I can almost hear you say ‘Cecily Who?‘
Cecily Neville is an overlooked female figure in medieval history, despite being the mother of two notorious English kings – Edward IV and Richard III.
Who Was Cecily Neville?
Cecily was extremely well-connected. But in a time when family counted for a lot, her web of familial ties was more tangled than most.
Her father was Ralph Neville, 1st Earl of Westmorland, and her mother was Joan Beaufort, the only daughter of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and his ‘scandalous duchess’ Katherine Swynford. Her maternal great-grandfather was Edward III. Through her father’s side of the family, she was also the aunt of the famous kingmaker Richard, Earl of Warwick.
Cecily married Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York. Richard was also a direct descendent of Edward III twice over, through both his father and his mother. Cecily’s husband actually possessed a slightly better claim to the throne than the king, Henry VI, being descended through a more senior line. This must have been trés awkward, as Cecily was also related to Henry VI through her Beaufort family.
Cecily was a Plantagenet, a Beaufort, a Neville, a Lancastrian and a Yorkist all rolled into one. So why haven’t we heard more about her?
Why Don’t We Know About Her?
Much like her son Richard III, Cecily was intended to be written out of history by the Tudor victors, despite being the paternal grandmother of Henry VII’s queen (She lived for ten years after her son Richard III’s death at the Battle of Bosworth, and was probably a bit of an awkward reminder for the Tudor clan). She was also sidelined during her lifetime by her own daughter-in-law Elizabeth Woodville. This ‘double erasure’ means Cecily has been tended to be sidelined in the history books too.
Indeed, when Philippa Gregory wrote her best-selling series of Plantagenet novels all the usual suspects were there (Jacquetta Duchess of Luxembourg, Elizabeth Woodville, Margaret Beaufort, Anne Neville, Elizabeth of York) but Cecily was relegated to a mere supporting character.
I find the fact that Cecily is so often overlooked, despite the fact she was familiarly linked to all the key factions of The Wars of The Roses really intriguing. There is no way a women with that sort of heritage didn’t play an important role in all that turmoil, despite the lack of evidence.
Before I start harping on about Cecily Neville: Mother of Richard III, I really must talk about the book’s author Mr John Ashdown-Hill. John was an independent historian and author of books on late medieval English history who unfortunately passed away on 18th May 2018. He became something of on an authority on Richard III and The War of The Roses.
Along with Phillipa Langley, he uncovered the lost remains of Richard III underneath a car park in Leicester in 2012. John was awarded an MBE in 2015 for “services to historical research and the exhumation and identification of Richard III”.
John carried out a lot of innovative research into the DNA of the House of York and Richard III. Details of his ground-breaking research and findings are included in the book, and its possibly my favorite chapter.
In 2003 John was asked to seek the mitochondrial DNA sequence shared by Richard III and his brothers and sisters. He spent a year tracing an all-female line of descent from Richard III’s eldest sister, Anne, to Joy Ibsen, a woman living in Canada. When Richard’s body was discovered in 2012 the mtDNA of the bones matched the sequence from Richard III’s descendants that John had discovered several years earlier.
If you fancy learning more about the lengthy process behind this, I thoroughly recommend you read this post on John’s blog. I found it fascinating as this story perfectly demonstrates how the study of history will always change and evolve depending on new discoveries and advances in other fields – it will never be stuck in the past!
Ashdown-Hill also provides a comprehensive-to-the point of forensic dissection of sources relating to Cecily, including newly discovered material. He demolishes many of the myths surrounding Cecily Neville’s life, including the rumour that Edward VI was actually the bastard child of Cecily’s by an archer named Blaybourne.
Ashdown-Hill also goes to great lengths to clearly explain the tangled web of familial relationships between the key political players at the time. Lots of supporting family trees are also included. The War of The Roses can seem complicated and confusing to the lay person, but the the author explains it as clearly and concisely as possible.
In conclusion, I thoroughly recommend this Cecily Neville: Mother of Richard III by John Ashdown-Hill. The author’s utter dedication to his subject shines through and is apparent in his forensic dissection of the historical sources. This is a comprehensive and authoritative piece of work on an often overlooked female figure from one of the most interesting periods of British history, and I’m pleased as punch to have it sitting on my bookshelf.
If you fancy owning a copy of Cecily Neville: Mother of Richard III you can find it in the NEW Hisdoryan affiliate shop, along with lots of other historical reads
My copy of Cecily Neville: Mother of Richard III was kindly gifted to me by Pen and Sword Books, but all love of the book is my own!