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The Shield Ring
First edition cover






Young adult

Historical era

Norman, 11th century


C. Walter Hodges


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The Shield Ring is a 1956 novel published by Oxford University Press, with illustrations by C. Walter Hodges. Best friends Bjorn and Frytha, a young Northman and a Saxon girl, help defend a hidden Norse stronghold in Cumberland from the conquering Normans.

It is the eighth and last story about the Flavius Aquila family chronologically, but the second in publication order.


Five-year-old Frytha and her father's shepherd Grim are the sole escapees of a Norman reprisal against their farm, and Grim takes Frytha north to Butharsdale, the hidden Norse stronghold of Jarl Buthar in the Cumberland Fells (1). Frytha becomes fast friends with Bjorn, a fellow orphan who wishes to become a harper like his Saxon foster-father Haethcyn (2). When Frytha is eight, King William II comes north to fight the Scots of Carlisle, and Frytha and Bjorn hear from old Ari Knudsen how the Norse first retreated from Eskdale to Butharsdale during William the Conqueror's devastation of the North, and how his governor Ranulf Le Meschin has tortured prisoners to learn Butharsdale's location, but none have ever betrayed it (3).

William's forces camp at Amilside, the crossroads into Lake Land, and the Thing of the Northmen vote to send Ari Knudsen as their envoy of submission. William advances up the northern road using the envoys' bodies as standards, where they are beaten back by the Northmen and the Norman troops' own unease (4). Bjorn is deeply traumatised by the news of Ari Knudsen's death by torture, and makes an enemy of another boy, Erland, who taunts him for cowardice (5).

Four years later, when Bjorn is fourteen, Haethcyn gives him permission to join the Spring Hosting, and gives him his father's dirk and ancient Roman signet ring (6). The Northmen hold the Normans off from Eskdale, Bjorn narrowly escaping a fight with a young Norman (7).

When Bjorn is seventeen, he overhears Norman men-at-arms discussing the inevitability of the Le Meschins approaching Butharsdale from the north, and the Northmen accordingly re-route their north road into a dead end valley for a killing zone (8). King William dies, the Jarl's son Gille marries, and the Normans advance from the north-east into the foot of the pass from Keskadale into Butharsdale (9). The Northmen massacre the Norman camp in the night, and Frytha finds a wandering, shell-shocked Norman "mazelin", whose life Bjorn demands of the commander Aikin as a battle-gift (10). Bjorn and Frytha learn some Norman from the man, who suffers from amnesia and general confusion, and when news comes of another Norman mustering to their north, Bjorn volunteers to spy in the camp under the guise of a harper (11). As she has done since they first met, Frytha follows him, joining him at his abandoned family steading of Bjornsthwaite (12).

The two work their way into the Norman camp, where they learn the enemy's number and plans, but Frytha has a foreboding that they will not get cleanly away to the waiting War-hosts without some crisis of Bjorn's fate (13). Sure enough, Bjorn is summoned to play for Ranulf Le Meschin and his advisors, and the young knight that Bjorn fought on his first campaign recognises his signet ring. They question Bjorn under torture, who says nothing, and turn to Frytha, but just then the camp is attacked and the prisoners are left bound but unguarded (14). They work themselves free with a dropped dagger and signal to the War-host before leaping from the camp walls, and return to give the Jarl their information (15). A few days later, the Normans have reached Rannardale, and the Norse say their goodbyes to each other, Bjorn reconciling with Erland and giving his ring into Frytha's keeping (16).

The Northmen draw the Normans up the Road to Nowhere into Rannardale and destroy their host. Ranulf Le Meschin escapes, but the Jarl's brother Aikin the Beloved is killed (17). Aikin is howe-laid above Keskadale and the Jarl destroys the Norman fort at Amilside. The hidden settlement of Butharsdale will disband and return to Eskdale, and Bjorn and Frytha make plans to reclaim Bjornsthwaite (18).


The Shield Ring takes place over thirteen years, beginning ten years before the death of William II "the Red" in 1100 CE.

1066 CE

  • Battle of Stamford Bridge (2)
  • Battle of Hastings (2)

1070 CE

  • "Norman William laid waste the North in payment for the massacre of his York garrison", "twenty summers ago" (1)

1090 CE

  • "on a day in late spring, when Frytha was not quite five" (1): Frytha's family killed
    • "Some hungry fool robbed and slew a knight on the Lancaster road, half a moon since, and for that the whole countryside must pay wyrgeld in blood and burning." (1): Frytha arrives in Butharsdale
    • "in a year or two" (2): Frytha recovered
  • Autumn: "When Bjorn was seven, which was only half a year after Frytha came to the Dale"

1091 CE

  • "On a spring day almost a year after Frytha came to the Dale": curlews. Bjorn's music. "Years and years afterwards, when she thought of that day, it always seemed to Frytha that it was the begining of everything." (2).
  • "the evening some months later" (2): Bjorn tries Sweet-singer
  • "Twice the Conqueror had come North; once to settle the matter of his York garrison, and once, while the North was still bare and blackened from the first time, when Earl Gospatric, sitting in his stronghold at Carlisle, took to playing off the Scots and Normans against each other for his own ends." (3)

1092 CE

  • "the third spring of Frytha's life in the Dale" (3): William Rufus comes North
  • Summer (4): Normans occupy Amilside. Ari Knudsen murdered. Battle in Ryedale.
  • Summer's end (6): Normans retake Carlisle. Rebuild Amilside. Rebuild Carlisle.

1095-6 CE

  • 4 winters later, Frytha is 11 (6): Carlisle castle finished. Haethcyn gives Bjorn permission to join the Spring Hosting.

1096 CE

  • Spring, Bjorn is 14 (7), Ranulf Le Meschin advances up the Rafnglas road
  • Summer (7), War-Host escapes at Hardknott Pass

1097 CE

  • Next spring, Bjorn is 15 (8): Northmen have retaken the Rafnglas road

1099 CE

  • Autumn after next, Bjorn is 17 (8): Road to Nowhere begun.

1099-1100 CE

  • That winter (9): Unna dies.

1100 CE

  • Next summer,  (9): Omen and portents
  • Next autumn, Bjorn is 18 (9): Road finished. King William II dead.

1101 CE

  • Next spring (9): Gille and Gerd marry. Ranulf Le Meschin advances from Penrith.
  • Summer (9): Normans encamp at the marsh of Keskadale
    • That night (10): the Northmen slaughter them
    • Next day and night (10): Ranulf retreating towards Penrith. Frytha finds the mazelin.
    • A few days later (11): William persuades Ranulf to attack from the north

1103 CE

  • Late winter after next (11): Massing at Papcastle.
  • Spring: Gerd's baby born
  • Early summer (12): Bjorn and Frytha head to Rafnglas
    • That night (12): stay in Bjornsthwaite
    • Next day (13): Rafnglas
    • After 3 days in the Norman camp (13): they get caught. The Northmen attack (14).
    • Day after next (15): Normans due to march
    • 2 days later (16): Normans approach Rannardale
    • Next day (17): Bettle of Rannardale. Normans defeated. Aikin killed. Bjorn sick.
    • Aikin howlaid. Jarl drives the Normans out of Amilside.
    • End of summer (18): Bjorn recovers.


Northmen of Lake Land[]

  • Frytha (1), Saxon orphan from Lancashire. Best friends with Bjorn Bjornson (1). Russet-haired. "by this time had a light bow of her own and could use it well at the butts". A slight reserve has grown between her and Bjorn since Ari's death (6). 'I am thinking it is bad–sometimes–to be born on the distaff side.' 'You could not bear to be comforted then, and you have not changed.' "She looked like a long-legged boy...Her hair was cut short to her shoulders like a boy's...perfect stillness at such times had become second nature to her" (9). "she was ready to fight for [the mazelin], against the Jarl himself, against all the chieftains of the War Host if need be." (10). "She could pass for a boy, she knew that; even her voice would pass, for it was husky, like a boy's that is near to breaking." "honey brown" hair. "she had a hunter's eye for country...and the acute sense of direction of a wild thing" (12). Alias Erik (13). "in her world killing was a small matter unless it were one's kin." (14).
    • Bran (1), Frytha's father's wolfhound
    • Teitri (10), a red pony Frytha works, "wild as a curlew"
  • Grim (1), Frytha's father's serf, "little black hairy"
    • Vigi (1), Grim's black sheepdog
  • Jarl Buthar (1), "a golden giant", a great leader "who had held the Lake Land free of the Norman kind for twenty years." "rather a remote man." (4).
  • Haethcyn (1), "a grey giant", Buthar's harper (1). Bjorn's foster-father. Harp's named Sweet-singer. "I am of the Saxon kind... I was for Harald of England at Stamford Bridge, not for Harald of Norway. I was for Harald of England at Hastings, half a moon later." (2) "She suddenly saw that he was old: old and frail despite his great height, so that the flesh seemed to hang thin and light on his great bones.' (9).
  • Lady Tordis (1), Buthar's wife, "tall like a spear, with a cloud of pale hair" (1). Came from Barra. Gille was her 4th child (2).
  • Signy (1), one of Tordis's women
  • Unna (1), "a very old woman", Tordis's nurse (1). "Everyone treated Unna with great respect because she had the Second Sight" "A great spinner...and a great teller of stories" (2). "Predicts" the inevitable battle in Rannardale by the flight of swans (8). Dies soon afterward, "Gille, find her no longer spinning by the fire, grieved for her more sorely than he would have done for his own mother, because she had been nearer to him." (9).
  • Margrit (1), one of Tordis's women
  • Bjorn "the Bear" Bjornsson (1), "He was a year or two older than she was, a very dark boy–as dark as Grim–witha long cleft chin, and eyes as tawny-pale as peat water and as bright as a wild animal." Takes Frytha under his wing (1). Son of one of Buthar's household warriors; foster-son to Haethcyn (2). Traumatised by Ari Knudsen's death. "In times of stress he always made for the high and empty places" (5). "Other people did ot wonder about those sorts of things; other people mostly couldn't picture very clearly (at any rate they mstly didn't) what it would be like to be in the Normans' hands, with the lives of their fellows and the thing they fought for hanging on their power to endure with a shut mouth. But Bjorn could picture it with a hideous clearness–and so he wondered; which was a bad thing to do." "thrusting back his hair in a gesture that was typical of him, and his bright, faintly mocking gaze". Bor in autumn (6). "lean and hard as a wolfhound" (7). "Many of Bjorn's tunes had the loneliness in them, as though the odd difference between him and his kind found a voice in the music he made. In ordinary life he was armoured with the faint fierce mockery of his; but there was no mockery in his music, and so no armour." (9).
  • Storri Sitricson (2), preacher, and surgeon (5) "his plump face was mottled with weariness under his flaming and defiant tonsure" (16).
  • Gerd (2), daughter of Hakon Wall-eye. Gille's betrothed, who cheats him at Fox and Geese. "an appealing round-aboutness, like a tit's." (6). Marries Gille at 16 (9). "Frytha felt a rush of fondness towards her. Little soft spoiled Gerd, who had laid aside her softness and her spoiling to sleep hard and toil behind the War-bands and tend wounded men among the heather." "valiant, though shaking with fright" (10).
  • Hakon Wall-Eye (2), one of the Jarl's Chieftains. "scratching delicately at the tip of his left ear" (7)
  • Erland Ormeson (2), another kid (2). Bjorn fights him for calling him afraid. Two years older than Bjorn. Enemies thereafter (5). "bitter-tongued, and always ready to pick a quarrel" "could neither swim nor handle a boat so well as befitted his Northern stock." (6). Knows Bjorn's fear of torture (11). Carries Bjorn's shield at the battle of Rannardale (16). Killed with Aikin (17).
  • Jon (2) from the Millhouse, Frytha's contemporary. Killed with Aikin (17).
  • Gille Butharson (2), Buthar's heir, 11 years old. POV character of chapter 4. "He had never been able to come very close to the Jarl" "there had always been a strong bond between him and Aikin" (4). "standing almost as tall as his father...leaning on the haft of the great pole-axe with which he was already begining to make a name for himself." (7).
  • Ari Knudsen (2), carries the great sword Wave-flame (2). Called the Grey Wolf (3). The Thing's envoy to Red Wiliam. Tortured and has his body mounted as a standard (4).
  • Ottar Edrikson (3), Bjorn's contemporary. "a boy of few words" (5).
  • Anlaf (3), the best swordsmith in Lake Land
  • Trond Thorkilson (3), smith
  • Hrodney Svendson (3), built the mill. Ari Knudson's boyhood friend, a gifted builder. Spent years among the Saxons. Killed by Ranulf.
  • Aikin the Beloved (3), Ari's foster-son, Buthar's younger brother (3). Hates the Normans for the death of Ari Knudsen (4). Killed leasing the charge at Rannardale (17).
    • Garm (4), Aikin's dog. Dies on his bier (18).
  • Hundi Swainson (4), with Gille at the Winding Mere. Brings the decoys news of the War-Hosts's escape (7). Killed in Keskadale (10).
  • Hugin Longneb (4), messenger from the Norman camp
  • Sigurd Strongbow (4), commander of archers. Leads the ambush at Brackenthwaite (14).
  • Ulfa (4), holding Ryedale. An old chieftain with a pole-ax.
  • Njal Scar-Arm (5), messenger from Ryedale
  • Trond Gyrdson (6), "from whom Bjorn had learned the use of sword and spear and the great Viking axe."
  • Sigtrig (9), leader of a war band at Glencathra
  • Hogni (9), messenger from Sigtrig's band
  • Gunda Trondson (10), boy in Keskadale camp
  • Thorkil (10), boy in Keskadale camp
  • Aan Olafson (11), messenger from the north
  • Thori Forkbeard (11), a comrade of Ari Knudsen's, speaks Norman

Other Norse and Saxons[]

  • Bjorn Sigurdson (2), Bjorn's forefather. "When Bjorn Sigurdson came west-over-seas from Stavanger with the Dragon-ships–that was in the days of Harald Fairhair–he took to wife a woman of the people who ruled this land aforetime. Seemingly it was a fierce wooing, for she was of proud stock, and she yielded at last half unwillingly, but yield she did; and came to spin by his new-lit hearth-fire over yonder among the Eskdale Falls."
  • Earl Gospatric (3) of Carlisle, killed by William the Conqueror
  • Dolfin Gospatricson (3), retook Carlisle
  • Leif Erikson (9), hero of Aikin's
  • Egil the Icelander (10), ransomed himself
  • King Eric of Northumbria (10), was paid the ransom
  • Beowulf (11), legendary monster-slayer
  • Jarl Sigurd of Orkney (11), killed under the Raven banner at Clontarf
  • Anlaf the White (11), King of Dublin
  • Alfred of Wessex (11), spied in a Norse camp 200 years ago


  • Norman William (1), William the Conqueror
  • Ranulf Le Meschin (3), William's lord in Carlisle. A landless knight from Bayeux (11).
  • William Le Meschin (3), Ranulf's younger brother in Coupland. Master of Mulecaster castle (11).
  • William II, the Red (3), come to fight the Scots. Killed by an arrow while hunting in 1100.
  • Rollo the Northman (3), founder of Normandy
  • Hammund (8), huge red-headed man-at-arms, of William Le Meschin's men. 'Me father was from Caen and me mother was from the White Horse Vale. Sober, I'm as Norman French as Roland's horn; drunk, I'm as Saxon as me sainted mother, who was as Saxon as the White Horse itself.'
  • Dickon (8), an "oldish, greyish" archer, of Ranulf Le Meschin's men
  • Henry Beauclerk (9), William II's brother and successor, "the English-born son of the King–and known to have Saxon leanings"
  • The mazelin (10), "a smallish man" with bright staring eyes and a gaunt face, dark hair and ragged clothes, "lost, blank and somehow piteous". Found by Frytha on Skiddaw and claimed by Bjorn for her sake. Speaks two words of Saxon: 'No more!' (10). Not mentally handicapped, but traumatised and amnesiac (11). Killed among Le Meschin's men at Rannardale (17).
  • Roger de Lacey (13), knight, "a thick-set, oldish man" who gives Bjorn and Frytha passage on his horse transport
  • Gilbert (13), Ranulf's minstrel, a "willowy young man" (14)
  • Ingram de Caen (13), last come to Papcastle
  • Rafe (13), an archer, good at dice
  • Hob (13), a horse-handler
  • Hugh (13), Roger de Lacey's squire
  • de Warrenne (14), one of Bjorn's audience
  • Fulke (14), the young knight with three golden flames on a black field
  • Tristram (14), Le Meschin's squire. Killed at Rannardale (17).
  • Jehan (14), a squire

Norse gods[]

  • The All-Father (4), Odin
  • Wyrd (4)
  • Thor (4)
  • Freya (6)


Lake Land[]

  • Butharsdale (1), "Norse settlement of the Cumberland Fells"
  • Crumbeck Water (2),
  • Alverdale lowlands (2) Ranulf escapes into them (10)
  • Butharsmere (2), with a chapel at its head
  • Sell Glen (2), where Grim lives
  • Sell Beck (), overlooking the steading, sheep-shearing site (4)
  • Burgdale (4), over a pass from Sell Beck
  • Whiteless Peak (5), Bjorn flees there. Runs into Grismoor
  • Rannardale (5), joins Crumbeck Water, ruined steading at the head, settled by Ragna. Site of the Road to Nowhere (8).
  • Rannardale Ridge (5)
  • Beacon Fell (2), "high above Butharsmere"
  • Gate Fell (3)
  • Starling Dod (3)
  • Red Pike (3)
  • Little Longdale (4), site of Fellfoot
  • Fellfoot (4), site of the Northmen's camp
  • The Thing-Mount and Thing-Field, "where the beck came down from Red Pike in to the deep waters of the tarn"
  • High Style (3)
  • Grismoor (3)
  • Grismere (4)
  • Kent Dale (3), William encamps there, 3 days' march from Butharsdale
  • Amilside (Ambleside) (3), Red William's camp at the Roman fortress (Galava) at the head (4).
  • Winding Mere (4), (Windermere)
  • The Midgate (4), Roman road leading north from Winding Mere
  • The Rafnglas road (4), west from the fort
  • High Street Road (4), north-east road to Penrith
  • Loughrigg (4), hill Gille is overlooking the Norman camp from
  • Longdale (3)
  • Longdale Beck (4)
  • The Longdale Fells (4), Ari Knudsen and co. are buried on the highest crest
  • Skiddaw, west side
  • Helvellyn, west side
  • Ryedale (4), on the Midgate road
    • Reytha gorge (4)
    • Ryedale Water (4)
  • Furness Sands (4).
  • The Solway (4), water off the west coast
  • Eskdale (7)
  • Hardknott Pass (7), eastern entrance to Eskdale, overlooked by the Roman fort on the Rafnglas road
  • Scafell
  • Bjornsthwaite, Bjorn's father's landtake on Scafell, north of Eskdale
  • Mulecaster (7), castle at the western end of the Rafnglas road
  • Heron Crags, below Heron Ford
  • Stonesty Pike, head of a yew-filled glen
  • Harter Fell
  • Dunnerdale, "dark marshes"
  • Crumbeck Water (8), west of the north road
  • Hawes Point, where the road crosses a rock spur
  • Bassteinthwaite Lake (8)
  • Workington (8), port on the Solway
  • Burgdale (9), dale west of Butharsdale
    • Keswic (9), Norman camp
  • Wild Cat Mountain (9)
  • Keskadale (9), eastern end of 4 passes, one of which connects to Sell Beck
  • Papcastle (11), old Roman fort north of the Dale
  • The Cocur (11), river near Papcastle, meets the Derwent
  • Ennerdale (12), west of Butharsmere
  • High Crag (12), over Ennerdale
  • Wasdale (12), on the way from Butharsmere to Eskdale
  • Burnmoor Tarn (12), ditto
  • Bjornsthwaite (12), in a shallow glen above Eskdale


  • York (1), Norman garrison massacred (1).
  • Lancaster (1)
    • Garside Wood (1), near Frytha's father's farm
    • Frytha's family's farm (1), near the Lancaster road
  • Stamford Bridge (2)
  • Hastings (2)
  • Bec Abbey (2), where Haethcyn learned his letters with Norman schoolfellows
  • Carlisle (3), seat of Earl Gospatric, Ranulf Le Meschin, Dolfin
  • Clontarf (4), site of a Viking battle in Ireland


The novel is dedicated, "For Crooky, who first put me on the track of the Northmen in Cumberland, and for Spencer, who helped me to follow it up". "Crooky" is family friend Colonel Crookenden.

Sutcliff discussed The Shield Ring in an interview in British Children's Authors (Jones and Way, 1976)[1]:

Q: Marcus, Phaedrus, Beric, Drem, Randal, Owain––all the main characters are boys. There are often girls in the stories and they are strongly portrayed, but they act as minor characters.

A: It just always happens like that. I think I’ve got where I can understand boys better than I do girls. I did once try to write one in which a girl was the main character––that was The Shield Ring. Then, of course, even in that it switched from the girl to the boy.

The Shield Ring began because friends were spring cleaning. In getting things out of their attic, they dug out a little paperback book that somebody had written twenty or thirty years ago about a sort of Norse pocket, a settlement of Norsemen in the Lake District in Norman times. It told about the tremendous resistance these Norsemen put up to the Norman invasion. This fascinated me. I was halfway through another book at the time. But this other idea fascinated me so much that the other book went dead on me and I had to drop it and start this one. It’s a kind of subject which is really a ready-made book in itself: a small enclosed sea of action like this, an enclosed society, and a kind of rearguard action as well. I always like rearguard actions––they make good story material. The story just grew from that. I was able to get a lot of books about the north country which helped me greatly. Sometimes you find certain parts of the country are not well documented, and it is much more difficult to catch the atmosphere of the countryside. But the Lake District of England was very well documented. There were lots of books that evoked the countryside and the sights and sounds and smells vividly. So I was able to get very deeply into it and I enjoyed writing it.

Sutcliff also mentioned the source book in a paper entitled "History and Time" presented at Children's Literature New England's 1989 "Travellers in Time" conference at Cambridge University:

"I never start off with the research; I mean I never decide in cool blood that it would be interesting to set the next book in a particular time and place and then start to read up about it. First has to come the Basic Idea, and it is no good my going in search of the Idea, it has to come looking for me. Sometimes it comes from outside, from something read or seen or experienced, once from a little privately published handbook on the Lake District turned out by a friend in spring cleaning his attic, once from seeing in an Athens museum a dagger with lily flowers inlaid on the blade."[2]

The Shield Ring is said to be "closely modelled" on the 1929 historical novella The Secret Valley: The real romance of Lakeland by Nicholas Size, a hotelier and local historian in Buttermere.[3] Wikipedia describes the book alternatively as a dramatized history or a historical novel.

  • Read "The Battle of Rannerdale" from The Secret Valley, excerpted in My Favourite Stories of Lakeland (1981), edited by Melvyn Bragg.

It is also possible that Sutcliff's "privately-printed handbook" was Size's first version of the material, a booklet called The Epic of Buttermere, which bore the cover blurb "Historical Picture of the great events in Lakeland during Norman times." It is described as an "Eight page pamphlet published circa 1928 by the owner of the Victoria Hotel in "Beautiful Buttermere," Cumberland."[4]

Publication history[]

In English:

  1. London : Oxford University Press, 1956. Illus. C. Walter Hodges.[5]
    • London : Oxford University Press, 1957.[6]
  2. New York : H.Z. Walck, 1957. Illus. C. Walter Hodges.[7]
  3. New York : Dell, 1966.[8]
  4. London : Puffin Books, 1992.[9]
  5. Asheville, N.C. : Front Street, 2007.[10]

In translation:

  1. Ščitni obroč. Slovenian by Gitica Jakopin. Illus. C. Walter Hodges. Ljubljana : Mladinska knjiga, 1959.[11]
  2. Skjoldborgen. Danish by Ellenmarta Rasmussen. Illus. C. Walter Hodges. Kbh., 1959.[12]
  3. Der Schildwall Eine Erzählung aus d. Zeit d. Normannenherrschaft in England. German by Ilse Wodtke. Stuttgart : Union Verl., 1966.[13]
    1. München : Deutscher Taschenbuch-Verlag, 1984.[14]
    2. Stuttgart : Verl. Freies Geistesleben, 1995.[15]
  4. Shīrudo ringu : Vuaikingu no kokoro no toride. Japanese by Shiro Yamamoto. Tōkyō : Hara Shobō, 2003.[16]


  1. Cornelia Jones and Olivia R. Way. British Children's Authors: Interviews at Home. Chicago: School Library Association, 1976. pp.146-153.
  2. Rosemary Sutcliff, "History and Time." Reprinted in Historical Fiction for Children: Capturing the Past, ed. Fiona M. Collins, Judith Graham. David Fulton Publishers, 2001.