Joanna Laynesmith examines claims that Edward IV was a bastard and tells the dramatic story of his mother, Cecily Neville, Duchess of York.
On August 8th, 1469, the Milanese ambassador in France reported a startling rumour – that Edward IV of England was a bastard. He explained that this would mean that Edward had no right to the crown and that the true king was consequently Edward’s younger brother, George Duke of Clarence. The source of the rumour was Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, who was both the King’s cousin and the Duke of Clarence’s father-in-law. That summer Warwick had provoked rebellion against the King and by the end of July was holding Edward captive at Warwick Castle. Such allegations of bastardy among political rivals were nothing new, but what is enigmatic about the 1469 rebellion is the role played by the woman whose virtue had been besmirched: the King’s mother, who was the famously pious Cecily Neville, Duchess of York.
Back in June 1469, while Warwick’s men were mobilizing in the north, the Earl himself was planning his departure to Calais from where he would launch his rebellion. He had already obtained a papal dispensation for the marriage between his daughter Isabel and the King’s brother, the Duke of Clarence, despite the King’s opposition to such a match. Shortly before their departure the principal rebels were at Sandwich and were joined there by Cecily for five days. Why was she there? Michael K. Jones has argued that ‘Cecily’s part in [the rebellion] was central’. He claims that Edward really was a bastard and that, having fallen out with him, she most likely planned to acknowledge Edward’s illegitimacy publicly in order to make Clarence king.
Cecily has long been considered, to quote Charles Ross, ‘one of the most saintly laywomen of her generation’. Could she instead have been an adulteress whose fling with an archer in Rouen put a bastard on the English throne? Her behaviour in the months immediately following her rendezvous at Sandwich throws little light on her relationship with the plotters. When the rebellion failed Cecily invited both Edward and George to her London home to help to make peace between them. The reconciliation did not last long for the Duke of Clarence and his father-in-law were soon in rebellion again, ultimately achieving the brief readeption of the Lancastrian king Henry VI in 1470-71. On this second occasion there is again a contemporary account of Cecily’s efforts to make peace between her sons.
Whether Jones’ thesis is correct or whether the news of George’s rebellion and the accusation of adultery came as a terrible shock to Cecily, one of these sons had clearly offended her deeply. Yet Cecily was very much a political pragmatist. As the daughter of one of England’s great social climbers and wife of a would-be-king she had learnt to put political survival before emotion and knew the dangers of a house divided.
Cecily’s father was Ralph Neville, sixth baron Neville of Raby whose marriage in 1397 to John of Gaunt’s bastard daughter Joan Beaufort had helped him on the way to acquiring the earldom of Westmorland. J.R. Lander described the ambitious matches of their children and grandchildren as ‘the most amazing series of child marriages in English history’. Most were under sixteen, one as young as six, at the time of their unions with the scions of the wealthiest families in England. Cecily’s sister Eleanor was widowed and married for the second time before she was twelve. Their brother Edward’s wife was heiress to the barony of
Abergavenny, but ‘an idiot from birth’. However, Westmorland’s greatest coup was the acquisition of the wardship of the young Richard Duke of York in 1423. York had been orphaned when his father, Richard Earl of Cambridge was executed in 1415, the year of Cecily’s birth. Cambridge had been plotting to put his brother-in-law, Edmund Mortimer, on Henry V’s throne. Mortimer himself died in January 1425. The young Duke of York was heir both to Mortimer’s great estates and his disputed claim to the English throne. Before his own death in October of that year Westmorland had arranged a betrothal between his youngest daughter, Cecily (then aged ten), and the fourteen-year-old duke.
After Westmorland’s death the couple probably lived in the household of the child king Henry VI until York reached his majority. When York took up an appointment as King’s Lieutenant and Governor General of France in 1441 Cecily went with him to live in Rouen. In such cases wives more often remained in England to oversee their husbands’ estates but the appointment was for five years and Cecily had only just begun to bear children. Their daughter Anne was born in August 1439 at the family home of Fotheringhay in Northamptonshire. A son Henry was born in February 1441 but died within days. So it was important to Richard for his wife to travel with him and produce a healthy heir soon. Of the twelve children we know the couple had, only half were to reach adulthood. It was in Rouen that Cecily bore the future Edward IV.
An account of York’s attorney in England sheds some light on their lifestyle at this time. Among expenses incurred in London it records £608 spent on materials and clothing for Cecily. This included a dress of crimson velvet, lined with ermine and decorated with 325 pearls and 8½ oz gold. T.B. Pugh concluded from this that Cecily was a ‘spendthrift’ whose ‘craving for luxury’ was draining her husband’s resources. However, Pugh acknowledged that the dress was most probably commissioned for Cecily to wear when entertaining Henry VI’s new queen, Margaret of Anjou, on her journey to England. As such the dress cannot be seen as mere feminine extravagance. Richard Duke of York needed to impress upon the new queen his importance in the English political hierarchy and a conspicuous display of wealth was an inevitable part of this. Modelling that wealth was one of the few legitimate ways a woman such as Cecily could contribute to this power game.
A decade later, when the family were back in England, Cecily proved her willingness to manipulate acceptable feminine behaviour to political ends more explicitly. At this time Richard of York felt ostracized from the centre of power and especially resented the influence of Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset. Cecily approached the Queen about this on at least two occasions. In the first instance Cecily spoke directly with Margaret shortly after the Queen had visited the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, probably in the spring of 1454. On the second occasion she wrote a letter, reminding the Queen of their
earlier meeting. This letter draws parallels between the Queen’s role as intercessor with the King and the Virgin Mary’s intercession with Christ. By a mixture of such flattery and frequent references to her own fragile state due to ill health, Cecily obscured the political nature of her request that the King pay more attention to her husband’s advice. As it happened, Cecily’s negotiations were overtaken by events. That August Henry VI suffered a temporary mental collapse and the eventual response to the resulting power vacuum was to establish a protectorate with York himself as Protector.
After Henry VI’s recovery the power struggle among his principal lords became more intense and eventually came to a head at the battle at St Albans in May 1455. Despite the Duke of York’s victory on this occasion, by June 1459 he was again on the defensive and that October he brought troops to face the King’s army near Ludlow. Last minute defections forced York and his allies to flee to Ireland and Calais. Cecily, however, remained at Ludlow, having chosen to trust in the King’s chivalry and wait things out in England. From then on she repeatedly used the relative political immunity of her sex and her apparent vulnerability as a mother to work for the Yorkist cause. With her were her youngest sons, George, future Duke of Clarence and Richard, later Richard III. The family were probably placed in the custody of Cecily’s sister, Anne Duchess of Buckingham, but it was not a close imprisonment.
In November of 1459 a parliament gathered at Coventry to consider the fate of the Yorkist lords. Cecily arrived there to plead for her husband. One London chronicler believed that she actually persuaded Henry to promise a pardon if the Duke could turn up at the parliament within eight days. This did not happen, but Cecily did manage to rescue from York’s confiscated lands an annual grant of more than £600 a year to support herself and her younger children. In January 1460 Cecily visited Kent, possibly to assess attitudes to the Yorkist cause in the area. It was probably from her that Yorkists in Ireland were assured of Kentish sympathy and so the earls of Salisbury and Warwick, together with Cecily’s son Edward, decided to land there in June.
After the Yorkists defeated the King’s forces at Northampton in July, Cecily and her younger children moved to John Paston’s house in London. When the Duke of York finally arrived in England in September 1460 he summoned Cecily to join him in a triumphal march on London bearing the royal arms before him. But York had misjudged popular and noble opinion. England was not ready to accept him as king instead of the anointed Henry VI. Eventually a compromise was reached in which parliament accepted him as Henry VI’s heir, disinheriting Margaret’s son Edward, Prince of Wales. Cecily was now queen in waiting. This status was clearly acknowledged by contemporaries such as the chronicler John Hardyng who commended a revised version of his English chronicle to Cecily on the grounds that she needed to know about the land over which she would soon have sovereignty.
But triumph swiftly turned to disaster. On December 30th, 1460, Lancastrian forces killed both the Duke of York and his second son Edmund at the battle of Wakefield. Six weeks later they also defeated the Earl of Warwick at St Albans. Cecily’s reaction to this news was risky and bold. She sent her youngest sons, Richard and George, to the court of Philip Duke of Burgundy. They were out of immediate harm’s way, but Burgundy had been trying to remain neutral in the face of French support for the Lancastrians. The arrival of the young Plantagenets forced him to commit to an alliance with the Yorkists that would have far-reaching effects on English politics.
Meanwhile, the tide had turned in favour of Cecily’s eldest son Edward. He had defeated a Lancastrian force at Mortimer’s Cross and then taken advantage of the Londoners’ unwillingness to admit Margaret of Anjou’s troops by marching triumphantly into the city himself. Cecily then moved to Baynard’s Castle on St Paul’s wharf and this became the Yorkist headquarters in London while Edward departed to face the King’s army in Yorkshire. The Lancastrians suffered a terrible defeat at Towton on Palm Sunday 1461. Edward IV’s place on the throne of England was consequently secure. When the news arrived at Cecily’s home, one of those present was Nicholas O’Flanagan, bishop of Elphin. The bishop wrote immediately to the papal legate Francesco Coppini advising him to send congratulations to the King and other lords: ‘write also to the duchess’ he urged, ‘who has a great regard for you, and can rule the king as she pleases.’
Cecily found herself in the unprecedented role of a king’s mother who had never been either queen or princess of Wales. The position she carved out for herself at Edward IV’s court was to serve as a model for the equally indomitable Margaret Beaufort in similar circumstances twenty-four years later. In the early years of Edward’s reign Cecily repeatedly appeared beside him on state occasions, presiding like the queen she had expected to be. Her initial influence over the nineteen-year-old king was probably significantly greater than it would have been over her husband. When Edward left London to tour Wales and the Marches in the autumn of 1461 he granted Cecily £1,700 to hold court in his absence. Cecily formally celebrated her change in status by revising her coat of arms to include the royal arms of England, implying that her husband had been the rightful king.
Inevitably Cecily’s position changed when Edward married. Controversially the King had made a clandestine love-match with Elizabeth Woodville, the widow of a Lancastrian knight. He confessed to this in September 1464, provoking astonishment across Europe. It is perhaps a measure of Cecily’s continued importance that Edward at this time decided to build a new set of queen’s apartments at Westminster, presumably so that Cecily could continue to use those she had inhabited for the past three years. Nonetheless, Cecily felt some reinvention of her role was required. Hitherto her title had been simply ‘Cecily, the king’s mother’ but now she was to be referred to as ‘Cecily, the king’s mother and late wife unto Richard in right king of England and of France and lord of Ireland’. She wanted to make her own claim to queenship more explicit.
The King’s marriage changed other relationships too, most notably with his cousin, the Earl of Warwick, who believed Edward should have made an alliance with the French royal house. Warwick’s resentment at the political role of the Queen’s family was partly responsible for his eventual rebellion in 1469. Was a long-held family secret about Edward’s birth another motivation? Michael K. Jones has unearthed evidence that York was away from Rouen for more than a month at about the time Edward must have been conceived. On average, a child born on April 28th, 1442, as Edward was, would be expected to have been conceived about August 5th, 1441. York was away from mid-July until August 20th. Yet Edward could easily have been born either a fortnight early or late as many babies are today without ill effect. In fact it seems likely that Edward’s low-key christening in a mere castle chapel, rather than the impressive cathedral baptism arranged for his younger brother Edmund, is evidence that Edward was born before time, prompting fears for his survival, especially in the light of the short life of Cecily’s first son.
Allegations that kings were bastards and powerful women were adulteresses were a commonplace of political propaganda. Back in 1460 Warwick had reportedly accused Margaret of Anjou of committing adultery with men usurping Henry VI’s power. On another occasion Warwick is supposed to have claimed that Margaret’s son, Edward, was fathered by a wandering player. In the circumstances it seems most likely that Cecily’s adultery, too, was a figment of his lurid imagination. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the most enduring account of the great King Arthur’s court brought to ruin by the adultery of Queen Guinevere is generally believed to have been written by a knight in Warwick’s service, Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revell. This work was completed in 1471, the same year that Warwick was killed at Barnet and Henry VI mysteriously met his death in the Tower of London.
What then was Cecily’s role in the rebellion of 1469? Jones’ thesis that she had fallen out with Edward is not entirely convincing. In that year Edward had named his latest daughter after her and it is consequently most likely that Cecily acted as godmother. Edward’s actions on regaining his throne in 1471 also suggest close relations between mother and son. Having collected his wife and children from sanctuary at Westminster, Edward immediately took them to Cecily’s London home. A few months later Cecily accompanied the King and his brothers to Canterbury for the celebrations surrounding the resumption of the city’s charter. In l475 she took a principal role with the King, the Queen and the bishop of Lincoln in the ceremonial founding of the Luton Guild of the Holy Trinity. A painting commemorating the event emphasized her queenly status by depicting her in a cloak of the royal arms of England. Admittedly she did not attend the sumptuous reburial of her husband at
Fotheringhay in July l476. This may have been a matter of etiquette since kings and queens usually seem to have been absent from their spouses’ funerals at this period. Ill health must also be another possibility. At the time of her grandson Richard Duke of York’s wedding the following year she was accorded the title ‘Queen of right’.
If Cecily was still on good terms with Edward IV, her 1469 visit to Sandwich may actually lave been an attempt to dissuade her son and nephew from rebellion. However given King Edward’s initial lack of concern about the northern uprising it seems unlikely that Cecily could have known so much more than he about the political situation. What is more probable is that Cecily was not expecting rebellion but that she did know that Clarence planned to marry Isabel Neville in defiance of the King. Edward had already thwarted earlier advantageous marriage proposals for his younger brother, perhaps fearing what Clarence might do if Edward himself died leaving only daughters to inherit the throne. Cecily most likely wanted to further the interests of each one of her children. In hindsight her willingness to abet Clarence’s marriage with England’s greatest heiress might seem naive. Yet the swift failure of the rising indicates how poorly Warwick and Clarence had judged the political situation. In the circumstances Cecily had no reason to expect the marriage to lead to immediate rebellion.
But even if Cecily was no whore, as Warwick had alleged, she was not the angel some historians have implied either. Her modern reputation for piety rests on C.A.J. Armstrong’s interpretation of her will and of a document that purports to record her quasi-monastic daily routine within her household at Berkhamsted Castle. Crucially both documents were drawn up after the death in 1485 of her youngest son, Richard III, and therefore reflect the concerns of a woman who was no longer the King’s mother. Moreover, she was a woman who had now lost not only her husband but three of her sons to the violence of the Wars of the Roses. It would be unwise to assume that evidence of devotion at this period can be applied earlier in her life. It is also important to ask why such a record of her routine should have been made. Either Cecily or one of her household clearly wanted her pious behaviour to be recognized and consequently may have been exaggerating to impress readers. In the light of her sons’ reputations and the aspersions on Cecily’s own virtue it is unsurprising that she should seek to redeem the image of the House of York by setting herself up as an exceptionally devout widow.
For most of her life Cecily’s piety had been fairly conventional for a late-medieval noblewoman. She shared her husband’s interests in his family’s religious foundations and in the Bridgettine nuns at Syon. Most of her devotional acts as a widow also had dynastic importance. For instance, the patronage of churches on her estates was commemorated with images of her royal coat of arms which reminded worshippers of her generosity and of her status as ‘Queen of right’. Her role in the foundation of the Luton Guild of the Holy Trinity has already been mentioned. The Guildbook miniature celebrating this occasion is an explicit affirmation of Yorkist legitimacy with the Holy Trinity effectively present at Edward IV’s court. The accompanying text refers at length to Cecily’s husband’s claim to the throne. Besides this, Richard Marks has speculated that she had some influence on the refurbishment of the college at Fotheringhay where the glazing scheme and carvings provided a visual celebration of the Yorkist dynasty. In 1482 she helped the Carthusians of St Mary the Virgin without the walls of London in an appeal for funds to repair their buildings. A public papal letter on the subject made reference to her ‘singular devotion’ to the Carthusian order. Like the engraving of her coat of arms outside a church near her London home, this was very conspicuous piety.
Those close to the Duchess would also have witnessed her large collection of exquisite religious jewellery: crosses of diamonds or silver gilt and beryl, rosary beads of amber, coral and gold, engraved golden reliquary pendants some of which probably looked much like the recently discovered Middleham Jewel. At her household they would see great tapestries of religious scenes and a fabulous store of chapel furnishings and religious vestments in embroidered damasks, cloth of gold and velvets. Many of her religious books were also beautifully bound like the psalter she bequeathed to her granddaughter, Elizabeth of York, ‘with clasps of silver and gilt enameled covered with green cloth of gold’. Such material culture might seem at odds with New Testament Christianity but for a late medieval woman of status they were the natural way to indicate that her earthly treasure was invested in God’s service.
In the last decade of her extraordinary life Cecily Neville probably did take comfort in religion and in the books of saints’ lives and mystical visions that she lists in her will. At her death in 1495 she was buried with a papal indulgence tied around her neck to help her through the gates of the kingdom of heaven. But through most of her life her political ambitions for her husband, her sons and herself show that the kingdom of England was her primary interest. Her precise role in the 1469 rebellion will probably never be known for certain. However, the title she adopted in her will is telling
I, Cecily, wife unto the right noble prince Richard late Duke of York, father unto the most Christian prince my Lord and son King Edward IV.
Perhaps she was still protesting her innocence of the slanders of adultery. Certainly she was declaring her eternal loyalty to her son, the King she had once ‘ruled as she pleased’.
For Further Reading
- Joanna Laynesmith has taught at the universities of Oxford, York, Reading and Huddersfield. She is the author of The Last Medieval Queens: English Queenship 1445-1503 (Oxford, 2004).