Cecily Neville was one of the key women of the civil conflict in England that came to be known as the Wars of the Roses. A matriarch of the Yorkist dynasty, she was the mother of two kings of England. Due to the ambition of her family, she lost her husband and two of her sons in battle and one by execution. Two of her grandsons just disappeared in one of the greatest mysteries of history. Despite the relentless turns of the wheel of fortune, Cecily managed to live to the age of eighty.
Cecily was born on May 3, 1415. She would be known as the “Rose of Raby” due to her beauty and because she was born in the Neville stronghold of Raby Castle. She was the eighteenth child of Ralph Neville, 1st Earl of Westmoreland and the tenth child by his second wife Joan Beaufort. Joan was the legitimized daughter of the union between John of Gaunt, a son of King Edward III, by his third wife, Katherine Swynford.
Cecily was given the standard education for a noble lady of the time. She would have learned accounts and how to read and how to run a medieval household. In August of 1422, the Lancastrian King Henry V died. With his death, the wardships in royal hands came under reassessment and Ralph Neville purchased the guardianship of Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York for three thousand marks. Richard came to live at Raby Castle in 1423. In 1424, Cecily and Richard were betrothed. Cecily was nine and Richard was thirteen. Richard was also a descendant of King Edward III and had a claim to the throne of England that was marginally better than that of the new king, Henry VI.
In October, 1425, Cecily’s father died. Her mother inherited a great deal, including the wardship of Richard. All three of them moved to London to the court of Henry VI. No record exists for the exact date and location of Cecily’s marriage but she was definitely wed by October of 1429. She most likely attended the coronation of Henry VI with her husband in November of that same year. Richard went to France with the king in 1430.
By 1432, Richard had gained complete control of his full inheritance and the couple could now form their own household and act independently. They had many castles to choose from as their personal home but Fotheringhay was their favorite and became their principal residence. Construction was begun near the castle on St. Mary the Virgin and All Saints Church along with a college to pray for the family. Cecily would have full control of managing her households, performing acts of piety and attending court when required with her husband. She would have received petitions on her husband’s behalf and there is some record of her being active in legal affairs.
In 1436, Richard was appointed Lieutenant General and Governor of France for a period of twelve months. Cecily would finally have her first child, a daughter named Joan in February of 1438 who died young. Another daughter, Anne was born at Fotheringhay in August of 1439. She would survive and marry. A son born in early 1441 died in infancy. That same year, Richard was again appointed as the king’s representative in France and this time Cecily moved with him to Rouen. While they lived in Rouen Castle, Cecily gave birth to two sons and a daughter. Edward, Earl of March, would become King Edward IV. The other son was named Edmund and would be known as the Earl of Rutland. A daughter Elizabeth was born in 1444. In 1445, a marriage was arranged between King Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou, the niece of King Charles VII of France. After a proxy marriage ceremony, Margaret was given over to the care of Cecily at Rouen and a friendship was formed between the two women. That same year Richard and Cecily returned to England.
From the years 1446 to 1452, Cecily bore seven more children and lived a domestic life while her husband served King Henry VI. In July of 1447, Richard was appointed Lieutenant of Ireland for a term of ten years. However he didn’t leave until June of 1449, taking Cecily with him. They lived in Dublin and Cecily bore a son named George, later Duke of Clarence while living there. Discontent with the government of England under King Henry VI was growing and fourteen months after arriving in Ireland, Richard decided to return. In September of 1450, they sailed from Ireland.
For reasons unknown, Richard had a change in attitude towards his loyalty, duty and obligations to King Henry VI. He came into conflict with Henry’s chief minister Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset. Conflict between Richard and Somerset was due to a combination of factors, including personality, private interests and politics and would have an impact on Cecily’s life.
In 1452, Cecily gave birth to her last son, Richard at Fotheringhay Castle. She would have one more child who died young. The year 1453 was pivotal in English politics. After many years of childlessness, Margaret of Anjou finally gave birth to a prince at Westminster named Edward. This child was now first in line to inherit the throne of his father, displacing Cecily’s husband in the line of succession. After the birth, Cecily attended the churching of Margaret at Westminster. Around Christmas, King Henry fell in to catatonic state which was totally incapacitating.
While Henry was ill, Richard made a move to take control of the king’s government, becoming Lord Protector. But Henry came to his senses again on Christmas Day, 1454 and Richard resigned his position. The Duke of Somerset went about taking away all of Richard’s privileges. Richard wasn’t going to allow that to happen. He gathered an army and met Somerset at the Battle of St. Albans where Richard was victorious. The king was now under house arrest and once again fell ill and so Richard was named Lord Protector again. He also resigned a few months later. The Queen was in the ascendant and by 1459, Richard was threatened with attainder, meaning he would lose all his properties, titles and holdings.
In October, the Queen’s forces met up with the Yorkists at Ludlow, where Cecily was staying with her two younger boys, George and Richard. Her husband was forced to abandon his troops and fled with their two older boys Edward and Edmund to Ireland, leaving Cecily stranded. It’s possible her home was sacked and looted by the troops. Whatever happened, Cecily surrendered to King Henry. All of Richard’s lands were forfeit to the crown and Cecily was assigned to the house of her sister Anne, the Duchess of Buckingham. The King gave her 1000 marks a year for the upkeep of her children.
At the Battle of Northampton on July 10, 1460, Cecily’s son Edward, along with her nephew Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick engaged the troops of King Henry VI and won. Henry was taken prisoner in London. The husband of Cecily’s sister Anne died in the battle fighting for the Lancastrians. Cecily and her husband were reunited and Richard revealed his intention to take the throne from Henry VI. His claim was rejected but he was named Henry’s heir and successor.
The Queen strongly objected to her son being displaced as his father’s heir. She gathered an army and met Richard at Wakefield. Sadly, Cecily’s husband and her son Edmund were killed in the battle. Their heads were placed on display on Micklegate Bar in York and their bodies were buried in Pontefract. It was an uncertain time for Cecily. She sent her two younger sons to Philip, Duke of Burgundy in Utrecht for safety leaving her alone with her daughter Margaret.
It was up to her eldest son Edward to avenge his father’s death. He mustered troops along with the Earl of Warwick. After some maneuvering against Margaret of Anjou and her army, Edward rode into London where he was asked to become King. Another bloody battle was fought in March 1461 at Towton and Edward was victorious. As Edward was on campaign afterwards, he appointed his mother as his representative in the city of London. Edward was crowned in June. George and Richard were recalled from Burgundy. Sometime between 1461 and 1464, Cecily’s son Richard was sent to the Earl of Warwick’s household for military training.
In May of 1464, Edward married Elizabeth Wydeville, the widow of a Lancastrian soldier in secret. There was great consternation among the nobility when the secret was revealed in October. Many felt the Wydeville family were social upstarts. At the time, the Earl of Warwick, who had battled to help Edward to the throne, was on the continent trying to broker a marriage to Bona of Savoy for Edward. He was particularly embarrassed.
After Edward IV’s marriage, Cecily took the title: “By the rightful enheritors Wyffe late of the Regne off Englande & of Fraunce and off ye lordschyppe of yrlonde, the kynges mowder ye Duchesse of Yorke”. [By the rightful inheritors wife late of the King of England, and of France and of the Lordship of Ireland, (her husband Richard, Duke of York) the kings mother the Duchess of York.] There doesn’t seem to be much love lost between Cecily and her daughter-in-law Elizabeth Wydeville. To lessen tensions at court, Edward IV had new “Queen’s chambers” built at Westminster so Cecily could remain in the old chambers.
Cecily’s daughter Margaret was betrothed to the new Duke of Burgundy, Charles the Bold and she left for the continent in June of 1468. In 1469, Cecily left the family home of Fotheringhay and made Berkhamsted her principal residence. Sometime between 1472 and 1474, her son Richard married the Earl of Warwick’s daughter Anne Neville. In 1476, her husband Richard and her son Edmund’s bodies were re-interred in the family church at Fotheringhay.
Cecily’s son George had rebelled against his brother the king in 1470, defecting to the Lancastrian side. Edward forgave him. But George rebelled again in 1478 and this time Edward wasn’t so forgiving. George was found guilty of treason and was executed In February 1478, allegedly by drowning in a butt of malmsey wine. In January of 1478, Cecily sat beneath a canopy at the wedding of her grandson, King Edward’s second son Richard, Duke of York to Anne Mowbray.
King Edward died suddenly in April 1483. His eldest son was now King Edward V. His uncle Richard made his way to London to take over as Lord Protector but somewhere along the way decided he would take the throne for himself. After meetings at Cecily’s house of Baynard’s Castle in London, he was asked to be king and acclaimed by Parliament. Edward V and his younger brother Richard were imprisoned in the Tower of London and eventually disappeared.
Cecily seems to have gotten along well with Richard’s queen, her daughter-in-law Anne Neville. Richard’s reign was very short. In 1485, he was killed in battle at Bosworth Field and Henry Tudor was now King Henry VII by right of conquest. Henry married Cecily’s grand-daughter, her son Edward’s eldest daughter Elizabeth of York. Due to this relationship, Henry treated Cecily kindly.
From 1485 to 1495, Cecily lived in deep piety, adopting a semi-monastic lifestyle at Berkhamsted. She made her will on April 4, 1495 bequeathing her breviaries to King Henry VII’s mother Margaret Beaufort and to her granddaughter Cecily Welles, the sister of Queen Elizabeth of York. Upon Cecily’s death on May 31, income from her holdings went to Queen Elizabeth, providing an additional £1399 6s. 8 1/4d. Cecily was buried in the family mausoleum next to her husband and son in the church at Fotheringhay.
Further reading: “Cecily Neville: Mother of Kings” by Amy License, “The Wars of the Roses” by Alison Weir, “Blood Sisters: The Hidden Lives of the Women Behind the Wars of the Roses” by Sarah Gristwood, “The Last Medieval Queens” by J.L. Laynesmith, entry on Cecily Neville in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography by Christopher Harper-Bill, entry on Richard, Duke of York in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography by John Watts