An Evening with Bernard Cornwell

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Photo by Nathusius, Flickr

Earlier this week I was lucky enough to attend a rare live appearance from Bernard Cornwell. The event was organised by Foyles and took place in Westminster, Central London – right next to Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. The talk took place in a beautiful, old room packed with oil paintings and so the atmosphere was fantastic before the authors even arrived.

Bernard Cornwell is the most popular writer of historical fiction in the UK. He has written more than 40 books, selling over 5 million copies worldwide. I had always been intrigued by his books, but hadn’t read any until I decided to go and see him talk. I had mixed feelings about my first Cornwell book, but I’ll save those for my review next week.

Bernard Cornwell was sharing the stage with Richard Kemp, a former British commander of troops in Afganistan (and author of Attack State Red). Together they talked about the role of the soldier in both fiction and non-fiction. Both were fantastic public speakers and I had an entertaining evening listening to their anecdotes.

Bernard Cornwell talked almost exclusively about his new book, The Fort. Set in Massachusetts during the War of Independence it describes the Penobscot Expedition in which a less than thousand British infantry managed to successfully stand up to a fleet of more than 40 vessels.



The audience consisted mainly of people twice my age and of the opposite sex. I presume that the talk of war put off many women and I have to admit that there were several moments when it was too much for me. You definitely have to have certain qualities to become a soldier and I don’t have any of them! Both authors described how the best soldiers in history were recruited from bar fights – they were the “scum of the Earth”, “larger louts who were given pride and discipline”. It was interesting to hear them talk, but I think it just confirmed my suspicions that military history isn’t for me.

A few Bernard Cornwell facts revealed that evening

  • He wanted to give The Fort the title Captivate, Kill or Destroy but the publishers insisted on the boring title.
  • The stupidest thing he ever did was kill off Hatesville (don’t ask me who he is – I have no idea!)
  • He hates the word “task” and wishes people would stick to using the word “job”.
  • His favourite author of military fact is Antony Beevor
  • His favourite military fiction book is Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes

The most amusing question of the night came from a man near the front who asked how often Bernard Cornwell is confused with Bill Bryson – I noted that he sidestepped the question!

I was most struck by how knowledgeable Bernard Cornwell is. He has a detailed knowledge of the history surrounding all his books and a clear enthusiasm for his subjects. Talking about war may not have been to my taste, but he managed to hold my attention throughout and make me laugh on several occasions. I will definitely go and hear him talk again if given the opportunity – especially if he talks about some of his other historical fiction titles.

Have you read any of Bernard Cornwell’s books?

If so, which did you enjoy the most?

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  1. LizF says:

    Interesting to see this as I was working with a PR from his publishers last weekend when she was escorting a very famous female author of blockbusters around the UK. She said that she would just get chance to see the author onto her flight back to New York, before beginning to work with Bernard Cornwell and I am guessing that the Foyles event was part of that.

    I have a copies of Harlequin (Medieval setting) and Stonehenge on my shelves because both are subjects I enjoy, but have yet to read them (much faster at buying books than getting around to reading them!)
    My former brother-in-law has read a lot of his books and said that Cornwell does a lot of research so you don’t end up doubting his historical accuracy which is more than I can say for some.
    A bit puzzled as to how someone could get Bernard Cornwell muddled up with Bill Bryson – unless it is because they both have beards!

    1. Jackie says:

      Liz, I’m afraid I can’t comment on the similarity between Cornwell and Bryson as I have a facial recognition problem. If two men in the same film have short, brown hair then I can’t tell them apart :-(

      I can let you know a bit more about Cornwell’s attitude to research. He does a lot of research for each of his books and ensures he visits every place he talks about, but when asked about his responsibility to history he said he was responsible for ‘getting it vaguely right’ He wants to write good stories and so occasionally alters historical fact to suit his writing. He does ensure that he makes a note of all deviations at the back of his books so that you know exactly what has changed.

      I’ll let you know my thoughts on Stonehenge next week. :-)

      1. LizF says:

        Sounds like I should bump the two books up my TBR list then as I have no problem with writers deviating from history so long as it is deliberately done (ie not thriough ignorance) and they acknowledge it.
        I look forward to seeing your review!

  2. Alison M. says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed the Arthur series (“The Winter King, Enemy of God etc.) & tried the Sharpe novels after watching the TV adaptations. Couldn’t get on with them at all tho.
    I’m always interested to see different interpretations of the Arthurian tales &, as you’d suspect, Cornwell’s is bleak realism. However, meticulous research made the books very believable. I suspect that, if you’re not naturally a Cornwell reader, then interest in the time he’s writing about is fairly essential to your enjoyment. didn’t know about “Stonehenge” tho, so might give that a go.

    1. Jackie says:

      Alison, The Arthur series appealed to me the most, but I couldn’t find a copy in my local library. The history of Stonehenge appealed too and I was very impressed by the detailed research present in it.

      I suspect that the Shapre series won’t be for me though…

  3. Beth F says:

    Jealous, jealous, jealous. Love his books. Loved his Warlords books. Read and liked a lot his first Starbuck book.

    1. Jackie says:

      Beth, Bernard Cornwell lives in the US so there should be a good chance he’ll do a few talks over there. Hopefully he’ll do one near you at some point :-)

  4. sakura says:

    Sounds like you had a very enjoyable night! I often go and listen to authors whose books I’ve never read and I leave really wanting to read their books. Of course I’ve heard Cornwell but haven’t read any of his books. However, I’ve watched many episodes of Sharpe:) You’ve made me want to go and read his books now.

    1. Jackie says:

      Sakura, There are so many authors that I want to read, but haven’t yet tried. Booking a ticket to see them talk is often the incentive to put one of their books to the top of the pile. I often find that the authors I don’t know, who just happen to be at the same presentation end up on my TBR pile too, but I guess that is what those cunning PR people plan when they pair up these authors :-)

  5. Dorte H says:

    My husband has one of Cornwell´s books on his shelf so I´ll watch out for your review (to see if I should try ´stealing´ that book :D ) My husband doesn´t read much fiction so he might not even notice until I had finished reading it.

    1. Jackie says:

      Dorte, I think your husband’s book may be safe ;-) , but you’ll have to make up your own mind when you read my review.

  6. Sandy says:

    Just the idea of hearing a famous author talk while sitting in a beautiful historical building is cool enough. I’ve not read anything by this man, and probably won’t. Military historical fiction isn’t necessarily my bag.

    1. Jackie says:

      Sandy, Bernard Cornwell has written many non-military fiction books, but I’m not sure he is your sort of thing. Could be wrong though ;-)

  7. Jenners says:

    Sounds like an interesting evening. And I’m sure you weren’t quite the target audience for this evening … other than being a reader. The question about Bill Bryson cracked me up.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jenners, It was definitely an evening for men, but I coped – sometimes it is good to get an insight into their minds ;-)

  8. Shannon says:

    I would have gone just for the surroundings! I haven’t read anything by him but I’m not a fan of historical fiction which is strange considering my university degree is in history ;) I probably would have loved the talk though, every side of my family has been affected by war and I do appreciate the authors who keep those stories alive.

    1. Jackie says:

      Shannon, The surroundings were fantastic. I avoided taking the tube and took a lovely walk along the bank of the Thames – a perfect evening walk with all the sights lit up :-)

  9. David Nolan says:

    I don’t really like war and gore, be it in fact or fiction. That said, based on my experience of the trilogy that culminates with Agincourt, I believe Cornwell is brilliant at what he does.

    1. Jackie says:

      David, I don’t mind a bit of gore, but I don’t think I’ll enjoy his Sharpe series as the military stategy doesn’t appeal. The Agincourt books appeal a lot more. Thanks for the recommendation!

  10. What a wonderful evening – from the spectacular event setting to the author appearance itself … thanks for sharing it with us.

  11. Alex says:

    I’ve only read Stonehenge by BC, but I honestly wasn’t very impressed. However, he’s so all over the place that I feel I need to give him another shot. Haven’t decided with what book yet…

    1. Jackie says:

      Alex, It sounds as though we are in a similar position. I didn’t think Stonehenge was very good either, but I think his other books may be better. I’ll give him another try one day.


  1. Stonehenge – Bernard Cornwell – Farm Lane Books Blog

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