The prolific and best-selling author of historical novels discusses his latest work, exploring the open water on his 35-foot sailboat and his passion for the theater.
By Dave Kindy
Profile image by Kim Roderiques
Theater photographs by Michael and Suz Karchmer
The back deck is bathed in sunlight, offering a soothing warmth on this early summer day. A gentle breeze rustles the leaves of the tall oaks that surround the property. Just off the deck, the sound of water splashing into a large koi pond with bright orange fish slowly swimming by sends out the sweet sound of serenity.
Sitting here, it’s easy to see why Bernard Cornwell adores his home in Chatham. The best-selling author of several historical novel series about England and America is completely at ease and relaxed in this tranquil setting.
“What’s not to love?” asks the bewhiskered and bespectacled Englishman as he gently smiles and lights up a cheroot. “It’s a beautiful town and we have a boat. It’s a great place to sail and a wonderful place to live.”
Cornwell and his wife, Judy, have lived in Chatham at least half of the year for the past 35 years. They bought a small Cape not far from the harbor, renovated and added on to it, then purchased the house next door and connected the two. Their expansive home is comfortably modern, tastefully decorated and features an indoor lap pool.
“Judy swims, I don’t,” Cornwell says wryly. “I take the dog for walks.”
The peaceful surroundings of their home stand in sharp contrast to the death and destruction Cornwell conjures up in his novels. He writes mostly about men at war, serving God and King to protect the empire, fighting in some of the bloodiest combat imaginable. Two of his popular fictional history series—“The Last Kingdom” and “Richard Sharpe”—have been made into highly acclaimed television shows, the former currently running on Netflix and the latter premiered on PBS and BBC about 25 years ago.
Cornwell began writing historical novels about England after he and Judy wed nearly 40 years ago. It was the second time around for both of them. His American wife wanted to remain close to her children from a previous marriage in the United States. Since Cornwell was unable to get a work visa, the former journalist started writing tales of brave heroes locked in deadly combat throughout history.
Sitting with the author on his back deck is a treat. With a devil-may-care glint in his eye, Cornwell glibly tells tales about his past and history in general, quoting Shakespeare and other famous literary masters at will, injecting invectives where necessary and feigning Scottish and New “Joisey” accents to liven the narrative. He is a gifted storyteller who easily transports readers and listeners to another world of intrigue and challenge.
“I love history,” he says. “And I love telling stories. It’s not a bad fate. I’ve made a living at it.”
To say the least. In the past four decades, the prolific author has published more than 50 novels, several short stories and one nonfiction book about the Battle of Waterloo. He is best known for “The Saxon Stories”—redubbed “The Last Kingdom” after the popular Netflix adaptation—about England’s founding by Alfred the Great, as well as for the “Sharpe” series about an English soldier in the Napoleonic Wars. In addition, he wrote “The Warlord Chronicles,” a three-book series about Arthurian Britain.
Cornwell has also written novels about American history, including the “Starbuck Chronicles,” which follows the exploits of a Northern man who fights for the South in the Civil War; “The Fort,” a novel about the Penobscot Expedition during the American Revolution; and “Redcoat,” which tells the story of Valley Forge from the British point of view.
The author recently completed “War Lord,” his final installment for “The Last Kingdom” series, published by Harper Collins in the fall of 2020. For his next novel, Cornwell turns his attention to familiar territory: Richard Sharpe. He plans to write another book in the saga following the hero as he marches victoriously into Paris after the French defeat in Belgium in 1815.
When not conjuring storylines about the Battle of Waterloo or Medieval England, Cornwell and his wife are captivated by the charm of Chatham. Early in their marriage, they traveled frequently between Great Britain and America. A chance visit to this Cape Cod community served as a siren’s beckoning to settle on these shores.
“I think Chatham selected us,” he recalls. “We were living in England at the time. One of Judy’s sons was getting married and we had a friend who lived here and he said, come on up after the wedding before you go back to England. It’s a nice town. We decided to look around and see if we could afford anything. We found this place and said, ‘What the hell?’”
The Cornwells’ second home is in Charleston, S.C. They reside in this beautiful Southern city lined with palmetto trees from late fall through early spring before returning to Cape Cod.
There are two other passions that keep the author coming to Chatham each year: sailing and theater. Cornwell is an avid sailor; when not writing or telling stories, you can find him on his beloved Seraph, a 35-foot Beneteau. The sailboat is named after another vessel he sailed across the Atlantic: Seraphim.
“It was at least a year before I realized it was an anagram of Sharpe,” he says with a grin.
To say sailing is one of Cornwell’s loves is an understatement. He talks about Seraph as if she was an old lover, waiting patiently for him to return to her arms. Being on the open water under sail is as much a part of Cornwell’s nature as writing or telling stories. He even wrote a series of four suspense thrillers involving sailing.
Cornwell also loves tripping the footlights. For the past 10 years, he has explored another side of his talent by acting and occasionally writing scripts for the Monomoy Theatre. He has performed in several productions, including Neil Simon’s “The Good Doctor” and Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”
Right now, he is concerned Monomoy Theatre may not survive. The Chatham playhouse closed in 2019 while a new owner works on development plans for the site, which may include a new performance venue. Cornwell and other performers planned to put on an abbreviated schedule of productions at another location but that effort was sidelined by the pandemic. Now the author and sometimes thespian is hopeful the theater will just open again soon.
“My God, I hope it does,” he exclaims. “We need it back.”
If not, well—all the world’s a stage. Cornwell will continue to write his novels of high drama and heroes in search of epic causes while enjoying the charming community of Chatham.
“We love Del Mar Bar & Bistro,” he says. “Chatham Wine Bar is always worth a visit. It’s probably the best. We’ll take a walk along the waterfront or go for a sail. It’s wonderful here.”