Cecily Neville, dubbed the ‘Rose of Raby’, is ten years old when she is betrothed to her childhood love, Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York.
Little does she know that their union is one to change Britain’s history for centuries to come, and that she will become a powerful matriarch in her own right.
Beautiful, courageous and intelligent, Cecily carves out her place at her husband’s side as they navigate the increasingly difficult political sphere of 15th century Europe, rocked by the actions of Jeanne d’Arc in France.
The War of the Roses Quartet is a series of four books following the life of Cecily from her betrothal to Richard Plantagenet and the eventual rise of the House of York as two of her sons ascend the throne. Turmoil is never far aware though and Cecily watches helplessly as her family is ripped apart by internal conflict which will have tragic consequences for them all and for England.
I have to admit the War of the Roses is not one of my favourite eras in history but I was intrigued enough to read these book when the foreword mentioned how Eleanor Fairburn was one of the first historical writers to write from the female perspective. I’ve always been more interested in historical books written from the female point of view as women are largely forgotten about. These four books follow the life of Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, from her betrothal to her last days, and are appropriately titled with the passing of the seasons: The Rose in Spring, White Rose Dark Summer, The Rose at Harvest End and Winter’s Rose.
The books cover a large period of time and there are many characters who come in and out of Cecily’s life, particularly the extended Neville family who were one of the most important families in England. It can be quite hard keeping track of everyone and how they fit into the overall scheme of things because the divide between the Houses of Lancaster and York wasn’t a simple one with people changing sides as often as they changed their clothes. There is also a split within the Neville ranks which makes things even more complicated.
Cicely Neville was the youngest child of Ralph Neville, 1st Earl of Westmorland, and his second wife, Joan Beaufort, and she was born in Raby Castle, Durham, which earned her the nickname of the Rose of Raby. Cecily was betrothed to Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York, who had a strong claim to the English throne through both of his parents. Richard was eventually made a king’s lieutenant and governor general of France, so he and Cecily moved to Rouen where their son, Edward VI, was born in 1442. Much of the first book is concerned with Cecily’s life in France as she is left alone for long periods of time and forms an attachment to an English archer which leads to claims her son, Edward, is illegitimate. Throughout this time, Cecily also encounters some of the main protagonists who will eventually end up being allies or enemies during the War of the Roses.
There are rumblings of disquiet as it becomes increasingly evident Henry VI is incapable of ruling and Richard is being pushed away from court by those who want to control the king. Richard’s allies urge him to pursue his own claim to the throne but he is reluctant to break his oath. White Rose Dark Summer follows the period of time when Richard was appointed as Lieutenant of Ireland to get him out of England. Richard can only watch in dismay as a marriage between Henry and Margaret of Anjou comes to fruition and the king makes increasingly bad choices. Reaching the limits of his patience, Richard finally gathers an army together but is adamant he only intends to free the king from the evil influences around him and has no desire to claim the throne. As the fighting begins in earnest, Cecily sends her youngest sons to safety in Burgundy but her heart is broken when Richard and their son Edmund are killed at the Battle of Wakefield.
The Rose at Harvest End continues the story as Cecily’s eldest son is finally crowned as Edward IV and she takes pride of place at his court. However, her pride soon turns to dismay when she learns Edward may have married Lady Eleanor Talbot in secret and then cast her aside equally as quickly after a quarrel. Cecily berates her son as the marriage and any subsequent issue could have severe consequences for the future of his reign, however Edward denies the marriage ever took place and then goes on to marry Elizabeth Woodville. Edward proves to be a popular king as he is handsome and charismatic but he also leads a hedonistic lifestyle which will prove to be his undoing.
Winter’s Rose deals with the shortest period in Cecily’s life as Edward IV dies unexpectedly and his brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, is named as Lord Protector of the Realm until Edward V comes of age. However, the young king is surrounded by his Woodville family who waste no time in poisoning his mind against the uncle he barely knows. Richard, equally distrustful of the Woodvilles, plots to secure the king’s safety but soon becomes distracted when he learns about Edward IV’s possible marriage to Lady Eleanor Talbot. Richard declares his brother’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville invalid and the children of the union illegitimate. Richard is then offered the throne, however his reign is a short one as he is killed by Henry Tudor at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.
The character of Cecily remains strong and steadfast throughout the four books, however her presence is increasingly diminished in the final two as Cecily retreats from court and devotes herself to religious duties. Since the books are meant to be from her point of view, this is a serious flaw but it is driven by the need to reveal details of events to which Cecily was not present. Since the third book is mainly about Edward’s reign and Cecily is still prominent at court, there should have been more focus on their growing animosity and Cecily’s antagonistic relationship with Elizabeth Woodville. Elizabeth Woodville is a mere shadow in this book with no meaningful role to play. Edward and Elizabeth’s children are also not fleshed out which is a disappointment, especially since her granddaughter, Elizabeth of York, is a future queen consort.
The spotlight in the fourth book falls on Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who was apparently Cecily’s favourite son and it paints him in a sympathetic light considering his reputation. Cecily agonises over whether or not to tell Richard about his brother’s secret first marriage, however it proves to be a moot point as he finds out from someone else. Historians are still divided over whether this secret marriage actually happened and believe it was a ploy of Richard’s to disinherit his nephews so he could claim the throne. Regardless of the truth, in the book a reluctant Richard consults lawyers to debate the matter and is eventually persuaded to declare his brother’s children illegitimate. He is also careful not to assume the throne by himself but to wait until it is offered to him.
Richard is also shown to be concerned for the welfare of his nephews in the Tower and makes plans to have them removed so they can grow up in anonymity. However, young Edward is plagued with an undisclosed but painful illness that leads him to poison himself and a companion who is mistaken for his younger brother. When rumours begin to circulate the princes in the Tower have been murdered by Richard, we get no real reaction from Cecily. The final passages of the book are a rushed march through the rest of Richard’s reign and the accession of Henry VII. There are only a few lines on the marriage of Elizabeth of York to Henry VII and certainly no comment on whether Elizabeth had ever had an inappropriate relationship with Richard III.
By the time Cecily is on her deathbed, she has outlived most of her children apart from two of her daughters, Elizabeth, Duchess of Suffolk, and Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy, neither of whose lives were explored in any great detail. I really enjoyed the first book in this series and most of the second but the last two were a disappointment.