The Burning Land

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The Burning Land
The Burning Land Cover.jpg
First edition cover
Author Bernard Cornwell
Original title The Burning Land
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Series The Saxon Stories
Genre historical novel
Publisher HarperCollins
Publication date
Media type Print (hardback & paperback)
Pages 366 first edition, hardback
ISBN 978-0-00-721975-9 (first edition, hardback)
Preceded by Sword Song
Followed by Death of Kings

The Burning Land is the fifth historical novel in The Saxon Stories by Bernard Cornwell, published in 2009. The story is set in the 9th-century Anglo-Saxon kingdoms Wessex, Northumbria and Mercia.

Uhtred of Bebbanburg wins a victory against Norse raiders for King Alfred. Uhtred goes into exile from Wessex after killing a Christian priest, in reaction to news of his wife's death. Uthred sets off viking, stays with Ragnar, then he returns to Mercia to serve Aethelflaed, for whom he wins several victories.

This novel, and the series of which it is the fifth part, has been well received. One reviewer remarks "Vivid descriptions of merciless battlefield slaughter, rape, and destruction are artfully related by a masterful storyteller."[1] Another comments on the series and its viewpoint varying from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, saying "Historical novels stand or fall on detail, and Mr Cornwell writes as if he has been to ninth-century Wessex and back."[2] Another again praises Cornwell's eye for historical detail, and "his capacity for pulling off deft reverses are still in place, which helps to keep the narrative turning briskly along."[3]

Style and format[edit]

The novel is written as a first-person narrative told by Uhtred as a reflection. The telling of the story is broken into three books titled "The Warlord", "Viking" and "Battle's Edge". The novel was also published with a family tree of Alfred the Great, a historical note, a list of Anglo-Saxon place names and their modern-day equivalent and a map depicting Anglo-Saxon Britain and the Southern coast of the English Channel and North Sea.

Plot summary[edit]

892 - 893: The second major campaign of King Alfred against the invading Danes begins in earnest. Uhtred of Bebbanburg is now the preeminent warlord of Wessex, Alfred's kingdom. Alfred refers to him as "my dux bellorum, my lord of battles." Alfred urges him to swear to serve Alfred's son and presumed heir, Edward. "Scour the enemy from England," Alfred says, "and make my son safe on his God-given throne." Uhtred is unwilling to make that commitment. He has long wanted to return to his family's stronghold at Bebbanburg in Northumbria and to deal with his uncle Aelfric, who stole the family properties and titles from him. He wants his obligation to Alfred and Wessex to end when Alfred, now seriously ill, passes away.

Uhtred is military governor of Lundene (London), sharing power with Bishop Erkenwald, whom he dislikes but respects. At Alfred's behest, Uhtred delivers a message to the Danish Jarl (earl) Haesten, whose fleet threatens Wessex, that Alfred will pay a large ransom for Haesten to leave. Alfred cannot attack Haesten, because another Dane, Jarl Harald Bloodhair, has attacked at Cent (Kent). Haesten and Alfred reach an accord, and Haesten leaves hostages and accepts missionaries. Though he did not, Haesten's wife and family undergo baptism, which plainly amuses Haesten, like everything else. Uhtred knows that the hostages are fake and that if Harald defeats Alfred, Haesten will attack Wessex. While travelling with a small force to meet Alfred, 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 village in Eastern Wessex. 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 curses Uhtred as she and Harald make their escape.

At a meeting with Alfred and his advisors, Uhtred urges the king to adopt a plan to lure Harald to Farnham by sending a modest force there, and then attack Harald from the rear with most of Alfred's troops when he takes the bait. The plan works brilliantly. Uhtred and his men defeat Harald's forces and again take Skade prisoner. Harald is severely wounded, but escapes to Torneie Island (Thorney Island). There, with a 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 Mercian/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 Lundene, Alfred's advisor, Bishop Asser 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 accidentally. Uhtred retreats to his house, where Uhtred's old friend and mentor, Father Beocca, tells him that Alfred has ordered Uhtred to pay a huge fine and swear an oath to Alfred's son Edward the Aethling. Alfred holds Uhtred's children as hostage to his terms, and places them in the custody of Aethelflaed, Alfred's daughter and wife of Aethelred, the ealdorman of Mercia. Furious, Uhtred reneges on his oath to Alfred and sails, with Skade, to Dunholm in Northumbria, stronghold of his old friend Ragnar, a Danish leader. Uhtred trusts Aethelflaed to protect his children.

Eager to use his newfound freedom and encouraged by Skade, Uhtred goes viking. He sails to Frisia to loot, kill and plunder Skirnir, Skade's husband, and on the journey, he and Skade become lovers. After he defeats and kills Skirnir, 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 hostile to Uhtred. Uhtred winters at Ragnar's fortress at Dunholm.

During that winter, Brida, Ragnar's wife, convinces Ragnar to attack Wessex alongside the other Northumbrian Jarls, 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 Aethelflaed. He also fears for his children's safety, as they are in Mercia, in Aethelflaed'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 Aethelflaed, and 'oaths made in love cannot be broken'. Uhtred serves Aethelflaed. He first has to rescue her from Lord Aldhem. Aethelred, Aethelflaed's husband, wishes to divorce her, to break free of Alfred's influence over Mercia. He directs Aldhem to have sex with Aethelflaed, either by seduction, or failing that, by force. Either act would make her an adulterer, allowing Aethelred to divorce her. Uhtred kills Aldhem, liberates Aethelflaed, and reunites with his children. He and Aethelflaed then go to Aethelred's council, surprising him before the assembled Mercian lords.

Warning of Jarl Haesten's advance, Aethelflaed tries to win the Mercian lords to her side. She and Uhtred then wait at Lundene for support. Because Aethelred holds their purse-strings, none of the lords come, except for Lord Elfwold. Uhtred and Aethelflaed become lovers. Uhtred learns that Alfred had advised Aethelflaed to use Uhtred's oath to her to bring him back. Eventually, Edward Aethling arrives, along with Alfred's retainer and Uhtred's friend Steapa, and an army of twelve hundred of Alfred's best house troops. Uhtred again refuses to give his oath to Edward.

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 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 hoard 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 does not need Uhtred's oath as long as his sister has it. Uhtred and Aethelflaed then sail away from Baemfleot on the Thames.



On 31 October 2009, the book was number 5 on the hardback best-seller list of the Evening News (Edinburgh, Scotland)[4]


Publishers Weekly finds the action-packed novel to be artfully related by a masterful storyteller.

Slathered in blood and gore, Saxon warlord Uhtred of Bebbanburg hacks his way through the ninth century in the exciting fifth installment to bestseller Cornwell's Saxon Tales series (following Sword Song). This action-packed novel continues the saga of warfare for supremacy in Britain, a brutal period when Saxon and Danish swords, battleaxes, and treachery ruled the day. By now, Alfred the Great is old and feeble, unwilling and unable to repel the Danish invaders. He relies on trusty pagan warlord Uhtred, but Uhtred's temper and an unexpected violent act force Uhtred to break his oath of loyalty to Alfred and flee north with his men, intending to reclaim his ancestral home. En route, they face marauding Danish armies, betrayal, battles for a pirate treasure, and the curse of a vicious Danish witch, only to eventually be manipulated back into fighting for Alfred. Vivid descriptions of merciless battlefield slaughter, rape, and destruction are artfully related by a masterful storyteller. Uhtred is victorious in some battles, but the outcome of others will have to wait for the sequel.[1]

Tom Shippey has strong praise in a detailed review of this novel, praise for the series, for this novel's portrayal of ninth-century Wessex, and for filling a gap in the written records, records written by Alfred's supporters.

We have good historical sources for what happened next, notably an early life of Alfred written by Bishop Asser and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, annals compiled by anonymous scribes across two centuries. But both works were written by Alfred's supporters and intended to burnish his legend. "The Burning Land" opens accordingly with Uhtred as an old man, angrily burning what seems to be a copy of the "Chronicle" for the lies it tells. His own story is the true one, he insists. "The Burning Land" proceeds to tell it.

What Mr. Cornwell is doing—it's often a good strategy for a historical novelist—is writing into a gap in our knowledge. The Anglo-Saxons, for instance, thought they'd won a big battle at Farnham in 893, but the "Chronicle" is strangely silent on who was leading them. Why? We know that it wasn't Alfred, who was occupied elsewhere. Was the leader his son-in-law Æthelred, Alfred's candidate for ruler (but not king) of Free Mercia? How did Alfred intend to realize his dream of assimilating Free Mercia, reconquering Danish Mercia, and rolling up the other kingdoms to create, for the first time ever, a political unit called "England"?

. . .

Historical novels stand or fall on detail, and Mr Cornwell writes as if he has been to ninth-century Wessex and back. He gives a graphic sense of what it's like to stand in a defensive shield-wall and how you go about breaking one. Each of his battles poses different tactical questions and gets imaginatively different answers. His accounts of fire and slaughter, and of Viking methods of extorting money, would seem gruesomely exaggerated if they weren't so often based on old legends or confirmed by archaeology.

In Uhtred, Mr Cornwell has given us a great character: quite a nice guy, underneath, but in a permanent bad temper as a result of disastrous, unrealistic and ungrateful higher management. Much has changed since the ninth century, but some things, and some feelings, are timeless.[2]

Curtis Edmonds is pleased with the development of Uhtred, the main character. While wishing Uhtred could stop being used by so many larger forces and instead follow his own desires, Edmonds knows that would be the end of The Saxon Tales, and there are more tales to tell. "It’s hard enough to write one novel, but it’s downright difficult to pen five of them consecutively with the same characters and themes and keep the writing fresh and interesting. 'Difficult' isn't even the word; 'impossible' is more like it.  ... This is not to denigrate THE BURNING LAND in any way; it’s superior entertainment (if you like your entertainment blood-stained and brutal). Uhtred is a fully-realized character, capable of great bravery and great foolishness, mixed in with—as he might describe himself—the deviousness of Loki and the thunder of Thor’s hammer in battle. And Cornwell’s eye for period detail and his capacity for pulling off deft reverses are still in place, which helps to keep the narrative turning briskly along."[3]

"The only thing to dislike about THE BURNING LAND is that it didn’t go in the direction that the main character (and at least this part of the readership) wanted it to go. But that means that the issue of who holds Bebbanburg Castle will be resolved in another volume, and given Cornwell’s talents, that will be a book to wait for indeed."[3]


  1. ^ a b "The Burning Land". Publishers Weekly. November 16, 2010. Retrieved 16 August 2014. 
  2. ^ a b Shippey, Tom (16 January 2010). "A Saxon War Story: Imagining the battle for England as Vikings neared conquest". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 16 August 2014. 
  3. ^ a b c Edmonds, Curtis (1 September 2010). "Review: The Burning Land". Bookreporter. Retrieved 16 August 2014. 
  4. ^ "Books: Top Ten Best Sellers". Evening News. Edinburgh, Scotland: Gale Custom Database – Newspapers Web. 31 October 2009. Archived from the original on 11 July 2011. Retrieved 10 January 2010.