“It's sad to lose Uhtred,” author Bernard Cornwell said of the hero of his Last Kingdom series of books, the 13th and final volume of which, “War Lord,” was released this week.
The prolific Chatham novelist began writing about Uhtred of Beddanburg, the warlord of the book's title, 17 years ago in “The Last Kingdom,” the first book in the series, the arc of which follows the character from his youth to his old age. Along the way, Uhtred is witness to, and participates in, many of the major events that led to the creation of England out of four Saxon kingdoms. The books have been adapted into a TV series, “The Last Kingdom,” which will launch its fifth season next year on Netflix.
While Uhtred's tale is the “small” story in the historical novels, the “big” story or larger context of The Last Kingdom is the founding of the country where Cornwell was born and grew up. Surprisingly, it's a little-known story, even in Britain.
“It's an astonishing tale, and one the English are ignorant of,” he said in a telephone interview last week. “People don't know how it happened; they just assume there's always been an England.”
In the series, Uhtred is on hand as King Alfred begins the process of uniting the Saxon kingdoms of Wessex, Mercia and East Anglia. One last kingdom remained to create the England we know today – Northumbria, the location of Beddanburg, Uhtred's ancestral home (now known as Bamburgh Castle). Although concerned about the future of his homeland, Uhtred honors his oath to Alfred's grandson, King Athelstan, and helps win the Battle of Brunanburh against invading Scots and Norse warriors from Ireland and the north, thus adding Northumbria – the “Last Kingdom” – to the new nation of England.
The battle, which took place in 937, is “the founding moment” of England, akin to the Battle of Yorktown in the American Revolution, Cornwell said, and known – if at all – as simply “the great battle.”
Although the exact day of the battle isn't known, it took place in the fall, he said. “In the morning, there was no England,” he said. “By the evening, there was.”
A group of archaeologists have found the location of the battle in the Wirral peninsula on England's northwest coast, and Cornwell traveled there last year to view the area and artifacts they'd found. The archaeologists gave him a small knife they had recovered from the battlefield, and readers will catch a reference to it in the climactic chapters of “War Lord.”
“It is now framed and hanging in Chatham,” he said of the artifact.
Cornwell said he's been reading about the Saxon era for years, and when he began looking more closely at Alfred, he discovered the first English king was “far from being the linebacker in chainmail” portrayed through history. Rather, Alfred was somewhat sickly, probably more of an intellectual than a warrior.
“That was a pleasant surprise,” Cornwell said. “It was nice to be able to write him against the myth.”
Knowing that the series would end at the Battle of Brunanburh gave The Last Kingdom its narrative drive, but the “small” story of Uhtred grew out of a personal connection that Cornwell discovered almost by accident. Growing up adopted, the author was in his 50s when he met his birth father, William Outhred, and learned that he was a descendant of the family that had owned Beddanburg.
“He was always fun to write,” Cornwell said of the fictional Uhtred. “I did enjoy him. But his story is told, really.” He added that he enjoys the TV series, which stars Alexander Dreymon at Uhtred. “They gave me a cameo in season three, in which Alexander killed me,” in rather bloody fashion, Cornwell said.
With more than 60 books to his credit, Cornwell's next project returns to the character that began his career – Richard Sharpe, an English rifleman during the Peninsular Wars. “Sharpe's Eagles,” published in 1981, was written after Cornwell moved from England, where he had been a TV news producer, to the United States after marrying his wife Judy. Unable to get a green card, he turned to writing, finding a niche in historical novels about England's involvement in the Napoleonic Wars. There are 21 novels in the Sharpe series so far, as well as a popular TV series starring Sean Bean. The next, untitled entry in the series will take place in Paris, Cornwell said.
“It was fun, going back to him,” he said. “It was as if I never left him.” Like all of his novels, Cornwell hasn't mapped out what's going to happen to in the latest Sharpe tale. “Usually I throw the hero into a situation in chapter one and see what happens,” he said. He likened his writing process to going a third of the way up a mountain, seeing a better route, and going back and rewriting and revising “to see what it's all about.” He enjoys discovering what the story is just as much as a reader, he said.
While most of his books are historical novels, Cornwell occasionally changes pace a bit; in the late 1980s and early 1990s he wrote a series of contemporary sailing adventures, and in he 2014 released the non-fiction “Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies and Three Battles” on the 200th anniversary of that famous engagement. In 2017 he wrote “Fools and Mortals,” a fictional account of how “A Midsummer Night's Dream” came to be, told through the eyes of William Shakespeare's younger brother.
“That was completely self-indulgent,” Cornwell acknowledged. “It sprang out of Monomoy.” For many summers, Cornwell acted in plays at Chatham's now-closed Monomoy Theatre.
“I miss it terribly,” he said of the theater where he tread the stage alongside enthusiastic college theater students.
“War Lord” was released in England in October and went “straight to number one,” Cornwell said. It was his 18th straight number-one selling novel in Britain.
Just as he returned to the Richard Sharpe, Cornwell does not rule out someday revisiting the story of Uhtred of Beddanburg.
“I've learned never to say never,” he said.