Alfred the Great is known to most people because of a legend that he burned some cakes whilst sheltering from an advancing army. Yet the story of this reluctant soldier-king is a pivotal episode in the forming of the nation of England. Told through the eyes of a young Northumbrian captured by the invading Danes, The Last Kingdom graphically describes Alfred’s growing understanding of tactical warfare as he turns the kingdom of Wessex from the last obstacle to Danish dominance of England into the force that drove them from these islands.
Cornwell’s tale begins in 866, with three Danish longboats sighted off Bebbanburg (modern Bamburgh). Next morning the Danes deliver the severed head of Ealdorman Uhtred’s eldest son, sent to scout out the incursion, to the gates of the fortress. A week later, a larger fleet lands at Eoferwic (York) and the invasion begins. As Bebbanburg falls, nine-year-old Uhtred (re-christened for his murdered brother), is taken captive with a handful of survivors and must learn to live like a Dane. The tale of his growth into a strong and resourceful warrior is interwoven with the steady advance of the invading forces until he meets Alfred, leader of the West Saxons and the only man who can halt the Viking tide.
Through Uhtred’s encounters with both sides in the war, we learn the strengths and weaknesses, vices and virtues of Danes and Saxons. The battle scenes are described in detail, and while heroism and valour on both sides are acknowledged, the horrors are plain for all to see.
I’m not greatly interested in Anglo-Saxon history; I read this book because it was offered on a deal through Amazon Kindle. To my surprise, I enjoyed it. At times, the descriptions became a little heavy, and the fortunes of Uhtred were occasionally strained, but these things are to be expected in a novel dealing with a long and complex history.
Cornwell paints a vivid picture of the tensions of the time and creates a sympathy with his main character that draws the reader into the story. The pace of the narrative varies widely, almost breathless in the battles and slumbering during the long winters of waiting. I need a bit of a break from blood and guts and political intrigue, but I’ll be back to pick up the tale soon.