As the series develops, we follow Sharp's career in the British Army during the Napoleonic wars. Beginning as a Private he is gradually promoted to a field commission of Lieutenant Colonel by the time of the iconic Battle of Waterloo.
Pauper to Prince
Aside from the historical events mentioned in the series, Sharpe himself reflects what a great many young men did at the time. The rigid class structure meant that if you were born into poverty a life of crime was often on the cards and the only way out was to enlist in the army.
In Sharpe's case it was after he murdered someone that he fled. To avoid the law that he enlisted in the 33rd Regiment of Foot, which was a genuine infantry regiment of the British Army, which in 1881 merged with another regiment to become the Duke of Wellington's.
The regiment saw service in a wide range of wars and conflicts, including the American Revolutionary War, the Napoleonic Wars, the Crimean War, and Abyssinia. The history books reveal that this regiment gained notice from commanders for its battle record, efficiency and discipline; it was just the sort of environment in which someone like the fictional Sharpe could prove his worth.
The events depicted in the Sharpe stories also take this "brilliant but wayward" soldier into conflicts other than the Napoleonic wars, for example the earliest tales take us to India under the command of the East India Company and chronicle Sharpe's years spent in the ranks.
During the late 18th Century, The British Empire would be found in a great many parts of the globe and one particular jewel in the crown was India. In the stories, Sharpe serves four years as Armoury Sergeant in Seringapatam, which was the location in 1799 of a hugely significant battle.
The Battle of Seringapatam was important because it was the final confrontation between the British and Tipu Sultan, the Tiger of Mysore, who was killed when the British broke into the fortress. Because of the British victory, the fate of India changed forever, as did English dominance in the continent.
Returning from India, Sharpe is seen engaging in conflicts throughout Europe, particularly in Portugal, Spain and France. The background to his adventures is the great series of battles fought by the British forces and its allies against the might of Napoleon Bonaparte's First French Empire.
When France buckled under the tide of violence during the French Revolution in 1789, Bonaparte was only a general. He seized power and in forcing other countries such as Spain, Holland and Italy to accept French rule, he declared himself Emperor in 1804.
The actual dates for the war between Britain and France lie between 1803 and 1814 and due to the great number of battles fought throughout the globe, some historians think that the Napoleonic wars can be seen as the first 'world' war.
The Napoleonic wars ended with Bonaparte's defeat at Waterloo at the hands of Arthur Wellesley, better known as the First Duke of Wellington. As the series progresses, we see Sharpe becoming close to the great man, shadowing him through many conflicts, building up to his involvement in the legendary battle itself, which took place on June 18th 1815.
Wellesley is generally considered one of the leading military and political figures of the first half of the nineteenth century. It is this battle that cemented him as an icon of British military history as Napoleon's defeat in this small Belgian region put a final end to his rule as Emperor of the French.
After the Napoleonic wars Wellesley moved into politics and was twice Tory Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and remained one of the leading figures in the House of Lords until his retirement in 1846. He was also largely instrumental in the foundation of King's College London.
Being a fictional hero, Sharpe's creator Cornwell frankly admits he has taken license with history, often placing Sharpe in the place of another man whose identity is lost to history. These achievements include killing the Tipu Sultan at Seringapatam, saving Wellesley's life at the Battle of Assaye and personally taking command of a regiment that drives off the French Imperial Guard at Waterloo.
However, the fact that the character of Sharpe is so closely intertwined with such key events in European history means that the series has great opportunities to reveal the bloodshed, drama and European politics that erupted during this period, while at the same time spinning more cracking good swashbuckling yarns than you can shake a sword at!