How Bernard Cornwell sought inspiration from his own family history for Viking drama The Last Kingdom

The author of the Saxon saga, now being adapted for the BBC, talks to Michael Buerk about his life playing with history

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But for the odd twist of history, Bernard Cornwell could have been the Lord of Bamburgh Castle, that high and haughty Northumberland fortress that juts bleakly out into the North Sea as formidably as it towers over his Saxon novels.

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His father, it seems, could trace his ancestry back to the 6th century and the petty kings who ruled the north before England was invented. Through him, Cornwell is descended from Uhtred the Bold, Earl of Northumbria and Lord of Bamburgh, a Dark Ages warlord given to impaling the severed heads of Scotsmen on his castle walls. Uhtred the Rather-too-Bold, as it turned out, as he carelessly fell into a trap set by Sweyn Forkbeard and his Viking cronies and was treacherously done to death in 1016.

It all reads like an historical novel, which is convenient as Cornwell was already Britain’s most successful author of historical fiction even before he decided to write about his own ancestors. He’s written more than 50 books and sold more than 20 million copies, worldwide. Now his Saxon stories are being turned into an eight-part BBC2 drama series, The Last Kingdom (see trailer below), which has been made by Carnival Films, who did Downton Abbey. Uhtred, dead for a millennium, will be famous overnight, a light will have been shone on the Dark Ages and Cornwell will be even richer and more celebrated than ever. “I’ve just been very, very lucky,” he says. He says it a lot.

Cornwell’s beginnings were inauspicious. He started life unwanted and illegitimate, the result of a wartime affair between an upper-crust Canadian airman and a lowly WAAF sergeant from London’s East End. He was adopted into a family who were all members of a fairly extreme evangelical Christian sect called, without irony, the Peculiar People – a group, he says, that “banned medicine, TV and fun”.

He escaped to university, failed to become a soldier himself and spent some time as a teacher before finding his way into the BBC. By his mid-30s he had risen to be head of current affairs at BBC Northern Ireland at a time, in the late 70s, when pretty much the only current affair in the province was a low intensity civil war. The Troubles were at their peak and yet a group of American travel agents were invited to check Belfast out as a possible tourist destination… an event so bizarre, so naive, it merited a documentary in itself.

Cornwell was waiting for them at their hotel. The lift door opened. “Out stepped a blonde,” he says. “I turned to my reporter – a young trainee called Gavin Esler – and said, ‘I’m going to marry that woman.’” And he did. It was a turning point so sudden, so complete and so life-changing, most novelists would think it much too far-fetched for fiction.

His new wife Judy could not leave America for what he calls “good family reasons”. He could go there; the problem was getting a work permit and a job. In the end success wasn’t down to luck at all; it was love and bureaucracy. “I’d always wanted to write a book. I found myself with Judy in America – no green card, nothing to do – and I thought, well, let’s try it.”

Sean Bean as Richard Sharpe in 1993

He knew the kind of book he wanted to write, even if he was hazy about how to go about it. As a teenager he’d been obsessed with CS Forester’s novels about Nelson’s Royal Navy and his fictional hero, Horatio Hornblower.

“Once you’d finished the 11th – and last – book there was nowhere to go except the non-fiction histories. I lapped them up and discovered Wellington and his Peninsular army, perhaps the finest military instrument that ever existed. I thought, ‘Somebody must have written novels about them’ and haunted the bookshops. But there weren’t any. There was a gap on the shelf. It was as simple as that.”

His learning curve was almost vertical. “I hadn’t a clue how to go about it. So I took three successful novels – one was a Hornblower – and I broke them down, chapter by chapter, page by page; where there was dialogue, where there was a flashback, where there was action. There were great charts all over the walls – a template, a structure. Then I just sat down and wrote the damn thing.”

He borrowed a name for his rifleman hero because he couldn’t think one up. He called him after Richard Sharp (he added an “e”), the coltish English fly-half who scored perhaps the most graceful try ever seen at Twickenham back in 1963. It took five Sharpe novels to get a bestseller. And Cornwell never looked back.

Cornwell, second from left, with the cast and production team of The Last Kingdom

He’s written 24 Sharpe stories to date and made a fortune out of the barrel of his hero’s gun and the large-scale dispatching of fictional Frenchmen. It has bought him an enviable lifestyle and splendid homes on Cape Cod and in Charleston, South Carolina. Cornwell’s self-deprecating in the kind of way that invites contradiction. “It’s better than working,” he says. “I’m lazy as hell.”

In fact, he starts writing at 6.30am in his purpose-built library and study in the Massachusetts woods and works through every day until around 5pm, with only a short break for lunch. He uses two computers, one for the research, one to write on, and churns out two novels a year, year in, year out. He never gets stuck: “Writer’s block is nature’s way of telling you you shouldn’t be a writer.”

He’s a storyteller, he says, not an artist, certainly not an historian, though, if pushed, he will say his books might be a “gateway to history”. Success is a formula: “Kick off with a battle – gets the book off to a nice, fast start. Lots of dead Frenchies. Introduce the plot, right? Plot begins to sag? Wheel on 40,000 Frenchies and start slaughtering them. Keep it moving. More plot. Finish with a set-piece battle that ties up all the plot ends and kills off the four villains. Works every time.”

Patrick O’Brian, the rather lofty author of the Aubrey/Maturin novels set in the same period, famously said of his rival’s books that they were “all plot and no lifestyle”. Bernard regards it as a compliment. “When people say they couldn’t put my book down, I think, ‘Yeah! Gotcha!’”

He doesn’t feel constrained, writing fiction round real events. “All historical novels are a big story and a little story. The big story is the history and you have to stay true to it. The little story is yours and you can do what you like.”

Unless you’re writing about American history, that is. “I wrote a couple of novels about the American Revolution but I was very, very aware I was approaching the high ground of American myth where you can’t change a damn thing.” He went back to “his” history, British history, “where I am totally free to play merry hell, so long as I don’t muck about with that big story in the background”.

He’s written series of novels about Arthurian Britain (his favourites) and a quest for the Holy Grail in the 14th century, but the books that form the basis of the new television programmes are much more personal. He’d already been to Bamburgh Castle – he and Judy took a holiday cottage nearby two years running – when he finally tracked down his real father and found his ancestors had owned it.

“I was in Vancouver on a book tour,” he says, “being interviewed by the local paper. I could see the poor b****r was bored to death and I decided to wake him up.” He let slip that the father he’d never seen lived in the city, and he wanted to meet him. Two days later, at another event, a woman (a cousin, as it turned out) came up and pushed a piece a paper at him, saying: “That’s your father.” He called. They met. 

Alexander Dreymon as Uhtred in The Last Kingdom

Cornwell found out less about his mother (“Was she pretty?” The reply: “You wouldn’t be here if she wasn’t”) than about his Anglo and Saxon forebears, who stretch back to Ida the Flamebearer, who came across the North Sea in 600AD and captured the rock on which the castle now stands. “When I discovered that, a light goes on. That’s glory.”

He doesn’t want the castle back, “though I did say to the present owner: ‘Look, come on, it was taken by treachery. If you had a trace of honour you’d give it back.’ “He said, ‘Let me show you the heating bills.’”

Cornwell could afford them. The Saxon novels are bestsellers and set to be the BBC’s answer to the hit HBO series, Game of Thrones. But he is not a fan. “So many characters. So many strands. You have to have large sections where the plot is explained; just have to sit there and be told what’s going on. This is very, very dull. So they put a lot of naked women behind it all.

“They’re called ‘sexplanations’ in the trade. My programmes won’t need sexplanations.”

“Or dragons?” I ask.

“Damn!” he says, roaring with laughter.

Cornwell’s not possessive about his creations. Sharpe was televised in the 90s, starring Sean Bean. At first, he wasn’t the author’s idea of Sharpe. “But he was terrific and I wrote Sharpe differently after Sean.” In any case, it was, as he puts it, “two hours of free advertising every week for the books”. 

He hasn’t wanted any say in the adaptation of The Last Kingdom. He hasn’t seen the sets, he hasn’t read the scripts, he hasn’t seen any rushes. “I’ll watch it with the rest of you when it goes out on the BBC.” Mind you, he says he’s never read any of his novels, right through, after they have been written.

Shifting books is what he cares about. By the million. All over the world. He’s a cult in Japan and in Brazil he was mobbed. “It was like being a rock star. Never has one elderly Anglo-Saxon been kissed by so many Latino girls.”

Bernard Cornwell is an author who knows what he wants. He knows what his readers want. The rest is history.

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The Last Kingdom begins on BBC2 tonight (Thursday 22nd October) at 9.00pm