Archaeologia/Volume 13/Some Observations upon the Life of Cecily Duchess of York

II. Some Observations upon the Life of Cecily Duchess of York, Daughter of Ralph de Nevil, Earl of Westmorland and of Richmond, by Joan, natural Daughter of John Duke of Lancaster.Communicated by the Reverend Mark Noble, F.S.A.

Read April 14, 1796.

VERY few persons have lived to see such great revolutions in their family as Cecily duchess of York. Her father, from a baron, became a great and puissant earl; and no less than nine of his sons were, by descent, marriage, or creation, peers of the realm, his daughters matched suitably with the first nobility or gentry.

The Nevils, his grandchildren, were, if possible, still more illustrious: their vast honours and alliances gave them almost the sovereign power, at least it gained them the power of making and unmaking kings; to this combined strength it was owing that the house of York, the eldest branch of that of Plantagenet, was able to assert its rights to the crown, and finally to obtain it, for Cecily, the youngest of twenty-one children of Ralph earl of Westmorland and Richmond, marrying Richard Plantagenet duke of York, the Nevils thought it their interest to set him upon the throne.

Cecily was by birth a Lancastrian, her mother being the daughter of John duke of Lancaster, by his last duchess, but born before marriage, consequently illegitimate: so that Joan was half sister to king Henry IV. and Cecily was first cousin one remove to king Henry VI.; this was of no avail when she married the representative of the second son of King Edward III. whose just rights had been usurped by king Henry IV. son of the duke of Lancaster, the third son of that monarch. Yet there appeared but little probability of her husband's ever obtaining the crown, because it had been possessed by the reigning branch of Lancaster by three sovereigns; and the father of Richard her husband had been attainted and executed for treason.

Notwithstanding these discouraging circumstances, she saw her lord, by the assistance of her family interest, raised to the important post of governor of the kingdom, and declared heir apparent of the crown; the parliament acknowleded his claim to be founded in justice, but permitted king Henry VI, the possessor, to enjoy the regal honours for his life, and, cutting off his son Edward, prince of Wales, and all others claiming from the unfortunate monarch, settled the succession in the Yorkists.

The ministers of king Henry VI. having given the duke of York her husband the government of France and Normandy, taught him how to command, not to obey; this was tempting him beyond the power of forbearance, his just rights aiding his ambition: nothing but success, or destruction, could be expected; his rashness only prevented the former, and though he fell, his acknowledged claim naturally vested in his son, who established it upon the ruin of the reigning branch of the Plantagenets.

It may be fairly asked, was it a fortunate or an unhappy event, that the Yorkists prevailed, even to themselves, and their friends, as it laid the foundation of so many misfortunes, and of such atrocious murders amongst them, as never, I think, have been paralleled in the Christian world? Very many of these Cecily lived to be a witness of, and after her death this cruel shedding of blood continued to rage with equal violence until the younger branches became remote, whilst the eldest one was more established.

These dreadful enormities were occasioned by the original quarrel between the "white and the red roses," and by the criminal ambition of the princes of the former when they had obtained the crown, by the cruel policy of extirpating all those that were near in affinity to those two sanguinary characters king Henry  VII. and king Henry  VIII. and by the different settlements in remainder of the crown, as interest, affection, or caprice suggested to the several princes who gained the throne.

The duchess Cecily saw her own family, the Nevils, as great as subjects could be; she lived to see them confined within less than their original bounds under her father, with the misfortune of their being obnoxious to the princes from a just jealousy of their former splendour, and the turbulent ambition that they had displayed, raising and debasing monarchs at their pleasure.

She saw her husband when just ascending the steps of the throne, by his rashness, killed in battle, and his head, separated from his body, in derision crowned with a paper diadem.

Of her sons, five died children[1]. Edward, the oldest surviving one, became king. The second Edmond, a youth of twelve years of age, was cruelly put to death after the battle of Wakefield. George, the third son, who had been sometimes true, at others disloyal to his eldest brother and sovereign, was convicted, and put to death by the procurement of one, and at the order of another of his brothers. Richard, the youngest son, after usurping the regal honours, and disgracing himself by many murderous deeds, fell in the field of battle, fighting against a prince who was descended from an illegitimate branch of the Lancaster line.

She had four daughters: Ursula, the youngest, died young and unmarried; Ann, who had two husbands, was married to Henry Holland, duke of Exeter, godson to king Henry VI. who was so greatly attached to that pious, but weak prince, that he never would desert his interest, though so contrary to his own; this displeased his duchess so much, that she never was satisfied, until she procured a divorce from him; she saw him reduced to the most abject state of human wretchedness and woe at the court of Burgundy, as the faithful de Comines relates; he was soon after murdered. Ann married in his life-time a very inferior character, Sir Thomas St. Leger, Knight; she survived this alliance only two years, dying January 14, 1475. St. Leger was put to death at Exeter by king Richard III. for attempting to dethrone him, and this probably because that monarch had given the preference to the earl of Lincoln in the succession of the crown to his daughter Ann, who became the wife of Sir George Manners, who in her right was lord Roose; he is ancestor of the dukes of Rutland. Elizabeth, second daughter of Cecily, married to John de la Pole, duke of Suffolk, whose descendants were so peculiarly unfortunate. Margaret, the third daughter of the duchess of York, was married to Charles the Rash, duke of Burgundy, slain in 1477; she was the only one of her children who survived her, she not dying until 1503, and was the celebrated enemy to king Henry VII. and all the Lancastrians, spending her rich dower in projects to ruin that monarch, though the fate of Elizabeth his queen, her neice and her children must have been included in it. The emperor Charles V. was her godson, and was named after the duke of Burgundy her late husband.

The duchess Cecily of York was extremely unfortunate in the quarrels of her sons. Clarence was peculiarly turbulent, fickle, ambitious, avaricious, and rash. His quarrel with his brother Richard about his marriage, desirous of retaining the whole of the great possessions of the earl of Warwick, Richard Nevil, significantly called the "king-maker," whose eldest daughter he had married, was perhaps the first cause of their extreme dislike to each other; and king Edward IV. never forgave him his disloyalty.

But if the relations of our common historians are to be credited, Cecily's sons were as defective in maternal, as fraternal affection; they say, that king Edward IV. slighted the good advice she gave him, when she requested his majesty not to marry a subject, though he had thought it his duty to consult her upon it.

These writers relate that Clarence openly accused his mother of adultery, to stigmatize the king with bastardy, that he might claim the diadem at the expence of her honour, and that this was one of the accusations brought against him at his trial.

They also alledge that Richard, improving upon the hint, persuaded the infamous Dr. Shaw at St. Paul's, and the duke of Buckingham in Guildhall, that she had taken to her bed certain persons perfectly resembling Edward IV. and Clarence, by whom she had them, and that Richard only had the features of the duke of York her husband, and consequently was the only son she had by the duke.

All this is evidently only "Lancastrian tales." If Clarence was weak, the other brothers were not. All men would have looked upon Richard as such a monster, that he would never have gained his aim, if these relations had been made by his means.

The honourable Horatio Walpole, now earl of Orford, calls Cecily "a princess of spotless character," and she seems to have justly deserved it. Whatever Clarence might do against her fame, king Edward IV. and king Richard III. behaved with great honour and respect towards her.

The Paston Letters say she came to Coventry December 8, 1459, when her husband had just been attainted, with their eldest son, and many others, by the parliament. In January 1459, 60 she was "still again received in Kent," whilst the duke of York, her husband, was at Dublin, "strengthened with his earls and homagers." Christopher Hausson writes to John Paston, esq. a letter dated from London, October 12, 1460, that "the Monday after our Lady-day, there came hither to my master's place, my master Bowser, Sir Harry Ratford, John Clay, and the harbinger of my lord of March, desiring that my lady of York, and her two sons, my lord George and my lord Richard, and my lady Margaret her daughter; which I have granted them, in your name, to lie here until Michaelmas; and she had lain here two days, but she had tidings of the landing of my lord at Chester. The Tuesday next after, my lord sent for her, that she should come to him at Harford, Hereford, and thither she went, leaving the children, whom the lord of March, her eldest son, every day paid visits to."

Soon after this, namely, December 31, 1460, the duke her husband fell at Wakefield. Here are proofs sufficient of her love to her children, obedience to her husband, and the regard of the public towards her.

She was equally respected in her widowed state, and this too at a time when her late husband was attainted, and she stripped of every thing which rank and fortune gave: for her person was then safe, even amongst her enemies, and her reputation remained unsullied, though it was so much to the interest of the Lancastrians to have aspersed her character, if there had been even a shadow, or semblance of probability of doing it, so as to gain belief.

In the reign of king Edward IV. she was treated with the respect due to his mother. In 1461 he sent under his sign manual a letter acquainting her of his having defeated king Henry VI, with every particular of the bloody battle of Towton. Fabian says, that in February 1470, when the nobility strove to make up the breach between king Edward IV. and Clarence, these royal brothers met for that purpose at Baynard Castle, where the duchess, their mother, then lay.

She opposed the marriage of her eldest son king Edward IV. with his subject Elizabeth, widow of Sir Richard Widvile, knight, as highly impolitic, and injurious to his dignity and interest. But love was a more powerful passion than duty, or even his own security. The king, however, does not appear to have in the least derogated from his wonted respect to his mother afterwards, though the influence of his queen was superior to that of the widow of his father.

The queen was more beautiful than wise, more accomplished than politic, for she studied more to fill the court of her husband with her own relations, than to gain the friendship of the king's. This impolitic conduct gave a mutual disgust to the royal family and the nobility. Elizabeth was as intriguing as her predecessor queen Margaret, and it was equally ruinous to the interest of her offspring.

No doubt it was on this account that Cecily joined with the grandees, upon king Edward IV's death, in wishing to see the administration, even the kingdom, put into the hands of her only surviving son, who became king Richard III.

By the "Historic doubts" it appears that king Richard's first council was held in her house, and that he wrote her a most affectionate letter from Pontefract June 3, after he was king. The language is humble and respectful.

However, it must be supposed she was greatly shocked at his conduct, when he had thrown off the mask. When he had bastardized all king Edward IV's children, when he had imprisoned, if not destroyed, the sons of that monarch, and she saw the daughters of Edward, instead of sharing the thrones of the greatest potentates in Europe, doomed to be only the wives of some of their father's subjects; when she saw him change the succession, so frequently, and at length saw it taken by him from the Plantagenets, she must have been extremely hurt. But all those tales about Richard's defaming her character, as well as the pretended aspersions of it by Clarence, Shaw, and Buckingham, appear totally unfounded.

All Richard's projects failed, and by his death in the battle of Bosworth she saw the crown go to an illegitimate stem of the Lancastrian line. It was, however, some satisfaction to her, no doubt, to have it settled in her issue by the marriage of king Henry VII. with her eldest granddaughter, Elizabeth, the heir of king Edward IV. She lived to see several children of this union.

This prospect of having the succession of the crown permanent in her descendants was not, however, without great alloy, for Henry, from fear and hatred to the Yorkists, proscribed every branch of her family, and which, in a few years after her death, were involved in one common ruin; this cruelty in a little time the Tudors retaliated upon themselves. Cecily's venerable age and virtues prevented the royal miser from stripping her of the rich dower she possessed.

The duchess appears to have had her general residence at Baynard castle in London, and Berkhampstead in Herts. The former was given by king Henry VI. to Richard duke of York, her husband, upon the death of Humphry duke of Gloucester. In this palace in 1458 the duke of York lodged his train of four hundred men, and all his noble partizans with their warlike suits, to deliberate about the most effectual means of asserting his claim to the crown: in this palace also his son Edward, earl of March, in 1460, with the friends of the house of York, met and voted to crown him; and here likewise Richard III. with seeming reluctance was prevailed upon to take the kingdom. King Henry VII. obtaining it upon the duchess's death, rebuilt it, says Stow in his History of London, more in the manner of a palace than a castle. Berkhampstead castle also came again into the crown; in this castle king James I. had his children brought up; it was burnt in the reign of king Charles I. and now there is scarce a vestige remaining.

Though these were the usual, yet they were not the only residences of the duchess, for in August 1475, in the reign of king Edward IV, she was at the Mitred abbey of St. Bennet at Holm, in the parish of Horning in Norfolk; this we learn by a letter which Sir John Paston wrote to his son: in it he says, "My lady of York, and all her household, were there, and where me proposed to reside until the king her son came from beyond the sea, and longer if she liked the air there, as it was said." Edward IV. was then in France.

In the reign of king Richard III. she resided in London, but she died at her castle of Berkhampstead, and was buried at her own desire at Fotheringay, in Northamptonshire, by the duke of York, her late husband; of whose splendid funeral Sandford gives a particular relation; it was all but regal: she died in more frugal times. The chancel of the choir being destroyed, queen Elizabeth, her great-great-granddaughter, ordered the bodies of this illustrious couple to be placed in a vault prepared for that purpose in the church[2].

Many and great were the changes this princess saw; she lived in the reigns of five sovereigns. She saw the crown of France wrested from the infant brow of king Henry VI. and she saw him deprived of that of England, restored, again dethroned, and his innocent blood cruelly spilt, She saw her son king Edward IV. crowned, dethroned, restored, and cut off by his intemperance at an early age. She saw her grandson king Edward V. upon the throne, but deprived of his sceptre, imprisoned, and murdered, by whom, and when, perhaps, she never knew. She saw her youngest son, king Richard III, usurp the regal honours, and lose them soon after, with his life, when not more than thirty-two, or at the most thirty-five years of age; and finally, she saw the enemy of her family, who had vanquished him, proclaimed by the name of king Henry VII.

In her life-time there were these queens: Joan, relict of king Henry  IV. Catherine, the dowager of king Henry V. Margaret, Elizabeth, Ann, and Elizabeth, the consorts of king Henry VI, king Edward IV, king Richard III, and king Henry VII. It is difficult to say which of these illustrious females was most unfortunate. Cecily was deprived of the title of queen only by the premature death of her husband, owing to his own intemperate anger.

She saw these princes of Wales: Edward, the amiable son of the unhappy king Henry VI. Richard, duke of York, her husband, for so was he created. Edward, her grandson, the son of king Edward IV. and who afterwards was stiled king Edward V. Edward, son of king Richard III. also her son, and Arthur, her great-grand son, the son of king Henry VII. None of these princes of Wales were fortunate, for they all came to violent deaths, except the two last, and they died at a very early age.

She lived to see all these different modes of succession settled as power or interest prevailed. Edward, prince of Wales, was recognized as successor to his father king Henry VI; but this prince was deprived of all claim to the crown, it being transferred from him, to be vested in the duke of York her husband: she saw him attainted, as has been mentioned; after which, prince Edward was restored to his birth-right, but she saw him again deprived in favour of king Edward IV, and what issue he might have; but prince Edward was again reinstated in the order of succession, with remainder over to George duke of Clarence, and his issue, in exclusion of the exiled king Edward IV. and his progeny. But all these strange projects were overthrown by the restoration of king Edward IV. when the succession was renewed to his children. Upon the death of that luxurious monarch she saw his issue bastardized, and the reversion of the crown given to Edward, prince of Wales, son of king Richard III. and after his death, she saw the usurper, her son, settle the succession upon Edward, earl of Warwick, son of the late duke of Clarence; but upon some new turn of affairs, it was taken from this grandson of hers, to be given to another; it being settled by Richard upon John de la Pole, the son of her daughter Elizabeth, by John de la Pole, duke of Suffolk: but this disposition of things was overturned soon after by the event of the battle of Bosworth, and this unfortunate prince, who became earl of Lincoln, hating the change of affairs, was slain in 1489 at the battle of Stoke, fighting against king Henry VII. in whose issue the succession at length rested.

Of the family of Nevil I cannot but observe, that it has given one queen, five duchesses, an archbishop of York, a duke of Bedford, a marquis Montacute, six earls of Westmoreland, two earls of Salisbury and Warwick, an earl of Kent, an earl of Northumberland, and an earl of Richmond, the former resigned for the higher title of marquis of Montacute, and the latter given only for life, to the first earl of Westmoreland of this family, several countesses, and a bishop of Durham. These baronies were possessed by different branches of this house, Nevil, Furnival, Talbot, Ferrers of Oversley, Seymour, Latimer, and Abergavenny, now erected into an earldom; and many of the females by marriage became baronesses. There were these great officers of the name, two lord chancellors, an earl marshal, a lord high admiral of England, two admirals of the North, and two judges. They numbered eight knights of the Garter, and ten of the Bath.

Of the Poles I must remark, that our peerages do not tell us whether Sir Richard Pole, who married Margaret countess of Salisbury, daughter of George duke of Clarence, was in any way related to John de la Pole, duke of Suffolk, the husband of Elizabeth, one of the daughters of Cecily duchess of York. Of the Poles who intermarried with the Clarence branch of the royal Plantagenets, there were a cardinal archbishop of Canterbury, a baron Montague, and a knight of the Garter. Of the de la Poles, were four earls, and two dukes of Suffolk, one earl of Lincoln, a lord high chancellor, two prime ministers, one lord high admiral of England, one admiral of the North, one judge; three knights of the Garter, one of the Bath, and a banneret.

These are the observations that have occurred to me in contemplating the eventful life of Cecily duchess of York, from whom all the succeeding sovereigns of England are descended.

It was the period of "illustrious unfortunates" owing to the constant revolutions that followed fast upon each other.

Wretchedness marked the fate of the Plantagenets and the Nevils, alike remembered for their ambition and their crimes.

The de la Poles were the only family of that time who rose from trade to splendour, and it even exceeded the Nevils in dignity, in power, and in misfortunes.

  1. Henry, the eldest son of Cecily duchess of York, was so named in compliment to his godfather king Henry VI.
  2. In "a collection of ordinances and regulations for the government of the royal household made in divers reigns from king Edward III. to king William and queen Mary," printed by this society, is "a compendous recytacion compiled of the order, rules, and constructione of the house of the Righte Excellent Princesse Cecill, late mother unto the right noble prince, kinge Edward the Fourthe." In which is also given, an account how she spent her time; it does her great honour. She not only attended to prayers in her chapel, but at meals had "lectures of holy matter read to her." The orders and rules, seem to have been taken in the reign of king Henry VII.