Thursday, August 07, 2014

Review: Cecily Neville: Mother of Kings



Cecily Neville: Mother of Kings
By Amy Licence
Amberley, August 2014

About the Book

Known to be proud, regal and beautiful, Cecily Neville was born in the year of the great English victory at Agincourt and survived long enough to witness the arrival of the future Henry VIII, her great-grandson. Her life spanned most of the fifteenth century. Cecily’s marriage to Richard, Duke of York, was successful, even happy, and she travelled with him wherever his career dictated, bearing his children in England, Ireland, and France, including the future Edward IV and Richard III.

What was the substance behind her claim to be queen by right? Would she indeed have made a good queen during these turbulent times? The member of a huge family herself, Cecily would see two of her sons become kings of England, but the struggles that tore apart the Houses of Lancaster and York also turned brother against brother. Cecily’s life cannot have been easy. Images of her dripping in jewels and holding her own alternative court might belie the terrible heartache of seeing her descendants destroy each other. In attempting to be the family peacemaker, she frequently had to make heart-wrenching choices, yet these did not destroy her. She battled on, outliving her husband, friends, rivals, and most of her children, to become one of the era’s great survivors.

My Review

Licence takes a look at the remarkable life of the “Rose of Raby”, Cecily Neville. Granddaughter of Edward III, aunt of Warwick “the Kingmaker”, and wife of Richard, Duke of York, Cecily led a life full of glorious highs, terrible losses, and countless close calls. Living to her 80th year, Cecily outlived nearly all of her friends, children, and enemies and had a front-row seat during the Wars of the Roses, one of the most contentious periods in English history, much of which pitted her closest relatives against each other. She truly was, in the words of Licence, “the most formidable queen England never had”.

What surprised me most is that few authors seem to mention that Cecily’s mother was Joan Beaufort, great-aunt to Margaret Beaufort whose son Henry Tudor would later kill Cecily’s son Richard for the throne of England. Richard III went out of his way to announce that his enemy Tudor descended from “bastard stock”, accentuating the Beauforts’ descent from a royal mistress. I have never seen any writer mention this, but it’s interesting to think what would have happened had anyone in 1485 mentioned that Richard himself descended from one of those same “bastard” lines, through his mother Cecily.

Because Cecily was intricately tied to the House of York, most writers focus only on the most obvious of the familial dilemmas in which Cecily found herself throughout her life: her son Edward IV’s order to execute his brother George, Duke of Clarence; Richard III’s betrayal of his brother Edward IV’s will and heirs; and the Earl of Warwick’s rebellion against Cecily’s sons, which resulted in the former’s death in battle. Licence does an excellent job highlighting the less-discussed conflicts in Cecily’s life including when Cecily was imprisoned in the home of her sister Anne, the Duchess of Buckingham; when Cecily’s uncle Edmund Beaufort led a faction against her husband Richard of York; and when Cecily’s son-in-law, Henry Holland, Duke of Exeter, joined the fight against the Yorks.

Licence lays out the facts, going to great lengths to describe the everyday experiences of Cecily’s life, beyond the major historical highlights. It is also nice to see a biographer who doesn’t attempt to put thoughts in the subject’s head. Licence is careful to weigh the balance of evidence but beyond that, does not state what Cecily did or did not think. License tries to put events in the proper context, noting for instance, that our modern sensibilities make it hard for us to understand why Cecily might back her son, Richard III, over her grandsons (Edward IV’s sons), when in fact Cecily’s loyalty to her late husband and his house may have explained this in ways modern observers struggle to understand.

A fitting biography of an amazing woman, this is perfect for anyone interested in learning more about the complex familial relationships that produced the Wars of the Roses.

Rebecca Henderson Palmer

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