Cecily Neville: A 15th century woman for our time
Guest article by Annie Garthwaite
Writing a novel about the matriarch of the house of York, prompted Annie Garthwaite to consider what makes Cecily Neville one of the 15th century’s most compelling women, the role she played in her family’s dynastic struggles, and why – at last – historians and novelists are fixing their gaze upon her.
Cecily was born in the year of Agincourt, lived into the early years of the Tudors, mothered a dynasty, and brought her family through civil war. For most of her life, she was one of, if not the most, powerful women in England. And yet…
… is the reaction of most people when I tell them the subject of my novel.
How could such an important woman – such an extraordinary, high-profile, woman – have slipped through history’s net like that?
Easily, I suppose. Women of achievement have been falling through it for years.
Shakespeare didn’t help much. In his history plays Cecily‘s appearances are brief. She has no political agenda, no agency, and little to say other than to curse her, by the bard’s account at least, misbegotten son. It‘s a damning characterisation that, sadly, has stuck. In the many novels written about the fifteenth century in general and the Wars of the Roses in particular, Cecily, though matriarch of the house of York, is rarely more than a bit player. Nor have historians served her much better than novelists. Until recently she hasn’t even had a biography.
Suddenly though, things seem to be changing. Three biographies, like buses, have trundled along in quick succession and, along with them, two novels, including my own.
So, what’s brought about this new interest in Cecily? I’d say it’s part of a growing trend to recover female history. Among fiction writers at least, there’s an appetite to reclaim the women of the past, to re-animate their voices and bring them to life. Among historians, this is mirrored by a desire to reassess, from a less patriarchal stance, the role women played in the events of their day. All of this means that Cecily’s story – for novelists and historians alike – is ripe for re-discovery.
Shakespeare’s sad rendition of Cecily could hardly be further from the truth. The real Cecily was an energetic dynastic schemer and a political mover and shaker of the first rank. A strategist, politician, and administrator par excellence. What’s more, and quite simply, she was there; not just in the Wars of the Roses but at the very heart of them. In fact, she was the only major protagonist to survive from their violent beginnings to their blood-soaked end. And, from the time of her birth, she was never far from the centre of power.
Royal bastards, Beauforts, and Cecily’s proximity to the crown
Cecily Neville was born on 3 May 1415, the daughter of Ralph Earl Westmoreland and his second wife, Joan Beaufort. The blood in her veins was royal, though stained by bastardy. Cecily’s mother Joan was the natural daughter of Edward III’s third son, John of Gaunt. Though John eventually did marryJoan’s mother, he took a while to do it. After a long relationship, John and Katherine Swynfordfinally tied the knot in 1396, seventeen years after Katherine gave birth to Joan.
Joan, along with her siblings, was legitimated by Pope in the year of the marriage and by Richard II, John’s nephew, the following year. John gave his newly legitimated family the name Beaufort, to honourably differentiate them from the children of his earlier marriages.
This legitimisation meant that Joan and her siblings could inherit lands and hold titles, but their royal position was equivocal. When John Beaufort – Joan’s brother and Cecily’s uncle –asked Henry IV (the usurper of Richard II’s crown) to provide him with copies of the letters patent that confirmed the Beaufort’s legitimisation, the new king added a codicil; the Beauforts could aspire to any title in the land ‘excepta dignitate regale’. In short, they could not hope for the crown nor for any place in the royal succession.
The Beauforts went on to become one of the 15thcentury’s most powerful families – firmly enmeshed in the aristocratic networks that configured the Wars of the Roses. But their bastardy – and Henry’s codicil – applied effective brakes to their ambition.
However, Joan’s inauspicious beginnings didn’t prevent her from becoming a prestigious wife for one of Henry IV’s most valued allies. Ralph had been among the first of England’s nobles to recognise Henry IV’s claim to the throne and to fight for it. His reward was marriage to the king’s half–sister, for Henry IV (previously Henry Bolingbroke) was, of course, John of Gaunt’s legitimate son by his first wife, Blanche of Lancaster.
Marriage to York
So, Cecily grew up in a family that basked in royal favour and whose loyalties were unequivocally Lancastrian. Nevertheless, she was destined to become the matriarch of Lancaster’s greatest rival house, that of York. And she did so through a marriage orchestrated by her parents.
Cecily’s was one of a series of dazzling marriages orchestrated by Ralph and Joan for their children. It was arguably the brightest and most brilliant of them all. Cecily was married, late in 1423 and at the age of eight, to Richard Plantagenet, heir to the earldom of Cambridge and dukedom of York. It was a promising match, but not without risk for, as well as being heir to prestigious titles, Richard was also the son of a traitor.
His father, Richard Earl of Cambridge, had been executed by Henry V in 1415 for his part in the Southampton plot. To secure his inheritance, the young Richard would have to win the favour of the present King Henry VI. Unless Henry confirmed Richard’s titles at his coming of age, he would not receive them and Cecily’s brilliant marriage would have lost its lustre. One can only imagine that Ralph took upon himself a mission to make a ‘king’s man’ of Richard, to imbibe him with Lancastrian loyalties, to ensure his smooth accession to his titles and, effectively, co-opt the wealth and prestige of those titles into his own family.
Two years later, both the brilliance of the marriage and its risks became greater still. When Richard’s maternal uncle Edmund Mortimer, the fifth earl of March, died childless in 1425, Richard became heir to a vast Mortimer inheritance. All good. However, that inheritance also brought with it a claim to the English throne that, potentially, could upstage that of the present king. Henry VI took his royal claim from his grandfather’s conquest and his descendent from Edward III’s third son, John of Gaunt. Richard, meanwhile, could claim direct descent from Edward’s second son, Lionel Duke of Clarence, and his fourth, Edmund Duke of York.
Ambitions and necessities
Richard did succeed in winning the young king’s favour. At least enough to accede to his titles in 1431, when Cecily was a young woman of sixteen lately embarked on married life in earnest. Overnight, he took his place among England’s premier noblemen, making Cecily on of the country’s greatest ladies.
History has given us few visual representations of Cecily, but there is one, likely created at about this time, that reveals her character to me. It’s in the French national library, in a Book of Hours that it‘s thought Cecily may have commissioned, perhaps as a gift for her mother, when she was in France with Richard in 1431 for Henry VI’s crowning as king of France. In it, Cecily’s parents face each other across the page, flanked by their sons and daughters. Below, a series of armorial shields displays the status of each parent and child. Though the youngest of the daughters, Cecily has placed herself in the first rank, kneeling almost on her mother’s black hem. She has dressed herself in the richest colours, the finest jewels. Behind her, her sisters, countesses and duchesses in their own right, become a pale crowd, muted, shadowed, plain. The men opposite are smart enough, I suppose. ‘Me first‘ says Cecily seems to say.
It seems to me that, at sixteen Cecily understood very well her place in the world and in her family. She was aware and justly proud of both her parentage and her marriage; ready to make the most of her advantages. Having come from one family that held itself close to the crown, she was ready to embark upon the serious work of creating another.
Richard’s early service to Henry VI was both diligent and effective. He served in a variety of roles in England and, most prestigiously, in France. During his first stint in Normandy, from 1436 to 37, he managed to stabilise a wobbly administration and win some appreciable military victories. He was proving himself to be a safe pair of hands upon whom the young king and his council could depend. However, the Mortimer claim to the throne, despite his seeming to have little interest in it, was destined to become a weight about his neck.
By the 1440’s, as Henry VI’s grip on royal authority grew ever more fragile and his mental instability ever more evident, the jockeying for power around the throne became intense. As government stumbled and corruption flourished, the king and those who were seen to control him (including Cecily’s Beaufort cousins and latterly his French queen Marguerite of Anjou), began to see a natural enemy in Richard, whose upright management of affairs and closeness to ‘the old royal blood’ made him a popular favourite among the people. By the late 1450’s he is firmly out of favour and the road to conflict begins to appear unavoidable.
It’s been claimed by many historians through the years that Richard, both avaricious and ambitious, hankered for the crown from the very start. And the assumption naturally follows that he was encouraged in this by his prideful wife. Frankly, I see little evidence of it. Rather, it seems to me, Richard made every effort to maintain his loyalty to King Henry, opposing only those who, he believed, led the king into corruption and the crown into ill-repute. By the time Richard finally does assert his claim to the throne in 1460 there is an air of desperation about it. He has suffered false accusations, exile, and attainder. He is, it seems to me, left with little choice.
It’s tempting, here to spend more time considering the complex ins and outs of Richard’s political career during this time but, an essay about his wife seems hardly the place to do it. Instead, I will simply refer readers to the excellent biography of Richard written by Matthew Lewis in 2016. Matthew is in the vanguard of a revisionist approach to Richard’s life and legacy and presents, I believe, a very balanced view.
Instead, let’s turn our attention to what Cecily was doing during this time and how she might have felt about Richard’s royal potential.
Mother and matriarch
Cecily’s closeness to Richard during her marriage appears evident. The records, so far as they exist, suggest they spent time together whenever possible. Certainly, she accompanied him on his travels to France and Ireland when his royal duties took him there. She bore him twelve children, lost five in infancy, but succeeded in bringing four sons and three daughters to adulthood.
She had a long wait for children, however. Though Richard and Cecily began their married life together in around 1431, she had to wait eight years, until 1439, to deliver a living child(a daughter, Anne) and another three to bring forth a son (Edward) that survived infancy. This must have been challenging. Of the many demands placed upon a medieval aristocratic woman, the greatest was to bear children. But there is no evidence that Cecily’s early failure in this regard led to any fracture in her marriage. She and Richard appear to have remained close during this time and, since there is no evidence that Richard owned any bastards, it seems likely he was faithful or, at the very least, discreet.
Fortunately, after a slow start, Cecily’s childbearing potential – and her ability to deliver strong sons – became one of her most valuable assets. Though one can only imagine how Henry VI and his childless (until the birth of Edward of Lancaster in 1453) queen might have felt as Cecily’s brood of strong sons grew; successors all to Richard’s Mortimer claim. Certainly, Cecily’s fecundity became a useful weapon to be used against York by those eager to sow in the mind of the king seeds of doubt about Richard’s loyalty. Richard not only had a rival claim to the throne, but she had sons to succeed him in it. Dangerous indeed.
As Richard’s loss of royal favour became increasingly serious, Cecily shows every sign of striving to revive it. Like Richard, she seems to been at pains to persevere in loyalty to the crown for as long as possible. In 1453, for example, she petitions Queen Marguerite on her husband’s behalf, begging no favour but that he be returned to the king’s good graces. However, it seems to me that, as matters progressed from bad to worse, Cecily must have come to recognise that she and Richard faced a stark choice – either to take power or be destroyed by it. As a wife and mother, and as a woman of high noble birth, I can well imagine she might have reached the conclusion that the only place of safety for her husband – and by extension, her sons – was on the throne.
Her father’s daughter
Cecily also had her own father’s example to guide her. As stated earlier, Ralph Earl of Westmoreland was among the first to declare himself for Henry IV when he usurped the crown of Richard II. He would have seen himself as justified in doing so. Weak, vacillating and prone to dangerous favouritism, Richard II had, after a long minority, proved himself unequal to the role of king. He appears to have been quite unable to maintain justice in the country or peace among his nobility. In such circumstances, a nobleman of the first order would have believed himself justified in giving a greater loyalty to the office of king than to its incumbent. This was certainly the conclusion Cecily’s father reached. Richard II had unjustly exiled Henry Bolingbroke. When he returned from that exile, it was to lay claim to the crown as Henry IV. And Ralph Earl of Westmorland fought at his side.
The parallels between Richard II and Henry VI are inescapable. Cecily would have been assured from childhood that her father acted rightly in taking the crown from an inept man and giving it to a capable one. It was, one might say, the foundation story of her family.
So, in 1460, she must surely have looked at Richard, embattled and exiled himself, and concluded that enough was enough. Surely at this point, she and Richard decided together that it was time to assert the long-suppressed Mortimer claim to the throne; to do the very thing Richard had been accused of and had resisted, to make a bid for kingship.
At this point, it seems to me, Cecily became not only mother but matriarch of a royal house. And it seems to me, too, that it was a role she assumed with competence and determination. Richard himself did not survive to accede to the throne. But, following his death at the Battle of Wakefield at Christmas 1460, Cecily was tireless in her support of their eldest son Edward as his rightful successor.
Edward, who was raising troops in Wales at the time of his father’s death, raced towards London, hoping to hold off an army led by Henry’s Queen, Marguerite. Alone in London, Cecily petitioned the city authorities to keep the capital’s gates closed against the queen and, instead, to await her son’s arrival and swear their loyalties to him. It is a testament to her courage and her powers of persuasion that they did so. Edward was proclaimed king within days of arriving in London, while Marguerite and her army retreated northward in the snow.
When Edward left the city again to pursue Marguerite and to fight again at Towton, he had the good sense to leave management of the kingdom in no one’s hands but his mother’s. He appointed her head of his household, effectively, his regent. Europe’s ambassadors recognised – and reported to their masters – that if they wished to do business in England, they would need to do it with the king’s mother.
Throughout his reign, Cecily and Edward remained close. For the first four years at least, until his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, Cecily was England’s premier lady. There’s every indication it was a role she took seriously.
Let’s look at another image of Cecily now, this one created during Edward’s kingship and after his marriage. Cecily is shown kneeling behind Edward’s wife and queen, Elizabeth. Cecily comes second now, she defers. Notice, however, it is she who is cloaked in the royal arms of England. It seems to me that Cecily is sending a very clear message: Don’t for one minute imagine I’m not the most important woman in the room.
Cecily was never a queen, it is questionable that she ever truly wanted to be. Had Henry VI been a strong king, she would almost certainly have lived out her life as his faithful servant, and Richard may well have had the good fortune to die in his bed. But, when faced with challenges and threats, Cecily had the courage to take her family’s future in hand. And, having secured royal status, she would be loath to surrender it.
Annie Garthwaite’s novel, CECILY, will be published by Penguin on 29 July 2021 and is available to pre-order from all online and high street book retailers. Find out more, and sign up for news, at www.anniegarthwaite.com.
Cecily Neville Guest Author History Cecily Neville Duke of York edward IV Richard
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