This is the second in an eight volume series about Saxon England in the 9th century. This was the time of Alfred, King of Wessex, known as Alfred the Great, whose dream it was to unite all of England into one realm, head, needless to say, by him. Alfred was a pious hypocrite, praying ceaselessly, surrounding himself with priests and monks, building churches and nunneries, yet gathering an army and directing their efforts to kill as many of the enemy as possible. And the enemy were the Danes and Vikings who were invading the country, and who had brought their women and children with them.
It is narrated by the now elderly Uhtred, Earl of Bebbanburg in Northumbria. As he tells us
My ancestors, who can trace their lineage back to the god Woden, the Danish Odin, were once kings in northern England, and if my uncle had not stolen Bebbanburg from me when I was just ten years old I would have lived there still as a Northumbrian lord safe in his sea-washed fastness.
I had been raised by Danes after being captured at the age of ten and they could have killed me but instead they had treated me well. I had learned their language and worshipped their gods until I no longer knew whether I was Danish or English.
When his mentor and surrogate Danish father, Ragnar, was murdered, Uhtred escaped and fled south to Wessex, where he pledge his sword to Alfred, whom he did not like, and who did not like him. But they needed each other.
The Danes had captured Northumbria, and installed a puppet king in Eoferwic, (modern day York), and Uhtred was 20 years old in 877.
Since I am entirely too lazy to summarize the plot of this installment all by my little self, I have lifted the precis directly from Wikipedia. I have absolutely no shame: (besides which, the storyline is complicated, dense, rich with detail, and really just wonderful.)
Uhtred, bored with the peace between Alfred and the Danish king Guthrum, goes off raiding into Cornwall. He comes across a settlement ruled by the British king Peredur, who hires Uhtred and his men to fight an invading Danish force led by Svein of the White Horse. Uhtred and Svein however ally to kill Peredur and pillage his settlement, and Uhtred carries off Peredur’s wife, the shadow queen Iseult. A monk named Asser who was at Peredur’s court witnesses the betrayal and escapes to Dyfed in Wales. Uhtred and Svein then sail up the coast to Land’s End where they part ways. Svein goes to Cynuit, where Ubba was killed previously, and Uhtred to the coast of Wales where he raids a ship laden with treasure. He returns to his estate and pious wife Mildrith, using his hoard of treasure to build a great hall and relieve his debt to the church.
The Witan summons Uhtred to an audience with King Alfred in Cippanhamm, where he is accused of using the king’s ship to raid the Britons with whom Wessex is at peace based on the testimony of Asser, who has made his way to Alfred’s court, and wrongfully accused of attacking the Cynuit abbey on the false testimony of the warrior Steapa Snotor, who is loyal to Uhtred’s enemy Odda the Younger. To settle the dispute, a fight to the death is ordered between Uhtred and Steapa. During the duel, Uhtred carries only his sword, Serpent-Breath, whereas Steapa is fully armoured. The duel is cut short when Guthrum’s Danes attack and the crowd is scattered. Uhtred, Leofric, and Iseult hide in the fields until nightfall when they enter Cippanhamm and free their friend Eanflæd at the Corncrake Tavern. The four of them wander for a few weeks until they reach the swamps of Athelney. As they enter the marsh, Guthrum himself attacks Uhtred. Uhtred makes a fighting escape onto a boat that carries him, Leofric, and another passenger to an island within the swamp. The passenger insists that Uhtred should have left a Danish warrior alive, and turns out to be King Alfred himself. Uthred becomes Alfred’s bodyguard and for a few months they hide in the swamp until enough men have joined Alfred’s army. They then fight at the Battle of Ethandun and Alfred takes back Wessex, with Uhtred being instrumental in the death of Svein of the White Horse. However, during the battle, Leofric and Iseult are both killed.
Cornwell’s books are beautifully thoroughly researched, and in this one we learn about the pagan beliefs of shadow queens, the ongoing struggle Alfred has with his health, which seems to be irritable bowel syndrome, or maybe Crohn’s disease. The shadow queen companion of Uhtred, Iseult, is able to soothe Alfred’s trouble while they are in the swamp by use of magic and herbal remedies. She wanted to learn to read, because she said
Words are like breath. You say them and they’re gone. But writing traps them.
There is much made in this book of Svein of the White Horse, and his defeat. Today, there is carved into the chalk of the escarpment on the edge of the Wiltshire downs. Legend has it that the oldest of today’s ten white horses, which was cut in the 1770s, replaced a much older horse that was cut into the chalk hillside after the battle of Ethandun in 878.
Saxons, along with the Angles, and other continental Germanic tribes, were instrumental in the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain during and after the 5th century. The British-Celtic inhabitants of the isles tended to call all these groups Saxons collectively. It is unknown how many migrated from the continent to Britain, though estimates for the total number of Anglo-Saxon settlers are around two hundred thousand.
By the ninth century, the Saxons ruled almost all of what is now England, but then the Danes came and the Saxon kingdoms crumbled. This series is their story.