Review – The Last King

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?


The Last King is the first book in a series; Book 2 of England: The First Viking Age: The Last Warrior, is published in June. I look forward to riding with Coelwulf again.

Publication Day.

Well, I couldn’t not post today! The biggest day of my (writing) life.

How does it feel to be a published author? At the moment, somewhat dazed, or is that the hangover? Not that I’ve had much to drink, but I’m not used to Champagne (OK, Spanish Cava) at eleven in the morning.

I stayed up last night, to “see” the moment that my book was born. About a month ago, I set up a useful WordPress Widget to count down the days. It’s that box on the right (or elsewhere if you’re reading this on a smartphone) that says “Bright Sword is published!”. As I sat there, in a draughty hall, I found that the final hour counted down in minutes, then the final minute in seconds. It was just like New Year, but without the fireworks!

I checked Amazon and there it was – In Stock and ready to “Add to Basket.” Sorry it’s not expensive enough to warrant Free Delivery. I checked for reviews – none yet, but early days, people have got to read it first! Actually there is one review on the Ebook edition, which crept out a few days before the paperback. 4 stars, so not a bad start. Thank you M J Porter.

I tweeted the good news to the world and sat there a while. I wanted to remember the feeling. I imagined huge lorries thundering through the night, filled with copies of my book, to deliver to readers queued outside bookshops – I’m a fiction writer – I’ve got a vivid imagination! It was emotional. I could have cried, but didn’t. Then I went to bed.

I woke up this morning, and like New Year, nothing had really changed. Breakfast, check e-mails etc, a couple of people had “liked” my midnight tweet.

Later I went to visit my mother. I took a signed copy of the book and the Bubbly. I had dedicated it to her. If she hadn’t encouraged me to read, taken me to join the library at an early age, I would never have discovered books and eventually write one myself. I’m sorry it took so long. Her eyes are now too bad to read it and if she could, she wouldn’t remember what she had read. But this morning she knew what I had done and was pleased. By coincidence, 28th January was my father’s birthday. He died fifteen years ago. I hope he would have been proud too.

A bottle of Byrhtnoth’s Mead

This afternoon I was going to write, not book three, I have a deadline for a family history article, but somehow I wasn’t in the mood. I have a book signing next Saturday (3rd Feb, 11.00-2.00, at Hunts Bookshop in Rugby – if you’re in the area. I have promised Anglo-Saxon Warriors and a Mead Tasting. The autumn before last I made some mead, I wrote about it here. I have tasted it occasionally, to toast the progress of my writing, it is quite drinkable – and alcoholic! It was time to bottle it. Then I decided it needed a proper label. By then, there was not much time to write, except this blog post.

What with everything else I managed 1627 words on Monday, then nothing else. I’m not sure when I’ll continue. I really should get back to editing book 2.

I can’t stop now, I’m a published author.

Book Review – The Mercian Brexit

I have discovered a way to keep up with my writing and have time to read as well – read shorter books!

mercian-brexitI recently noticed this short story, subtitled An Anglo-Saxon Short Story of 957, by prolific author M J Porter. How could I resist? It was only £1.19 on Amazon and took only an hour or so to read.

The year is 957. After generations of fighting, England is one country, but King Eadred is dead. The only heirs are his nephews, brothers Eadwig and Edgar.

Eadwig is the eldest and becomes king. He has been brought up in Wessex and he and his advisers favour the south; the former kingdom of Mercia and the rest of the north are useful only to pay taxes and their needs are ignored.

Edgar was brought up by the Ealdorman of East Anglia, he is known in the north and Mercia would prefer him to be their king.

Will England be split once more? Can two kings rule?

This story brings to prominence a single event that will affect the whole future of the country, with more than half an eye on current events.
Eadred tries to make his currency the only one used, Mercia uses its own version.
Haakon, King of Norway visits to talk about trade deals.

I am glad to say that Byrhtnoth gets a mention – his decision will be a major factor in what happens.

The book appears to have been written in a hurry. At one point Edgar’s age is given as sixteen, later he is fourteen. Otherwise, it is an informative glimpse into a little known incident in history and proof that nothing, however important it seems at the time, is ever new.

Finally, to anyone who is interested, my writing last week was on target – 7,167 words over the week. I’m past 35k now, although some will have to be re-written – I brought in a major character who I discovered was in Ireland at the time!