Most people, when watching a TV show, don’t assume that the reality presented within it is definitely the case. I mean, half the time you’d have to be pretty dumb to think it was real, right? Except, sometimes it’s not so easy. Sometimes the show has enough basis in fact to make it difficult to ascertain the truth.
This is the case with Vikings, aired on the History Channel in the US and streamed surreptitiously by people like me who can’t even afford to buy the first series on DVD yet because for some reason it’s eighteen quid and I’m skint.
— Warning: This Post Will Contain Some Spoilers For Vikings Up To And Including 2×04 —
Vikings is a historical TV show revolving around the initial invasion by Viking raiders. It takes place both in Scandinavia and England, and is apparently filmed in Ireland, which is neither of them. The central character is a guy called Ragnar Lothbrok who was, in fact, a real person — though he wasn’t necessarily involved in the first invasion and the destruction of Lindisfarne.
I was very excited to come across a reference to him while reading In Search Of The Dark Ages by Michael Wood, because it convinced me that watching Vikings was basically work, right? (Admittedly, it was only a mention of his sons, but shhh. Allow me to justify my procrastination.)
However, because the show is marketed as having been based on true events, many people seem to be of the opinion that it’s incontrovertible fact. Which is fine up to a point … until you get to the problem of Athelstan.
Athelstan is my favourite character, and also the reason I knew about the show in the first place. He’s played by George Blagden, who was in the 2012 Les Miserables movie as Grantaire, and it was via the Les Mis fandom that I found out about Vikings, so of course I was going to be watching out for this character. The only thing that disappointed me was how little screentime he seemed to get given that he has one of the most interesting and emotional character arcs of anybody in the series.
Athelstan is a monk, captured as a slave by Ragnar and taken back to Scandinavia where he is forced to adapt to his surroundings and at least appear to denounce his Christian faith for fear of getting himself into trouble, though that doesn’t entirely work out in the first series.
His crises, uncertainties and heartbreak are emotional and compelling, and as he clung to his faith I clung to the hope that somebody eventually would give him a hug and a blanket and get him the hell out of there, because man, he needed it.
The second series comes along, and Athelstan — who was nicknamed ‘The Tiny Viking’ — seems to be a fully fledged warrior, and he’s just as in to the whole killing-defenceless-Englishmen as the rest of them. There’s actually quite a lot of symbolism in the attack on the minster at Winchester that he helps to lead, because when he was found cowering in a monastery with the manuscripts he helped illuminate, they spare him and he survives; he finds a monk in the exact same position, and kills him.
Athelstan’s gone bad.
Athelstan is, in the words of the bishop he spares at the monastery (was it a bishop? The hierarchy confuses me), an apostate. He has renounced his faith, at least outwardly, and returned to the ‘pagan’ life of the Vikings.
And, at least according to the show, that’ll get him crucified. And nearly does, in episode four, until he’s cut down by King Ecbert for reasons yet to be exposed — presumably, the king thinks he’ll be a useful bargaining chip. Oh, and by ‘nearly crucified’ I mean ‘nailed to a cross but not yet dead’, which is probably at least as traumatic as actually dying that way.
This … is not something I’ve ever come across as a part of the early Church. In fact, all my reading has presented a totally different image. Now, I’m a nerd, and that period is part of my special interest, so recently I read the whole of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History Of The English People, which was written about 50 years earlier but provides a detailed overview of the Church in England over the first few centuries of its existence.
Bede writes about miracles. A lot about miracles. He writes about converting pagans, and also converting those who are Christian but celebrate Easter at the wrong time, because to listen to him you’d think that was just as bad. (He never, ever shuts up about the Easter thing.) He writes about healings and saints and people giving up their riches to live a holy life.
But I’m pretty sure that at no point during that entire text does he even suggest that those who renounced their faith were executed in any way, least of all crucified, which is a problematic form of execution for Christians anyway. Why would you place a ‘heathen’ in the same position as the person you worship? The image of an upside down cross originates from the death of Simon Peter, who believed himself to be unworthy of dying the same way as Jesus and insisted that they crucify him upside down. (Wiki article here.)
If that was the attitude of early believers, then why would they inflict this punishment on somebody they believed had renounced their God? You know, leaving aside the whole bit about trying to convert people to Christianity and believing in redemption by penance, rather than just killing people.
The fact is that Vikings is a good show, and it makes an effort to be historically authentic. It uses Old English and Old Norse to ground viewers in the time period. It uses real places and events to make the story more believable. But this single element was possibly the least likely of every deviation from reality … and it’s the one that a lot of people seem to believe might have happened.
I considered the possibility that it happened. I googled ‘crucifixion of apostates’, but found very little except some blog post with somebody ranting about it in the context of Vikings, pretty much accusing the show of bashing Christianity, so I figured I’d take a slightly different approach to addressing the liberties they took with the history here.
I’m sure they had their reasons for it, I really do: Athelstan has nearly been martyred several times and comes across sometimes as a Christ figure within the narrative, particularly in his desperation as he seems to echo the My god, my god, why have you abandoned me? thing. I’m sure it’ll have a massive effect on his character development throughout the rest of the series, too.
But people need to be aware that this doesn’t seem to have been general practice at all during the period. I have read a lot about the Anglo-Saxon church. Probably more than I will ever need to know. And I have never come across any reference to it, so it’s fairly safe to assume that it wasn’t common if it existed at all.*
So: enjoy the show. By all means, enjoy it. Go and watch it now. But don’t take it at face value as accurate or factual without double-checking, because that leads to a spread of misinformation and unsubstantiated claims, and that just makes everything more complicated for people trying to research what actually would have happened.
Also, when you’ve watched it, come and cry with me about Athelstan, please?
*I’m a nerd and well-read, but I’m not an expert. So it might be that I’m wrong, but so far that’s not the impression I’ve got.