Reliving The Ninth Century With Bernard Cornwell Bernard Cornwell is one of the kings of historical fiction — his Richard Sharpe novels, about a British soldier in the Napoleonic wars, and Grail Quest series have captivated audiences in the United Kingdom and United States. His new book, The Burning Land — the latest in his series The Saxon Tales — is currently on the bestseller list. NPR's Neal Conan talks with Cornwell about the ninth century, writing historical literature and the new PBS series based on his Sharpe novels.
NPR logo

Reliving The Ninth Century With Bernard Cornwell

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Reliving The Ninth Century With Bernard Cornwell

Reliving The Ninth Century With Bernard Cornwell

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Bernard Cornwell is the author of dozens of novels, almost all of them historical fiction. Many revolve around a rifleman named Richard Sharpe who fights under Wellington in the Napoleonic Wars. You may remember the television series starring Sean Bean. There are also novels set in the American Civil War that center on Nathaniel Starbuck, the son of a Boston abolitionist who fights in the Army of Northern Virginia. There are novels set in the time of King Arthur. He wrote a best seller about Henry V in the Battle of Agincourt - "We Few, We Happy Few." And recently he's been writing about Alfred the Great, the Saxon king who drove the Danes out and created England, but only with the considerable assistance of a warlord named Uhtred of Bebbanburg.

If you'd like to talk with Bernard Cornwell, our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us; You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at, click on TALK OF THE NATION. And if you'd like to read the first chapter of his new book, "The Burning Land" and the beginning of Uhtred of Bebbanburg's tale, that's on our Web site at

Bernard Cornwell's most recent book is, as we mentioned, part of those Saxon tales. He joined us now from a studio in Charleston, South Carolina. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Mr. BERNARD CORNWELL: (Author, "The Burning Land") It's very nice of you to invite me, Neal. Thank you.

CONAN: And Bebbanburg is a place where - well, is this entirely fictional?

Mr. CORNWELL: No, no. It's entirely real. It's called Bamburgh Castle these days. It's a beautiful, enormous castle on the Northumberland coast. It's been there since - and obviously not in its present form - it's now an enormous stone Norman keep, but it was once a timber and earth castle. It actually did belong to my family, my father. My real birth father's surname was Altred(ph), and that's descended from Uhtred. And we own the castle or our family owned the castle for 500 years. They lost it in 11th Century.

CONAN: How careless of them.

Mr. CORNWELL: It was terribly careless. They fell out with King Cnut, which is a very stupid thing to do. About two years ago, I met the present owner of Bamburgh Castle and I said, look, in all fairness, this place belongs to us. I mean, you stole it. And he said, let me show you the heating bill.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I can only imagine because, as you mentioned, on the coast and, well, storm-tossed by the North Sea.

Mr. CORNWELL: It's storm tossed. It's wildly, wildly beautiful. And Bamburgh Castle is actually one of the great fortresses that sits on this rock. And it is just absolutely beautiful, and it's a great place to visit. The whole of that coast of Northumbria is covered with castles, and in England because it's almost on the border of England and Scotland. And so there was an enormous amount of water. And it's great castle country.

CONAN: Well, we should...

Mr. CORNWELL: Alnwick Castle is nearby. It's where they filmed "Harry Potter."

CONAN: Yeah. We should mention, however, that Bebbanburg Castle plays a role in the first of the Saxon tales. And Uhtred is then kicked out pretty much and raised by Danes and spends the next four and a half books yearning to re-conquer the castle that's been taken over by his evil uncle.

Mr. CORNWELL: His evil uncle, I think, is going to spend the next four and a half books doing the same sort of yearning. It puzzles me because when I first started writing the books, I wondered, how on Earth did my family hold on to that castle, I mean, to that fortress? Because Northumbria was taken over by the Danes, by the Vikings. And yet, the family, which was Saxon, held on to that land. It was - at some point it was called Little England.

And I don't know, we don't know. I mean, we know that somebody called Uhtred existed. We don't know anything about him. I mean, almost certainly they held on to the land because they have compromised, but I have a slightly more heroic version in the books.

CONAN: And indeed, well, there's some compromise involved at various points here, but Uhtred fights on behalf of King Alfred, as you point out, the only king in all of British history to be dubbed The Great.

Mr. CORNWELL: Yeah. I mean, they don't actually have a noble committee that sits on this. I mean, it seems to be - you know, I was really capricious who gets called the great and who doesnt. But, I mean, he does deserve it. I mean, if it was up to me, I'd add Elizabeth I to the list. But - no, Alfred was -he's great because he preserves what will become England. There comes a point in his reign when he's driven onto the marshes of Somerset by the Danes.

And really if you are a betting man, you have to say that the Saxons are about to be defeated forever. The Danes have taken Northumbria. They have taken the kingdom of Mercia. They've taken East Anglia. And now it looks as if they're going to take the last kingdom, the kingdom of Wessex. And once they've done that, we wouldnt be having this conversation in English, we would be speaking Danish. There wouldnt be an England, there'd be a Daneland.

But Alfred not only survives, but he lays the foundation for what will become a country called England.

CONAN: Well, that low point you talk of, that's the story of "King Alfred and the Cakes."

Mr. CORNWELL: The cakes, absolutely, which was made up - at least some people think it was made up - I think, in the 12th century by Roger of Wendover. But it's such a great story. I mean it's - you know, it's like the story of George Washington and the cherry tree. It didn't happen, but it tells us what we want to know about George Washington. And so the story of Alfred and the cakes, even if it was made up by Roger of Wendover, it stuck.

CONAN: And you have an adaptation of it - not quite Roger of Wendover's story, but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CORNWELL: I couldn't resist putting it in. It's the one thing everybody knows about Alfred the Great, that he burned the cakes. And so I had to put it in.

CONAN: Well, this is, obviously, not your only series. And it was interesting that you paused in media race, if you will, to write a wonderful book about Agincourt.

Mr. CORNWELL: Well, yeah. Agincourt has always fascinated me. This was the book that was published last year. It's the most famous battle in English history. You wouldn't say British history, because it was the English, not the Welsh or the Scots. And it still - I mean, newspapers in England after England last year beat the French at rugby, the headline in the French newspaper was Agincourt.

It still has enormous resonance in both France and in England. And it's partly the victory of a small army over a very large army. It's an unlikely victory. And one of the lovely ways to discover what really happened in history is to write a novel about it. So I've always been fascinated by Agincourt, so I went back and wrote the novel.

CONAN: And does this describe your technique for researching a lot of the periods of history that you write about?

Mr. CORNWELL: I don't think there's a technique. I mean, I obviously do an immense amount of research. You have to. But - because the further back you go in history, the easier it becomes, because theres not so much known about it.

CONAN: Because you could make up more.

Mr. CORNWELL: Yes, you can make up more. I mean, my ambition with the Saxon series is to tell the story of Uhtred all the way through to the battle of Bebbanburg. Now, this takes place 30 years or so after Alfred's death. But once Alfred dies, the records really dry up. I mean, Alfred was a - you know, was a very literate man. He encouraged the "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle." He wrote himself. We have Bishop Asser's life with him. We have an enormous number of sources for Alfred.

Once he dies, it's rather like a light goes out, and then suddenly all these sources - well, we still have the chronicle, but its not very helpful. And so, in some ways, I'm looking forward to the books after Alfred's death, because then I can just let my imagination go.

CONAN: Well, your readers are certainly hoping that Bishop Asser gets his in the end. Anyway...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: ...let's get some callers on the line. Our guest is Bernard Cornwell. His most recent book is "The Burning Land." It's the latest in the Saxon tales. 800-989-8255. Email us: Rick is on the line, Rick calling from San Marcos in Texas.

RICK (Caller): Hello. Thank you very much. It's a life's dream to talk to Mr. Cornwell. I have to call him out, however. You mentioned stopping in media race, and I wanted "The Starbuck Chronicles" to continue. I wonder if you could give us some insight why that stopped.

CONAN: And, again, "The Starbuck Chronicles" followed Nathaniel Starbuck, the son of the Boston abolitionist minister through, well, the first part of the Civil War.

RICK: (unintelligible) Antietam. I wanted to hear Gettysburg.

Mr. CORNWELL: Well, I think you will. I mean, I'll tell you what happened, was that - I mean, I can't remember when I wrote the last one. It was a long time ago. Sean Bean came along in the television series. And, I mean, God. That must be 10 years or more ago.

CONAN: For Richard Sharpe?

Mr. CORNWELL: Yes, for Richard Sharpe. In fact, they're showing two more of that on March 28th and April 4th. There are two new films that I haven't seen, which are being shown on PBS here.

CONAN: Don't tell me how it comes out.

Mr. CORNWELL: We win.

CONAN: Oh, darn it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CORNWELL: The - what happened to Starbuck was that once the TV series started, obviously, the publishers wanted rather more of Sharpe. So I went back and started writing Sharpe again. And I hate to say this, but writing Sharpe was a little bit like writing Starbuck, and I just didnt feel like doing both at once. So poor Starbuck is on a long furlough, but I do want to get back to him. And I will get back to him. I promise. Fredericksburg is the next one. It's researched. Ready to go.

CONAN: Fredericksburg.

RICK: Oh, thats great. Can I put in a good plug for you and say that the best three-volume series on Arthur is yours. Making Lancelot a kid and pointing out (unintelligible) that Arthur was never a king works in beautiful. And anybody who hasnt read that needs to.

CONAN: And curiously, so much of it happens in France. But, anyway...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CORNWELL: Well, yes. A lot of the native British who were driven out by the Saxons took the stories of Alfred to Brittany. So there's a whole strand of Arthurian stories that, in fact, come from Britain, because of Chretien de Troyes. He put Lancelot in. It takes a Frenchman to put adultery into a good English story.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Rick, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it. All right. Here's an email from Kerry(ph) in New Orleans. Is "Agincourt" a one-off, or do you plan a follow-up?

Mr. CORNWELL: You know, I would rather like to do a - not a follow-up to "Agincourt," because I did think about doing a book about the Battle of Verneuil that was called the second Agincourt, that takes place six years later. But I think I'm going to resist that impulse. But I am interested in writing about the Battle of Poitiers, which took place earlier, of course. SO they wouldn't have the same characters, but it would be much the same setting. So I think, yes, its a one-off. That was a very long answer to (unintelligible).

CONAN: Long - can't have the same warriors at Poitiers and Agincourt - well, unless you really change history. Jim is with us from Portland, Oregon.

JIM (Caller): Yes. Thank you. Mr. Cornwell, I really have always admired your books.

Mr. CORNWELL: Thank you, Jim.

JIM: I was particularly taken with the Archer series and the quality of the long bow as like this early strategic weapon, practically, and the cottage industry of providing arrows for the archers and weaving it in. I believe that's a series that you weave in with the "Grail Quest," as well.

Mr. CORNWELL: That's right. Yeah. Well - and the long bow is absolutely extraordinary. Its another appeal of the "Agincourt" book. I mean, if you think that the guys at "Agincourt" - there were probably 5,000 English archers. They probably took something like a million arrows on that expedition. When the French were actually advancing, when the first French line was advancing - and they probably took about seven to eight minutes to actually cross that muddy field - they were being hit by a thousand arrows a second.

CONAN: These were the (unintelligible)...

Mr. CORNWELL: Ben Franklin...

CONAN: ...after the crossbowmen?

Mr. CORNWELL: Yeah. Well, the cross - the English didn't use the crossbow, and the French never deployed their crossbowmen, which was another reason they lost. I mean, Ben Franklin - who was absolutely no idiot - said that if only the American rebels could be armed with a long bow, they would have won the revolution in one year. And the duke of Wellington actually enquired of London whether it was possible to raise a corps of longbowmen to fight against Napoleon.

Well, the truth was they couldn't, because it took about 10 years to make an archer to become as strong as you needed to be to pull that weapon, and also to learn how to aim it, which is very, very difficult. So it was an extraordinarily difficult weapon to master. And curiously, the only place that seems to have mastered it ever was in the British Isles. The French tried to, and they just never got to it.

CONAN: Jim, thanks for the call.

JIM: I remember as a - early watching movies years ago, I saw Thomas Gustain's(ph) "The Name of the Rose," and there's a famous scene in there where a longbowman takes on a Mongol archer with a composite bow...

CONAN: Composite bow, yes.

JIM: ...and it's an amazing series of, you know, scenes as he competes and he just keeps putting the target farther and farther away, and had an incredible range. Well, thank you very much.

CONAN: Thanks, Jim. We're talking with Bernard Cornwell, historical novelist. "The Burning Land," is his latest. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Janet's on the line, calling from San Francisco.

JANET (Caller): Hello. I just want to say that in 2003, I was in Bamburgh Castle. And a friend of mine, an acting teacher, lived there. She was born and raised there and retired there. And she had a friend that lived there. I guess there's condominiums now. And I drank champagne...

Mr. CORNWELL: There are.

JANET: ...and looked out the window, and it was lovely.

Mr. CORNWELL: It's beautiful, isn't it?

JANET: Oh, my God. It was one of the (unintelligible).

Mr. CORNWELL: Can you see - you see the Farne Islands, the - yeah.

Mr. CORNWELL: You see the Farne Islands, and you look up the coast to Lindisfarne holy island. Its a magical place, Bamburgh. The castle is wonderful.

JANET: Yes. I'll never forget it. And we drank champagne and watched the sun go down, and it was - I'd never been in a castle before, so this was a great memory.

CONAN: Janet, was there any graffiti saying Uhtred was here?

(Soundbite of laughter)

JANET: I didn't see any.

CONAN: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JANET: Okay. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Janet. Let's see if we can go next to -this is David, David with us from Hickory in North Carolina.

DAVID (Caller): Oh, hi there. I'm actually a teacher, a high school teacher, and I teach a British literature course. And I thought this was interesting that this was on, because actually this week, we're doing an Anglo-Saxon history. And I wanted to ask Mr. Cornwell if there were any - I actually teach kind of a lower-level student, and getting them to remain interested in some of the stuff is a little bit tough. So I was wondering if there was any particular research or stories or resources that would be good for these - for this kind of thing.

Mr. CORNWELL: Oh, well, obviously, I'm going to tell you to make them read "The Last Kingdom," which is the very first book in the series, and then there can be another four for them. I - you know, I think, it's an exciting period. And I think those kids would find it exciting. It's about Vikings.


Mr. CORNWELL: You know, it's about these hairy warriors coming ashore and beating the hell out of everybody, and how the Saxons fight back. I mean, there's a lot there that is - the curious thing about all this is that the English themselves don't know this history. I mean, for some strange reason, when you - if you grow up in England, as I did, history begins at 1066. And everything that happened before that is sort of shrouded in fog and mystery.

And so one of the reasons for writing this series is to say to them(ph), look. Here's a story that you don't know, and it's a very exciting story. It's the equivalent of England's 1776. This is the story of a birth of a nation. And it's a story - it's not just about heroes, because Alfred's daughter, Aethelflaed, becomes a great warrior heroine, and she has - she leads armies against the Danes. And she has been forgotten by history.

I mean, even at a time when feminist historians quite rightly are trying to pull women out from under the sort of patriarchal shadow, they seem to have forgotten that there is this Aethelflaed, this wonderful woman who led armies against the Danes and beat them. So there's, you know, there's an enormous amount there. And it's - all history is story.

DAVID: Well, you'll be glad to know...

Mr. CORNWELL: And these are good stories.

DAVID: ...we covered her today.

CONAN: Okay. Well, well done then, David. Thanks very much for the call.

DAVID: Thank you.

CONAN: Those who've read Bernard Cornwell's stories and - will know that the little historical notes at the end are some of the most interesting parts. And there was one at the end of the Saxon tales, that first one - and it takes away the living image, the one thing everybody knows about the Vikings, the Danes, those hairy warriors who swept ashore...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: they wore horned helmets.

Mr. CORNWELL: That was made up by an opera designer, costume designer in the 19th century. I mean, they have found horned helmets, but they're almost certainly Celtic objects. I mean there - I think there's two in the museum of London. And they're probably not even Danish at all. They're almost certainly Celtic. So, no, of course the Danes didn't have horns on - they were much too sensible.

CONAN: Why not?

Mr. CORNWELL: If you wear a horn on your helmet, you can knock the helmet off with a quick blow of the sword. It's a wonderful image, and, of course, it stuck. And the Minnesota Vikings have it on their helmet. But, no. It was made up by a German opera designer.

CONAN: Well, the Minnesota Vikings knocked their own helmets off last weekend.

Mr. CORNWELL: Yes, they did.

CONAN: And anyway, that's another story.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Bernard Cornwell, thank you so much for being with us today. And good luck with "The Burning Land."

Mr. CORNWELL: Well, thank you very much, Neal.

CONAN: "Burning Land" is the latest installment of the Saxon tales, and Bernard Cornwell joined us today from a studio in Charleston, South Carolina. If you'd like to catch some of the "Masterpiece Classics" dramatization of the adventures of Colonel Richard Sharpe, they're there airing this spring in March and April.

Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY, a conversation with theoretical physicist Sean Carroll about the mysteries of time and the universe. We'll be back on Monday with a closer look at the Tea Party movement. Have a great weekend.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.