Cecily Neville, Duchess of York

Finding out about people in the 15th century: Cecily Neville, Duchess of York
Continuing our series on 15th century people let us look for a change at the life of a woman., Women in the Middle Ages are somewhat shadowy figures; they rarely appear in records as individuals in their own right but as the daughter, wife or widow of a named man. There are exceptions to this generalisation of course, and the more important the woman the more likely that she will have left her own records. Some household accounts and other records survive for the queens Margaret of Anjou, Elizabeth Woodville and Elizabeth of York, but sadly nothing similar for Anne Neville. Margaret Beaufort has left large quantities of estate papers, correspondence, accounts and even memoirs by those who knew her, providing ample material for biographers. But let us look at another woman, close to the throne but never seated on it, although she may have felt she had that right.

Cecily Neville was born in 1415, the youngest of the twenty-three children of Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmorland. Her mother was his second wife Joan Beaufort, daughter of John of Gaunt. As part of the Neville family’s policy of extending their influence by marriage alliances with other noble families she was betrothed to Richard Duke of York as a child and they were married when she was about 14 and he was four years older.

In common with the lives of other noble ladies of this period most of the information we can trace is based on the records of her husband’s activities (for which see the only detailed biography, Richard Duke of York 1411-1460 by P.A. Johnson, 1988) and the dates when her twelve children were born. Judging by the children’s birth-places (Edward, Edmund and Elizabeth at Rouen and George in Dublin) Cecily accompanied her husband on his duties in both France and Ireland and perhaps shared his ambitious dreams, planning to wed one of his sons to a French princess, speculating on his chanes of succeeding to the throne of Castile, and living above his means. Cecily herself, known as the ‘Rose of Raby’, is said to have spent so much on clothes (£608 in the year 1443-4, almost the annual income of an earl) that her husband ws forced to appoint a special officer to keep a watch on her expenditure.

During the 1450s when Richard was back in England and involved in the political in-fighting of the period Cecily lived mainly at Fotheringhay with her younger children. In 1460 the Duke of York achieved his ambition of being declared heir to the thone, but it was a short-lived triumph, for by the end of the year he was dead, slain at the battle of Wakefield. Cecily sent her youngest sons, George and Richard, to safety in Burgundy. By the spring her eldest surviving son had defeated the Lancastrians and been crowned as Edward IV. Her official title now was ‘Cecily the King’s mother and late wife unto Richard rightful King of England’.

During the reigns of her sons and her grand-daughter she seems to have taken little part in political affairs although her name is usually among the list of those attending family ceremonies such as christenings and weddings. She lived mainly at Fotheringhay until she exchanged it for Berkhamsted and Kings Langley in 1469. She also had property in Kennington in Surrey and usually stayed at Baynards Castle, on the bank of the Thames near Blackfriars, when she was in London.

It is during these years of retirement that two documents give us our most revealing glimpses of Cecily. The first is a set of household ordinances probably drawn up at a date between 1485 and her death in 1495. It was published in A Collection of Ordinances and Regulations for the Government of the Royal Household (1790). This sets out the pattern of her days, divided between services in her chapel, prayer and meditation, devotional reading, meals, giving audience to suitors and relaxation with her gentlewomen after supper. The second document is her will, with many bequests of religious books, hangings, rosaries and Agnus Dei to her grandchildren, servants and supporters of her family. These two documents with other material are discussed in an interesting and comprehensive article on The Piety of Cecily Duchess of York: a study in late medieval culture by C.A.J. Armstrong (first published in the book For Hilaire Belloc: Essays in Honour of his 72nd Birthday edited by Douglas Woodruff, 1942). The picture the documents give us is of a devout and tranquil retirement after a turbulent life with many reversals of fortune.

The biography of Richard Duke of York, the copy of Cecily’s Household Ordinances and Armstrong’s article on her piety are all available for borrowing from the Society’s Library. — HCH