Homage to Bernard Cornwell

Our authors and contributors write about how Cornwell has inspired them.
Home » Articles » Homage to Bernard Cornwell

Aspects of History’s Tribute to Bernard Cornwell

Bernard Cornwall’s novels have entertained and moved me for the past thirty years, from tales of the American Civil War, to the Arthurian Legend’s and Uhtred of Bebbanburg‘s battles to form England. However it was Richard Sharpe, Cornwall’s downtrodden hero, who rose from the ranks during the Napoleonic Wars, that truly inspired me. Sharpe’s Eagle the first novel published (and still my favourite), set the standard for the series. Sharpe’s honour is sullied and there is nothing that would besmirch his honour more than being blamed for the loss of the King’s colours to the French. Sharpe must battle the incompetence and snobbery of his superiors and regain his lost honour by taking an Imperial Eagle in the bitter fighting at the Battle of Talavera.

However, it was Sharpe’s Honour that inspired the structure of my First World War novel The Dardanelles Conspiracy. Sharpe is accused of a crime that he did not commit. Disgraced, he embarks on a dangerous mission to clear his name and takes part in the savagery of the Battle of Vitoria before he finally reclaims his lost honour. In The Dardanelles Conspiracy, my hero Johnny Swift is accused of collaborating with the Germans. However unlike Sharpe, Johnny actually did it. To have the charges against him washed out for good conduct in the field, he is sent to Constantinople to bribe the Turks out of the war. Constantly hindered by the incompetence of his superiors he must attempt to regain his honour the old fashioned way and storm the beaches of Gallipoli.


As something of a hopeless romantic (sssh – my secret’s safe with you, right?), I’ve always been drawn to stories of Arthurian legend. But, combining that with my thirst for historical realism (more than accuracy, I should add), I have never been comfortable with the tired old images of knights in plate armour living in stone castles.

Over the years, I have read many different depictions of Arthur and his band of ‘knights’. Some have been woeful, some pretty decent, but far and away the best – and the one to which I keep coming back – is Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles series. Perhaps not as well-known as his Sharpe or Last Kingdom series, these three books (The Winter King, Enemy of God and Excalibur) rank – for me – as my favourite Cornwell works.

For those that have not read them, the trilogy follows the story of Derfel, a young Saxon who has grown up in Merlin’s household, having survived a gruesome ritual sacrifice ordeal. Set in a Britain that is both struggling to come to terms with life after the Romans and coping with Saxon incursion from the east, Cornwell does a fine job in weaving a gritty, dirt-under-the-fingernails tale that keeps you hooked throughout. He evokes an era of brutality and violence that brings the story to life around you.

Knowing the legends as I do, reading this series felt like I was watching a car crash through my fingers. I knew what was coming – knew how the story would unfold – but I could not stop myself from turning page after page to see how Cornwell would take us there.

In summary, a perfect little trilogy from the master’s pen that will keep you well entertained through those dark winter nights.

Like, I suppose most of Bernard Cornwell’s readers I first became aware of his books through the first of the Sharpe series, Sharpe’s Eagle. Up to that point, I tended not to read much historical fiction; but here was a new writer who not only brought great pace and energy to his storytelling, but also relentless action and a terrific central character. The result is unstoppable historical fiction.

The Last Kingdom series has, for me eclipsed even the heights reached by Sharpe. The first book came out around the time that I started writing historical fiction so I was intrigued to discover how the character of Uhtred would develop during the series – and I was certainly not disappointed.  Now, having read the final instalment, War Lord it seems appropriate to reflect upon what has made the series so compelling.

Bernard is able to draw the reader right into his character so that we view the world as Uhtred does. As he ages, we feel his doubts and fears; we understand his frustrations. The Last Kingdom is written across a very broad canvas: not just the story of Uhtred but the forging of the kingdom of England. Managing to explain the latter without losing his readers is one of Bernard’s major achievements.

But when I ask myself why I come back time and again to Bernard’s books, the answer is simple: they are beautifully written. Whether it is dialogue or descriptive writing, his ability to find the perfect combination of words sets him apart from most other writers of the genre.

Keith Lowe

Jemahl Evans

Author of The Last Roundhead.

Bernard Cornwell is probably the most influential writer of adventurous historical fiction alive today. His Sharpe books are internationally acclaimed, and, with Sean Bean in the eponymous role, a hit on the small screen. Cornwell followed that with the bestselling Uhtred of Bebbanburg series which again became a massive TV show on Netflix as The Last Kingdom. Despite all that, it is the Warlord Chronicles that are my personal favourite.

The trilogy recounts the life of Derfel Cadarn: a Saxon orphan brought up by Merlin who becomes one of Arthur’s warriors. When the books were first published, I was just starting my MA looking into Welsh bardic poetry. I quickly realised that Cornwell had been reading the same source material, and weaving it into a captivating and believable depiction of Arthurian Britain (as opposed to my rather dry historical analysis). Cornwell wears his research lightly, but I was astounded by the depth and breadth of his reading.

It is not just that meticulous attention to detail that makes Cornwell’s books so enjoyable for me as a reader. His wonderful characters are human and relatable even when set in extraordinary events. When it came to writing my own books, the Warlord Chronicles were a massive influence. The frame of a scurrilous old man looking back on his life isn’t new, but Cornwell mastered it with Derfel Cadarn and showed me the way I wanted to write fiction. Hats off, he’s a colossus.

Whether he should be congratulated or blamed, I probably would not be writing books, or would not have enjoyed a career in publishing, without Bernard Cornwell. I first started to devour Cornwell’s novels in my late teens. They opened my eyes to the joys of reading and storytelling. And the rest, so to speak, is history.

It’s almost a Sisyphean task, choosing just one novel to put forward for this piece. But without having read Azincourt I would not have written my Band of Brothers series, set during the reign of Henry V. The battle scene in the novel is, I believe, his longest – and most rewarding. The hundred plus page climax teaches us about history, soldiering and how to write gripping historical fiction. No mean feat.

To put forward another contender, though, I would like to mention one of Cornwell’s more underpraised novels. Gallows Thief. Cornwell knows how to construct character and a mystery, as well as put a battle scene together. I recently re-read the novel and realised how it had and was shaping my latest series on Dick Turpin – who, like Sharpe, is not beyond being a rogue and bastard.

Thankfully, I have had the pleasure of meeting Bernard several times over the years, and, like his books, he never disappoints. There’s many a writer whose ego and self-importance can expand with every sale registered on Booktrack. But, throughout a long and peerless career, Bernard has maintained a sense of decency and sense of humour. Again, no mean feat. 

Let’s start by saying that I’m a Sharpe groupie. I have always enjoyed historical fiction, and get easily hooked on series – early favourites were Hornblower, Ramage and Cadfael – and found Sharpe unputdownable from the start. What is it that makes them so attractive? It’s about Sharpe’s character as a person, I think. He’s a bit of a rogue, but is intensely committed to his friends, strongly protective of women and loyal and committed to his duty as a soldier despite the fact that so often he is let down by men (including some of his officers) who are shamefully disloyal to him. Is it because I see in Sharpe so many of my own soldiers and their characters when I was an officer in the British Army? Perhaps. Cornwell gets the British soldier perfectly in my view.

I was hooked with the first book I read in 1997 – Sharpe’s Tiger, about the Siege of Seringpatam in 1799, and I devoured its sequel (Sharpe’s Triumph), about the battle of Assaye in 1803. They remain two of my favourites, even though I entered the series half way through. I then went back to read the early ones.

Cornwell clearly understands the historical context about which he writes, but he doesn’t dwell too long on the historical situation in the books. He spends most of his time building up the characters of Sharpe and his fellows, and painting a brilliant tapestry of the fighting – think blood, bullets and bayonets (musket balls even) and you get the picture. The books are essentially action or adventure stories, built around a fabulous cast of characters. This is Cornwell’s great strength, describing the small group dynamics of ordinary ungilded British soldiers fighting through the great snarling, grunting, bayonet-stabbing battles of early empire.

Trying to pick a favourite is difficult. Looking at my bookshelf, I would immediately pick out the first two I read, together with Sharpe’s Company (the siege of Badajoz in 1812) and, as an ex-Rifleman myself, Sharpe’s Rifles is a belter. Sharpe’s Sword (Salamanca, 1812) is also up there among the best. So where does that leave me in terms of the best one?  Sorry, there isn’t one: they are all absolutely brilliant.

I can’t remember the first Bernard Cornwell I read, or how old I was. I can’t remember which of the characters first blasted their way into my consciousness. They are such old friends, that I can’t remember how we met, only that they are constant companions.

Was it Sharpe, taciturn and violent and scrappy? Or perhaps it was Thomas of Hookton with his longbow wreaking havoc on the dastardly French. Or Nate Starbuck trying to survive the horror of the American Civil War? It wasn’t Uhtred – I was already immersed in Cornwell love by the time he swaggered on to the page.

The first book I absolutely adored beyond reason was The Winter King the first in Cornwell’s utterly brilliant Arthur trilogy. In it, Derfel is an aging monk, pretending to write a Christian gospel in in his monastic cell. He is really writing of his youth as a warrior, fighting by Arthur’s side. Imagine a quieter, nobler, less impetuous Uhtred, and that is Derfel. The books are pure Cornwell: vivid, twisting, glorious.

The Warlord Chronicles have the best villain, too. Obadiah Hakeswill is a cracking bad ‘un, but even he pales compared to Cornwell’s Lancelot. He is conceited, arrogant, cowardly, vain and has an unerring, uncanny ability to accrue underserved glory.

Few writers have given me as much pleasure throughout my reading life as Bernard Cornwell. My shelves, and my life, would be poorer without him.

For me, Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series is the epitome of historical fiction: through meticulously researched first-hand accounts of the Peninsular War he shone a spotlight on a complex campaign, and an elite branch of the British Army, the Rifles. This had a very personal impact on me, as three generations of my family wore the black Maltese Cross and greenjacket of the 60th King’s Royal Rifle Corps, from Mons to Cambrai, Calais to D-Day, into Libya and the Western Desert. It was clear that Cornwell had a window into the mind of the rifleman; it’s become a famous quote from the TV series, but I shall never forget the reply of ‘Sweet William’ of the 60th to Sharpe’s comment that his men were a damned disgrace, ‘Men are dirty. Rifles are clean. Sir.

Through Sharpe, Cornwell revealed the brutality of power and class, the injustice of daily life in newly industrialised England, and the appalling disregard our nation had for the men and women who fought to preserve it. Though he has done so much more, the Sharpe series set the bar very high for all of us: bringing history to life is the chief task of the historical fiction novelist – and Bernard Cornwell is without doubt our guild benchmark.

My earliest passion for Historical fiction was nurtured by three giants of the form: Carola Oman (who eventually gave way to Walter Scott), Rosemary Sutcliff (succeeded by Lew Wallace) and Georgette Heyer. Heyer reigned supreme – Cartland seemed to present quantity over quality and these were pre-Bridgerton days. The closest challenge of a ‘realistic’ look at the period came when Hornblower, on half pay between postings, was forced to eke out his income playing whist for money. Conceive of my pleasure, then, to discover that Bernard Cornwell had turned his attention to the period; and had done so with a rip-roaring pageturner which equalled Heyer in research, world-building and characterisation, while matching Sharpe in action and excitement.

Rider Sandman is not far removed from Sharpe in terms of his military experiences, but he demonstrates very different strengths, both of action and insight. Employed to prove a man facing the gallows to be innocent of the capital crime he stands condemned for, Sandman follows a twisting trail of clues from the highest levels of the ton to the lowest depths of the gutter, enjoying a breath-taking ‘car chase’ (in coach and fours- the Aston Martins of their day). But there is still snobbery, beggary and outright treachery for Rider to contend with. Does he rob the gallows of its condemned victim? That’s for the masterly Mr Cornwell to know – and this enthralled reader to discover at the denouement of this breathless narrative.

Steven Veerapen

Steven Veerapen

Author of The Queen’s Gold

Bernard Cornwell rightly stands as one of the titans of historical fiction. Whilst it’s tempting to identify one of his world-renowned Sharpe books as a personal favourite, I’ve chosen to go with one of his more outré titles: Fools and Mortals.

Richard Sharpe has become a legendary fictional figure in his own right. In Fools, however, we see Cornwell’s take on a legendary figure of a different sort: history’s most famous master of fiction, William Shakespeare, whose manuscripts mysteriously go missing.

Set in Elizabethan England, Fools eschews the gritty realism of the Napoleonic wars in favour of recreating a world of ambition, colour, and – fittingly – foolery: Shakespeare’s theatrical world. Shakespeare, of course, has long been a favourite protagonist and supporting character; he has been cast as everything from a detective to a fraud.

Under Cornwell’s pen, the playwright’s younger brother Richard takes centre stage. What follows is a novel in which ambition, religious zealotry, and downright trickery are woven into a glittering tapestry. Cornwell is wise enough to keep Shakespeare – here, a moody, brooding figure – out of the spotlight, whilst letting his world come to vibrant life.

Given my academic interests, I’m a sucker for Tudor era tales, and so I devoured this book. It proved to be a delightful confection, light, though laced through with an appropriate under-taste of darkness. Elizabeth’s England – and particularly its madcap theatrical world, full of neurotic, deceitful actors desperate to make their mark – has rarely shone so brightly.

Steven Veerapen

Oliver Webb-Carter

Editor of Aspects of History

There is no doubt that I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today, without the influence of Bernard Cornwell. It was thanks to his stunning debut, Sharpe’s Eagle, which I read whilst a homesick schoolboy, that opened up the Napoleonic world and started my love of history. Up until then the Trojan War and Greek myths were my passion, and in Richard Sharpe, Cornwell had created a Napoleonic Odysseus. Cunning, not always the good guy, frequently brutal, and searching for a home that he never had in his childhood. Following on from that, I made my history A-Level special project the Peninsular War, and I visited the site of the Battle of Salamanca, so brilliantly described in Sharpe’s Sword.

My favourite? It could be Sword, or Gold; Rifles is excellent and quite dark. Waterloo was a fantastic conclusion (or it was at the time, there have now been two sequels). For me, it has to be Sharpe’s Company and the horrors of the siege of Badajoz, an event that residents of that city remember even today.