She was a writer of legends, history and tall tales who lived and breathed her characters and conjured up their lives and times in fluent, evocative prose. Retellings of Celtic myths, stories of legendary figures from Ancient Britain or tales of her own invention set in her favourite historical periods were all characterised by a love of history and the worlds of the past which shines through in all her books.
She was born in Surrey in 1920, the daughter of a sailor in the Navy, and consequently lived in several places until she left home at the age of 14 to study at Bideford Art School in Devon. A childhood illness meant that she spent most of her formative years confined to bed, and it was through the hours her mother spent reading to her that she discovered many of the legends and ideas that would fascinate her for the rest of her life (in fact, she didn't learn how to read herself until the age of nine). Although she was a talented miniature painter, her real passion was writing and from the middle of the Second World War she began working on stories of Roman Britain, the Dark Ages and Tudor times, and after a few setbacks her first novel, The Queen Elizabeth Story, was published in 1950. She went on to write more than 50 books, theoretically for children but in practice irresistible to anyone with more than a passing interest in history, legend or simply magnificent storytelling.
The most famous of these are probably the trilogy collectively entitled Three Legions, telling the story of Roman Britain from the time of its glory and power to the Saxons' triumph and the beginning of the Dark Ages, all through the eyes of three different generations of the same Roman family. In The Eagle of the Ninth, Marcus Flavius Aquila journeys far to the north into Pictish lands in search of traces of the lost ninth legion with which his father served. Years pass, Roman influence wanes, and Justin and Flavius try to survive the turbulent intrigue of the time of two emperors and save as many others as they can in The Silver Branch, and later, when Rome is all but totally lost to the land, Aquila seeks revenge on the norse raiders who stole his sister and tries to hold back the darkness in the dangerous country that Anglo-Saxon Britain has become (The Lantern Bearers). Rosemary Sutcliff said that she felt a greater affinity with the Roman era than any other and she brings it vividly to life in these books.
Her other great passion was King Arthur. "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. [...] Most of the actual research I did for the book, apart from knowing the Arthurian story from the romance versions, was into Dark Age life and history as far as they were known. Then I worked into this setting the Arthur who seemed to me to carry weight, to be the most likely kind of person. It was very strange because I have never written a book which was so possessive. It was extraordinary--almost frightening. [...] I would take the book to bed with me at night, and work there until I dropped off to sleep about two o'clock in the morning, too tired to see any more. Then I would wake up about six o'clock, still thinking about it. It was addictive. It was almost like having the story fed through to me, at times. I do my writing usually in three drafts, and I would go from the first to the second draft, from the second to the third, and find bits of the book that I had no recollection of having written at all." (From Raymond H. Thompson's interview with her in August 1986.)
This intensity of feeling for her characters may well have been linked to her interest in reincarnation, as she thought that historical writers' connections to the past were often grounded in almost-remembered personal experience - for example, in her case, she once found herself telling someone that she'd had enough of soldiering when they suggested that perhaps that would be her fate in a future life.
The echoes of our nameless ancestors' tales found a unique voice in her writing and it was a great loss when she died in 1992.
- The Flowers of Adonis - 1965
- Black Ships Before Troy: The Story of the Iliad - 1993
- The Wanderings of Odysseus - 1995
Before the Romans came
Rome in Britain
- The Eagle of the Ninth - 1954
- Outcast - 1955
- The Silver Branch - 1957
- The Lantern Bearers - 1959
- Dawn Wind - 1961
- Sword At Sunset - 1963 (This is the story of Arthur as a real person, but it's also part of the story of the Aquila family)
- The Capricorn Bracelet - 1973
- Frontier Wolf - 1980
- Three Legions - 1980
- Eagle of the Ninth: Play - 1992
Tales of King Arthur
The Dark Ages and The Middle Ages (There's no obvious dividing line in these books).
- The Shield Ring - 1956
- Knight's Fee - 1960
- The Witch's Brat - 1970
- Blood Feud - 1976
- Chronicles of Robin Hood - 1978
- The Shining Company - 1990
- Sword Song - 1997
- The Queen Elizabeth Story - 1950
- The Armourer's House - 1951
- Brother Dusty-Feet - 1952 (This one's great)
- Lady In Waiting - 1957
- Bonnie Dundee - 1983
The Civil War
- Rider of the White Horse - 1959
- Simon - 1959
...and the ones that defied categorisation for one reason or another*
- The Bridge-Builders - 1959
- The Mark of the Horse Lord - 1965
- The Chief's Daughter - 1967
- Heroes and History - 1965 (non-fiction)
- A Circlet of Oak Leaves - 1968
- The Truce of the Games - 1971
- Heather, Oak, and Olive: Three Stories - 1972
- The Changeling - 1974
- We Lived In Drumfyvie - 1975
- Shifting Sands - 1977
- Eagle's Egg - 1981
- Blue-Remembered Hills: A Recollection - 1983 (Autobiography)
- Flame-Coloured Taffeta - 1986
- Blood and Sand - 1987
- A Little Dog Like You - 1987
- The Minstrel and the Dragon Pup - 1993
- Chess-Dream in the Garden - 1993
*Often because I could neither find out nor remember exactly what they were about. When I open The Most Excellent & Wondrous Second-Hand Bookshop of Marvels I won't have to rely on Amazon et al any more, but in the meantime, any reminders gratefully received. The categories are a bit arbitrary anyway.
Raymond Thompson's interview with her is interesting reading:
As is this biographical sketch:
The bibliography is adapted from:
And the rest from many happy hours spent reading her books as my perception of history changed completely.