In the year AD 865 The Great Heathen Army arrived in England. The invasion lasted several years, changed the country for ever and led to the legend of King Alfred’s stand against the Vikings. It is also a popular subject for Anglo-Saxon fiction, such as the books by Bernard Cornwell and the subsequent TV series, The Last Kingdom; as well as The Vikings, from the other point of view. Is there room for yet another book about the period? I think there is, and this exciting book from M J Porter may be it.
So, who is the The Last King? Alfred? No, because when the Great Heathen Army arrived, England consisted of several kingdoms. East Anglia fell first and then Northumbria. Next was Mercia, and it is the fight for Mercia that is told here; the fight by Coelwulf, the Last King of Mercia.
Who was this king and why is he not as famous at King Alfred? Because he failed? And Alfred, in the end, won? In a way. It is because it is the winners of any battle that write the history and it was not in Alfred’s interest to share the glory with anyone – his is the legend, standing alone against the pagan invaders.
The main source of information for the Anglo-Saxon period is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and it was written in Wessex, by Alfred. What does it say about King Coelwulf? Very little. It refers to him as “a foolish king’s thegn”, and that he acted as steward for the Vikings, holding the land “ready for them on whatever day they wished to have it”. And for a long time that was how he was known – A nobody.
Until recently. In 2015 a hoard was found at Watlington in Oxfordshire. It contained silver: 15 ingots and 7 pieces of jewellery, including arm-rings, and 186 coins. It dates to AD 878, just after Alfred’s final defeat of the Vikings at the at the Battle of Edington. It is the coins that are interesting, as some show Alfred, others Coelwulf. There even some that show both kings, of equal status, sitting side by side, in a style known as the “Two Emperors”, after Roman coins of the 4th century. Not just a “Foolish King’s Thegn.” The objects are now at the Ashmolean Museum
The author has taken this little known king and produced a charismatic leader, fighting desperately for his country. At the start Coelwulf is not king; Mercia already has a king, Burgred, controlled by the Vikings but they have decided to dispose of him. Coelwulf hears rumours of this and must discover the truth. He is the descendant of earlier king’s of Mercia, but doesn’t want to be King, all he wants is to free his country from the foreign invader.
He hears that men have been sent to kill him, he knows he is a danger to the Vikings. Or do they want to capture him, to force him to become their king, to keep the Mercian people quiet?
The Great Heathen Army is camped at Repton, the royal heart of Mercia. Coelwulf must travel from his home in Western Mercia, to Repton, and on the way, find the bands of men sent to kill him, and destroy them.
The pace is unrelenting and the violence graphic; I wouldn’t recommend this book if blood and guts upset you. There is a lot of swearing, as well, but these are men at war, they have no other life. Along the way you learn something of this leader; his care for his men, the rules, hard at time, that ensures that they do not sink into the barbarity brought to the land by the heathens.
I enjoyed the small details of what has been lost, and gradually, with Coelwulf, I begin to wonder if the fight is worthwhile. Can the enemy be beaten, and if it is, what will remain of Mercia? Is it worth all the blood and death or should he give up, surrender to the inevitable? Is his country worth fighting for?
Coelwulf arrives at Repton, a prisoner. Will he live or die? Will he be the Last King of Mercia?