The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell

A review of the historical war adventure novel The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell.

The Last Kingdom is the first in a series of books titled The Saxon Chronicles which follow the life of a fictitious Saxon named Uhtred who lived in England during the 9th century AD.

He is the rightful Lord/Ealdorman of Bebbanburg—a fortress town a few miles south of the river Tweed, on the border between England and Scotland. At the beginning, Uhtred’s father is summoned by the Kings of Northumbria to help fend off an invading force of Danish warriors who have come to settle in England. Uhtred is ordered to stay behind in the care of his uncle, but he sneaks away to watch the battle. The Danish force outmanoeuvres the Saxon army and slaughter them, including Uhtred’s father. After witnessing this, Uhtred charges at the Danes in a blind rage and ends up being captured by a Danish Earl by the name of Ragnar the Fearless. Ragnar takes a liking the young Saxon, because of his courage, and ends up adopting him like a son.

As Uhtred grows up he comes to love the Danish/Pagan way of living and prefers it to what he considers the dull and joy-sucking life of Christianity.

Meanwhile, Uhtred’s uncle takes advantage of his absence by usurping the lordship of Bebbanburg. He also makes an attempt to kill Uhtred in order to remove any contest to his right to rule, but Uhtred escapes and flees south to the kingdom of Wessex, finding sanctuary with King Alfred (Later titled Alfred the Great).

Throughout the story, Uhtred is greatly conflicted between the love he has developed for the Danish ways and the Christian life he knows he ought to lead. This adds a gripping sense of internal conflict, with moments where Ultred seems to slip from side to side, unsure of where he belongs, but unable to be truly be accepted by either.

I rate this book highly and would recommend it to any reader with an interest in historical fiction, in particular the Danish invasion of Saxon England. While the truth of events in this story has been twisted slightly to accommodate the quite complex fictional characters, most of the big players that lived during this time period are present in the novel, such as Alfred the Great, Danish Lord and warrior Ubba Lothbrok, and the Danish Earl Guthrum.

Don’t just watch the TV series Last Kingdom because, although it is brilliant, it misses out a large chunk of Uhtred’s childhood within the Danish community, which provides quite crucial backstory and allows a greater understanding of why he loves the Danish way of life.

David Delphine lives in Margate with his wife and daughter. He is an avid reader of historical fact and fiction.

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