Sharpe's Eagle

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Sharpe's Eagle
Sharpes Eagle PB.jpg
First edition
AuthorBernard Cornwell
CountryUnited Kingdom
SeriesRichard Sharpe Series
GenreHistorical novels
Publication date
9 February 1981
Media typePrint (hardback and paperback) and audio-CD
Pages266 pp (hardcover edition)
304 pp (paperback edition)
ISBN0-00-221997-2 (hardcover edition)
ISBN 0-00-617313-6 (paperback edition)
Preceded byNone (publication)
Sharpe's Havoc (chronological) 
Followed bySharpe's Gold 

Sharpe's Eagle is a historical novel in the Richard Sharpe series by Bernard Cornwell, first published in 1981. The story is set in July 1809, in the midst of the Talavera Campaign during the Peninsular War. It was the first Sharpe novel published, but eighth in the series' chronological order.

In subsequent re-publications, Sharpe's Rifles was numbered as the "first" novel in the original series (ending with Sharpe's Waterloo), while Eagle was numbered as the second.

Plot summary[edit]

July 1809: During the Talavera Campaign, Sir Arthur Wellesley's army has entered Spain to confront Marshal Victor. Richard Sharpe and his small group of thirty Riflemen, separated from their Regiment during the retreat from Corunna, are attached to the newly arrived South Essex Regiment. Commanded by the cowardly and bullying dilettante, Lieutenant Colonel Sir Henry Simmerson, the South Essex is a raw, inexperienced unit that has been drilled mercilessly with frequent use of the lash.

More suited for ceremonial parades than genuine combat against the veteran armies of France, Sharpe takes it upon himself to shape the inexperienced and poorly-trained redcoats into full-fledged soldiers. His real problem turns out to be the officers, most of whom appear to be in the lap of Simmerson, including his nephew, the arrogant Lieutenant Christian Gibbons, and his best friend, Lieutenant John Berry. The situation is further complicated by the rivalry that emerges between Sharpe and Gibbons for the affections of Josefina Lacosta, a Portuguese noblewoman abandoned by her husband after he fled to Brazil. Only two appear to have any real experience: Captain Lennox, a veteran of the Battle of Assaye, where Sharpe himself won his commission; and Captain Thomas Leroy, an American Loyalist who fled with his merchant family to England during the American War of Independence.

From Talavera, General Wellesley dispatches the South Essex, alongside Sharpe's Riflemen and the engineers of Major Michael Hogan, to blow up the bridge at Valdelacasa, so as to protect the army's flank as they march. Assisted by a Spanish regiment of equal number, the Regimento de la Santa Maria, the seemingly straightforward mission becomes a disaster when both Simmerson and the Spanish cross the bridge to engage four squadrons of French dragoons. A combination of arrogance, poor training, flawed leadership and elementary tactical errors results in the two regiments being routed by the French, with hundreds of men killed and wounded, Lennox brought down by the enemy, and the loss of the King's Colours. As a dying request, Lennox asks Sharpe to take a French Imperial Eagle, 'touched by the hand of Napoleon' himself, so as to erase the shame of losing their own standard.

Distinguishing himself during the skirmish after rallying several broken companies of the South Essex against the French and capturing one of their cannon, Sharpe finds himself gazetted Captain. However, he still must do much to confirm this rank in the company of an officer corps still largely drawn from the aristocracy and the ranks of English gentlemen who look down on Sharpe's low birth. Even worse, Sir Henry has made Sharpe the scapegoat of his follies, and intends on ruining Sharpe's career via his political connections at Horse Guards. Only by capturing an Eagle can Sharpe stay in the army, let alone keep his promotion. The Rifleman also makes an enemy of Gibbons and Berry when he takes Josefina under his protection, and the two begin a relationship. Later in the novel, when Josefina is raped by Gibbons and Berry, Sharpe swears vengeance, murdering Berry in a night-time skirmish against the French.

At the height of the Battle of Talavera, Simmerson panics at the approach of a French column, and orders the South Essex to withdraw from the line of battle. Sharpe keeps his riflemen in position, while he must decide whether to fulfill Lennox's request or avoid this insane, suicidal challenge.

Sharpe's old friend, William Lawford, relieves Simmerson of command and takes the South Essex back into position, where their precise volleys destroy the column's cohesion. In true heroic form, Sharpe leads the Light Company and his Rifles into the fray and captures the French regiment's Eagle. Returning from the battlefield, Sharpe is ambushed by Gibbons, who attempts to murder Sharpe and take the Eagle for himself, but is killed by Harper. The capture of the Eagle secures Sharpe's promotion and restores the honour of the South Essex, but Sharpe's triumph is soured by Josefina's return to Lisbon, under the protection of a wealthy and aristocratic British cavalry captain.

Over a celebratory dinner, Wellesley bitterly informs his staff officers that, although the battle was won, the campaign will be accounted a failure, since General Cuesta has failed to shield the British from Marshal Soult's advancing reinforcements, and the British are obliged to retreat back to Portugal. However, Wellesley promises that the British will return to Spain, but on their own terms. To Sharpe's surprise and embarrassment, Wellesley concludes his speech by proposing a toast to "Sharpe's Eagle."



  • Richard Sharpe – the main protagonist, a Lieutenant in the British army
  • Patrick Harper – a sergeant in the British army, though an Irishman; Sharpe's close friend and ally
  • Major Michael Hogan – British army officer, engineer
  • Major Lennox – of the British army ex-78th Highlanders, hero of Assaye, who makes the 'dying request' of Sharpe
  • Sir Henry Simmerson – bully and Commanding Officer of the South Essex
  • Christian Gibbons – Lieutenant and nephew of Simmerson
  • William Lawford – an officer in the British army, and an old friend of Sharpe's, eventually promoted to replace Simmerson as C.O. of the South Essex
  • Thomas Leroy – an American loyalist lieutenant in the South Essex
  • Josefina LaCosta – a Portuguese woman traveling with the South Essex



The eagle of the title refers to the French Imperial Eagle presented to each regiment by the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte himself and carried at its head into battle. The soldiers of the French Imperial Army pledged to defend the eagle to the death, and to lose it would bring shame to the regiment. In the novel Sharpe vows to capture one to restore the honour of his disgraced regiment and to secure his promotion. The novel ends with Wellesley's toast to "Sharpe's Eagle," thus beginning the convention, used by Cornwell in nearly all the Sharpe novels, of ending the novel with the use of its title.

References to actual history, geography and current science[edit]

  • Sharpe's story is "intimately linked"[1] with the real-life story of Sir Arthur Wellesley, who appears in this book and would be appointed Viscount Wellington of Talavera as a result of the events related.
  • The novel depicts the real-life Battle of Talavera that occurred during the early stages of the Peninsular War. The primary historical difference, as admitted in Cornwell's historical postscript, is that no Eagle was captured during the battle. The rest is fairly accurate, and it provides an excellent historical insight into the life of soldiers at the time as "much of the detail in the book is taken from contemporary letters and diaries."[2]
  • Historically, the British first captured an Eagle during the Battle of Barrosa in 1811,[2] which battle Cornwell would later cover in Sharpe's Fury.
  • In reality, the 95th Rifles missed the Battle of Talavera; despite marching 65 kilometres (40 mi) in 24 hours they arrived too late.[3] However, Cornwell does not write as though they did, only a small detachment led by Sharpe, separated from the regiment during the hurried retreat of the previous year.


A 1993 TV adaptation of the same name was produced by Central Independent Television for the ITV network in the UK starring Sean Bean as Sharpe, Daragh O'Malley as Harper, Assumpta Serna as Teresa Moreno, Brian Cox as Major Hogan, David Troughton as Wellesley, Daniel Craig as Lieutenant Berry, Gavan O'Herlihy as Captain Leroy and Michael Cochrane as Simmerson. There are many differences between the plot of the television adaptation and the novel.[4] Captain Lennox from the novel becomes a Major in the TV adaptation.

Publication history[edit]

This is Bernard Cornwell's first novel. Cornwell's plan was "to write a series of tales about the adventures of a British rifleman in the Napoleonic Wars".[1] He had wanted to start with the Siege of Badajoz but on reflection, he felt that this was too ambitious for his first novel. He decided to start with a couple of easier books as a warm-up. Cornwell wanted to find a task just as impossible as the taking of Badajoz for Sharpe's first adventure. The capture of a Regimental Eagle from a French Regiment provided the challenge the author felt necessary to establish the reputations of both Sharpe and his close friend, Sergeant Patrick Harper.


  1. ^ a b Cornwell, Bernard (1994). Sharpe's Eagle. London: HarperCollins Publishers. pp. vi–vii. ISBN 978-0-00-780509-9.
  2. ^ a b Cornwell, Bernard (1994). Sharpe's Eagle. London: HarperCollins Publishers. pp. 327–8. ISBN 978-0-00-780509-9.
  3. ^ Adkin, Mark (2001). Waterloo Companion. Aurum Press. p. 178. ISBN 978-1-85410-764-0.
  4. ^ "Sharpe's Gold". Archived from the original on 27 January 2008. Retrieved 12 May 2008. It's always said that the second book is the most difficult to write, and I can remember finding it very hard, which is a reason why I've never re-read Sharpe's Gold either. I do remember a splendid scene with Sergeant Patrick Harper and a dungheap and that Sharpe meets the first of his wives while trying to rescue a great pile of Spanish gold. Watching the video is no help in reminding me what's in the plot because the story on the TV programme bears absolutely no resemblance to the story in the book – weird.

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