War Lord is the last in Bernard Cornwell’s thirteen novel series set in the 9th and 10th centuries and covering the formation of England from the earlier kingdoms of Wessex, Kent, East Anglia, Mercia and, finally, Northumbria. Throughout the series, Uhtred, an impulsive and emotional man, has made promises to members of Alfred’s family, at least one of which he now regrets.
Uhtred is established in his ancestral home of Bebbanburg on the north-east coast of Northumbria hoping for a more peaceful time. But Athelstan, King of Wessex, Mercia and East Anglia is determined to achieve the dream of his grandfather, Alfred, and unite all the kingdoms into England. Whether they like it or not.
To the North is the King of Scotland and to the West a King in Ireland, both with eyes on the fertile lands of Northumbria. Uhtred’s not really in a position to defend Bebbanburg against any one of these avaricious Kings so alights on the idea of getting them to fight each other through a combination of misinformation and trickery.
As ever, Cornwell does a deft job of weaving a fast-paced adventure story around a nugget of historical fact (or as close to fact as we can get) and brings Uhtred’s story to a bittersweet conclusion. Bittersweet for two reasons. First, Uhtred gets his happy ending of ruling in Bebbanburg with expanded lands and family to succeed him but it’s in the context of a bigger kingdom of England which isn’t what he really wanted. Second, that kingdom is Christian and has a policy of stamping out paganism and with the birth of Christian England comes the loss of the old gods and older ways, which, throughout the series, has felt increasingly sad.
War Lord is great, good fun and an easy read, pleasingly supported by good historical detail.