Who is Aethelstan in The Last Kingdom, why is he so important in Seven Kings Must Die and was he a real person?

Aethelstan in The Last Kingdom returned with a vengeance in the Seven Kings Must Die movie as he battled for the Anglo-Saxon throne

Aethelstan in The Last Kingdom
(Image credit: Netflix)

Aethelstan in The Last Kingdom became more prominent in the last season of the show but he really came into his own in Seven Kings Must Die. 

Whilst many fans were likely left devastated when it was announced that The Last Kingdom season 5 would be the show’s last, the feature-length Seven Kings Must Die movie was a brilliant silver lining to this sad news. The film picks up at a time of a succession crisis and Anglo-Saxon prince, Aethelstan, is right at the center of this. He’s been a character since season 4 but became increasingly important as time went on. Now just like those who might’ve wondered about Lady Eadgifu in The Last Kingdom, some fans might be intrigued about whether Aethelstan really existed.  

Here we reveal who Aethelstan in The Last Kingdom is, why he was so important in the Seven Kings Must Die movie and whether he was a real person…

*Warning: Spoilers ahead!*

Aethelstan in The Last Kingdom

(Image credit: Netflix)

Who is Aethelstan in The Last Kingdom? 

Introduced as a recurring character in season 4, Aethelstan in The Last Kingdom really came into his own as a character in season 5 and Seven Kings Must Die as an Anglo-Saxon Prince and eventually the King of the English. Played by Caspar Griffiths at first in the Netflix show, Harry Gilby later took up the mantle of playing Aethelstan. He is the grandson of Alfred the Great and the son of Edward the Elder and perhaps unsurprisingly also appeared in Bernard Cornwell’s The Saxon Chronicles series the show and movie are based on. 

Aethelstan in The Last Kingdom is the son of Edward and his first wife Ecgwynn, the half-brother of Aelfweard and Edmund, whose mothers were Edward’s second and third wives respectively. Throughout his time on the show Aethelstan is eager for his father’s attention and approval and at the end of season 4 The Last Kingdom’s main protagonist Uhtred of Bebbanburg was tasked with looking after him by Edward.

The Saxon-raised-by-Danes taught Aethelstan how to fight and be a true warrior and by The Last Kingdom movie he’s become a main player in the deadly game of succession. Seven Kings Must Die opens with the plot-point of Edward the Elder being dead and sets up Aethelstan and Aelfweard in particular as fighting for the throne. 

Aethelstan in The Last Kingdom

(Image credit: Netflix)

This is a battle that ultimately Aethelstan goes on to win as he becomes King of the Anglo-Saxons and continues his quest to become King of a united England. Along the way many are lost but amid all the bloodshed fans do see Aethelstan in The Last Kingdom become King of the English by the end, making him one of the most important characters in the movie. 

He achieves Alfred the Great’s dream of uniting the kingdoms after Uhtred concedes Northumbria to him in return for Aethelstan making his younger half-brother Edmund his heir. And with all the historical details and him succeeding to the throne many might now be wondering whether Aethelstan in The Last Kingdom was a real 10th century monarch. 

Was Aethelstan in The Last Kingdom a real person?  

Whilst there isn’t one specific The Last Kingdom true story, plenty of the Anglo-Saxon royals in particular were historical figures and King Aethelstan is no exception. Aethelstan in The Last Kingdom is based upon the real-life King Æthelstan, who ruled firstly as King of the Anglo-Saxons and then, finally, as King of the English. In The Last Kingdom and Seven Kings Must Die, fans learnt that a united England under one ruler was Alfred the Great’s dream. Æthelstan is often considered to be the first English King and he was Alfred the Great’s grandson.

King Æthelstan was the son of Alfred’s son Edward the Elder whose death prompted the succession battles and escalating tension in The Last Kingdom movie. The real Æthelstan’s mother was Ecgwynn, who appeared in season 3 of the Netflix show and who was Edward’s first of three wives. 

Although Edward died in 924, Æthelstan wasn’t officially recognized as King of Wessex until 925 and later went on to conquer the Kingdom of York, uniting England under him as ruler in 927. Historically he’s understood to have had no children and never married and after his death in 939 he was succeeded as King by his younger brother Edmund. 

This was a key plot-point that was hinted at in the Seven Kings Must Die ending when Aethelstan promised Uhtred the throne would pass to Edmund. 

Aethelstan in The Last Kingdom is shown to be attracted to men and he slept with his advisor Ingilmundr in the movie. Meanwhile, the real King Æthelstan’s sexuality isn’t completely confirmed given how long ago he lived. However, author Bernard Cornwell previously expressed his belief to Sharon Kay Penman that there was a possibility Æthelstan was gay. 

“History records that he never married, which is unusual in a king because of the desire to leave an heir, and also that he liked to decorate his hair with golden ringlets, and on that small evidence I decided he might have been gay; a choice that hasn’t pleased all my readers, but I was happy with it,” he declared at the time. 

Meanwhile, The Last Kingdom writer Martha Hillier told RadioTimes.com that whilst the historical period is “hard to research” there is “definitely a reasonable amount of debate about it” and that “it’s not something [they] made up for TV” at all. 

Aethelstan in The Last Kingdom

(Image credit: Netflix)

Other aspects of the real King’s life that are known for definite are also shown surrounding Aethelstan in The Last Kingdom. As we saw in the movie, Æthelstan did fight at the historical Battle of Brunanburh, however, this wasn’t to establish himself as King of a united England. In real-life he had already achieved this but in the battle he did fight Olaf, the Norse King of Dublin (Anfar in the movie). The real Æthelstan died in 939 and was buried in Malmesbury Abbey. 

Whilst Aethelstan in The Last Kingdom might not always be a rigidly historical depiction of King Æthelstan many things about him do reflect the real person and give fans a sense of his life.

The Last Kingdom seasons 1-5 and Seven Kings Must Die are available to watch on Netflix.

Emma Shacklock

Emma is a Royal Editor with eight years experience working in publishing. Her specialist areas include the British Royal Family, ranging from protocol to outfits. Alongside putting her royal knowledge to good use, Emma knows all there is to know about the latest TV shows on the BBC, ITV and more. When she’s not writing about the next unmissable show to add to your to-watch list or delving into royal protocol, Emma enjoys cooking, long walks and watching yet more crime dramas!