Rosemary Sutcliff, known for her historical fiction, was born in 1920 to a Royal Navy officer and his wife. She spent much of her life in a wheelchair due to having juvenile arthritis. Her illness, plus moving multiple times, interrupted her early schooling. Though she did not read until she was nine, her mother told her many Celtic and Saxon legends. She was also inspired by Geoffrey Trease’s (1909-1998) historical novels.
Her best-known work, The Eagle of the Ninth, was published in 1954. She wrote a series of novels set in Roman Britain, winning a Carnegie Medal for outstanding new book in English for young adults for The Lantern Bearers (1959). She also won the Phoenix Award twice for The Mark of the Horse Lord and The Shining Company.
In 1975 she was appointed the Officer of the Order of the British Empire for services to children’s literature. She wrote more than 50 books. In a 1986 interview she claimed “that my books are for children of all ages, from nine to ninety.” She kept writing right up to her death in 1992.
What does she write about?
Sutcliff’s favorite time period is Roman Britain, which began in 43-44 AD when the Romans took the hill forts of Dorset, including Maiden Castle. The last of the Roman army left Britain in 410 AD because the city of Rome was under attack from Germanic tribes from the north.
Her stories span across time from Skara Brae, a Stone Age village on an island off northern Scotland to a 19thcentury village in Victorian Scotland. She retold legends, including Homer’s Iliad (Black Ships before Troy) and Odyssey (The Wanderings of Odysseus), King Arthur in a trilogy, and Robin Hood.
Why is she thought to be great?
Sutcliff is known for her realism in describing both the setting as well as the characters. She expresses both power and beauty of style in her storytelling. Her usual themes are heroism, loyalty, friendship and sacrifice.
Which book is your favorite?
Sutcliff’s tale of King Arthur, Sword at Sunset, is one of her few books written for adults. (The storyline begins three days after the end of The Lantern Bearers.) She strips away the magical aspects of the tale of Arthur (such as Merlin) and writes about a leader who is trying to save his people from the Irish, Picts (Scots) and Saxons from Germany. After the Romans left Britain, who could rally the troops to fight the invaders? Arthur.
Earlier in the interview, Sutcliff stated:
“I had determined from the time that I was very young that there was a real person there and that I would love to find and reconstruct that person. . . It took me about eighteen months to write. . . It was addictive. I was almost like having the story fed through to me, at times. I do my writing usually in three drafts . . . When I started writing Sword at Sunset I made at least three false starts, but I couldn't think what was the matter. . . Then suddenly the penny dropped. It had to be first person singular. . . It was the only way it could be written.”*
The book opens with Arthur on his deathbed, recalling the last forty years of camaraderie and courage during a time of transition. She dedicated the book to various horse breeding experts and a British officer who helped her plan the battles.
What is the most recent book by Sutcliff you’ve read?
Heather, Oak, and Olive: Three Stories. In the first short story, Nessan, “The Chief’s Daughter,” tries to save her friend, an Irish slave, from a death sentence imposed by her Welsh community during the Bronze Age. In “The Circlet of Oak Leaves” a Dacian cavalryman (an Auxiliary from near the Black Sea), fights bravely in a battle at Trimontium, the Roman outpost fort in Scotland.** In “A Crown of Wild Olive”, two young athletes, one from Athens, the other from Sparta, compete at an Olympics in 412 B.C. What if they become friends during the month-long truce at the Olympic Games?
The bronze visor mask was found at Trimontium (near Newstead today). It is now in the Museum of Scotland.
For more information, see
*“Interview with Rosemary Sutcliff” by Raymond H. Thompson (1986)
A list of her books and much more can be found at https://rosemarysutcliff.net.
**To learn more about Trimontium, the largest ancient Roman complex in Scotland, see the video about the museum: https://www.trimontium.co.uk