There are a number of titles I might have chosen for this discussion of Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, mother of Richard III and the fourth woman we meet in The Protector. In her younger days, she was known as “the Rose of Raby,” perhaps because of her beauty. In middle life, she was sometimes called “Proud Cis” for reasons that are probably self-explanatory and not terribly flattering. But the title she gave herself in her later years was “Queen by Right.”
Cecily was never a queen though she could boast a tincture of royal blood. She was born on May 3, 1415, at Raby Castle in County Durham, the youngest of 22 children(!) of Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmoreland. Her mother was his second wife, Joan Beaufort, a daughter of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and the third son of Edward III. At eight years of age, she was betrothed to her father’s ward, Richard, Duke of York, whom she married in 1429 when she was fourteen. Unlike Cecily, Richard had a very real claim to the throne, for he was descended from the second son of Edward III and thus arguably had a better bloodline than then-reigning King Henry VI.
Although it was obviously a dynastic union, the marriage does appear to have been successful. Cecily produced a total of 12 children, several of whom died when they were very young. Even for a woman in fifteenth century England, she lived a tumultuous life. Her husband’s strong claim to the throne, coupled with King Henry VI’s periodic bouts of madness, led the duke to assert his right to rule while the king was incapacitated. This earned him a predictable amount of animosity from the king’s party and led to the conflict we now call the “Wars of the Roses,” a pretty name for a not-very-pretty series of battles between cousins. Family dysfunction with swords, long-bows, and cannon! One of Cecily’s lowest moments came in October, 1459 when her husband abandoned her and their three youngest children (including his namesake, 7-years-old Richard) at Ludlow Castle as he fled the oncoming Lancastrian army. Fortunately, neither she nor the children were harmed, but it must have been a humiliating experience for such a proud, noble lady.
Worse was to follow. Richard of York was slain in late December, 1460, in the Battle of Wakefield. His head was severed from his body, crowned with a paper crown, and displayed on a pike over Micklegate Bar, one of the main gateways to the city of York. We can only imagine how difficult this news must have been for Cecily, especially since she also lost her second son, Edmund, in the same battle. Her eldest son, Edward, Duke of March, had not been at Wakefield, and he soon set about avenging his father’s death and asserting his own claim to the throne. With the invaluable assistance of Cecily’s nephew, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, he won two more hard-fought battles and was crowned King Edward IV on June 28, 1461.
After his victory, Cecily began to style herself as “Cecily, the king’s mother, and late wife unto Richard, in right king of England,” or more simply “Queen by Right.” Despite her prideful words, she was more or less shunted aside when Edward married Elizabeth Woodville, a commoner and the widow of a Lancastrian knight whose first husband had been slain fighting on the opposing side. It was said that Cecily was so angry with Edward that she let it be known he was a bastard, not the true son of her late husband. This would seem an extraordinary claim for a woman to make about her son, not to mention an admission of her own adultery, but historians have found some support for this in the surviving records. The old tidbit of gossip does make an appearance in The Protector when it is used by the Duke of Buckingham to further Richard of Gloucester’s claim to the throne.
In The Protector, I portray Richard III’s relationship with his mother as not being particularly close. He was the youngest surviving child; apparently his birth was difficult, and she had to be “cut” to deliver him. Perhaps that explains her seeming coolness toward him. While he observes all of the filial obligations due to a mother from a son, she does not seem to have played a major role in his life. For reasons we can only speculate on today, she did not even attend his coronation.
In her later years, Cecily Neville was known for her piety and lived an almost monastic existence. She died on May 31, 1495, at the ripe old age of 80. At the time of her death, only two of her many children, both daughters, were left to mourn her passing, but her granddaughter, Elizabeth of York, was Henry VII’s queen-consort. Through her, Cecily Neville, though never a queen herself, became an ancestor of all subsequent English monarchs.