Guest Spot A Tribute to Rosemary Sutcliff

January 2017

by Helen Hollick

How many of us – readers or writers – read Rosemary Sutcliff’s novels as our springboard to discovering the delight of historical fiction?

My first experience was as a fourteen year old at school. It must have been close to the end of term (and this was well before the days of a set national Curriculum) because instead of ‘straight’ English lessons our English teacher read us a novel. That in itself was extraordinary and exciting. She read us the Queen Elizabeth Story. And how I wish I could thank her. In fact I wish I could thank her twice over, for not only did she introduce me to Miss Sutcliff, but she also took time to show me how to write a better story.

Born on 14th December in 1920 Rosemary Sutcliff was the only child of Royal Navy officer, George Ernest Sutcliff and Nessie Elizabeth, née Lawton. Rosemary spent her childhood in various naval bases, particularly in Malta where her father was primarily stationed. When very young she was stricken with the chronic illness of Still's Disease (juvenile arthritis) and was confined to a wheelchair for most of her life. Mrs Sutcliff was an enthusiastic storyteller who delighted in entertaining her daughter with tales of Celtic and Saxon legends, thus paving the way for Rosemary’s own love of storytelling. Her early schooling was often disrupted by constant moving from base to base and her disability, which often saw her ‘institutionalised’ in various hospitals. She did not learn to read until she was nine years old, and officially left school at fourteen, when she entered Bideford Art School (I was not aware of this – and as I currently live near Bideford I am delighted to have yet another connection with Rosemary!) She was there for three years, and then worked as a painter of miniatures.

Like so many of us, she was inspired by the historical novels of Geoffrey Trease and soon decided to attempt her own contribution to children’s literature. The Chronicles of Robin Hood (1950) was her first published book, with her best known (and loved) Roman Britain-based The Eagle of the Ninth published by Oxford in 1954. For this novel, and its sequel The Silver Branch (1957), she was commended as a runner-up for the annual Carnegie Medal which recognised the year's best children's book by a British author. Four times in five years she took this accolade (in1956 and a 1958) before finally winning the medal outright in 1959 with the third ‘Marcus’ book, The Lantern Bearers.

She was again runner-up for Tristan and Iseult (1971), which also won her the annual United States Horn Book Award. The Mark of the Horse Lord won her the inaugural Phoenix Award in 1985, and was named by the Children's Literature Association as the best English-language children's book that did not win a major award when it was originally published twenty years earlier. The Shining Company took the same award in 2010.

In 1975, she was awarded an OBE - Officer of the Order of the British Empire for services to children's literature, and promoted to Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1992.

For most of her adult life, Rosemary lived in Walberton near Arundel, Sussex, and despite severely arthritic hands wrote in longhand with an eager passion – including the morning of her death on 23rd July 1992.

Her personal memoir is Blue Remembered Hills: A recollection in which she recalls her childhood and young adulthood.

For myself, I have two treasures. One is my favourite of all her novels Mark of the Horse Lord (possibly one of the earliest young adult novels that (subtly) refers to a gay character). I have read it many times, but still cry at the end. 

My other treasure is a hand written letter from Ms Sutcliff which features her ‘trademark’ dolphin signature. I keep the letter in the aforesaid book and it was the first inanimate object I grabbed when we had a fire in our previous house.

* * * * * 
Rosemary Sutcliff ...

JANUARY    :  A Tribute to Rosemary Sutcliff by Helen Hollick

APRIL          :  A Tribute to Harriet Doerr by Inge H. Borg

MAY              :  A Tribute to Richard Zimler by Christoph Fischer

JUNE            :   A Tribute to Ellis Peters by 

JULY             :   


  1. This tribute makes my heart happy. For me, it was, is, and always shall be, Sword at Sunset. I wept for 2 weeks after finishing it, and my heart will forever have a hole in it because of the grief I felt at Arthur's life and death. That's how much Rosemary's narrative drew me in, entwining my imagination with Arthur's completely.

    1. It isn't easy to read the image of the letter (above) Rebecca because Rosemary's handwriting is so spidery but she is talking about the Sword at Sunset and saying how it took her weeks to get over Arthur as he had been her constant companion for months. I had written to her to say thank you for her stories and to say that I was attempting to write my own Arthurian novel. Her encouragement to me to keep going with it was wonderful, but I was (still am) so sad that she died before The Kingmaking was finally published. As a small tribute to her I have a scene in another of my novels (Harold the King - titled I Am The Chosen King in the US) depicting the English 'navy' in 1066. One of the ships is named 'Dolphin' in her honour.

    2. Ah, see I didn't enlarge the letter to peruse it because I remembered reading it long ago on another of your websites, but that was actually before I read Sword at Sunset, so I should have. Oh, how I understand! He became such a part of me as I read. I have never read an account of a person where the author captured the subject's mind and soul so completely, and I, too, woke thinking of him and fell asleep to dream of him, all thanks to her magical talent. I went out and found a 1st edition hardcover, and I don't do that very often. "His demands," indeed! Thank you for this, Helen! I feel I have found someone who won't think I'm crazy at my love affair with a (possibly) fictional character. Out of all the books I've read and movies I've seen utilizing Arthur, this is the only one that has gained my eternal fidelity. (I even wept in describing it to my husband, which I NEVER do.) I can only imagine how much more intense all these feelings were on the part of Rosemary herself. It is so cool that you were able to talk to her via letter.

  2. I think I only met two of her books as a child, but I can remember the power of her writing in painting pictures in my mind! A lovely tribute.

    1. Try Mark of the Horse Lord or Frontier Wolf Jel - I don't think you'll be disappointed.

  3. What a lovely tribute to a great writer. In the late 80s, I met Rosemary Sutcliff at her house. I was at school nearby and my English teacher knew her and arranged a visit. I wasn't overawed at the time, and I had no real ambition to be a writer then. But I did find it incredible that this little old lady who had been wheelchair bound for most of her life, was capable of writing about warriors and battles in far away places and times. I had read The Eagle of the Ninth and I loved it, finding it hard to imagine this tiny woman writing such robust prose and characters. She was, and is still, an inspiration to all writers, especially those of historical fiction.

    1. I am so jealous Matthew! One of my greatest regrets is that I didn't get a chance to meet her in person!

  4. I loved her books when I was a child and my own children read them too. A lovely tribute to her.

    1. Thank you Joan, Roemary seems to have been an inspiration to so many authors.


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