The Flame Bearer by Bernard Cornwell is the 10th book in the Last Kingdom series set in 10th-century Britain. It is very much centred on Uhtred finally winning back his fortress at Bebbanburg from his despicable cousin. It is as much a relief to the reader that our hero finally wins back his childhood home as it is to Uhtred who at the end of the book stands on the fortress’s defences watching the sun set on the sea with tears in his eyes. Obviously this post is going to be full of spoilers and I’ve already dished the main one up, so you may as well read on now. Uhtred’s journey to winning back Bebbanburg is as you’d expect for a 300+ page novel not a simple thing.
Cornwell states at the end of the book that pretty much none of the story corresponds to the real history of the time. It’s unusual for this to be the case, but it doesn’t diminish the enjoyment and he certainly keeps the actions and motivations of those real historic figures whose lives Uhtred orbits in line with what you’d expect from them based on how they’ve bene previously portrayed in the series. What I’m trying to say here is that this book is very much in keeping with the rest and doesn’t feel like it’s all made up. Hear are the main points of how the story goes:
The book begins with another failed attempt by Uhtred to lay siege to Bebbanburg. His brother-in-law, the pagan warlord Sigtryggr, ruler of Jorvik and in turn Northumbria, asks for help against invading West Saxons who seem intent on breaking the truce recently drawn up with the ruler of Mercia AEthelflaed – King Edward of Wessex’s sister. Uhtred’s men are outnumbered by invading Scots led by Constantin intent on making Bebbanburg for their own. However, Uhtred’s cousin ensconced inside the fortress is willing to play a long game and wait out the siege. He won’t be enticed out from inside Bebbanburg’s strong walls.
Uhtred figures out that AEthelhelm – a wealthy and powerful Saxon warlord and King Edward’s father in-law – is planning to attack Edward’s men and make it look like Sigtryggr did it and so start the war that has been at least delayed a few years by the truce, if not fully averted. It seems inevitable that Edward will want to drive all Danes from the North of the country and bring about the Christian Saxon kingdom his father Alfred dreamed of.
AEthelhelm wants to push the agenda forward and ensure that his grandson AElfweard – Edward’s second son – eventually becomes ruler of a united England. So he had planned for AEthelstan (Edward’s disputed first son by his first wife) to be leading Edward’s men and to be killed in the ambush. However, Edward sends his trusted warrior Brunulf to lead his men instead of AEthelstan.
With amazing insight, Uhtred sees through AEthelhelm’s machinations and rescues Brunulf and his men from the fake Danish attack. In typical showboating style, he interrupts a meeting between Edward, AEthelflaed and Sigtryggr where AEthelhelm’s clergy are war-mongering and reveals the truth of AEthelhelm’s plot.
Edward is deplored and executes the prisoners Uhtred brings to show him. Queen AEthelflaed reveals that she is dying and can no longer protect AEthelstan against any further assassination attempts. So Uhtred claims AEthelstan as his hostage in order to protect him and reconfirms the details of the treaty. Sigtryggr, his commitment to the truce proven, returns to Jorvik.
Uhtred then turns his attention back to Bebbanburg which is currently besieged by the Scots. He pretends he has given up and moves all his men, women, children, goods, horses and cattle out of Dunholm and spreads rumours that he is going across the sea to Frisia – part of modern-day The Netherlands. Instead he intends to masquerade as a supply run to the besieged fortress at Bebbanburg. While he is making preparations in Grimesbi he realises that the ships coming in to the port and stocking up with goods are a supply fleet commanded by AEthelhelm. He despairs of ever winning back Bebbanburg because AEthelhelm’s ships and men will get to the fortress before he does and resupply it with both food and hundreds of Saxon soldiers to fight the Scots. He prays for a miracle and thankfully one arrives in the form of an attack by Northmen allied to the Scots and intent on taking Bebbanburg. The burn most of AEthelhelm’s ships and in the chaos Uhtred escapes Grimesbi undetected.
He disguises his ships as AEthelhelm’s supply ships and chased by AEthelhelm’s remaining warships gets to Bebbanburg and fools the guards into opening one of the fortress gates for them. Unbeknownst to Uhtred his son has helped AEthelstan sneak aboard one of the boats and the prince quickly kills AEthelhelm’s champion. There’s some street to street fighting, some shield wall shenanigans and cunning tactics from Uhtred which finally leads him to defeat both AEthelhelm and his cousin and take back his beloved Bebbanburg.
AEthelstan persuades Uhtred not to kill AEthelhelm but to ransom so he can replenish his coffers and diminish AEthelhelm’s ability to buy more men into his service. AEthelstan also suggests Uhtred keep AEthelhelm’s daughter – who was supposed to be wed to Uhtred’s cousin as part of the resupply deal – as a hostage and this is much to Uhtred’s son’s liking as he has taken a shine to her. Uhtred then goes and tells the Scots to bugger off, which they do, for now.
That’s it in a nutshell. As usual there’s a lot of blood and guts, much to be said about Christianity versus the Norse gods, and indeed I have totally missed out a fun character known as ‘the Mad Bishop’ who is instrumental in bringing about the attack at Grimesbi. It’s a very enjoyable book in the series and I devoured it within a couple of days.