Neville, Cecily (1415–1495)

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Neville, Cecily (1415–1495)

Duchess of York. Name variations: Cecily, duchess of York; Lady Cecily Neville; Cecily of York; the Rose of Raby. Born on May 3, 1415, in Raby Castle, Durham, England; died on May 31, 1495, at Berkhempsted or Berkhamsted Castle, Hertfordshire, England; daughter of Joan Beaufort (1379–1440) and Sir Ralph Neville of Raby; married Richard, 3rd duke of York, Lord Protector, in 1424 (died 1460); children: Joan (1438–1438); Anne Plantagenet (1439–1476); Henry (b. 1441, died young); Edward IV (1442–1483), king of England (r. 1461–1483); Edmund (1443–1460), earl of Rutland; Elizabeth de la Pole (1444–1503), duchess of Suffolk; Margaret of York (1446–1503); William (b. 1447, died young); John (b. 1448, died young); George (1449–1478), duke of Clarence; Thomas (born c. 1451, died young); Richard III (1452–1485), king of England (r. 1483–1485); Ursula (born c. 1454, died young).

Cecily Neville was an important figure in England's Wars of the Roses. She and her husband, Richard, 3rd duke of York, founded the House of York, and helped two of their sons become kings. One of nine surviving children of the powerful earl of Westmoreland and Joan Beaufort , Cecily was the great-granddaughter of King Edward III on her mother's side. In 1423, her young royal cousin, Richard Plantagenet, became her father's ward and came to live with the Neville family at Raby Castle; a betrothal was soon arranged between the two children. Some time the next year, Richard married the "Rose of Raby," as Cecily was popularly called because of her beauty. It was common for noble families to make marriage contracts—essentially alliances between families—for children, and for the young couples to live separately until they were adults. Cecily's first child Anne Plantagenet was born in 1439, suggesting that she and Richard began to live together in the late 1430s.

They were a close couple, and despite the disorder of the years of civil warfare they helped create, Cecily and Richard were rarely separated. In 1449, she accompanied him to Ireland, where he governed for Henry VI; she also traveled with him across England and France. Cecily had at least twelve children, of whom seven survived infancy. Much of her daily routine was taken up by her maternal duties and her extensive responsibilities as mistress of a large household. But the duchess, as ambitious as her husband, was also an active participant in the political struggles which emerged between Richard and King Henry VI. The king was mentally unstable and easily controlled by his advisors as well as by his queen, Margaret of Anjou (1429–1482); Margaret came to lead the effort to save King Henry's throne from the duke of York, who actually had the stronger claim to be king. When Richard made the bid for power which created open civil conflict, Cecily's ambitions for her growing family led her to devote herself to his cause, working to increase support for him among the northern cities.

In 1459, she and her three youngest children were taken into custody by Queen Margaret of Anjou's army at Ludlow after Duke Richard was defeated in battle. The Yorkists were charged with treason by Parliament, who put Cecily's sister Anne Neville , duchess of Buckingham, in charge of the captive Cecily. She was treated well during those months with the duke and duchess, and the king provided a large income for her support. Cecily was allowed to meet with Henry VI and pleaded successfully with him to spare the lives of captured Yorkists and to return some of the York property he had confiscated. After her release in the summer of 1460, the duchess rejoined her husband and children to continue the fight for the throne. In November, Duke Richard was proclaimed Protector of England. The victory was short-lived, however, and he and one of his sons were killed in battle on December 30. Her grief only reinforced Cecily's determination that the House of York should rule, and after sending her younger sons to Burgundy for protection, she supported the claim of her eldest son Edward. It was at Cecily's London estate, Baynard Castle, that Edward was proclaimed king in March 1461.

Edward IV relied heavily on his mother's counsel in the early years of his reign. While he consolidated his power on the battlefield, Cecily was tireless in her efforts to win the support of the Londoners for the new king. Her vocal disapproval of Edward's secret marriage in 1464 to Elizabeth Woodville weakened her sway over him. She also had an unfortunate relationship with her son George, duke of Clarence. George sided with the Lancastrian party in the 1470s and plotted against King Edward. To bolster his own claim to the throne, he spread a rumor that Edward was not really the duke of York's son but Cecily's son by an affair with a soldier, and so was unfit to rule. There was no truth to the story, which Cecily vehemently denied, but it shows that George was willing to insult his mother's honor for his own benefit. She sought to forgive his insult, however, and even pleaded for his life before Edward had George executed for treason.

By 1480, Cecily, now about 65 years old, had retired to her estates at Berkhamsted and took the vows of the Benedictine order. Always a pious woman, she had grown increasingly religious in her later years. She did support her son Richard (III), who took the throne in 1483 after Edward IV's death, but she did not attend his coronation and made no public appearances. Although the duchess never forgot her earlier ambitions to the throne, and continued to use the royal heraldic arms of England, her political days were over. She spent most of her time reading the devotional texts in her extensive library and attending private services. The death of King Richard III in 1485 marked the end of the House of York's rule; Cecily had outlived the dynasty she had worked hard to create, surviving all but two of her children. She died in 1495 at the age of 80 and, following the terms of her will, was buried beside her husband at Fotheringay Castle.


Cheetham, Anthony. The Life and Times of Richard III. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1972.

Weir, Alison. The Wars of the Roses. NY: Ballantine Books, 1995.

Laura York , Riverside, California

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Neville, Cecily (1415–1495)

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