A few years ago I read Joanna Hickson’s The Agincourt Bride, the first of two novels on the life of Catherine de Valois. I didn’t enjoy it enough to want to read the sequel, The Tudor Bride, but when I saw that she had written a new novel telling the story of Cicely Neville (the mother of Edward IV and Richard III) I couldn’t wait to read it. The Wars of the Roses is one of my favourite periods of history but I haven’t read very much about Cicely and I was interested in learning more.
The novel begins in 1433 and introduces us to the seventeen-year-old Cicely Neville. As the youngest daughter of the late Earl of Westmorland, Cicely belongs to one of the richest and most powerful families in the north of England. Born at Raby Castle in County Durham, Cicely is known as ‘the Rose of Raby’ – but her brothers have also bestowed on her the less flattering nickname of ‘Proud Cis’. Cicely has never given much thought to the children of her father’s first marriage – a branch of the family who feel they have been pushed aside and disinherited – but when she is briefly held hostage by one of these relatives, Sir John Neville, she discovers just how far they will go to reclaim their lands and titles.
Restored to her own family at Raby, Cicely is married off to Richard, Duke of York, to whom she has been betrothed since she was nine. As a descendant of Edward III, Richard believes his own claim to the throne is stronger than that of the present king, Henry VI, and as his frustrations with Henry’s weak leadership increase, so do his ambitions. Soon the House of York finds itself at war with the King and the House of Lancaster, a particularly traumatic situation for Cicely, with not only her husband in danger but also her two eldest sons, Edward and Edmund, her brother Hal and her nephew, the Earl of Warwick. But even while she fears for the men in her life, Cicely is haunted by memories of another man – Sir John Neville, the man she truly loves.
I enjoyed Red Rose, White Rose and thought it was a big improvement on The Agincourt Bride. It was the first half of the book that I found the most interesting, possibly because I’ve read about the Wars of the Roses, the battles and the rise of the House of York many times before, whereas Cicely’s early story was something different (even though it seemed to be largely fictional – Hickson states in her author’s note that there was no historical basis for the affair between Cicely and John Neville). I also loved the fact that these early chapters were set in the north, in an area I’m familiar with; I visited Cicely’s childhood home, Raby Castle, just two years ago so could picture it very clearly (see my photograph above).
Something I haven’t mentioned yet is that while part of the book is narrated by Cicely herself, the rest is narrated by her illegitimate half-brother, Cuthbert. Most of the characters in the novel are based on real people, but Cuthbert is not and I’m not sure that I really liked the inclusion of a fictitious storyline alternating with the historical one. I also thought the two narrative voices felt too similar and if the name of the narrator hadn’t been given in the chapter headings, I would have had difficulty distinguishing between the two. However, I did like Cuthbert as a character and he takes us to places that Cicely isn’t able to go herself, such as onto the battlefield, so he does have an important role to play in the story.
There was a good balance of war, politics, romance and adventure in this novel; there’s also a huge amount of historical detail – if you’re expecting a very light, easy read I think you may be surprised! This is a long, complex story and some concentration is needed to keep track of the relationships between the characters. I found it particularly interesting to read about Cicely’s daughter, Anne, forced into marriage against her will to her father’s ward, Harry Holland, the Duke of Exeter, and finding herself on the Lancastrian side of the conflict – as does Cicely’s sister, another Anne. The way these characters felt about their divided loyalties and how they coped with the tensions it caused within the family was portrayed very well.
Finally, while I think Red Rose, White Rose is the perfect title for a book on the Wars of the Roses, it did bother me slightly that there were so many references to the red rose being a symbol of Lancaster. According to the non-fiction I’ve read on the subject (including most recently The Hollow Crown by Dan Jones), although the red rose had possibly been associated with the House of Lancaster since the 13th century, it wasn’t commonly used as a symbol until Henry Tudor’s victory at Bosworth when he combined it with the white rose of York to form the Tudor rose. I don’t think the Lancastrian army would have been wearing red rose badges as described in the novel, but I’m happy to be corrected if I’m wrong.
Now I’m wondering who and what Joanna Hickson’s next book will be about. The way this one ended leaves plenty of scope to continue the story of the Wars of the Roses!
I received a copy of this book from NetGalley for review