Cornwell was adopted as a child by a strict Christian sect. He came to break all ties with them and took his mother's maiden name.
He worked for the BBC and other broadcast news media before becoming a novelist. He started writing fiction because he'd moved to the United States with his American wife and he couldn't get a Green Card at the time - writing required no work permits. (He's a U.S. citizen now.)
Cornwell was inspired by the Horatio Hornblower naval novels of C.S. Forester and decided to write stuff like that about the army. His first novel, Sharpe's Eagle, was published in 1981 and the rest is history. Three decades later, he's still at it, and has helped inspire other contemporary authors of historical fiction.
In 2005 he was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire "for his services to literature and furtherance of British culture abroad."
Has a personal website with an active Q&A and bulletin board.
Works by Cornwell include:
- Sharpe — follows the career of a soldier in the Peninsular War and beyond, up to Waterloo. After this, prequel novels covering the Anglo-Indian Wars and other conflicts were written, as well as more novels set during the Peninsular War. Adapted into a series of the same name.
- The Warlord Chronicles — "realistic" retelling of the King Arthur legends, set around the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain in the 5th century.
- The Grail Quest — a series set during The Hundred Years War.
- The Saxon Stories — a series set during the Danish invasion of Anglo-Saxon England. Adapted into the series The Last Kingdom.
- The Starbuck Chronicles — set during The American Civil War.
- Azincourt — set during The Hundred Years War.
- Stonehenge — set in prehistoric Britain.
- Gallows Thief — a murder mystery set shortly after the Napoleonic Wars.
- Redcoat — set during The American Revolution.
- The Fort — set during The American Revolution.
- A Crowning Mercy, Fallen Angels, and Coat of Arms — an English Civil War trilogy co-written with his wife Judy, under the Pen Name "Susannah Kells".
- Fools And Mortals — set in Elizabethan England, charting the fortunes of William Shakespeare and his theatre company. Has the distinction of being his first - and to date only - book in which nobody dies.
These and other works provide examples of:
- Anglo-Saxons: Antagonists in The Warlord Chronicles, protagonists in The Saxon Stories.
- Anti-Hero: His protagonists are usually this. Derfel is the closest to a clean-cut hero and even he is relatively unfazed by what most people would consider horrifying.
- Author Appeal:
- Aside from the war stuff, Cornwell is an avid sailor with his own boat and has written contemporary thrillers - the only non-historical fiction stuff he's done - that revolve around sailing. This also carries over into The Saxon Stories where the construction, maintenance, and operation of various Anglo-Saxon and Danish ships is extensively - though never boringly - described.
- Mr. Cornwell would like you to know that English Archers Are Badass. Even in the novels set well before the longbow came to prominence there will be a master archer and the protagonist will gush about the efficacy of archery.
- Badass Crew: Most prominently Sharpe's Rifles, but his other heroes also tend to get their own crews.
- Been There, Shaped History: Since his novels are usually set around historical battles, like Waterloo or Agincourt, and his protagonists tend to be military types.
- Brave Scot: Regardless of whether the book is set in The Dark Ages, The High Middle Ages or the 19th century, if there are Scots in a Cornwell work you can bet they'll be badass.
- Can't Un-Hear It: Cornwell is such a fan of Sean Bean's performance as Richard Sharpe that he actually retconned Sharpe's backstory in the books to include time Oop North to justify Bean's Sheffield accent.
- The Cavalier Years
- Corrupt Church: Mainly as an institution, but also individual clergy and lay people, though there are decent ones too. Gets more noticeable with later-written works. Justified whenever he's writing about the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, as even the modern Catholics admit they were incredibly corrupt.
- Creator Cameo: He plays a Mook who gets killed by Uhtred midway through Season 3 of The Last Kingdom.
- Creator Provincialism: Subverted. The full title of his 2014 non-fiction book Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battlesnote doesn't count the battle of Wavre (Thielmann vs. Grouchy, June 18-19), but the book itself does explain the importance of Wavre and generally gives the Prussians, Dutch, and Hanoverian troops full credit and generally averts the Britain Beat Napoleon mentality.
- Deliberate Values Dissonance: A given considering historical fiction. In his first Saxon book, the protagonist Uhtred recalls Norsemen raping women after raids, and though he didn't take part himself (being a Chick Magnet), he isn't particularly bothered by it either.
- Historical-Domain Character: Several.
- Those featured in the Sharpe books include The Duke of Wellington, Napoleon Bonaparte, Horatio Nelson and Thomas Cochrane.
- The Saxon Stories feature Alfred the Great of England. The protagonist Uhtred is named after a real Uhtred of Bebbanburg who Cornwell claims to be descended from.
- The Grail Quest series has Edward III of England and his son Edward the Black Prince.
- Azincourt has Henry V of England. The protagonist Nicholas Hook is named after a real archer from the English muster rolls for the Battle of Agincourt. Boisterous Bruiser Sir John Cornewaille is also real, but Cornwell denies any relation.
- Derfel in The Warlord Chronicles is based on a possibly legendary saint by that name. The Anglo-Saxon pioneer leaders in Britain like Aelle and Cerdic also feature.
- Kill 'Em All: The only reason Mr. Cornwell doesn't have the same reputation as, say, George R. R. Martin (the two are mutual fans) is likely because he's comparatively less well-known (in America). Even prominent and well-loved characters are prone to getting killed, often quite unceremoniously.
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Most of his protagonists fall into this category, with Uhtred verging on being a Sociopathic Hero at points. Even the nicest of his protagonists, Derfel, has moments of this - though he's consistently a Nice Guy.
- The Late Middle Ages
- The Low Middle Ages/The Dark Ages: The setting of The Warlord Chronicles and The Saxon Stories.
- The McGuffin:
- The Warlord Chronicles has a subplot about the Cauldron of Clyddno Eiddyn, one of the legendary Thirteen Treasures of Britain and clearly meant to prefigure the Holy Grail in the later Arthurian legends. The men who go looking for it are known as the Warriors of the Cauldron, akin to the later Grail Knights.
- The Grail Quest involves the actual Holy Grail, the Lance of St. George and the Sword of St. Peter, or so the characters believe.
- Sharpe's Rifles has the Holy Banner of Santiago (St. James), the oriflamme flag dating from the Reconquest (though it gets re-sewn), which is to be used as a symbolic rallying point for Spanish resistance to Napoleon. Everybody wants it - except Sharpe.
- Market-Based Title:
- The first book in the Grail Quest trilogy, Harlequin, became The Archer's Tale for the US market because of the Harlequin Romance line.
- Azincourt (the original French name for the place) became Agincourt (how it's known in the English-speaking world) for the US market.
- Nice Guy: Such characters are rare as main protagonists in Cornwell's work (the only real example is Derfel), but there's usually at least one or two in the supporting cast.
- 1 Million B.C.
- Orphaned Series: More Starbuck Chronicles books are increasingly unlikely. The series was put on hold after reaching the Battle of Antietam when Cornwell decided to write more Sharpe, and then he began other series... Apparently, he found it increasingly difficult to write a convincingly sympathetic story from the Confederate viewpoint.
- Ragtag Bunch of Misfits
- Rated M for Manly
- Shout-Out: He and Richard Sharpe are also the frequent subject of this (see here), but examples in his own work include:
- Rifleman Dodd is Sharpe's Escape is meant to be Matthew Dodd from Death to the French (itself better known as Rifleman Dodd to Americans) by C.S. Forester.
- Sharpe is also the man who found the Moonstone in India.
- Richard Sharpe is named after a rugby player. Cornwell initially intended this only as a better placeholder than "Lieutenant X", but it quickly stuck.
- Steven Ulysses Per Hero: The protagonist of Gallows Thief is a retired cavalryman turned private investigator called Rider Sandman.
- The Verse: Many of his historical works take place in the same "universe" (though considering this is Historical Fiction, this is a lot easier to do than, say, science fiction):
- The Starbuck Chronicles features Sharpe's adult son Patrick Lassan. He even has Sharpe's old sword!
- Thomas of Hookton from the Grail Quest series is mentioned in Azincourt as having died prosperous, "a lord of a thousand acres".
- Rider Sandman of Gallows Thief was once saved by a (familiar-sounding) Rifle officer and his men during the wars.
- Even one of his non-historical novels, Sea Lord, has a namesake and possible descendant of Lord John Rossendale from Sharpe as its protagonist.
- War Is Glorious
- War Is Hell
- Wooden Ships and Iron Men: Whenever Sharpe gets on a boat.