Cicely (or Cecily) Neville, was one of the vast brood of children of Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmorland, by his second wife, Joan, daughter of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. Cicely was born and brought up in the great Neville stronghold of Raby Castle, Durham. Considered exceptionally good-looking, although no portraits survive, she was referred to as the ‘Rose of Raby’.
At the age of fourteen Cicely was married to her father’s ward, Richard, Duke of York. This was a very prestigious match, as the Duke, although his father had been executed for treason, was close to the throne. Cicely and York had at least thirteen children during the period 1439 – 1455, of whom seven lived beyond infancy.
During the minority of Henry VI, York received various offices. In 1436, he was appointed as Lieutenant or Governor of Normandy, which gave him responsibility for the English kingdom in France, which was steadily declining in the face of French resurgence. Cicely and York resided in Rouen for several years (during two terms of appointment), during which time there was a breach with the King’s cousin, John Beaufort, Duke of Somerset.
The war in France now appeared unwinnable, particularly in the face of Henry VI’s patent inability and disinclination to wage war as his father had done. A truce was agreed that brought a niece of the French King, Marguerite of Anjou, to England as Queen.
On their return to England, York was not included in the King’s Council, and he resented the prominence of Somerset and the Duke of Suffolk, with whose policies of peace towards France he was at odds. Henry VI’s inability to govern effectively led to increasing unrest across the country, and resentment of his Queen and his chief ministers. In a kind of exile from the centre of power, York was posted to Ireland, as Lieutenant, and Cicely accompanied him.
The political situation deteriorated, and the quarrel between York and Somerset began to spill over into factional dispute. In 1451, York demanded that he be recognised as Henry VI’s heir – at that point, Henry’s marriage was childless, and none of his Lancastrian uncles had produced children. Cicely could look forward to being a queen one day. But disappointment was in store for them when Queen Marguerite bore a son in 1453.
Henry VI, however, had suffered a severe mental break-down and York was appointed as Lord Protector. York appointed Cicely’s brother, the Earl of Salisbury, and her nephew, the Earl of Warwick, to high office. This brought one branch of her powerful Neville family into supporting York against Somerset (supported by the Nevilles’ rivals, the Percy family), who was sent to the Tower.
With the recovery of Henry VI, York was out of office and Somerset back in. York and his supporters raised an army, and the factional disputes degenerated into a series of battles, known as the Wars of the Roses.
During the Wars, Cicely, like most women, saw her family divided between Lancaster and York as siblings and children were forced to choose between relatives. In 1460, York was killed at the Battle of Wakefield, along with Cicely’s second son, Edmund, Earl of Rutland, and her brother, Salisbury. The fight, however, was carried on when Cicely’s oldest son, Edward, Earl of March, won the bloody Battle of Towton in 1461, and successfully claimed the crown.
For a short period, Cicely was the first lady of the land, until she received the unwelcome news that Edward had secretly married a Lancastrian widow, Elizabeth Woodville, whose family was almost as numerous and greedy as the Nevilles.
As the first phase of the Wars of the Roses had emerged out of rivalry between York and the Nevilles, against Somerset and the Percies, so the second phase was seeded by the struggle for power between Cicely’s nephew, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, and the Woodvilles.
Warwick and Cicely’s third son, George of Clarence, married to Warwick’s daughter, rebelled against Edward, and reinstated Henry VI. Clarence, realising that since his sister-in-law, Anne, was married to Henry VI’s son, Warwick was not likely to support his own claims, defected back to his brother’s side and was forgiven.
Eventually, the Lancastrians were routed at the Battle of Tewkesbury but quarrels continued – Clarence and his younger brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, fell out about the Warwick inheritance. Edward IV’s support for his wife’s family, as a counterbalance, was not popular. Eventually, Clarence went too far, and Cicely had the grief of knowing that her oldest son had signed the death warrant for his brother.
When Edward IV died at the age of forty, leaving a twelve-year old as heir, the Neville-Woodville rivalry broke out again. Richard, Duke of Gloucester, believing (or purporting to believe) that the Queen and her family would oust him from his powerful role as the King’s Lieutenant in the North, claimed the Protectorship and summarily executed the Queen’s brother and son by her first marriage.
Gloucester then took the throne as Richard III, with Edward V and his brother disappearing in the Tower of London. Cicely was on good terms with her son, and presumably, hoped that, after a controversial accession, he would continue the York dynasty. There is no record as to what she thought about the disappearance of her grandsons.
But, with the loss of his son, Edward of Middleham, and his wife, Anne Neville, Richard was exposed. The Yorkists were split between those who had accepted his accession, and those who remained loyal to Edward IV’s children, now probably represented by Edward’s daughter, Elizabeth of York.
In 1485, Henry Tudor, a distant sprig of the Lancastrian tree, mounted a successful invasion, defeating Richard at Bosworth. He attempted to reconcile the Yorkists through marriage to Elizabeth, presenting their children as heirs to both Lancaster and York.
Cicely herself withdrew into retirement at Berkhamsted Castle where she lived a life of strict religious observance and piety. Henry VII gave her new grants of income, although she does not seem to have attended the court. On her death in 1495, she gave bequests to both King and Queen, and her great-grandsons, Princes Arthur and Henry.
She was buried at Fotheringhay, beside the husband she had lost thirty-five years before.