The Queen’s Rival by Anne O’Brien

Today I’m delighted to be sharing an excerpt from Anne O’Brien’s The Queen’s Rival, a novel of Cecily Neville, Duchess of York. The Queen’s Rival has been recently released in paperback.

Duchess Cecily teaches a lesson in Ludlow Castle, October 1459

We were in occupation of one of the corner chambers in the old gatehouse keep at Ludlow Castle because it was a good vantage point from which to detect approaching marauders. Despite the lack of light and the all-pervasive reek of damp, I lit candles then unrolled the precious scroll with a flourish. It was a line of succession, drawn as a tree with thorny branches, all the way from the first man and woman on earth, Adam and Eve, enclosed in leaves and flowers in the Garden of Eden, to King Henry the Sixth, our present crowned and anointed King of England.

‘Hold down the corners,’ I said to my children.

My two elder sons already knew this lesson well, as did my elder daughters, Anne and Elizabeth, who were wed and living in their own households. Here with me were my three younger offspring. Margaret, more frequently called Meg, at twelve years was adept at reading and could work it out for herself. George at ten, and Richard, known to all as Diccon to avoid unnecessary complications in our domestic dealings, the youngest of my sons who had not yet achieved eight years, were still in the process of gleaning information on old alliances. It was time they knew of their profound inheritance. Indeed, in the circumstances, it had become an urgent affair.

George slouched over the table edge, pressing down hard with his whole hand, while Meg applied her fingertips with neat precision. Diccon had his elbows splayed along one edge, leaning close to survey the pattern of lines and names.

‘Do you see the roundels, painted next to each name?’ I pointed to some of them, the closest to us today and the most highly col­oured, all capped or crowned with gold. ‘The scribe has included a picture of each King, and his heraldic symbol so that you might recognise him.’

They peered over the document, sufficiently engrossed, even George who preferred weapons to books.

‘Our King Henry.’ George pointed. ‘Our cousin.’

Meg placed her finger on a sword-wielding figure, two branches above. ‘That is the fourth King Henry.’

‘He was my mother’s – your grandmother Joan’s – half-brother.’ I traced my finger down from that fourth Henry to his son, the fifth Henry, and then his grandson, the sixth, our present King. ‘These Kings – all three Henrys – are from the House of Lancaster.’

‘Why is the fourth Henry the only one with a sword?’ Diccon asked.

‘Because he used the sword to slice through the branches of the tree. There.’ I pointed to the break in the branches. ‘Henry cut the order of succession and deposed King Richard.’ I watched as a frown furrowed George’s brow. ‘The fourth Henry is what we would call a usurper.’

‘What happened to Richard?’ George asked.

‘He died. In Pontefract Castle.’

‘Did Henry have him killed?’ Meg asked.

‘No one knows.’

‘I wager he did. He is fierce in the picture.’ Diccon looked impressed.

‘What do you learn from this?’ I asked.

‘They are all branches of the same tree, from father to son. Except there, when the Lancastrian Kings took over.’ Meg regarded me with her solemn stare. Her eyes were forthright, her chin stubborn, her countenance often firm-lipped and unsmiling, but I thought she would grow into a handsome woman. My husband said that of them all she was most like me, and perhaps he was right. She was developing a strong will. ‘Would it have been better to keep Richard, whatever his faults?’ she asked.

‘The Lancastrian Henrys have brought us a peaceful and strong country,’ I stated. ‘Victory abroad in battles against the French. Richard may not have done so. And Richard had no son to follow him. It is important to have sons.’

‘Is our King Henry a good King?’ Diccon asked.

‘Sometimes he is not well,’ I suggested. ‘Sometimes he needs good advisors.’

‘Like our father?’

I regarded Diccon. My other sons would be as tall and broad and fair as the painted angels on the walls of my private chapel. Diccon would be neither tall nor broad, and his hair was the dark of a raven’s wing. He was the image of his father, who had more wiry strength than powerful muscle.

‘Yes, like your father.’

But King Henry’s worthiness was not a subject for discussion. We were stepping on the quivering ground of a morass that had recently begun to weaken the solid foundations of our vast, far-flung family.

‘But where does our father fit on the branches?’ George asked.

I pointed further back than the deposed King Richard, to the great third King Edward who had won battles at Crécy and Poitiers and thus defeated the French.

‘We come here, from the sons of this King Edward. He had five sons. Your father is descended from one of those sons, the Duke of York.’

‘I know that I will not inherit my father’s title, even though I have his name,’ Diccon said.

His acceptance rather than childish wistfulness made me smile. ‘You are named for him, but it is Ned who will be Duke of York. You will have your own title when you have grown a little more.’

My eldest son Edward – still Ned in his adolescence – would make an exemplary Duke of York.

I replaced the scroll, locked the coffer and returned the key to the purse, appropriately embroidered with our emblems of falcons and fetterlocks, at my girdle.

‘So our father is royal. We are royal.’ Diccon’s mind was still absorbed in the multi-layered branches of the tree as we left the chamber, even as he hopped with an excess of energy. George raced ahead down the narrow stairway, his voice echoing in a strident farewell, and I let him go. Meg walked with grace at my side.

‘You have Plantagenet blood in your veins, just as King Henry does. From your father and from me.’ It was never too early to instil some sense of pride in their inheritance, as I had learned it at my mother’s knee. My mother Joan, as one of John of Gaunt’s Beaufort children with Katherine Swynford, once disgracefully illegitimate before being restored to respectability, had more than her fair share of pride when she was wed to Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmorland.

‘Why are we not on the tree as well, if we are all descended from the great King Edward?’ Diccon was asking.

I dropped my hand lightly on his head, ruffling his already ruffled hair.

‘Because we do not rule.’

‘Even though the fourth Henry was a usurper?’

He had remembered the word well.

‘Even though he was a usurper. We do not have the right to rule, and we never will.’

‘To think otherwise would be treason,’ Meg stated with all the smooth assurance of youth and untried loyalties.

Diccon looked to me for confirmation.

‘That is true. We are loyal subjects to the House of Lancaster. The House of York will always be so.’ I spoke what were to become fateful words. ‘Whatever you hear to the contrary, we are loyal subjects.’

There were storm clouds building on our immediate horizon. It was a simple thing to make this declaration of fealty. It was becoming increasingly difficult to hold it as a truth.

At this moment there was an army outside our gates, almost within our sights across the river. It was led by Marguerite, Queen of England, who would be quick to cry me false.

England, 1459.

One family united by blood. Torn apart by war…

The Wars of the Roses storm through the country, and Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, plots to topple the weak-minded King Henry VI from the throne.

But when the Yorkists are defeated at the battle of Ludford Bridge, Cecily’s family flee and abandon her to face a marauding Lancastrian army on her own.

Stripped of her lands and imprisoned in Tonbridge Castle, the Duchess begins to spin a web of deceit. One that will eventually lead to treason, to the fall of King Henry VI, and to her eldest son being crowned King Edward IV.

The Queen’s Rival is available at

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Anne O’Brien

Sunday Times Bestselling author Anne O’Brien was born in West Yorkshire. After gaining a BA Honours degree in History at Manchester University and a Master’s in Education at Hull, she lived in East Yorkshire for many years as a teacher of history.

Today she has sold over 700,000 copies of her books medieval history novels in the UK and internationally. She lives with her husband in an eighteenth-century timber-framed cottage in the depths of the Welsh Marches in Herefordshire. The area provides endless inspiration for her novels which breathe life into the forgotten women of medieval history.

For more information about Anne O’Brien and her books click on the links below.

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Book Title: The Queen’s Rival
Author: Anne O’Brien
Publication Date: 15th April 2021(paperback) September 2020 (Hardback and ebook)
Publisher: HarperCollins
Page Length: 531 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction

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