Rosemary Sutcliff was born in East Clandon, Surrey in 1920. Her father was an officer in the Royal Navy and she would spend most of her childhood living in different naval bases across the world, with her longest stay being in Malta. Sutcliff was struck at the age of two by Stills Disease (a form of arthritis which occurs in children); this severely impaired her movement, leaving her in a wheelchair for the remainder of her life. Her condition meant that she received treatment at various hospitals, so she rarely stayed in the same location for long. She was accompanied throughout by her mother, Elizabeth a gifted storyteller – who instilled in her a love for myths, legends and folk stories. Later in life she would claim that the pain and misery of her treatment would inspire her writing. 'Beatrix Potter wrote all her gorgeous stories when she was very lonely and not very happy – after she married, she never wrote another thing. Nothing worth reading, anyway.'
Due to her unsettled lifestyle, Sutcliff’s formal education suffered – she did not learn to read until she was nine and was largely educated at home. However, she was by no means an ungifted child. In her 1983 memoir Blue Remembered Hills she wrote that as her illness left the usual childhood exploring unavailable to her, she took to looking at the things near her in minute detail, examining every feature of her body, patches of grass or flowers.
At fourteen, Sutcliff attended Bideford Art School, graduating three years later to begin her career as a painter of miniatures. Writing was always difficult for Sutcliff as she could not easily hold a pen - they had to be fattened and cushioned so she could guide them. Despite this, during the Second World War she began to tire of painting, wanting to create on ‘a larger vista’.
In 1948 unknown to Sutcliff, a friend sent a manuscript of Sutcliff's retelling Saxon legends to the Oxford University Press. The first Sutcliff heard of it was when she received a polite rejection letter from the publisher, along with a request for her to write a book retelling the story of Robin Hood. She set to work, and the first Rosemary Sutcliff book was published in 1950, titled The Chronicles of Robin Hood.
It was not until 1954 and the publication of her best loved work The Eagle of the Ninth that she began to receive a wide audience and fame. The story set in Roman Britain drew on her passion for Roman history and particularly how the rational Latin world collided with the Celtic traditions of the ancient Britons. The book was followed by two sequels – The Silver Branch (1957) and The Lantern Bearers (1959).
She wrote prolifically, routinely writing 1800 words a day entirely in longhand with most of her 50 novels going through three complete drafts. Her sense of detail allowed her to create a vivid landscape and lent authenticity to her historical tales. Though she wrote a few novels for adults, she claimed the majority of her work was for 'children between the ages of eight and eighty-eight'. Part of her charm as a writer was her refusal to talk down to children, speaking to them directly not as a parent or teacher but as a fellow enthusiast.
Sutcliff never married and lived with her parents for most of her life. After her mother died in 1960 she moved to the Sussex countryside with her father, not far from Batemans, the country home of her favourite author Rudyard Kipling. She kept writing daily up until the morning of the day she died in 1992. In her office were found numerous completed manuscripts and stories, all painstakingly written by hand.