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The Kingmaker's Sisters
Six Powerful Women in the Wars of the Roses
By David Baldwin
The History PressCopyright © 2011 David Baldwin
All rights reserved.
The Neville Family
The Nevilles are an example – perhaps the example par excellence – of how a minor aristocratic medieval family could rise from relative obscurity to enjoy a place at the heart of both the royal house and government. A dynasty that could produce a male heir in each generation could hardly fail to add to its acres and influence as rivals and relatives alike were extinguished; but this needed to be complemented by judicious marriages to heiresses and by an ability to sniff which way the political wind was blowing. Rich rewards were available to those who successfully negotiated the pitfalls, but disaster awaited any who were found wanting. Some heiresses were the survivors of what McFarlane has called 'enfeebled stocks' (the result of their families intermarrying too often), and a bad political decision, be it to support the reigning king or a rival claimant, could result in execution and forfeiture. An attainted heir might slowly work his way back into royal favour, but his prospects would have been seriously damaged in the short term.
Many noble families were able to accomplish some of these things for part of the time, but few could rival the almost flawless progress of the Nevilles. In generation after generation they wedded heiresses, sired large numbers of children by them, and accumulated a rich landed estate centred on the castles of Raby and Brancepeth in County Durham and Middleham and Sheriff Hutton in Yorkshire. It was in 1397, in the aftermath of his coup against those noblemen who had resisted his will ten years earlier, that Richard II raised Ralph Neville, the then head of the family, to the earldom of Westmoreland, but Ralph did not allow his gratitude to cloud his view of the political situation or take his eye off the main chance. When Henry Bolingbroke landed at Ravenspur in July 1399, Ralph, the husband of Henry's half-sister Joan Beaufort, was among the first to join him, and he bore the royal sceptre when the usurper was crowned king as Henry IV. He proved his loyalty by resisting the rebellions of the Percies in 1403 and the Duke of Norfolk and Archbishop Scrope two years later, a sequence of events that effectively eliminated his main rivals and further enhanced his authority in the restless north.
Earl Ralph married twice and fathered some twenty-three children, nine by his first wife Margaret Stafford and fourteen more by the Countess Joan. John, his eldest son by his first wife, had first claim on his father's title, but these older children of the first brood lacked the royal connections of their younger siblings of the half-blood. It was presumably thanks to Joan's influence that Richard, her eldest son, married Alice Montacute, heiress to the earldom of Salisbury, and his brother Robert, the churchman of the family, became first Bishop of Salisbury and then Bishop of Durham. Four other sons secured heiresses to baronies, becoming Lords Fauconberg, St Maur, Latimer, and Bergavenny, while four daughters were contracted to the Dukes of Buckingham, Norfolk and York, and the Earl of Northumberland. These arrangements would, in due course, help Norfolk and Northumberland to recover the titles forfeited by their brother and grandfather in Henry IV's reign, and there were doubtless others who found that a connection with Earl Ralph and his countess could improve their relations with the Crown or enhance their prospects. It was the culmination of many years of patient planning and hard work.
When Earl Ralph died in 1425 he left his Durham estates to his grandson Ralph (John, his eldest son, had predeceased him), but the Yorkshire lands were settled on the Countess Joan. She had no intention of allowing them to pass to the offspring of her husband's first wife, and the scene was set for decades of friction between the 'senior' and 'junior' branches of the family. John had rather surprisingly acquiesced in this arrangement, and Ralph the younger, who was still a minor, could do nothing to prevent it; but the latter did not conceal his displeasure after he came of age in 1429. In 1435 the Chancellor was informed that 'owing to the grievous differences which have arisen between Ralph Earl of Westmoreland and his brothers John and Thomas on the one hand, and Joan Dowager-Countess of Westmoreland and her son Richard Earl of Salisbury on the other hand, [who] have of late assembled, by manner of war and insurrection, great routs and companies upon the field, which have done all manner of great offences as well in slaughter and destruction of the King's lieges as otherwise, which things are greatly against the estate and weal and peace of this realm'. The Privy Council appointed three arbitrators and the differences were patched up for the moment: but the problem is typical of the disputes that could beset an inheritance when a man reared two families. The eldest son could not have everything, and his half-brothers could never have enough!
The second Earl Ralph continued to contest the arrangement after his step-grandmother died in 1440, but could make little headway against Salisbury whose royal connections and superior service both in France and on the Scottish border always stood him in good stead with the Crown. Another 'compromise' in 1443 all but settled the matter in Salisbury's favour, and Westmoreland would have been poorer than some fourteenth-century lords of Raby if he had not inherited lands from his mother, Elizabeth Holland. Salisbury's power had previously been drawn from his wife's Montacute estates in the West Country, but his new possessions, the valuable lordships of Middleham, Sheriff Hutton, and Penrith in Westmoreland (which the King had given his parents when they married), made him a force to be reckoned with in northern England. It would be the younger Nevilles who would henceforward dispute the dominance of the region with the Percies, while the elder 'senior' branch of the family played only a supporting role.
Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury proved himself a worthy successor to his father, not only in war and politics but also in his ability to raise a large family. Joan, his eldest daughter, the future Countess of Arundel, was born before 2 November 1424, followed by Cecily who would one day become Duchess of Warwick. Richard, the future 'Kingmaker', made his entry into the world in 1428, and was soon joined by three younger brothers, Thomas, John, sometime Earl of Northumberland and Marquess Montagu, and George, who became Bishop of Exeter and Archbishop of York. Two short-lived sons, Ralph and Robert, and three more daughters, Eleanor, who would marry Thomas, Lord Stanley, Alice, who would espouse Henry, Lord Fitzhugh, and Katherine, whose two husbands, William Bonville, Lord Harrington, and William, Lord Hastings, would both die violently, were born between 1433 and 1442, while Margaret, who was destined to become Countess of Oxford, completed the brood in about 1443. Twelve children in nineteen years sounds a very large number, but was by no means unusual at this period. Richard, Duke of York, and his duchess Cecily, Salisbury's sister and brother-in-law, also produced twelve children between 1439 and 1455 (although only eight of these reached maturity), and York's son, Edward IV, sired ten in fourteen years. Peasant women knew that prolonged breastfeeding would delay another pregnancy, but great ladies who employed wet-nurses did not have this option. The Church tried to discourage sex by banning it on Sundays, throughout Lent, and for almost half the year in total, but there is no evidence that fewer children were conceived.
The birth of each child would have been preceded and followed by a sequence of well-established customs, beginning when the mother-to-be 'took her chamber' – a well-furnished room with subdued lighting – about a month before she was due. She entered an exclusively female world from which even the male doctors who usually attended her were excluded, and depended on the skills of midwives aided by sacred relics borrowed for the occasion. A successful delivery would be an occasion for great relief and rejoicing, but the mother would not be permitted to join in the celebrations until she had been ritually purified by the ceremony of 'churching' forty days (six weeks) later. The Countess Alice and her children would have enjoyed the best care then available, but the process was inevitably hazardous and there may have been unrecorded stillbirths or deaths within a few hours.
The sisters' first rite of passage, indeed almost the first act of their lives, was baptism, since babies who died unbaptised risked being caught in a kind of limbo between heaven and hell and their souls 'lost'. Lay persons were allowed to anoint a child's head with water and christen him or her in the name of the Trinity if death seemed imminent, but only a priest could decide if the makeshift ceremony had been performed adequately and the infant received into the Church and 'saved'. All Salisbury's children would have been carried to the font literally within hours of making their entry into the world. Godparents – two fathers and one mother for a boy, the reverse for a girl – would have been chosen well in advance, almost certainly with a view to creating a formal relationship between the infant and persons of some consequence. Today it is invariably grandparents who supplement the role of the parents in a child's upbringing and godparents (where they exist) do little or nothing; but in the medieval era it was the godparents who were charged with protecting and instructing the infant, particularly if the parents became incapacitated. The gifts the godparents gave their new charges at their baptisms would have been generous, in keeping with their rank in society, and the parents doubtless hoped they would be followed by more favours as the years passed.
We do not know the identities of Salisbury's daughters' godparents, but the custom by which the most senior gave, or was invited to give, her name to the infant may afford some clues. Joan, the eldest, was almost certainly named for her grandmother, Joan Beaufort, and Cecily, Eleanor and Katherine for their aunts, Salisbury's sisters, the Duchess of York, the Countess of Northumberland, and the Duchess of Norfolk. Margaret's godmother may have been Margaret Beauchamp, eldest daughter of Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, and wife of John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury. Salisbury had entered into a close relationship with Earl Richard in 1436 (see below), and the families did not fall out over the inheritance until after 1449. Curiously, no child was called Anne after Salisbury's other prominent sister, Anne, Duchess of Buckingham, and there does not appear to have been an Alice among the family's close relatives. Possibly Alice was named for her mother, Alice Montacute, although it was Duchess Anne who lifted her from the font.
Salisbury's offspring would have begun their lives as part of a growing and peripatetic nursery that moved slowly around his Countess's principal manors in Wessex. They doubtless visited their grandmother, Joan, at Middleham and Sheriff Hutton, and began to live there more permanently after their father inherited the estates in 1440. Their earliest years would have been spent in the care of servants, partly because their parents were frequently absent on their own and the King's business, and because convention dictated that noble ladies did not nurture their children on a day-to-day basis. Nurses and tutors became, in effect, surrogate mothers and fathers, but there was a sense of belonging based on the notion that the family's collective prosperity required the full cooperation of all its members. Boys and girls were expected to accede to their parents' wishes – and could expect harsh punishment if they objected – because the Church taught that to resist or disobey them was sinful. There are no specific examples of how the Nevilles disciplined their offspring, but the law did not protect children from parents who abused them and the principle of 'spare the rod and spoil the child' was applied throughout noble and gentle society. They may not have suffered like Elizabeth Paston who was 'betyn onys [once] in the weke or twyes, and som tyme tywes on o [one] day, and hir hed broken in to or thre places' when she refused to marry the man her parents had chosen for her, but they knew the rules and the consequences of breaking them. Those in charge of noble households tried to maintain a quiet, ordered, atmosphere, particularly during mealtimes, but children were probably no less boisterous than they are today.
Formal lessons – in Latin and French, with a smattering of law and mathematics – began at the age of four, and became part of their regimen for the next few years. A typical day began with mass in the family chapel followed by a light breakfast of bread, cheese and ale (at six or seven o'clock according to the season) and then serious study until dinner at perhaps ten or eleven. Later, there would be more enjoyable lessons, riding, archery, dancing, learning to play a musical instrument or perhaps sewing and embroidery in the company of the ladies of the household. Supper followed in the late afternoon after Evensong, and then there would be time to play games such as 'buck hide', a form of hide-and-seek, or to amuse themselves with dolls before bedtime. It was a communal life in which privacy was almost non- existent. The girls would have slept together, the younger with the elder, and innocence would have been lost at an early age.
The most traumatic moment of their childhoods came when, at some time between the ages of seven and ten, they were sent into other noble households, the boys to learn the profession of arms and the girls the practical skills of a great lady. A system that separated children from their families this early may appear harsh by modern standards, but was probably no harsher than sending a child of similar age to a modern boarding school. Surviving letters show that homesickness was a common problem, but they undoubtedly learned self-reliance and formed friendships that would stand them in good stead later. The boys received a more comprehensive education (rather unfairly perhaps, since both sexes were expected to become competent estate managers), but all were 'grown-up' and ready to enter the adult world by the time they reached their early teens. Where Salisbury's children went, when, and for how long, is entirely unknown to us, but none of the girls entered a convent. Noble fathers often gave a younger daughter to religion – two of the elder Ralph Neville's daughters had entered the Minories in London, and Edward IV arranged for his youngest child, Bridget, to become a nun at Dartford – but the sisters were all destined for secular life.
It follows from this that Salisbury and his wife did not form a close bond with their children in infancy – that would come later – but the children would probably have seen little more of them had they remained at home. The Earl served as warden of both the western and eastern marches towards Scotland until 1435, and was also employed as captain of Berwick and as an ambassador to the King of Scots. He campaigned in Normandy with the Duke of York in the summer of 1436, and was appointed to the royal Council on his return to England. Sir Charles Oman remarks that his attendance at Council meetings was regular and 'exemplary', but observes that his new role would have kept him in London (and away from his family in northern England) 'for the greater part of the next ten years'. His countess was by his side for much of this period and would only have seen her children at family gatherings, or possibly if one of them suffered a serious, life-threatening illness. The youngsters were probably in awe of their parents on the rare occasions they met them, and felt respect and admiration rather than love.
It is likely that Salisbury began to think in terms of finding suitable marriage partners for his children from almost the moment they were born. In 1436 it was agreed that Cecily, his second daughter, would marry Henry, Lord Despenser, son and heir of the Earl of Warwick, and that his eldest son Richard would simultaneously wed Warwick's daughter, Anne. The arrangement would have worked mainly to Cecily's advantage if all the parties had enjoyed their normal life spans; but Henry and his only daughter were both dead by 1449, and the real beneficiary was Richard Neville the younger who became Earl of Warwick in right of his wife. Joan, Salisbury's eldest daughter, married William Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel after 17 August 1438, but there was then an interlude of some fifteen years before Thomas, his second son, wed Maud Stanhope, Lady Willoughby in 1453.
Excerpted from The Kingmaker's Sisters by David Baldwin. Copyright © 2011 David Baldwin. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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