Cecily Neville, Duchess of York

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Cecily Neville
Duchess of York
Cecily neville.jpg
Cecily, Duchess of York by Edward Harding, 1792, National Portrait Gallery, London
Born (1415-05-03)3 May 1415
Raby Castle, Durham, England
Died 31 May 1495(1495-05-31) (aged 80)
Berkhamsted Castle, Hertfordshire, England
Burial Church of St Mary and All Saints, Fotheringhay
Spouse Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York
among others
Anne of York, Duchess of Exeter
Edward IV, King of England
Edmund, Earl of Rutland
Elizabeth of York, Duchess of Suffolk
Margaret of York, Duchess of Burgundy
George, 1st Duke of Clarence
Richard III, King of England
House House of Neville (by birth)
House of York (by marriage)
Father Ralph Neville, 1st Earl of Westmorland
Mother Lady Joan Beaufort

Cecily Neville, Duchess of York (3 May 1415 – 31 May 1495)[1] was an English noblewoman, the wife of Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York, and the mother of two Kings of England, Edward IV and Richard III. Cecily Neville was known as "the Rose of Raby", because she was born at Raby Castle in Durham, and "Proud Cis", because of her pride and a temper that went with it, although she was also known for her piety. She herself signed her name "Cecylle".

Her husband, the Duke of York, was the leading contender for the throne of England from the House of York during the period of the War of the Roses until his death in 1460. His son Edward, Earl of March, actually assumed the throne as Edward IV in 1461, after the deposition of King Henry VI of the House of Lancaster. The Duchess of York thus narrowly missed becoming queen consort of England.[2] However, in 1477, following the marriage of her grandson Richard of York, the duchess was accorded the title Queen of right after using the title of Cecily, the king's mother and late wife unto Richard in right king of England and of France and lord of Ireland since 1464.[3][4]


Cecily Neville was a daughter of Ralph Neville, 1st Earl of Westmorland, and Joan Beaufort, Countess of Westmorland. Her paternal grandparents were John Neville, 3rd Baron Neville de Raby, and the Hon. Maud Percy, daughter of Henry de Percy, 2nd Baron Percy. Her maternal grandparents were John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster, and his third wife Katherine Swynford. John of Gaunt was the third surviving son of King Edward III of England and Philippa of Hainault. By her mother, Cecily was a niece of King Henry IV of England.

She was the aunt of Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick, one of the leading peers and military commanders of his generation, a grand-aunt of Queen consort Anne Neville, and a great-great-grand-aunt of Queen consort Catherine Parr, sixth wife of her great-grandson, King Henry VIII.

Duchess of York[edit]

In 1424, when Cecily was nine years old, she was betrothed by her father to his thirteen-year-old ward, Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York. Ralph Neville died in October 1425, bequeathing the wardship of Richard to his widow, Joan Beaufort. Cecily and Richard were married by October 1429. Their first child Joan was born in 1438, but died young. Their next child, Anne of York, was born in August 1439 in Northamptonshire. When Richard became a king's lieutenant and governor general of France in 1441 and moved to Rouen, Cecily moved with him. Their son Henry was born in February but died soon after.

Their next son, the future King Edward IV, was born in Rouen on 28 April 1442 and immediately baptised privately in a small side chapel. He would later be accused of illegitimacy by his cousin, Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick, and by his own brother, George, Duke of Clarence, a common method of discrediting political enemies. George and Warwick were in dispute with Edward at the time and seeking to overthrow him as king. The claims would later be dismissed. Nonetheless, some modern historians give serious consideration to the question, and use Edward's date of birth as supporting evidence: assuming Edward was not premature (there being no evidence either way), Richard of York would have been several days' march from Cecily at the time of conception and the baby's baptism was a simple and private affair, unlike that of his younger brother Edmund, Earl of Rutland, which was public and lavish). This is countered by other historians, however, who point out that Cecily's husband could easily, by the military conventions of the time, have returned briefly to Rouen, where Cecily was living at the time, while baptism conventions of the time meant that a low-key baptism would be more likely due to Richard of York's relatively low political standing at the time and fears for the baby's survival. If the difference in baptisms was to be taken as a disavowal of an otherwise acknowledged and cherished heir, it would not only be a humiliation of a wife Richard otherwise valued before and after Edward's birth, but also a personal and political humiliation. In any case, Richard acknowledged the baby as his own, which established legal paternity.

Around 1454, when Richard began to resent the influence of Edmund Beaufort, 1st Duke of Somerset (a first cousin of his wife), Cecily spoke with Queen consort Margaret of Anjou on his behalf. When Henry VI suffered a nervous breakdown later in the year, Richard of York established himself as a Protector.

After the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses in 1455, Cecily remained at their home, Ludlow Castle, even after Richard fled to Ireland and Continental Europe. At the same time, she surreptitiously worked for the cause of the House of York. When a parliament began to debate the fate of the Duke of York and his supporters in November 1459, Cecily travelled to London to plead for her husband. One contemporary commentator stated that she had reputedly convinced the king to promise a pardon if the duke would appear in the parliament in eight days. This effort failed, and Richard's lands were confiscated, but Cecily managed to gain an annual grant of £600 to support herself and her children.

After the Yorkist victory at the Battle of Northampton in July 1460, Cecily moved to London with her children and lived with the lawyer John Paston. She carried the royal arms before Richard in triumph in London in September. When the Duke of York and his heirs were officially recognised as Henry VI's successors in the Act of Accord, Cecily became a queen-in-waiting and even received a copy of the English chronicle from the chronicler John Hardyng.

But in the Battle of Wakefield on 30 December 1460, the Lancastrians won a decisive victory. The Duke of York, his second son Edmund, Earl of Rutland, and Cecily's brother Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury, were among the casualties. Cecily sent her two youngest sons, George and Richard, to the court of Philip III, Duke of Burgundy. This forced Philip to ally with the Yorkists.

Mother of two kings[edit]

Cecily's eldest son Edward successfully continued the fight against the Lancastrians. When Cecily moved to Baynard's Castle in London, it became the Yorkist headquarters, and after Edward defeated the Lancastrians and ascended the throne, she became an effective Queen Mother.

During the beginning of Edward's reign, Cecily appeared beside him and maintained her influence. In 1461, she revised her coat of arms to include the royal arms of England, hinting that her husband had been a rightful king. When Edward married Elizabeth Woodville, he built new queen's quarters for her and let his mother remain in the queen's quarters in which she had been living.

In 1469, her nephew Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick, father-in-law of her sons George and Richard, rebelled against Edward IV. Warwick also began to spread rumours that the king was a bastard and that his true father was not the Duke of York, but an archer named Blaybourne, evidence of which has been assembled.[5] By some interpretations, that would have meant that Clarence was the rightful king. Warwick had earlier made similar accusations against Queen Margaret of Anjou. Cecily said little about the matter in public, despite the fact that she had been accused of adultery. She visited Sandwich, possibly trying to reconcile the parties. When the rebellion failed the first time, she invited Edward and George to London to reconcile them. Peace did not last long, and in the forthcoming war, she still tried to make peace between her sons.

Edward IV was briefly overthrown by Warwick and Margaret of Anjou, and for about six months (October 1470 – April 1471), Henry VI was restored to the throne. The breach between Edward and his brother George was apparently never really healed; indeed, George was executed for treason in the Tower of London on 18 February 1478. Edward IV died suddenly on 9 April 1483, leaving two sons aged 13 and 10, the elder one known to history as King Edward V. Cecily Neville's youngest son Richard, their uncle, was appointed their protector by Edward's will, but he had them placed in the Tower of London, whence they were never to emerge; their fate is still a matter of dispute. A subsequent 'enquiry' found that that Edward IV's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville had been invalid. The so-called Princes in the Tower were thus declared illegitimate by Act of Parliament in 1483 to allow their uncle Richard to be crowned Richard III on 6 July 1483.

Duchess Cecily was on good terms with Richard's wife Lady Anne Neville (her grandniece), with whom she discussed religious works such as the writings of Mechtilde of Hackeborn.[6]

Richard's reign was brief; he was defeated and killed on 22 August 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth by the leader of the Lancastrian party, Henry Tudor, who immediately assumed the throne as King Henry VII. Thus Cecily's husband and four sons had all died by 1485, although two of her daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret, still lived. On 18 January 1486, Cecily's granddaughter, Elizabeth of York, eldest daughter of Edward IV, married Henry VII and became Queen of England. Cecily devoted herself to religious duties and her reputation for piety comes from this period.

Death and will[edit]

Duchess Cecily died on 31 May 1495 and was buried in the tomb with her husband Richard and their son Edmund at the Church of St Mary and All Saints, Fotheringhay, Northamptonshire, with a papal indulgence. All subsequent English monarchs, beginning with Henry VIII, are descendants of Elizabeth of York, and therefore of Cecily Neville.

"Cecill wif unto the right noble Prince Richard late Duke of Yorke" made her will on 1 April 1495. It was proved at the Prerogative Court of Canterbury on 27 August of the same year.[7]



Her children with Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York, were:

  1. Joan of York (February 1438 – died young).
  2. Anne of York (10 August 1439 – 14 January 1476), primarily wife of Henry Holland, 3rd Duke of Exeter, and secondly, Sir Thomas St. Leger.
  3. Henry of York (10 February 1441 – 10 February 1441), died soon after birth.
  4. Edward IV of England (28 April 1442 – 9 April 1483).
  5. Edmund, Earl of Rutland (17 May 1443 – 30 December 1460).
  6. Elizabeth of York (22 April 1444 – possibly after January 1503), wife of John de la Pole, 2nd Duke of Suffolk.
  7. Margaret of York (3 May 1446 – 23 November 1503), married Charles I, Duke of Burgundy.
  8. William of York (7 July 1447 – died young).
  9. John of York (b. 7 November 1448 – died young).
  10. George Plantagenet, 1st Duke of Clarence (21 October 1449 – 18 February 1478), drowned in his favourite wine.
  11. Thomas of York (1450/1451 – died young).
  12. Richard III of England (2 October 1452 – 22 August 1485), killed in battle.
  13. Ursula of York (22 July 1455 – died young).

Coat of arms[edit]

Arms of Cecily Neville, Duchess of York
Arms of Cecily Neville, Duchess of York.svg
Richard of York became the 3rd Duke of York in 1432. As the wife of the Duke of York, Cecily bore the arms of her husband impaled with those of her father, the Earl of Westmorland (Neville).[8]
12 May 1432
Quarterly, 1st and 4th, France modern, 2nd and 3rd England, with a label of three points Argent each point charged with three torteaux Gules; impaled by Gules a saltire Argent (Neville).[8]
Sinister chained Stag/Hart argent, Dexter white Lion rampant gardant (like that which her son, Edward IV, adopted as Earl of March);[9] surmounted by a chained falcon badge.[3]
As the daughter of Ralph Neville, 1st Earl of Westmorland, Cecily inherited Westmorland's arms which were impaled with that of the Duke of York's. The Duke of York inherited the associated arms of his grandfather, Edmund of Langley, son of King Edward III; Quarterly, 1st and 4th, France modern, 2nd and 3rd England, with a label of three points Argent each point charged with three torteaux Gules.[8] In 1461, Cecily changed her arms to include the Royal coat of arms of England to imply that her late husband had been the rightful king.[3]

Fictional portrayals[edit]

Cecily Neville as the Duchess of York is a principal character in Shakespeare's play The Tragedy of King Richard III. She is portrayed as having deep affection for her dead sons George and Edward, but is cold and unloving to Richard, who she refers to as a "false glass that grieves me when I see my shame in him." Because Richard is depicted as a hunchback – he suffered from scoliosis, not kyphosis – the Duchess seems to hate him for his deformity and for his difficult birth, which several characters in the play gossip about. After Richard has done away with The Princes in the Tower, his mother turns against him completely, cursing him with the damning words: "Bloody thou art, Bloody will be thy end!" She has been portrayed by many noted actresses, including Elinor Aickin, Eleanor Bron, Annette Crosbie (for BBC Shakespeare in 1983), Helen Haye (in Laurence Olivier's 1955 film), Anne Jeffreys, and, in the 1995 film starring Ian McKellen, Dame Maggie Smith. In this last version, her character was given several scenes belonging to Margaret of Anjou in the actual play. In the 1955 Olivier film, her role was reduced to little more than a bit part.

In 2013, the Duchess is portrayed by Caroline Goodall in the television series The White Queen; a series based on three of the novels from the Cousins' War series by author Philippa Gregory. In episode one, Lady Cecily's first scene is an exchange with Jacquetta of Luxembourg and her daughter, Elizabeth Woodville. In this meeting, Jacquetta, as her daughter's mouthpiece, really oversteps the historical mark. The disapproving Duchess, who was known in real life as "proud Cis," is too easily overcome by her social inferiors when they whip out her apparent "secret" affair with a French archer and Elizabeth commands that she bow before her. Lost for words, she is silenced within minutes, almost cowed by them. While contemporary notions of "courtesy" dictated extreme forms of submission to the queen, this is a Lady Cecily straight from the pages of a novel rather than the actual proud aristocrat who asserted her own right to rule.[10]

The Cousins' War series of novels by Philippa Gregory:

An imaginary novel about Cecily entitled The Rose of Raby is discussed in Josephine Tey's 1951 novel The Daughter of Time. She is a leading character in Sharon Kay Penman's 1982 Richard III novel, The Sunne in Splendour. She is one of the principal characters in the 1983 novel The Dragon Waiting by John M. Ford and is essential to the plot of the novel Sovereign by C. J. Sansom. Two books were published in 2011 that dramatised the Duchess's life: One by novelist Anne Easter Smith titled Queen by Right, and another by novelist Cynthia Sally Haggard titled Thwarted Queen.


  1. ^ http://www.r3.org/basics/basic6.html
  2. ^ Alison J Spedding. At the King's Pleasure: The Testament of Cecily Neville, University of Birmingham. Midland History, Vol 35, No 2, 2010. pg 256-72.
  3. ^ a b c Joanna Laynesmith. The Kings' Mother, History today. 56, no. 3, (2006): 38
  4. ^ William Henry Black, Illustrations of ancient state and chivalry from manuscripts preserved in the Ashmolean museum, 1840, p29
  5. ^ "Britain's Real Monarch". Channel 4. 
  6. ^ Hilton, Lisa (2008). p. 456.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  7. ^ The National Archives: PROB11/10/447.
  8. ^ a b c Pinches, John Harvey; Pinches, Rosemary (1974), The Royal Heraldry of England, Heraldry Today, Slough, Buckinghamshire: Hollen Street Press, ISBN 0-900455-25-X
  9. ^ Pinches, John Harvey; Pinches, Rosemary (1974), The Royal Heraldry of England, Heraldry Today, Slough, Buckinghamshire: Hollen Street Press. pg 113. ISBN 0-900455-25-X
  10. ^ Licence, Amy (17 June 2013). "The White Queen: romance, sex, magic, scowling, social snobbery and battles". New Statesman. Retrieved 30 September 2014. 
  • Joanna Laynesmith: The King's Mother (History Today March 2006)

Further reading[edit]

  • Amy Licence: Cecily Neville: Mother of Kings (Amberley, 2014)

External links[edit]