Cecily Neville Biography

Duchess of York

Cecily Neville, Duchess of York
Cecily Neville, Duchess of York. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Cecily Neville was the great-granddaughter of one king, Edward III of England (and his wife Philippa of Hainault); the wife of a would-be king, Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York; and the mother of two kings: Edward IV and Richard III, Through Elizabeth of York, she was the great-grandmother of Henry VIII and an ancestor to the Tudor rulers. Her maternal grandparents were John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford.

 See below for a list of her children and other family members.

Wife of the Protector -- and Claimant to the Crown of England

Cecily Neville's husband was Richard, Duke of York, the heir to King Henry VI and protector of the young king in his minority and later during a bout of insanity. Richard was the descendant of two other sons of Edward III: Lionel of Antwerp and Edmund of Langley. Cecily was first betrothed to Richard when she was nine years old, and they married in 1429 when she was fourteen. Their first child, Anne, was born in 1439. A son who died shortly after birth was followed by the future Edward IV; much later, there were charges that Edward was illegitimate, including accusations by another Richard Neville, the Duke of Warwick, who was also Cecily Neville's nephew, and by Edward's younger brother, George, Duke of Clarence. Although Edward's birth date and Cecily's husband's absence were timed in a way that raised suspicion, there was no record from the time of Edward's birth either of the birth being premature nor of her husband questioning paternity.

Cecily and Richard had five more surviving children after Edward.

When Henry VI's wife, Margaret of Anjou, gave birth to a son, this son supplanted Richard as the heir to the throne. When Henry recovered his sanity, the Duke of York fought to regain power, with Cecily Neville's nephew, the Duke of Warwick, one of his strongest allies.

Winning at St. Albans in 1455, losing in 1456 (by now to Margaret of Anjou leading the Lancastrian forces), Richard fled to Ireland in 1459 and was declared an outlaw. Cecily with her sons Richard and George were put in the care of Cecily's sister, Anne, the Duchess of Buckingham.

Victorious again in 1460, Warwick and his cousin, Edward, Earl of March, the future Edward IV, won at Northampton, taking Henry VI prisoner. Richard, Duke of York, returned to claim the crown for himself. Margaret and Richard compromised, naming Richard protector and heir apparent to the throne. But Margaret continued to fight for the right of succession for her son, winning the battle of Wakefield. In this battle, Richard, Duke of York, was killed. His severed head was crowned with a paper crown. Edmund, the second son of Richard and Cecily, was also caught and killed in that battle.

Edward IV

In 1461, Cecily and Richard's son, Edward, Earl of March, became King Edward IV. Cecily won the rights to her lands and continued to support religious houses and the college at Fotheringhay.

Cecily was working with her nephew Warwick to find a wife for Edward IV, suitable for his status as the king. They were negotiating with the French king when Edward revealed that he had secretly married the commoner and widow, Elizabeth Woodville, in 1464.

Both Cecily Neville and her brother reacted with anger.

In 1469, Cecily's nephew, Warwick, and her son, George, changed sides and supported Henry VI after their initial support of Edward. Warwick married his elder daughter, Isabel Neville, to Cecily's son George, Duke of Clarence, and he married his other daughter, Anne Neville, to Henry VI's son, Edward, Prince of Wales (1470).

There is some evidence that Cecily herself helped promote the rumor that began to circulate that Edward was illegitimate and that she promoted her son George as the rightful king. For herself, the Duchess of York used the title "queen by right" in recognition of her husband's claims to the crown.

After Prince Edward was killed in a battle with Edward IV's forces, Warwick married the prince's widow, Warwick's daughter Anne Neville, to Cecily's son and Edward IV's brother, Richard, in 1472, though not without opposition by Richard's brother, George, who was already married to Anne's sister, Isabel.

In 1478, Edward sent his brother George to the tower, where he died or was murdered -- according to legend, drowned in a butt of malmsey wine.

Cecily Neville left court and had little contact with her son Edward before his death in 1483.

After Edward's death, Cecily supported the claim of her son, Richard III, to the crown, nullifying Edward's will and asserting that his sons were illegitimate. These sons, the "Princes in the Tower," are generally believed to have been killed by Richard III or one of his supporters, or perhaps during the early part of Henry VII's reign by Henry or his supporters.

When Richard III's brief reign ended at Bosworth Field, and Henry VII (Henry Tudor) became king, Cecily retired from public life -- maybe. There is some evidence that she may have encouraged support for an attempt to dethrone Henry VII when Perkin Warbeck claimed to be one of the sons of Edward IV ("Princes in the Tower"). She died in 1495.

Cecily Neville is believed to have owned a copy of The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan.

Fictional Depiction

Shakespeare's Duchess of York: Cecily appears in a minor role as the Duchess of York in Shakespeare's Richard III. Shakespeare uses the Duchess of York to stress the family losses and agonies involved in the War of the Roses. Shakespeare has compressed the historical timeline and has taken literary license with how events happened and the motivations involved.

From Act II, Scene IV, on her husband's death and her sons' shifting involvement in the War of the Roses:

My husband lost his life to get the crown;
And often up and down my sons were toss'd,
For me to joy and weep their gain and loss:
And being seated, and domestic broils
Clean over-blown, themselves, the conquerors.
Make war upon themselves; blood against blood,
Self against self: O, preposterous
And frantic outrage, end thy damned spleen...

Shakespeare has the Duchess understanding early the villainous character Richard is in the play: (Act II, Scene II):

He is my son; yea, and therein my shame;
Yet from my dugs he drew not this deceit.

And quickly after that, receiving news of her son Edward's death so soon after her son Clarence's:

But death hath snatch'd my husband from mine arms,
And pluck'd two crutches from my feeble limbs,
Edward and Clarence. O, what cause have I,
Thine being but a moiety of my grief,
To overgo thy plaints and drown thy cries!

Parents of Cecily Neville:

  • Ralph, Earl of Westmoreland, and his second wife,
  • Joan Beaufort, daughter of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and Katherine Roët, known also by her earlier married name as Katherine Swynford, whom John of Gaunt married after his children's births. John of Gaunt was a son of Edward III of England.

More Family of Cecily Neville

  • Isabel Neville, married to George, Duke of Clarence, son of Cecily
  • Anne Neville, married (or at least formally betrothed to) Edward, Prince of Wales, son of Henry VI, then married to Richard III, also a son of Cecily

Children of Cecily Neville:

  1. Joan (1438-1438)
  2. Anne (1439-1475/76)
  3. Henry (1440/41-1450)
  4. Edward (King Edward IV of England) (1442-1483) - married Elizabeth Woodville
  1. Edmund (1443-1460)
  2. Elizabeth (1444-1502)
  3. Margaret (1445-1503) - married Charles, Duke of Burgundy
  4. William (1447-1455?)
  5. John (1448-1455?)
  6. George (1449-1477/78) - married Isabel Neville
  7. Thomas (1450/51-1460?)
  8. Richard (King Richard III of England) (1452-1485) - married Anne Neville
  9. Ursula (1454?-1460?)