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With characters like Richard Sharpe and Uhtred of Bebbanburg, Bernard Cornwell’s books have enthralled us for nearly 40 years. When it comes to engaging, page-turning stories, he is the master.  

In interviews, Cornwell always stresses that the story must come first. Not the timeline, not historical authenticity – the story. And that’s what makes his books so great. Strong characters who go out and get things done, clashing swords and roaring muskets. No-one does it better.  

It was a devil of a job to whittle them down, but here are our top 20 Bernard Cornwell books: 

20) Harlequin/The Archer’s Tale (The Grail Quest series)

This is the first of the Thomas of Hookton series, set in the Hundred Years’ War. Thomas is a self-taught archer, forced to leave Dorset after a Norman raid. He joins up with a regiment of archers, serving under the Earl of Northampton, culminating in the Battle of Crécy. He grows throughout the novel, becoming more accustomed to command and develops as an archer, becoming a lethal soldier whose bloody trade often puts him at odds with his Christian faith.

19) Fools and Mortals

When you have a winning formula, like Sharpe or Uhtred, it can be tempting just to stick with it. But with this book, Bernard Cornwell has shown he can turn his hand to just about anything and produce an amazing story. Elizabethan London truly does come to life in Fools and Mortals. In this book, Cornwell looks at the struggling actor Richard Shakespeare, brother of the more famous William. Cornwell himself is a keen amateur actor, and those skills certainly come through in the prose, along with his passion for Shakespeare.

18) The Winter King (Warlord Chronicles)

Exploring the legend of Arthur, The Winter King shows us the ‘real’ once and future king. Cornwell gives us a historic look at post-Roman Britain, with none of the chivalry and romance of the medieval re-telling. There is no shining plate armour and gleaming lances, only bloody chainmail and splintered spears. Cornwell gives us a look at the divided chaotic kingdoms of the early Dark Ages, mixed with the brewing conflict between the indigenous druidic faith and the rise of Christianity.

17) Gallows Thief

Set in 1817, Gallows Thief is a murder mystery where Rider Sandman, a veteran of the Napoleonic wars, must prove the innocence of a man due to hang in just one week. With all the action taking place in such a short space of time, the book is packed with all the revelations and tension you’d expect from the historical mystery subgenre. The story is gloriously cynical. Both about the unfairness of British ‘justice’ and also the morality of the aristocracy, including the diabolical Seraphim Club.

16) Enemy of God (Warlord Chronicles)

This is the second of the Warlord Chronicles series, and we join the narrator, Derfel Cadarn, in his quest to obtain the Cauldron – one of the thirteen legendary treasures of Britain. The book follows his travels to what is now Wales, and it is a testament to Cornwell’s storytelling that he shows what to modern audiences is a simple journey, but to Derfel is a terrifying and risky ordeal. Like all Cornwell’s protagonists, Derfel is faced with difficult choices, namely either his loyalty to Arthur or his love for Ceinwyn.

15) Sharpe’s Sword (Sharpe series)

Cornwell has never shied away from throwing stones at his characters, and this is a perfect example. In this book, Sharpe’s iconic 1796 Heavy Cavalry sword is broken. The story is not just a thrilling adventure with sword fights and battles (although to be fair, there is quite a lot of that stuff); it is about Sharpe’s sense of identity and how he copes with the loss of his sword. There is also a fair bit of intrigue and subterfuge blended in with the action.

14) Death of Kings (The Last Kingdom series)

Death of Kings is a real turning point in The Last Kingdom series, as Uhtred is left without allies in the Wessex court. It also sees his rise as the protector of Mercia, completing his transition from brash youth to a grizzled veteran, using his cunning and experience in battle rather than just the strength of his sword arm. But don’t worry – he gets stuck into the violence as well! 

13) The Fort

A solid standalone novel, The Fort chronicles the events of the Penobscot Expedition in 1779. Set in the days of the American War of Independence, all the ingredients are there for a classic Cornwell. The protagonist of the novel is Sir John Moore (then Lieutenant John Moore), and Cornwell gives us a fascinating insight into the first battle of a man who would go on to pen the light infantry doctrine used in the Napoleonic Wars. Cornwell’s fascination for this event shines through clearly on the page.

12) Vagabond (The Grail Quest series)

The second Thomas of Hookton book. We join Thomas in his battle against the Scots, detailing David II’s capture at the Battle of Neville’s Cross. One of the best things about Bernard Cornwell’s books is his willingness to put his characters through hell, and Thomas has a pretty rough time in this book. Fair warning: this is not a book for those who get overly attached to characters. That being said, Thomas comes out stronger and is all the more engaging for it.

11) Sharpe’s Tiger (Sharpe series)

This is chronologically the first Sharpe novel, written as a prequel to his time in the Peninsular War. We join Sharpe as a private in India, serving with the loathsome Obadiah Hakeswill. The colonial aspects of the book could be viewed as problematic in this day and age, but Cornwell depicts and approaches this as a professional historical writer, not shying away from the realities of the British Empire in India.

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10) Warriors of the Storm (The Last Kingdom series)

Æthelflæd looks to continue her re-conquest of Mercia, pursuing her father’s dream of a united England. This book not only looks at Uhtred’s support for her campaign but also at the personal costs he bares by acting as the shield and sword of the Saxons for so many years, with his own ambition of retaking Bebbanburg coming at the cost of isolating him from his eldest son.

9) Heretic (The Grail Quest series)

The third Thomas of Hookton book deals with not just the brutality of war, but also the cruelty of the medieval church. True to form, Cornwell starts the book with a savage battle outside of Calais, setting the tone for the story. In this book, Thomas is pushed between doing what is right and doing what the church allows. His continued quest for the grail is set against the backdrop of a vicious plague, which ravages Europe. 

8) The Pale Horseman (The Last Kingdom series)

Bernard Cornwell is an expert at telling stories of key turning points – the crossroads in history. In this, the second book in The Last Kingdom series, Alfred is on the back foot, driven into the marshes of Athelney. It’s a classic comeback story as he and Uhtred rally in an attempt to fight off the Danes. As always, Uhtred’s pagan faith stands in contrast to Alfred’s piety, and his own private ambition to retake Bebbanburg contrasts with Alfred’s vast vision of a united England.

7) 1356 (The Grail Quest series)

Set ten years after the end of the previous Grail Quest novel, Thomas of Hookton returns. As the leader of his band of archers, Thomas is the consummate fighting man. Cornwell also touches on the French dominance of the papacy at this time, covering the byzantine politics of the Catholic Church. The Battle of Poitiers is combined with a race against time to find the legendary sword of St Peter, which would be able to inspire the English army against the French.

6) Excalibur (Warlord Chronicles)

One of the best things about Cornwell’s writing is he can inspire so much with the use of ritual and magic in his books. The final book in the Warlord Chronicles series, Excalibur sees the characters vying over a grand ritual to summon up the old gods in an effort to save Britain from the Saxons.

5) The Lords of the North (The Last Kingdom series)

Easily one of the best books Bernard Cornwell has ever written. The Lords of the North looks at the rivalry and vendettas in the North of England after the fracturing of the Great Heathen Army. Uhtred really develops as a character in this novel, and Father Beocca is surprisingly badass, in a scene that still gives me chills every time I re-read it. Magic, treachery and a healthy dose of shield wall violence. What’s not to love?

4) Azincourt

One thing Cornwell is great at is finding the small in the huge. He does this very well in Azincourt, where we follow the archer Nicholas Hook and his rivalries with a corrupt priest and two other soldiers. Nicholas Hook’s rise in fortunes and misadventures are framed against the desperate and violent campaigns of Henry V. The king is portrayed, as Cornwell often does legendary figures like Alfred the Great or Wellington, as very human and very fallible. Nicholas sees straight through his ‘cunning’ disguise on the eve of the battle and tells him exactly what he thinks. This is not Shakespeare’s battle, and Henry is not Shakespeare’s king. It is a brutal and vicious fight, and Cornwell spares us none of the details, stripping away nationalism and romanticism to tell a superb story.

3) Sharpe’s Eagle (Sharpe series)

Sharpe’s Eagle is a cracking Sharpe story. The best thing about this classic book is the pride and the passion the characters have for their colours. In an age of cynical individualism, we might forget how important banners, colours and totems were to our ancestors. But Cornwell shows this masterfully. The novel also includes one of the greatest villains in the series. I speak of course of the slimy Sir Henry Simmerson.

2) Stonehenge: A Novel of 2000 BC

At the number two spot, we have a personal favourite, Stonehenge. Ironically, it’s a work of historical fiction set in prehistory. The drama centres around the vast undertaking of Stonehenge, dealing with the incredible efforts needed to erect the monument. This is a wonderfully ambitious book, taking in the full scope of the human experience: greed, jealously, love, and everything in-between. Best of all, the Neolithic people presented in the book are not just clumsy savages. They are written with the complexity and depth of any Regency costume drama or Victorian society piece, and you will find yourself rooting for them as they struggle to survive.

1) The Last Kingdom (The Last Kingdom series)

This is the big one. The first Uhtred book, where it all starts. With vivid strokes, Cornwell paints an image of a shattered and desperate England. Uhtred is thrown in at the deep end as the Viking Ragnar takes him as a slave. Ragnar, however, turns out to be fairly decent and raises Uhtred like a son alongside his own son, also called Ragnar (I said he was decent, not imaginative). The novel is all about loyalty. Uhtred is torn between his foster family and his Saxon blood, just as he is torn between his pagan beliefs and the eternal Christian optimism of Father Beocca, who acts like a Jiminy Cricket for Uhtred.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this list of 20 of the best Bernard Cornwell books, compiled by Jack Shannon, regular guest contributor to The History Quill.

Looking for more historical fiction suggestions? Read on for another 20 book recommendations for Bernard Cornwell fans. 

20 historical fiction book recommendations for Bernard Cornwell fans

1) Odinn’s Child (Viking series) by Tim Severin 

At the start of the 11th century, the son of Leif the Lucky arrives in Greenland to be raised by a foster family. This is a terrific book for really capturing the final days of the pagan Norse and the eventual rise of Christianity. Ambitiously, Severin gives us plenty of real people and real places to explore in his novel. Although it is highly entertaining, with all the sword fights and blood you would expect from a novel with ‘Odinn’ in the title, it is academically very vigorous. Severin has done his research and it shows.

2) The Clan of the Cave Bear (Earth’s Children series) by Jean M. Auel 

If you enjoyed the prehistoric fiction of Stonehenge, then you will adore The Clan of the Cave Bear. It’s set a few thousand years earlier and explores the early interactions between Neanderthals and modern humans. This is a book which explores the nature of the ‘other’, and the protagonist Ayla, who is a Homo sapien, is taken in by a Neanderthal tribe. The early forms of religion are explored, with the zoolatry and totem worship of early societies fleshed out wonderfully. Like Cornwell in Stonehenge, Auel presents not just the savagery of Neolithic life, but also the compassion and depth of humanity.

3) Lancelot by Giles Kristian

Lancelot tells a slightly more sympathetic version of the knight than in the Warlord Chronicles series. Make no mistake, Kristian’s version is just as flawed, but in this book, he is still very much a hero. Uther Pendragon is dying, and the Romans are swiftly becoming a distant memory for the Britons, who like in Cornwell’s novels are besieged on every side. Lancelot stands apart from other retellings of the Arthurian legend with its vivid descriptions. A grim and bloody age of sweat and steel. Like his Raven series (more on that later!), Kristian has used his skill at writing battle scenes to tremendous effect.

4) Wolf of Wessex by Matthew Harffy

Set in 838, so a few decades before the reign of Alfred, Wolf of Wessex kicks off with a mutilated corpse and it only gets better from there! The story follows Dunston, a loner who must clear his name and survive. The novel is very fast-paced, drawing inspiration from the deep forests and unforgiving terrain of early medieval England. Harffy tells a strong story, one where the protagonist is forced into action from the outside, taking us on a bloody journey with plenty mystery to keep us intrigued.

5) Dreaming the Eagle (Boudica series) by Manda Scott 

With Dreaming the Eagle, Scott gives us a fresh look at the Iceni queen Boudica. This book explores her early life, and where some authors and academics paint the legendary ruler as either a political pawn or a character with no life other than revenge against the Romans, Scott gives us a rounded character full of agency. With no written records, Scott has explored and fleshed out druidic religion, looking at what made it so terrifying to the invading Romans. She tells a passionate and bloody story, looking not just at the vast political shifts but also at the intimate and personal lives of her protagonist.

6) The Emperor (Morland Dynasty series) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

For the unfamiliar, the Morland Dynasty series follows the fortunes of the Morland family from 1434 up to 1931! The Emperor will appeal to all Sharpe fans, as the novel deals with the shadow of Napoleon across Europe, with society seeming to fall apart at the seams. Although this series of novels is rather more focused on the domestic than a lot of Cornwell’s works, I can still heartily recommend it to Sharpe fans for its thrilling account of the Battle of the Nile and the way that it vividly brings to life that period of history, giving much-needed context.

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7) The Scarlet Thief (Jack Lark series) by Paul Fraser Collard

Jack Lark is a protagonist that Cornwell fans will love. A hard-bitten hero with a sword and a gun. The Scarlet Thief puts Jack straight into the heart of the Crimean war. For Sharpe fans, the Crimea will be a brand new conflict, but it is one that Collard has researched impeccably. The Scarlet Thief gives the reader the full scope and horror of the war, but he manages to do it without getting bogged down with too much moping around or introversion. Fundamentally, this is an action story and one that is a real pleasure to read.

8) The Serpent Sword (The Bernicia Chronicles) by Matthew Harffy

Set in 7th-century Northumbria, the first book in this superb series by Matthew Harffy sees his protagonist, Beobrand, setting out on a quest of vengeance, looking for justice at the edge of a sword. This is an unashamedly action-packed book that pulls no punches and racks up a high body count. Bloody, fast-paced and visceral. You’ll love it.

9) Blood Eye (Raven series) by Giles Kristian 

Cornwell himself loves this book, which should be recommendation enough! But just in case it isn’t, let me whet your appetite. The Raven series follows Osric, a young boy taken prisoner by Viking raiders. Blood Eye is incredibly fast paced and offers a hard-hitting look at the life of a Viking warrior. Loyalty, ambition and honour are all ruthlessly put to the test.

10) Outlaw (Outlaw Chronicles) by Angus Donald

If you enjoyed Cornwell’s take on the Arthurian legend, then you may well be tempted by Outlaw, a fresh look at Robin Hood. After stealing, Alan Dal is forced to flee into Sherwood Forest, where he is taken in by Robin and his band. Although Robin is a mentor figure, he is a cruel and violent man. You know, like an actual outlaw would be! This is not a Hollywood-friendly, swashbuckling adventure. Donald sets out to capture the desperation and violence of the time without the sentimentality that sometimes accompanies the legend. It also has lots of longbows, so Cornwell fans will love it!

11) The Hangman’s Daughter (A Hangman’s Daughter Tale) by Oliver Pötzsch

If you enjoyed Gallows Thief, then this is a book for you. Pötzsch gives us a look into the ‘justice’ of Bavaria in the 17th century and an insight into the witch hysteria that strangled Europe at the time. Like Cornwell, he has a great insight into human nature. The riots and mob rule in the book do not exist in a vacuum, and we see just how easily these things can happen. Torture and murder abound, so this is not a book for the faint-hearted, but it is a book for those who want a good mystery with rounded characters.

12) Lion of Ireland by Morgan Llywelyn

Set in the 10th century, Lion of Ireland combines the mythology and magic of the Warlord Chronicles with the grim bloodiness of The Last Kingdom books. The protagonist, Brian Boru, navigates the betrayal and scheming of the fractured Irish kingdoms while still retaining the virtue and wisdom that marked him out as Ireland’s greatest king. Llywelyn is passionate about the history of her country, and it shines forth in her writing. There are other books in the series, ranging from the mythological Finn MacCool to the Irish conflicts in the 20th century.

13) The Incendium Plot by A D Swanston

The Incendium Plot should be next on your reading list after Fools and Mortals. The protagonist, Dr Christopher Radcliff, is a lawyer serving as chief intelligencer to the Earl of Leicester. This is a superb historical thriller set in the intrigue ridden reign of Elizabeth I. Expect plots and spies. Lots of them. But the big focus is on two savage killings that are somehow connected by a word: incendium. If you loved the setting of Fools and Mortals and the mystery element of Gallows Thief, then this is the book for you.

14) King’s Man (Viking series) by Tim Severin 

Set in 1035, this story sweeps across the Viking world, starting at the court of the emperor in Byzantium and the infamous Varangian Guard and ending thirty-one years later at the battle of Stamford Bridge. The paganism at this point in history is a tad anachronistic, but that doesn’t get in the way of a superb story. Guillaume le Batard is as slimy as you’d expect, and it is this betrayal that sets Thorgils on a race against time to save his lord from the disastrous battle. It is the sign of a good storyteller that even though you might know how it ends, they can still keep you in suspense.

15) God of Vengeance (The Rise of Sigurd series) by Giles Kristian 

Another entry by Giles Kristian! What can I say? The man can write. The Rise of Sigurd series differs strongly from the Raven books in that it is far more mystical in its approach. The gods are more ‘real’ and the pagan faith of the protagonist much more present. This series is a prequel to the Raven series that follows Sigurd the Lucky in his titular quest for revenge. With only a small band of followers, he seeks to kill King Gorn to avenge the slaughter and betrayal of his family. Sigurd has the odds stacked against him and a seemingly unassailable enemy.

16) Master of War (Master of War series) by David Gilman

In the Hundred Years’ War, Thomas Blackstone is sentenced to hang for a murder he didn’t commit. Given the choice between death and service in the king’s army as an archer, he chooses the latter. Thomas is a sympathetic character, an everyman who is caught between the gears of war and political scheming. It might seem a push to have two characters who are archers and both called Thomas, but Gilman’s work stands apart from Cornwell’s. What they both have in common, though, is a spectacular talent for battle scenes.

17) Young Bloods (Wellington and Napoleon series) by Simon Scarrow

This series really is a must for any Sharpe fan. It looks at both the life of Sharpe’s mentor and patron, the Duke of Wellington, as well as his greatest devil, Napoleon. Their young lives and their progress into the military are also shaped by their love lives as Kitty Pakenham and Josephine are pursued by the young generals. This book is an impressive start to a superb series.

18) Sworn Sword (Conquest series) by James Aitcheson

It takes a brilliant author to paint the invading Normans as heroes, especially in their campaigns in the North of England. Fortunately, Aitcheson is indeed a brilliant author and pulls it off. Set in 1069, the book follows a Norman knight, Tancred a Dinant, in his battles against Eadgar, a Saxon with a claim to the English throne. Sworn Sword explores the consequences of the Norman conquest, looking at the sweeping changes to English society and culture. This is clearly an author who has done his research.

19) Treason’s Tide (Archives of the Comptrollerate-General for Scrutiny and Survey series) by Robert Wilton

In July 1805, Napoleon’s forces are amassed across the channel, and the British fleet is blockading ports, ready to repel an invasion. It is in this tense setting that Wilton sets his book. The protagonist, Tom Roscarrock, is recruited to act as an agent by an obscure branch of the British government – the Comptrollerate-General for Scrutiny and Survey. The historical documents within the text are a superb touch – a really imaginative way to write historical fiction and something I would dearly like to see more of from other authors.

20) Dunstan by Conn Iggulden

Alfred the Great’s grandson Athelstan is supported by Dunstan of Glastonbury in his quest to finally unite England and realise his grandfather’s great ambition. Like Uhtred, Dunstan is a kingmaker, a character filled with agency and ambition. However, he serves Athelstan as a priest and a confidant, giving the young king vital counsel and guidance. Dunstan is a fantastic book. One that looks at the first true English king and the forging of the country. However, this was not an inevitability, and Iggulden expertly shows the tremendous fight that Athelstan had on his hands to retake the north from the Vikings.

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