The Mark of the Horse Lord

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The Mark of the Horse Lord

by Rosemary Sutcliff


A historical novel set in the area now known as Scotland, sometime between 143 and 180 c.e.; published in 1965.


After winning his freedom, the enslaved gladiator Phaedrus is aimless and alone. He accepts the challenge of impersonating Midir, the lost prince of the Dalriads, and in the midst of new battles and adventures discovers the true meaning of freedom.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Novel in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

For More Information

Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92) is generally considered one of the finest authors of hisorical fiction for young people; many critics view her as the undisputed master of the genre. The details of her early life would have a major impact on her novels. She contracted Still’s Disease, a form of rheumatoid arthritis, at the age of two, and suffered through hospitalizations, painful operations, and frustrating physical limitations throughout her life. Not surprisingly, many of her characters struggle and succeed at overcoming handicaps and the stereotypes that often accompany them. Born in Surrey, England, Sutcliff developed a love of the countryside as a child and spent most of her adult life in the South Downs, the area directly south of London extending roughly from Winchester to Eastbourne. A strong sense of place and the relationship between people and their physical setting pervades Sutcliff’s writings, as shown in Warrior Scarlet (1958) and her Carnegie Medal winning novel The Lantern Bearers (1959) among many others. Her father, an officer in England’s Royal Navy, bore a devotion to duty and country that may have strongly influenced her. The dangers of battle as well as the virtues of courage, loyalty, and integrity appear again and again in her fiction. The settings of Sutcliff’s British historical novels range from the Bronze Age, to the period of Roman colonization of Britain, through its settlement by Normans, to the seventeenth-century British Civil War. Often discussed as her finest but most demanding novel, The Mark of the Horse Lord showcases the best of Sutcliff’s talents. Along with a compelling, fast-paced plot and a strong, sympathetic protagonist, it explores the relation-ship between freedom and responsibility in ways that transcend its historical setting.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Dalriads and the Caledones

Much of Sutcliff’s second-century novel is set in the northern region of Great Britain in what would eventually become Scotland. During the period of The Mark of the Horse Lord, this land was inhabited by at least two different Celtic peoples. The Caledones belonged to a larger group known as the Picts—meaning “the painted people”—a term describ ing their tattoos or their practice of decorating themselves with woad, a blue dye. The Dalriads


Hadrian’s Wall, erected between 122 and 128 c.e., was named for the Emperor at whose Behest it was built. At 77 miles in length, it was an amazing fortification with berth offensive and defensive functions. More than half of the wall was built of stone, about 10 feet thick and 15 feet high. The eastern end was built, initially, of turf, though later rebuilt with stone. Every mile of the wall was marked with a small fort called a milecastle and a gate to provide access through the wait. Two watch turrets were built betweeri every milecastle. Sixteen different larger forts were built at regular intervals along the length of the wall. Behind the wail, a ditch, approximately 20 feet wide and 10 feet deep, completed the fortifications.

Finished about 142 CEV The Antonine Wall, named for Antonius Pius who ordered its construction, was 37 miles long and built completely of turf on top of a stone foundation. This wall included 19 forts spaced at two-mile intervals. Like Hadrian’s Wall, it also included a deep ditch in front The Romans abandoned the Antonine Wall in either 162 or 180 ex Hadrian’s Wall was overrun by the Celts during several different uprisings, but was not finally abandoned by the Romans until between 383 and 388 CE. Remains of both walls are still visible today.

(known also as the Dal Riatans) were an Irish group who immigrated to Britain during the Roman era. The northern tip of Ireland and the southern shores of Scotland are at the narrowest juncture no more than 25 miles apart. So, it is no surprise that some settlers continued to move back and forth between these two regions. These people became the Dalriads. During the time of the novel, the expansion of the Dalriads into Scotland was probably not hostile. Most likely the Picts saw the Dalriads as a neighboring people rather than an invading force. Several centuries later, the Dalriads would arrive in much larger numbers. In the middle of the ninth century, the Picts would be absorbed into one nation with the Dalriads, who came to be called the Scots. As Sutcliff explains in the historical note that begins her novel, the Caledones and the Dalriads are simply more precise names for the peoples commonly known as the Picts and the Scots. In fact, the main difference between the two groups was language. The Scots spoke the ancestor of a language now called Gaelic—Scots is one of its main variations. The Pictish language quickly disappeared.

Very little is known about these two groups during the second century before they converted to Christianity. Sutcliff has built her story on the bones of what little anthropological and documentary evidence exists. For example, the early scholar Bede (circa 673-735 c.e.) records that the Pictish kingdoms, which would include the Caledonians, sometimes traced their kingship through the female line (Laing, p. 58). Sutcliff has used this possibility to frame one of the central conflicts of the novel—the question of whether the Caledonian Queen Liadhan or the Dalriad Prince Midir should be the next ruler of the Dalriads.

Roman Britain

The Roman occupation of Britain began in August of 55 b.c.e. when Julius Caesar crossed the British Channel with about 10,000 men to claim the island for the Empire. His visit was brief, and although he returned again with a larger force the next year, this first set of invasions had almost no impact on the Celtic kingdoms of the island. Not until the reign of the Emperor Claudius (41-54 c.e.), nearly one hundred years later, did Rome truly turn its attention to Britain. Gradually the Celtic tribes of the south and east were conquered or surrendered to Rome, but the northern tribes proved more of a problem for the invaders.

Under Gnaeus Julius Agricola, who governed Britain from 78 to 84 c.e., the Romans established their northern frontier in Britain at the Forth-Clyde line near the site of the modern city of Edinburgh, Scotland and constructed a series of forts. These forts were used as staging grounds for further advancements into the north, and they enabled Agricola to win a decisive victory over the Caledonians who resisted this invasion. The Caledonians, who fought with long swords, were unprepared for the more complicated and flexible battle techniques of the Roman army.

About 50 years later, in 142 c.e., the Antonine Wall was built along this frontier to mark the northern boundary of the Roman Empire in Britain. The Antonine Wall had a stone foundation that was piled high with turf. A wide ditch in front of it provided further protection. The wall extended for 40 miles with small forts spaced along its length. From approximately 180 to 211 c.e., the Caledonians crossed the wall and attacked the Romans many times. Sometimes the Roman soldiers subdued their attackers through warfare and sometimes by paying them to keep the peace. Eventually the Romans were forced to abandon their hopes of conquering the North and retreated south to the much larger fortification of Hadrian’s Wall, running west to east from the modern cities of Carlisle to Newcastle, England.

The Mark of the Horse Lord is set during the brief period when the Antonine Wall was successfully held by the Romans—before the Caledonians caused the Roman troops any significant problems. In the novel, the Caledonians and the Dalriads are preoccupied with battles among themselves. In fact, the Romans preferred it when local tribes engaged in civil conflict. The military leaders from Rome realized that when the various tribes that came to be referred to as the Picts and the Scots united forces to attack the Romans, the wall fortifications were likely to be overrun. In The Mark of the Horse Lord, the Roman Com mander’s decision to protect Queen Liadhan, and even to provide her with a secure sea passage to safety in the south, accurately represents this Roman preference for sustaining conflict among the northern Celtic tribes. Later, in the fourth century, the Romans would set up more stable regions in this part of their empire, organizing what is now southern Scotland into the Northern Treaty States.


The origin of gladiatorial contests is not entirely clear, but some of the earliest facts we know about gladiators come from their participation in funeral ceremonies in Etruria, a region of Italy that later fell under the control of Rome, during the sixth century b.c.e. The gladiators probably served to provide armed soldiers or attendants for the dead. The practice of pitting men against each other enhanced the reputation of the dead man and of his family. The Romans borrowed the practice and eventually politicians began sponsoring gladiatorial contests to win favor with the citizens. The first known exhibition of Roman gladiators was in 264 b.c.e., and over the next several hundred years they grew in popularity. One Roman emperor kept 10,000 gladiators for his entertainment. The men who became gladiators can be divided into two groups. The first group consists of prisoners of war, slaves, and condemned criminals who could all be forced to become gladiators. The second group is composed of the many free men who chose to join the profession. These free men hoped to win enough money to support their families or to better their position in society, but this was a very risky trade, and few survived very long.

Gladiators were trained in schools—at least the lucky ones were. Some men were forced into the arena with no combat experience at all. Students in the schools were trained first with wooden, and then with real weapons. As they gained more skill and experience, the gladiators also gained more prestige. Gladiator schools rented out their students for a fee and received a set price for any who were killed. Some com bats were duels to the death. Other combats were left to the will of the audience. When a gladiator fell, his opponent would look to the emperor or other official for a signal. If the spectators approved of the fallen gladiator’s fighting skill and courage, they would yell their support. The emperor would raise his thumb upward and the gladiator would be spared. If, as usually hap pened, the blood-thirsty crowd indicated disapproval, the emperor would give a thumb down signal, and the successful gladiator would finish off his opponent. Many other gladiators were killed by wild animals that were also imported to different parts of the Roman Empire to be sac rificed in the arena.

Eventually the cruelty of gladiator contests was recognized, and in 325 c.e. the emperor Constantine attempted, unsuccessfully, to ban them. Slowly, over the next hundred years or more, they faded from favor.

Rome was the center of gladiator contests, but ruins of arenas, the performance spaces used for gladiator fights and other sports, have been found throughout the area ruled by the Roman Empire. No records of gladiator contests from the area now known as Great Britain survive, but it is possible that such contests were held. Artifacts depicting gladiator contests have been excavated in several parts of the country. These may represent


The most common gladiators were, like Phaedrus in The Mark of the Horse Lord, Samnites, who fought with an oblong shield, plumed helmet, and a short sword. Other important kinds of gladiators were:

Thraces Men armed with a round buckler and a curved dagger.

Mirmillones Men armed with a sword, shield, and a helmet crested with a fish design.

Retiarius Men armed with a net and a trident who raced secutors.

Secutors Fully armed men who faced the retiarius.

Andabatae Men who fought on horseback with their visors closed (making them nearly blind).

Dimachaeri Men armed with a short sword in each hand.

Essedarii Men who fought from chariots.

Hoplomachi Men who fought in complete suits of armor.

Laquearii Men who used lassos to capture their opponents.

local contests, or they may represent the nostalgia of someone posted to the far frontiers of the Empire.

Religions of the era

Although Christianity had been introduced into the Roman Empire by the second century c.e., it was not yet the dominant religion. In Britain the Caledones, Dalriads, and Romans worshipped different pagan gods.

The Caledonians, as they are recreated by Sutcliff, worship Cailleach, a goddess who is some-times referred to as the “Mother of All.” Worship of Cailleach was common throughout Ireland and parts of Scotland. Legends surrounding her include stories of rocks that dropped from her apron creating cairns, small islands, and mountains. She lived so long that one after another of her husbands would grow old and die, forcing her to choose a new one. Cailleach is simultaneously indispensable and terrible to her people. Creator of the land and an important harvest deity, she is also sometimes represented as an old hag with the teeth of a wild bear and the tusks of a boar. In ancient Irish, her name, Cailleach, can mean either “hag” or “goddess.” From this dual identity comes an age-old tale about an old woman who transforms into a young girl in the course of an evening. This ambiguity in her myths reflects both the power the Celts invested in her and the awe they felt for her fertility, and their fear of a woman who seemed, at least symbolically, to consume men. Their youth and energy waned, but her powers only grew as her children and grandchildren multiplied. Sutcliff embodies the power and danger of such a goddess in the character of Queen Liadhan, who serves as Cailleach’s representative among the Caledones. The Dalriads who are temporarily forced to acknowledge her rule describe Queen Liadhan as “a woman like a she-wolf in a famine winter” (Sutcliff, The Mark of the Horse Lord, p. 41). She leads her people with strength, bu also with a bloodthirsty cruelty. As described in the novel, Queen Liadhan takes a new consort as her king every seven years. But when the king’s term is up, he is killed by the queen’s newly chosen consort. Consequently, queens can grow old and cunning like Cailleach. For tribes who worship this goddess, male strength becomes the material that sustains female leadership, and women, rather than men, direct the long-term destiny of the people.

The Dalriads desire freedom from the Caledones in part so that they can return to their own religious practices. They long ago left the worship of Cailleach in favor of the Celtic god Lugh. Lugh is the lord of every art, craft, and skill, but he is often titled “Lugh the Long Arm” because of his proficiency with his great spear and sling. Like Cailleach, Lugh oversees the harvest festival, but is associated with the sun and generally lacks the monstrous attributes of Cailleach. Most importantly, Lugh is male, and so unlike the Caledones, tribes who worship Lugh look to men for leadership and pass the kingship of the tribe from father to son instead of from mother to daughter. Sutcliff emphasizes the Dalriads’ relationship with Lugh the Long Arm in the novel by imagining them as particularly brave and resourceful fighters, even when they are outnumbered.

The last religion of The Mark of the Horse Lord is only alluded to in the novel. The Roman Commander, who plays a small role in the book, swears by the name of Mithras when he is frustrated. The worship of Mithras was very popular among Roman soldiers, who adapted the practice from an earlier Persian faith and brought it with them to various countries as the Roman Empire expanded. Mithras was a hero who killed a great bull. From the body of this bull sprang wheat, wine, animals, and many other good things, but also evil on earth. During this period Mithraism was a serious rival to the still developing Christian religion. Soldiers who joined the cult of Mithras worked their way through a series of seven initiations and ranks that included the Raven, Bridegroom, Soldier, Lion, Persian, Courier of the Sun, and Father.

The Novel in Focus

The plot

Phaedrus’s early years as a Roman slave seemed ideal in retrospect. His owner, who was also his unacknowledged father, made certain Phaedrus was educated, but died before he could make good on his promise to free Phaedrus and his mother. Unwilling to face the difficulties of life with a new master, Phaedrus’s mother killed herself. For two years, Phaedrus was shunted from master to master learning a bit about sword-play and a bit about driving a chariot, but ultimately, at age 16, he was sold to the Gladiator’s School in Corstopitum, a small Roman town in the north of Britain. The novel opens with Phaedrus recalling his childhood as a way to distract himself before entering the gladiatorial ring for a particularly disturbing fight.

The life of a gladiator provides Phaedrus with unexpected freedoms—from worries about money, or consequences, or the future. After four years of combat, he has little to show for his difficult and deadly work except for his friendship with Vortimax, who was trained with Phaedrus and like him has survived longer than most. When Phaedrus must perform a fight to the death with Vortimax for the pleasure of the, new Governor, both the prospect of dying and of killing Vortimax are unthinkable.

The battle nearly kills both of them, but luck favors Phaedrus, and as a reward for his fine fight and for four years of service, he is unexpectedly given a wooden sword, the prize reserved for those few gladiators who are freed from service. Quickly his wounds heal, but his understanding of what freedom means comes more slowly. Although Phaedrus can, at long last, call his life his own, he does not know what to do. Wandering about Corstopitum, he falls into drunkenness, street brawls, and eventually prison.

A week after Phaedrus is imprisoned, he finds himself being hustled out onto the street and whisked away to the back room of a local ale-house by an unknown benefactor. Sinnoch the Merchant introduces himself to Phaedrus and explains how the guards were bribed to release him, but Phaedrus is more interested in learning why anyone would come to his aid. The proposition that meets his question astounds him. Seven years earlier, the King of the Dalriads, a northern Celtic tribe beyond the territory occupied and ruled by Rome, was murdered, and his teenage son, Midir, disappeared. Everyone has long presumed that he died too. Sinnoch, one of the few northern men who travel between the Celtic kingdoms and the outposts of Rome, had noted, however, a stunning resemblance between Phaedrus and the missing Midir. Thus Sinnoch proposes, with the support of several of the tribe’s leaders, that Phaedrus should assume the identity of Midir of the Dalriads and return with Sinnoch to the north to reclaim the kingdom.

Phaedrus replies with a variety of protests. Why now, after seven years have passed? What if the real prince returns? The answers to his questions fascinate Phaedrus. The Dalriads are sun worshipers who trace their kingship through the male line. The Caledones, a different Celtic tribe, who conquered the Dalriads, worship a goddess and trace the tribe’s leadership through the queen. Every seven years the queen chooses a new young man to challenge the Old King to the Death Fight. The virility of the new king and the sacrifice of the Old King’s blood keep the land and the tribe healthy. Liadhan, the queen, has chosen one of the Dalriads, Conory, as her new consort. Conory scorns her choice and the conquered men of the Dalriads want to exploit this rare moment that occurs only once every seven years to upset the balance, break the cycle of inheritance, and regain their own independent kingdom.

Phaedrus, half-regretfully, turns Sinnoch down. Only when Midir, the missing prince himself, steps from behind a curtained doorway, is Phaedrus convinced to accept a part in this ruse. Midir is blind. Seven years earlier Queen Liadhan, fearing to kill him outright, maimed Midir, rendering him, by the laws of his people, unfit to rule. The cruelty of the act and Midir’s own role in the plot to place an imposter on the throne at last convince Phaedrus to accept the challenge. And with this new decision Phaedrus exchanges his unfettered and unsettling new freedom for a chance to fight, for a sense of belonging, and for “a lost flavour to be caught back into life” (The Mark of the Horse Lord, p. 44).

Over the next few months Phaedrus studies with Midir, learning intimate details of his childhood, the ways he recognizes people, and the deep personal vengeance Midir feels for the woman who robbed him of his throne and his sight. Phaedrus also receives a special tattoo on his forehead called the mark of the horse lord, which identifies him as the heir to the kingdom of the Dalriads and provides Sutcliff with the title for the novel. Phaedrus then travels north to meet with the six men of the Dalriad council who must approve the ruse and his performance. He struggles to master simple skills like balancing in a small boat and more complex ones, like driving a mountain chariot, that Midir, even as a boy, would have been at ease performing.

Finally, the night approaches for the ceremony of the Death Fight, the night the Dalriads have chosen to rise against the Caledones. Out-numbered, the Dalriads must rely on surprise for their attack to succeed, but a twist of fate exposes them a few seconds too soon when Phaedrus falls and his special tattoo is revealed. While they succeed in driving the Caledones out of Dun Moniath, the sacred and ceremonial gathering space of the Dalriads, Queen Liadhan escapes. The Dalriads make the best of their partial victory. They introduce Phaedrus as the lost Midir and arrange a marriage between him and Queen Liadhan’s daughter Murna.

At first Phaedrus is unhappy in his new role as king. His bride would rather kill him than be seen with him and Conory, Midir’s best friend, suspects he is an imposter. Phaedrus decides to tell Conory the truth, and to his surprise, they become fast friends. Murna is harder to win over; Phaedrus cannot tell whether she hates him because he is Midir or because she too suspects that he is not.

Soon Queen Liadhan arranges for an army of Caledones to support her return to the leader-ship of the kingdom, and the Dalriads are forced to go to war. Throughout the summer battles rage. Even though he is proficient at fighting, Phaedrus learns new tactics. The marvelous horsemanship of the mountain charioteers impresses him, and once he has become accustomed to the strange idea, the fighting prowess of the Dalriad women, including Murna, gains his respect. Slowly, Phaedrus learns to trust Murna. Murna, for her part, begins to realize that her new husband has changed immensely from the thoughtless lad she knew Midir to be seven years ago. By the end of the summer Murna is pregnant and must leave the battlegrounds to prepare for the child’s birth.

The Dalriads may be the more determined fighters, but the Caledones have the strength of greater numbers. The Dalriad war effort teeters ominously. Cunning proves more important than strength, however, and the Dalriads trap and burn a valley filled with their enemies to gain the upper hand at last. To Phaedrus and Conory’s immense frustration, Queen Liadhan again escapes. This time she flees south to a Roman fortress on the border between the Roman terri-tory and the Celtic kingdoms.

With a small band of Dalriads, Phaedrus rides to the Roman fort and demands the return of Queen Liadhan, but the soldiers refuse. Aware that his war weary tribe cannot successfully at-tack a Roman stronghold, Phaedrus retreats in disappointment. But, unexpectedly, he receives a late night visitor, Midir. The true prince of the Dalriads has made his way north to await news of his people and of the ploy to place Phaedrus on his throne. Working in the Roman fort he has learned the commander’s plans to have Queen Liadhan removed by boat and conveyed to a safer haven in the south the next day. The two men devise a bold plan to assassinate the Queen even under the very noses of her Roman guards.

Crouched in waiting for the moment he can throw his knife and remove the final threat to his newly won kingship, Phaedrus is betrayed. His conference with Midir was overheard and reported. Midir has already been captured. Queen Liadhan comes out to gloat over Phaedrus as she awaits her ship, but her pride finally proves her undoing. Taking advantage of the fact that the soldiers underestimate a blind man, Midir escapes from his cell and makes a suicidal lunge that carries both him and Queen Liadhan over a seawall to their deaths.

The next morning the Roman commander, embarrassed by his loss of Queen Liadhan and determined to make the best of the situation, offers Phaedrus a bitter choice. Either Phaedrus can order one thousand of the Dalriad warriors to accept service as Roman auxiliaries and be posted overseas to fight foreign wars, or Phaedrus will be held as a hostage king, perhaps even crucified, as an example to other tribesmen.

There is no choice to be made. The loss of so many warriors would mean the end of the Dalriads. The Caledones would overrun them again immediately. Phaedrus realizes that true kingship also means sacrifice. Standing atop the battlements of the fort, Phaedrus announces his decision to a war band of Dalriads, and before the Roman guards can stop him, he stabs himself with his cloak pin and leaps to his death. In giving his own life to preserve the well-being of the tribe, Phaedrus becomes in truth the king whose identity he had only aspired to imitate.

Beyond the arena

Once Phaedrus wins his wooden sword and is released from the gladiatorial school, he feels stunned by his new freedom. Real Roman gladiators probably felt much the same way. Although surely most gladiators dreamed of earning their release from combat, all of them knew that violent death was by far the most common fate for men in their profession. Death rates are hard to calculate, but one scholar theorizes that in the first century about 20 percent of gladiators died in each fight (which means a gladiator was unlikely to survive more than ten battles). As time went on the death rate increased to 50 percent or more in most contests, making extended survival less and less likely in the later years of the Roman Empire (Kyle, p. 86).

Phaedrus spends his first day as a free man wondering what to do with himself. The options available to released gladiators were quite limited. First, he considers seeking work as a soldier with the Roman legions, though he fears his former status as a slave and gladiator will invite the Romans to treat him with disdain rather than the respect that his fierce and finely tuned battle skills are due, and his suspicions are justified. The Roman Empire maintained a strictly hierarchical society, and gladiators were counted among the lowest classes—their origins as slaves, prisoners of war, or criminals tainted their reputations no matter how bravely and honorably they conducted themselves in the arena. Like prostitutes and other members of the most shameful professions, gladiators were labeled infamis and deprived of personal dignity and social standing. Most commanders would not respect a former gladiator enough to let him join the military ranks of Rome, even in the farthest outposts in places like Britain where recruitment standards were more lax.

Yet at the same time that they were treated with such disdain, gladiators were also glorified by the audiences who loved to watch them per-form. The courage of gladiators who so skillfully fought against great odds and the honor that accrued for those who risked violent death without flinching appealed tremendously to the citizens of Rome. They associated the fights with “Roman” qualities such as courage, loyalty, and discipline; relished the excitement provided by man-to-man combat; and enjoyed cheering for their favorite fighters. But these same citizens of Rome feared gladiators. Their violent skills made the combatants threatening; their familiarity with cruelty and death made them uncivilized. Ro-mans admired gladiators from a distance but did not want freed gladiators as their “neighbors, magistrates, or in-laws” (Kyle, p. 80). When a gladiator died, his corpse was not even permitted honorable burial unless some relative, friend, or special burial society came forward to claim it.

Some historical records include complaints about former gladiators and their children bettering themselves in society. These writers resented that men with a tainted past, besmirched by their time in the arena, should receive any respect at all in society. Slaves or prisoners of war who were forced to become gladiators, like Phaedrus in the novel, would not even have had families or homes to return to when they were freed. Unless they had won especially rich prizes through their fighting skills or become the favorite of a wealthy patron who might set them up in a respectable business, freed gladiators like Phaedrus, were apt to turn around and take jobs as overseers and instructors in the gladiatorial schools or even return to the arena again simply to avoid starvation. Unlike regular gladiators, freed gladiators could control the terms and length of their contracts when they re-enlisted. They could, within certain limits, negotiate their pay, the types of combat in which they would engage, and the length of time they wanted to continue employment. However, once contracted, freed gladiators were bound to the same oath of loyalty and subject to the same harsh dangers as other gladiators.

In The Mark of the Horse Lord, Sinnoch the Merchant’s proposition gives Phaedrus a second chance at life outside the gladiatorial world, though, of course, the opportunity to impersonate a king would not have been a path open to real Roman gladiators. The idea, however, of an affiliation between kings and gladiators does have some historical accuracy. A number of Roman emperors are reputed to have dabbled in the arena as amateur gladiators. The most famous of these is the Emperor Commodus (161-92 c.e.), son of Marcus Aurelius. According to Dio Cassus, a writer of the era, Commodus devoted much of his life to fighting wild beasts and men in the arena. He claimed to have fought more than 1,000 bouts and to have bested more than 12,000 opponents. By virtue of his position, he, of course, had advantages other gladiators did not. No one dared to defeat Commodus in the arena, and the prizes he awarded himself for each day’s work as a gladiator were astronomically higher than any opponent would receive. Despite his success in the arena, Commodus died a violent death; he was assassinated at age 31. The novel’s Phaedrus too faces violent death as a king, but it is different from Commodus’s, or, for that matter, from the kind either of them would have experienced as gladiators. Phaedrus at least knows he is sacrificing his life for a cause much more meaningful than the mere entertainment of a Roman crowd.

Sources and literary context

Sutcliff emphasizes in her introduction to The Mark of the Horse Lord that the individual characters and most of the specific settings in her novel grew from her imaginative reconstruction of Celtic and Roman life in early Britain rather than from any historical records. Some of the characters, like Midir, may, however, have modern inspirations; it is possible to see echoes of Sutcliff herself in the figure of the blind and disenfranchised prince. Like Midir, Sutcliff experienced disabilities that separated her from most of her peers. Despite many surgeries and treatments, she could never walk well and most physical games and sports were impossible for her. She was also acutely aware of how stereotypes about the disabled limited the imaginations of many healthy individuals. In her autobiography, Sutcliff remarks that especially in her youth it had not “begun to dawn on the able-bodied world that it is possible to combine an unsatisfactory body with a perfectly satisfactory brain, and a personality at any rate as satisfactory as most other people’s” (Sutcliff, Blue Remembered Hills, pp. 128-29).

In The Mark of the Horse Lord, Midir demonstrates a resourcefulness and independence that few would expect to find in a blind man. After he leaves the Dalriads, he educates himself as a leather worker, travels about the north by himself, and uses his well-honed hearing to lead him to Queen Liadhan in one of the book’s climaxes. Instead of making him timid or helpless, Midir’s disability helps him develop exactly the kind of courage and determination necessary to dislodge a usurper from his throne. Like Sutcliff s, Midir’s apparent limitations are only barriers in other people’s perception of him, but never in his own thoughts or deeds.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

The Irish question

During Sutcliff s lifetime and for centuries preceding it, England’s relationship with its neighbor and subject country Ireland was fraught with conflicts. One of the most emotionally laden of these conflicts had to do with religion. Ireland began its conversion to Christianity in 432 c.e. and eventually England too began the transition from varied pagan practices to the unifying practice of Christianity. During the sixteenth century, however, for both political and spiritual reasons, England broke with the established Roman Catholic church, the primary form of Christianity, and became a Protestant Christian nation. Ireland, unmoved by the religious turmoil of the century, remained Catholic. This difference became more and more important as English landowners in Ireland asserted their authority over the Irish and set up laws and practices that assured the continuing poverty and disadvantage of the Irish people. During the early years of the twentieth century the dissatisfaction of the Irish became impossible for the English to ignore. Civil uprisings and armed conflicts escalated as some Irish leaders tried to force England to permit home rule—to permit Ireland to govern itself. For these Irish patriots, the idea of freedom was worth almost any price, in some cases, even their lives. The Dalriads, who also struggled to maintain their political and religious independence when the Roman Empire expanded to Britain would certainly have sympathized with the struggles of the Irish.

In 1921 the Anglo-Irish treaty proposed that Ireland should become like many of the other parts of the crumbling British Empire and have its own parliament and executive leader, but the treaty was accepted only in the southern 26 counties of Ireland. The six northern counties chose to remain part of Great Britain, largely because many Protestant English had settled in this area, and they failed to see themselves as having enough in common with the Irish Catholics of the southern counties. Consequently, the compromise proved only a limited success at solving the problems between Ireland and England.

Conflict continued, and in 1949 the Republic of Ireland Act ended the pretense that Ireland was a member of the British Commonwealth. The 26 southern counties were recognized as an independent nation by England. Once again, the Parliament of Northern Ireland refused to consent to the cessation, and so problems continued.

During the 1950s and 1960s the Irish Republican Army (IRA) led attacks on British out-posts in the six northern counties of Ireland in an attempt to drive the English out of the country altogether. Hostilities between the two parts of Ireland and between the independent Irish and England grew ever more intense and bloody. Much of this anger and antagonism was expressed as a near religious war between the Catholics and the Protestants of Ireland.

Whether Sutcliff consciously realized the parallels between the historical Roman attempts to colonize and control the Dalriads and the Caledones and the English attempts during her own lifetime to continue the colonial control of the Irish, the two situations have many similarities. The importance of religious practice as a means of generating cultural identity and of causing civil strife only reinforces the resemblances between the circumstances of the northern Celtic tribes and the people of Ireland. During Roman times, the conquerors claimed that the peace and order (the pax romand) brought by Rome was worth the price the Celts had to pay in taxes, conscripts, and lost territory, but the Celts disagreed. For them the freedom to live under their own rule was by far the greater good, one worth fighting for and dying to preserve. For many years, the British made similar arguments in regard to Ire-land. They claimed Ireland was more productive and better managed under British care, but to the Irish such help was not only an unwelcome interference, but a damper on their ability to prosper. Like the Dalriads, many Irish ultimately chose to give up their lives rather than their freedom.

Whose island is it?

The island recognized today as Great Britain has been peopled, conquered, colonized, and repeopled many times during the course of history. The various Celtic cultures were invaded by the Romans, whose fortifications were over run by the Angles and the Saxons, whose communities were attacked by the Norman French. Each new wave of immigration added new facets to the cultures of the island. Yet these waves of change are not simply a part of history—they continue to reshape the country today. At the beginning of the twentieth century the British Empire stretched across the globe from Australia to Canada to India and many points in between. Only the Roman Empire nearly twenty centuries earlier could compare in scope and influence. In 1914 a law was passed in England that demonstrated the broad view of what it meant to be a citizen of the British Commonwealth. Nearly anyone born in any part of the Empire was considered a citizen and was theoretically free to move, work, or live in any part of the Commonwealth. Though the law did re-strict entry into Britain for those outside the Empire, like the Eastern European Jews who had been immigrating to England, in many ways the British Nationality and Aliens Act of 1914 sought to include rather than exclude people. In 1948 the British Nationality Act reaffirmed the right of all Commonwealth citizens to enter and work in Britain. Manpower shortages following World War II made the idea of immigration into England seem appealing to the government. Enticed by the economic opportunities being offered to them, many Commonwealth citizens from the Caribbean, Guyana, India and other areas accepted the invitation. Unfortunately the rising number of racially diverse immigrants led to un-ease in Britain. This discomfort was expressed in restrictive government measures, like the Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962. This act enforced a system of employment vouchers for Commonwealth immigrants that effectively shifted their status from that of citizens to alien contract laborers. Under this new law only people whose parents or grandparents had been born in the United Kingdom or a self-governing Commonwealth country would have the full privileges of citizenship. Whereas the migration of citizens to Britain was formerly seen as beneficial, it was now seen as socially costly and disruptive of the national character. In short, many people feared the changes that new people, especially people of color, would bring—just as the Celts, or the Romans, or the Angles and Saxons before them had feared the costs of sharing their territory with other people. And just as earlier people resorted to violence to protect themselves, the modern British also resorted at times to vicious discrimination and even violent riots in an attempt to drive out the newcomers, but unlike previous waves of immigrants, these newcomers had been invited. Sensitized to the realities of discrimination by her own physical disabilities, Sut-cliff may have been more aware than many of her peers in the 1960s of the difficulties outsiders face when joining an unwelcoming community. The Mark of the Horse Lord never deals explicitly with racial issues, but it does explore the clash of cultures. Just as the novel was being written in the mid 1960s, so too were laws in England regarding discrimination. The 1965 Race Relations Act attempted, with only very modest success, to address the racism directed against many of the new Commonwealth immigrants by making it unlawful to discriminate on the grounds of race, color, or ethnic origin in public places. Over the next decade stronger laws and various boards and committees charged with hearing and settling discrimination complaints took greater steps in working toward a more equitable England.

Although it would have taxed the imaginations of Sutcliff s Dalriads and Caledones to envision it, within several centuries these two warring tribes would come to share a national identity as Scots. Similarly, the turmoil caused in Britain by the immigration of citizens from distant parts of the Commonwealth is leading toward a new cultural identity in Britain, and not, as history makes clear, for the first time.


All the reviewers of The Mark of the Horse Lord recognized the compelling power of Sutcliff s novel as soon as it was published. Virginia Kirkus credited Sutcliff with writing the best historical novel available for either children or adults (Block and Riley, p. 188). Others praised the power of her language, exciting plotting, and authentic detail, including one critic who predicted that “the debt which children’s literature owes to Miss Sutcliff has yet to be assessed,” and concluded that The Mark of the Horse Lord was “a thundering good story from a complete artist” (Hedblad, p. 159). Even critics who found grounds for grumbling, like Marcus Crouch, who complained that the novel was “grossly over-written,” also acknowledged that it was grimly compelling and her finest work (Block and Riley, p. 189).

At least as important as the reception at its publication in 1965, however, is the novel’s continuing ability to attract readers. The rough imagery and grim events of The Mark of the Horse Lord never sensationalize violence, but they do acknowledge it with an unflinching accuracy. Some modern critics may be surprised at the demanding balance that Sutcliff exacts between sacrifice and freedom in her novel for children, but having lived through war herself and having seen its effects on citizens of all ages, she writes novels that effectively put a human face on the darker parts of history, as well as the more joyous ones, without putting a mask over it. In tribute to Sutcliff s undiminished appeal, in 1985 The Mark of the Horse Lord was awarded the first Phoenix Award, an honor extended to a novel for young people published at least 20 years earlier that did not receive a significant literary prize at publication but which has proved its durability, popularity, and quality.

—Megan Isaac

For More Information

Anwar, Muhammad. Race and Politics. London: Tavistock, 1986.

Block, Anne, and Carolyn Riley, eds. Children’s Literature Review. Vol. 1. New York: Gale Research, 1976.

Davies, Norman. The Isles: A History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Grant, Michael. Gladiators. Middlesex, U.K.: Penguin, 1971.

Hedblad, Alan, ed. Children’s Literature Review. Vol. 37. New York: Gale Research, 1996.

Kyle, Donald G. Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome. New York: Routledge. 1998.

Laing, Lloyd and Jenny. The Picts and the Scots. Phoenix Mill, U.K.: Sutton, 1998.

Meek, Margaret. Rosemary Sutcliff. London: The Bodley Head, 1962.

Scullard, H. H. Roman Britain: Outpost of the Empire. London: Thames and Hudson, 1979.

Sutcliff, Rosemary. Blue Remembered Hills. William Morrow, 1984.

_____. The Mark of the Horse Lord. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965.

Talcroft, Barbara L. Death of the Corn King: King and Goddess in Rosemary Sutcliff s Historical Fiction for Young Adults. Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, 1995.

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The Mark of the Horse Lord

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