I do enjoy a good book. I like to read. And, I’ve discovered it has to be a book. I do have ‘books’ on my iPad but, at the end of the day, I find I don’t like to curl up in bed at the end of the day with my iPad and read a chapter. And I do tend to forget I’ve got books there as well. I’ve downloaded some and they are just there, wherever ‘there’ is, forgotten. I’m not alone either, the sales of paper books is rising again in the UK while downloads are falling. It seemed we still like mooching about in bookshops and picking out a good read. 

I’m about to finish ‘The Flame Bearer’ by Bernard Cornwall. It’s the latest in a series of ten. To say I’ve enjoyed them is an understatement. I’ve read all ten back to back, apart from the last few pages of this one, over the last year.

I like history, and the further back the history goes, the better I like it. ‘The Flame Bearer’ is set at the end of the Dark Ages at the point where England was being forged together out of the old Saxon kingdoms of Wessex, East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria. I can’t decide where Manchester was in those days. Some maps had us in Mercia, others in Northumbria, maybe we were fought over and moved from one to the other. The remains of the Roman province of Britannia are still there with the Saxons living among the ruins of their towns, wondering how those people could have built so well. The Saxon kingdoms fought each other at that time and all of them were under attack from invaders from Denmark and Scandanavia. First they come to raid as Vikings, later they come to settle, dispossessing the Saxons of their land. At one point it looked as if the Saxons would lose, with the King, Alfred, holed up in swamplands on the Somerset Levels. If he’d lost we would be living in Daneland, not England, now and, maybe, Danish would have become to lingua franca of the world. 

It was a fascinating period in our history and I’m amazed, given how important it is to how we are now, it isn’t better known. Bernard Cornwell has woven a lot of detailed history into his books with actual characters from the period actually doing the things they did. You learn a lot of history.

 

Bernard Cornwell has done a lot of research into his own ancestors and has discovered that he is related to the people who lived in Bamburgh Castle in the Dark Ages. Thanks to Gareth Evans for the great picture above. It’s a dramatic fortification on the north east coast of England, north of Newcastle. The present castle is a stunning medieval building with Victorian additions added to make it a comfortable home. Before that there was the Dark Ages building, the Romans had a place there as did the Ancient British. It’s within sight of Holy Island, an ancient religious place which still has a special atmosphere today. People who believe such things believe that the veil between heaven and earth is very thin here. Both these sites feature in the books.

Among all the history and geography of Dark Ages Britain, Bernard Cornwell has created a fictional character, Uhtred of Bebbanburg (the ancient name of Bamburgh) who may have been his ancestor. Born into a Christian Saxon family living at Bamburgh, he falls into the hands of Danes and becomes a slave. His master grows to like him and treats him as a son. He becomes a pagan and a warrior. His ability as a warrior bring him into contact with Kind Alfred and the fictional story of Uhtred of Bebbanburg becomes interwoven, very cleverly, with the real history of England as the Saxons face annihilation and fight back to establish England as the nation we know today. It’s a damn good read.

I actually started reading the series with the ninth book of the series, ‘Warriors of the Storm.’ I picked it up just before Christmas 2015 as a present to myself and something to read over the festive season. I enjoyed it and was delighted to see that the BBC was doing a televised series of the books called ‘The Last Kingdom.’ It was very well done and very faithful to the books. A second series is being shown this Spring. I am looking forward to that but don’t let the excellent BBC adaptation put you off reading the books. Speaking to a friend, he informed me of the rest of the series which he had read, and passed on the rest to me which has provided me with much of my recreational reading for 2016. I thank him. 

And the pleasure isn’t over. Bernard Cornwell is, I hope, working on the next book in the series, hopefully for my festive reading for Christmas 2017.