War Lord is the thirteenth and last book of Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom series and is dedicated to Alexander Dreymon the actor who plays Uhtred in the TV show based on the books. As such it is difficult for a fan not to feel some sadness in reading the final pages which inevitably involve 937 AD’s battle of Brunanburgh which Cornwell has placed on The Wirral. We know Uhtred will survive, how else is he able to sit in his cups and regale with this tale from his old age? What most of us don’t know about this country-defining battle is, well… pretty much everything else.
As Cornwell points out in his customary historical note if you ask anyone schooled in the UK about the 1066 Battle of Hastings they will be able to list the key details and how it changed the history of Britain forever. Ask them about 937 and the battle of Brunanburgh and they can forgiven for looking at you blankly. Like most readers I knew there must be some defining battle that quashes the Scots, the Danes and the Norse in the disputed lands of Cumbria and Northumbria, where Uhtred lives in his fortress at Bebbanburg, leading to the unification of all the kingdoms Mercia, Wessex, East Anglia and the North, but I had no idea of who was involved.
Æthelstan swore he would not attack Northumbria while Uhtred lives, but at the start of the book it appears the self-proclaimed king of all England is reneging on the deal. Uhtred is caught between two opposing forces – the mostly Saxon army of Æthelstan and the Scottish army led by king Constantine. It soon becomes apparent that Constantine is getting increasing support from Danes and Norse in Cumbria as well as from Ireland. When Anlaf Guthfrithsun, king of Dyflin in Ireland, brings his army to back his claim to the throne of Northumbria he strikes a deal with Constantine and some of Æthelstan’s allies turn coat to support the invaders. Uhtred is approached by the Scots and told to consider joining them to overthrow Æthelstan.
Uhtred, as ever, is torn between supporting the battle against the Christian forces of Æthelstan which he sees as deposing the old gods of the Danes, and upholding his allegiance to the Saxons which started twelve books ago with Æthelstan’s grandfather Alfred the Great. It’s no great surprise that Uhtred, ever the reluctant hero, sticks to his guns and supports Æthelstan, and is at the centre of the pivotal final battle at Brunanburgh.
There’s a bunch of returning characters and call back to previous events in the series, so you’d be a fool to read this as a standalone novel, but it certainly makes a good read as a closing instalment of a series that has kept me amused for the last couple of years. Uhtred’s reconciliation with his disowned elder son, now a bishop in Æthelstan’s church, just before his death is a little clunky, but rounds off that sub-plot nicely before the battle in which Uhtred’s sword of kings Serpent-Breath flies into the hand of Æthelstan to make the decisive cut.
As a series reader would expect the book ends with Uhtred feeling his age sitting surveying his land from the battlements of his beloved Bebbanburg, thankful for his lot and having survived all those bloody shield walls. What I didn’t expect, which left a bad taste in the mouth, was to read in Cornwell’s historical note that Anlaf returned to England a few years later and successfully took the throne of Northumbria and captured large areas of Northern Mercia.
King Edmund, Æthelstan’s successor, eventually drove Anlaf out and reunified the kingdoms, so the significance of the battle of Brunanburgh is not diminished. However, what I feel is diminished is the dénouement of Uhtred’s tale. If Anlaf invaded Northumbria, what did Uhtred do? Just sit there and let it happen?
You maybe have to assume that by this time Uhtred, like Æthelstan, has died, and that his son Uhtred will have had to stand against the Irish. Cornwell obviously wanted to go out on a high, but maybe there’s one last story to be told about how the elder Uhtred, war lord of the North, stood one last time to fight alongside Edmund and was killed in a final heroic gesture that turned the tide of the battle for the English. An idea for some fan fiction perhaps?
Meanwhile, with one hero retired, as promised Cornwell turns his eye toward France, fast forwards us to the 1820s, and reunites us with Richard Sharpe in Sharpe’s Assassin. As Uhtred says, “Wyrd bið ful āræd.” (Fate is inexorable).