Never was there such slaughter in our islands

I’ve finished reading The Last Kingdom series by Bernard Cornwall. There are 13 books in the series and while they are works of fiction they follow the history of how England came to be, as far as we understand it today. The books start with Alfred the Great and end with his grandson, King Æthelstan, who became the first King of England after the Battle of Brunanburh in AD937.

I wonder how many people know Æthelstan was the first King of England? All the rhymes and songs about kings and queens start with William the Conqueror in 1066 but England as we know it today was forged at the Battle of Brunanburh in 937, more than a century before William.

When King Alfred was alive there were four kingdoms in England: Wessex, East Anglia, Mercia, and Northumbria. Danish invaders had captured all kingdoms from the Anglo-Saxons except for Wessex where King Alfred ruled. When you read the books it seems a miracle that Alfred managed to hold Wessex from the Danes. The Danes were ferocious fighters and seemed to have the advantage. But the Saxons under Alfred had strategy. They were organised and clever.

During his lifetime Alfred managed to claw back Mercia from the Danes but his dream was to unite the four kingdoms to form England, something he didn’t see in his lifetime. It was his children and grandson who realised this dream. His son and daughter, Edward and Æthelflæd, recaptured Mercia and East Anglia from the Danes leaving only Northumbria under Danish rule. It was King Æthelstan, Alfred’s grandson, who captured this last piece at the Battle of Brunanburh.

I had never heard of the Battle of Brunanburh before which surprises me given how significant it was. The historian Michael Livingstone describes it one of the most significant battles in the history of the British Isles.

The men who fought and died on that field forged a political map of the future that remains with us today, arguably making the Battle of Brunanburh one of the most significant battles in the long history not just of England, but of the whole of the British isles … in one day, on one field, the fate of a nation was determined.

Michael Livingstone

It was Æthelstan’s army against an alliance of the Scots, the Scandianvians in Ireland, and the people led by Anlaf Guthfrithson, King of Dublin. The battle defined the countries we know today as England, Scotland, and Wales. In this way it is significant for all of the British Isles. It is thought the son of King Constantine of Scotland, Prince Cellach, died in the battle. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles describe it as a slaughter:

No slaughter yet was greater made e’er in this island, of people slain, before this same, with the edge of the sword.

There’s still some uncertainty over the location of the battle but there’s evidence the site is in Wirral. Bernard Cornwall says in the historical note in the book that the most likely location is if you take the M53 in Wirral it’s to the north and west of exit 4.

Bernard Cornwall is a historian and his motivation for writing the books is because so few people know the story of how England came to be. Many of us know more about Amercian independence than the birth of England which is odd, especially if you live in England. The books follow a fictional character called Uhtred of Bebbanburg who is a bit like a 10th century James Bond. He is formidable, clever, sometimes reckless, and seems to have a new woman with each book. Although this character is made up, Bernard Cornwell has an ancestor who lived at the time called Uhtred and who was indeed the Lord of Bebbanburg, Bebbanburg being Bamburgh Castle.

The books have been made into a TV series on Netflix called The Last Kingdom. There are 4 series so far with more to come. I have enjoyed them although I find myself saying out loud, “That didn’t happen in the book” quite a lot.

7 thoughts on “Never was there such slaughter in our islands”

  1. I have read the first six of the series up until when Alfred with the help of Utred won the battle for Wessex. I did not realise there are another 7 books that continue on.
    There is a Last Kingdom series on Netflix with 8 episodes. I did not see 4 seasons that you mentioned. Is this the series that you have been watching?

    1. Yes, there are 13 books in the series. The last book was only just released recently and is still in hardcover. It sounds like you’ve only watched the first series of the Last Kingdom on Netflix. There are four now and I’m pretty sure they’re available in Australia. We’ve watched all of them.

  2. Thanks again for putting me onto this series! I have read book 2 now. I particularly enjoy the notes at the end, for example in Book 2 Cornwell says that there is disappointingly little historical record on the Battle at Ethandun and while I was reading it, I had kept looking out for how exactly it was turned around, but not finding exactly why. I also like the clear explanations of the military tactics and decisions.

    1. I’m glad you’re enjoying it. I’ve started reading them again from the start. I’m not usually into gory battle descriptions but these are done well and I find the historical aspect interesting.

  3. […] The very first King of England was Æthelstan, the grandson of Alfred the Great. He became king after the Battle of Brunanburgh in 937. It was arguably the most significant battle ever fought on this small island as it was on that one day more than 1000 years ago that the political boundaries that define the countries of England, Scotland and Wales and that remain in place today, were forged. I have written about it previously in Never was there such slaughter in our islands. […]

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