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?