The History Behind 'The Bastard Executioner' Is As Complex As Kurt Sutter's New Show


Fans of Sons of Anarchy were sad to see the series end after seven seasons in December 2014, but luckily, there's another Kurt Sutter drama coming to FX this fall. The Bastard Executioner premieres on Tuesday, Sept. 15 on FX, and it looks like it's going to be the latest TV show to have a Game of Thrones vibe to it.

Sure, The Bastard Executioner is a medieval drama with lots of battles and supernatural elements, but it seems to be overall more rooted in actual past events than Game of Thrones is, even though George R.R. Martin has said his A Song of Fire and Ice series does have some historical basis. Sutter said from the beginning that he based Sons of Anarchy on the William Shakespeare tragedy Hamlet, and now, the showrunner's interest in history will more fully manifest itself in this new medieval epic.

That's because The Bastard Executioner will take place in 14th century northern Wales and focus on the former knight Wilkin Brattle (Lee Jones), who is persuaded by a soothsayer to take on the role of an executioner. Through Wilkin's struggle to protect his new identity, The Bastard Executioner will feature issues in politics, class relations and religion.

So, what makes The Bastard Executioner so historical beyond the fact that it will be the first TV series to feature British singer Ed Sheeran in a recurring role (don't pretend you're not counting down the days until you see that)? Read on to find out the real story behind what you're going to see onscreen.

King Edward I's Reign Provides Some Context To The Show

As I previously mentioned, Wilkin was a knight before becoming the eponymous executioner in this show. Wilkin served under King Edward I, who was part of the Plantagenets of the British monarchy. He reigned from 1272 to 1307, so since this series is said to take place in the 14th century, it sounds like we'll either be watching the end of his time as king or the aftermath of it.

Edward was a notable British monarch for leading the Anglo Saxons in an attempt to recover Holy Land during the Crusades before and during his reign. He would eventually earn the nickname "Longshanks" because of his height and his war with Scotland in the late 13th century, part of which was famously dramatized in the 1995 movie Braveheart with Patrick McGoohan starring as the monarch opposite Mel Gibson's freedom fighter William Wallace. From this Bastard Executioner trailer, it looks like Wilkin was sent into battle against the Scots when he was under Edward's charge, but it's unclear if that was during their war for independence or another conflict.

However, Edward greatly concerned himself with Wales at the start of his reign, which is how he really relates to what The Bastard Executioner is about. Edward wanted to maintain the English Kings' stronghold in the British Isles starting with Wales, which sought independence from England at the beginning of the monarch's reign (more on this later).

Edward would eventually be successful in his efforts, bringing Wales into the English legal framework under the Statute of Wales in 1284 and squashing subsequent attempts at Welsh independence. Also in 1284, Edward and his wife, Queen Eleanor, had a son, who was later given the distinction of being the first Prince of Wales, a title that has been given to the firstborn heir of a British monarch ever since.

The Characters Will Experience The Fallout From A Major Welsh Rebellion

The Bastard Executioner takes place after the last major Welsh rebellion against English rule in 1294. In fact, a character by the name of Toran Prichard (Sam Spruell) was an archer under the rebel leader Madog Llywelyn. This rebellion was inspired by a tax levied in 1290, which put the majority of the burden on Wales. Like the Welsh's previous attempt at independence led by Llywelyn ap Gruffyd, the Prince of Gwynedd, who fought to maintain control of his principality from English rule before dying in battle in 1282, this attempt also failed. Though the Welsh seemed to remain loyal to their English king after that, I have a feeling that there is still going to be some unrest among the characters of The Bastard Executioner.

Life In 14th Century Wales Was Bleak

That brings us to what was going on in 14th century Wales in the time of The Bastard Executioner. In this period after the Crusades but before the Renaissance, "Everybody was having Catholicism jammed down their throats, and we were basically half a generation from believing trolls lived under the bridge," Sutter recently told The Wall Street Journal. "It was an interesting place for humanity because we weren't quite there yet in terms of art and music."

After King Edward I died in 1307, his son ascended to the throne as King Edward II, who would eventually become an unpopular king for his clashing with nobles, the kingdom's large debts and his loss in a battle against the Scots at Bannockburn. Edward II was eventually made to renounce the throne and executed in 1327, and the Welsh mourned his death, according to the BBC.

As King Edward III's reign began, the Welsh incorporated English culture into their lives more, but there was a resurgence of Welsh culture as well. Unfortunately, this period was interrupted with the outbreak of the Black Death in Wales around 1349, which decimated the Welsh population. However, the plague actually had some positive impact on Wales, inspiring a call to change some Welsh land laws and a landholding system, according to the BBC.

By the end of the 14th century, the Welsh economy focused on sheep farming and exporting wool, which has remained an important part of it to this day. The Bastard Executioner looks like it has an agrarian feel to it, especially since Wilkin is a farmer at the beginning of the series, so perhaps we'll see a medieval version of a sheep simulator play out onscreen.

A major rise in Welsh nationalism wouldn't come again until 1400, which is likely after the time of The Bastard Executioner. In that year, Owain Glyn Dwr, a Welsh national hero, led a revolt against English rule. Although it was also ultimately unsuccessful, it did reignite a desire among the Welsh to retain a separate identity from the English, according to the BBC. With rebellion on the minds of those in The Bastard Executioner, this tension, along with that between nobles and peasants, should be prominently featured in the show.

Religion Was More Than Just A System Of Beliefs

In the 14th century, the Catholic Church had an enormous amount of authority over the lives of everyone from monarchs to peasants as it was not only a belief system, but it also dictated people's actions. This was about 200 years before the Protestant Reformation, and the Catholic Church was always closely tied to heads of state, which is one reason why at the time The Bastard Executioner takes place in, Welsh clerics were constantly at odds with those from England because they thought they received the best positions in the church. This conflict would provide the backdrop for the uprising led by Glyn Dwr in 1400. Knowing all of that, it's easy to see why the struggle between Catholicism and the remaining vestiges of Paganism in Wales will be a major part of The Bastard Executioner.

Executioners Were Really As Terrifying As They Seem

Whether or not you've studied medieval history, you probably have that image of a giant hooded man dressed in all black and wielding an ax whenever you hear the word "executioner." Promos for The Bastard Executioner have given us quick glimpses of Wilkin assuming this new role by slicing some poor guy's head off. However, were medieval executioners really as bad and scary as they seem?

Well, yeah. The whole point of having someone execute another human being in such a public fashion was to basically shock people into submitting to the rule of divine and temporal authority, according to Joel F. Harrington in his book The Faithful Executioner. However, medieval executions weren't completely sadistic. They were also an opportunity to give the person being executed one last chance to atone for his or her sins and be redeemed during the final moments on this Earth.

Still, because of the very nature of the subject matter, The Bastard Executioner is going to be violent. However, in pitching the series to FX, Sutter didn't want it to be a show "where there's just a head in a basket every week," he said during The Bastard Executioner's TCA panel in August, as reported by Deadline. "I sort of had the mandate that anything that happens — be it battle sequence, or an execution, or a torture scene — that it comes out of story, and you see the character's conflict or their non conflict in carrying forth with that violence," Sutter said later in the panel. So, when you see someone's head get chopped off, just remember that there's supposed to be a deeper meaning behind it.

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