One of the cool things about interviewing people for a living is that you occasionally get to make your teenage self very happy. I was round about 12 years old when I absentmindedly picked up a copy of Sharpe’s Prey that my grandfather had left behind after a recent visit. From the opening chapter, in which an English fencing master is brutally murdered, the book grabbed me by the tender parts and never let go. 

Bringing a copy of Sharpe’s Tiger on a family holiday to Turkey confirmed the love affair – Sharpe gets flogged! Blows up a fortress! Fights the titular tiger! – and I subsequently spent a significant portion of my adolescence in the company of Bernard Cornwell and his protagonists. Sharpe, obviously, but also Derfel Cadarn (who fought the Saxons with King Arthur), Uhtred of Bebbanburg (who fought the Vikings with Alfred the Great), Thomas of Hookton (who fought in the Hundred Years’ War and found the Holy Grail).   

Cornwell’s protagonists like fighting. They are good at fighting. (Other than Nathaniel Starbuck – American Civil War – who doesn’t like fighting in the first book but swiftly gets the knack.) They kill a lot of people, mostly enemy soldiers, occasionally rotters on their own side, and while introspection may sometimes trouble their conscience it tends to pass pretty quickly. They are always male. They are always tall. They are prodigious swordsmen on the battlefield and in the boudoir. While fictional themselves, they fight in historical battles – often playing a crucial role in victory – and encounter historically accurate characters.  

There’s a strategically brilliant commander whose life is intertwined with the protagonist. (The Duke of Wellington, Kings Alfred, Arthur and Edward III.) There’s invariably a beautiful girl to be wooed (that normally happens around halfway through) and a tremendously evil villain to be dispatched (that happens at the end). There are hits, and those hits are played to a vast and devoted audience across the globe. Cornwell has published more than 60 novels and sold in excess of 30m copies; I have read approximately two-thirds of the former and I’m responsible for at least 0.0001% of the latter. (A few came secondhand.)    

Any doubts that Bernard Cornwell the man will fail to live up to Bernard Cornwell the author are dispelled the moment he appears on my laptop screen. He is enthroned in a quite magnificent study, furnished with oak panels and copious books and a sword on the wall behind him. It’s 10am in Cape Cod, where he’s lived for the past 40 years, and our man already has a cheroot on the go. He turns 80 on 23 February – the same date as Grandpa’s birthday, God rest him. He’s working on another Sharpe. Did I mention there’s a sword on the wall? It was a present from George RR Martin. 

To establish my credentials, I begin by telling Cornwell about discovering Sharpe’s Prey aged 12. “I don’t even remember it,” says Cornwell. Understandable: there are 23 Sharpe novels and Prey was published in 2001. It’s a bit of an anomaly, the one where Sharpe goes to Denmark… “Oh yes. That is an anomaly. He gets trapped in a chimney.” 

Despite the hugely successful Netflix adaptation of The Last Kingdom, Richard Sharpe remains Cornwell’s most famous creation. Essentially a Napoleonic-era James Bond, Sharpe begins his career as a private at the 1799 Siege of Seringapatam and ends up as a lieutenant colonel by the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Most of the novels are set in the Peninsula War, where Sharpe leads a group of riflemen attached to the Duke of Wellington’s army.

He participates in every major conflict of the campaign – had Sharpe been killed by a stray bullet in 1809, there’s a good chance I’d be writing this in French. He marries a Spanish guerrilla commander (she dies), an English gentlewoman (she leaves him) and eventually shacks up with a French viscountess on a farm in Normandy. As noted earlier, Cornwell plays the hits.   

Sean Bean as Richard Sharpe

Sharpe’s Prey is more of a B-side, albeit a fine one. The book depicts the 1807 Bombardment of Copenhagen, when the British seized the Danish fleet to ensure Napoleon couldn’t seize it first. Sharpe hasn’t yet joined the Rifles, met Sergeant Harper, or even killed many Frenchmen. We receive some backstory when he revisits the London foundling home of his youth and kills its abusive master Jem Hocking.     

Cornwell was born in 1942, the unplanned product of a wartime liaison between Canadian airman William Oughtred and Dorothy Cornwell, a member of Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Oughtred flew back to Canada and Bernard was adopted by the Wiggins family, members of a fundamental Christian group called the Peculiar People. “And they were peculiar,” says Cornwell, very deadpan. His voice is deeper than I expected, a slow, measured drawl. His eyes twinkle behind his glasses. 

He had an unhappy childhood. His stepfather Joe Wiggins punished perceived transgressions at the end of the cane – and most things were transgressive in the eyes of the Peculiar People. Cornwell once got a beating for reading Treasure Island. “It was joyless,” says Cornwell. “The great American journalist H L Mencken once described a Puritan as someone who is haunted by the fact that someone somewhere might be happy. The Peculiar People were founding members of the fun prevention league, and it didn’t sit very well with me.” 

He bears a remarkable lack of resentment towards his adopted parents, viewing them as victims of their religion. If nothing else, the Wigginses provided a blueprint of how not to live. “They gave me a wishlist,” says Cornwell. He smokes, he drinks. His atheism is absolute. 

The Peculiar People were committed pacifists; a teenage Cornwell became fascinated with the military and stages bloody battles in every book. How many characters does he estimate he has killed off in his literary career? The question earns a rich, musical chuckle. “That’s a nice thought! I don’t know.” 

Cornwell doesn’t psychoanalyse his work. I’ll merely observe that none of Sharpe, Derval or Uhtred are raised by their birth parents. All remain outsiders in adulthood. There are multiple sympathetic religious characters in Cornwell but I can only think of Alfred as being both sympathetic and puritanical – and that puritanism is viewed with disdain by Uhtred. In Sharpe’s Prey, a Bible verse is scrawled on the wall of the foundling house: Be Sure Your Sin Will Find You Out. 

The soldier that became Sharpe existed in Cornwell’s head long before he wrote Sharpe’s Eagle. As a teenager he loved CS Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series. He found Napoleonic nautical fiction to be a well-stocked genre – as well as Forester there was Dudley Pope, Douglas Reeman, Patrick O’Brian – but little on the British army in that era. “When fate decreed that I needed to write a book to make money, I knew what I wanted to write.” 

Fate stepped out of a hotel lift in the form of a blonde American travel agent named Judy. Cornwell was working as a producer for BBC Northern Ireland in Belfast, a job and a city he adored. (Basically every Irish character in Cornwell is a good egg, most famously Sharpe’s best friend Patrick Harper.) He was filming in Edinburgh when he saw Judy emerge from the lift and “fell horribly, hopelessly, completely in love” on the spot. “I’m going to marry that one,” he told his colleague Gavin Esler before he even knew her name. 

He wooed her through letters when she returned home. She couldn’t relocate for family reasons so he decided to move to America. A work visa was refused – no matter! He would finally write that series about the Napoleonic soldier. “It was insane, totally insane,” says Cornwell with no little relish. “I’d never written a book. I didn’t have a publisher.” 

He got to work. He wanted his hero to be a rifleman. “The great thing about the rifles is that they were scattered all across the campaign – that gives me a lot of freedom because he can wander all over the place. He wanted an officer raised from the ranks – “that gives him a certain tension with the other officers”. The character was taking form yet one key component was missing.  

“I wanted a name for the character and I just couldn’t think of one. And I was totally being blindsided by Horatio Hornblower, which is a wonderful name, incredibly distinctive. And I was trying out variations on that, like Trumpet Whistler. There were all sorts of weird names. None of them worked. So to save time, as I typed I just put XXX every time I had his name. I think I got three quarters of the way through the book before I suddenly thought of Richard Sharpe.”

Richard Sharp was an English rugby player. Cornwell added an ‘e’ to the surname, “another piece of hero worship”. The real-life Sharp is still going strong aged 85. His cheekbone was once fractured following a vicious tackle by the South African centre Mannetjies Roux. In Sharpe’s Sword, our hero is shot and left for dead by a Colonel Leroux; Sharpe naturally recovers and takes his revenge at the book’s climax. Cornwell has told Sharp about his fictional namesake; I don’t know whether he mentioned that namesake’s payback for the 1962 Lions’ Tour. 

Sharpe’s Eagle was published in 1981. Millions have read the novel over the subsequent 43 years – but Cornwell isn’t among them. “I’m frightened of going back to read it,” he says. “Maybe in my retirement.” He has revisited the rest of his oeuvre at some point or other, often to satisfy a curious reader. “Once the book is written, it tends to disappear into the fog. I get questions on the website saying, ‘Why did you kill so-and-so?’ and I can’t even remember who so-and-so was! I have to scratch through the books to find them.”  

Cornwell has a regularly updated section on his website dedicated to reader’s questions. Historical queries, writing habits, reading recommendations, narrative inconsistencies, character biography – Cornwell replies to all. The section has been running since January 2004 and currently spans 1,313 pages. Some questions recur. Will you write a WWII book? Will you write a book about Marlborough? Will Sharpe ever meet Hornblower? Will Sharpe ever meet Flashman? Is Nicolas Hook of Azincourt related to Thomas of Hookton? What happens to Sharpe’s daughter Antonia? Who’d win in a fight, Dervel or Uhtred? 

(And yes, somewhere among those 1,313 pages you may unearth one submitted by the teenage incarnation of yours truly, asking whether he’d ever write a book about the Norman Conquest. ‘I’ve considered it, but it’s not high on my list,’ came the reply. The 32-year-old Features Editor considers revisiting the question – ‘Why not, Bernard? Why isn’t it high on your list? Two battles! The birth of modern England!’ – but decides this might be unfair on the poor interviewee.) 

Alexander Dreymon as Uhtred in The Last Kingdom

Another frequent question – what happened with Nathaniel Starbuck, protagonist of the Starbuck Chronicles? In the mid-1990s, Cornwell produced four books set in the American Civil War only to leave the series unfinished at the 1862 Battle of Antietam. Alas, his heart still belonged to another. “One of the problems of writing Starbuck is that throughout those books, I would realise halfway through a chapter that I had written Sharpe instead of Starbuck and I’d have to do that ‘find and replace’ thing on the computer.”  

Although Sharpe reached Waterloo in 1990, the production of a Sharpe TV series in 1993 caused Cornwell to return to the prodigal son. He began a new series of prequels – Sharpe’s Tiger being the first – and poor old Starbuck was left twiddling his musket, waiting in vain to march to Gettysburg. “Sharpe’s a stronger character than Starbuck,” admits Cornwell. “So I just abandoned Starbuck. I get a lot of requests to keep going. I think it’s too late now. I think we can accept that Starbuck is living happily ever after somewhere.” 

(Cornwell invariably replies “a draw!” when asked about hypothetical showdowns between his protagonists – but there’s a definite answer to the question, ‘Who’d win in a fight, Sharpe or Starbuck?’ Our boy killed off his American rival way back in the 1990s.)  

The TV series made a star of Sean Bean and brought Cornwell to a wider audience. He has enjoyed a productive relationship with the small screen. At the time of writing, an adaptation of The Winter King is showing on ITVX. Cornwell’s Arthurian trilogy remains his finest achievement in my opinion. (Which counts for little. But Cornwell shares it, which counts for rather more.) “I was looking for other things to write about and there was the Arthurian story, like a great lump in the taproot of British history.” 

The challenge daunted and excited him. He researched for six months and duly smashed out the first book in four – using a first-person narrator for the first time. “I told myself, ‘We’ll just write one chapter in first person to see if it works.’ That turned out to be chapter three of The Winter King. I started writing it and the book was finished by Christmas.” Book two and three came equally fast. “They’re my favourite simply because they were so much pleasure to write.” 

The Winter King will do well to match the success of The Last Kingdom, a blockbuster Netflix adaptation of the Saxon Stories. The show ran for five seasons and a feature-length film. There are 13 books so source material wasn’t a problem. Even Cornwell was surprised by its popularity. “I didn’t think the audience would be as interested in Saxon England as they were in Napoleonic Britain. Happily I was wrong!” In the interest of balance, I should mention that avid Cornwell fan George RR Martin likes the Saxon Stories best.  

The classic Cornwell novel has a little and a big story. The fictional little story involves the protagonist and their struggles; the big story tends to be a historical conflict that will consume the little story at the climax. (Eg. Sharpe’s pursuit of Colonel Leroux is resolved at the Battle of Salamanca.) The big story of the Saxon series is the uniting of England by Alfred the Great and his children. Yet its narrator Uhtred had a far more personal origin. 

Remember the Canadian airman William Oughtred? Cornwell was doing a book tour in Vancouver. He was 58 and had never met his birth parents. The Vancouver Sun dispatched a journalist to interview the celebrated author. Unfortunately the journalist had clearly never read a word of the celebrated author’s work – let alone submitted a question to his website. 

“He was bored out of his mind,” grins Cornwell. “He didn’t have any interest in me and I don’t blame him. I thought, ‘OK, I’ll wake you up!’” He told the journalist about his elusive father from the Royal Canadian Air Force. “I didn’t give his name because that would’ve been unfair on my father – to suddenly open the Vancouver Sun to see that he had a bastard son looking for him.” 

The story was published and three days later, a woman contacted Cornwell with William Oughtred’s name and address. A letter was written, a meeting arranged. Father and son were united nearly 60 years after the latter’s conception.   

Cornwell had discovered a whole new family, an entire lineage. “He had a family tree which went all the way back to the god Odin. I remember leafing through this enormous document. The family had come from northern England, and there was the name Uhtred appearing over and over.” 

Uhtred the Bold ruled Bamburgh Castle until his murder in 1016. A millennia later, both the name and the castle were borrowed by his descendent. And all thanks to a bored journalist in Canada. 

Rather neatly, Cornwell was finally reunited with his mother Dorothy after the Daily Mail ran an article about his discovery of William. “About a year later I was in London and I got a phone call saying,

‘Do you want to meet your mother?’” 

Birth parents are like buses, huh? You wait your whole life for one… “Yes, that’s right!” Did William and Dorothy ever reconnect? “Oh no, they had connected once already. That was enough.” 

Bernard Corwnwell in The Last Kingdom

Cornwell is explaining how he never plans his books – “I sit here at this desk every morning and I find out what happens” – when he is interrupted by an almighty clanging of church bells. The culprit isn’t an adjacent cathedral but his ringtone. “I tried to find a trumpet playing the cavalry charge but I’ve yet to find it,” he sighs, turning off the phone. “So I settled for bells.” His wife Judy’s ringtone is ‘I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside.’

Judy was diagnosed with leukaemia last year. Despite a bleak prognosis, she has conducted a counteroffensive that Sharpe would be proud of. “She’s doing great,” says Bernard. “Back in August, she was given just six weeks to live but she’s still going and she seems to be beating it.” Needless to say, she has my best wishes and I’m sure she has yours as well.  

The Cornwells have lived by the seaside for more than 40 years. I admire the large sword hanging from the wall of his study. “That’s actually a gift from George RR Martin,” says Cornwell. “There is a company in the States that reproduces the swords from Game of Thrones. Unknown to me, they then decided to reproduce Uhtred’s sword.” Martin wrote to Cornwell, informing him of the weapon, and stuck one in the post. 

Cornwell and Martin have yet to meet in person but the pair exchange the occasional email and Cornwell wrote the forward to A Clash Of Kings. Martin has stated on his blog that ‘Bernard Cornwell is one of the writers who never fails to grab me by the throat… No one writes better historical fiction.’ “He’s very kind, he really is,” says Cornwell. “I would very much like to meet him – and one day I will.”  

Has he waved the sword around? “I’ve held it. I haven’t waved it.” Perhaps sensing my disappointment, Cornwell tells me about his collection of weaponry. ‘Arsenal’ might be a better term. “A Brown Bess musket, a Baker rifle, the most beautiful Klingenthal sabre, a British heavy cavalry sword – that’s in the living room. And I have a cannon.”

A cannon? “A cannon, yes.” The cannon was discovered in the backyard of a guest house the Cornwells purchased. The owner had no wish to transport it to Arizona so the cannon stayed behind. “It was originally a British cannon and it was almost certainly captured by a privateer during the revolution.” 

The ship sank and the cannon spent 200 years at the bottom of Providence Harbour. “Then it was retrieved and this guy bought it. And I’m happy to say the cannon is now back in British hands.” 

Has he fired the cannon? “Well, the touch hole is long rusted over. We have tried it with a cherry bomb firework, which makes an enormous bang. It didn’t explode. I guess it could be brought back into service with a drill.” 

The interviewer digests this information with a thoughtful expression.

Iain De Caestecker as Arthur and Nathaniel Martello-White as Merlin in The Winter King

What did Cornwell make of Ridley Scott’s Napoleon? “I thought it was dreadful. Not just the historical mistakes, which I can forgive because essentially he’s writing a historical novel – you have to change things because the story is more important than the facts. But to have Napoleon leading a cavalry charge at Waterloo is frankly ridiculous. My faith in it vanished about five minutes into the film when I saw they had confused howitzers with mortars.”  

In fairness to Scott, I imagine this mistake will go unnoticed by the average viewer. Cornwell is singularly unimpressed with the film’s climactic battle. “In the middle of the Battle of Waterloo, you hear an English voice shouting ‘over the top.’ There weren’t any trenches at Waterloo!”  

As well as Sharpe’s Waterloo, Cornwell later wrote a historical account of the battle – partly motivated, I suspect, by a certain dissatisfaction with the earlier novel. “The second book is better than the first,” he admits. However Sharpe’s Waterloo includes his favourite passage in any Sharpe novel – when Sharpe shoots the Prince of Orange in the arse. “It was the one moment in the whole story where I could insert Sharpe and then do something brilliant.” 

We have been speaking for an hour and I’m aware Cornwell hasn’t amassed his vast bibliography by hobnobbing with journalists. There is plenty to keep him busy. He is a keen sailor. A company member of the Cape Cod Shakespeare Festival – this summer he will be Prospero in The Tempest, “doomed to appear the last week of July and first week of August.” 

And the readers will keep sending questions. Apparently the most common is ‘What are you writing now?’ “Which I never answer. Just out of superstition.” 

Between us then. He has no plans to start another series, instead preferring to plug gaps in the old ones. His computer contains the opening chapter of a second Rider Sandman story, revisiting the hero of the standalone murder mystery Gallows Thief. He is tempted to write another Uhtred adventure, set during Alfred’s lifetime in order to reunite the Saxon odd couple. He doesn’t have a story yet but no matter. “That’s enough of an idea to start a book.” 

Yet Sandman and Uhtred must wait: his current project is another Sharpe. “It’s set immediately after the Battle of Pyrenees, when Wellington first invades France.” (Most likely placing it between Sharpe’s Honour and Sharpe’s Regiment; Cornwell has no plans to venture beyond Sharpe’s Devil, the chronologically final book.) “I always knew there was a gap there,” he says of the Pyrenees campaign. “I always said that when I retired I’d fill that gap. Well, I guess I’m retired now!” 

Time to let him return to his retirement. The man has work to do. The following Tuesday, I email Cornwell with a single follow-up question: what made you so certain that you would marry Judy when she emerged from that lift? His reply arrives within the hour: “I suspect it was lust at first sight!” 

Here’s one last story from history. In 2008, my godmother Helen died of lung cancer. I visited her in hospital a few days before she passed. She wasn’t in a good state, and I returned to the station in a bit of a daze. Needing distraction, I bought a copy of Azincourt for the train back to London. It was the first Cornwell book I had read for a long time. 

In the early pages, the English assault a French town. As the protagonist Nicholas Hook shot an arrow into the throat of a screaming defender, I felt what I can only describe as an enormous sense of reassurance. A universe that had spun dangerously off its axis was somehow righted. That’s the beauty of a favourite author. They provide so many moments of pleasure but they also offer comfort in times of strife. They are there for you.  

Over the past 40 years, few authors have been there for more people than the remarkable Bernard Cornwell. May he continue to soldier on for years to come. 

Watch The Winter King on ITVX