Originally posted on May 31, 2023.
The early years
In March of 1461, a youthful and indolent King ascended to the throne of England. Edward IV, possessed of a breezy charm that blended both majesty and congeniality, easily captured the hearts of his subjects. Despite his pleasure-loving nature, he was praised for his persuasive and cunning demeanour, and soon proved a stark contrast to the uninspiring and lifeless figure the people of England had previously hailed as their King. After the Lancastrian’s defeat on Palm Sunday at the Battle of Towton, the new King had established a magnificent court, radiating with regal magnificence. He basked in the overflowing affection and support of his people. Likewise, the King’s mother, Cecily Neville, began to relish in the honors and extravagant treatment befitting a royal mother – no longer a shadowy, flattering figure, but a true power to be reckoned with.
In the initial years of Edward’s reign, Cecily frequently appeared beside the King during official events, and with eager ease settled into the illustrious role she had long expected to assume. More than a queen consort, Cecily’s influence over her nineteen-year-old son was significant. While Edward was engaged in northern England, battling rebellious remnants of the House of Lancaster, Cecily presided as his representative in London. She enjoyed not only remarkable authority, but a generous allowance of 5,000 marks from her son the King. Then, in the autumn of 1461, embarking on an impressive tour of Wales and the Marshes, Edward conferred upon his mother a substantial sum of £1,700 to hold court in his absence.
Celebrations of Cecily’s change in status coincided with an updated coat-of-arms, now proudly enhanced with the royal arms of England – implying that her late husband Richard of York, doubly descended from Edward III, had been the rightful King.
Cecily’s influence and importance was such that when Edward married, he opted to construct a new and opulent suite of apartments specifically for Queen Elizabeth’s use, rather than to displace his mother from her preferred lodgings. To the surprise of many, including Europe at large, the King had entered into a secret union with Elizabeth Woodville, the widow of a Lancastrian knight, and with ‘blind affection’ took her as his wife and queen.
He confessed to his clandestine marriage in September 1464, effectively eradicating his cousin the Kingmaker’s hopes for a marriage alliance with the French crown – a decision that would prove to have critical consequences. While the presence of a new Queen at court irrevocably altered Cecily’s position, her prominence remained largely unblemished. Like the Kingmaker, Cecily had nurtured ambitions that her son would marry a foreign princess, and may have been put off by this altogether different union.
Cecily, the King’s Mother
Though Cecily’s claim to ‘quasi-queenship’ (as the mother of a king, who was not a queen herself) may have been murky, she sought to nevertheless assert it in as grand a manner as possible, particularly after Edward and Elizabeth’s marriage became common knowledge. Aware that the Fortune’s wheel could at any time spin in the Lancastrians’ favour, Cecily recognized that her role as the sovereign’s mother needed to be more explicitly defined. She discarded the title of ‘Cecily, the King’s mother’ and replaced it with the far more precise, and far more extravagant, ‘Cecily, the king’s mother and late wife unto Richard in right king of England and of France and lord of Ireland’ – leaving no one at court unaware that she was destined to occupy her glittering, and seemingly impregnable, place at King Edward’s side.
But at court, the King’s union with Elizabeth Woodville had far more dangerous consequences to contend with: a rift with his cousin, the Earl of Warwick, who had been so instrumental in the rise of the House of York, had begun to boil over. Disgruntled by the collapse of his alliance with France and resentful of the growing influence of the Queen’s Woodville relatives, Warwick unleashed a scathing campaign of accusations against Edward, calling into question the King’s legitimacy. This was common tactic used to discredit one’s political opponents, and one particularly harmful to the women whose characters were blackened with rumours of adultery. And given that King Edward had been born outside of England, it made him especially susceptible to Warwick’s slander.
Although the Earl’s seditious accusations were ultimately dismissed, historians today recognise two key components of the rumour. Firstly, Edward was discreetly christened in a private chapel in Rouen, in a modest and largely unremarkable ceremony, whereas his younger brother, Edmund, had been ‘feted in the most public and impressive venue available’. Secondly, the King’s father, Richard of York, had been away from home at the time of Edward’s conception. But for both of these schools of thought, there may be other explanations. It is possible that Edward’s conception occurred at a later point in the year, and that the boy was born prematurely. However, no records suggest that Edward was in any way frail – and for a child with royal blood, the ceremony would have been cause for enormous celebration.
As for the scurrilous (and much later) Ricardian claim that Edward was ‘every way unlike the Duke of York’, we can confidently discard this idea as political slander of the age.
Throughout the bloody tumult and festering family feuds that followed, Cecily and Edward represented a united front for the House of York. When Lancastrian forces re-surged in London and deposed Edward IV, the King and his brother Richard of Gloucester sought refuge in Burgundy, where their sister Margaret and her husband, the Duke of Burgundy, offered the support and funds necessary to launch an invasion of England.
Edward and the Yorkist forces emerged victorious at the Battle of Barnet of 1471, where among the casualties and carnage lay the King’s former ally, the Earl of Warwick, and Edward, Prince of Wales, the only son of King Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou. Cecily’s son reclaimed the throne, and on May 21, 1471, while imprisoned in the Tower, Henry VI breathed his last, temporarily clearing potential Lancastrian contenders from the field.
The years to come were not always peaceful. In typical 15th century fashion, these were dramatic, blood-soaked years, ones which forced Cecily to continuously contemplate where her (at times strained, and always complex) loyalties lay. She’d supported her son Clarence’s marriage to Isabel Neville, the daughter of the influential Kingmaker, but by 1478, Cecily had come to deeply regret this naive decision. It was in 1478 that her son (Shakespeare’s ‘false, fleeting, perjur’d Clarence’) was convicted of conspiring against his brother, the King, and imprisoned within the Tower of London. On a bitterly cold morning in February, Clarence was executed. Long-rumoured to have been drowned in a vat of sweet wine, this apocryphal account nevertheless proves a highly symbolic method of executing a prince who lacked both the moderation and clear-sightedness to chart the tempestuous waters of a royal court.
Death continued to loom over the royal court. Only weeks before his 41st birthday, Edward IV died on 9 April 1483 – ailing, and increasingly corpulent, on his deathbed Edward appeared a far cry from the golden youth whose reign had ushered the House of York onto the throne.
Edward IV was briefly succeeded by his 12-year-old heir, King Edward V, until an Act of Parliament declared him and his brother Richard of York illegitimate (on the grounds that their father had entered into a marriage contract with Lady Eleanor Butler prior to his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville). In a staggering sequence of events, the boys were escorted to the Royal apartments at the Tower of London and never seen again. In June of 1483, their paternal uncle, Richard Duke of Gloucester, laid claim to the throne and ascended as King Richard III.
The fates of Cecily’s grandsons, Edward and Richard, commonly known as the Princes in the Tower, remain unknown – as does the extent of Cecily’s involvement (if any) in their disappearance and the mystifying upheaval that followed Edward IV’s death. Her youngest son, Richard III, would die less than two years after his coronation, predeceased by his only son. Richard was slain by Henry Tudor’s forces at the Battle of Bosworth, where, reminiscent of the molestation inflicted on his father’s corpse by Margaret of Anjou’s challengers, Richard’s lifeless body was stripped of its crown and gruesomely assaulted.
It was on that momentous day that Henry Tudor, the undisputed leader of the Lancastrian faction and later Henry VII, emerged victorious. He arose as the first monarch of the now notorious House of Tudor. After Richard’s death, Cecily retired from her long and extraordinary career at the royal court and slipped into a mournful obscurity.
In the twilight years of her remarkable life, Cecily Neville sought solace in her faith – giving rise to her reputation for piety. By 1485, she had experienced the heartbreaking loss of ten of her twelve children. Her husband, the Duke of York, had died two decades prior, and she’d never remarried. Only two of their daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret of Burgundy, remained, having survived those fatal years of their brothers’ reigns.
In 1486, Cecily savoured a final taste of triumph when her granddaughter, Elizabeth of York, married King Henry VII and became Queen Consort of England, a title Cecily had always hoped to possess. The birth of her great-grandson, Arthur, Prince of Wales, brought further joy in that same year, followed by the arrival of her great-granddaughter, Margaret Tudor, and the couple’s highly anticipated spare, future Henry VIII.
Cecily died on 31 May 1495, and was buried with a ‘papal indulgence tied around her neck’, intended to help shepherd the Duchess into the kingdom of heaven. She is buried in a tomb beside her husband Richard and their son, Edmund, who was killed alongside his father, in Northamptonshire. Their crypt was badly damaged during the Reformation, but repaired by Cecily’s two times great grand-daughter Elizabeth I.
All English and British monarchs since the reign of Henry VII have been descended from Cecily Neville.
Sources & Suggested Reading
Licence, Amy. (2014). Cecily Neville: Mother of Kings. Amberley Publishing Limited.
“Royal Bastardy in Mediaeval England: Part Two”. Richard III Society. Archived from the original on 26 May 1998. Retrieved 20 May 2023.
Jones, M. K. (n.d.). The Alleged Illegitimacy of Edward IV: A Window on a Scandal. Foundation for Medieval Genealogy , Foundations (2004) 1 (4), 292–293.
Laynesmith, J. (2006, 03). The King’s Mother. History Today, 56, 38-44. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.esearch.ut.edu/magazines/kings-mother/docview/202820162/se-2