Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Sunday, May 3, 2015

Cecily Neville, "the Rose of Raby"

Cecily Neville, duchess of York (born 3 May 1415)

One recent biography of Cecily Neville is subtitled "mother of kings"--and, no doubt, Cecily Neville was the mother of two English kings, Edward IV and Richard III. (She was also the wife of a man who wanted very much to be king, Richard Plantagenet, the duke of York.)

But being the mother of kings wasn't quite enough for Cecily Neville--after her son Edward married Elizabeth Woodville, a woman she did not approve of, Cecily styled herself "queen by right." In 1469, still not happy with her son, Cecily seems to have declared Edward to be illegitimate so that her second son, George, duke of Clarence, could be king--which would have made her the mother of three kings . . .

A portrait of Cecily Neville,
a nineteenth-century reconstruction of medieval stained glass,
St. Andrew's Church, Penrith
In any case, while she was indeed the mother of two relatively short-lived kings, Cecily Neville was also much more. Not only did she regard herself as "queen by right," Cecily Neville was also the mother of three very successful daughters, including Margaret of York.

As duchess of Burgundy, Margaret of York was not a queen, but, whether it offered Margaret the title of queen or not, Burgundy was the wealthiest, most culturally advanced, and sophisticated court in Europe. Among her many accomplishments, Margaret, as duchess of Burgundy, had a role in Burgundian politics, was a patron of many artists, and was an influential and stable figure in the life of her step-granddaughter, Margaret of Austria.

A detail from the St. Andrew's window, above left
In addition to being the mother of such an accomplished woman, Cecily was also the mother of two other duchesses (Anne of York, duchess of Exeter, and Elizabeth of York, duchess of Suffolk, whose sons would continue the Yorkist claim to the English throne into another generation). Cecily was also the grandmother of a queen, another Elizabeth of York, who would marry Henry Tudor, the man who defeated her uncle, Richard III, at the battle of Bosworth.

Cecily Neville herself was the eighteenth child (!) of Ralph Neville and his second wife, Joan Beaufort--who was the daughter of John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, and thus through this connection (Gaunt was the son of King Edward III), Cecily had royal blood. (As did her husband, who also descended from Edward III.) During their thirty-year marriage, Cecily gave birth to thirteen children, six of whom died in infancy; in addition to the six surviving children we've already mentioned, Edmund of Rutland died with his father at the battle of Wakefield.

Beyond producing children and managing the enormous households associated with two great families, Cecily Neville supported her husband's political and martial activities. After his death, she acquired even more land, wealth, and titles, she was a noted patron of religious and educational institutions, and she played a significant role in attempting to secure a brilliant continental match for her son, Edward--thus her disappointment with his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville. I should add here that there is much debate about the source of the claim that Edward was not his father's son--the degree of his mother's involvement, if any, isn't at all clear.

But there was a rift between mother and son after Edward's marriage, and that meant Cecily spent a great deal of time away from court; after Edward's death, she supported her son Richard's claim to the throne, asserting his legitimacy and the illegitimacy of the claims of Edward's sons, the ill-fated "princes in the Tower." 

Even after Richard's death in 1485, the indefatigable Cecily Neville was not done--there is some evidence that she was still involved in political intrigue at the time of her own death in 1495, when her servants were connected with the conspiracy plots involving Perkin Warbeck, who claimed to be the younger of the two missing princes, suddenly returned to claim his throne.

In her will, Cecily Neville left a poignant bequest to her great grandson, Prince Arthur, the son of Henry Tudor (who had killed Cecily's son, Richard III, at the battle of Bosworth), and of Cecily's granddaughter, Elizabeth of York: a set of bed hangings, made of arras, or Flemish tapestry, decorated with "the Whele [wheel] of Fortune," a potent image of the fickleness of human life.

Cecily Neville was sometimes romanticized by later historians as the "rose of Raby" because of her great beauty (the "rose" part) and because she was born at Raby Castle. She was the principal character in a quartet of novels written in the 1970s by Eleanor Fairburn: The Rose in Spring (1971); White Rose, Dark Summer (1972); The Rose at Harvest End (1975); and Winter's Rose (1976). More recently, she makes an appearance in Philippa Gregory's The Cousins' War series.

In this image from the Neville Book of Hours, 1425,
Ralph Neville is pictured with twelve of his children,
including Cecily 
The life of Cecily Neville is covered well in Sarah Gristwood's Blood Sisters: The Women behind the Wars of the Roses. Amy License's Cecily Neville: Mother of Kings is the first full-length biography. For her definitive treatment, I highly recommend J. L. Laynesmith's 2017 Cecily Duchess of York.

And as one last intriguing note, Cecily Neville probably owned a copy of Christine de Pizan's The Book of the City of Ladies.

Update, August 2021: You may also be interested in a History Extra podcast episode on Cecily Neville, the "forgotten matriarch of the Wars of the Roses" (to listen, click here).