The Winter King (The Warlord Chronicles #1)

By Bernard Cornwell

39,552 ratings - 4.26* vote

Uther, the High King, has died, leaving the infant Mordred as his only heir. His uncle, the loyal and gifted warlord Arthur, now rules as caretaker for a country which has fallen into chaos - threats emerge from within the British kingdoms while vicious Saxon armies stand ready to invade. As he struggles to unite Britain and hold back the enemy at the gates, Arthur is embr Uther, the High King, has died, leaving the infant Mordred as his only heir. His uncle, the loyal and gifted warlord

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Book details

Paperback, 433 pages
April 15th 1997 by St. Martin's Griffin

(first published 1995)

Original Title
The Winter King
0312156960 (ISBN13: 9780312156961)
Edition Language

Community Reviews


4.5/5 Stars

Depending on the rest of the trilogy, this could be the most original and the best Arthurian legend retelling of all time, out of all medium.

A little background before I start my review; this is my first dive into Bernard Cornwell’s work and only my second time reading a historical fiction, so this is totally out of my comfort read but I’m delighted with my decision to go out of my usual read. I’ve heard of the name Bernard Cornwell several times until now, all pretty much claimed he’s a legend in ‘Historical Fiction’ genre but nothing ever truly pushed me into starting his books until last March when I finished binge reading the entire ‘The Faithful and the Fallen’ series. Both the series and the author (John Gwynne) since then have been included in my favorites of all time lists. I decided back then to do an interview with Gwynne and one of my questions was:

“If you have to recommend one book or series for everyone, what came into mind and why?”

His answer was 'The Warlord Chronicles' by Bernard Cornwell and that’s how I stumbled upon this series, and how I finally decided to give his work a try. Click this link for my full interview with Gwynne for anyone who’s interested.

On to the review, even though this is still only the first book out of a trilogy, I can already see why Cornwell is named as a legend in the genre. He managed to make my most disliked narrative, omniscient narrative into something that worked wonderfully.

Told in the similar style with Kvothe from Kingkiller Chronicles, we follow Derfel Cadarn, the main character, and the narrator, now old and a monk, recounts his journey with Arthur, his best friend, The King that Never Was, The Enemy of God and The Lord of Battles.

“The bards sing of love, they celebrate slaughter, they extol kings and flatter queens, but were I a poet I would write in praise of friendship.”

Most of the stories told here took place in the past, going back to the present times only five times in total throughout the entire book. This also means that Derfel pretty much knows all the events that will happen already during his narration and he reminded us over and over again about this with sentences like “it’s not until later that I find out what he meant”. This usually doesn’t work in my fantasy read but damn it worked so well in this story.

The Winter King mostly focused on Arthur’s struggle to unite Britain during the Dark Ages in the midst of Saxon’s inevitable invasion. Cornwell’s retelling of Arthur is magnificent, contrary to usual Arthurian legend; Cornwell erased every magical aspect, at least here anyway. Sure there’s a hint of magic in the world but they’re not actual magic per se, just superstitions that the population back then heavily believed. Cornwell has stated that The Winter King is a tale of the Dark Ages in which legend and imagination must compensate for the lack of historical records, as there’s no conclusive evidence on Arthur’s legend and he did it with greatness.

Arthurian legend has always been one of my favorite retellings, it’s been done countless times already in any medium but I’ve never once experienced a retelling as original and fantastic as this one. Cornwell’s storytelling and prose qualities are top notches. So many emotions were felt and delivered throughout my times reading this, thought provoking and realistically poignant such as this

“And at the end of life, what does it all matter? We grow old and the young look at us and can never see that once we made a kingdom ring for love.”

or philosophical like this:

“But fate, as Merlin always taught us, is inexorable. Life is a jest of the Gods, Merlin liked to claim, and there is no justice. You must learn to laugh, he once told me, or else you'll just weep yourself to death.”

Not only the storytelling and prose are fantastic, Cornwell’s versions of the characters that we’ve known in the legend are very unique. Arthur, in particular, is amazing, felt like a real person that truly existed in the past despite this being written as a historical fiction. Also, a huge plus in originality towards Lancelot and Guinevere, for they have completely take on a direction that I never thought I would ever see in their character.

Do note however that this is a slow paced book, we only get a little taste of Cornwell’s big battle scenes (another factor that he’s highly praised for) in the last 60 pages of the book, if you love Shield-Wall, you’re going to love the battle scenes for sure.

Honestly, this could’ve been an easy 5-star book for me if it wasn’t for the first half of the book. The minor con I had with the book is that during the first half, the pages are very dense, a paragraph could last an entire page, with a minimum amount of dialogues. To give you a clear picture of what I’m talking about, here’s a picture of a paragraph I took from the book, non-spoiler of course

The first half of the book mostly looked like that, as you can see, there’s almost no heavy dialogue section and this means you’re going to have to read tons of details and descriptions. Plus, the long chapters (15 chapters for 490 pages) made this book not an easy read. I felt my progress reading this book became very slow because of these situations. These can be a good or bad thing depending on your preferences but personally, I prefer it to be balanced. The second half however fixed this problem.

Overall, I truly enjoyed reading The Winter King and I thank John Gwynne for recommending this book to me. I will definitely continue with this trilogy and I highly recommend it to any fans of historical fiction and Arthurian legend.

Bonus Picture: My beautiful editions of The Warlord Chronicles

You can find this and the rest of my Adult Epic/High Fantasy & Sci-Fi reviews at BookNest


The tale of King Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot, the Knights of the Round Table, Sir Galahad and his quest for the Holy Grail, Excalibur, Merlin and his sorcery, and the age of chivalry are the ingredients of medieval fantasy and folklore. Bernard Cornwell writes his account which feels the most authentic version I’ve encountered and turns many of these former images on their head. The resulting novel creates an imagined tale that feels legitimate and historical.

The story is told in the first person looking back in time, from the perspective of Dervel, a soldier and monk, who fought at Arthur’s side. As he starts to write his account, his loyalty to Arthur is apparent.
“These are the tales of Arthur, the Warlord, the King that Never Was, the Enemy of God and, may the living Christ and Bishop Sansum forgive me, the best man I ever knew. How I have wept for Arthur.”
The wonderful opportunity this structure provides is that the story of Arthur can be told from an onlooker seeing the positive and negative attribute of Arthur, his wins and his mistakes through a lens with less emotion and the benefit of distance. It also enables the location and existence of a lowly person to be painted in beautiful sensory detail, and the issues he faced dealing with many of the extensive iconic characters in this story.

The period is set in the late fifth century, shortly after the Romans left Briton, and the country is split into several regions each ruled by their own king. The Saxon conflicts are escalating and war from every side is commonplace. Cornwell creates an amazing atmosphere of medieval Briton that permeates through every aspect of the novel. The politics and machinations between the multiple power-hungry and warrior leaders are deep-rooted and persistent and every engagement is judged with caution and an expectation that ruthless and instant changes can and will occur. It is also a period where priests and druids battle with the conflict of Christianity and the old gods. The era of Merlin, magic and sorcery is coming to an end but they still hold considerable influence.

Arthur is the bastard son of Uther the Pendragon, very accomplished in battle, although not always given the credit. Uther’s legitimate grandson, Mordred (The Winter King), has a twisted foot which is taken as a bad omen. It's not the only thing that's twisted as he's a ruthless, evil and unforgiving personality that he doesn’t hide and unfortunately with an astute and cunning mind, may become a formidable force. Arthur still upholds his allegiance to Mordred, even though his vision of peace and justice is a polar opposite.

Bernard Cornwell claimed that this trilogy was his favourite and best piece of work. I haven’t read enough of his other works to make that comparison but if they’re better than this – well I have a lot to look forward to.

This is an outstanding example of the historical fiction genre and the best take on the iconic Arthur story I’ve read or watched. I would highly recommend this book and series.


I really can't say enough about this book. There are a lot of reasons to enjoy books and this one scores highest in so many categories. It is just very fun to read.

Who would I recommend this book to?
If you loved The Lord of the Rings but the smallest part of you that doesn't care about poetry kind of wished it had a little more action . . .
If you loved watching the movie Braveheart but wish it was a little more accurate historically . . .
If you were excited about the 2004 movie King Arthur, which although was advertised to be "the real story of King Arthur" had Arthur and his band of Mongolians defending the Scottish border against Saxons. The hell kind of sense does that make? Saxons invaded the South west coast, the region of England now called Saxony, the people Arthur would have fought on the Scottish border were, yes, you guessed it Scotts . . .
If you were excited ditto Tristan and Isolde . . .
If you loved Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series but don't have the eons required to read each with a 1000+ pages per volume . . .

I'll break down the idea behind the book. Yes, it's about King Arthur. And I know what you are thinking, "it's a magic book". No! there are no fairies, no pixie dust, no Crystal Cave (sorry Mary Stewart I loved your books too, but for slightly different reasons). The book does a real, researched job in telling a story which might have happened. Many of the characters believe in magic and things happen which might be interpreted as such but they might also be explained by realistic means.

It portrays Arthur as a warlord in around 500 AD right after the Romans abandoned their foothold in the British Isles and right before the Anglo-Saxon invasion turned the Celtic land of Britain into Angl-land (England). History indicates something stopped the Saxon invasion for about 50 years and most historians believe that might have been Arthur. There is also no jousting (a sport popular about 700 years later). The story is different from the traditional Arthur Legend but similar enough to make it enjoyable to people who also liked:
The Crystal Cave
The Once and Future King
Le Morte d'Arthur
and the many hundreds of others, film and book.

Oh, and I don't know who wrote the description which accompanies this book (probably someone at [] but they say it is written in "flat American diction". I don't believe Bernard Cornwell, a native of Britain, would appreciate that. He might live in America currently but is still quite English. What they may have meant to say is that it is "readable". Why they didn't just say that I have no idea.


Full review now posted!
Original review can be found at Booknest.

Here lies a book that didn’t enthrall me, but somehow fascinated me. I wasn’t filled with longing to pick it up and continue reading, but every time I did I was given incredibly interesting theories and historical information. This was likely the most probable telling of the Arthurian legend that I’ve come across. The mythos of Arthur and Merlin and Excalibur and Camelot has always intrigued me, but it’s always remained in the realm of myth. For the first time in my life, I read something that convinced me of the possibility of Arthur’s existence. Not its likelihood, mind you, but its possibility, which is still an astonishing change for me regarding a myth.

Cornwell sets his tale in the 5th century, after the Roman occupation of Britain has ended. Saxons are invading and Britons are warring amongst themselves. This is a land of warring factions and a multitude of kings, and this is where Cornwell has planted his version of Arthur. Here, Arthur’s tale is told by Brother Derfel, an aging monk who wasn’t always a Christian. In his youth, Derfel was a pagan and a warrior who fought alongside Arthur. In the framework of Cornwall’s story, Derfel is writing out the true story of Arthur for Igraine, the young Queen over the realm that houses the monastery. Witnessing Arthur’s story from an eyewitness, and one who isn’t one of the names we’re familiar with, was a unique perspective. And trying to reconcile Derfel himself, the aging Christian monk and the young pagan warrior, is actually one of my favorite aspects of the novel. How radically people can change always intrigues me.

There were some people Cornwell portrayed here that were at complete odds with almost everything I’ve ever read or heard. Particularly, his representation of Guinevere and Lancelot. Even though they were pretty people, neither of them seemed to have much goodness within them. Guinevere here is a catalyst for war, much like Helen of Troy. I will never be able to fathom shattering a kingdom in the name of love, though I know it’s one of the most ancient of justifications for declarations of war. And Lancelot is just awful, though I’m still not sure how many of his failings are truth and how many are exaggerated through the eyes of our narrator. However, a hero he is not, though he knows how to twist events in the minds of poets to ensure his legacy.

The presentation of the Druid belief system was my other favorite aspect of this book. Their superstitions and “spell casting” were absolutely fascinating. And disturbing. I don’t think I’ve ever read another book that contained this much spitting. Or urine-flinging. Or cow dung as hair product. And the Druid’s view of the Christian interlopers, and the way those opposing faiths both widened the rift in their land and how the people banded together in battle in spite of those opposing faiths, was captivating. One of the main reasons I’ll be continuing the trilogy at some later date is to understand how Derfel transitioned from one faith to the other.

Even though I have a deep appreciation for both the story and Cornwell’s writing, I have to admit that I struggled reading this. It was just so dense. The information was interesting, for sure, but sometimes I felt so glutted by the outpouring of information that I couldn’t digest quickly enough to keep reading. Cornwell did an insane amount of research, and it really shows. I feel like I learned so much about the Druid faith and ancient Britain, but that learning sometimes overwhelmed the story. The book reminded me of some of the really amazing history books I read in college. Well written and fascinating, but too dense to read for simple enjoyment. Also, it felt a little like the vast majority of the book was either preparing for battle, engaging in battle, or the aftermath of battle. Which is fine, but is something I get really bogged down in.

If you love historical fiction, this is definitely the book for you. If you’re obsessed with Arthurian legend, you owe it to yourself to give this a read. And if you just can’t get enough of battlefields, I think I found your new favorite book.

I read this because Petrik loved the series so much.

Sean Barrs

Nobody does this quite as well as Bernard Cornwell. He is quite literally the master of this genre. He creates a vivid warrior culture time and time again, and I will never get bored of it. This is saying a lot because Bernard Cornwell has written a huge amount of novels over the years and a few are similar in ways, but I don’t care because they’re just so good. This time Bernard Cornwell tells the story of Arthur, though not from the perspective of Arthur; he tells it from the point of view of one of his footman.

An interesting take on the Arthurian myth

Derfel is a spearman in the service of Arthur and he narrates Arthur’s story. I’m glad that we weren’t privy to Arthur’s thoughts and emotion because it helped to create an idea about him being an untouchable being. What I mean is that Arthur is better than the common man, and by telling the story like this it assumes a sense of distance between someone like Derfel, who in himself is honourable, and someone who is, in essence, a man beyond measure. It created an Arthur that was as enigmatic as he was courageous and noble. I think it was a great idea.

This is an awakening change to what I thought would be the predictable route of a novel like this. We see the events, and people, that surround Arthur’s life from a different perspective. One that holds Arthur in high esteem, but in spite of this, we also see the mistakes Arthur makes as a commander. He takes the wrong bride in a moment of selfish passion and almost dooms himself in the process. I emphasise the word mistakes because this is not the usual Camelot fairy tale; this is a gritty realistic approach to the legend.

More historical than legend


This is a tale that has been told countless times, but to make it stand out Cornwell had to make his retelling unique. In his version Lancelot is a fraud and Guinevere is quite possibly a complete whore who entrapped Arthur for power, not love; thus, this is far from the usual fairy tale. The characters are realistic and not without their flaws, so they are human and fallible. This is a far shot form the knights of the round table and the pure virtuous that Arthur represents. This made this novel not remotely predictable or a simple regurgitation of a tale we already know.

The movement of Christianity through the reduction of the druids is also apparent. It is intriguing to see the rivalries created by these religious differences. I like the way the Druid’s, though relying on and believing in magic, appear to have no magical abilities but are driven by what they perceive as their magic powers and knowledge. I think Cornwell has been very subtle here because without openly suggesting that their magic was impossible, he does show us that their magic is slowly fading. This gives the novel a more realistic setting, a more historical setting, rather than the usual fantastical nature of tales surrounding Arthur Pendragon.

I enjoyed this novel, but not as much as those in the Saxon Stories. Derfel lacks the charisma and will of Uhtred. And for that reason I gave this a four star rating rather than the five it could have earnt.

Daniel Ionson

This is my favorite Cornwell series (it's Cornwell's too), for it covers my favorite historical era--that mysterious gap in between the Roman departure and the Saxon Invasion. This retelling of Arthur works so well because it's divorced from Mallory.

I love BC's ability to pull me into the muddy, primitive Dark Age Britain world. He's one of the very best at avoiding anachronisms, a skill which gets so little praise. None of his characters feel like modernistic men and women dressed up in 5th Century garb. They fear the powers of magic, gods, and fate. The majority of the people are ignorant, living in dirty hovels with no boots. The world is vast and mysterious.

The line-by-line writing is excellent, as are the story arcs of this tale.

Highly suggest this series, as well as most of BC's work.


The horn sounded a third time, and suddenly I knew I would live, and I was weeping for joy and all our spearmen were half crying and half shouting and the earth was shuddering with the hooves of those Godlike men who were riding to our rescue.

For Arthur, at last, had come.


Presenting a saga so epic it needs three pages to list the characters, two pages to mention the places and another two pages of maps! And you know what? The story was so involving, I never once glanced at any of them.

I loved, loved, loved this book!

Here is a familiar tale, made fresh and exciting. Here we have Arthur, the just and fair, brave Galahad and cowardly Lancelot, hiding behind his mother's skirts. All the old favorites get to mix it up with some new characters. And of course, Merlin gets all the best lines:

"That's why the Gods made it such a pleasure to engender children, because so many of the little brutes have to be replaced. "

"One of the things I can't stand about Christians is their admiration of meekness. Imagine elevating meekness into a virtue! Meekness! Can you imagine a heaven filled with only the meek?
What a dreadful idea. The food would get cold while everyone passed the dishes to everyone else."

Happily, there are two more books in the Arthur series.
Cornwell, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Bionic Jean

Why is this written in such a dry, boring narrative style? Bernard Cornwell's books can be exciting and full of period detail that really engage the reader. This one is sadly not like that. There is a helpful list of characters and places (and map) at the front of the book, for those of us unfamiliar with all the Welsh names. I dutifully consulted this every time a new name was mentioned but after 50 pages was just so very bored by it all. Where's the action? All reported. Where's the conversation? Non-existent. The device of having a narrator, Derfel, just didn't work for me, although the events described sounded exciting enough. Please show, don't tell, Mr Cornwell. I had really been looking forward to reading this book.

William Gwynne

My BookNest review -

“The bards sing of love, they celebrate slaughter, they extol kings and flatter queens, but were I a poet I would write in praise of friendship.”

If you love stories consisting of memorable characters you love and despise, fantastic storytelling, stunning action sequences and moral lessons, then you will adore this historical telling of the chronicles of Arthur and the story of his life.

The Winter King is the first book in The Warlord Chronicles which is a unique take on the story of Arthur during the dark ages. I have always loved the tales of Arthur and his warriors, and this is not an exception. It is the best book I have read which has the story of Arthur as its main concept.

“Fate is inexorable."

Cornwell chooses certain aspects and adapts others from the common stories so the reader cannot predetermine the events which shall occur, and so the story which is told is a new one. He produces this book in a masterful style overflowing with immersive action and fantastic characters.

The sole point of view is Derfel, was born a Saxon but raised a Briton in the kingdom of Dumnonia, which is a kingdom residing in southern Briton. He features as the main character in the Winter King. He is a man who values loyalty and kindness, and proves it many times. It is hard not to fall in love with him as the stories progress and you witness his faults and virtues.

The prose of Bernard Cornwell is superb as the description and storytelling flows brilliantly. It is fluid and smooth making it an easy job to continue reading this large book as the plot line constantly develops in a manner which disallowed me from being bored at any point.

The Winter King is a definite five star rating in my opinion due to one of my favourite writing styles I have encountered and the way it captured many of my favourite aspects in stories.

Impending exams are absorbing most of my leisure time, but almost every moment of freedom I have gained in the last few days consisted of me reading this. It took a serious level of self-control to resist devouring this novel with a few long sittings.

This is one of, if not my favourite historical fiction novel I have had the pleasure to read and I shall be instantly be borrowing my father’s copy of Enemy of God, which is the second book of this series.

Joy D

“Our whole line surged forward and scarred swords hammered at the enemy with a new energy. The silver horn, so pure and clear, called again and again, a hunting call to the slaughter, and each time it sounded our men pressed forward into the branches of the felled trees to cut and stab and scream at the enemy who, suspecting some trickery, glanced nervously around the vale as they defended themselves.”

This is one of the best books I have read on Arthurian legend. It is epic in scope, and contains a wonderful mixture of history, strategy, battles, political intrigues, alliances, and relationships. All the key players are here, including Guinevere, Mordred, Galahad, Lancelot, and Merlin, though some are not in their traditional roles. It envisions them as real people living in a real time, without employing elements of fantasy or magic.

It is told from the perspective of Derfel, looking back on his life as one of Arthur’s commander-warriors. Derfel was a Saxon slave brought up by Merlin in the Celtic traditions. In his later years, Derfel converted to Christianity, but at the time of his service to Arthur, he was a pagan and Mithraist. Many religions are colliding at this time, particularly various pagans, Druids, and Christians. Thus, Derfel is in a position to shed light on many aspects of medieval life – rituals, superstitions, and celebrations.

Cornwell attempts to peel away the layers of myth, resulting in a tale that conveys a feeling of authenticity. If Arthur existed, he is easily envisioned as acting as he does in this tale. For example: “Arthur confuses morality with power, and he worsens the mix by always believing that people are inherently good, even the worst of them, and that is why, mark my words, he will never have peace. He longs for peace, he talks of peace, but his own trusting soul is the reason he will always have enemies.”

The author has come up with a historical approach to a period of scant documentation – it has been lost to time. He uses genuine names of regions, leaders, and warring factions. Of course, warfare is almost constant, so alpha males are in the forefront, but this book is not lacking in strong female characters. I felt engrossed in the story from beginning to end.

Cornwell identifies historical fact versus fictional portrayals in the Author’s Notes at the end. Published in 1995, this is the first book in a trilogy, but has an independently satisfying ending. I do not normally read sequels, but I will make an exception for this set.