Lady Aelswith finds herself in unfamiliar territory in Season 4 of “The Last Kingdom.”
With King Alfred gone and her children forging their own paths, Aelswith is without allies at precisely the time she needs them the most. Eliza Butterworth, who has played the character since Season 1 of the critically-acclaimed series, spoke with Variety ahead of the premiere about how Aelswith has to adapt in this new world.
Aelswith really wielded her influence through Alfred, but with him gone, where is she at the beginning of this season?
Lady Aelswith loved her husband fiercely and always vowed to continue his dream of creating one united land called England. Now, we find her all alone in this battle and, while trying to mold King Edward to follow in his footsteps, sort of realizes that not everything can be in her control. Without Alfred, things might not always go to plan. She’s concerned about her daughter Aethelflaed, guiding her into making the right decisions about family and her kingdom and how she’s going to do that without the presence of this incredible man. She’s trying to continue his legacy. And it’s interesting too that his whole dream actually falls to not only Aelswith, Edward, and Aethelflaed but Uhtred now more than ever. He’s fighting with the Saxons while still being a brother to all the Danes. He’s more split than ever. Everything is just coming to a head.
Aelswith has always been in a position of power on the show but this season she is really on the back foot. What was that like?
One of the main challenges she faces in this new chapter of her life is the ever-growing hunger for power of Lord Aethelhelm. He is the father of Aelflaed, King Edward’s wife, and initially before the marriage Aelswith was really eager to have him and his daughter be part of the family as Aethelhelm has a lot of power and status in the kingdom. However, she realizes that Aethelhelm’s intentions are incredibly dangerous. She’s no longer in control and him exerting power over the Wessex crown puts her family in harm’s way. Now more than ever, she’s realizing that she needs the support of Edward. She needs her family to come together in order to defeat Aethelhem’s bad intentions, and she’s fighting to gain back control of her kingdom and Alfred’s kingdom. But unfortunately, she realizes that maybe Aethelhelm has poisoned the others against her before she can get anyone on her side.
How would you describe Aelswith’s relationship with Edward this season?
There’s that idea of how she envisions him to be as a king. However, with any child, they want to rebel, and his ideas of what his duty should be are completely different to what she thinks is appropriate and what she would have wanted Alfred to see him do. So it’s a fight of allowing him to be the king that he needs to be while trying keep that control, but at the same time, underneath, making sure that everything still goes according to plan. She cannot lose everything that Alfred has been fighting for his entire life. He sacrificed his whole existence for this one dream. What I think is interesting is in this season she really evolved as a character because she’s realized that she’s not always been correct in the past. And now she’s kind of at the mercy of new powers. That’s quite confusing to her because usually she’s quite a stubborn ox of a character. Now we see her more vulnerable side.
When she realizes she has been wrong in the past, is that why she seeks out Aethlstan, Edward’s first son? Or is it because she wants a do-over since her own son is rebelling against her?
Exactly. It’s a balance between delving into the past and realizing that some of her allies are in forgotten family members. That is Aethelstan, her grandson whom she banished from the kingdom because she believes that he was born out of wedlock and now under the rule of God that is completely inappropriate. But now she’s realized that actually he’s her own saving grace in this new fight against Aethelhelm, who’s trying to gain control by putting his own blood in line to be heir to the throne. So it’s kind of the last resort and she knows it’s not necessarily the wisest thing to do. But I think Edward can then see in his mother’s eyes that actually Aethelhelm is poisonous, and if this is the only way to defeat him then we have to do it. It becomes very complex, and it’s sad that it revolves around a child as well because he was happily living a life and not knowing that he was destined to be the first King of England, Alfred’s heir.
And then changing gears to Aethelflaed, what is her relationship with Aelswith this season?
Aelflaed or Aethelflaed?
Sorry, all these names sound quite similar! It’s quite a sad moment for Aelswith because she knows that Aethelflaed has grown into her own and is becoming a woman and is going to be Lady of Mercia. And it’s a really, really incredible feat that Aethelflaed has achieved, but at the same time, a mother letting go of a daughter in that way is also quite a sad thing. And again it’s about relinquishing control and being there when she needs her, but at the same time, not trying to be overbearing or too manipulative because Aethelflaed has to make decisions from her own heart. And as we then find out Aethelflaed is potentially pursuing a romance with Uhtred that is beyond forbidden in the eyes of God, and that makes things a lot more complicated down the line. So they’ve got a really loving relationship that’s very, very strong. Aelswith couldn’t be more proud of her daughter. Mercia is where Aelswith descended from and to potentially conquer that land, her dreams actually come to fruition as well.
There’s that great moment between them about midway through the season, when Aethelflaed is upset that Uhtred will be taking over Mercia and not her. I will butcher it in the paraphrasing but Aelswith basically tells her “This is our place. We wield our influence through men.” But then Aethelflaed actually gets to be Lady of Mercia and rule on her own. Do you think Aelswith really is proud of her or is there a hint of resentment since her daughter has now done what Aelswith couldn’t do?
That’s very true. That’s a very good question. That definitely comes into play in the sense of if it was Aelswith’s generation, would she have been able to do that? She knows that that’s not in her power. It’s very much a man’s world back then. And although Aethelflaed would be the best suitor for that role, as a woman, you just don’t have the power. You know, that’s just the way it was seen back then. As you say there’s a sense of pride of knowing that her daughter could potentially rule this kingdom because she’s so passionate about Mercia, and would even sacrifice her own life even to defend it. But at the same time, she knows that we do have to be submissive in these times. And it’s not as easy as it looks, although I think she’s really proud of Aethelflaed’s determination. Aethelflaed knows that technically it’s not within our power, but she still powers through and tries to become that amazing, powerful woman that she is. It’s a funny shift, because at the end of the day, they know that their role as women doesn’t allow them to be the most powerful person that they can be.
Now looking at Uhtred, he and Aelswith have never had a great relationship, but there is that scene in the woods later on in the season where they finally have to deal with each other directly. I believe that is the first time they have a one-on-one conversation.
I really loved that moment. That was one of my favorite parts of the whole season to film because it’s the first time we’ve ever seen them have some sort of a normal conversation without trying to threaten to kill one another. And it’s really quite cool to see them not getting along, but at the same time being able to negotiate and sort of see through each other’s eyes and see one another’s perspective now in the absence of Alfred, who used to be sort of pillar between both of them, the voice of reason when one or the other decided to get uppity about a certain thing.
So now just seeing them one-on-one is really a special moment. And I think it’s a bit of a turnaround for the audience in the way that they will view Aelswith, because although she is so pious and dutiful, she’s still a human being who has her flaws. I think it’s the first time you can see her starting to accept those things and starting to accept some of her past decisions haven’t been the best. And he always put it down to the fact that she’s so incredibly devout to her god. Her strict Christian morals shape her behavior and sense of duty but she doesn’t always get that right, although she believes her actions are pure in the eyes of God. So she fails to see the good intentions of Uhtred and just sees his beliefs as a pagan. And that just muddies her vision of what he’s done for her and her family. But now is the time you see us starting to realize what she has done.