Originally posted on May 31, 2023.
On this day in history, 31 May 1495, Cecily Neville died within hours of signing her final will and testament at Berkhamsted Castle. She was buried at the Church of St Mary and All Saints in Fotheringhay, Northamptonshire, a location close to Cecily’s heart. It was here that the ‘Mother of Kings’ once intended to establish a magnificent shrine honouring the House of York. It was also at Fotheringhay that Cecily had given birth to future Richard III, and where her husband and eldest son were buried in the church nearby.
Eighty years old at the time of her death, Cecily Neville lived to see the accession of two of her sons to the English throne (both of whom she outlived), the epochal fall of the Plantagenets, and the rise of the Tudor dynasty, of which she was an ancestress.
‘The Rose of Raby’
From birth, Cecily Neville’s veins ran with the sapphire-blood of European royalty: she was a great-granddaughter of King Edward III of England and the daughter of Ralph Neville, sixth baron Neville of Raby, whose marriage in 1397 to John of Gaunt’s illegitimate daughter Joan Beaufort (born to the King’s third wife and former mistress, Katherine Swynford) paved the way for her father to acquire the earldom of Westmorland.
Born on 3 May 1414 at Raby Castle, then a great fortress surrounded by a moat and flowering fields, Cecily spent the early, picturesque years of her childhood in northern England. While numerous noble families of the time were prolific, there were few on her father Ralph Neville’s scale: Cecily was the youngest in a flock of fourteen children. As a young girl, she would have witnessed a catalogue of remarkable marital arrangements designed for her siblings, coined by one historian as ‘the most amazing series of child marriages in English history’. Prominent families throughout England, such as the Bourchiers, the Staffords, and the Woodvilles, eagerly sought to marry into Earl Westmorland’s rich and fruitful brood.
The majority of Cecily’s siblings were under the age of sixteen (with the youngest being just shy of six) when they entered into marriage. Cecily’s eldest sister Eleanor Neville was married and widowed before she reached the tender age of twelve. Their brother, Edward, had been married off to the heiress of the barony of Abergavenny, though matrimonial bliss also eluded him – his wife was described as ‘an idiot from birth’.
In 1423, Cecily’s father acquired the wardship of Richard, Duke of York. This procurement would irrevocably change the course of Cecily’s life, and bring to the fore regal aspirations for the House of York that would simmer for the next two decades. Richard had been orphaned at a stroke when his father, Richard Earl of Cambridge, was executed, having been involved in a plot to plant his brother-in-law, Edmund Mortimer, on King Henry V’s throne. Mortimer himself died less than a decade later, and, in addition to inheriting his vast properties, the young Duke of York also inherited his unique claim to the English throne. Months before his death in October of that year, Cecily’s father had shrewdly arranged for a betrothal between his youngest daughter, ten-year old Cecily, and the fourteen-year-old Yorkist scion.
Their union was to have far-flung consequences across the country, and would produce not only one but two sons who would accede to the throne of England.
Following the death of Westmorland, it is likely that the young couple, Richard and Cecily, resided in the household of King Henry VI until Richard reached adulthood. In 1441, when York assumed the position of King’s Lieutenant and Governor General of France, Cecily accompanied across the channel to Rouen. Typically, in such circumstances, wives would stay in their native countries to oversee their husbands’ estates. However, given that York’s appointment was expected to last for five years and Cecily had recently started bearing children, it was decided that she would join him – following Richard wherever his career dictated he should go.
The couple’s first daughter, Anne, had been born in August 1439 at their ancestral home in Fotheringhay – a place that would come to hold untold significance for Cecily. A son and heir, Henry, arrived in February 1441, but died within days of his birth. It became critical for Cecily to travel with Richard to ensure the birth of a healthy heir in the near future. Out of the twelve children born to the couple, only half survived into adulthood. It was in Rouen that Cecily gave birth to their son, the future Edward IV.
‘But him outlive and die a violent death’
A decade later, when the family returned to England surrounded by their own throng of happy children, Cecily effortlessly slipped into the role of an English Duchess, navigating the magnetic realm of politics with ‘acceptable feminine behaviour’. Not long after their return, however, York began to voice his discontent at being marginalized from the center of power at court, expressing his deep resentment toward the influence wielded by Edmund Beaufort, the Duke of Somerset.
Somerset, the favourite and (rumoured) lover of Queen Margaret of Anjou, greatly irked Richard. On two separate occasions, Cecily took the initiative to approach Queen Margaret and express her concerns about the excessive influence and deference granted to Somerset’s counsel.
In the first instance, shortly after Queen Margaret’s visit to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in the spring of 1454, Cecily brought the matter directly to her. On the second occasion, she penned a letter to the Queen, subtly reminding her of their previous discussion. A tragedy which struck the royal house in August, however, would ultimately overshadow Cecily’s negotiations with Margaret.
King Henry VI had suffered a mental collapse, fomenting a power vacuum in England that Cecily and her husband were eager to exploit. So, when a protectorate was established in response to the King’s breakdown, Richard of York swiftly assumed the role of Protector.
His new position, combined with Richard’s unique place in the line of succession, meant that Yorks were now the most powerful and influential family in the land.
Following Henry VI’s recovery, the power struggle among his prominent lords escalated, culminating in the decisive battle of St Albans in May 1455 (a skirmish that traditionally marks the beginning of the Wars of the Roses). Though the Yorkist faction proved victorious, by June 1459, Richard found himself once again on the defensive. In October of the same year, he mustered troops to confront the King’s army near Ludlow, situated in the Welsh Marches. However, due to a series of last-minute defections, York and his allies were compelled to abscond to Ireland and Calais.
Cecily, on the other hand, made the deliberate decision to remain at Ludlow, placing her trust in the mercy of the King and hoping for a favourable resolution. Cecily would come to make use of the political immunity afforded to women at the crux of dynastic conflict, and her perceived ‘vulnerability’ as a mother, in order to continue working fiercely toward the Yorkist cause.
Following the battle of St Albans, a temporary semblance of peace settled over England, although hostilities reignited less than four years later. When Parliament convened to confront the crucial decision to be made over the Duke of York’s fate, Cecily embarked on a journey to London where she pleaded for a pardon on her husband’s behalf, on the condition that Richard would present himself before the court within eight days. This did not happen, and his lands were seized by the Crown. Nonetheless, Cecily later succeeded in securing an annual stipend of 1,000 marks to sustain herself and her children.
On the 10th of July 1460, at the battle of Northampton, King Henry VI was taken captive and forced to acknowledge Richard of York as his successor instead of his own son, Edward. But just five months later, during the Battle of Wakefield, the Lancastrian forces prevailed over the Yorks in another decisive victory. Tragically, Richard, his 17-year-old son Edmund, and Cecily’s brother the Earl of Salisbury were all killed in this unforeseen turn of events. In a ‘cruel mockery of the duke’s regal aspirations,’ the victors of Wakefield ‘displayed his head, wearing a paper crown, over the main gate of the city of York’. His broken body was buried alongside his son’s at Pontefract.
‘An end to the troubles’
At the age of forty-five, and with a gaggle of fatherless children to care for, Cecily Neville found herself a widow. After the death of her husband, Cecily established her residence at Baynard’s Castle in London, which, with Cecily’s sanction, would come to serve as the principal stronghold of the House of York during the Wars of the Roses. With her eldest son, Edward, assuming leadership of the Yorkist faction, and her youngest sons, Richard and George, out of harm’s way at the court of Philip Duke of Burgundy, Cecily repositioned herself once more at the molten core of her family’s efforts to assert their claim to the throne.
The tides turned in the Yorkists’ favour when Cecily’s son, the eighteen-year-old Edward, took up his late father’s militant mantle. Edward achieved a crucial victory over the Lancastrian forces at Mortimer’s Cross and preyed on Londoner’s hesitation to permit Margaret of Anjou’s troops into the city. Striking while iron was hot, Edward marched triumphantly into London himself. A golden youth of only eighteen summers, Edward was tall, broad-shouldered, and handsome (standing at 6 feet 4 inches, he is the tallest among all English, Scottish, and British monarchs to date) and was cheered on by the rapt populace, a city so accustomed to an ailing, ‘vacant-eyed King’. Under Edward’s gusto and acumen, the Lancastrians had suffered yet another devastating defeat at Towton on Palm Sunday in 1461. This victory for the Yorks (perhaps one of the most famous in the history of the Wars of the Roses) firmly established Edward’s claim to the English throne. The English people, who had so acrobatically transferred their loyalties to Edward, reveled in the prospect that their new King would bring ‘an end to the troubles which had afflicted the Realm in recent years’ and sang his name as he processed through the City of London.
Upon hearing news of Edward’s victory, Nicholas O’Flanagan, the bishop of Elphin, advised the papal legate Francesco Coppini in Rome to send his congratulations to the new King and his compatriots: ‘write also to the duchess,’ O’Flanagan urged, ‘who has a great regard for you, and can rule the king as she pleases.’
Though her blood had been noble, Cecily Neville now found herself in an unprecedented position as the mother of a King who had never held the title of queen or princess of Wales prior to her son’s ascension. In order to bolster the Yorks’ claim to the throne, Cecily had to quickly adapt to unfamiliar and potentially dangerous waters. She assumed a regal role, overseeing Edward IV’s newly established court, all the while skillfully establishing and carving out her own position at her son’s side. Her ability to navigate the circumstances that lay ahead of her would later serve as a model for the equally indomitable Margaret Beaufort, who faced similar challenges twenty-four years later.
The Yorkists’s triumph in 1460 was not without its turmoil. Upheaval, accusations of illegitimacy, international challenges, and rival claims to the throne stirred unrest across England. For ‘Proud Cis,’ the ascension of Edward IV to the throne marked only the beginning of her extraordinary journey – one in which she would emerge as one of history’s greatest and most remarkable survivors.
Continue reading part-two.
Sources & Suggested Reading
Alison J Spedding (2010) ‘At the King’s Pleasure’: The Testament of Cecily Neville, Midland History, 35:2, 256-272, DOI: 10.1179/004772910X12760023791976
Hicks, M. (1998). Cement or Solvent? Kinship and Politics in Late Medieval England: The Case of the Nevilles. History, 83(269), 31–46. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24423694
Green, R. F. (1988). An Epitaph for Richard, Duke of York. Studies in Bibliography, 41, 218–224. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40371886
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