The best classic Rosemary Sutcliff novels to inspire your history loving teenager

Who am I?

I’m an Australian author passionate about history. Alas, not Australian history. That would make my life so much easier. As a child, I loved tales of ancient Greece. That love took me in two directions—Ancient Egypt and Ancient Rome—Ancient Rome introduced me to Roman Britain, and the Roman Britain novels of Rosemary Sutcliff. My love of history probably explains why a childhood friend gave me a child’s book of English history for my tenth birthday. One of the book’s chapters told the story of Elizabeth I. As she wont to do in her own times, Elizabeth hooked me, keeping me captured ever since, and enslaved to writing and learning more about Tudors.


I wrote...

The Light in the Labyrinth: The Last Days of Anne Boleyn.

By Wendy J. Dunn,

Book cover of The Light in the Labyrinth: The Last Days of Anne Boleyn.

What is my book about?

In the winter of 1535, young Kate Carey lives with her mother and her new family, far from the royal court. Unhappy with her life and wishing to escape her home, she accepts the invitation of Anne Boleyn, the aunt she idolises, to join her household in London.

But the dark, dangerous labyrinth of Henry VIII’s court forces Kate to grow up fast as she witnesses her aunt’s final tragic days — and when she discovers a secret that changes her life forever. All things must end—all things but love.

The books I picked & why

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The Lantern Bearers

By Rosemary Sutcliff,

Book cover of The Lantern Bearers

Why this book?

This is my all-time favourite novel by Rosemary Sutcliff—an author whose works inspired me to become a writer of historical fiction, and, long in the future, encouraged me to craft my own Tudor young adult novel.

Set in early Britain, it tells the story of Aquila, a young man of British birth. A Viking raiding party destroys Aquila’s home and family. After he is left to die by the original raiders, a leader of another Viking group takes Aquila across the sea to his home as a slave. For years, bitterness and hopelessness also enslave Aquila.

The Lantern Bearers is such a beautiful, richly layered story of healing, redemption, and the victory of the human spirit. It even introduces the reader to the young Arthur Pendragon as he steps towards his destiny. Believe me, I still read this book when the world seems dark, and I need reminding of hope.


The Eagle of the Ninth

By Rosemary Sutcliffe,

Book cover of The Eagle of the Ninth

Why this book?

This brilliant novel is the first in Sutcliff’s superb Roman Britain trilogy. I was so thrilled when I heard this adored novel was being made into a film about ten years ago—and so disappointed when I watched it. The film focused on the blood and gore of this period and butchered Sutcliff’s first-class storytelling of the human experience until it was unrecognizable. Set in Roman Britain and drawing from the mystery of the missing Ninth legion, the young Marcus Aquila, the main character, assumes leadership of a Roman fort outpost in Britain. Soon, he and his men must fight an uprising. Their hard-fought victory over a local British tribe comes at great personal cost to Marcus, leaving him injured and unable to continue his career as a Roman officer. Like the themes of other Sutcliff’s novels, the story narrates the main character’s personal journey of becoming whole again.     


The Mark of the Horse Lord

By Rosemary Sutcliff,

Book cover of The Mark of the Horse Lord

Why this book?

This novel reminds the reader that humans have carried certain truths from the dawn of time. It tells the story of Phaedrus, a slave from birth. When he gains his wooden-foil of freedom in the gladiatorial arena, he finds his life suddenly empty, and without purpose. This results in him agreeing to assume another’s identity. Not simply ‘another’s identity’ but to become a ‘king’ of the Dal Riada people of Scotland. Phaedrus, to his surprise, discovers leadership gives his life true purpose, friendship, and love. But the time comes when he must show himself worthy of the Mark of the Horse Lord. Beautifully told, the novel speaks of how sacredness and self-sacrifice intertwine for those who truly rule. 


Warrior Scarlet

By Rosemary Sutcliff,

Book cover of Warrior Scarlet

Why this book?

From her earliest years, Sutcliff knew firsthand what it was to live with and surmount painful disability. She understood what it was to be ‘the other’—to be looking from the outside on those able to live ‘normal’ lives. It is not surprising then that many of her stories include main characters who powerfully prove you do not need to be able-bodied to triumph over life. Set in the British Bronze age, this novel is one of those stories. Dem wants to take his place as a warrior of his tribe but must kill a wolf single-handedly to claim his warrior’s scarlet cloak. How can kill his wolf when he was born with a withered arm? With great sensitivity, skill, and prose often close to poetry, Sutcliff brings the Bronze age and its people alive in this wonderfully told story.  


The Shining Company

By Rosemary Sutcliff,

Book cover of The Shining Company

Why this book?

Sutcliff’s characters and stories are always believable—and show her amazing gift to always make her research invisible to the reader. All her works feed from actual history. She weaves a fragment or story from the past into a rich tapestry of the human experience and makes history live again. This tale shows her skills perfectly. Sutcliff uses as her source Y Gododdin, a period poem, to frame the construction of this coming-of-age story. Sutcliff takes the torch of the poem’s attempt to keep alive the memory of men who fought and died in a sixth-century British battle, comparable to that of the Battle of Thermopylae, to relight it through the eyes of Prosper, Sutcliff imagined British shield bearer. A witness to and one of the few to survive this unwinnable battle, Prosper sings a tale of The Shining Company who sacrificed their lives so others could live.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in prehistory, ancient Rome, and Scotland?

5,215 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about prehistory, ancient Rome, and Scotland.

Prehistory Explore 21 books about prehistory
Ancient Rome Explore 106 books about ancient Rome
Scotland Explore 147 books about Scotland

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Roman Britain, Beyond the Empire: A Guide to the Roman Remains in Scotland, and Semper Fidelis: A Novel of the Roman Empire if you like this list.