Cecilly Neville had it all.
And then she lost it.
Born into the powerful Neville family, she was the youngest daughter of Ralph, Earl of Westmorland, and his second wife, Joan Beaufort. She was the couple’s thirteenth child. When Cecilly was born in 1415 her eldest brother was already in his thirties.
As the baby of the family, she was certainly spoiled. Perhaps this laid the foundation of her nickname, “Proud Cis”. What is undoubted is that she grew into a most beautiful young woman, known as the “Rose of Raby”, Raby being one of the family’s castles in Durham.
Ralph Neville had in his charge the orphaned son of Richard Earl of Cambridge, who had been executed by Henry V the very year Cecilly was born. Richard Duke of York, was only 4 years old at the time of his father’s violent end. As Ralph’s ward, young Richard was betrothed to Cecilly around 1424. Their marriage made them one of the wealthiest couples in the land.
In 1441 Richard was appointed the King’s Lieutenant in France, a natural role as cousin to Henry VI. Instead of remaining at home, Cecilly accompanied him to the war, giving birth to three children in Rouen: Edward, future King of England, his brother Edmund and Elisabeth. This set the pattern for their life together. So when Richard was sent to govern Ireland, Cecilly went with him. Their son, George, Duke of Clarence was born in Dublin Castle in 1449. Returning to England the couple settled at Fotheringhay, where Richard, the future King Richard III, was born in 1452.
The next year their world was turned upside down.
Henry VI had a mental breakdown and for two years Richard ruled as regent. When the King came to his senses, instead of gratitude, he harboured suspicions that Richard sought to replace him, fears which quickly turned to hatred.
A decade of political infighting and instabilty came to an end in 1460 when Parliament made Richard Duke of York heir to Henry VI. In doing so they disinherited the King’s young son and ensured the murderous opposition of his Queen, Margaret of Anjou.
As the year 1460 drew to its close, Richard left Cecilly at their London home, Baynard’s castle, to lead an army of 5000 to quell a rebellion of lords loyal to Henry in Yorkshire. Many a time she had seen him ride off to war. This time he was accompanied by her elder brother Richard Earl of Salisbury and his son Thomas. Also Edmund at 17 was to gain his first taste of battle.
When they rode north they left Cecilly with her youngest children, George 11, Richard 8 and Margaret 14.
The date was 9 December 1460.
She never saw any of them alive again.
The news of disaster at Wakefield reached Cecilly early in the new year. Richard and his men had engaged a Lancastrian army on 30 December. Tudor propagandists gleefully asserted that he had made a fatal error of judgment, in leaving the safety of Sandal castle.
Cecilly knew better.
She knew her husband.
He had waited at Sandal for promised reinforcements. And it was only when 8000 men, under the command of her nephew, John Lord Neville, arrived that battle ensued.
Richard left the confines of his splendid castle, when he knew that he had a fighting chance.
Neither he nor Cecilly could have anticipated the betrayal of John Neville, whose 8000 men switched sides in the very midst of the fighting.
The battle turned into a massacre, Duke Richard almost certainly dying with his men. But worse was to come. Edmund had escaped from the slaughter, only to be captured on Wakefield Bridge. Such a wealthy prisoner should have been ransomed. Instead he was murdered without pity by a Peer of the realm.
Cecilly now understood that Henry’s Queen intended to exterminate her entire family. If further proof was needed, Margaret had the severed heads of Richard and Edmund put on public display over the Micklegate in York.
Even this did not break Cecilly Neville.
She did not know how to break.
She had to protect her family from the ravages of Lancaster, so she sent little George and Richard to safety in Burgundy and threw her weight behind her eldest son Edward’s claim to the throne. At 19 Edward led his men to destroy first the invading French and Welsh at Mortimer’s Cross and then Henry’s forces at Towton, a battle fought in the teeth of a blizzard in March 1461.
The Kings' Mother
Edward’s ascension to the throne should have marked the beginning of a period of great happiness for Cecilly. However, his unbridled sexual lust led him to enter a disastrous marriage with the bewitching Elisabeth Woodville in 1465. Furious with him for marrying so far beneath his rank, Cecilly tried to have him replaced with his younger brother George. But Edward’s military prowess ultimately won the day.
She lived to see Edward take his revenge on George, having him privately “executed” in the Tower in 1478. She watched helpless as her magnificent warrior son degenerated into a gross avaricous lecher who died prematurely in 1483.
Nor could she do anything to save her youngest son, Richard, who lost his life defending the Throne against foreign troops and treacherous allies in 1485.
At every turn “modern” man and woman are assured that they are the very acme of creation. Their fragile egos are constantly massaged with the belief that we are gods walking on the earth, unsurpassed by previous generations.
Where then is the modern equivalent of Cecilly Neville?
How can we understand such strength of character, when we mistake character for “celebrity”?
We curse God for our less than perfect lives, as we bleat on, “Why should this happen to me?”
How can we relate to a woman, who endured so much and yet remained unbroken?
Duty to God, to her family, to England crowned Cecilly’s life more than any mere band of gold.
What separates us from Cecilly is not the span of the centuries but the vitality of her religious life. It is the absence of authentic Christianity from the “modern” world that makes her an enigma.
Cecilly’s Christian faith sustained her through a life of trouble and anguish. In later years she paid particular honour to John the Baptist, who like her husband was beheaded at the behest of a vengeful queen. That similarity comforted her. She knew that to be killed did not make one condemned of God, indeed, that to die might be for God’s glory and that the order of our lives, even those of the youngest child, is never, ever an accident.