With the latest instalment of The Warrior Chronicles, The Pagan Lord, out in paperback this week, Bernard Cornwell brings us up to date with Uhtred’s story so far – and its basis in historical fact.
The novels about Uhtred are telling two stories, one of them real and the other fictional.
The fictional story is Uhtred’s, though even that has some basis in reality. During the years in which England came to be formed there was a family which bore the name Uhtred and which ruled their lands from the fortress of Bebbanburg, a massive stronghold on the Northumbrian coast which is today called Bamburgh Castle. We know very little about the family, except that it was prominent in the north and that they came from what is now northern Germany. They had been part of the massive Anglo-Saxon migration which invaded Britain after the Romans left and pushed the native British out to the margins of the island. The Uhtreds became the kings of Bernicia, a kingdom that encompassed much of what is now north-eastern England and the lowlands of Scotland, but that kingdom had been subsumed into the larger realm of Northumbria. Nevertheless the family survived and kept its power at Bebbanburg, and indeed they were to preserve that fortress and its land through the ghastly invasion of the Danes, who are sometimes called the Northmen or Vikings.
That survival fascinated me for a personal reason. A decade ago I discovered my biological father in British Columbia. His surname is Oughtred, a good northern English name, and I also discovered that the Oughtred family are the direct descendants of the Uhtred clan. They have a genealogical table that stretches back to Ida the Flamebearer who, in the sixth century AD, was the man who captured Bebbanburg. So Uhtred is my ancestor. How on earth had his family survived the invasion of the Northmen? How had it held onto its land?
My suspicion is that the Uhtred clan held onto Bebbanburg because they collaborated with the Danish invaders, though certainly the fortress itself was formidable enough to deter any casual attack. So the fictional story of the novels is how Uhtred inherits, loses and recaptures his ancestral stronghold.
That invented story is told against the background of a much larger tale, which is the making of England. When my Uhtred was born, and for most of his long fictional life, there was no such thing as England, but by the time he dies the country exists and still exists. England was to exert an enormous influence on history and to understand England and the English it helps to know whence they came. I find it remarkable that the story is so little known. The Americans have July 4th and other nations have their foundation tales, but England seems to have forgotten its own birth pangs. There has long been a strange assumption that England’s history begins with 1066, but of course the nation that William, Duke of Normandy, conquered had a much longer history and he sensibly preserved many of its institutions, some of which still exist.
Alfred was King of Wessex, never King of England, yet he is the only monarch in our history to be accorded the honour of being called ‘the Great’. There is no committee such as the ones that decide the Nobel Prizes to award that honorific, and if I had my way I would give it to Elizabeth I as well, but somehow the title emerges from history by some mysterious process. So why is Alfred called ‘the Great’? Because without Alfred there would be no England.
To a large extent we still live in Alfred’s England.
The country that was to be called England was divided into four Anglo-Saxon kingdoms; Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia and Wessex. The four kingdoms were quarrelsome, disliking each other almost as much as they disliked the foreigners living beyond the four kingdoms’ borders. This meant that when the Danes began to invade the territory of Englaland the four kingdoms did not co-operate to defend themselves. Instead the first three were picked off one by one, first Northumbria, then East Anglia and Mercia last. The Danes were conquering Englaland and any contemporary observer must have believed that the end result would be a country called Daneland and the national language Danish.
Alfred fought for the defeat of paganism but also for another dream. The word Englaland described the territory where English was spoken, where the Angelcynn, the English people, lived. It had never been a political unit, a country, but in time a dream emerged of just that.
Alfred built the burhs which were fortified towns, and ruthlessly organized the fyrd, a citizen army, so that those burhs were always garrisoned. He established a great law code. He codified and civilised a society and the roots of English administration lie in Alfred’s reforms. Today, if you walk through the centre of Winchester, or almost any of his other burhs, the boundary lines of the properties you pass were staked out by Alfred’s men. County boundaries and parish boundaries were set in this period. To a large extent we still live in Alfred’s England. But Alfred’s England was Wessex, and he wanted it to be much more; he wanted his son to be king of all the Angelcynn, of all the English folk.
England was born in warfare. There has been a revisionist streak in recent years which tries to depict the Vikings as essentially peace-loving people who have been traduced by history, but that is nonsense. The Northmen were raiders, settlers and colonisers, just like the Angles and Saxons before them. The very recent discovery of a mass grave in Dorset suggests that a crew of Vikings was captured in Wessex, stripped naked, and hacked to death with swords and axes, and it is against that background that the tale of England’s making takes place. The Angelcynn were fighting for their very existence, because if they lost the war then they would be ruled by the Danes, and Danish institutions, laws and language would replace their own. Today, wherever you are in the world, you can hear English spoken. It has become a world language, yet in 878 the guardians of that language had been forced into a few square miles of bogland in the Somerset marshes. The achievement of a united England was to belong to Alfred’s son, daughter and grandson, but the beginning of it, the dream of it was Alfred’s.
Bernard Cornwell, for Waterstones.com/blog
You can Click & Collect The Pagan Lord from your local Waterstones bookshop (http://bit.ly/Tl6dbg), buy it online at Waterstones.com (http://bit.ly/1jn9ET7) or download it in ePub format (http://bit.ly/Tl6jiY)