“There’ll always be an England,” people say, quoting a patriotic song from 1939. But what follows from that perception of England as eternal is the idea that England will not only continue to exist but has always existed: “this precious stone set in the silver sea” (Shakespeare, Richard II). We speak of Celtic Britain, Roman Britain, the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans—as if these entities were like scenes from a school pageant, interchangeable except for their ethnicities and costumes. Exit Jutes, stage left. Enter William the Conqueror, stage right.
In fact, as James Aitcheson noted during my interview with him in March, and as Bernard Cornwell underlines in this month’s interview, England was just as much a project, in its way, as the United States of America. It did not emerge overnight, along a predetermined path. It required centuries of careful construction that might, had events taken even a slightly different turn, have produced something rather different: Greater Denmark, perhaps. If it had, most of us here in North America would be speaking Danish as well.
So follow along, as Bernard Cornwell and I explore his development as a writer, the “little story” represented by Uhtred of Bebbanburg, and the vast background tapestry that is the idea, the emergence, and the eventual consolidation of England as a nation. Then read The Saxon Tales, beginning with The Last Kingdom, because the story of Uhtred’s England is not yet finished. (As a bonus, you will also learn the correct pronunciation of Uhtred’s motto, Wyrd bid ful araed.)
The rest of this post comes from the New Books in Historical Fiction site.
As fans of Uhtred of Bebbanburg know, England in the ninth and tenth centuries is just an idea—a hope held by the kings of Wessex that they may someday unite the lands occupied by the Angles and Saxons, most of whom live under the control of Danish invaders. Not only England’s future hangs in the balance: spurred by King Alfred the Great of Wessex, Christianity has spread rapidly among the Saxons, but that early success threatens to crumble if the pagan Danes complete their conquest as planned.
Enter Uhtred of Bebbanburg, a Northumbrian lord of Saxon descent, raised by the Danes and defiantly pagan, a warrior and leader of men. The rulers of Wessex can’t decide what to make of him, but they grudgingly admit that they need his help. As victory follows victory, Uhtred gains and loses estates, marries and buries wives, takes lovers both peasant and royal, and goes from battle to battle, dragging his sons in his wake. Uhtred has a cherished dream of his own, to reclaim Bebbanburg—his birthright, stolen from him by his uncle during Uhtred’s Danish childhood.
In The Pagan Lord, Uhtred has reached his mid-fifties, an advanced age for the tenth century. Much has changed with the death of Alfred the Great, and the new king of Wessex believes he can dispense with Uhtred’s services. When Uhtred’s eldest son announces that he has not only converted to Christianity but become a priest, Uhtred’s rage leads him to disinherit that son and to kill the abbot who tries to intervene. The Wessex court and Church strip Uhtred of his rights and banish him. Meanwhile, a hidden adversary has abducted the wife and children of the Danish leader Cnut and pinned the crime on Uhtred. Cnut retaliates by raiding and burning Uhtred’s estate, killing most of the inhabitants. With little to lose and everything to gain, Uhtred gathers his three dozen surviving warriors and sets off to storm the impregnable fortress of Bebbanburg.
Bernard Cornwell has more awards and bestselling books than we can possibly list here. The Pagan Lord—and The Saxon Tales of which it is a part—opens a door onto a long-forgotten and under-appreciated past in a way that offers pure entertainment. Warning: you will lose sleep trying to find out what happens next.