Cecily, Annie Garthwaite’s fictionalized telling of the life of the Duchess of York, begins with the duchess and her husband, Richard Plantagenet, witnessing the burning of Joan of Arc. “’It must be seen that we can watch the King’s enemies die, and not falter,’” Cecily says, for their future rests on a knife’s edge. Blood is the cause; Richard is the son of an executed traitor, Richard the Earl of Cambridge, and has a claim to the throne as the descendant of both the second and fourth sons of Edward the Third. His ancestry makes his loyalties suspect, and his claim to the throne is a threat to the newly crowned boy king. The vivid scenes of Joan’s burning underscore the risks a woman takes when she rouses others with her words and are a chilling reminder of what the English Crown will do to its enemies, yet Cecily is undaunted. Ambitious and shrewd, she sees opportunities in Richard’s bloodline. The House of York will maneuver its way through the shifting tides of power, ultimately leading to the War of the Roses, and Cecily’s role is far from insignificant. The lesson she takes from Joan of Arc’s demise is that, “if a woman takes up arms, she must be very sure of winning.”
Writers of historical fiction have a tricky time constructing female characters with agency without ignoring the constraints of the male-dominated societies they lived under. Garthwaite’s portrait of Cecily Neville shows how noblewomen could exercise influence in a ruling class where alliances were formed through marriage and dynasties created through reproduction. She has an acute focus on hospitality, dress, religious devotion, and gossip—appropriately female areas of concern that could be skillfully played to a woman’s advantage without appearing unseemly. Cecily is barred from entering the Houses of Parliament, but she proves herself adept at other forms of statecraft.
To Garthwaite’s credit, her Cecily is not a woman of modern sensibilities perched incongruously in the past. Cecily believes that kings are divinely appointed, but that they rule through the consent of the nobility and that it may be the duty of a lord to overthrow an unfit monarch. Marriage is an exchange, a chance to combine advantageous connections and characteristics:
“[Cecily] despises unequal marriages. Thinks women fools who make them. Marriage to her mother had been the old King’s gift to her father, a reward for helping him to his throne, for she was that king’s half-sister, even though a bastard. Cecily had understood the bargain from childhood: her father’s legitimate blood and title for her mother’s closeness to the King. It had enriched them both, as marriage should. On the day she began her life with Richard, as she packed her bags for France, her mother took her aside to remind her that she would now bring those gifts to her own marriage. ‘Value them,’ she’d said, ‘they are a prize equal to your belly.’”
Cecily takes well to such instruction. Capable of ruthlessness, she gives her six-year-old daughter in marriage to a man Cecily herself dislikes, as the marriage will make her daughter a duchess and offers the advantage of a connection to one of the King’s key allies.
An accomplished chess player like her mother before her, Cecily is her husband’s closest political adviser and privately presses for her point of view, characteristically bolder and more impatient with insult than Richard of York. The power of appearances is a repeated theme of the novel and an area in which Cecily excels and can demonstrate public strength. After Richard’s victory in battle, she stages his return to their stronghold in Rouen, using it to “send clear messages. To England: York is delivering on its promise. To France: get used to not having it all your own way.” Cecily arranges for clean streets lined with flags, thronged by waving citizens celebrating their duke’s victory with roses thrown at his feet. Similarly, the grand baptism of her second French-born son Edmund is used to “remind the world that, in Normandy at least, the reins of power lie in York’s hands and no one else’s.”
Cecily’s command of symbolism extends to clothing. Negotiating with Isabella, Duchess of Burgundy, she is careful to wear “her wealth in muted colours, rich but plain, to let the older woman shine.” Preparing for her husband’s triumphant return to Rouen she is dressed by maids, coming to “lay in her hands the bible that tells the world she is pious, about her neck the jewels that say she is rich.” At Joan’s execution, she wears “black velvet, sombre and rich,” and a rosary at her waist to show the French that God has answered the prayers of the English and delivered Joan to them for execution.
Religious piety provides Cecily with another area of influence. When the Queen takes a pilgrimage to the Virgin’s shrine at Walsingham, where women pray to conceive or for a safe childbirth, Cecily goes there too to beg the Queen to return Richard to the King’s favor. She invokes the Virgin Mary in her plea for her husband. “’I take the Virgin’s example. Is it not a woman’s duty to intercede for sinful men?’” she asks.
In the private sphere, Richard and Cecily are allied in using social connections to ensure their family’s position. Both keep a shared internal list of names, noting “how they might act, how they’re to be dealt with, what must be done to keep them compliant.” Maintaining social ties is women’s work par excellence, and Cecily makes the most of both her familial relationships and her friendships with other women. Later, the power of gossip is decisive; Cecily’s eldest sons and her brother report to her that the country is abuzz with suspicion that the King’s son is a bastard actually sired by their enemy, Edmund Beaufort, the Duke of Somerset. They are astonished to learn that Cecily is the source of the rumor. “‘Women have no swords, brother,’” she retorts. “‘We do our work by talking.’”
Despite all these displays of strength, it is impossible to miss women’s physical vulnerability in this era. Cecily is almost continually pregnant; fertility is essential for the maintenance of the family line and power. She bears thirteen children, but six die in infancy. The novel is punctuated by periods of confinement during pregnancy and the agonies of labor, miscarriage, and the loss of children. Violence is never far away. When Fotheringhay, the seat of York’s power, is sacked, Cecily thinks about “any women left in the town, dear God.” Moments later, she watches from a window as a young girl of her household is raped by a soldier while others watch, jeering and waiting their turns.
Sadly, Annie Garthwaite’s skillful depiction of Cecily is not matched in the portrayal of her other characters, who tend to be thinly developed. This clumsiness is sometimes present in the prose too, as in the book’s overly portentous prologue which sketches out the dangers and opportunities facing Cecily and Richard without much elegance. Overall, these feel like minor flaws typical of a debut novel, overshadowed by the ability of the writing to immerse you in long-ago history, thrill you with political machinations, and draw an indelible portrait of an extraordinary woman.
As Garthwaite points out in her afterword, history is not a linear story of progress towards emancipation; mediaeval women, especially those of financial means, had in some ways more freedoms than Victorian and even omen after the Second World War. They could own property, run businesses, and take up trades. Widows, in particular, could exercise considerable economic independence. “Men ruled, certainly, but in the margins women could exercise agency, assume authority, push boundaries,” Garthwaite concludes. Cecily’s strength, agency, and relentless pushing to achieve her own ends make her a character that has continuing resonance in our modern times.