Dispelling myths: The Truth Behind Edward IV & Cecily Neville

Cecily and Edward IV
Edward IV “the Rose of Rouen” and his mother “Proud Cis” Cecily Neville, Duchess Dowager of York.

Today historians still debate Edward IV’s parentage but a poem done in his honor, shortly after he was sworn in as King, leaves it very clear he was Richard, Duke of York’s son:

“Y is for York that is manly and mighty
That be grace of God and great revelation
Reining with rules reasonable and right-full
That which for our sakes hath suffered vexation.

E is for Edward whose fame the earth shall spread
Because of his wisdom named prudence
shall save all England by his manly deeds
Wherefore we owe to do him reverence

M is for March, through every trial
Drawn by discretion that worthy and wise is
conceived in wedlock and coming of blood royal
Joining unto virtue, excluding all vices.”

There was a scene in the White Queen, both in the book and the mini-series where Cecily Neville, Duchess of York and “Queen by Rights” is completely humiliated by her daughter-in-law and her mother, Lady Rivers. She threatens to disown her son Edward in favor of George because she is mad he married a Lancastrian impoverished widow. Elizabeth Grey nee Woodville’s father was a knight, albeit he had been made a Baron thanks to his service to the Crown –and Jacquetta’s friendship with the Lancastrian Queen. Her mother was Jacquetta of Luxemborg whose lineage was quite impressive. However in the middle ages, if your father was a nobody, it didn’t matter if your mother was a somebody, to their standards, you were technically a nobody unless you married above your station. Edward was the first King of the York dynasty –another branch of the Plantagenet Dynasty. His position was very unstable as Henry VI was still alive somewhere and his warring wife and son were seeking the support of Scotland and France to invade England and restore her husband to the throne. Everything he did or said could be used against him; he couldn’t afford to be his own man until he was safely installed. Yet, Edward disregarded this –as he did many things- and went ahead and married Elizabeth Woodville.

There are many possible reasons as to why he did this. Susan Higginbotham in her biography on the Woodville posits that he could have done it as another plot to convince Elizabeth to sleep with him, or for the simplest reason that he genuinely fell in love with her. Dan Jones in his latest book on the wars of the roses and the Tudors, give another approach that combines all reasons: That Edward was uncertain regarding his cousin Warwick’s proposal to marry the King of France’s relative, Bona of Savoy. If he agreed to marry this girl then he would be seen as Warwick’s tool. People were already saying that Warwick ruled. Edward didn’t want to give them any more reason to think this way. It was a great risk he was running but he did it anyway. Marrying Elizabeth was a public statement of his independence and furthermore that he was not going to show favoritism to any nobles regardless of their previous affiliations. The Woodvilles like so many former Lancastrians, had been pardoned in 1461 but there was still a lot resentment between noble families. People expected Edward IV to be like his counterpart and his wife and take retaliation against the people that supported his enemies.

He clearly didn’t.

Edward IV and Elizabeth in portraits and in the White Queen (2013) played by Max Irons and Rebecca Ferguson.
Edward IV and Elizabeth in portraits and in the White Queen (2013) played by Max Irons and Rebecca Ferguson.

His marriage with Elizabeth could have been handled better, and publicized more as his daughter’s to Henry VII was. Perhaps Edward believed that marrying her was enough for people to get the message of a reconciliation between both parties. It failed drastically. As we all know, Warwick and the rest were appalled at his decision. These were no simple dissatisfied nobles after all. Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick had lost his father and younger brother when they helped Edward’s father, Richard Duke of York and his second eldest son Edmund Earl of Rutland fight the Queen’s army at Sandal Castle. His father as the rest, were beheaded, their heads stuck on a pole and exhibited on top of the gates as traitors. Warwick had to flee many times and muster whatever men he could, with what money he had left for his cousin. To have his cousin all the sudden say ‘sorry dude but I don’t like you anymore. Get the hell out’ was a huge slap in the face.

Warwick also had other motives for hating this union. Edward IV had always felt close to Burgundy. His mother had ties to that royal family, but Warwick wanted an alliance with France for obvious reasons (the Lancastrian Queen, Margaret of Anjou was there, begging the King to send troops to invade England and restore her husband. If she succeeded, then it was the end of everything and everyone they loved. Plain and simple. The best way to avoid that was by marrying Edward to the King’s relative so Margaret of Anjou would be completely cut off from allies. Now thanks to Edward’s latest marriage, that wasn’t going to happen).

Cecily had more reasons to hate that marriage though. She loved her son fiercely. Having lost her husband and her second son in such a brutal way, she became increasingly protecting of her remaining children. The year before her husband and son lost their heads (when they had to go abroad to escape the royal army) what do you think Cecily Neville did? She had to beg (I repeat, beg) for mercy and throw herself at the feet of her enemies so her youngest children would be spared. She counted on her friendship with Queen Margaret, to help her in these difficult times. It paid off.  Margaret of Anjou never lifted a finger against her and let her be (under the condition that she stayed with her sister, Anne, Duchess of Buckingham whose husband was a die-hard Lancastrian and who happened to be Margaret Beaufort’s mother-in-law). This time though, Cecily knew it wasn’t going to be so simple. Even *if* -and that was a big *if*- the Queen forgave her as before, she would see her youngest offspring (Richard, George and Margaret) as potential claimants who would one day rise to avenge their fallen brothers if Edward died too. Cecily had no choice but to send her two boys abroad to Burgundy where they were well taken care of. Imagine yourself as a forty five year old woman who had been married since she was twelve, who had lived through so much carnage and humiliation, and you suddenly found out that your sons could be seen as potential dangers to your best friend? What could you do? They say there is nothing a mother won’t do for her children, and that is what Cecily did. She let go of her children, and took refuge in God, praying that the next news she would receive would be a good one.

Edward’s choice therefore angered her. The White Queen made her look as if she hated Elizabeth because of her condition of ‘commoner’. But as much as I did enjoy some parts of the White Queen, we must look at it for what it is, fiction and acknowledge the facts. Cecily did not want to acknowledge Edward’s marriage to this Lancastrian widow because it was dangerous. She had seen the worse of humanity. She had lost nephews, uncles, husband, son, and a brother! Edward wasn’t even in his fifth year when he married Elizabeth. He had so many enemies, this marriage left him without alliances and completely naked to them. Not only that, but his failure meant the destruction of her family.

Cecily was not about to act all happy and ignorant and pretend this was okay. Her husband was gone but she was still there. Before Edward married Elizabeth, she was the most powerful woman in the land and many ambassadors met with her before they met with her nephew Warwick and her son, Edward IV. Elizabeth might become a good Queen, but her common status put them all in danger.

Cecily Neville is forced to bow to Elizabeth.
Cecily Neville is forced to bow to Elizabeth.

When Jaquetta and her daughter enter the Duchess’ chambers, smirking at her as if she is too far beneath them, the former threatens her to expose her as a “common whore”. Jacquetta says in the TV show that she vouched for her when the rumors began circulating that she had cheated on her husband with a Welsh archer. “Blaybourne, wasn’t it? Ah yes, I said that a great lady like you would not so demean herself as to lie with a common archer and let his bastard slip into a nobleman’s cradle like she was a common whore.”
Fiction sensationalizes these things to make them more interesting, I take it as an alternate universe where people are obviously very different from what they really were. A woman as conscientious of her lineage, her status, would never let herself be humiliated by a woman who was lower in rank than her. Even her daughter-in-law, Elizabeth Woodville, was lower in rank to her since she had been the daughter of a knight and although her mother had great lineage, that didn’t matter. Queen she might be, but to Cecily she was lower than her. And furthermore, she and Richard were very close in age, the two got to know each other since they were children –when his custody as passed to her father Ralph Neville, the Earl of Westmorland and then her mother. Her mother was Joan Beaufort and she was the only daughter of John, 1
st
Duke of Lancaster and his mistress, Katherine Swynford. He had been married two times before he married her. When he did, Richard II agreed to legitimize their children for all the good services his uncle had done in government. John’s cruel nature was a small price to pay to protect his third wife and their children whom he obviously felt closer to. Their half-brother and the first Lancastrian King, Henry IV, added a new clause to their legitimate status where it excluded them from the line of succession. Because of this, many of them became very religious because they felt deeply ashamed of having been born a bastard and their birth being an impediment to being in the line of succession. The fact that they didn’t carry the last name Plantagenet, was awful enough. Joan spent her entire life praying and making huge donations to churches, and her piety was passed on to her youngest offspring, Cecily.
Many medieval women took comfort in religion. Contrary to what it shown in movies and TV, many women saw religion as a means to an end. It gave some of them power and comfort from their everyday hardships. A year before her third son’s George Duke of Clarence’s death, Cecily began to take on a rigorous religious routine and wake up at certain hours of the day for religious devotion.
With this in mind, it is impossible that a woman such as Cecily whose other nickname was “proud Cis” would have gone behind her husband’s back and cheat with the first bloke she saw. Status was everything and as I’ve stated, Cecily was very aware of her place in society. Of course some historians will then state the matter of Edward’s low key baptism. This can be explained simply. The belief of something in between heaven and hell: Purgatory. People believed that premature children would die quickly and if they died quickly without being baptized then that meant that their souls would never reach heaven and they would be stuck in a perpetual limbo.

Not something nice, isn’t it?

Cecily Neville and her daughter-in-law, Elizabeth Woodville.
Cecily Neville and her daughter-in-law, Elizabeth Woodville.

“Cecily fell pregnant soon after her arrival in Rouen. The exact timing of the conception has been the subject of much debate among historians and would later prove a significant bone of political contention. Edward would arrive on 28 April 1442. This would place his conception sometime at the end of July 1441 or in the early days of August, assuming that it was a nine-month pregnancy. Records discovered in Rouen recently detail that Richard, Duke of York was absent from Rouen on campaign at Pontoise for several weeks, returning to the city on 20 August. From this detail, several historians have inferred that Edward was not Richard’s son. They believe this proves that Cecily must have had an adulterous liaison during his absence, which would render Edward illegitimate.

There are a number of problems with using this timing as evidence. If Cecily conceived on the night of Richard’s return to Rouen, 20 August, this still allows for a pregnancy of thirty-six weeks … To be premature, a baby must be born before thirty seven weeks and there is a fair chance that Edward might have arrived early.” -Licence

Richard and Cecily were very young when they were married and they didn’t consummate their marriage right away. When Cecily’s first recorded pregnancy became known, it probably wasn’t an easy pregnancy as her baby died in less than a year. He was named Henry for the King and the loss devastated them both. They had a daughter later who thankfully was born healthy, but like any couple they would have been hoping for a son. If Edward was premature and conceived during Richard’s comings and goings from his camp to Rouen Castle, then it makes perfect sense why they wanted to baptize him right away. If they didn’t then he would likely die (being so frail) and his soul would be wandering off in purgatory. There were some extreme cases where –if a priest wasn’t found- the midwife could take on the role of the priest and baptize the baby instead. The other reason for his quick baptism could be that although he wasn’t premature, they were both worried that he would die like his brother or Richard could be killed any day. The two weren’t exactly living in a peaceful area. England was still at war with France and he had been sent there to defend Normandy from Charles VII’s forces.

Sources:

  • The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses and the Rise of the Tudors by Dan Jones
  • Cecily Neville: The Mother of Kings by Amy Licence
  • Royal Babies by Amy Licence
  • The Woodvilles by Susan Higginbotham
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8 thoughts on “Dispelling myths: The Truth Behind Edward IV & Cecily Neville

  1. Amy March 24, 2016 / 6:09 pm

    I am not sure that Cecily would have been considered higher status than Jaquetta who came from a foreign royal line and married the king’s brother. Cecily on the other hand was from a line that was barred from the throne, which demeaned any status she would possess from her ancestry.

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    • Minerva Casterly March 24, 2016 / 9:50 pm

      After Jacquetta married Richard Woodville, she became his lady and later on his Baroness so Cecily was now higher in status than her; while Cecily as you brilliantly pointed out (descending from the Beauforts who were barred from the line of succession from Henry IV) were still descended from royalty and Cecily married when she was very young to Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York. And after Henry VI made Richard his heir, he and Cecily became Prince and Princess of Wales and de-facto King and Queen in waiting. Thank you so much for you comment girl. Happy Thursday!!!! 😀

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      • Kaye May 10, 2016 / 8:32 pm

        You aren’t wrong in your statement that once Jacquetta married Richard she became of lower stature but when she married John, Duke of Bedford sne became a royal duchess and when he died, the Dowager Duchess of Bedford. After Eleanor Cobham was sentenced to live out her days at Peel Castle in the Isle of Mann she became the highest ranking female in England until Henry the Seventh married Marguerite d’Anjou, and even then she was the second highest ranking woman in England. This has been highly recorded. John the Duke being the elder brother between himself and Humphrey, if the young Henry had died during his Regency then he himself would have taken the throne. His widow, Jacquetta, would have lived with that honor until the Yorks took over.

        But you are right that Duchess Cecily would have considered Elizabeth base-born given the Lancasters were out of favor. However, if Edward had somehow managed to take over in the old order of things, Jacquetta could have very well out-ranked Cecily as she had done for several years during the rule of Henry and Margaret.

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      • Kaye May 10, 2016 / 8:36 pm

        Something else I forgot to add: Jacquetta had her own impressive lineage and on several occasions the mother’s own lineage was used to boister her children forward. After Edward died, Elizabeth Woodville pretty much had to rely on her own family and it’s impressiveness to survive. However, by then she had made several advantageous marriages for her brothers, sisters, and nieces and nephews, so I guess she would have a little more to go on there by then. 😀

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  2. tudorqueen6 March 24, 2016 / 10:11 pm

    When Cecily was born, Jacquetta was married to the Duke. The title of Duke of York was restored to Cecily’s husband in 1425. With that, he also got back the Earl of March and Cambridge. Jacquetta was not of royal blood. Her title of “Jacquetta of Luxembourg” had nothing to do with her status. She wasn’t a Countess or a Duchess in her own right. Cecily was the daughter of Lady Joan Beaufort–who was technically a Princess as the daughter of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and the sister of Henry IV. The only reason Joan didn’t have the title of Joan of Lancaster was because she was illegitimate when born. The Beauforts didn’t become legit until John married his mistress. Even so, they were barred from succession which meant nothing–look at Henry Tudor’s horrible claim. It’s like Princesses Elizabeth and Mary Tudor–they were restored in blood, but they never got their title as “Princess” back.

    Yes, Richard was heir to the throne. Henry VI didn’t even have his son in the succession as the next King. Richard was promised the throne. And he was weeks from obtaining it when he was killed at Wakefield. Cecily was a queen-in-waiting. In the book by Amy Licence, she states Cecily’s position at court. Under Margaret of Anjou, Cecily was the highest woman at court. As for Jacquetta–she forfeited the title of “Dowager Duchess of Bedford” when she married beneath her status. She also forfeited her dower. Under the rules at court, she was not to remarry. However, she did and had to pay a heavy fine after she had received her dower. She was very sneaky about that, but ended up being charged anyway. She became Lady Woodville and eventually Lady Rivers. She may have been happy because she married for love, but she was far beneath almost everyone at court.

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