The Wars of the Roses split 15th-century England apart, dividing the royal descendants of Edward III into their Lancastrian and Yorkist camps, each designated by a rose of red or white. The discord reached further though, exploiting old rivalries within the country’s most established families. In 1433, the Nevilles were a fine example of a family ready to turn on itself. When young Cicely Neville finds herself taken hostage by her bitter and disadvantaged relative Sir John Neville, it becomes clear that war will provide Sir John with the fire he needs to strip this opposing family branch of its wealth and restore it to his own.
Cicely’s line is a great one. Her mother was the daughter of John of Gaunt, the first Duke of Lancaster. Her brothers and sisters held illustrious titles, not least Cicely’s brother Richard, the Earl of Salisbury. Cicely and her sisters were to marry into the most powerful families in the land. Cicely, the descendant of Lancastrians, was to become the Duchess of York while her sisters included the Duchess of Buckingham and the Duchess of Norfolk. Subject to the decisions of their husbands, men who fought on both sides, sisters too had to choose their own rose, whether it would be red or white.
Over the last two years I have been enchanted by the writing of Joanna Hickson. Her previous novels, The Agincourt Bride and The Tudor Bride, told the compelling and intimate story of Catherine de Valois, Henry V’s young queen and, tragically, also his young widow who chose to remarry for love Owen Tudor, founding together a new dynasty that would define English history for a century. With that story done, and so beautifully too, Joanna Hickson turns her attention to another woman who lived at the crossroads of history, influencing it, suffering for it, producing its heirs, becoming mother to its kings – Cicely Neville, wife of Richard, Duke of York, the leader of the Yorkist cause and army, and mother to Edward IV and Richard III.
Red Rose, White Rose is told to us by two voices, by Cicely and by Sir Cuthbert (Cuddy), Cicely’s illegitimate half brother, who switches sides from Lancastrian to Yorkist once his sister has made her powerful marriage. This is a useful technique. Cicely, whatever her power as Duchess, is never allowed to see the full picture as armies mobilise. Cuthbert marches with them and so through him we are given an important perspective on the military and political upheavals of Civil War. He is also at times a more reliable witness to events than Cicely who spends much of her time in confinement, giving Richard the heirs and marriageable daughters he needs.
Cicely’s story is inevitably more focused on the domestic – Richard of York is no easy man to live with – and Cicely’s heart is still set on love. There is great suffering in her path, though, as Cicely and her sisters pay a deep personal price for their fighting husbands. There is no glamour here. War is a terrible thing and mothers and wives often feel the worst of it. As the fortunes of the red and white roses alternate, so too do the fortunes of Cicely and her sisters.
Red Rose, White Rose is a relatively long novel and it is packed. The two narratives vie for attention, one putting forward politics and war while the other reminds us of domestic matters and romance. It is not that easy to keep track of all the players, a state of affairs not helped by so many sharing the same forename or surname. The family trees which start the book were vital to my understanding. Fiction mixes with history – Sir Cuthbert is a fictional character, which was a surprise to me as he feels very real. For me, the least successful part of the novel was the romance between Cicely and Sir John. I found it hard to accept and I also thought it a distraction from the most interesting elements of the history and its telling. This, though, is probably down to me as I have low romance thresholds! I didn’t feel the same emotional connection to Cicely that I did for Catherine de Valois in the previous two books. It is possible that this is because of the split narrative but I think it is mostly due to the precedent set by Joanna Hickson’s phenomenal portrait of Catherine de Valois. It’s just too hard to beat.
War, romance and politics (domestic and national) vie for dominance in Red Rose, White Rose. The result is moving, quite harrowing in places and historically portentous. Many years are covered, taking in much of the Wars of the Roses, bringing home the horrendous and enormous consequences of the conflict for families and for individuals, most especially Cicely Neville whose birthright placed her right at the very heart of it all.