It seems an age, but at last the fire is sated, and into the hush it leaves behind, Joan’s body sags and falls with a soft sigh of ash.
Eight years ago, Cecily Neville’s family gave her in marriage to Richard Plantagenet. It was a gamble. But the last of a dozen daughters must take her chances. Or make them.
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.
And there, across the still-smoking fire, beyond the greasy stink of Joan’s death, the child king’s uncles, the Dukes of Bedford and Gloucester, stand shoulder to shoulder.
There’s ash in his hair, his face is pinched and smutted, but he manages a wry smile. ‘Firmer than your husband, I think.’ That morning she’d confessed to him her dread of it. He’d said she needn’t go. That he himself did not relish the burning of women. She shook her head. No. We go together. It must be seen that we can watch the King’s enemies die, and not falter.
Format: Ebook, Audio, Hardcover. (29 July 2021)
Englishmen murmur and pat each other’s shoulders as they go, well done, well done.
She stalls him, placing her fingers, still warm from the fire, on the back of his gloved hand. ‘I stood firm.’
So, on a May morning so fine its early sun has already chased Rouen’s street dogs into shadows, Cecily has put on black velvet, sombre and rich. She has bound a rosary at her waist; a reminder to the French that God has answered the prayers of the English and delivered Joan of Arc into their hands. A reminder to her king that her loyalty is to him and to Heaven.
She waits now in the market square, her face to the pyre and sullen French anger at her back, for the signal that will tell her Joan is coming out to die. She raises her head when it comes, a trumpet call, high and vicious, and, beneath it, the crowd’s murmur growing to a roar. Beside her, her husband Richard straightens his back, squares his feet. She swallows bile and does the same. The sun is hot enough, but that’s nothing, she thinks, to the blaze to come. Have courage, her mother would say. Faith and courage can accomplish anything. Cecily wonders if Joan’s mother told her the same. Likely someone did. In her glory days Joan put on armour and rode at the head of armies. With words alone she roused a fearful king and turned the tide of a war. Imagine. Now the tide runs all against her, and she must find only the courage to die. Though Joan is England’s enemy, Cecily wishes courage for her now.
‘Rebellion?’ Cecily looks down at last, swallows hard and blinks sore eyes.
You are Cecily.
The word is a spark. They can start a fire with it, or smother it in their fingertips.
Wife. Mother. Politician. Traitor. Fighter. Survivor.
30 May 1431
You play the game, against enemies who wish you ashes. Slowly, you rise.
She can no longer hear Joan’s prayers so, out of pity and to guard her own soul, she speaks them with her, as the men clamber down and reach for their torches. At last the fire is set and the flames lick like dogs at Joan’s feet and thighs. Cecily feels their growing heat against her own cheek as Joan’s voice, steady at the last, rings out above her head,
She raises her chin, and then, having measured the depth of Bedford’s slow bow, the slide of Gloucester’s eyes, lets Richard raise her hand, turn her about, lead her away. The crowd parts for them and, as if their leaving is a signal, begins to disperse.
The desperate parade passes close enough that Cecily can see Joan’s eyes. One is closed by livid bruises, the other, white- rimmed and wide, is fixed on the crucifix borne high above her by a priest, leading the way to death and whatever might lie beyond it. Joan’s lips are moving and Cecily recognizes the words of the Ave, falling stuttering and fast. She wonders what she prays for. Rescue? Or just an end to this?
Cecily narrows her eyes against livid sparks as Joan’s prayers give way to hacking coughs and shrieks, then sudden silence. She sets herself to watch as flesh burns, blossoms and falls away. There’s grit in her eyes, sweat runs the cleft of her shoulder blades and, beneath her clasped hands, her stomach shrivels. But she won’t flinch. This is a test.
Cecily sees Joan stumble as she’s pulled from the wagon and thinks for a moment she will fall and knock herself senseless. And what then? But the guards press in to hold Joan upright, her body crushed between their bulk as they jostle towards the pyre, her arms pinioned behind her, her small breasts jutting.
‘All I have done was by God’s order.’ Then, urgent, as the priest’s arms falter and his burden dips, ‘Hold up the cross of Christ that I may see it as I die!’
Richard turns towards her. ‘Come away now,’ he says. ‘It’s done.’ He moves to wrap an arm about her waist.
I would pray for the death of every Englishman here, Cecily thinks. Then suddenly she is afraid, for no one can fathom the power of Joan’s prayers, and Richard stands beside her, who has seen Joan tried and nodded his head at her sentence. Her breath catches and she pants, once, and he’s holding out a hand to steady her. She raises a palm, shakes her head to signal no, then makes a fist to hide her fingers’ trembling. He draws back, and she feels his gaze follow hers to where the guards are handing Joan into the reaching arms of men who wait to receive her. They draw her up, bare legs flailing, then bind her and bring more wood, so that she stands deep among a thicket of staves.
Loyalty or treason – death may follow both. The board is set. Time to make your first move.
The threat is inescapable and now they share it, for it is the blood in Richard’s veins that he will pass on to their sons, the old royal blood his father died for. Cecily is undaunted. Together, she believes, they can do anything. And besides, at some unseen future time, might not such blood as easily make their fortune as mar it?
Frenchmen, penned in to witness this defeat, slip between guards who part their pikes to let them pass and chide, ‘Go home now, and take a lesson from this.’
She chooses to start a fire.
It’s no easy thing, to watch a woman burn. A young woman, who has seen only three more summers than yourself and claims the voice of God compels her actions. But there it is; the day’s work. And she must harden herself to it.
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.
But when the king who governs you proves unfit, what then?
My thanks to Georgia of Penguin for the tour invitation and for providing the extract.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cecily watches them go. What lesson should she herself take? she wonders. Only that, if a woman takes up arms, she must be very sure of winning.
Soon the ring of metalled feet overwhelms the clarion, and the crowd parts for a wagon, its blade-bristling guard, and the prisoner bound upon it. It’s the first time she’s seen Joan and isn’t sure what to expect. Just a pale, thin girl, it seems, head shorn and bloodied. It doesn’t look like there’s much fight left in her. The bright armour of Joan’s soldiering days is long gone and today’s thin shift, with the filth of a prison year upon it, is scant covering for a body that, some say, English soldiers have been allowed their way with. Though Richard says surely not, Cecily can believe it. The King’s uncles have long wanted Joan dead. But they wanted her shamed, first.
Now, as Cecily turns sixteen, their life together begins. The son of a long-dead traitor, Richard’s prospects are uncertain, his loyalties suspect. If he can win the young king’s trust, he might regain his family’s titles and make Cecily his Duchess of York. If not, he may be deemed too dangerous to let live.
You are born high, but marry a traitor’s son. You bear him twelve children, carry his cause and bury his past.