Cecily led her husband to the throne, birthed two kings and fought a civil war, yet she is misrepresented and overlooked. Built around the historical facts and shedding light on her extraordinary untold tale, Cecily is a vivid and compelling portrait of a formidable figure from the 15th century and a heroine for our times. North East debut novelist Garthwaite says she has been carrying Cecily with her for 40 years, finally allowing her out following early retirement from a career in business.
Who was Cecily Neville and why is she so little known?
Cecily is a 15th century woman for all time, matriarch of the House of York during the Wars of the Roses. Born in the year of Agincourt, 1415, she lived into the early years of the Tudors, created a dynasty, mothered two kings and led her family through civil war. For most of her life she was one of the most powerful women in England. And yet “Cecily who?” is the question most people ask when I tell them the subject of my novel. How could such an important woman – such an extraordinary, high-profile, high-achieving woman – slip through history’s net like that? Easily. Women have been falling through it for years.
The history of the 15th century was written by men, for men. Women didn’t get much attention. Shakespeare didn’t help. In his history plays Cecily barely appears and isn’t very interesting – no political agenda, no power, no authority. She’s old and bitter, and the characterisation stuck. The truth couldn’t be more different. Cecily was an energetic dynastic schemer and a political mover and shaker of the first rank, a strategist, a politician and administrator par excellence. She wasn’t just in the Wars of the Roses; she was at the very heart of them.
There’s an image of Cecily that reveals her character to me. It’s in a book of hours Cecily commissioned when she was 16 years old as a gift for her mother. In it, Cecily’s mother kneels in prayer, flanked by her many daughters. Below, a series of armorial shields displays the status of each. Though the youngest daughter, Cecily has placed herself in the first rank, kneeling almost on her mother’s black hem. She has dressed herself in the richest colours, the finest jewels. Behind her, her sisters, countesses and duchesses in their own right, become a pale crowd. Me first, says Cecily.
Cecily understood that to exercise power in a man’s world you had to assume it. You had to look the part and turn the language of power – images such as these in Cecily’s world – into your own propaganda.
Was it necessary for Cecily to use machinations and scheming just to survive, or was it more about ruthless ambition?
Cecily grew up in a powerful family close to the Lancastrian throne. Her mother was Henry IV’s half-sister, her father Henry’s loyal supporter. Her husband Richard was arguably the most powerful nobleman of his day. But Richard was also a man who, because of his own latent claim to England’s throne, came under increasing suspicion from the Lancastrian regime. Ultimately, that suspicion threatened his life and, consequently, the lives of Cecily and her children. Throughout his life Richard strove to be loyal to his king, and Cecily supported him in that, but the time came when that was impossible. Faced with a stark choice – either to take power or be destroyed by it – Richard and Cecily made their bid for the throne.
So, for me it’s less about ruthless ambition than survival. Had Henry VI been a strong, fair king, it’s my belief that Richard and Cecily would have spent their lives in his service. But that was not to be.
Tell us about your research for the book and how you knew when to draw a line under the history and let the story evolve.
You might say I’ve been researching this book for 40 years – since my school days! That’s how long I’ve been interested in Cecily, her family and her period. Over that time I’ve read exhaustively and talked to many historians, including Cecily’s biographer Joanna Laynesmith and Richard Duke of York’s, Matt Lewis.
The history of the time is still – like the wars themselves – bitterly contested, with different historians holding contradictory opinions. That could be considered problematic, but it gives the novelist room to breathe! I’ve tried to be true to the known facts. If something beyond doubt happened, I won’t pretend it didn’t. I won’t fake it. But beyond that, I’ve used history to investigate the character of a single woman. What was she like? What motivated her? What drew her on? The historical events become the context for this investigation.
You began your debut novel in your mid-fifties. Tell us about your background and life before putting pen to paper.
I can barely remember a time when the idea of this novel wasn’t in my head. But I had to make my way in the world, which meant taking a pragmatic approach. In my early twenties, when I realised my job left little time for novel-writing, I made myself a promise; I would work until I was 55, then I’d give up the day job and write this book. So in 2017, on my 55th birthday, I stopped work and enrolled on a creative writing MA. It took two years to complete the MA and write Cecily. And the rest, as they say, is history!
Cecily bore 12 children but also supported her husband to the throne and wielded huge power herself in a way that women in later centuries couldn’t. Is being a woman who has worked in the male-dominated business world at a time when they are expected to “have it all” the reason for your affinity for her? And do you have any modern-day tips for dealing with it all that you think she might appreciate? A spa day perhaps?
Ha! I think Cecily has more to teach me than I could ever teach her! She was a master at playing for high stakes, even when men held the power cards. But yes, my career increased my affinity for her. I noticed it particularly in my thirties. I was heading up European communications for an American multinational. I remember almost no other women at my managerial level, few enough in the company at all. I got used to being the only woman at the big table.
In the 15th century men ruled, certainly, but in the margins women like Cecily could exercise agency and push boundaries. In corporate life women are still pushing them now. Despite the passage of 500 years, we have a lot in common. Women of Cecily’s status, with huge households and vast estates, would be responsible for enterprises similar in size and complexity to mid-sized FTSE companies. They would be highly literate, understand finance and the law, have a firm grasp on politics. They were, in short, women of business succeeding alongside – and sometimes in spite of – men. Just like me.