Death of Kings by Bernard Cornwell

Published by HarperCollins

Readily available in paperback RRP £18.99

“Seven Kings will die Uhtred of Bebbanburg, seven Kings and the woman you love.”

It’s the year 899 and King Alfred lies dying, Wessex stands firm against the Danes to the North but they are ill prepared for what may come after Alfred passes. Uhtred of Bebbanburg can see the signs, the Danes are massing an army the size of which has never been seen in Britain before, but with an ailing king and the Church ever tightening its hold in the Royal family; no one is prepared to listen to a Pagan with dubious loyalties.

But Uhtred has sworn an oath to Alfred on his deathbed to be the Sword of Wessex, and despite claims from the Church that God will turn the Danes to the path of light, he sets out on a course that will draw out the Danes true intentions and ultimately lead to the horror of the shield wall.

Death of Kings is the sixth book in Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories. It documents the events from the years 899 to 901, covering the death of Alfred and attacks by the Danes attempting to take advantage of a weakened Wessex. Uhtred is a seasoned warrior now, he’s past forty, and despite his fearsome reputation he is starting to show his age; a fact commented by a few younger warriors who think they can make a name for themselves by killing him. But despite his age he is still the best weapon Wessex has against the encroaching Danes.

Unlike the advisors and churchmen who surround Alfred, and Edward after him, Uhtred was raised a Dane. He thinks as they do, worships the same gods as they do, and like them, he is not encumbered by the strict Christian moral code; this enables him to not only dupe the Danes into battle, but use the Christians own religious fervor for his own ends.

Of all the books thus far this one shows Uhtred as a very clever tactician, he is always one step ahead of the game – a fact that saves his life on more than one occasion. But throughout, as with the rest of the series, you see the frustration he feels towards the Church dictating how a war should be fought. Alfred is still tied to the Church; Edward appears more independent and allows Uhtred more leeway in his actions. But the story shows that if left to the Church, Wessex would have fallen to the Danes upon Alfred’s death.

Much of the book is taken up with the prelude to war, the story covers a long period of time and the reader finds themselves jumping months ahead by just reading the next paragraph. Cornwell again shows that he is a master at weaving known historical fact, with rumor and fiction. The historical notes at the end of each book tell what is historically known of the time – that known history fragmented and contradictory – and how Uhtred’s story slots seamlessly into that history.