The Great Heathen Army marches to Wessex. Death follows with it.
Credit: Jonathan Hession/History
S4 E20
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See Ecbert, King of Wessex and Mercia and perhaps some other lands he has forgotten about. Ecbert is a great man, and he is an old man. He sits off his throne, long beard and long hair and mind far away. He is remembering the past, he is witnessing the present, he is imagining the future that will occur long after he is gone.

Ecbert cannot see that his son, Aethelwulf, fights for his life against the maddening power of the Great Heathen Army. Ecbert could not have foreseen this, years ago, when the young Earl Ragnar Lothbrok first arrived in Wessex, bringing a small coalition of soldiers, bringing violence but also carrying the curious request for farmland. No one could have foreseen the consequences of those actions, and the hundred of actions that followed. Now Ecbert’s son fights Ragnar’s sons, in brutal battle, horses toppling and men falling atop other men and bones breaking and blood flowing from bodies into the mud, until the very landscape looks like the fallen oozing husk of an old soldier dying alone.

“Save yourselves!” cries Aethelwulf. “Retreat! Retreat!” To Wessex he returns, declaring a state of emergency. The time has come for his family to flee. But Ecbert refuses. He promises to renounce his crown; he will make Aethelwulf the King, and remain behind to await his destiny. The secession is quick, and as formal as formalities can be as the world ends. Aethelwulf is now king, lord of lands conquered by invaders. His path ahead is uncertain. His father is hopeful. “I know I have placed my kingdom in the safest hands,” says Ecbert. “You go now, save yourself and your family.”

Ecbert kisses his son farewell – a final show of love, for one he has used so badly for so long. And he says farewell to Judith, his companion for these many years, and to Alfred, upon whom he has placed so many hopes. He tells Alfred that the greatest Christian virtue is humility. His family leaves, but he has a final companion: old Bishop Edmund, who will not leave his King behind, not when the cellars of Wessex are stocked with the finest wines in Christendom.

And so here are the Northmen, arrived at long last within the walls. They set about their brutal plunder, burning away history in the flames: texts that cannot be reclaimed, wisdom lost to time. Perhaps Ragnar’s beloved monk Athelstan wrote some of those translations. They are all up in flames now, like so many of the dreams of old.

Truly, Wessex is become a funeral pyre of ambition. Helge carries her “daughter” through the wreckage, promising to protect her. The Spanish girl stabs her, and kills herself: death and madness, here at the end of one generation. Floki finds his beloved just in time to hear her final words. “The world is too small for you,” she says, dying. Floki buries her here in this alien land, in the same land where Ragnar Lothbrok went to his final rest. Wanderers are blessed, for they see the world, and cursed, to die so far from home.

NEXT: We Have To Talk About Ecbert

And what to do with Ecbert? Ivar wants to carve the blood eagle into the king, as the brothers did with Aelle. Bjorn thinks there’s a more complicated reality here. The Saxon forces are scattered, but they shall gather again. Ubbe reminds his brothers that their father did not just want to win battles and leave. Ragnar dreamed of winning land. And Ragnar never held a king to ransom, Hvitserk says. “We do.”

Ecbert understands their language a bit; after all, he loved their father, and romanced their father’s first wife, in happy days long gone. “I am King of Kings,” he tells him. He can give them legal right to a kingdom, East Anglia. “No one can question that claim,” he says. (Of course, Ecbert is no longer king when he says that – perhaps this is one final ploy, by a ruler who was always several years ahead in his strategic planning.)

Ecbert will grant them the land. His only request is that he choose the manner of his own death. Bjorn agrees. The land is signed over to the sons of Ragnar. And Bjorn leaves Ecbert in his warm bathing pool, naked as the day he came into this world, a single knife in his hands. Ecbert hears voices from loved ones long gone, Athelstan and Lagertha, Alfred and Judith. He sees his whole life from the outside, and perhaps he is much satisfied, and perhaps he sees much work left to do. He opens up his own veins and dies alone with his memories, and all of those memories fade as he departs this world for whatever comes next.

Floki departs, too, leaving behind his old life in the ruins of all that was. He has died thrice over: with his daughter, with Ragnar, and now finally with Helge. He gives himself to the gods, to do with as they wish. He bids farewell to Bjorn, who has grown so strong since Floki first met him. His destiny, if he has one, lies elsewhere.

But there must be a feast to celebrate, and there is wild celebration. Bjorn declares that the great army has defeated two kingdoms. He reminds them of Ragnar’s dream: to take land and farm it, settle it with young families. But Bjorn must return to the Mediterranean. And his brothers are already debating their father’s legacy. “We have a great army,” says Ivar. “And we should use it. There are many other places I want to attack and raid. Those of you who feel like I do, you should come with me!”

This is little Ivar’s moment, and he takes it. Who wants to farm now? Who wants to put on an apron and settle down? He gives a rousing speech, declaring that those who follow him will find battle and the love of Odin. Bjorn sees clearly that this is the end, that all that held him to his brothers was their quest to avenge their father. How quickly they forget their unity. For Sigurd declares that Ivar is not really a man, that he is a little mama’s boy, a snake who crawls across the ground.

And Ivar does not respond with words, but with mad action. He hurls his axe into his brother’s stomach. Sigurd pulls the axe out, and with his final breath steps toward his brother. Murder is on his mind, but death claims his body first. So the sons of Ragnar turned on each other, and so the great Lothbrok family found tragedy within itself once again.

And greater dangers lurk. Elsewhere in England, a bishop named Heahmund oversees the burial of a man. He tells the widow that the Lord will find a way to console her. Who can say anything about the Lord, but Heahmund offers his own consolation. As they loudly copulate, we see Heahmund’s sword. What blood shall decorate that blade? With one battle over, what wars yet await us?

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