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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. Cecily Neville and Raby Castle
Petition to Cecily Neville, c.1465 - opens new window
Petition to Cecily Neville, c.1465
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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 - opens new window
Estate account, 1495
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Cecily Neville and Raby Castle 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 attaintedGlossary - opens new window 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'Glossary - opens new window - were illegitimate and so could not rule if the Yorkist dynasty was to remain pure.

Cecily Neville and Raby Castle
Cecily Neville's will, 1495 - opens new window
Cecily Neville's will, 1495
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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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