Book review: Red Rose, White Rose by Joanna Hickson

With the reburial of Richard III still fresh in our minds, it seems opportune to discover more about the proud, passionate woman who was his mother.

By Pam Norfolk
Thursday, 7th May 2015, 10:00 am
Red Rose, White Rose by Joanna Hickson
Red Rose, White Rose by Joanna Hickson

Cicely Neville, granddaughter of the great John of Gaunt, wife of Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, and mother of two kings, was raised at Raby castle in the wild border country of northern England to a Lancastrian family, but found herself torn between both sides in the bitter War of the Roses.

An influential and wealthy woman in her own right, Cicely’s rollercoaster story takes centre stage in a fascinating and compelling novel by Joanna Hickson, a former BBC writer and presenter who has turned her talents to exciting historical novels.

After forays into the life of Henry V’s French wife Catherine de Valois in The Agincourt Bride and The Tudor Bride, Hickson fast forwards to the middle decades of the 15th century and the marriage game played out between the Houses of Lancaster and York.

Born into the staunchly Lancastrian Neville family, Cicely trod a precarious path with her Yorkist husband, a journey full of intrigue and danger which Hickson brings to vivid life with her gift for melding history and fiction, adventure and romance.

In 1433, the young and weak Henry VI is on the throne and the ruthless Neville family rules the north with an iron fist, defending the English border against the marauding Scots and establishing themselves as one of the great marcher clans.

Before he died, Ralph Neville, the first Earl of Westmorland, a giant of a man and a staunch Lancastrian, cunningly consolidated his power by negotiating brilliant marriages for his children.

The last and most illustrious betrothal he arranged was the marriage of his youngest daughter Cicely, known as the ‘Rose of Raby,’ and his ward Richard, Duke of York, one of England’s richest noblemen.

But just days before her wedding, the willowy and wayward Cicely is kidnapped by a rival family member and only escapes by committing an act of such recklessness that it will have dire consequences in the future.

She takes her secret to the altar and when the marriage vows have been taken, Cicely knows that her fiercely ambitious husband is already destined to be a force in the land. His arrogance will inevitably make enemies and her role as his wife will need patience and subtlety.

But most important of all, she knows that Richard is the last of his line. ‘The House of York needs sons,’ he tells her. ‘I intend to make the white rose flourish.’

Will her Lancastrian blood spell discord in a marriage that was supposed to unite their two houses?

What isn’t in the history books, Hickson imagines here with her now customary flair to create an epic tale of a young woman caught up in the vicious feuding, perilous politics and unbridled ambition of two warring houses who will stop at nothing to seize the throne.

The use of a dual narrative, split between Cicely and her half-brother Cuthbert, allows us glimpses of both Cicely’s domestic life and the military operations which impacted on her fortunes as Duchess of York.

Hickson paints a seductive portrait of the headstrong and passionate young Cicely, a woman of her times who knows where her duty lies but who is nevertheless prepared to take risks and face the consequences.

However, the author also lays bare the indisputable fact that women of substance, and particularly royal women, were mere pawns in the dynastic schemes of their families.

An enthralling blend of fact and fiction, drama and danger, passion and politics…

(Harper, paperback, £7.99)