Cecily Neville (1415-1495) was one of the most powerful women in fifteenth-century England, the wife of Richard Duke of York, mother of Edward IV and Richard III, grandmother of Edward V and Elizabeth of York.
Her political aptitude in avoiding the criticisms levelled at many other women of the age has meant her role in events was largely ignored by historians until very recently. For centuries writers assumed that she had disavowed her youngest son, Richard III (following Polydore Vergil); more recently this has been brought into question, and Michael K. Jones even argued that she was the architect of Richard III’s accession.
Born 3 May 1415, youngest daughter of Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmorland and his second wife, Joan Beaufort (daughter of John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford). By the age of nine she had been married to her parents’ ward, Richard Duke of York. She may have accompanied York to France in 1430-31 for Henry VI’s coronation and certainly did so in 1441 when York took up the post of King’s Lieutenant in Normandy. Her first child, Anne, was born at Fotheringhay in 1438 (there is no truth to the common assertion that she had a previous child called Joan). In total she bore twelve children often with only a couple of months between pregnancies, but five died in infancy. As her childbearing days drew to a close her husband’s political fortunes struggled and there is evidence of her negotiating on his behalf with Margaret of Anjou in the spring of 1453.
When York and his elder sons fled from the rout at Ludford Bridge, Cecily and her youngest sons were still at Ludlow Castle. She successfully pleaded for pardons for a number of York’s men and was placed in the protective custody of her sister, Anne Duchess of Buckingham. She subsequently attended the Coventry Parliament at which her husband was attainted in order to plead for financial support for her and her younger children and she was successful in this. After her son Edward’s victory at Northampton, she took up residence at John Fastolf’s home in London. Following her husband’s death, and while Edward was fighting for his throne, she resided at Baynard’s Castle near St Paul’s and was the figurehead for the Yorkist regime in London. Her financial settlement as widow probably made her the wealthiest woman in England.
After Edward IV’s marriage she stepped back from court life to some extent but still attended major events. She tried to make peace between her sons Edward and George after George’s involvement in Warwick’s first rebellion, but this failed. During the readeption she worked publicly with the Lancastrian regime, providing hospitality for visitors to court, but was secretly trying to persuade George to switch his allegiance back to Edward IV. After Edward IV resumed his throne, she moved out of London to Berkhamsted Castle, but continued to be politically engaged. For example, the mayor and aldermen of Norwich sought her help in a dispute with her son-in-law, John de la Pole, duke of Suffolk.
Her reaction to Richard III’s accession is unknown except for an affectionate letter that he sent to her while king and the fact that he stayed with her at Berkhamsted in May 1485. Following Henry VII’s accession she provided positions on her estates for men who were close to the king and seems to have maintained good relations with Henry and, in particular, his queen, her granddaughter, Elizabeth of York. Ample evidence of her religious interests and book ownership have survived. She died at Berkhamsted on 31 May 1495 and is buried at Fotheringhay with her husband.
See the first page of Cecily’s copy of Christine de Pizan’s Book of the City of Ladies here
Cecily’s copy of The Golden Legend is the only surviving manuscript of Osbern Bokenham’s version of this collection of saints lives and was only recently discovered in Walter Scott’s library: here.
Find out more about Cecily’s final home here.