Bernard Cornwell on writing historical fiction and his blockbuster series The Last Kingdom: your questions answered
Ahead of the release of season 4 of The Last Kingdom on Sunday 26 April, we revisit our interview with historical author Bernard Cornwell, upon whose novels the hit TV show is based. Here, Cornwell answers your questions about the real history behind show, and reveals why he will never write about the Victorian period…
Q: I’m so impressed with how the TV series of The Last Kingdom follows the plot of the books. Is this your doing? Or just a happy coincidence?
Asked by Cris Harding on Facebook
Bernard Cornwell: I'm glad it does, but I actually try and stay out of it. I spent 11 years working in television, and one thing I learnt was that I know nothing about producing it. The people behind The Last Kingdom did very kindly ask me whether I wanted to be an advisor on the show. While I think they do an amazing job, I don't want to interfere.
What I particularly love about the series is that you get added value from creative people: the make-up artists, costume designers, actors, scriptwriters, producers and director. They add stuff to the story – and it’s often brilliant, sometimes better than the book series. There is a wonderful character with sharpened teeth in the TV series and I wish that I’d invented him!
The TV series does have constraints that I don’t struggle with as a writer. If I’m writing chapter five of a book and the plot seems to be flagging, I can introduce 30,000 murderous Danes to liven things up. In the world of TV, you can’t do that – for the simple reason that 30,000 Danes would cost a lot of money.
I used to get really irritated by people who complained about the casting of Sean Bean in the Sharpe series. They would say things like, “He doesn’t have black hair”. My response was always: “Oh come on! Sean Bean is Sharpe. When I said the character had black hair in the books, I was the one who got it wrong because Sean Bean doesn't have black hair.”
Q: Do you prefer writing battles that have already happened, or do you prefer to invent your own?
Asked by Piers Renfree on Facebook
BC: It really depends on the story. At the end of my new book, War of the Wolf, there is a battle that I think is one of the best I've ever written. It's totally fiction (although this is the ‘Dark Ages’, so something similar might actually have happened. Who knows?)
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Listen to our full interview with Bernard Cornwell about his books that inspired The Last Kingdom on the HistoryExtra podcast
Q: How do you choose which historical events to feature in The Last Kingdom series?
Asked by Jackie Brunsdon on Facebook
BC: We don't actually know that much about the time period. We do know a lot about King Alfred's reign – for the simple reason that he liked to write everything down in his Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – but when he dies in 899, it's rather as if the lights have gone out. I try and include the major events that the Chronicle mentions, but there's not enough there to make up a short story. As a writer, I’ve got to invent more.
Generally, I pick salient points out of the Chronicle and other histories and expand on them. So for example, The Last Kingdom series is going to end with a real historical event: the battle of Brunanburh in 937. The battle marked the beginning of England, so obviously had to be included in the series.
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In my latest book, War of the Wolf, I have the character Æthelstan – who becomes the king of Essex and wins the battle of Brunanburh – vow to Uhtred that he will never invade Northumbria. Well, the real Æthelstan does do this – so he’s going to break that oath. That also had to be included.
In many ways, War of the Wolf reflects a reality in which Northumbria – which is now the last of the old kingdoms – is under siege from the Norsemen. That’s what that book is about, although there's no great event in The Chronicles that illustrates that.
Q: All of your books are well researched. How much time do you spend researching?
Asked by Kim Davis Daniel on Facebook
BC: Research is a lifetime occupation, it genuinely is. I love history; it’s what I read for pleasure.
Having said that, I hate the process of researching. I remember when I wrote three books on King Arthur (who, incidentally, I don't believe ever was a king). I wanted these books to be wonderful and so I was researching like crazy. But after three months of very hard work, I got bored. I just couldn’t face reading another book about the subject.
At that stage in my career, every book I'd ever written had been in the third person. One day I thought: “Okay, I'm going to take a break from research and I'm just going to write a single chapter in the first person and see how it goes”. Three months later, the book was finished. It was just such a relief to not be researching anymore. For me, the real joy is actually writing the story.
Of course, this doesn't mean that I don't research while writing. I’ll be busy writing when I’ll suddenly think something like: “Did they actually have Bren guns in the ninth century?” I’ll Google it, and find out they didn't.
Q: How do you think England might have evolved and developed as a nation if the Norman invasion had failed and we had continued from Harold Godwinson onward?
Asked by Peter J Lacey on Facebook
BC: That’s a very interesting question. I'm going to weasel my way out of it by saying that ‘what if’ questions are impossible.
If I had to give an answer, I would say that I don’t think it would have been that much different. What you have with the Norman invasion is the establishment of a new ruling class that speaks two different languages. They go on speaking like this for 400 more years, until eventually there comes a moment in the 14th and 15th centuries when the ruling class begins to understand that they need the support of the people ‘underneath’ to stay on top. I might be wrong about this, but I believe the year of the battle of Agincourt was the first year that English was used in the law courts. Suddenly, the Anglo-Normans had become ‘native’.
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It might have been a nicer country if the Norman invasion had failed, in the sense that the Saxons had a greater sense of social justice. But that returned to us in the end. In a way, the Saxons won by assimilating the Normans.
Q: Have you ever considered writing about the Spanish Armada? It combines two of your great loves – the Tudor period and sailing at sea.
Asked by Martin Jones on Facebook
BC: I’ve thought about it; I really have thought about it. Maybe one day. It’s a possibility – perhaps if I live long enough!
Q: You’ve covered several interesting eras in your writing. Is there a period of history you wouldn’t want to write about?
Asked by Sally O’Neill on Facebook
BC: Yes, the Victorians. I find the Victorians incredibly boring. What I like about my series Sharpe, which is set in the Regency period, is that we were still ‘pirates’ during this time. After that, we were struck by a huge fit of morality. We were suddenly ‘doing good’ in the world (although actually we were beating up these poor colonies).
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I always remember the story of soldier Harry Smith at the siege of Badajoz [when, in 1812, General Arthur Wellesley and an Anglo-Portuguese army besieged Badajoz, Spain]. Smith goes through the breach and meets this poor Spanish girl, Juana Maria de los Dolores de Leon. She's 14 years old and she’s crying; her earrings have been torn out of her earlobes and she’s bleeding. As far as Harry's concerned, it's love at first sight.
Victorian biographies acknowledge that Harry was attracted to Juana, but they say that she accompanied him through the rest of the campaign with a chaperone so nothing ‘untoward’ could happen. It’s a load of rubbish: he was bonking her the night he met her. I prefer the truth to this totally fake history; Harry married Juana, who later became known as Lady Smith. So you see, the Victorians weren't as uptight and straight-laced as they’d have you believe.
Bernard Cornwell is author of The Last Kingdom and Sharpe series. His latest book, War of the Wolf, is out now.
Season 4 of The Last Kingdom premieres on Netflix on Sunday 26 April 2020.
Rachel Dinning is Digital Editorial Assistant at HistoryExtra. Listen to her full interview with Bernard Cornwell on the History Extra podcast here.
This article was first published in October 2018