Queen of the Castle: Joanna Hickson’s Red Rose, White Rose
by Deborah Swift
In the fifteenth century, the North of England was a lawless place. Scottish and English landowners were in constant battle over the ‘debatable’ lands, and the borders were scoured by the Reivers – outlaws who stole cattle and property, burned each others’ houses and ran wild over the bleak, rain-lashed wastes of Westmoreland. The Nevilles ruled the North from their castles and they are inseparable from them. Joanna Hickson exploits this to the full in her well-researched new novel, Red Rose, White Rose (Harper, 2015), based on the long and illustrious life of Cecily Neville.
Cecily Neville was born at Raby Castle, near Durham, a place still in existence and open to visitors; but as Duchess of York, Cecily spent much of her life on the road, travelling from castle to castle, and at least ten of these York castles are described in Red Rose, White Rose. I was impressed by how Joanna had captured their individual atmospheres, and asked her how difficult it had been to research all these castles. She told me a heavy fall of snow made two particularly difficult. The owners of Maxstoke Castle had cut short their Sunday lunch to show her around and she worried she might not get there at all.
She describes Maxstoke Castle, a place where Cecily was under house arrest later in her life, as a classic four-square medieval moated castle, ‘a small jewel as opposed to a rambling fortress.’ Joanna explained, ‘The gates are still fortified with the iron-cladding installed by Cecily Neville’s brother-in-law, Humphrey, 1st Duke of Buckingham, and bear his cypher. It was a privilege to visit a fifteenth-century castle still occupied today and relatively unchanged.’
The other difficult castle to visit was apparently Ludlow, which is a large, mostly roofless fortress, usually open to the public, but on this occasion, because of the snow and icy surfaces, they had closed it. Luckily, after some anxious pleading on Joanna’s part, the custodian was kind enough to let her in, but only after she had signed a form accepting responsibility if she was to slip and injure herself! Though she says, ‘It gave me a very good impression of the dangers faced by the inhabitants of a freezing, draughty castle in winter.’
According to the BBC History website, in this period ninety-five percent of the population of England lived, not in the towns as we might expect, but in the countryside, subsisting on the land. Because of this, the castle was at the very heart of medieval society. So what was it like, living in a castle? Joanna calls Middleham ‘a looming dark presence, ably performing its task of subduing the local populace by its mere existence.’ However, she confessed that when wandering within its walls, the stones do exert a certain ‘romantic pull’, conjuring images of Richard III and his wife Anne Neville. She adds, ‘There is little happiness to be felt within its walls, mostly echoes of conflict and grief. It is more Wuthering Heights than Disney Towers.’ I asked her if she thought Cecily herself had a favourite. According to Joanna, ‘Fotheringhay. It is where Richard III was born and, a hundred years later, Mary Queen of Scots was beheaded – two monarchs whose tragic histories may have caused its subsequent decline into a mere footprint in the soil of the Northamptonshire landscape.’
As well as being a sanctuary, the English castle was also a military stronghold. I was impressed by the way the military side of castle life is expressed through the character of Cuthbert, and asked Joanna about his role in the novel. ‘I couldn’t have written the novel without Cuthbert,’ she says. ‘As the son of an earl and a farmer’s daughter, he occupies an ambivalent position, being neither fish nor fowl, nobleman nor commoner, but with access to all areas of military and civilian life, which is intended to give the narrative more balance. In addition of course, as a knight he can take readers onto the battlefields of the Wars of the Roses, somewhere Cicely herself could never go.’
The resulting novel is one in which male and female perspectives are given equal weight. And, like the castles themselves, it is solidly built, rich in detail, and likely to survive the test of time.
About the contributor: DEBORAH SWIFT is the author of three 17th-century novels, The Lady’s Slipper, The Gilded Lily and A Divided Inheritance, and a trilogy for young adults set in the English Civil War. The first part, Shadow on the Highway, is out now, published by the UK’s Endeavour Press.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 71, February 2015