• The Winter King is a TV show that blends the legend of King Arthur with historical fact, specifically focusing on his battles against Saxon invaders in 5th century Britain.
  • The show explores the political situation in Britain at that time, with tensions between warring tribes of Christians and Pagans making it difficult for Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon, to unite the country against the Saxons.
  • The Saxons invaded Britain for various reasons, including being invited by the Romans and seeking better land and crops due to climate change. The show depicts the Saxons as almost mythical boogeymen, but their invasion led to a complex and bloody period in British history.

Warning: Major spoilers for The Winter King episode 1 below!The Winter King blends the legend of King Arthur with some historical fact, with the show exploring the history of the Saxon invasion during Britain’s “Dark Ages.” There have been many interpretations and reinventions of the King Arthur story, and the iconic elements of the tale from the Sword in the Stone to the Knights of the Round Table. On the big screen, there have been fantasy epics like Excaliber or gritty takes like Clive Owen’s 2004 King Arthur movie. Bernard Cornwell’s The Warlord Chronicles is a popular novel trilogy that attempted to blend the myth with actual history, with MGM’s The Winter King adapting the first novel.

The Winter King takes place in 5th Century Britain during the Dark Ages, so called due to the fall of the Roman Empire, which left the people of Britannia open to invasion from the Angle, Jute and Saxon tribes. The opening text of The Winter King’s first episode also explains the messy political situation in the country, with tensions between warring tribes of Christians and Pagans making it near impossible for the High King of Dumnonia Uther Pendragon (Eddie Marsan) to unite them to take on the Saxons.

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Who The Saxons Are In The Winter King & Why They’re At War With The Pagans & Christians


The Winter King opens in the aftermath of a battle between the Saxons and the kingdom of Dumnonia, which results in the death of Pendragon’s heir Prince Mordred. The failure of Uther’s “bastard” Arthur (Iain De Caestecker) to protect his half-brother during this offscreen battle sees the King banish him from Britain. This is despite the respect and loyalty Arthur inspires among his men, and Pendragon needs all the help he can get to keep the invading Saxons at bay.

Accounts vary as to why the Saxons first came to Britain. Some state Saxon mercenaries may have been invited by the Roman army to help fight off other invasions from Scotland and Ireland, but the withdrawal of Roman legions from the island made it far more attractive as a new home. Climate change also played a part in the Anglo-Saxon’s move to Britain, as flooding in their own homeland caused them to seek out land that was unlikely to flood. The warm summers in Britain meant better crops and land to farm, and the withdrawal of the Romans made it vulnerable to attack.

As The Winter King’s first episode reveals, the country was also in chaos due to warring kingdoms. Prior to the arrival of the Romans in Britain, the country was already divided between various kingdoms and tribes. The departure of the Romans only led to further clashes between Christians and Pagans, again making it difficult to unite them against the Saxons.

What Derfel Being A Saxon Means For His Character In The Winter King

The Winter King Derfel Nimue

Shortly after Arthur is banished from Britain, he comes across a fishing village in Dumnonia that has been recently raided. Here he finds a “death pit” filled with spiked corpses, but among them, he finds a badly-wounded Saxon slave boy named Derfel. Arthur saves Derfel and takes him to Merlin (Nathaniel Martello-White) to be treated, and Winter King then jumps ahead eight years to the grown Derfel (Stuart Campbell) having become a part of Avalon itself.

Luckily for Derfel, nobody at Avalon takes issue with his ancestry and they raise him as one of their own. However, Derfel is haunted by flashbacks to the raid and has visions of the people who murdered his mother. By the end of Winter King’s first episode, he comes to realize it was King Gundleus of Siluria (Simon Merrells) who led the raid. Having undergone a supposed religious conversion, Gundleus wants to prove his loyalty to Dumnonia, and while Uther grants him a chance, Derfel will likely seek revenge.

Arthur’s Plan To Defeat The Saxons Explained

Arthur on his horse in The Winter King

Before his banishment, Arthur desperately tries to relay his plan to hold the Saxons off to his friend and Uther’s best warrior Owain (Daniel Ings). Arthur explains that the British Celtic kingdom of Dumnonia – which was largely located in present-day Cornwall in South West England – still “dominates the Isle,” but Uther is too complacent. To succeed against the Saxons, Arthur tells Owain his father must unite the Tribe Kings to cement their support for the coming war. He also tells Owain that Dumnonia needs to hold the line, because if any Saxons set foot “west of Calleva,” then all is lost.

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Of course, Owain believes that without Arthur the kingdom stands little chance of succeeding regardless. In the eight years that pass, Uther’s hold on power grows weaker as he focuses on fathering a new heir. Merlin has a “death of Britain” vision when he holds the newborn Prince Mordred, believing the boy is evil and Mordred becoming King will spell the end of the country. Uther reaching out to Gungleus suggests he might finally buy into uniting the tribes, but without Arthur’s help, it could already be too late to stop the Saxons.

The Saxons’ Real History & War Outcome Explained

Iain De Caestecker as Arthur and Nathaniel Martello-White as Merlin in The Winter King

Anglo-Saxon groups invading Britain didn’t face much resistance initially, though the Romano-British eventually mounted a strong defense. There’s little evidence to suggest King Arthur is a real historical figure – again, The Winter King is a merging of the legend with snippets of fact – but some historians state he could be based upon Ambrosius Aurelianus, a Romano-British resistance leader who won many battles against the invaders. Around the end of the 5th Century (or possibly the beginning of the 6th), the Britons fought a bloody battle against the Saxons at the Battle of Badon Hill.

This is considered one of the last major battles the Britons won, but over time, the Anglo-Saxon groups came to form many different kingdoms. In essence, modern-day England is descended from the Anglo-Saxons, and this “Dark Age” period of the country’s history is where the vast majority of lore about King Arthur comes from. The history behind the story is much bloodier and more complex than the legends convey – and with far less magic – but The Winter King is attempting to sow the myth with reality. For the moment, the series is treating the Saxons as almost mythical boogeymen.

Source: Historical Association

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