The Queen’s Rival by Anne O’Brien


I did actually enjoy this book, about Cecily Neville, but it wasn’t what I was expecting.  Anne O’Brien’s other books about medieval royal women, all excellent, have all been ordinary fictional prose.  This one reminded me of being about 12, and being told to write a history essay in the format of a letter or diary because a teacher for some reason thought that kids would find that more interesting than just writing a normal essay.   It was a strange combination of letters, signed “Your affectionate but thwarted sister”, “Your concerned brother by law”, etc, diary entries, articles from a fictional 15th century equivalent of a tabloid newspaper gossip column, diary entries and even prayers, not to mention recipes for eels in garlic sauce.

It was completely unrealistic – would anyone have put down their plans for overthrowing the king in a gossipy letter, which could well have been intercepted en route? – but it was a very entertaining read.  Despite the rather bizarre format, all the history of England during the period from 1459, when Cecily and her younger children were left to face the Lancastrian forces at Ludlow Castle, and 1483, when her youngest son Richard III overthrew his own nephews (it finished before their disappearance) was in there.  And much of that was family gossip.  Nearly all the familiar stories, including the butt of malmsey wine, were in there: the only one missing was the Duke of Clarence putting Anne Neville to work as a kitchenmaid, which for some reason Anne O’Brien didn’t include.  But I hope she reverts to her usual style of writing in future.  This was a bit odd!

Some of the letters were between Cecily and other members of the Yorkist dynasty, but most were between her and her sisters and other members of the Neville family, which allowed the author freer reign than more political letters would have done  It didn’t go as far as the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower, as I’ve said, so we didn’t get to see the author’s thoughts on what Cecily might have believed about that.  We saw Cecily being rather scathing about her nephew, the Earl of Warwick, Margaret of Anjou, George of Clarence and, as time goes on, Edward IV.  I don’t think anyone could argue with any of that!

In particular, she  was shown as being very critical of her daughter-in-law Elizabeth, and the entire Woodville family and their grab for money and power.  Again, whilst we can’t know what Cecily thought, that was probably pretty much it!   I did initially assume that the title “The Queen’s Rival” meant that Cecily was a rival to Margaret of Anjou, but, as I read on, I felt that it was cleverly ambiguous – was she a rival to Elizabeth Woodville as well?   And, as ever, people were very quick to blame the woman.  Edward didn’t have to let the Woodvilles gain money and power and advantageous marriages, did he?  He was the king.  They were a minor gentry family.   They hardly forced him.

So what of the tangled web of claims of illegitimacy?  We were shown that Cecily was devoted to her husband, even though she eventually acknowledged that he made mistakes.  We were also shown that she thought very well of her son Richard, who, unlike George, seemed loyal to the family.  It was even indicated that it was Cecily who suggested that Richard should marry Anne Neville, not Richard himself.  As far as the Eleanor Butler story went, the picture given was that Cecily – like everyone else over the past five and half centuries – couldn’t possibly have known what had happened, didn’t find it hard to believe that Edward would have promised anything to get a woman into bed, but wasn’t at all convinced that he’d said anything binding.

The portrayal of events here was that she agreed to go along with it, partly because, especially after all the dynastic warfare she’d seen during her lifetime, she felt that it would be better for the country to be ruled by a grown man than by a young boy … but also because, otherwise, he’d have opted for trying to declare his brother, rather than his nephews, illegitimate, by bringing up the Blaybourne story again.

The book was weirdly ambiguous about the Blaybourne story.  Anne O’Brien’s rubbished it in her previous books.  It is rubbish, surely.  Yes, there’s an issue with the dates – as a very poor TV programme a few years ago emphasised –  but only by a few weeks.  It’s hardly unknown for a baby to be born a few weeks prematurely.  Richard could even have come back during the few weeks he was away: he wasn’t that far from Cecily.  And, as this book did say, a premature birth could explain why only a small christening was held.  So could umpteen other factors.  The argument that Edward was tall and blond whereas his father was small and dark is irrelevant: most of the Plantagenets were, famously, tall and blond.  George of Clarence included.  Henry VIII looked nothing like Henry VII, and Edward VI looked nothing like Henry VIII!  But, most of all, even if anyone actually believed that Cecily had been carrying on with an archer, how could anyone believe that the Duke of York would have accepted an heir who wasn’t his biological child?  It’s just nonsense.

So why was the book so ambiguous about it?  We did see Cecily make the points about a premature birth etc, but we also saw her refuse to answer questions.  I don’t know why Anne O’Brien did that, especially as she has rubbished the story in other books.

Was there any truth in it?
Was Edward betrothed to Eleanor Butler?
Was Henry VI really the father of his son Edward?
Was Catherine de Valois really married to Owen Tudor?
Was there anything going on between Richard III and his niece Elizabeth of York?
What really happened between Prince Arthur and Catherine of Aragon?

Fascinating, isn’t it 🙂 ?  Never shall I understand why schools make kids learn about stuff like the three field system and the lives of medieval monks.  If you want to get kids’ attention, or indeed adults’ attention, this sort of thing is what does it – letter format, diary format, or anything else!