The Matriarch: Cecily Neville, Duchess of York


One of my favorite figures from the Wars of the Roses is Cecily Neville, Duchess of York who came very close to becoming England’s queen through her husband and ended up mother to two, Edward IV and Richard III. She was grandmother to the Princes in the Tower, mother-in-law to Elizabeth Woodville and Anne Neville, mother to a Duchess of Burgundy and rival to Marguerite of Anjou. In short, she was something to almost everyone and while we know where she was and what she did more often than most women of her time, we know remarkably little about who she actually was.

If you’re familiar with her, it’s actually a bit astonishing given the wealth of information we have to parse through and the level of fame that her family achieved. We have flashes of activity over the course of several decades, but only two real moments of humanity shine through, both of which relate to her children. We know that she was beautiful, though it’s unclear to what extent that was exaggerated given her rank. We believe that she was religious based on her increasingly public piety and retirement to a convent. We assume she mourned the loss of her husband and children.

Even so, her reputation has been built up in fiction. She is usually depicted as cold, pious and proper – sometimes domineering and scheming, sometimes honorable and stoic. Usually though, how she is presented has more to do with what we think about the men in her life because we assume she acted as the consummate “mother,” the anchor that kept her dramatic, warring sons at bay. And perhaps, too, it depends on what you think of her daughter-in-law, Elizabeth Woodville, since Cecily has gone down in history as hating her. Does that make Cecily a protective mother or a snob? That likely rests on whether you think Elizabeth was a ruthless social-climber or the victim of character assassination.

But perhaps you have no idea who I’m talking about, so let’s start there. Cecily was one of the younger (by some accounts the youngest) daughter of Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmoreland and Joan Beaufort. Cecily’s mother is far more significant than her father given that her mother was the daughter of John, Duke of Lancaster (son of Edward III) and his longtime mistress and third wife, Katherine Swynford. As such, Joan was born a bastard and legitimized after her parents eventually married well into her adulthood.

While her legitimacy may have been convoluted it also gave her proximity to the Royal Family. She was the half-sister of Henry IV, aunt of Henry V and great-aunt of Henry VI. Her marriage to Ralph Neville was a good match for her as the Nevilles were an old, powerful and wealthy family – that, combined with Joan’s royal ties, positioned Cecily and her siblings as desirable commodities on the marriage market.

Raby Castle, Cecily’s childhood home

Nearly all of the Neville children married astonishingly well – so much so that by the time her eldest son, Edward IV, ascended the throne he was cousins to many of England’s noble families. But Cecily’s was one of the loftiest, as she was betrothed as a child to her father’s valuable ward, Richard, Duke of York. I won’t give his backstory now, though you can read it here and here. By marrying York she became extremely wealthy, powerful (or rather, a powerful man’s wife…) and her children were then descended from Edward III twice-over thanks to his Plantagenet ancestry.

A lesser-known fact about Cecily is that when she came to court in the mid-1420s she was attached to the household of the Dowager Queen Katherine of Valois. It was around this time that Katherine was rumored to have had a relationship with one of Cecily’s cousins, Edmund Beaufort (later Duke of Somerset). And by the end of the decade, she may very well have been witness to the Queen’s secret relationship with Owen Tudor. It’s difficult to state that with certainty given the mystery around that relationship, however if she was continuing to live in Katherine’s household while the Queen was carrying and delivering at least four children, it stands to reason she might have had an inkling. The real question is then, did she tell York?

We have no idea what the relationship between York and Cecily was like. It wasn’t a love match in that it was arranged for them as children, but they certainly knew one another in youth. They were legally married in 1429 when Cecily was about 14 and York was 18, however the consummation of the relationship was likely postponed given that Cecily didn’t conceive a child for several more years and York spent the majority of the next three in France.

There may have been a miscarriage or stillbirth in the mid-1430s, however their first living child was delivered in 1439 and was a daughter, christened Anne. A son would be born in 1441, named Henry, but he died as an infant. From there the couple moved to Rouen when York took over as Lieutenant of Normandy and it was during this time that three more children were born: Edward, Edmund and Elizabeth.

The question of Edward’s legitimacy would later be broached and so it bears mention. Two decades later, when Edward IV announced that he had secretly married Elizabeth Woodville it was reported that Cecily was so outraged by the union that she swore she would testify Edward was a bastard, thus deposing him and making his younger brother, George, king. This was later used by George when he was attempting to usurp his brother’s throne, and was again referenced by Richard III in the 1480s when he usurped the throne from his nephew. Unfortunately, the rumor has been given some legs thanks to the fact that Edward’s christening was a rushed affair in April 1442 and much less ostentatious than that of his younger brother, Edmund, a year later. Also, in July 1441, when Edward would have been conceived, York and Cecily were apart.

Richard, Duke of York

That doesn’t look great, but context is key here. A year before Edward’s birth Cecily had just buried a son and it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Edward’s christening was rushed simply because she was nervous about losing another child. It’s also possible that Edward was premature, thus shifting the date of his conception. Even likelier is that Cecily met York “on the road,” so to speak, which wasn’t an uncommon practice in their marriage when he was away for long periods of time. This could very well have happened in July 1441 and, assuming Edward’s birth was on time, is also likely due to the fact that York never questioned his son’s paternity. Given his place in the succession and his own hyper-awareness of his bloodlines, it would seem out of character for him to seriously question his wife’s fidelity and say nothing, risking naming a bastard his heir.

In 1445 Henry VI and Marguerite of Anjou married and by the end of the year York had been recalled to England and replaced by Cecily’s cousin, Edmund Beaufort, now Earl of Somerset. It didn’t take long for York and the new queen to find themselves at odds and he was given the post of Lieutenant of Ireland, which was viewed by many, including York and Cecily, as an insult. The couple delayed their move there and their next child, christened Margaret after the queen, was born in England.

Two more sons were born in 1447 and 1448 who died young and the next, George, was born in 1449 at Dublin Castle. Another son was born in 1450 or 1451 who also died young and then came Richard in 1452 once the family had left Ireland. Another daughter, Ursula, was born in 1455, but she, too, passed away. Given the rate by which Cecily’s younger children died it appears that her fertility slowed, which is also evidenced by the gaps in the rate by which she conceived in the 1450s. That’s understandable given that in 1455 Cecily turned 40 and 12-13 pregnancies had taken their toll.

Richard grew up sickly and household accounts show that much of Cecily’s time and resources were focused on seeing him through his infancy. We know now – thanks to the identification of his skeleton in 2012 – that he also suffered from severe scoliosis, which makes his later military career all the more remarkable, as well as his parents’ decision to educate and train him in a similar fashion to his older brothers.

By the time Cecily’s childbearing years were over the country had descended into civil war, an effort led by her husband. We have no idea what Cecily thought of York’s opposition to the King’s government, or what she personally thought about Henry VI or Marguerite of Anjou. We can guess that it was an uncomfortable position, however, given that only some of her siblings sided with York, while others remained loyal to Lancaster. By 1455 her eldest son, Edward, was deemed old enough to fight at age 13 and saw his first battle – the First Battle of St. Albans. He lived through it, but Cecily’s cousin, Edmund Beaufort, now Duke of Somerset, didn’t. His death and the enmity of the rest of the Beaufort clan towards the Yorks was indicative of the familial breaches that continued to crop up over the course of the Wars of the Roses – a moniker, I might add, which came much later. Its contemporary description is actually much more apt: the Cousins’ War.

Anne_of_York_and_Sir_Thomas_St._Leger (1).jpg
Anne and Exeter

In the beginning it also temporarily cost Cecily a daughter since her eldest, Anne, had been married to Henry Holland, Duke of Exeter, a man who remained a staunch Lancastrian until Henry VI’s death in 1471. We don’t know much about this marriage, however given that Exeter had a violent reputation, only one child was born to them early on and Anne’s petition to divorce him after her brother became king, it’s a safe bet it was unhappy, if not abusive.

A famous moment for Cecily came in the autumn of 1459 when York; Edward; Edmund; her brother, the Earl of Salisbury; and her nephew, the Earl of Warwick were forced to scatter and flee England. Cecily was left behind at the family home with her younger, unmarried children – Margaret, George and Richard – and was arrested by the Lancastrian army that came to sack the castle. Fiction has presented the scene as Cecily standing in the middle of the town square while the army razed the buildings around her, clutching her children – and while that’s certainly dramatic, it’s also highly unlikely. Likelier is that she remained within the safety of the castle.

Either way, she and her children were brought to London and she was forced to stand before Parliament and here a list of all her husband’s crimes as he was denounced a traitor. She was then put under house arrest by her brother-in-law, the Duke of Buckingham, in a household overseen by her older sister, Anne. It’s unclear what the relationship was like at that point, but while Buckingham had played mediator for many years, once York had reached the point of no return, Buckingham declared himself a Lancastrian.

The following year York, his sons and his Neville in-laws returned to England, only this time York wasn’t messing around. Instead of maintaining he only wanted to reform Henry VI’s government he claimed the throne and within two months he was dead. Also killed in the same fight was Cecily’s second son, Edmund, Earl of Rutland, who was only 17 at the time. Even more tragic was the fact that he wasn’t killed in the thick of battle, but rather illegally executed after the fact as revenge for his father’s crimes.

Retribution would come three months later when Edward officially deposed Henry VI and was proclaimed King Edward IV. The Yorkists were triumphant and Cecily assumed the role as the highest-ranking woman in the land. She set up house at her London residence of Baynard Castle with her youngest daughter, Margaret, while George and Richard were named the Dukes of Clarence and Gloucester, respectively, and sent north to Warwick’s household.

Edward IV

The next major event was the 1464 marriage of Edward and Elizabeth Woodville, a match, as stated previously, of which Cecily wasn’t a fan. As discussed in Monday’s post, Cecily would have known Elizabeth’s mother, Jacquetta, Duchess of Bedford, well and may have even known Elizabeth in her youth. But even if she did, an impoverished Lancastrian widow wasn’t the wife she saw for her son, particularly not when he needed the alliance that would come from marrying a foreign princess. It’s worth noting, however, that much of Cecily’s supposedly hysterical reaction is hearsay and it’s entirely possible that after her initial displeasure she made her peace with the marriage. In fact, all evidence points to just that simply because there isn’t any evidence to the contrary.

There’s little sign of discord between Cecily and Edward and when George rose up against him later in the 60s, she didn’t cast her lot with him. She remained loyal to Edward throughout his reign and it stands to reason would have remained loyal to Elizabeth even if only because she was Edward’s wife and the mother of her grandchildren.

When, in 1470, George and Warwick rebelled against Edward for a second time, now allying themselves with Marguerite of Anjou and the Lancastrian party in France, Cecily stood by her eldest son. When Edward was forced to flee into exile, a pregnant Elizabeth sought sanctuary and George stood by as Henry VI was reinstated, Cecily remained in London and lobbied her middle son to make peace with his brother. And whatever she said worked, for George did return to the family fold, a reversal that helped Edward win back his throne and probably spared George his life.

George, Duke of Clarence

Seven years later, however, she wouldn’t be as successful. Edward arrested George on counts of treason and he was executed in February 1478 despite Cecily begging that he be spared. From that point on, she mostly retired from court, and while that may have stemmed from sorrow over George’s death, or anger at Edward, it was also fairly organic. By 1478, she was over 60 years old, her children were all married and approaching middle age, and she had grown increasingly religious. It was common practice for widows of her rank to retire to convents or step away from the public sphere.

Edward’s court had also become quite the den of iniquity. Tired of war, he chose security over glory and ease over work. His mistress was a common sight in London, and one whom he had stolen from his friend, William, Lord Hastings. His stepsons, Thomas and Richard Grey, were reportedly disliked by Edward’s friends and relatives. Her youngest son, Richard, mostly resided in the north, dealing with the Scottish border. And Margaret had married Charles, Duke of Burgundy in 1468. When she was widowed in 1477, she remained abroad, focused on protecting the inheritance of her stepdaughter, Mary.

Richard III

In 1483 Edward died after catching a chill over the Easter holiday. Richard was called down to London to take over as Lord Protector, as was the new 12-year-old king, Edward V, who had been living at Ludlow Castle. In a flurry of activity which we will cover another time, Edward and his younger brother, the Duke of York, were stationed in the Tower of London to await the coronation. Within a matter of months, Richard had set up a government that called for him to be king instead of his nephew, he accepted and was crowned Richard III.

We don’t know what Cecily made of this. She would have known that Richard’s followers questioned the legitimacy of Edward and thus impugned her character. She would have known that they also claimed Edward had already been married when he married Elizabeth, thus making their marriage bigamous and their children bastards. But she also knew that George had used similar methods over a decade before and she had still sought to protect him from execution. Notably, she didn’t attend Richard’s coronation – his detractors claim that’s rather telling, while his defenders point out that she was much older and largely retired.

Perhaps. But the difference between what George did and what Richard did was pick the size of their opponent. Cecily could be reasonably assured that Edward IV could take care of himself, whereas Edward V was a child and one who quickly “disappeared from view.” Did she think that her son had murdered her grandsons? Did she know that he had? We have no idea and her absence from his court followed a pattern already established years before, so it’s difficult to draw conclusions from it.

Margaret of York, Duchess of Burgundy

Whatever she thought, Richard’s rein was brief. He was deposed in 1485 by the invasion of Henry Tudor, who married her granddaughter, Elizabeth of York. Rather astonishingly given Medieval life expectancy, Cecily lived another 10 years under Henry’s rule, even outlasting her controversial daughter-in-law, Elizabeth Woodville. By this time she was focused nearly exclusively on religious observance, her reputation for prominent piety stemming mainly from this period. There is little indication that she interacted too much with her granddaughter’s court or took a direct interest in her remaining descendants – by this time she had only two children still living (Elizabeth, Duchess of Suffolk and Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy), but she had several grandchildren, most of whom were missing at least one parent. Which is not to say they were estranged, but rather that her attention had moved away from the activity of Westminster.

It may have been too painful, though equally as likely is simply that she grew too old. She died at the age of 80 on May 31, 1495. She lived through the reigns of six kings, the entirety of the Wars of the Roses and had intimately known all of its leading characters. We may not know what she made of so much of the activity except that it affected her profoundly and cost her the vast majority of her family. In the end, she should perhaps best be known as a survivor.

The ruins of Berkhamsted Castle, where Cecily died

4 thoughts on “The Matriarch: Cecily Neville, Duchess of York

  1. Tina Santospago

    To my astonishment I discovered John of Gaunt was my Great Grandfather. It is fascinating to be able to read and watch the history of so many of my Royal family descendents. I was always interested in the history of the Plantageants, and what do you know I am one over and over. The DNA test matches to a T my identified ancestors. Wow!

  2. Leigh Dingwall

    Hello, I’d be very interested to know what sources you used for the post on Cecily Neville, as she was the subject of my work toward a Ph.D at the University of Glasgow back in the 1990s.

    1. Sure thing – the majority of this was written from memory, but for portions of her childhood and periods of her marriage prior to the civil war I consulted Amy License’s biography, PA Johnson’s biography of York and KL Clark’s tomb on the Neville family.

  3. Pingback: Was Edward IV Illegitimate? (And Why It Doesn’t Matter) – J-M's History Corner

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