“The Burning Land,” by Bernard Cornwell (378p)
In the fifth installment of British author Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon stories, The Burning Land, Lord Uhtred of Bebbanburg continues his fight for Alfred of Wessex, bound by oath. It is 893 and the Danes are massing again, planning yet another invasion of the Saxon lands in their never ending dream of conquering England for themselves.
(plot summary from Wikipedia)
At Alfred’s behest, Uhtred delivers a message to Haesten that Wessex would pay a ransom for Haesten to leave. Alfred cannot attack Haesten, because another Dane, Harald Bloodhair, has attacked at Cent. Haesten and Alfred reach an accord, and Haesten leaves hostages and accepts missionaries. The Jarl even undergoes baptism. However, Uhtred knows that the hostages are fake and that if Harald defeats Alfred, Haesten will attack London. While travelling to meet Alfred, now free to lead an army against Harald, Uhtred captures Skade, Harald’s woman. Skade is a formidable fighter in her own right, and leads one of Harald’s war parties. She and her party are captured while raiding a Mercian village. However, Harald approaches Uhtred leading a line of Saxon captive women, and threatens to kill all of them if Skade is not returned to him. After he butchers one woman in front of her child, Uhtred releases Skade to him. Skade intones an ominous curse against Uhtred as she and Harold make their escape. Uhtred and his men, however, defeat Harald’s forces at Farnham, and again take Skade prisoner. Harald is severely wounded, but escapes to Torneie Island (Thorney Island). There, with few followers, he is able to use the island’s natural defences, and a palisade he builds to repel later attempts to defeat him. However, he is trapped there.
While celebrating the Saxon victory at Farnham, Uhtred is devastated by news that his beloved wife, Gisela, has died in childbirth, along with the child she bore. When Uhtred and Skade return to London, Alfred’s advisor, Brother Asser (whose dislike of Uhtred long predates this story) uses the mad brother Godwin to denounce Gisela’s name, ranting that Gisela was the devil’s whore, and has come back from the dead as Skade. Uhtred flies into a rage and kills Godwin, though he says that he only meant to silence him. Retreating back to his house, Uhtred’s old mentor, Father Boecca, tells him that Alfred has ordered Uhtred to pay a huge fine and swear an oath to Alfred’s son Edward the Æthling. Alfred holds Uhtred’s children as hostage to his terms, and places them in the custody of Æthelflaed, Alfred’s daughter and wife of Aelthelred, the ealdorman of Mercia. Furious, Uhtred reneges on his oath to Alfred and sails, with Skade, to his old friend Ragnar. Uhtred trusts Æthelflaed to protect his children.
Eager to use his newfound freedom and encouraged by Skade, Uhtred goes Viking. He sails to loot, kill and plunder Skirnir, Skade’s husband, and on the journey, he and Skade become lovers. After he defeats and kills Skirnir, however, he is disappointed when Skirnir’s treasure horde fails to meet his expectations. When Skade demands half of the horde as her share, Uhtred denies it to her. From that point on Skade becomes enemy to Uhtred. Sailing back to Ragnar’s fortress, Uhtred winters there. During that winter, Brida, Uhtred’s former lover who is now Ragnar’s wife, convinces Ragnar to attack Wessex alongside the other Northumbrian lords, Cnut and Sigrid. During the meeting, Haesten arrives and declares that he will attack Mercia. Haesten and Skade become infatuated with each other, and when Haesten leaves, Skade goes with him. Uhtred is caught in a conflict of loyalties, between the Danes with whom he was raised, and his oaths to Alfred and Æthelflaed. He also fears for his children’s safety, as they are in Mercia, in Æthelflaed’s custody. His indecision is broken when his friend, the Welshman Father Pyrlig arrives. Pyrlig reminds Uhtred that he has given his oath to serve Æthelflaed. Uhtred is reluctant at first, until Father Pyrlig tells him that “oaths made in love cannot be broken”.
Uhtred goes to serve Æthelflaed. He first has to rescue her from Lord Aldhem. Æthelred, Æthelflaed’s husband, wishes to divorce her, to break free of Alfred’s influence over Mercia. He directs Aldhem to have sex with Æthelflaed, either by seduction, or failing that, by force. Either act would make her an adulterer, allowing Æthelred to divorce her. Uhtred kills Aldhem, liberates Æthelflaed, and reunites with his children. He and Æthelflaed then go to Æthelred’s council, surprising him before the assembled Mercian lords. Warning of Haesten’s advance, Æthelflaed tries to win the Mercian lords to her side. She and Uhtred then wait at London for support. However, because Æthelred holds their purse-strings, none of the lords come, except for Lord Ælfwold. During this wait, Uhtred and Æthelflaed become lovers. Uhtred also learns that Alfred had advised Æthelflaed to use Uhtred’s oath to her to bring him back. Eventually, Edward Ætheling arrives, along with Alfred’s retainer and Uhtred’s friend Steapa, and an army of twelve hundred of Alfred’s best house troops. They also bear a message that Uhtred is to give his oath to Edward. Uhtred promptly refuses.
Thus reinforced, Uhtred marches ahead to Haesten’s two forts at Baemfleot (Benfleet), although Haesten is not there. Uhtred encounters and attacks a larger Danish force and is surrounded. He nearly loses the battle and his life, but is saved and the battle won by the timely arrival of Steapa and the rest of Alfred’s troops. They proceed to capture the first of the forts. Uhtred makes preparations for the next battle and begins teaching Edward how to lead from the front. Uhtred assaults the fort and scales the ditch, using sails with ropes sown into them to provide sure footing on the slippery ditch. He tries to use ladders to get up the wall, but the first assault fails. His second assault ultimately succeeds after Father Pyrlig throws specially prepared beehives onto the walls. The bees distract the defenders so that Uhtred’s force can scale the walls and capture the fort. In the hall Uhtred finds Skade and a horde of gold. Harald Bloodhair, crippled and vengeful over Skade’s betrayal with Haesten, suddenly appears, embraces Skade, and kills her at the same time. He then asks Uhtred to kill him. Uhtred does, then meets with Edward who says that he doesn’t need Uhtred’s oath as long as his sister has it. Uhtred and Æthelflaed then sail away from Baemfleot on the Thames.
I had been waiting for The Burning Land for some time, for this is one of my favourite series I have ever read. Partially because one of my relatives spent most of her retirement researching my family’s history and she researched that my family was one of the Danes that conquered northern England at this time, and I have ploughed through the first four in the series. So the excitement to read it was certainly high and I couldn’t wait for the paperback release in May. The Burning Land did not disappoint either – another fantastic addition to a great series of books by the prolific Cornwall. Uhtred’s story continues to weave its way across the turbulent early history of the land that would be England in its own special way. Uhtred is a much different man than the one from the first few novels. Now, as an adulthood, he is a shrewd calculated leader that commands Alfred’s war efforts against the Danes. As a character it has been a joy to see him grow – he is no longer reckless, or as reckless as he used to be, and his strategic moves involve a lot more thinking, planning and stealth. That’s fun to read, meaning that there is more to the action side of things in these books than merely a crash, bam, stab and slash Uhtred’s earlier fights where he used little-to-no finesse and deception.
Of course, I thoroughly enjoyed The Burning Land. Alfred of Wessex had two goals in life – the Christianisation of England and the unification of the petty English kingdoms1 under one king in a land free of pagans and Danes. That story was firmly continued in this novel as the Saxons went on the offensive against two huge Danish armies, once again destroying their power bases in the south and staving off any possibility of defeat. As a read, this is superb, and follows the (admittedly somewhat standard) Cornwell style of a cracking action-adventure tale with strong characters and story, ferocious enemies, newfound love and loss. The action is well told and helps to complete the tale of England’s oft forgotten past (why do people think English history begins in 1066?) by painting the picture of two of the most important battles in the Saxon-Danish war. But it’s also enjoyable for the evolution of Uhtred’s own story and his quest to capture the lands that belong to him by birth, and I think readers of the series will find that particularly enjoyable. As I have said before, I heartily recommend this series for anyone a fan of Cornwell, action-adventure and war-based historical fiction, pre-Norman English history and the Vikings. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it as much as I have.
And so the wait for book six begins …
1 these were Wessex (England’s south and south-west), Mercia (England’s midlands, west and London), East Anglia (England’s east) and Northumbria (the north to Scotland). Originally, Wessex (which eventually absorbed Sussex and Essex) was the land of Saxons, while Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria comprised of Angles and Jutes that joined the Saxons during the Anglo-Saxon conquest of Britain centuries before. At the time of The Burning Land Wessex was the only wholly Saxon kingdom, Mercia was divided by the Danes and Saxons and under Alfred’s control, while East Anglia and Northumbria were firmly Danish territories. The modern town of York evolved from the Danish Jorvik.