Lady of the Roses is essentially a love story between Isobel Ingoldesthorpe and John Neville, she a Lancastrian, he a York at a time when mid-15th-century England is awash in warring factions, the ineffectual and mentally incompetent Lancastrian Henry VI ceding power to his French queen, Marguerite d’ Anjou. Arriving at Marguerite’s court to be wed to a noble of the queen’s choosing, Isobel falls utterly and irrevocably in love with John Neville.
At odds with what the queen might dictate, Isobel requests the right of agreement with any proposed match. Then she sets about a letter-writing campaign to influence the queen’s decision in favor of John Neville. Marguerite is reluctant but relents sufficiently to allow the match - at an outrageous bride-price. Isobel is delirious with happiness, not caring which way John’s sympathies lie. Once the marriage takes place, Isobel becomes a Yorkist, her new family greatly appreciative of her efforts on their behalf.
Married to John, Isobel is happy, distressed only at understanding her husband’s dilemma as a soldier of mixed loyalties caught in the schemes of an ambitious family. His brother, the Earl of Warwick, is a favorite of the people who have long mistrusted the French queen. But Warwick, “the Kingmaker,” covets the throne of England, hoping to unseat Henry. Soon Yorkist Edward of March arrives on the scene, magnificent in battle, drawing the attention of loyalists who see him crowned Edward IV.
Unfortunately, when Edward marries Elizabeth Woodville in secret and against Warwick’s wishes, an enmity simmers between the two men that will break into rebellion as Woodville demands land and titles for her relatives. Woodville is easily as destructive to the peace of the country as Marguerite d’ Anjou, working against the interests of the Nevilles and salting Edward’s mind with doubts about their loyalty.
At her husband’s side, Isobel bears his children but is unable to keep John Neville from the battles he wages on behalf of his king. Eventually the couple’s happiness will come crashing down, John forced to choose between king and brother, John’s Earldom of Northumberland forfeit to Woodville’s demands.
This great love story ends on the battlefield, as Isobel knows it will, her beloved husband fighting as a Neville but wearing the colors of his king under his armor. Unable to alter her fate, Isobel watches and waits, hoping one more time for her husband to return safely home: “As I had done all my life, there was nothing else for me to do but await the tidings.”
Caught between the factions in the Wars of the Roses, Worth’s protagonist transcends the political turmoil of her world, Isobel creating a small oasis of hearth and home for an embattled husband, a time when the white and the red rose cease to signify beauty, only war and death.