The Queen’s Rival by Anne O’Brien: A tale of drama, treachery, ambition and heartbreak - book review -

Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, was the wife of a traitor, the mother of two kings, lived through five turbulent reigns, and has been dubbed the queen who was never crowned.

Wednesday, 7th April 2021, 12:30 pm
The Queen’s Rival by Anne O’Brien

Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, was truly a woman to be reckoned with… and her remarkable story of survival and power-brokering is closely bound up with the turbulent history of the Wars of the Roses in which royal cousins fought cousins in a bitter battle for the crown.

And never one to miss a tale of drama, treachery, ambition and heartbreak, bestselling historical novelist Anne O’Brien has turned this indomitable regal matriarch into the shining star of her enthralling new novel, The Queen’s Rival.

Famous herself for championing some of medieval history’s most fascinating but forgotten women, O’Brien admits that Cecily’s tumultuous life has never been relegated to the shadows, but writing a novel about a woman so fascinating, complex and resolute was a challenge that she could not resist.

Abandoned to her fate after her husband’s defeat in battle, the indomitable Cecily was left to use her wits and wiles against the ruthless Marguerite of Anjou, wife of the ineffectual Lancastrian King Henry VI, and a queen who regarded the duchess as a treacherous rival.

They might be united by blood, but in 1459 England’s royal family of Plantagenets and Nevilles are being torn apart by an internecine war. Cecily, Duchess of York, is embroiled just as deeply as her husband, Richard Neville, in a plot to topple the weak-minded Henry VI from the throne.

She may preach to her youngsters the importance of loyalty to their Lancastrian cousins, but all the while, there is an army outside the gates of their Ludlow Castle home and they are led by Queen Marguerite, a ‘vengeful woman, brimful of bile.’

And when the Yorkists are defeated at the Battle of Ludford Bridge, Cecily’s husband and their two eldest sons, Edward and Edmund, flee overseas from the castle and abandon her, along with the family’s younger children, to face a marauding Lancastrian army on her own.

Cecily can only watch impotently as her precious private and personal items are taken, and her lands torn apart and divided up by the ruthless Marguerite who emanates ‘hatred of the House of York in every gesture.’

From the towers of her prison in the home of her Lancastrian sympathising sister, Anne, Duchess of Buckingham, in Tonbridge Castle, Cecily determines to be ‘the keystone… the firm guiding hand to hold all in place until better times.’

There will be no destruction of the House of York and to that end, she begins to spin a web of deceit… one that will eventually lead to treason, to the fall of King Henry, to her eldest son being crowned King Edward IV, and her youngest son seizing the throne as King Richard III.

The politicking, intrigue and power play of the 15th century spring to vivid life in the hands of a historian whose immaculate research, depth of knowledge and imaginative prowess have made her one of our best and favourite historical novelists.

And in a move that brings us even closer to a woman more likely to be viewed through the lens of history books and official accounts, O’Brien recounts Cecely’s story through the intensely personal medium of letters, chronicles, diaries, prayers and even recipes.

This allows readers to build an intimate and emotional connection with not just Cecily, but the dynamics of her sprawling family’s relationships, and the constant rivalry and warring which existed between even the closest members.

From the everyday concerns of a mother trying to care for her children in straitened circumstances, to a wife separated from the husband she still loves after 30 years of marriage, and the determined Yorkist matriarch fighting behind the scenes for her family’s survival and their claim to the throne, this is a tale to enthral and inspire.

Left homeless, penniless, powerless, and deemed the wife of a traitor, Cecely was strong, brave, scheming and ambitious in a world dominated by men, and throughout her long life to the age of eighty, and the reigns of her two sons, she never stopped fighting to keep the Yorkist flame alive.

From the fury of the battlefield to the intimacy of a castle solar, this is rise and fall of the House of York as it has never before been viewed.

(HQ, paperback, £8.99)