THERE aren’t many characters in modern historical fiction that grab you by the throat the way Bernard Cornwell’s Uhtred of Bebbanburg does. He’s foul-mouthed, lustful, bad tempered, and soaked in the blood of the enemies he’s slaughtered. But he also has a great way with words, talking straight to the reader like an actor confiding to camera.

How about this, from the opening page of The Pale Horseman, the second in Cornwell’s series of novels set during the time of King Alfred, which have been turned into the BBC series The Last Kingdom.

“These days I look at twenty-year-olds and think they are pathetically young, scarcely weaned,” Uhtred, the novel’s narrator, begins. “But when I was twenty I considered myself a full-grown man. I had fathered a child, fought in a shield wall and was loathe to take advice from anyone. In short, I was arrogant, stupid and headstrong..."

Through the course of nine novels, Uhtred gets older and more grizzled but not much wiser as he fights, plunders and murders his way through a Dark Ages England torn by savage wars between the Saxons and the invading Danes, or Vikings. Along the way, he also manages to become King Alfred’s most fearsome warrior-general. Which is interesting, because he hates Alfred, and all Christians, as pious hypocrites.

York Press:

The young Uhtred as played by  Alexander Dreymon in BBC drama The Last Kingdom

His loyalties are divided. Born the son of the Lord of Bebbanburg (modern Bamburgh in Northumberland), he was kidnapped by Danes as a boy and brought up the son of a Danish Earl. He loves the Danes, hates the Christians, yet constantly finds himself having to fight on the side of the Saxons he despises, and who he believes have denied him his birthright – his Saxon uncle seized his stronghold of Bebbanburg and Uhtred has never stopped wanting to reclaim it.

Now Uhtred’s back for a tenth novel, The Flame Bearer. King Alfred is long dead – his son Edward is now King of Wessex – and Uhtred’s a grizzled warrior in his 50s, scarred and bloodstained by years of war.

But he’s as foul-mouthed and ill-tempered as ever. And nothing, but nothing, is going to stop him finally getting his hands on Bebbanburg...

To celebrate publication of the novel, Bernard Cornwell himself is coming north to York, for an event organised by Waterstones at St Olave’s School on October 20, where he’ll be in conversation with Radio York’s Ellie Fiorentini.And he’s in no mood to apologise for his anti-hero’s lack of social graces.

Uhtred’s rather a violent man, isn’t he?

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Cover of The Flame Bearer

“It was an extremely nasty time,” the author says, speaking on the telephone from his home in Cape Cod.

Cornwell, who is English and still perhaps best-known for his Sharpe novels about the antics of an unruly Napoleonic war soldier, had always wanted to write a series of books set during King Alfred’s time.

It always annoyed him that English schoolchildren learned so little about the period.

“At primary school you get the Romans, then the story of Alfred and the cakes – and then you go straight on to 1066,” he says.

Which means we’re missing out one of the most fascinating periods of English history, he says – the one in which England was born.

In Alfred’s day, the word ‘England’ would have meant nothing: there were the various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, such as Wessex and Northumbria, and there were the parts of the country ruled by the Danes.

But Alfred dreamed of uniting the Saxon kingdoms into one. And 50 years after his death, that dream was realised by his grandson, Athelstan.

“There’s a story to tell there,” Cornwell says. “It has always seemed to me rather strange that we have no idea of where England came from. We tend to think that England evolved peacefully. But there were terrible struggles. It was a fascinating period.”

He had another reason for writing a series of books about a Saxon warrior named Uhtred, however.

He was given up for adoption as a young boy. But 14 years ago, he met his real father – a Canadian who served in the air force during the war – for the first time.

Cornwell had taken his mother’s maiden name as his own. But his father was William Oughtred – and Oughtred means ‘Son of Uhtred’.

He realised that he had ancestors who had been part of the great Saxon invasion and settlement of what was to become England.

His own Uhtred is pure fiction, he says. But there was indeed an Uhtred who was once Lord of Bebbanburg.

He was descended from a Saxon who ruled part of Northumbria in the 550s and was the first of his line to conquer Bebbanburg. His name was Ida, but he was also known as The Flame Bearer.

Cornwell’s new novel takes place 350 years later, in the early 900s. And you can draw your own conclusions about whether his fictional Uhtred regains his stronghold of Bebbanburg from the title, the author says.

As for modern Bamburgh Castle, the real Oughtreds lost the ownership of Bebbanburg exactly 1,000 years ago, during King Canute’s reign. But Cornwell visited Bamburgh a few years ago, and met the owner. “And I said to him ‘If you had a shred of decency, you would give it back!’” he says.

You can hear the grin even across the Atlantic...