A HISTORY LESSON WITH BERNARD CORNWELL


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Bernard arrives at Boisdale, immediately after a full day of interviews at the BBC. Many will be familiar with the famous adaptation of his ‘Sharpe’ novels, the title character famously portrayed by Sean Bean on ITV. Bernard is back with ‘The Last Kingdom’ a new series that began last year on the BBC, the 10th book ‘The Flame Bearer’ was published earlier this year. A second TV series co-produced this time by Netflix (after the exit of BBC America) has been announced for a 2017 release.

Bernard arrives on the terrace of Boisdale of Belgravia and immediately lights his favoured Villiger cigar before ordering a pint, funny, I had him down as a wine man. But I suspect a proper English pint is welcome, for the long-term resident of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. His intellect is immediately obvious, spurred on by our own Editors’ enthusiasm for history. Over the next few hours, I endeavour politely to steer them both through some actual questions and believe me, have hours of tape on long-forgotten battles, kings, and conquerors, as the two of them wandered through the centuries.

Indeed, our Editor Ranald Macdonald opens with, “Bernard, my family were kings of Dalriada, have you ever looked into the Kingdom of Dalriada?” Cue the perfect riposte, “I was more interested in the Kingdom of Bernicia, my family were the Kings of Bernicia.” Bernard goes on to add, “Well yes, I do know about Dalriada, but the history of Scotland is almost as tangled as the history of Ireland. I sent Uhtred to Ireland in the previous book before I thought, ‘fuck this, let get him out of here’, and so he stays one night and then goes!”

Uhtred is of course the reason we have met. ‘The Last Kingdom’ TV series, which you might have seen on the BBC this year (now available on Netflix, I urge you to watch this weekend) was a great success, inspired by the books Bernard began writing in 2004. I asked Bernard if we could talk about his new book a bit, a continuation of the series. “The books are about the making of England, because nobody in England really knows. If you’d been born in 850, the name England would mean nothing to you and yet 100 years later there’s a country. I put a slightly capricious date on it of 937, no that’s not capricious, that is true, it was at the battle of Brunanburh (Ed. Note: Fought in 937 between Æthelstan, King of England and an alliance of Olaf Guthfrithson, King of Dublin; Constantine, King of Scotland; and Owen, King of Strathclyde.) When the army of Wessex, who by now has reconquered Mercia and taken East Anglia, face a massive army of the Scots, the Irish Vikings and the Northumbrian Vikings and win. For the first time all the four countries which were inhabited by Saxons or Angles or Jutes, who spoke roughly the same language of English, were united. It’s named England after the language, not after the Saxons who won it – we should really be ‘Saxonland’ I suppose – it’s an extraordinary story.”

Bernard Cornwell on the beach outside his home in Cape Cod, Massachusetts

Bernard Cornwell on the beach outside his home in Cape Cod, Massachusetts

Ranald was nodding along intently; meanwhile I was feeling a bit like Uhtred stuck in an Irish historical drama. To mask my obliviousness, I (rather cleverly I thought) asked why we didn’t particularly get taught this history at school? “No, children aren’t taught this and yet that is how England is created, but it’s going to face lots of vicissitudes. Obviously the Danes are going to come back and they are going to conquer it again. But what they conquer is one country. After that, King Canute is the King of England, the point is, there was no England until Æthelstan, who was King Arthur’s grandson, made it and that’s the story.”

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A major theme of the book is the adoption of Uhtred by Danish Vikings, I asked Bernard if his own upbringing and adoption had been a prompt for writing, “When I was 58 I met my real father for the first time, my birth father, in Canada. His name was Uhtred. He said to me on about the second or third time we met, ‘look we’ve got this family tree’. I looked at in amazement because it went all the way back to the 6th Century and ‘Ida the Flame Bearer’ (Ed. Note: ‘The Flame Bearer’ is the title of Bernard’s 10th and latest book in The Last Kingdom series – although it’s not about Ida). Ida was an Angle, who I assume came across the sea from Jutland. He conquered what is now Bamburgh Castle and then forges a kingdom for himself, which was called Bernicia. His grandson Æðelfriþ married a queen called Bebba and they named the fort after her, Bebbanburgh – which became Bamburgh through sound changes. So Bernicia in fact, the place of which my ancestors were kings, was much of lowland Scotland and northern Northumberland… and it hasn’t been so well governed since!”

This of course begs the question of why Bernard isn’t a modern-day landowner, spending his weekends shooting or sipping champagne in Newcastle’s FC’s Directors’ box! “Well, in 1016 it was stolen from us. The then Uhtred had fallen out with King Canute. Earl Godwin, who was a Saxon ally of Canute’s, said ‘I will arrange a peace conference.’ Uhtred rather foolishly goes to this peace conference, where he is ambushed and killed. So the castle passed out of our hands. About 8 years ago I met the present owner, who’s wonderful, a lovely man. I said, ‘look, let’s be honest, this was ours and it was stolen from us. If you have a shed of honesty… a shed of decency… you’ll give it back!’ He in turn said, ‘…let me get you the heating bills.’ Francis Armstrong, the present owner was adopted, like me. What I didn’t know is that although adopted children can inherit the estate, they can’t inherit the title – what the fuck! I think that’s absolutely terrible, he doesn’t seem to care at all. But I was offended by that. As Edmund says in King Lear, ‘Now, God, stand up for bastards.’ I don’t know why we shouldn’t get the fucking title, I’d like to be Lord something or other.”

I particularly enjoyed the BBC adaptation and knew that Bernard had begun his career in television, working in current affairs programs for 11 years. I asked how involved he was in the adaptation process from book to screen? “I didn’t get involved, not in the least, I deliberately don’t. I take the view that there is nothing I can teach the people that made Downton Abbey about making drama. They have constraints that I don’t have, the budgetary constraints and time constraints. In eight hours they have to produce two books, well two books is 280,000 words or more, so let them do what they do best and shut up, keep out and say thank you!”

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Ranald can’t resist steering the conversation back to Scotland and asks, “What about the history of the Celts, the marriage of Scotia?” Bernard has a strong response, “I don’t even know if the Celts even existed. I mean the Celts claimed to have been everywhere and done everything, trying to pin them down is like pinning down quicksilver.” I am now keen to stave off a long Celtic debate, given two clear sides have emerged pretty quickly (!), so to that end I asked Bernard if we could talk about his most famous character, Sharpe. “Yes, wonderful Sharpe, Sean Bean, he was magnificent. He’s ‘gruuumpy!’ (Ed. Note: Several Sean Bean impressions fill the tape for the next few minutes). Ranald suggests there’s a bit of a class war running through Sharpe? “Yes absolutely, intentionally. Wellington claimed to disapprove of ever promoting a man taken from ranks, ‘they always take to drink’ he said. But he did occasionally and by the time of Waterloo I think 15% of the officers of the British Army were up from the ranks, they simply couldn’t fill the gaps of the regiments without them.”

Conversation and drinks are really flowing by now and as we jump around Admiral Cochrane comes up (Ed Note: Admiral Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald, Marquess of Maranhão – a daring British captain during the Napoleonic Wars, leading Napoleon to nickname him Le Loup des Mers, ‘The Sea Wolf’, he was successful in virtually all his naval actions.) We ask Bernard for his thoughts, “God yes, I love Cochrane, have you seen the photo of him in old age? There is a photograph of Cochrane taken when he was about 80 and you still wouldn’t want to face him in a dark alley, I mean god he looks fearsome. The story of when he’s thrown out of the Order of the Bath is wonderful, when they hack off the spurs and get a proxy to stand in for him, Cochrane was as mad as a hatter but he was wonderful, he is one of the great, great characters. He takes a French man-of-war, from basically a rowing boat.”

Bernard Cornwell’s two most famous protagonists, Sergeant Richard Sharpe played by Sean Bean and Uhtred of Bebbanburg, played by the actor Alexander Dreymon in The Last Kingdom

Bernard Cornwell’s two most famous protagonists, Sergeant Richard Sharpe played by Sean Bean and Uhtred of Bebbanburg, played by the actor Alexander Dreymon in The Last Kingdom

A few authors have been through the Boisdale threshold now and we are always intrigued by what they enjoy reading, Bernard’s response was no less illuminating, “John Sanford, but I’ll make a confession, if you spend your life writing historical novels, the last thing you want to do in your spare time is read historical novels. The one exception I make is George MacDonald Fraser, who you can’t beat. I grew up reading the Bible, I was adopted into a strange sect called the Peculiar People but I did find Hornblower when I was about 12, so that saved me.”

Bernard enjoyed the Boisdale classic, Roast Blackface haggis, mashed potatoes & bashed neeps served as a main course for £16.00 (noggin of Glenfiddich 15yr an additional £6.20) - www.boisdale.co.uk

Bernard enjoyed the Boisdale classic, Roast Blackface haggis, mashed potatoes & bashed neeps served as a main course for £16.00 (noggin of Glenfiddich 15yr an additional £6.20) – www.boisdale.co.uk

Is doing the research a huge chunk of your time? “It’s a life-long thing. I started reading about Napoleon when I was 15 or 16. One thing that really comes across in the Sharpe books is the respect everyone had on the British side for Napoleon. They want a glimpse of him and they admire him. On one hand you can say Napoleon is pretty frightful, in as much as he caused the deaths of tens of millions of people. But he’s a fascinating man, did you read Andrew Robert’s biography that came out last year, ‘Napoleon the Great’? I mean Andrew is completely struck by him and he was an incredible enlightening man, an interesting man. I think that the problem with Napoleon was he was in love with war and he only really felt alive when he was going to war. He did brilliant things, the Code Napoleon, the way that he had toleration for the Jews, all sorts of wonderful, liberal, enlightened things that he was very good at… but he just got bored by it! I honestly don’t know whether this is apocryphal or not, but I love it all the same, it’s one of those stories that if it’s not true it ought to be true. So it goes, during the retreat from Moscow that he is about to get terrible press in Paris, he has just thrown away the Grand Armée, so he sends a letter saying would the dancers of the Paris ballet please dance with bare legs – so that Paris will talk of nothing else!”

On lighter matters, Bernard is an actor in his hometown and a rugby fan, he endeavours to keep up with the 6 Nations in his local Irish pub, The Prohibition. I asked if the Sharpe character was really named after a rugby player? “What happened was, when I began to write Sharpe it was all rather desperate because I met Judy (Bernard’s wife) and had gone to America but couldn’t get a work permit. So I said, ‘It’s alright darling, I will write a book.’ I knew I wanted to write Hornblower on land, which is what the genesis of Sharpe was and I was looking for a name like Hornblower but just couldn’t find one. So I wrote a few chapters with xxxx and of course that looked horrible, so I thought ok I will call him after Richard Sharpe until I find a name (Ed Note: Richard Sharpe, born 1938, was a former Cornish rugby player at Redruth R.F.C., then Wasps FC, Bristol FC and England [14 caps]). Of course that was fatal because within two days, that was it – he was Richard Sharpe – who I gather was rather flattered!”

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We end the interview with were it all began. There’s a rather famous moment when Bernard’s writing career took off, I’m sure he’s told the story a thousand times but I pressed him for it regardless, “I was invited to New York to see some friends and it was the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. It must have been Central Park West and we were standing on a balcony, I had the biggest Bloody Mary I have ever seen in my life and the all-American high school band is marching beneath us playing selections from Oklahoma. A voice behind me said, ‘They do this sort of thing frightfully well don’t they’, so being a brilliant conversationalist I say, ‘Oh you’re English?’ and he says, ‘Yes, I’m a literary agent.’ I said, ‘Well I’ve just written a book’ – ‘Oh fuck!’ he says, turns around and walks away. I followed him into the room, and I grabbed him a second time saying I’ve got an offer on my book – that’s when you see the fruit machine eyes, there’s money. ‘How much he said?’ I said, ‘£3,000 world rights’ – ‘Then it must be a fucking awful book!’ he says and walks away. I got him a third time and I almost went on one knee and said please, please, read my book and he replied, ‘Dear boy, if I must, meet me at the oyster bar at Grand Central Station at midday tomorrow.’ So I went in at midday and gave him the book and then went back home. He phoned me at 7 o’clock and said, ‘How much money do you want for this book?’ I had no idea what to say, so I made up a figure and within two weeks I had a seven-book contract. I love the man!”

Bernard must be counted as one of the world’s greatest historical fiction authors. With the success of ‘The Last Kingdom’ and advent of box-set binging, a new generation will grow up seeking out his cannon of work. His battles scenes are some of the best in the business. I ended by asking Bernard’s wife Judy whether she enjoyed reading his books, Bernard jumps in with his own response, “I heard a friend of Judy’s once asking her if she read my books, her response was ‘I do, but I skip the battles.’ Bloody quick read that, darling!”


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