Getting to grips with the Nevilles – the Earls of Westmorland.

Ralph Neville, 1st Earl of Westmorland

Ralph Neville 1st Earl of Westmorland married Margaret Stafford by papal dispensation. Like so many other marriages of the period there was a degree of consanguinity to be taken into consideration.

The couple’s eldest son John made a glittering marriage to Elizabeth Holland the daughter of Thomas Holland 2nd Earl of Kent in 1394.  Her mother was Alice FitzAlan the daughter of the Earl of Arundel and his wife Eleanor who was the Great Granddaughter of King Henry III. It was an indicator of the earl’s growing power and prestige. John held the office of Warden of the West Marches from 15 May 1414 to 1420. He succeeded his father who was also the Warden for the West Marches. It would be something of a Neville family responsibility through much of the fifteenth century. He also played his part in the Hundred Years War.

Meanwhile Margaret Stafford died and the earl made a second marriage in November 1396 to Joan Beaufort the legitimised daughter of John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford. The couple went on to have fourteen children who the earl showed increasing favour towards as he enfeoffed lands which should have been destined for his eldest son and heir to his second family. John did not seem to object to his father’s favour towards his half-siblings. According to Charles Ross he was a witness to at least one of his father’s land transfers. It is possible that neither Ralph nor John realised the extent to which Ralph’s second family would take advantage of the enfeoffments they received.   John died before his father.  He had been an active participant in the Hundred Years War and it is likely that his death occurred in France in 1420.

Part of the family tree of Ralph Neville 1st Earl of Westmorland showing the descent of the earl’s eldest son John and his children.

John’s eldest son Ralph succeeded his grandfather as the second Earl of Westmorland after the first earl’s death in 1425. The following year he married into the Percy family and received licence to enter his lands- but they were sadly depleted resulting in an increasingly bitter legal dispute with his step-grandmother and the junior Neville line headed by Richard Neville Earl of Salisbury. Joan Beaufort and her brother, Cardinal Henry Beaufort had no intention of allowing the earl’s first family – the senior line- to benefit at the expense of Joan’s family.  Inevitably matters moved beyond the courts to threats, intimidation and violence.

 In 1438 the two halves of the family were summoned to appear before King Henry VI to resolve the ongoing conflict. By 1443 a settlement had been achieved which saw Joan’s son Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury in possession of his father’s properties in the North-West, Yorkshire, Essex, York and London whilst the second earl received properties within the Bishopric of Durham including Raby Castle and Staindrop. After Joan’s death at the end of 1440 her dower lands in County Durham were also returned to the 2nd earl.

At about the same time the accord was reached between the two halves of the Neville family, the 2nd earl who had been widowed married for a second time to Margaret Cobham. The 2nd earl and his family did not have the powerful family connections of their half-siblings, the earl’s second wife was Margaret whose sister Eleanor was married to Humphrey Duke of Gloucester who was Henry VI’s regent in England during his minority was perhaps a strategy to garner some influence.

As well as losing his first wife the earl’s daughter by Margaret, named after her mother, died young and in 1450 his remaining child and heir, John, by his first wife also died. He left a wife – Lady Anne Holland, daughter of the Duke of Exeter but the marriage was thought to be unconsummated.

It appears that Ralph suffered some sort of mental illness at around the same time. The 2nd earl’s brother Thomas who died in 1458 seems to have acted as the earl’s guardian at times. After Thomas’s death it does not appear that anyone took over the responsibility. Either the earl was fully recovered or the conflict that would become known as the Wars of the Roses impacted on the Ralph’s care plan. It might also account for why he did not become involved in the build up to the conflict between York and Lancaster. Although the 2nd earl spent many years litigating against his grandfather’s second family he did not put an army in the field against his uncle Richard Neville Earl of Salisbury or cousin the Earl of Warwick.

The 2nd earl’s remaining brother, John, styled Baron Neville did become embroiled in the intermittent conflict between Lancastrians and Yorkists.  According to the English Chronicle Baron Neville met with Richard Duke of York at Sandal in December 1460 before raising an army of 8,000 men.  York believed that the baron and his army were on his side in the coming battle so emerged from behind the safety of his castle walls on 30 December. But before the fighting was underway the baron and his men, along with Andrew Trollope the Captain of Calais, turned on the Yorkists. The duke was, after all, allied with his brother-in-law Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury the eldest son of the 1st Earl of Westmorland’s second marriage and the beneficiary of the estates which the earl’s family from his first marriage believed to rightfully belong to them.  Evidently John decided that the enemy of his enemy was his friend – so opted to join the Lancastrians.

The Lancastrians saw victory at Wakefield whilst the Yorkists experienced defeat and the deaths of Richard Neville Earl of Salisbury and his son Thomas as well as Richard Duke of York and his second son Edmund Earl of Rutland who was allegedly killed by Lord Clifford as he sought mercy as he fled the battlefield. The tables were soon turned.  At the Battle of Towton which was fought during Easter 1461 the Yorkists defeated the Lancastrians and claimed the throne.  Baron Neville was killed during the battle and attainted of treason leaving his widow without means.

Which brings me back to Anne Holland – who we last saw as a grieving widow in 1450 when the 2nd earl’s son John died. The marriage was said to be unconsummated which perhaps removed the impediment to her second wedding (the wording for the papal dispensation must have been interesting both in terms of consanguinity and affinity.) In 1452 Anne married John’s uncle,  Baron Neville (the one killed at Towton.) She had only one child, a son named Ralph by Baron Neville. He would become the 3rd Earl of Westmorland. Anne’s own mother Anne Stafford, was not only the daughter of the Earl of Stafford but also the widow of Edmund Mortimer 5th Earl of March before she married the Duke of Exeter (still with me?) which means -for those of you keeping track of who was related to whom -that Anne was distantly related by the ties of kinship created by marriage to King Edward IV who was descended from Mortimer’s sister Anne (Edward’s granny) – demonstrating once again that during the fifteenth century everyone who mattered was related to some degree or other!

Right – I’m off to lay down in a darkened room…

Cokayne, George Edward (1936). The Complete Peerage, edited by H.A. Doubleday and Lord Howard de WaldenIX. London: St. Catherine Press

 Ross, Charles (1950). The Yorkshire Baronage, 1399–1435 (PhD). University of Oxford.

4 thoughts on “Getting to grips with the Nevilles – the Earls of Westmorland.

  1. Thank you so much. They are definitely of the ‘head spin’ variety. I was looking at the family a bit later in the tree due to the connection with Holywell Priory in Shoreditch. There was a triple wedding (attended by Henry VIII), an imprisoned recusant etc etc

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