone as it is now.
Interesting piece but it’s a tv show made for entertainment, not history. As a history teacher I had to tell my students this all the time.
The Dane’s hair is also wrong. Most of the Danes have wild unkempt hair and the English have clean cuts and a clean appearance. The real Danish men were obsessed with combing their hair and Saxon women found them attractive because of it. The Saxons were much less vain.. do an image search for viking combs. They were very ornate.
Why would they show the Norman Bamburgh castle that wasn’t built until well after the Norman Invasion of 1066, in a show that takes place in the late 800s? A wooden fort for Bebbanburgh is in fact historically accurate. Great way to lead off your list of “mistakes”
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You are misreading the point. The castle may well be made out of wood, its the location that is wrong.
“In reality Bamburgh Castle sits on a headland, overlooking cliffs and is extremely easy to defend.”
The author doesn’t even mention wood or stone. In the series it’s just a small circle on top of a hill…
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I agree with your points, 19.5 out of 20. (Jay Birdo has a point in his remark.)
But I just wanted to point out that the people and events are accurate. The TV Show “Vikings” gets that wrong too, with inaccurate events and inaccuracies in the people. The clothing and armor being wrong, is to be expected, as they pretty much are in most shows and movies, most as in almost all… To me, the show still shows much progress in HISTORICAL fiction, but yes, the clothes are dreadful…
Keep calm. It’s a movie… Not a documentary… So, it’s going to sacrifice some accuracies to make for a compelling story for 21st century viewers. Again, it’s not a documentary.
Uhtred’s look has obvious The Witcher (video game) influence which strips this show off its authenticity. And the smokey eye makeup takes any seriousness off. It just looks funny…
I have watched both seasons over 100 times I can list 17 mistakes some historical accuracy some just filming and editing some script. ..It is in my mind the best drama of its kind
I beg to differ on the horse issue. The Andelusian Horse was widely used in the middle ages since the 7th Century. Just look up the breed documented proof of their use by Kings in the Armies
Danes often wore black around their eyes. It was a very common. They wore “dark-colored powder made of crushed antimony, burnt Almond, lead, oxidized copper, ochre, ash, malachite, and chrysocolla”
Some things you mention are correct, others are false.
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Yes! I read this critique earlier today, dug and dug, and found this on another site. Then I had to try to find THIS site again! Here’s what I found:
“So, what about all of that eyeliner we see in the show? How historically accurate can that be? Quite accurate, actually! You can even find records from Middle Eastern visitors to Norse encampments stating this to be true. Vikings used a type of eyeliner known as kohl which was a dark-colored powder made of crushed antimony, burnt almonds, lead, oxidized copper, ochre, ash, malachite and chrysocolla. It helped keep the harsh glare of the sun from damaging one’s eyesight while also increasing the dramatic sex appeal of the wearer.”
What about the ladies riding side-saddle? I don’t think the side-saddle was invented until at least the 16th century. Thoughts?
I agree with all you say, The smaller things you can write of to making a drama series but jesus. The armor, weapons and tactics are ridiculous…
How hard is it to armour men in mail armor instead of ridiculous leather (which was never used as armor).
Some of the clothing look more like something from Star Treck than 800-something. Clothes were not shaped in that way at that time, and buttons weren’t invented until around 1400, as far as I know. Plates were not used until much later, and forks were not used until around 1500.
Awe come on it’s simply meant to be a boys own annual type story … Nothing more it’s just a mash up of ficton\myth Bernard Cornwall is an author who earns his living as a story teller… Game of thrones is simply the same
Things you guys got wrong: LITERALLY THE FIRST THING YOU SAID. Bebbanburgh doesnt have a stone keep until MUCH later than the time period the show is portraying.
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Dark around the eyes was to cut glare, like sun glasses of today.
Alfred wore chain mail, and so did some others. Axes were thrown also spears, that is how uhtred killed skalpa
Chain mail with hoods, is what I meant.
I thought it was funny that in point 17 you say nothing was thrown in the battles, and then shown a picture of Earl Scorpa, who was in fact killed by a thrown spear…lol . I will also point out that in Season 3 Lord Sigabrid is also killed by a thrown spear. I am no historian, but I really don’t think this is a fair point. Earlier you say most soldiers would carry spears, and that nobles and well to do people only carried swords. So why would a common soldier throw his weapon at an advancing enemy, and leave himself unable to defend himself? That is what the archers are for.
Hi there, do you have any sources for any of this material? I’m writing a short history essay for my midterm and would love some actual sources. Thank you!
This is some nitpicky bullcrap. While I agree with the depiction of the weapons and armor at the time being off, the nonsense about actors not speaking period appropriate cornish or, heaven forfend, with a yorkshire accent when ACTUALLY this character would be from Shitsbury-on-the-Wold is just pedantry