Have you been watching BBC2’s historical drama The Last Kingdom? Based on the ‘Alfred’ sequence of books by Bernard Cornwell, the series charts the adventures of Uhtred of Bebbanburg – born a Saxon but raised a Dane, who ultimately becomes warmaster to King Alfred.
Last night (episode two) featured our very own King Edmund of East Anglia, portrayed by actor Jason Flemyng. The Danes have invaded East Angli and Uhtred travels there, seeking support from the Viking Jarl Ubba. Edmund is first mentioned in the royal court of the House of Wessex, when King Æthelred decides not not send troops to support the East Anglians. Later, when Uhtred arrives in ‘Beodericsworth’ (Bury St Edmunds), Ubba and his cohorts are found entertaining themselves in (presumably) Edmund’s hall; the king, clean-shaven, short-haired and wearing what looks like a habit, is tied to a cross, looking fairly bloodied.
Edmund agrees to become Ubba’s puppet king on the proviso that the Vikings convert to Christianity. Ubba spies an icon of St Sebastian and decides to test out Edmund’s faith by shooting him full of arrows; his argument is: if the Christian God is so powerful, Edmund would surely be saved. In a moment of gallows humour, Edmund promptly withdraws his demand for conversion and points out that he would only survive being riddled with arrows if it was God’s willl; in St Sebastian’s case it was clearly not. Nevertheless, Ubba is insistent – his archers shoot Edmund who, unsurprisingly, dies immediately.
There are obviously a few contradictions in the scene compared to the core Edmund myth: Edmund was traditionally tied to a tree, not a cross; his place of death was certainly not Bury St Edmunds; it was possibly Hoxne or Bradfield St Clare. The series deviates from Cornwell’s work somewhat too; in the book, Uhtred only hears about the death of King Edmund, rather than witnessing it first-hand.
Despite all this, it was pretty exciting to see King Edmund (and Bury) portrayed on TV, even if Edmund came across as a bit of a wimp.
All images © BBC 2015.