In early April I purchased The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell. I knew within the fist few pages I would be reading the entire Saxon Tales series. I went through the first three in a short time. The series inspired me to do some historical research in to 9th century Britain and Alfred the Great’s struggle with the Danes.
Each book has a “Place Name” guide listing the ancient place name next to the modern. It sure makes the story easier to follow. I was thrilled to find a custom Google Map with place markers for all the place names in the series.
The books also end with an “historical notes” section that discusses some of the actual historical characters featured in the book. He explains which events mentioned in the book actually happened and which ones are fiction. Bernard Cornwell seems pretty knowledgeable about history and seems to strive for accuracy.
The Last Kingdom starts in 866 AD during the Dane invasion of Northumbria. 10 year old Osbert is adopted by the Danes after his father is killed in battle. Osbert’s name is changed to Uhtred. He is raised by the Danes and learns their language and customs. It is brilliant of Cornwell to have the protagonist be a Saxon by birth yet be a Dane by upbringing. The reader gets insight into both sides of the conflict.
I enjoyed The Pale Horseman since a major part of the story tells the story of Alfred the Great’s darkest hour when he was hiding from the Danes in the marshes of Somerset, England. The story tells of his fort at Athelney and efforts to turn the tide of the war against all odds and take back Wessex.
The Lords of the North starts in 878 AD when Uhtred travels north to his childhood home to take revenge on some old enemies. These events wrap up a major story line in the series. Uhtred is then free to grow to a new phase in his life. I like how Cornwell weaves historical characters in with his fictional. The Lords of the North contains another good example of this. Early in the story Uhtred “frees King Guthred of Cumbraland from the slave pens.” Guthred was the “king of Northumbria from circa 883 until his death.”
Sword Song tells of the Battle for London in 886 and the kidnapping of Aethelflaed, daughter of King Alfred the Great. During the story we learn that the Saxons actually live outside of Londinium. The battles depicted in the story and the need for better defense motivated Alfred the Great to move the people of London from Lundenwic back to the abandon Roman city. Aethelflaed and her husband Æthelred are real historical figures and not fictional. Aethelflaed did a good job ruling the kingdom of Mercia from 911AD to 918AD.
The Burning Land takes place in 892 AD during a new wave of Danish attacks. Cornwell writes in the Historical Notes, “There were three attacks. An unknown leader (whom I have called Harald) led one fleet to Kent, as did Haesten. Meanwhile the Northumbrian Danes were to mount a shipborn assault on Wessex’s south coast.” Cornwell does a wonderful job weaving historical events and people into his story. In the story Uhtred takes part in the Saxon victory at Benfleet with Price Edward. In the historical notes Cornwell tells us how Alfred the Great “sent his son Edward to attach Haesten’s base at Benfleet.”
Death of Kings takes place in 899 AD and tells of the events surrounding the death of Alfred the Great through the eyes of Uhtred. Historical events from the story include Aethelwold’s Revolt. Aethelwold tried to claim the kingship over Alfred’s son Edward in a “revolt.” Aethelwold fortified the town of Winborn. The Saxons besieged the town but Aethewold escaped to the north. He returned later as part of a Danish invasion only to die at the Battle of Holme in 902AD.
I have really enjoyed the series and am now a big fan of Bernard Cornwell. I look forward to reading more of his work.
- Historynet.com has an excellent article about Alfred the Great.
- The British Monarchy Website article about Alfred the Great.
- The British Monarchy Website about Edward “the Elder”.
- Wikipedia – Alfred the Great
- Wikipedia – 9th century England
- Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
- England’s Northeast – Anglo-Saxon & Viking Northumbrea