Written by Carolina Casas and Meg McGath
Lady Cecily (born Neville), Duchess of York, aka “Queen by Right” was one of the leading women of the War of the Roses. Mother of Kings; she was mother to Edward IV and Richard III of the House of York. She was the youngest daughter of Sir Ralph, Earl of Westmorland and his second wife, Lady Joan Beaufort. Joan was part of the illegitimate children of Prince John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster (son of King Edward III) and his mistress, later wife, Katherine (née Röet). Katherine had been a lady-in-waiting to the Duke’s mother, Queen Philippa. Their romance started during Lancaster’s second marriage to Constanza of Castile. After Constanza’s death, Katherine and Lancaster were married. A bill in Parliament was passed to legitimise their children. However, they were barred from the Royal Succession.
Lady Cecily married to Richard of York (Plantagenet) when she was just a teenager. This was normal for the time. The legal age for girls to marry was twelve and for boys it was fourteen. Richard was only a few years older. He was the son of Lord Richard, Earl of Cambridge and Lady Anne de Mortimer. Both of his parents had claims to the throne as descendants of King Edward III. Lord Richard was a grandson of Prince Edmund of Langley, 1st Duke of York (fourth surviving son of King Edward) while Lady Anne was a granddaughter of Philippa of Clarence; daughter of Prince Lionel of Antwerp, 1st Duke of Clarence (the second surviving son of King Edward).
When Richard and his son were killed at the battle of Wakefield in December of 1460, Cecily was forced to send her two youngest sons to Burgundy. At the time, Cecily’s cousin Isabel (of Portugal), was Duchess of Burgundy as the wife to Philip “the good”. The boys didn’t return until after their brother had successfully deposed Henry VI and made himself King.
Before Edward IV married Elizabeth, Cecily was one of the most influential women in the land. In the White Queen she is depicted as proud and an elitist, with many fans taking on the side of poor, poor, Jaquetta and her eldest daughter when they had to defend themselves against mean ol’ Cecily telling them she doesn’t approve of the marriage and will do anything to disinherit him, just to see the Woodvilles finished.
Portrayal in “The White Queen“
It is fashionable to see girl vs girl on screen, especially when it is royals. After all, in the realm of fiction it should be a woman’s show, right?
Except that this woman is based on a real person and contrary to popular belief, she wasn’t out to destroy the Woodvilles. Her son’s marriage really set things back for his dynasty (and the House of York). As far as Cecily knew, if one king could easily be deposed and coerced, another one could be too. And the Woodvilles weren’t royal so they brought no alliance, nothing to the table.
Elizabeth’s father was a mere knight when he married her mother. She lost her right to call herself Duchess of Bedford after their union. After he became Baron, she became Baroness, and the two were staunch Lancastrians. Elizabeth’s first husband, Lord Grey (a knight), had died fighting the Yorks after all. Cecily’s own husband, son, and brother died fighting for York. They were beheaded and paraded before the people. There must have been some animosity there on the part of the Yorks. Cecily would be denied her life long goal of becoming Queen of England only a few weeks before the wars ended.
Although the Rivers had been pardoned as early as 1461, after Edward IV became King, it didn’t change the fact that they had fought for the other side and after having lost so many family members, it was only natural Cecily was fearful of their union.
Elizabeth Woodville, proved to be everything that was expected out of a royal consort; but that didn’t make matters better for the nobles who saw this as a betrayal. They had risked their sons and fortunes to make Edward King, and when he turned their backs on them, choosing a Lancastrian widow over Warwick’s proposed betrothal with Bona of France, it was pretty much an all out war then.
No one is sure what Cecily’s role was during this time. If she instigated her next son and nephew to rebel against Edward is not recorded. However, why would she risk the shame of being labeled an adulterer? When the rumor of Edward not being the son of Richard, but of a Welsh archer named Blaybourne spread throughout the country, Cecily spoke against it. The rumour tactic was sparked after Edward married Elizabeth. As many know, it was not a good match. The royal family did not benefit. The match would bring Elizabeth’s large family to court. The Rivers wanted to make sure that they had a strong hold at court by marrying their children to the highest nobles. Some of the marriages were forced upon the nobles who had an impressive pedigree which would now be “tainted” by the common Woodvilles.
In the only biography of Cecily Neville, Amy Licence lists many possibilities, one of them being that Cecily probably didn’t agree with what George and Warwick were about to do but as a mother, gave her son his blessing before he went to Calais.
Another is that “she traveled to Sandwich in an attempt to talk George out of going through with the potentially dangerous union.” By this she meant the union between George and Warwick’s eldest daughter, Isabel. Warwick was a nephew of Cecily so the affinity was one that would have required a proper papal dispensation.
Following their disastrous attempt to overthrow Edward IV, the King reconciled with Warwick and George. We can only imagine what Elizabeth must have felt. After all, the Duke of Clarenece and Warwick had killed her father and younger brother before they imprisoned her husband. But she was forced to accept Edward’s reconciliation with them, having little to no agency.
Cecily in the meanwhile invited her sons the following year to Baynard’s Castle. “She may have had apologies” Licence theorizes, about the previous events. If she had attempted to dissuade George from turning against his brother, she might have felt she could have done more and this was her way of bringing her two sons together.
“For a woman of her status and pride, it seems unlikely that she would wish to see her sons in direct combat, as she knew all too well the personal, political and material losses she may suffer as a result.”
But if this was the case, it came to nothing. George and Warwick were back at their old schemes, only this time they didn’t only fail (again) but were forced to leave England and Warwick had to make another ally -one he probably swore never to make; an alliance with Margaret of Anjou, the Lancastrian queen.
Margaret of Anjou and the Duchess of York
Much has been said about the friendship between Jacquetta and Margaret of Anjou, but there is almost no mention of the friendship between her and Cecily.
At the time that Margaret was in the first stages of prregnancy, the two women travelled the countryside together. And it is very possible that the two visited Norfolk shrine to give thanks. That same year, the two women wrote to each other, once again expressing gratitude towards the holy mother.
Cecily had been previously placed under house arrest with her sister Anne, the Duchess of Buckingham following her husband and son’s exile. Her sister had sided with the Lancastrians out of loyalty to her husband (the Duke of Buckingham). It was also at this time that Cecily saw many of Henry and Margaret’s army rob her of her valuables. Hearnes’ Fragment, a chronicle written by a servant of Edward IV, recorded that the Lancastrian troops “burnt and pillaged the town; and the Duchess of York residing there, had her wardrobe rifled and her furniture spoiled.”
To make matters worse, Cecily had her three youngest children with her, and as many mother in her position would, she did everything she could to protect them. So she left the castle and bravely met with her old friend, the Queen, pleading with her. The Queen was merciful enough to let her stay with her sister, Duchess Anne.
After her husband’s return, he sent for Cecily. The two entered London triumphantly. Cecily was dressed for the occasion in a beautiful blue gown. It was at this time that Richard made his bid for the throne but the people were not ready for a Yorkist monarch, especially when their present King (although having proved himself incapable of ruling) was still alive. So Richard had to settle for an accord which stated that following the King’s death, he and his heirs would inherit the throne.
It is by this act alone that Cecily had ever right to call herself “Queen by Rights”. She was after all, one step away from being the first Consort of the House of York.
“It was at this time” Licence writes, referring to the year after Elizabeth Woodville was given a lavish coronation, “that she started using the title of “My Lady the King’s Mother” and retreated into the royal apartments whenever she was at court. As for her later self-given title, this came during the 1470s, after Edward IV had regained his throne and rid himself of the Lancastrian threat.
Cecily became very religious during this time, and while she still kept up with the latest fashions, the Duchess followed a strict regime.
The Princes in the Tower
“What did Cecily believe had happened to her grandsons? Did she and Richard have a conversation about their futures?” (Licence)
When Richard, Duke of Gloucester, her younger son, made a bid for the English throne, she stayed silent. In the “White Queen”, she is not silent. Instead, the show portrays the fictional Cecily as whispering in Richard’s ear along with the other PG’s Lady Macbethesque character (Richard’s wife) Anne Neville. The two women try to convince Richard to rid himself of the Princes in the tower. They are after all Woodville puppets.
It is true that Richard was fearful for his safety. Like the Woodvilles, he wanted control over his royal nephew. And while some historians contest that Richard was never made Lord Protector and that is was just a lie to get power. Other historians argue that he was and that the Woodvilles were simply out to get him. The truth is that they were all scrambling for power over the new boy King and that they were all in danger.
This was the real life “Game of Thrones” and the Woodvilles became more influential following the Lancastrian Readeption. The appointment of Elizabeth’s brother, Anthony, Earl of Rivers, as the Prince of Wales’s governor was also a road block after the death of Edward. As the new King was escorted to London, Richard intercepted them. The boy haughtily replied that he would trust no one other than his uncle Anthony. As the day went on, the boy showed that he had a defiant attitude towards his paternal uncle, Richard. The trust that was built with his mother’s family started early on, and it was apparent that it would not be broken.
To suggest that Cecily would have coldly advocated their murder is taking a lot of artistic licence. Hollywood loves to play loose with history and this time, there was no exception when it came to “The White Queen”. While there is some basis for her disconent, it is unlikely that she would have condoned two of her grandchildren’s murder. We don’t know what her feelings were; we can only speculate. Historically, Richard did use one of Cecily’s residences as he plotted his rise to power. But, nobody knows for certain if she was present. There is no evidence either way. However, that didn’t stop the show from placing her in residence as one of the plotters.
Amidst betrayal, intrigue, and more death, Cecily left this world in May of 1495. This was a woman who had lived through the murders of her husband, son, and brother; the internal war of her sons Edward and George, which ended in George’s execution; her House’s rise and fall, and the vilification of the last King of the House of York, her son Richard. The House of Tudor defeated Richard in 1485 and Cecily was still alive when her granddaughter, Elizabeth of York (eldest daughter of Edward), become queen to the new King, Henry VII.
Cecily left several religious items to the church at Fotheringhay and other valuable items to her next of kin, including her great-grandson, Prince Arthur (Tudor) of Wales. She even left something for the current “My Lady the King’s Mother”, Margaret Beaufort, which was a service book covered with black cloth of gold with gold claps.
Cecily was buried with her husband Richard and son Edmund in Fortheringhay. The current memorial is the work commissioned by her great-great-granddaughter, Queen Elizabeth I (Tudor).
For more information on Cecily, check out “Cecily Neville: Mother of Kings” by Amy Licence and “Blood Sisters” by Sarah Gristwood which is about all the women in the wars of the roses, stretching to the Tudor period with Henry VIII’s ascension and joint coronation with his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.