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The Duchess of York

Cecily Neville, mother of Edward IV and Richard III, was born in one of the most dramatic years of a tempestuous century. Later that summer Richard earl of Cambridge, younger brother of the duke of York, was executed at Southampton for plotting to overthrow the Lancastrian king Henry V. Weeks after that Edward duke of York himself was one of the few English dead at Agincourt, one of England’s most spectacular victories in the Hundred Years War.

The repercussions of these events provided the context for the Wars of the Roses that followed, wars that shaped Cecily Neville’s life intimately and were sometimes shaped by her. From the first blood at Southampton until the last serious Yorkist pretender threatened Henry VII’s throne in the mid-​1490s was a span of eighty years. Cecily duchess of York was the only major protagonist of the Wars of the Roses to live right through those eighty years. Yet the drama and bloodshed of civil war and conflict with France were only one part of her story. Her well-​documented religious interests and book ownership have made her a popular exemplar in historians’ assessments of lay piety.

By contrast, her role as a major landholder and head of a powerful household have scarcely attracted any attention despite the wealth of sources that survive. Nor has there been any assessment of the way her own administration supported that of Edward IV.

The story of Cecily Neville’s life provides a rich insight into national and local politics, women’s power and relationships, motherhood, household dynamics and the role of religion in fifteenth-​century England. It is common for biographies of such figures to begin with a narrative of events which is followed by thematic chapters. However, as Joel Rosenthal observed, Cecily’s life is ‘best seen, not so much in terms of a life cycle, but rather as a series of epic chapters that, by the end, were barely connected through living memory’.

Her dramatic changes in circumstance and the very random survival of sources for thesedifferent chapters in her life make a broadly chronological biography more effective. It is hoped that this approach will also provide a more useful foundation upon which further research on Cecily can be built. To avoid allowing the narrative to slide into a retelling of the Wars of the Roses from Cecily’s perspective, the focus is on those political events in which her involvement can be traced and these are interwoven with discussion of other aspects of her life.
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