There has been a great deal written about Cecily Nevill. Google her (with the inevitable final ‘e’) and you’ll get nearly 98,000 results, most of them discussing her in relation to the men (husband, sons and brothers) in her life. She outlived all but one of her children, and spent thirty five years in widowhood. Two of her sons became kings of England, a granddaughter was queen, as she herself almost was.
Cecily was born on 3 May 1415 at Raby Castle in Yorskhire, the youngest of Ralph Nevill’s 23 children (and the youngest of her mother, Joan Beaufort’s 10). In 1424, she was betrothed to the young duke of York.
Richard duke of York, born 21 September 1411, was the only son of Richard earl of Cambridge and Anne Mortimer. He had an older sister, Isabel, who married Henry viscount Bourchier, and a half sister Alice from his father’s second marriage to Matilda Clifford. Cambridge was executed in August 1415 when Richard was only four. Matilda wasn’t even a year old.
York’s wardship was given first to sir Robert Waterton, then sold in 1423 to Ralph Nevill, who died two years later, bequeathing the wardship to his widow. York was sent to the household of Henry Percy earl of Northumberland, soon to be Joan Beaufort’s son-in-law through his marriage to her daughter Eleanor. He was knighted in 1426 and attended Henry VI’s coronation in 1429, but very little else is known of him during these years. Sometime before October 1429, he and Cecily were married.
York was a very wealthy man and had property all over England, particularly in the north, as well as in Wales. The young married couple probably spent most of their time over the next decade living between Fotheringhay castle and Ludlow, though they would have visited many of their other properties from time to time.
On 10 August 1439, their oldest daughter Anne was born at Fotheringhay. Why there were ten childless years between their marriage and Anne’s birth is a mystery. There may have been unrecorded miscarriages and stillbirths. Joan Beaufort, and her later daughter-in-law Alice Montacute, seems to have been careful not to expose her daughters to childbirth too early in their lives, but this can only go part way to explaining this decade long lack of children. As the Yorks eventually had 12 children between 1429 and 1455, if it was a case of non-specific infertility it righted itself with a vengeance. (I have found one source that names a daughter, Joan, born c1438 who didn’t survive, but this is the only reference I’ve come across, and as I just jotted it down without noting where it came from, I can’t share this with you – sorry. I don’t know how much credence it might have, probably none.)
The marriage does seem to have been extraordinarily successful and companionable, and is frequently potrayed in fiction as particularly loving. (I am as guilty of that as the next person.) When York was sent to France as governor of Normandy in 1440, Cecily and their infant daughter accompanied him. This was to be a pattern throughout their married life. In Rouen, where they were based, four more children were born: Henry (who died in infancy), Edward, Edmund and Elizabeth. The scuttlebutt surrounding the conception, birth and christening of Edward are easily discounted, despite Tony Robinson’s slick channel 4 documentary. (But I’m not going to get into that particular stoush here – suffice it to note the following points: York was not that far away from his wife at the time of Edward’s conception – “five days” Robinson says, which would have had York travelling approx 10 miles a day; he was not the only tall blonde in the family; and they’d lost a son a little more than a year earlier – I’d be a bit gun shy and tempted to rush a christening under those circumstances as well. As a populiser of history, however, Robinson probably convinced a lot of people – 104,000 hits when I googled ‘Tony Robinson Edward IV’, – this is deeply depressing!)
I’m not going to go into great detail about York’s time in France, as this is a post primarily about his marriage. I might do something more about his career at a later date. It should be noted, however, that it was from around this time that his difficulties with the Beaufort dukes of Somerset started.
The duke and duchess of York greeted and entertained Henry VI’s young bride, Margaret of Anjou, in Rouen. For a time, it seems, the duchess of York and the young queen were on friendly terms. (For more, see Medieval Woman here.)
The Yorks returned from France in 1445 when his term as governor expired. He fully expected that his appointment would be renewed. To his disappointment and anger, the post was eventually given to the earl of Dorset in December 1446. Meanwhile, Cecily had spent her 35th birthday giving birth to a daughter, Margaret, again at Fotheringhay. (A son, William, was also born around this time.)
In 1447, York bought young Henry Holland’s wardship and marriage from his father, John duke of Exeter, for 4,500m, of which only 1,500 were ever paid. Exeter died shortly after this, his son succeeding him. Anne was now duchess of Exeter. Also this year, York was appointed governor of Ireland for a period of ten years. It would be two years (and another child, John, who also died young) before the Yorks got there.
They set sail in May 1449, with four children in tow, the oldest 10 and the youngest just 3. I don’t know if Henry Holland accompanied them. Cecily was pregnant again and gave birth to George on 21 October in Dublin. Governing Ireland was no easy task, as there were various warring factions to contend with, and York wasn’t sent sufficient funds to do the job properly. (For a more detailed account of his time in Ireland than I can give here, you should read this post by Brian Wainwright at the Yorkist Age.) Rather than failing at his task, given the lack of funds, York returned to England in the autumn of 1450, without permission but with a view to remedying the situation.
It was around this time that York’s career as opposition began to take off. In 1450, Jack Cade’s rebellion was carried out largely in his name, though there is no suggestion that York was behind it. He does seem to have come to the realisation, however, that he had some popularity in England and was being seen as an alternative to the current government of Henry VI. The refrain that was to last until almost the end of York’s life – complaints that his enemies were trying to have him accused of treason, and protestations of love for and loyalty to the king, had its genesis in this difficult time. Time and again, he went to the brink of open rebellion, only to pull back when given assurances that his loyalty was not in question.
In c1451, another child, Thomas, was born and died. The Yorks’ home base at this time was Fotheringhay, where their remaining children were to be born, though while in London they stayed at Baynard’s castle.
Meanwhile, York was stepping up his campaign against Edmund Beaufort, duke of Somerset, attempting several times to have him answer charges stemming from the loss of English territories in France.
Early in 1452, York attempted to gather a force and march on London, but, under the king’s orders, the city resisted him. The two forces confronted each other at Dartford. The earls of Salisbury and Warwick (Cecily’s brother and nephew), not yet associated with York as they would be later, were sent to negotiate. York presented his demands and his articles against Somerset and for a time believed he was going to get his wish. Instead, he was forced to make a public declaration of loyalty at St Paul’s and Somerset kept his position as Henry’s chief councillor.
There is a letter from Cecily to the queen from around this time (its dating is disputed), asking her to intercede with the king on her husband’s behalf. I’ll be blogging about that one a bit later.
Their last surviving child, Richard, was born on 2 October 1452 at Fotheringhay.
In April 1454, during the king’s first bout of illness, York was appointed protector and defender of England, responsibly solely for matters of defence, both internal and external. Though he’d been out of favour and power since Dartford, he got the position for a number of reasons: he was a natural choice by virtue of his high rank; few of the other lords were prepared to take on the responsibility of government; even fewer wanted Somerset in the position; and, despite a possibly natural claim as queen and mother of the heir to the throne, Margaret of Anjou’s bid for a regency was rejected, partly due to her sex, but also to the all encompassing nature of her proposal. York appointed Salisbury his chancellor, which surprised and shocked everyone, as the position had traditionally been filled by a high ranking lord spiritual.
Cecily joined her husband in London, and possibly travelled with him when he was summoned to a meeting with some of the council, though her main order of business at the time was attending the queen’s churching. This was an occasion of high ceremony, and as duchess of York, Cecily took a prominent role. She carried the young prince’s christening gown to the Abbey, where it was given as an offering. York, too, played a prominent role, though Margaret’s churching was not recorded in the same rich detail that Elizabeth Wydeville’s was some years later.
York achieved several things during his first protectorate, some of which had unfortunate repercussions. His dealings with the Nevill-Percy feud in the north of England will be dealt with in a later post. One of the more difficult things he faced was the attempted rebellion of his son-in-law, Henry Holland, duke of Exeter. Relations between York’s daughter, Anne, and her husband were never good and would deteriorate to the point of separation and divorce. How on earth they managed to conceive a child, the lord only knows, though I doubt it was a happy experience for Anne, and probably not for Henry. As Exeter was hand and fist with the Percies during this time, I’m not going to go into any great detail here. The upshot was that, with the arrest of the Percy brothers, Thomas lord Egremont and Richard, the rebellion collapsed. Exeter returned to London and took sanctuary in Westminster and was later sent to imprisonment in Pontefract castle. He was later sent to Wallingford and, after the king’s recovery, released.
York’s other great triumph at this time, largely due to the work of John Mowbray, duke of Norfolk, was the arrest of Somerset. He was, however, never brought to trial. The reason York gave for this was that it was a full council that had charged him and it should be a full council that tried him. As council and parliament weren’t well attended during the protectorate, this was a circumstance that never presented itself. York may well have been hesitant to take the matter any further, Somerset being out of the way in the Tower of London possibly enough to satisfy him, at least for a time.
Henry recovered over the new year period and York resigned the protectorate in January 1455, Salisbury resigned the chancellorship shortly afterwards.
The first battle of St Albans in May 1455 saw the triumph of York’s party, now firmly including Salisbury and Warwick, less firmly viscount Bourchier and with the duke of Norfolk hovering around the edges. Somerset was killed, possibly by Warwick, and, coincidentally, so too were two of the Nevills’ staunchest enemies – Henry Percy, earl of Northumberland, and lord Clifford. Somerset and Northumberland were no doubt targetted, their deaths being closer to political assassinations than honest deaths in battle, though Clifford was probably a lucky accident.
York’s second protectorate was very shortlived, and once again he lost political power and authority.
Cecily gave birth to a daughter, Ursula, in July 1455, though she didn’t survive. The York’s first grandchild, Anne Holland, was also born that year, though I can’t find a more specific date.
Just when York’s thoughts began to turn to kingship, as opposed to head of government, no-one knows. All of his actions before 1460 were taken in the name of the king and with assurances of loyalty. When the change came, it seemed both abrupt and inevitable. However, Cecily has been described as sitting almost as a queen, bestowing audiences and benevolences to all and sundry – very queenlike behaviour.
In 1459, York and his supporters met at Ludlow. Parliament (‘the parliament of devils’) had attainted a good many, including the countess of Salisbury, and once more York, Salisbury and Warwick were working to present themselves as loyal liegemen and natural holders of power. Popular mythology has Cecily and her younger children at Ludlow, left to the tender mercies of queen Margaret’s army after the flight of the men. It’s a pretty picture, brave duchess, her children pressing around her skirts, facing down the spite and cruelty of the she-wolf. I’m pretty sure she was actually in London at the time.
When the members of the Calais garrison deserted them on a promise of pardon – much to Warwick’s anger and chagrin – the Yorkists had no choice but to flee. Warwick, Edward earl of March and Salisbury took to the channel and eventually Calais, while York and his son Edmund earl of Rutland crossed over to Ireland (possibly with the countess of Salisbury with them, who may have been at Ludlow). As York’s ten year term as governor hadn’t expired, Ireland was the safest and most logical place to go. He immediately started to take charge, appointing Edmund his chancellor, though there were probably others who did the actual work.
Cecily, along with the other wives (apart from Alice Montacute) was specifically excluded from the attainder, was granted an annuity and sent to live with her sister, Anne duchess of Buckingham. Anne was just a year older than Cecily and, though they had opposing political views, her ‘captivity’ doesn’t seem to have been particularly onerous.
The Calais earls – Warwick, Salisbury and March – launched a successful invasion in June 1460, taking the time to collect the Cross of Canterbury along the way. While Salisbury held London, Warwick and March went north, fought and won the battle of Northampton and took the king back to London, essentially their prisoner. George Nevill, Warwick’s youngest brother, was named chancellor and once again, the Yorkists were back in power.
York returned to England on 9 September and made a slow progress to London, gathering followers along the way. Cecily set out to meet him on 23 September, leaving her younger children in the care of their brother, Edward. Warwick met with York at Shrewsbury, where their next step was discussed. It was likely at this point that the plan was laid for York to claim and seize the throne. He rode into London in procession, his sword carried in front of him (by Cecily? I seem to recall this detail, but I can’t retrieve it). He then went to Westminster and made his claim. It was not supported. Warwick had failed to get the archbishop of Canterbury (Thomas Bourchier) on side and without him the whole scheme was doomed. York, however, was not so quick to recognise this and it took some persuading, with a closed session with Thomas Nevill (and wouldn’t I love to know what was said!) finally convincing the duke that the plan had to change.
He presented his credentials to parliament, who sent them to the king for his consideration. Henry essentially shuffled the whole mess back to the lords. York’s claims were challenged one by one and adroitly answered. I think this is another rich vein, so I’m going to defer further discussion here and flag it for the future. (Besides, I’m running out of space and my hands are getting tired.) In the end, it was decided that Henry would be king for life, but that York (or his heirs) would succeed him. The disinheritance of her son did nothing to endear Margaret of Anjou to the duke of York.
Christmas 1460 saw the Yorkist party split: York, Salisbury, Thomas Nevill and Rutland were at Sandal castle; Warwick was holding London and March was somewhere in Wales. Cecily and the children were in London. At Wakefield, York met his end, along with his son, brother-in-law and nephew. With Warwick’s loss at the second battle of St Albans, it looked like the cause of York might well be lost.
Cecily sent her youngest sons, George and Richard, to Burgundy for their safety. Edward won the battle of Mortimer’s Cross, Margaret of Anjou failed to capitalise on her victory at St Albans and Warwick was able to retake London. At a meeting at Baynard’s castle, a decision was taken to declare young Edward king, which George Nevill did in a sermon at Paul’s Cross. Edward and Warwick won a decisive victory at Towton and it looked, this time, like the cause of Lancaster was lost.
Cecily Nevill was now the mother of the king of England, rather than queen as she had surely hoped. She took over the queen’s quarters at Westminster, refusing to move even when Edward married Elizabeth Wydeville four years later. She redesigned her personal arms to include the arms of England, reflecting her view that her husband had been rightfully king.
During Warwick’s years of rebellion, Cecily attempted to make peace between the parties, succeeding in the end in helping bring her son George (by now Warwick’s son-in-law) back into the fold. Edward had originally refused to allow George to marry Warwick’s daughter, Isobel, and Cecily was sent to Canterbury in a last ditch attempt to stop it, though she may well have been at the wedding itself (begun in England and finalised in Calais).
After Edward’s death in 1483, Cecily actively supported her youngest son Richard’s claim to the throne. At this time, suggestions of Edward’s bastardy came once more to the fore (Warwick having attempted that line earlier when he was considering George as England’s next king), and there is some suggestion that Cecily herself colluded with this. Whatever the truth of that, and whatever her motives, Cecily had a decided reluctance to support her grandson’s right to the throne.
After Richard III’s death at Bosworth, Cecily went into retirement at Bermondsey Abbey where she led a quasi religious life. She did, however, continue from time to time to dabble in politics, plotting against Henry Tudor and joining her daughter, Margaret duchess of Burgundy, in support of anyone who would (or could) challenge him.
Cecily died on 31 May 1495, barely a month after her 80th birthday. Of her children, only Elizabeth duchess of Suffolk survived her. She was buried with her husband and son, Edmund, at Forheringhay.