The Last Kingdom is the first book in a series by Bernard Cornwell dedicated to telling the story of the formation of England by Alfred the Great in late 800s. Cornwell does this through the eyes of Uhtred of Bebbanburg. Bebbanburg is an old name for Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland, England.
I have read this book before and enjoyed its retelling in the recent TV series. I’ve also read some of the other books in the series, but sadly out of sequence. So last year, having exhausted Cornwell’s Sharpe series and with my New Year’s Resolution, not to buy any more books before I’d finished the ones on my shelf, in pieces I went out and hunted down the complete series as it stands currently in paperback in various charity shops and market stalls – the result is eleven more books to add to the pile.
At the start of the book Uhtred is called Osbert and his older brother carries the name Uhtred. But when his brother is killed by raiding Danes, Osbert takes on the name. His father, the Ealdorman of Bebbanburg, is then killed during an attack on Eoferwic (York) and Uhtred is captured by Ragnar, a Danish earl. With Uhtred’s capture, his uncle Ælfric takes control of Bebbanburg and the title of Ealdorman, despite Uhtred being the rightful heir. Uhtred’s desire to take back what is rightfully his is a common theme throughout the story.
Uhtred lives among the Danes working as a slave for Ragnar’s household but eventually ends up being treated like a son by Ragnar. Uhtred befriends Ragnar’s sickly son Rorik and gets into scrapes with one Danish boy in particular, Sven, son of a shipmaster in Ragnar’s fleet, Kjartan. One fateful day, Sven kidnaps Ragnar’s daughter Thyra and bares her breasts. Uhtred, and Rorik, rescue Thyra. When Ragnar heres what’s happened he banishes Kjartan from his service, and blinds Sven’s in one eye.
As he grows into a strapping young man, Uhtred goes on raids and joins battles across East Anglia, Mercia and Wessex with his wild girlfriend Brida. Eventually he is ‘rescued from the Danes’ by his old family priest, Beocca. But after spending some time among the priests of Alfred’s court he feels more affinity to the Danes than he does to his Saxon roots. Uhtred escapes from Wessex and finds his way back to Ragnar. Uhtred enjoys life with the Danes until Kjartan and his men burn down Ragnar’s hall with Ragnar inside it and kidnap Thyra. Uhtred and Brida are forced to flee back to Wessex and King Alfred. Kjartan spreads a rumour that it was Uhtred who killed Ragnar.
In Wessex, Uhtred is forced to learn to read and write and is then put in charge of Alfred’s fleet of twelve ships. After a battle he meets up with Ragnar’s eldest son, and tells him the truth about how his father died and the uncertain fate of his sister. They part as friends, vowing that one day they will fight Kjartan together and rescue Thyra. Brida, sick of life in Wessex, goes back to the Danes with Ragnar.
Back in Wessex, Uhtred is forced to marry an orphaned girl, Mildrith. To his surprise Uhtred finds that she’s quite easy on the eye and it’s only later that he realises what the catch is. Mildrith is deeply in debt to the Church and could lose her farm and land if she is unable to pay what’s due. Despite this, Uhtred finds some happiness with her and indeed gets her pregnant.
Later Uhtred takes part in a siege against Danish warlord Guthrum, and finds himself among a group of Saxon hostages exchanged when the Guthrum and Alfred agree on peace. Staying as a hostage in Werham (Wareham) over winter Uhtred meets up again with Ragnar, and is saved by him when Guthrum breaks the truce and murders his hostages.
Uhtred then escapes back to the Saxons and fights in the Battle of Cynwit. There he finds himself in they mayhem of a proper shield wall for the first time and has to defeat Ubba, Ragnar Lothbrok’s famous axe-wielding son. Danish warlords Ubba, Ivar the Boneless and Halfdan are recognisable names from the TV show Vikings and it was difficult for me to stop thinking about them when I was reading the book. It was also notable that Uhtred is described as having long blonde hair which is a departure from the mental image I had from the TV show of dark-haired actor Alexander Dreymon.
Cornwell’s writing is typically visceral and blood-soaked, evoking the brutal mentality of the age and painting the Danes obsession with weapons, silver and land in vivid shades of red. As usual Cornwell’s main character also has a good moan about organised religion (much preferring the Viking polytheism to Christian monotheism) and gets to bed a few feisty beauties along the way.
I enjoyed rereading The Last Kingdom so much that I jumped straight into reading the next book in the series The Pale Horseman. So far I can’t recall having read it before.