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Rosemary Sutcliff (14 December 1920 – 23 July 1992) was a British writer of Young Adult Historical Fiction, who published some fifty books between 1950 and 1997. She is best-known for her novels set in Roman Britain, particularly The Eagle of the Ninth. She was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire for her services to children's literature.

Sutcliff was the daughter of a Royal Navy commander, and much of her work focuses on military officers and the life of the service. At two years old, she developed juvenile arthritis which partially crippled her; she spent much of her childhood in and out of hospital and used a wheelchair in later life. Medicine and disabled characters play a prominent role in her fiction. She was educated largely at home by her mother, who introduced her to literature, especially Celtic Mythology and the Matter of Britain. She also became a great admirer of Rudyard Kipling, who strongly influences her prose, settings, and themes. As a young adult, she trained as an artist, working as a painter of miniatures. A vivid evocation of visual detail later translated to her writing.

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She published her first books, The Chronicles of Robin Hood and The Queen Elizabeth Story, with Oxford University Press in 1950. They were followed by three more novels before her breakout bestseller The Eagle of the Ninth, which as School Study Media became the Trope Codifier of the Lost Roman Legion for generations of children, and has inspired several adaptations including the 2011 film The Eagle. It was eventually followed by seven loosely linked sequels sometimes known as "The Eagle of the Ninth Chronicles" or "The Dolphin Ring series", after the signet ring passed down through the generations of a Roman British family.

Sutcliff was commended six times for the UK's most prestigious award for children's writing, the Carnegie Medal. The Eagle of the Ninth (1954), The Shield Ring (1956), The Silver Branch (1957), and Warrior Scarlet (1958) were shortlisted before The Lantern Bearers won in 1959. She received her final commendation for Tristan and Iseult in 1971.

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The official site of her literary estate is rosemarysutcliff.com. A 1983 BBC Radio Desert Island Discs interview with Sutcliff can be heard here; a 1986 interview can be read here.


Sutcliff's works include examples of:

    open/close all folders 

    Recurring Tropes 

     Children's Novels 

Sun Horse, Moon Horse

Lubrin Dhu, the Iceni chief's Black Sheep artist son, finds himself the spokesman of his clan when they are conquered by the Attribates. He ransoms his Slave Race with the design and construction of a great boundary marker and his own Heroic Sacrifice.
  • Because Destiny Says So: As Lubrin puts it, "it is the pattern of things."
  • Best Friends-in-Law: Lubrin's Heterosexual Life-Partner Dara is chosen as the future husband of his sister Teleri, the heiress of the tribe. It makes things a little weird for awhile.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The Hero Dies.
  • Friendly Enemy: Lubrin and Cradock might have been friends, if Cradock hadn't conquered his tribe and enslaved him.
  • Human Sacrifice: The White Horse must be dedicated with a death, and a chieftain must die for the good of his people.
  • Landmark of Lore: The Iceni's building project is the famous prehistoric chalk drawing the White Horse of Uffington.
  • Matriarchy: Almost. The patriarchal Attribates assume Lubrin, the chief's surviving son, is the new chief of the Iceni. They're actually matrilineal, so the legitimate chief is his sister Teleri's husband, Dara.
  • The Migration: The novel purports to explain the coincidence of both the Scottish Epidi tribe's and the East Anglian Iceni's names meaning "horse people" by having Lubrin's conquered Iceni depart for greener pastures in Argyll that Lubrin and Dara once heard of from a wandering trader.
  • Solar and Lunar: The Iceni worship a moon goddess and the Atribates a sun god. The White Horse secretly symbolises both.
  • White Stallion: What the White Horse was supposed to be. Cradock remarks after it's finished that he may not be an artist, but he can recognise a mare when he sees one.

The Witch's Brat

Lovel, an orphan with a crooked back and foot, becomes an infirmarian monk and helps found St. Bartholomew's Hospital.
  • Career-Ending Injury: Nick Redpoll was born to be a builder, but he crippled his leg in a fall off a scaffold.
  • The Jester: Historical-Domain Character Rahere is King Henry I's Jongleur or minstrel, a role with which he is not entirely satisfied.
  • The Medic: Lovel learns medicine from his grandmother and then the infirmarian brothers of New Minster. He takes the job when Rahere founds St. Bart's and, not content with splints and herbs, invents physical therapy on the go by experimenting on Nick Redpoll.
  • Patron Saint: After nearly dying of malaria in Rome, Rahere decides to found a hospital for the poor in London. In a dream, St. Bartholomew advises him that if he throws in a priory as well, he can get the devout King Henry to pay for the lot.
  • Taking the Veil: After the loss of young Prince William and the White Ship, Rahere has a religious epiphany and joins the church. Lovel takes his vows mostly because he could never afford secular training as a physician.
  • Witch Hunt: Eleven-year-old Lovel is prime suspect in the case of "Who Put the Evil Eye on My Cow?"

The Chronicles of Robin Hood

  • Action Girl: Marian knows her way around a sword and bow and dies in battle defending her ancestral castle, leading to Robin's return to the Greenwood.
  • An Ass-Kicking Christmas: One Christmastide is spent rescuing Will Stukely from the gibbet.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The Hero Dies.
  • Defeat Means Friendship: Per legend, Robin acquires many of his followers by challenging them to a fight or a shooting contest, including Little John, Will Scarlet, and Friar Tuck. He also duels Marian in disguise.
  • Disguise Tropes: Robin poses as a minstrel and a potter; Marian runs away in drag; Much pretends to be a halfwit; Will Stukely claims to be a thatcher (he hasn't got the hands for it); Little John poses as a pilgrim; King Richard disguises himself as a monk; Guy of Gisburne dresses up as the Phantom Horse of Barnsdale, and Robin steals his costume.
  • Turbulent Priest: Friar Tuck is a hard-hitting priest who's been kicked out of his monastery. Robin is first stitched up by the local abbot who wants his land, and spends his career as an outlaw specially targeting rich churchmen. He is finally betrayed by the acquisitive Abbess Ursula, his own cousin.

The Armourer's House

Tamsyn Caunter, who desperately wishes she could be a merchant venturer, must instead go to live with her uncle in London. She settles into the colourful life of the household and city while sharing the secret of their mutual seafaring ambition with her quiet cousin Piers.
  • Chekhov M.I.A.: Piers's hopes of becoming a sailor went down with his elder brother Kit's ship.
  • Childhood Marriage Promise: Tamsyn and Piers agree to marry so Tamsyn can also sail on Piers's theoretical future ship.
  • Cool Ship: Piers's Dolphin; Tamsyn's Joyous Venture; the royal fleet's Great Harry and Mary Rose, which they tour on a visit to the Dockyard.
  • Christmas Miracle: Kit returns alive and well on Christmas Eve, after a miraculous rescue plus all-expenses-paid two-year round trip to India, no opt-out.
  • Description Porn
  • Fantasy Sequence: Tamsyn and Piers reimagine the attic as the deck of their ship.
  • Historical-Domain Character: Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn make a cameo appearance.
  • Intrepid Merchant: The "merchant venturers" like Tamsyn's uncle Martin who are exploring the New World in search of new profits.
  • Slice of Life
  • Show Within a Show: Most of one chapter is an in-story telling of Tam Lin.

The Queen Elizabeth Story

Perdita Pettle, who can see "Pharisees", is granted her wish to see the Queen's Grace in a year and a day. The year passes through the adventures of Elizabethan country childhood.

Brother Dusty-Feet

Hugh Copplestone runs away from home and falls in with a company of strolling players.

Flame-Coloured Taffeta

Two children in the Sussex smuggling country shelter a wounded Jacobite courier.
  • Batman in My Basement: Damaris discovers Tom "Wildgoose" in the woods with a bullet in his leg the day after a smuggling run and stashes him in an abandoned cottage. She enlists her best friend Peter and the local witch doctor Genty Small to perform surgery and feed him. Luckily for Tom, hiding hot goods and dodging the customs officers is in their blood.
  • Exact Words: When Damaris asks Tom whether he's a spy, her new friend replies that the letters he's carrying can't possibly threaten King George's peace.
  • Great Escape: After Tom is arrested and locked up in the squire's barn, Damaris and Genty threaten the stablemaster into arranging a distraction to cover his escape. Then he has to skulk in Genty's secret cellar until it's time to retrieve his secret documents by walking into the middle of a smuggling run intercepted by a police raid.
  • Literary Allusion Title: A Shout-Out to Shakespeare from Henry IV, Part 1, in a rather different context.
  • Still Fighting the Civil War: Tom is too romantic to abandon the Jacobite cause, even knowing that Bonnie Prince Charlie is a hopeless prospect in more ways than one.

     Adult Novels 

The Flowers of Adonis

The rise and fall (and rise and fall and rise and fall) of Alkibiades, the notorious Athenian politician – and of Athens – through the eyes of his companions as he sets out on the Sicilian Expedition, reignites The Peloponnesian War, seduces the queen of Sparta, escapes to the Persians, is welcomed back with open arms by the Athenians, and then loses it all again.
  • Historical-Domain Character: Alkibiades; Antiochus; Timandra (loosely); Timea; Agis; Endius; Pharnobazus; Socrates; many others.
  • Supporting Protagonist: At least eleven, including one from beyond the grave: the Citizen, the Soldier, the Seaman, the Dead, the Priest, the Queen, the King, the Spartan, the Rower, the Whore, the Satrap.
  • Protagonist-Centered Morality: Sympathetic character = forgives Alkibiades anything.
  • But Not Too Gay: Alkibiades is said by Antiochus to be strictly a ladies' man, though he was noted for his beauty in a society where bisexuality was normal (this is consistent with Plutarch's remark that he spurned all his admirers but Socrates.) Arcadius ("The Soldier") falls in love with a comrade who dies before they can do anything about it, and then is never interested in another man.

     Short Stories 

Shifting Sands

A twelve-year-old girl is promised to the tyrannical chief of her prehistoric village, who proposes to sacrifice the boy she prefers to the gods who protect the great sand dune on which the village sits.

The Chief's Daughter

Nessan frees a prisoner intended for human sacrifice and volunteers to take his place.
  • The Chief's Daughter: Averted; the protagonist is the chief's daughter. And she's ten.
  • Cargo Cult: Nessan's people worship a standing stone called the Black Mother. The negotiation of sacred debt that causes the characters so much mental agony is all done in the name of a rock.
  • Equivalent Exchange: Nessan initially saved Dara from Human Sacrifice by offering a glass bracelet to the Black Mother. When the stream dries up and the priest decides they need to sacrifice him after all, she engineers his escape knowing that someone will have to take his place. His guard knows he'll have to take the fall, until Nessan volunteers in his place. When Dara comes upon the Black Mother and finds a spear left as an offering, he takes it in exchange for all his food, inadvertently undamming the stream. When the water returns, the priest concludes that Nessan's willingness to die was an acceptable sacrifice.
  • Ridiculously Difficult Route: Nessan sends Dara down the cliff face that's usually covered by the water of the stream.

Flowering Dagger

A chief's daughter and a hostage from another tribe fall in love, before discovering an even more insurmountable obstacle.
  • Fourth Date Marriage: After being distantly acquainted for more than a year, Saba and Brychan suddenly notice each other for the first time, then immediately acknowledge a powerful sense of connection. They pledge their devotion to each other and make plans to elope during their second conversation.
  • Moses in the Bulrushes: Brychan was a Doorstop Baby. The titular dagger is his Orphan's Plot Trinket, which combined with his Distinguishing Mark leads to the revelation of his parentage.
  • Suddenly Suitable Suitor: Subverted. Yes, they're from the same tribe after all. That's not all they're both from!
  • Surprise Incest: Whoops.
  • Together in Death: Good thing they've got this dagger handy.
  • Foreshadowing: Pervasive. Aside from the characters' conscious hints in dialogue, we have:
    • The first paragraphs describe what the scene doesn't yet look like so early in the year, with full growth and beauty still to come, just as Saba and Brychan aren't yet mature (and never will be.)
    • Cuckoos aren't just a sign of spring
    • The women washing at a ford in the first scene is probably another of Sutcliff's references to the Washer at the Ford, a harbinger of death from Celtic Mythology.
    • The observation that Cordaella's husband was of the correct degree of kinship to marry, and that Saba is more free to choose, is ironic. Cordaella and Garim's sibling interaction is a marked contrast to Saba and Brychan in the same scene.
    • The death of the bee by the sting that's compared to the dagger, the superstitious associations of the elder flower the bee is sitting on, and Saba's remark that she doesn't care if Brychan hurts her removing the sting.
    • The observation that Brychan's parents' relationship didn't get enough time for "flowering and fruiting", just as his won't.
    • The symbolism of flowering dagger, whose blade holds both life (the flower design) and death, and which is both beautiful and fatal, like Saba and Brychan's love for each other.

The Changeling

Tethra, a changeling child adopted by the chief of the Epidi, is driven out to rejoin the Little Dark People. When his father is mortally wounded, he must choose between his two tribes.

The Truce of the Games, or A Crown of Wild Olive

A young Athenian runner befriends his Spartan competitor at the Olympic Games in the middle of The Peloponnesian War.
  • To Be Lawful or Good: Amyntas is torn between his duty to represent his city and honour the gods, and his feeling that No Challenge Equals No Satisfaction after Leon is injured.
  • Don't You Dare Pity Me!: It's The Spartan Way. Leon refuses to acknowledge to Amyntas that his injury might affect his performance. Leon is trying to validate the race for Amyntas, as Amyntas did for him by competing in earnest.
  • Suck Out the Poison: In a gratuitous, poison-free example, Amyntas washes the dirt out of Leon's cut foot, then sucks it just to be sure.
  • My Country, Right or Wrong: After the Olympic truce expires, Athens and Sparta will resume their war and Amyntas and Leon will return home and enter opposing armies. There is no third option, and they have no realistic hope of meeting again without bitterness.

Eagle's Egg

Quintus, a standard-bearer, can't marry Cordaella without a promotion to Centurion, but it will take Agricola's three-year Caledonian campaign, a mutiny, and the battle of Mons Graupius to get it.

Swallows in the Spring

A survivor of the Ninth Legion returns to Eburacum.
  • Lost Roman Legion: The vanished Ninth Legion casts a long shadow over their replacements the Sixth Victrix, even a dozen years after their disappearance. No one knows whether they were really destroyed, or worse, deserted.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Fulvius, who was left behind by the Ninth and then kept in the same fort as part of the Sixth; Stripey; and to some extent the narrator, Dexius, who claims that a lifetime in the frontier garrisons would drive anyone mad.
  • Stranger in a Familiar Land: Stripey was one of Fulvius's men from the Ninth Legion, but he's so covered in Pict tattoos he's unrecognisable, and so traumatised that he can't tell anyone.

A Circlet of Oak Leaves

Aracos, a medical orderly, turns a battle against British tribesmen while disguised as a standard bearer.
  • Emergency Impersonation: Aracos takes the place of nearly-Identical Stranger Felix, a Shell-Shocked Veteran, so Felix won't be charged with desertion.
  • Battle Amongst the Flames: The valour of the auxiliary cavalry is at issue in the tavern because they stampeded when the Picts fired the heather. Only the Dacian cavalry, which Aracos led, rode through the flames because they train their mounts to charge through fire in a trick riding display. Aracos collapses afterward from smoke inhalation.
  • Scrap Heap Hero: Aracos, two or three times over – rejected from the cavalry for a heart defect, left to join the medical corps; invalided out of the army, ending up an obscure horse-breaker in Britain; and by the end of the story, believed to have lied about winning the Corona Civica by everyone in his local pub.

The Bridge-Builders

Androphon, the son of a fort commander on the western border of Roman Britain, is held hostage by Britons during a territorial dispute.
  • I Have Your Son: Kyndylan the Chief plans to use Androphon as leverage for persuading the Commander to abandon the construction of the signal tower.
  • She Will Come for Me: Androphon threatens Kyndylan with his father's Disproportionate Retribution, but he's bluffing, as the Romans don't know where Kyndylan's village is, and Kyndylan is planning to move him somewhere better hidden anyway.
  • Shame If Something Happened: The story is bookended by two indirectly threatening conversations. Kyndylan claims that his hotheaded young warriors will be upset by the building of a signal tower in the tribe's lands, leading the Commander to predict a series of fatal accidents during the construction. Then Androphon pointedly doesn't accuse his "host" of kidnapping him, so that the Commander can spare the British village and Kyndylan can cooperate in return.

The Fugitives

Lucian, an army officer's paralysed son, hides a deserter from the men sent to recapture him.
  • Face Your Fears: Lucian hates acknowleding his disability to other people. The deserter has to decide whether army life is worse than life on the run.
  • Prayer Is a Last Resort:
    The affair was out of his hands now; only the gods could hold back the terrible thing from happening. In desperation, with no time to think, he did the one thing that was left. He made a sacrifice to the gods. It was an odd sacrifice, but strong, for it meant giving up old dreams that he had not known until that instant he was still clinging on to; it meant doing the hardest and bravest thing he had ever done in his life.
  • Throwing Off the Disability: An aversion, which is the whole point. To save the deserter, Lucian has not only to finally accept his Dream-Crushing Handicap, but cheerfully admit it to the Centurion.
  • Would Hurt a Child: The deserter is desperate enough to threaten Lucian, which doesn't work.

The Capricorn Bracelet

Six short stories of a Romano-British family, linked by an heirloom military decoration, from the Boudiccan Rebellion to the end of the Roman occupation.

We Lived in Drumfyvie

Citizens of a Scottish Royal Burgh witness its social changes and great events over the course of more than seven hundred years. Originally written as radioplays for BBC Scotland.

Sutcliff's list of works:

Historical Novels
Sutcliff's historical fiction isn't a tightly-linked series, but it forms a consistent Continuity.

Short Stories
More historical fiction in shorter form.

  • Stone Age: Shifting Sands (1977)
  • Bronze Age: The Chief's Daughter (1966)
  • Bronze Age: "Flowering Dagger" (in The Real Thing, 1977)
  • Iron Age: The Changeling (1974)
  • 412 BCE: The Truce of the Games, or "A Crown of Wild Olive" (1971)
  • 60 CE: The Capricorn Bracelet (collection, 1973)
  • 80 CE: Eagle's Egg (1981)
  • 130 CE: "Swallows in the Spring" (in Galaxy, 1970)
  • 150 CE: A Circlet of Oak Leaves (1965)
  • Roman: The Bridge-Builders (1959)
  • Roman: "The Fugitives" (in Miscellany One, 1964)
  • Roman: "The Hundredth Feather" (in Hundreds and Hundreds, 1984)
  • Dark Age: A Saxon Settler (1965)
  • 1137 CE: We Lived in Drumfyvie (collection with Margaret Lyford-Pike, 1975)

Myths and Legends
Novellas that include the magical and anachronistic elements of their source material.

Non-Fiction

  • Rudyard Kipling (1960)
  • The Batsford Living History Series:
    • Houses and History (1960)
    • Heroes and History (1965)
  • Blue Remembered Hills (1983)


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