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Rosemary Sutcliff, Storyteller

Updated on December 12, 2014
Rosemary Sutcliff
Rosemary Sutcliff | Source

A great story teller

Rosemary Sutcliff was first and foremost a great storyteller.

I love her stories! I also love her impeccable historical research and her simple, yet poetic, prose. I love the magical transportation to another time where her characters become as real to me as the people I see every day.

Sutcliff is considered mainly a childrens' author but her books address complex and elemental themes, all in an intricately woven and foreign background. Some are definitely for adult readers.

She was writing on the morning that she died on 23rd July 1992.

I grew up with Rosemary Sutcliff's books

A great heritage

Rosemary Sutcliff's books were part of my growing up. They were presented as novels for children but, on rereading them in my thirties, I discovered a depth of adult themes and adult emotions. I bought a number of them for my own children to read and got the double pleasure when they enjoyed them too.Before that, when my children were too small to read for themselves, I read aloud some stirring stories to them, their particular favourite was the The Wanderings of Odysseus.

It's hard to really point to a favourite of my own among Sutcliff's many brilliant books, but I have great admiration and a deep affection for Black Ships Before Troy and Song for a Dark Queen.

I adore Arthurian novels and have read, at least ten times, the classic Sword at Sunset a powerful adult novel with primitive mythological elements and solid archaeological research.

These three books have layers of understanding which only became noticeable as I grew old enough to understand the depth and complexity of human passion.

A handicap of the body, not of the mind or spirit.

Sutcliff was born in Surrey, England, in 1920 and from early childhood suffered from Still's Disease, a form of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. At that time the treatment for this painful and crippling condition consisted mainly of bed rest and excruciating remedial surgery.

As a result she spent much time sitting still rather than exploring the environment and developed, as is so often the case with bedridden children, an acute eye for observation. She developed an acute ear too, from the immense number of books that were read aloud to her.

Her literary diet consisted of Beatrix Potter, A.A. Milne, Charles Dickens, Hans Anderson, Kenneth Grahame and Rudyard Kipling. Her mother read to her from old stories of Norse, Celtic and Saxon legends and her mother's own favourite novels by authors of historical fiction.

When Sutcliff was in her early twenties she "got the itch" to write. She used a pen which had been "fattened" and cushioned so that her arthritic hand could guide it easily. The first story she could remember writing was Wild Sunrise, a story about a British chieftain faced with the invasion of the Romans. In her autobiography she stated that she was happy that the story is now lost, as it was not up to scratch.

Monarch Queen Elizabeth 1st of England
Monarch Queen Elizabeth 1st of England | Source

The Early Books by Sutcliff

Not long after the Second World War, Sutcliff wrote a re-telling of Celtic and Saxon legends which was submitted to Oxford University Press. Although the manuscript was rejected,she was requested to write a version of the Robin Hood Story.

Sutcliff wrote The Chronicles of Robin Hood in longhand and, by the time the manuscript was typed up and returned, she had written The Queen Elizabeth Story and sent it on to Oxford University Press.

Elizabeth of England was her own choice of subject, and she said that she "found it a delight to write". It was accepted, and the two books were eventually published in the same year, 1950.

This book, The Queen Elizabeth Story, was primarily aimed at girls. She acknowledged that this and the next two or three books were "a little too cosy and too sweet". Sweet the story may have been, but I certainly didn't find the story of Elizabeth cosy. It shocked me, moved me to anger and left me with a deep and abiding admiration for a great intellect and a great monarch. An excellent role model for a growing girl.

Sword at Sunset

The first historical view of Arthur

Sword at Sunset is deservedly one of the most admired historical novels about King Arthur.

Though she maintains many of the traditional aspects of the legend, Sutcliff discards the later additions and, along with her own The Lantern Bearers, this is one of the first attempts at an historical setting for King Arthur.

Instead of the Celtic background favoured by earlier authors, Sutcliff features the people of Britain who would have called themselves Roman. When Sword at Sunset was written this was an unusual viewpoint.

Sutcliff always became deeply involved in her books, but this one engaged her more heavily than any other book she wrote. It took some eighteen months to write, and absorbed her completely. She would write from 6am one morning until 2am the following morning, finding the process completely addictive. Usually writing in the third person, Sutcliff found she had trouble with this book, and only became satisfied with it when she wrote in the first person. It was the first time she had done this, but it seemed the best and only way.

After finishing the book, it took her several weeks to get back into her own skin, after thinking herself so completely into the character of Artos

Sword at Sunset is the best story yet written accenting the Romano-British cavalryman, the Dux Bellorum, whose deeds gave rise to the legend of King Arthur.

At the precipice of British history - In a time of grave national peril.

Sword at Sunset (Rediscovered Classics)
Sword at Sunset (Rediscovered Classics)

Arthur, a war chief, tells his own story in his own voice.

This brilliant Arthurian epic cuts through the mists of pagan, early Christian, and Medieval splendours usually put forward as representative of 5th century Britain. If there were ever a 'real' Arthur, this is how it must have been. The characters are real living people with all too human desires, fears and ambitions, passionate people who will make a home in your heart.

A classic, highly readable and recommended novel. I just love it!


Don't overlook the Lantern Bearers

Before Sword at Sunset is Sutcliff's 'young adult' book, The Lantern Bearers.

Set in the brief Romano-Celtic twilight between the end of the Roman Empire and the creation of Anglo-Saxon Britain, this is one of Sutcliff's finest works and surpassed only by its adult-oriented sequel, "Sword At Sunset".

She captures the sadness of the end of an era with a small group of people who, as in the title, became Lantern Bearers, trying to keep alight the flame of civilisation as the darkness and chaos of the Dark Ages threatened to swamp Britain.

The Silchester Eagle
The Silchester Eagle

Inspiration - The Silchester Eage

Sutcliff was inspired by the Silchester Eagle.

This cast bronze figure of an eagle was found in the Basilica of the Roman town of Calleva, near Silchester, in1866. The bird is posed with its wings outstretched, its head raised and turned to the right. The original wings are missing but it's clear, from the careful modeling of the feathers beneath them, that they must have been extended and raised. In 1962 Jocelyn Toynbee described the eagle as ‘by far the most superbly naturalistic rendering of any bird or beast as yet yielded by Roman Britain’.

It was repaired during its lifetime when new wings and probably new feet were fitted. Later it lost its replacement wings and suffered damage to its replacement feet. The curve of the underside of the feet suggests that the eagle’s claws once grasped the surface of a globe, also now missing, probably held in the hand of a statue of an emperor or a god. The eagle is not a legionary eagle, but was immortalised as such in Sutcliff's The Eagle of the Ninth and The Silver Branch.

Eagle of the Ninth - "If the Eagle is lost, the Legion dies"

The Eagle (The Roman Britain Trilogy)
The Eagle (The Roman Britain Trilogy)

No one knows the fate of the men in the lost Ninth Legion who marched off into the mists of what will later be known as Scotland. Honour is more sacred to the Romans than life itself and without the actual Eagle which represents the Ninth, there can be no honour.

Marcus Flavius Aquila vows to recover the lost eagle for Rome, and thus restore honour to the men of the Ninth.


The Ninth Legion

Legio IX Hispana

During the revolt against Roman rule launched by Boudicca of the Norfolk Iceni, the Legio IX Hispana, led by Quintus Petillius Cerialis, was virtually destroyed by the British tribes. 70% of the legion was lost, the worst defeat suffered by Rome in the British Isles.

The fate of the IX Hispana (The Spanish One) attracted much attention after Sutcliff's book was published in 1954 in which she suggests that the Picts wiped out the legion in 117. It's true that the legion lost about two thirds of its men when fighting against Boudicca in 60, but Cerialis continued his career and was later Governor of Britannia.

However the Ninth disappears from history shortly after.

Their last record in Britain dates from 109 when they set up a fortress which later became part of Eburacum (present day York).

Sutcliff's writing process

All written in longhand

Sutcliff's writing method would chill any modern writer!

Margaret Meek explained Sutcliff's writing methods in Rosemary Sutcliff (1962).

Sutcliff used large red notebooks to make her research notes in. An encyclopaedia would be the first port of call, which would in turn provide a reading list. This would be presented to the local library, and when those books arrived they could be mined for the bibliographies in the back, as well as the information in the main part of the works. All the sifted information would find its way into the red notebooks. Then Sutcliff would start to create a picture of the daily life of the era her idea was set in, and make a draft outline of around three thousand words in longhand.

Imagine what Sutcliff could have done with a computer!

Sutcliff Collectibles

Many of Rosemary Sutcliff's books are out of print or otherwise hard to get. A number of them are classified as Collectibles.

Have a look for these classics

Many of Sutcliff's books are out of print these days but you can search for them at Amazon or other bookstores. I've picked up a few which were being sold secondhand and also had luck with eBay.

Look for Song for a Dark Queen and Sun Horse, Moon Horse

Song for a Dark Queen

Song for a Dark Queen is the story of Boudicca.

Boudicca, the Iceni queen led the revolt that very nearly ended Rome's occupation of Britain.

The story is told in the first person (a mode in which Sutcliff excells) by Cadwan, harpist to the queen, who loves Boudicca without being blind to her faults. Because of his position within the royal household, Cadwan possesses an intimate knowledge of the Iceni's last queen.

Boudicca is always encircled with the mystique of legend, distanced from everyone else in the tale while in contrast, Cadwan is warm, though reserved, with an unflinching devotion to his queen and a heartbreaking bond with her doomed youngest daughter Nessan.

This isn't a 'cozy' book, and it's not really for the 13 year old reader.

Sun Horse, Moon Horse

A prehistoric tale of sacrifice, honour and courage

Inspired by an ancient chalk depiction of a galloping horse, this stark story gains momentum until the ultimate and grim denouement, making a powerful tale of sacrifice and isolation in order to complete the picture magic.

Thousands of years ago an unknown artist presented the world with a wild, windswept white horse on the High Chalk-- a gift that has been preserved through the millenia, a gift which still speaks to us today. Who was this ancient artist?

In Sun Horse Moon Horse, a youthful warrior, Lubrien Dhu, is the third son of the Chieftain in prehistoric Britain. Dark of skin and features in this nordic-looking clan, he feels stirrings in his mind to represent the natural world around him in two-dimensional form. Amongst his people the Iceni, who count their wealth by herds of horses, few appreciate his artistic insight.

Once again, Sutcliff makes you feel as if this is how it really happened. And who is to say that she isn't right?

The Wanderings of Odysseus: The Story of the Odyssey
The Wanderings of Odysseus: The Story of the Odyssey

Entertaining without sensationalism and accessible without condescension. Thrilling, tense and highly readable.


The Wanderings of Odysseus - Epic grandeur fused with a direct simplicity

A companion to Black Ships before Troy, a terrific book which seems impossible to get anymore, this handsome, large-size volume retells Homer's Odyssey with thrilling drama. The story of Odysseus and his long years of wandering in the wilderness has the mythic power of everyone's search for home.

Several episodes are just right for reading aloud, such as the blinding of the Cyclops and his howl of revenge.

This is definitely a childrens' book, but it doesn't patronise and always stays true to the grain of the story.

Do you know the Rosemary Sutcliff books?

Have you read Sutcliif's novels?

See results

© 2009 Susanna Duffy

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    • profile image


      4 years ago

      Goodness... I read Eagle of the Ninth waaaaaay back when, at school. Didn't realize it was part of a series.

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      Excellent presentation of Rosemary Sutcliff's books. I've enjoyed her work and you've done well to summarize it here. Nice job!

    • delia-delia profile image


      4 years ago

      Congratulations on LOTD! I love great story telling, it takes a certain admirable talent.

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      Excellent article about Rosemary Sutcliff. I enjoyed reading it.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image

      Denise McGill 

      4 years ago from Fresno CA

      I love novels based on history. I don't know why I have never heard of these but I'm going to look for them now. Thanks for the tip. Oh and congrats on LOTD.

    • Elsie Hagley profile image

      Elsie Hagley 

      4 years ago from New Zealand

      Very nice article about Rosemary Sutcliff, Congratulations for LOTD. You deserve it.

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      Terrific lens about a great author. It also shows that there are many ways to present history. Congratulations on getting LotD!

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      These books sound wonderful. Just the stuff I like to read. Great lens!

    • profile image


      4 years ago

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      Good Information

    • CampingmanNW profile image


      4 years ago

      Wow....I have to apologize, but I have never read even one of these books. Your review here is intriguing and well worth the Lens of the day award, not to mention, the Purple Star award as well. Congratulations and you have piqued my interest in reading her books and finding out just who Rosemary Sutcliff is. Thank you for sharing

    • firstsquid profile image


      4 years ago

      the titles sound familiar, is there any of her books that become a movie ??

    • esmonaco profile image

      Eugene Samuel Monaco 

      4 years ago from Lakewood New York

      Have not read any of these but it sounds like I should, Congratulations on LOTD!!!

    • Susan Zutautas profile image

      Susan Zutautas 

      4 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      I'd never heard or read any of Rosemary Sutcliff's books before but I am intrigued and will put her on my author to read list. Congrats on your LOTD!

    • Diana Wenzel profile image

      Renaissance Woman 

      4 years ago from Colorado

      Your writing and thoughts are always so exquisite. You have a beautiful mind. Congrats on LotD!

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      Some of these titles sound very familiar, but I have a horrible memory for things like authors, songwriters and such, I just know that I like them when I read, or see, or's one of my many shortcomings.....

    • Sensuintell profile image


      4 years ago

      Fantastic lens! It is very informative, and I appreciate it is about an author I am not familiar with. Thank you.

    • GollyGearHope profile image


      4 years ago from Skokie, Illinois

      I love Rosemary Sutcliff's books! I didn't think anybody knew about her anymore. My favorite of her books was "The Mark of the Horse Lord." Thank you for the wonderful memories - I may have to reread it now!

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      Great lens! Looks like I need to add a dozen books to my reading list! I did see the movie Eagle of the nineth. Love all of these stories and read a lot of one from these timeliness.

    • TJHousel profile image


      4 years ago from NE Ohio

      Great lens and congratulations on Lens of the Day!

    • Merrci profile image

      Merry Citarella 

      4 years ago from Oregon's Southern Coast

      Congratulations on Lens of the Day! It's such an interesting lens. Enjoyed reading it. Now will go look further at her books!

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      She sounds like a writer worthy of further investigation!

    • Richard-H profile image


      4 years ago from Surrey, United Kingdom

      I haven't read any of her novels, but it sounds like I should!

    • Dressage Husband profile image

      Stephen J Parkin 

      4 years ago from Pine Grove, Nova Scotia, Canada

      I used to read Historical novels avidly as a child, however the name did not strike a chord. Well done on a well researched lens on a remarkable female author. Well deserved LOTD.

    • OhMe profile image

      Nancy Tate Hellams 

      4 years ago from Pendleton, SC

      I was not at all familiar with Rosemary Sutcliff and had never heard of Still's Disease so this page was quite an education. Thanks.

    • mariacarbonara profile image


      5 years ago

      Not heard of her but another great author you have led me to. Will try and find her books in my local library

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      I've been a Sutcliff fan for the last 50-odd years and it isn't easy if you don't live somewhere in the UK. I've just been 'talking' per a booksite with someone who has just discovered through reading THE BEST OF R.S. She was puzzled that she couldn't get any response from anyone after leaving a comment on Since I'd gotten that exact book into my hands this week, I happened to read her note and answered her. We were lamenting the relative scarcity of her books on this side of the Altantic. Though I must say that I think I'm a little better off since our city library owns at least half of her books and I've been able to pick up numerous books on my own. But I'm still missing a few that I'd at least like to read.

    • Lady Lorelei profile image

      Lorelei Cohen 

      5 years ago from Canada

      I do not read much anymore but Rosemary Sutcliff certainly sounds like an artist who's work would be well worth the reading. Some writer's have so much emotion within them that it cannot help but flow into their words.

    • Scarlettohairy profile image

      Peggy Hazelwood 

      5 years ago from Desert Southwest, U.S.A.

      She sounds like an interesting author. Thanks for the recommendation.

    • goldenrulecomics profile image


      5 years ago from New Jersey

      I had never heard of her or her books, but I have seen the chalk drawing. Very cool.

    • annieangel1 profile image


      5 years ago from Yorkshire, England

      very interesting lens on Rosemary Sutcliff - I enjoyed it

    • melissiaoliver profile image


      6 years ago

      I love Rosemary Sutcliff books, have done ever since we read some of the Eagle of the Ninth at school. I've recently read The Lantern Bearers and loved it, and I'm now reading her King Arthur trilogy of books.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Thank you, thank you for providing a well-written, personal page about author Rosemary Sutcliffe. Blessed.

    • MikeMoore LM profile image

      MikeMoore LM 

      9 years ago

      When you mention that you grew up reading Sutcliff, it reminded me of some of my boyhood favorites. The Narnia series was huge for me, and it's probably the reason why I've continued to enjoy books ever since. I also loved those choose your own adventure books. Hardly master pieces of fiction, but fun for all that.

      Again, I really enjoyed this lens as well.



    • Paula Atwell profile image

      Paula Atwell 

      9 years ago from Cleveland, OH

      Thanks for introducing me to these. I will have to go check them out. :)

    • LouiseKirkpatrick profile image


      9 years ago from Berkshire, United Kingdom

      I haven't read any of Rosemary Sutcliff's work, but she looks right up my street...I spend a great deal of time reading and wish there were a few more hours in every day, so I could read a bit more :)

      5* :D

    • AslanBooks profile image


      9 years ago

      So many authors and little time. Very nice.

    • Aaron Howard profile image

      Aaron Howard 

      9 years ago

      Wonderful lens! I've read only one of her books and I'm now prompted to read more. You have a great way with words and you deserve 5*'s!

    • dahlia369 profile image


      9 years ago

      Haven't read any of her books but she sure looks like the kind of author I would enjoy so I intend to look into some of the books you recommend. Thank you for this great presentation, I really enjoyed it!! :)

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Oh cool! I loved the Queen Elizabeth Story which was the only one I had as a child. I have never met anybody who has heard of it before! I grew up near the prehistoric White Horse at Uffington - I have a strong sense of being rooted in middle southern England although born further east and with Celtic ancestry. I will look out for more of her books now. Thank you for this lens!

    • WhitU4ever profile image


      9 years ago

      I've never Sutcliff's books, but you've gained my curiosity. I can relate to her addiction to writing through the night. It is admirable that she wrote in spite of her arthritis... and I can certainly relate to her addiction to writing into the night and early morning hours. She and C. S. Lewis both preferred to write in long hand. Very nicely written... 5*'s!

    • Stazjia profile image

      Carol Fisher 

      9 years ago from Warminster, Wiltshire, UK

      I read all of Rosemary Sutcliff's novels when I was in my teens and twenties. Now you've reminded me about her, I have a real urge to re-read them.


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