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Literature / The Rider of the White Horse

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The Rider of the White Horse is a 1959 Historical Fiction novel by Rosemary Sutcliff. Early US editions were titled Rider on a White Horse.

Sickly, reserved, and humble Sir Thomas Fairfax and his protective, outspoken wife Anne are a young couple in an Arranged Marriage at the outbreak of the English Civil War. Thomas is appointed General of Horse to his father Lord Fairfax, commander of Parliament's army in their native county of Yorkshire – a ragtag militia of farmers and weavers, with only one city stronghold and little help from central command. Anne, raised on her father's campaigns, decides that she and their small daughter Moll will ride with Thomas.

Not to be confused with The Rider on the White Horse (Der Schimmelreiter) by Theodor Storm.


The Rider of the White Horse includes examples of:

  • Abridged for Children: A 1960s Young Adult paperback edition from Peacock Books cut some incidental detail, Description Porn, gore, and faintly sexual references. The version that eventually made it to e-book in 2014 was apparently the abridged text.
  • Action Girl: Anne, given half a chance.
    "A hell-fire spit-cat, that I do know," one of her captors grumbled. "Tried to shoot Tim Thornton in t’belly she did, and fought like a bloody catamount."
  • Arranged Marriage: Anne and Thomas married with a mutual lack of enthusiasm, but things soon became even more awkward when Anne fell in love with Thomas and he couldn't return the feeling. He tells her when he sends her to London that he does, in his way, love her.
  • As the Good Book Says...: The Friendly Sniper at Tadcaster and Bradford is particularly distinguished for it.
    She heard the little marksman chanting whole triumphant verses from the Psalms as a kind of battle hymn. "I will praise the Lord, with my whole heart; I will show forth all thy marvellous works. When mine enemies are turned back they shall fall and perish at thy presence. Done it! Done it by t’Lord Harry!"
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  • Based on a True Story
  • Book-Ends: The novel begins and ends with quiet scenes of the Fairfaxes at home, lately in the company of their kinsfolk William and Frances, with the scent of snowdrops on the air.
  • Bring Help Back: Thomas's cavalry on the right wing of the Parliamentarian line at the battle of Marston Moor is completely crushed, while the centre can barely hang on. Thomas himself rides across the battle to summon Cromwell's left wing to save the day.
  • Camp Follower: Anne comments that she literally is one, despite the vast difference in social rank from what is usually meant by the term.
  • Canine Companion: Prince Rupert of the Rhine, the royalists' great cavalry leader, is accompanied everywhere by a white poodle named Boy, alleged to be his Familiar.
  • Character Signature Song: Thomas's cousin Sir William Fairfax is usually to be heard humming "Greensleeves." The Scottish surgeon David Morrison has only one tune, "The Flowers of the Forest."
  • Continuity Nod: Surgeon Phyneas Openshaw as an apprentice searched the wound acquired at the battle of Cadiz by Sir Walter Ralegh, the hero of Lady-in-Waiting. John Lister's grandfather fought for Ralegh at Fayal. Thomas's grandfather Lord Mulgrave knew Ralegh, Essex, and Cecil.
  • The Exile: After the annihilation of his men at the battle of Marston Moor, Lord Newcastle escapes to the continent, leaving the king's service. His loyal brother Sir Charles Cavendish goes with him.
  • Florence Nightingale Effect: Thomas went down with one of his various illnesses soon after the wedding, triggering Anne's highly-developed protective instincts.
  • Foreshadowing: Cromwell gives Moll an ancient Roman coin. On it, as she innocently observes, is a decapitated king.
    Openshaw: There’s many an old coin shows its king’s head cut off at the neck. It can scarcely influence Fate, that Colonel Cromwell gives one such to a child for her aching tooth.
  • Friendly Enemy: Anne befriends Sir Charles Cavendish, brother to Lord Newcastle, during her brief stint as their prisoner.
    Her ability to see men as friends or enemies with no possible mingling of the two was gone from her; and she let it go. A sense of enrichment came to her. She did not understand it, but nevertheless, she knew, in a moment of clear seeing, that it marked some change in her that could not be annulled.
  • The Fundamentalist: King Charles believes passionately in his own Divine Right to run the kingdoms however he likes – particularly in the matter of bishops. Many of his subjects, including the extreme Presbyterians and other Puritans, equally passionately believe otherwise.
  • Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!: The position of Parliamentarian supporters like the Fairfaxes, who don't believe that King Charles has the legal right (or competence) to make policy without the consent of the people (or at least the MPs.)
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: Thomas notes with unease the growing power of religious extremists in Parliament after its alliance with the Scottish Presbyterians. Where he fights against the tyranny of the king, they merely want their own brand of tyranny.
  • The Grotesque: The gentlemanly Sir Charles Cavendish is congenitally deformed.
    "A man so short as to be almost a dwarf, his twisted and stunted body clad in doublet and breeches of dark green and mulberry velvet, whose sombre brilliance of colour, despite their severe plainness of cut, added to the phantasy of his whole appearance; a man whose face, in the dappled shadows of the fig-tree, was as though some sculptor with a warped and cruel sense of humour had made a gargoyle with Lord Newcastle’s features."
  • Handicapped Badass: Sir Charles is also Newcastle's General of Horse.
    She had thought of Sir Charles on horseback as a man among men; she took that back now, realizing that in all essentials, in the things that made a man, Sir Charles was in any case a man among men. Looking for that one last moment into his face, she saw its ugliness as strength, as the scars of battle and the scars of victory. She saw a man without bitterness when most men would have been bitter, and finely tempered by his own cruel adversity as a Toledo rapier blade.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: The book's occasional rendering of a northern Funetik Aksent has an unfortunate effect on the word "come."
    "Twas just a sunset, a fine fierce sunset, and when he drew rein before t’kirkyard gate, a great golden finger of light cum down through t’clouds and touched on him and t’horse, like as mebbe the Lord had reached out a great shining finger..."
  • Hero of Another Story: Oliver Cromwell is Thomas's counterpart in Lincolnshire, a cavalry officer and second in overall command whose reputation is on the rise. The Fairfaxes like him and find his strength of purpose inspiring, though Anne sees that he could be capable of terrible things. For now, however, he's just the ally who saves Thomas's bacon at Marston Moor and pushes through badly-needed army reforms.
  • Hidden Army Reveal: The Parliamentarians realise just before their assault on Wakefield that their intel left something to be desired.
    Thomas: Do you know, I fancy that the scouts have somewhat underestimated the size of the Wakefield garrison.
  • Hold the Line: A few hundred Parliamentarians attempt to hold the line of the river Wharfe against the Royalists moving south out of York, leading to the battle of Tadcaster Bridge. They hold it, but only for a day before a Tactical Withdrawal.
  • Holding the Floor: The envoys Lord Newcastle sends in under flag of truce to negotiate the surrender of Bradford are, it turns out, merely a (perhaps unwitting) distraction from the cannon the Royalists are rolling up to the town's barricade in the dark.
  • Humble Hero: Thomas is a modest man, despite his elevated social position, with a scarecrow physique, reserved manners, a sickly constitution and a Speech Impediment. He's baffled and embarrassed to become a local hero.
  • Infant Immortality: Averted. The Fairfaxes' younger daughter Elizabeth dies of an illness early in the novel. Anne's grief spurs her to go to war with Thomas and keep the family together.
  • Interquel: Most of the events of The Rider of the White Horse fit between chapters three and four of Sutcliff's 1953 Young Adult novel, Simon, about a young officer serving under Fairfax in 1645-6.
  • Kindhearted Cat Lover: Little Moll befriends a half-witted young man who is deeply fond of small fluffy things when she stays overnight at his farmhouse. He gives her a kitten as a going-away present.
  • Mauve Shirt:
    • John Lister is a young, boyish captain who joins Thomas before the battle of Tadcaster. He's shot in the head and dies under Anne's hands.
    • William Hill is Anne's escort on the road to Bradford and on their failed escape, where they're taken prisoner together, then is paroled and rejoins Thomas for the siege of Nantwich. He rises through the ranks from corporal to lieutenant, and dies at Marston Moor.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Royalist Lord Newcastle revokes his order to Rape, Pillage, and Burn defiant Bradford after a White Lady appears to him in the night to plead on the town's behalf, or so he claims. It's also just after his prisoner Lady Fairfax suggests the idea while giving him a piece of her mind about his plans.
  • Misery Builds Character: Anne matures more in a couple of years of war than she had in the previous five of her comfortable married life.
    Gradually, through the past war-racked months, she had become an immeasurably richer woman than she had been through all the quiet Nun Appleton years. And with increase of riches she had become immeasurably more vulnerable, more agonizingly afraid of loss, having so much to lose.
  • Plain Jane: Anne is not good looking, nor is Thomas.
  • Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: After the rout at Adderton Moor, Thomas's scattered supporters in the West Riding reassemble to march with him to the siege of Nantwich. He cries.
    Lt. Hill: We was a queer kind of force that old Hodgson had collected; queer as Dick’s hatband. Odd companies scattered after Adderton Moor or won clear of the Royalists when Bradford fell, all the ravellings of every battle we’ve ever lost in the north, and God knows that’s a few. We made up three companies all told, and when we heard that Fairfax was on the march, he marched us down from Craven to Manchester to join him. Half starved, most of us were, and the rags of old uniforms hanging from our backs, and our feet bound up in bloody rags.
  • Shout-Out: The names Relf, Wagstaff, and Gibberdyke are recycled from Simon, though the characters don't seem to be related.
  • The Siege:
    • The citizens of Bradford hold out against the Royalists despite the town's position being nearly indefensible. They're ultimately forced to surrender.
    • Hull, the Parliamentarians' one secure base in Yorkshire, is surrounded on the landward side by a Royalist siege force, but since it's a port, there's not much preventing the city from landing reinforcements from Lincolnshire and turning the tables on the attackers.
  • Storming the Castle: The battle of Wakefield and the sieges of Nantwich, Latham House, and York.
  • Tactical Withdrawal:
    • After holding off Newcastle at Tadcaster, the Parliamentarians abandon the line of the river Wharfe to fall back on the Ouse.
    • The Fairfaxes reluctantly abandon Bradford after failing to take the fight to the enemy at Adderton Moor. Thomas is trapped there for several days after Lord Fairfax pulls out, fails to negotiate a surrender, and breaks out under cover of darkness.
  • Team Mom:
    Lord Mulgrave: Tell me, Anne, do you always feel personally responsible for anyone whose life touches yours? Yes, you do. Your Thomas, a woman with child in Bradford, a man taken prisoner in your service, the beggar you gave a penny to in the street. You reach out both hands and hold on. You want to fight their battles and bear their pain, and keep their conscience.
  • Tragic Bromance: Thomas's cousin and best friend William dies in the penultimate chapter. It changes Thomas irrevocably and is the one time he lets Anne see his emotional, instead of physical, vulnerabilities.
  • Training the Peaceful Villagers: The armies of both Parliamentarians and Royalists are mostly local militias, not all volunteers, that have to be whipped into some kind of shape by their officers (who are probably their landlords.)
  • We Used to Be Friends: The Fairfaxes and various other Yorkshire gentry who remain loyal to the king, particularly Sir Henry Slingsby.
  • White Stallion: Fairfax's usual ride is White Surrey, named after the steed of King Richard III. A Bradford preacher dubs him the Rider of the White Horse after a horseman of the apocalypse in the Book of Revelation. Another knight on a white horse he resembles, Anne notes, is Don Quixote.
  • Worthy Opponent: Lord Newcastle, commander of the king's armies in Yorkshire, is (usually) an Officer and a Gentleman. He's an effective commander, has the decency to spare Bradford, is devastated by the massacre of his Whitecoats at Marston Moor, and has the Undying Loyalty of his brother Charles Because You Were Nice to Me.
  • You Shall Not Pass!: As the Parliamentarians retreat all the way from Bradford to Hull, Thomas is once again commanding the rear guard as Lord Fairfax's men cross the river Ouse at Selby. Thomas is shot during the engagement and his troop are stranded on the wrong side of the river.


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