Cecily, the youngest child of Joan Beaufort and Ralph Neville, was born on 3 May 1415 at Raby Castle. Like the rest of her siblings an advantageous marriage was arranged for her by her parents. She was possibly married by 1427 to Richard of York when she reached the age of twelve certainly she had become betrothed to her father’s ward when she was nine and Richard was thirteen.
Once she became a duchess Cecily was required to leave her childhood behind her in Raby and fulfil court duties wherever Henry VI resided or else to run their main residence of Fotheringhay Castle. With the patronage of the king’s aunt Richard whose father had been executed for his part in the Southampton Plot was able to regain lands which had been forfeit. Cecily’s accounts and correspondence reveal that she was busy in helping her husband run his estates and also in the running up of bills – Cecily appears to be rather a heavy shopper who did not stint on expensive fabrics and jewels. In 1443-44 she spent £608 on clothes – Richard kept a close eye on her spending and probably had a long discussion about the need to buy matched pearls when he saw the bill.
The couple’s first child, a daughter called Anne was born in 1439. Two years later Richard became governor general of France and the couple moved to Rouen. It was in Rouen where Cecily’s son Edward was born. A later smear campaign would suggest that an archer called Blaybourne was Edward’s father rather than the duke – evidence for this particular conspiracy theory comes from the fact that Edward’s baptism was a low key affair unlike that of his younger brother Edmund and that Richard was elsewhere waging war on the key dates. Amy Licence observes that if Edward was premature this would not apply and would explain why he was baptised quickly and without fuss. She also notes that the concept of full term is a moveable feast and that equally Cecily could have been pregnant when she arrived in France making the evidence of Richard’s location an irrelevance. The fact that Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick and even George, Duke of Clarence made the accusation is really neither here nor there given the circumstances in which they decided to have doubts about Edward’s right to be king…that would be just before they staged their rebellion in 1469. It was reported at the time by the Milanese ambassador. Michael Hicks speculates as to whether Cecily may have assisted in the campaign to remove Edward from the throne. It would have to be said, does it really matter very much in any event as Richard of York acknowledged Edward as his son?
Whilst in Rouen Cecily would have two more children and become the hostess of Margaret of Anjou in 1445 after Henry VI had married her by proxy. Shortly after that Cecily returned to England and her family continued to expand. In 1447 Richard was appointed Lieutenant of Ireland, Cecily went with him to Dublin, but his relationship with Henry VI was becoming increasingly difficult. Richard began to liken himself to Henry VI’s uncle Good Duke Humphrey as he was excluded from what he saw as his rightful share of power.
Cecily inevitably became embroiled in the Wars of the Roses being present in Ludlow after the Battle of Ludford Bridge in 1559. Richard’s flight with Cecily’s brother and nephew resulted in him being attainted for treason. Cecily lost everything and was sent off to stay with her sister Anne, Duchess of Buckingham. Cecily was permitted to attend the Coventry parliament where her husband was attainted in order to plead his cause to the king. Whilst Richard was attainted his men were only fined and Henry VI issued 1000 marks a year for her upkeep and that of her children.
The following year the wheel of Fortune turned once again. Richard of York, the earls of Salisbury and Warwick returned to England. Briefly Cecily was a finger’s tip away from the crown. John Harding’s chronicle compares Margaret of Anjou with Proud Cis and concludes Cecily was a more appropriate sort of queen not least because she was under her husband’s control (clearly the chronicler hadn’t received word of Cecily’s shopping trips). Of course, it all went hideously wrong and Richard ended up with his head on York’s city wall wearing a paper crown in the aftermath of the Battle of Wakefield (30 December 1460).
Once her son Edward became king after the Battle of Towton (29 March 1461) she was effectively the first lady of the court until such time as he married. Her relationship with sister Anne can perhaps be seen in the fact that one of the first things that was done was to confirm Anne’s dower rights as Duchess of Buckingham. Edward also ensured that he wouldn’t have to worry about his mother’s desire for rich clothing and jewellery. He gave her lands valued at 5,000 marks a year. She was one of the wealthiest women in England. She had additional income from customs revenue on wool.
Cecily even styled herself “queen by right,” after Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville became public knowledge – much to her irritation; like the Earl of Warwick she had been working towards an alliance with a European princess.
As the end of the 1460’s approached festering family resentments erupted into rebellion. Cecily’s relationship with Edward became increasingly difficult and in 1478 when Edward had George drowned in a vat of Malmsey Cecily left court and stayed away until Edward died. The Yorkist matriarch then supported her son Richard in bypassing the claims of her grandsons who were declared illegitimate. With the death of Richard at the Battle of Bosworth in August 1485 Cecily retired from public life and took holy vows.
Cecily died on 31 May 1495 having outlived all her sons and all but two of her daughters. She had lived the last years of her life along religious lines – giving rise to a reputation for piety. She had been the mother of two kings and was the grandmother of Henry VII’s queen. She was buried in Fotheringhay next to her husband. Their tomb was broken down during the Reformation but re-established by her two times great grand-daughter Elizabeth I.
Laynesmith, J.L. Cecily Duchess of York
Amy License. (2015) Cecily Neville: Mother of Kings. Stroud: Amberley Publishing