Book Corner: Cecily by Annie Garthwaite

The word is a spark. They can start a fire with it, or smother it in their fingertips.
She chooses to start a fire.

You are born high, but marry a traitor’s son. You bear him twelve children, carry his cause and bury his past.

You play the game, against enemies who wish you ashes. Slowly, you rise.

You are Cecily.

But when the king who governs you proves unfit, what then?

Loyalty or treason – death may follow both. The board is set. Time to make your first move.

Told through the eyes of its greatest unknown protagonist, this astonishing debut plunges you into the closed bedchambers and bloody battlefields of the first days of the Wars of the Roses, a war as women fight it.

What a fabulous debut novel!

I had already been hearing good things about Annie Garthwaite’s book, Cecily, when I was offered a review copy from NetGalley. So, of course, I jumped at the chance to read it. A book about one of the strongest and most influential women of the 15th century was bound to interest me. I have forever been fascinated with the Wars of the Roses, after all, and written a number of articles about members of the House of York. I’ve also researched and written about Cecily’s amazing mother, Joan Beaufort, and impressive grandmother, Katherine Swynford. So, I was interested to read Annie Garthwaite’s take on this incredible woman.

And I was not disappointed,. It is hard to believe that Cecily is a debut novel. Beautifully written and composed, it transports the reader back the turmoil of fifteenth century England and shows us the Wars of the Roses through the eyes of Cecily and her husband, Richard, Duke of York. Though historical fiction, it has a sense of reality that is not always present in novels.

Cecily takes no wine in Lent but, when its privations are over, she had chance to share her uncle’s gift with unlooked-for visitors. Bedford’s widow comes to Fotheringhay. Not the gentle duchess Anne she’d come to care for in France, but pretty young Jacquetta, who took that lady’s place after plague demanded she vacate it.

In truth, of course, she’d met Jacquetta too, that time in Paris.

It was the morning after Henry’s crowning and she and Richard had been staying in the Bedfords’ household. Their new good fortune had made them more hungry for excitement than sleep, so they stole out in the cold dawn light, planning to take horses and race each other over the frost hard fields beyond the city. They were laughing as they came, thinking themselves alone, until they turned a corner into the mews and saw Jacquetta, daughter of Bedford’s ally the Count of St Pol, leaning down from a fine grey mare and kissing John of Bedford hard on the mouth.

They brazened it out. Jacquetta smiled boldly, gave brief farewells and was gone. Bedford, dismissive, bade them take whichever of his horses they fancied and enjoy their morning. Richard thanked him warmly but couldn’t look him in the eye.

Cecily could.

‘I believe it was Jacquetta’s uncle who captured the peasant Joan when the English could not and sold her to you for ten thousand livres,’ she said, pulling on her gloves. ‘I suppose that, for such service, you owe her much.’

Enough fr him to marry her, it seems. Duchess Anne died the winter after Cecily returned from France. By spring the Duke of Bedford had dried his tears in Jacquetta’s lap and taken her to wife. Cecily had grieved for it but, in truth, who could blame him? Jacquetta was sixteen, untouched by grief and, likely, fertile. He was forty years old and lonely; the king’s her and childless. After the wedding he’d brought his new wife briefly to England and had grace enough to look shamefaced when he’d asked Cecily to be a friend to her. ‘She knows no one here, you see. And I must be busy, so…’

He’d come to make pleas to the council for more money and more men. They begrudged giving either to a man who kept losing. Even then, he’d looked ill; whip thin and hollow. She’d told him so.

‘I’m just tired, Cecily,’ he’d shrugged. ‘This endless war.’

So, out of pity, and because, in truth, he’d been a maker of her fortune, she’d taken Jacquetta into her company, tolerated her French gossip; her vanity and foolishness.

Cecily is a marvellous, sweeping story, that follows the fortunes of the house of York, through the eyes of its duchess, from the last years of the Hundred Years War, through the turbulent ups and downs of the Wars of the Roses, to the triumphal coronation of Edward IV. Meticulously researched, it strikes the perfect balance between portraying national and international events, and the family life of Cecily and her husband, Richard. Ambition, love and loss, victory and defeat all play a powerful part in the narrative.

The storyline is fast-paced, the political and physical landscape of fifteenth century England providing a wonderful backdrop to the dramatic events of the era. Annie Garthwaite tries to get in the heads of her characters, depicting the Yorks not just as whit knights in shining armour, but as genuine, real people, with their own foibles and ambitions. I do love the depth of the characters. Cecily herself is not perfect, and is the product of her experiences – Annie Garthwaite has really considered how Cecily’s personality would be affected by her experiences and by the characters around her, both friends and enemies alike. The complexities of the family relationships involved in the Wars of the Roses can sometimes get confusing, but the author has managed to navigate her way through the complex relationships to craft a story that is, at once, enjoyable and intriguing.

I can heartily recommend Cecily by Annie Garthwaite to anyone with a passion for historical fiction, and for the Wars of the Roses period, in particular. The book does not disappoint!

About the author:

Annie Garthwaite grew up in a working-class community in the north-east of England. She studied English at the University of Wales before embarking on a thirty-year international business career. In 2017 she returned to her first love, books, and set out to write the story of a woman she had always felt drawn to: Cecily Neville. This became her debut novel, Cecily.

Cecily is available from Amazon


My Books

Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III.

1 family. 8 earls. 300 years of English history!

Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is now available from Pen & Sword BooksAmazon in the UK and US and Book Depository.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & Sword,  Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.


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©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly