Cecily Neville - 'queen by right'
|Cecily Neville was at the very top of the social
scale in late medieval England, and held the highest status
a woman could enjoy. She was the eighteenth child of Ralph,
first Earl of Westmorland and Joan Beaufort, daughter of John
of Gaunt. Her marriage to Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York,
was a suitable match between two families of great status. Besides
wielding considerable political power in an age when few women
did so, Cecily administered a large feudal estate, with all
the interlocking duties and responsibilities which that entailed.
Petition to Cecily Neville, c.1465
|Given her high rank, Cecily Neville might have
been constrained by the conventional medieval noblewoman's life
of piety, patronage, courtly attendance and quiet support for
her husband. But she certainly did not heed the advice of the
author of The Goodman of Paris (1393), a treatise on
household management, who advised that to satisfy their husbands
young wives should behave like faithful dogs. Cecily was a great
beauty and indulged in the luxurious lifestyle that her marriage
to the wealthiest peer of the realm allowed. She also supported
her husband's actions in claiming the crown at the end of the
1450s, and moved beyond the expected behaviour of contemporary
noblewomen when she became directly involved in political events.
'Queen by right'
This trend continued after her husband was killed during
the battle of Wakefield in December 1460. Cecily's eldest
son, Edward, Earl of March, became King Edward IV in 1461.
Cecily soon received confirmation of her lands and rights,
and as a widow with enormous personal wealth she continued
her patronage of religious houses and the college founded
by her husband at Fotheringhay, in Northamptonshire. Cecily
also adopted the role of Yorkist matriarch. After 1461, her
main goal became the arrangement of a suitable marriage for
the king. When in May 1464 he secretly married a low-born
widow, Elizabeth Woodville, instead of a European princess,
Cecily reacted angrily and refused to subordinate herself
to the new queen, styling herself 'queen by right'.
Estate account, 1495
||By marrying Elizabeth Woodville, Edward also alienated
Cecily's powerful nephew Richard, Earl of Warwick, known as
the 'Kingmaker', who had been conducting negotiations with the
French king for Edward's marriage. There is evidence that by
1469 Cecily had declared Edward to be illegitimate and, with
Warwick, was pushing for the crown to pass to her second son,
George, Duke of Clarence. (See M.K. Jones, Bosworth: Psychology of a Battle (Stroud, 2002), 73-78.) This development permanently damaged
her relationship with Edward, so from 1471 until after his death
in April 1483 she avoided the royal court and concentrated on
her private interests.
Kingmaker to the last
When Edward died, Cecily revived her kingmaking activities.
By this time her sense of dynasty was even more acute. Clarence
had been attainted
by the king and had died in mysterious circumstances in the
Tower of London in 1478. Cecily therefore now acted decisively
to restore the true Yorkist line through her youngest son,
Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who in 1483 became Richard III.
In support of Richard's claim to the throne, Cecily held a
meeting at her London home to nullify Edward's will, and supported
the assertion that his sons - the 'Princes in the Tower'
- were illegitimate and so could not rule if the Yorkist dynasty
was to remain pure.
Cecily Neville's will, 1495
|Subsequently, in August 1485, Richard was defeated
by Henry Tudor at Bosworth Field and died during the course
of the battle. With Henry firmly installed as King Henry VII,
the 70-year-old duchess gave the impression of finally accepting
defeat. Nevertheless, there is evidence that after her death
in 1495 many of her servants were involved in the conspiracy
to dethrone Henry VII hatched by Perkin Warbeck (who claimed
to be the younger of the two princes murdered in the Tower).
Cecily's life and intrigues show that women could enjoy considerable
influence in the masculine world of medieval politics, as well
as in more conventional female roles.
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