Rosemary Sutcliff children’s book The Capricorn Bracelet combines short stories

As a long article about elsewhere has alluded to, Rosemary Sutcliff book The Capricorn Bracelet used the technique, also used by Rudyard Kipling, of inter-connected short stories. The stories are connected by a family heirloom passed down through successive generations of a Roman military family serving in northern Britain at Hadrian’s wall: the bracelet of the title is for distinguished conduct awarded by the Second Legion, known as the II Augusta, and inscribed with the legion’s capricorn emblem. Six tales follow several generations of Roman soldiers based at Hadrian’s Wall from the first to the fourth centuries. Each story is told in the first person, about one significant event: the destruction of a city, a new leader assuming command, a Saxon coastal raid.  The Capricorn Bracelet began as a series of radio scripts Rosemary Sutcliff wrote for the BBC which she later expanded to form six stories – and this may have dictated the form as much as the Kipling inter-connectedness of stories.

3 thoughts on “Rosemary Sutcliff children’s book The Capricorn Bracelet combines short stories

  1. I do hope you put this piece about the instances of the Aquila family’s dolphin ring into an article sometime, Anthony – it would be a wonderful resource for Sutcliff fans. I’m still intrigued by the fact that though RS said she never intended to create a cycle of novels linked by the ring, she wrote one after the other “Eagle of the Ninth”, where the ring first appears and “Shield Ring”, where we see it for the last time.

    Solving the puzzle of the ring’s movement between “Dawn Wind” and “Shield Ring” comes Sutcliff’s final novel “Sword Song”, set in and around Cumbria and the western islands of Scotland in the 9th century, when discontent with the tyrannical rule of Norwegian king, Harald Fairhair, saw an exodus of Norsemen into Ireland, Iceland, the Isle of Man, and northern Scotland and Britain.

    “Sword Song”’s young hero Bjarni settles with his brother at Rafnglas (modern Ravenglass) in Cumbria, but is exiled for five years after killing a Christian holy man. During his travels he meets Angharad, a Welsh girl (who is presumably of Flavian’s line). When she goes back with Bjarni to Rafnglas as his bride, she becomes the “British foremother” Haethcyn reminds Bjorn about in “Shield Ring”.

    “The thing that she [Angharad] wore on a silken cord around her neck swung out… and he saw that it was a ring; a heavy golden ring much battered and set with some dark green stone…. Of a sudden impulse she slipped the cord over her neck and held it out to him… ‘It was my father’s and his father’s before him, right back to the ancient times – from the time of the Redcrest soldiers who built the great fort to guard the Anglesey strait.’

    Bjarni sat turning the ring between his fingers, catching and losing the firelight in the green stone. There was something engraved on it, a fish of some sort… he bent closer and saw that it was not a fish but a dolphin. ‘Seamen say that when dolphins follow a ship, the voyage will be lucky.”’

    Ravenglass was a major Roman naval base (known as Glannoventa) for three centuries, so I can certainly see its appeal as a setting for RS! And when Bjarni from “Sword Song” goes into exile, he packs with his few belongings “a small dolphin made of sea-blue glass that he had picked up one day among the ruins of the Redcrests’ fort above the settlement.”


  2. And, of course, there was the recurring flawed dolphin signet ring also passing down through the generations and the books! Perhaps you could trace its occurrence for us? Eagle of the Ninth, The Lantern-Bearers, Sword at Sunset – but I can’t for the moment remember where else. I was always very pleased to come across it.


    • (From a blogpost to come)

      RIng I think in
      The Eagle of the Ninth (1954) – 129 AD
      The Silver Branch (1957) – 284 AD
      Frontier Wolf (1980) – 343 AD
      The Lantern Bearers (1959) – 410+ AD
      Sword At Sunset (1963) – 5th century
      Dawn Wind (1961) – mid-late 6th century
      The Shield Ring (1956) – 11th century
      The Aquila family originated in Etruria, Italy, and came to Britannia with the father of Marcus Flavius Aquila. He had been in the 9th Hispana Legion which was defeated in the are introduced for the first time to the concrete link. Marcus, disguised as a healer, is amongst the Epidii tribe in northern Britain when he is showed an object by their chieftain:

      “Marcus took it from him and bent to examine it. It was a heavy signet-ring; and on the flawed emerald which formed the bezel was engraved the dolphin badge of his own family … suddenly across twelve years or more, he was looking up at a dark, laughing man who seemed to tower over him. There were pigeons wheeling around the man’s bent head, and when he put up his hand to rub his forehead, the sunlight that surrounded the pigeon’s wings with fire caught the flawed emerald of the signet-ring he wore.”

      It is eventually returned to Marcus by Liathan of the Epidii.

      The ring appears for the first time in The Eagle of the Ninth, but it continues … In The Silver Branch we meet descendants of Marcus – Marcelus Flavius Aquila – and his cousin Tiberius Lucius Justinianus. Flavius shows Justin the ring:

      “It was a heavy and very battered signet ring. The flawed emerald which formed the bezel was darkly cool …”

      Alexios Flavius Aquila, in Frontier Wolf is sent to Scotland, and as he approaches Castellum:

      “He found that he had dropped his gaze from the distant fort, and was staring down at his bridle hand: at the flawed emerald ring with its intaglio-cut dolphin on his signet finger. An old and battered ring that had come down to him through a long proud line of soldiers …”

      In The Lantern Bearers, the ring belongs to the father of the main characters. Aquila’s father, Flavian:

      ” … was fondling [the dog] Margarita’s ears, drawing them again and again through his fingers, and the freckled sunlight under the leaves made small, shifting sparks of green fire in the flawed emerald of his great signet ring with its engraved dolphin.”

      Flavian is killed in a Saxon raid, and the ring is taken by a pirate whose son later marries Flavia, Aquila’s sisters, who had been kidnapped by the Saxons. The ring was given to her as a wedding gift and then later in the story given by Flavia to Aquila.

      Rosemary Sutcliff wrote an adult novel about Arthur – Sword At Sunset – but kept some of the characters from her juvenile novels. Aquila, who married Ness and had a child whome he called Flavian, is seen with Arthur in Arfon:

      “Save for his horses, the only thing of value that he possessed was the flawed engraved signet ring engraved with its dolphin badge, which had come from his father and would one day go to his son …”

      Aquila is killed in the Battle of Badon and the ring is passed by Arthur to Flavian. A few generations go by and in Dawn Wind we find Owain wounded, but alive, on a battlefield. Searching through the dead, he finds his father and his brother Ossian. As he is about to leave the scene:

      ” … something on his father’s hand gave off a spark of greenish light under the moon. He bent forward with a gasp. The great ring with its dolphin device cut in the flawed emerald of the bezel was one of the first things he could remember. It had been his father’s and his father’s before him, away back to the days when the Legions first marched through Britain.”

      The ring finally appears, strangely enough, in The Shield Ring, a book about Norse people holding out against the dominance of the Normas, published in the 1956 before most of the other books mentioned above. In this, Bjorn is given by his foster-father Haethcyn

      ” … a small thing that caught the green fire from the lantern … It was a ring: a massive gold ring of ancient workmanship, much scarred and battered with a bezel of dark green translucent stone, on which was engraved a device of some sort …”

      – a dolphin. Haethcyn tells him it was made:

      “… by the people of Romeburg.”

      that it was Bjorn’s father’s and:

      ” … his father’s before him, and his father’s before that. It came out of Wales with that British foremother of yours that I once told you of, and was old even then, and had come down to her – for she was the last of an ancient line – from the high far-off days from the people of the Legions whence her line was sprung. So the story has passed down with the ring from father to son; …”


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