My guest today is well-known for her compassionate portrayals of medieval women. In her latest novel, The Queen's Rival, Anne O'Brien explores the eventful life of Cecily Neville, mother of Edward IV and Richard III. Christmas of 1461 would have been one of both celebration and mourning for Cecily, as Anne explains below.
A Solemn Christmas for Cecily Neville in 1461
Guest Post by Anne O'Brien
Cecily Neville, Dowager Duchess of York, King's Mother, made the decision in December 1461 not to celebrate Christmas and the New Year at Greenwich with her son Edward, the newly crowned King Edward IV of England. Instead she celebrated at the palace of Eltham. It was one year since she was widowed.
Christine de Pisan advised that 'a wise princess who is widowed' should stay in seclusion for a time, with only a little daylight, and dressed sombrely 'according to decent custom'. Always politically aware, this was not possible for Cecily, however much she might have wished a time of quiet mourning after the tragic death of Richard, Duke of York. Whereas once she might have seen herself as 'Queen in Waiting', her new role was that of supporting the rule of her son through intercession and good advice as King's Mother. Cecily knew that it would be important for her to see and be seen at this festive time of year when her son's reign was still so new. To shut herself away would not be the choice of 'a wise princess'.
We know that Cecily must have marked the occasion at Eltham with the usual high degree of medieval feasting and merriment since it was placed on record by the London Chronicler of the day. Although no details remain, it is presumed that a feast was held, all seemly and dignified. Strict protocol was laid down in the Ryalle Book about the seating and serving of guests appropriate to Cecily's household on special occasions. Cecily would not share dishes with anyone except her younger sons. Any bishop present would be seated at the upper end of Cecily's table whereas the nobility took the seats at the lower end. Cecily's daughter Margaret - later to become Duchess of Burgundy - would be seated above all the Duchesses of England, in spite of her lack of title at this time.
We presume that as well as the feasting, the usual games and festivities, with music and dancing, were held to mark the birth of the Christ Child.
But midway through this festive time, Cecily pursued a distinct change in atmosphere. The 30th day of December was the first anniversary of the death of Richard, Duke of York, at the Battle of Wakefield where he and their son Rutland were both decapitated, their heads placed with that of Salisbury, Cecily's brother, on Micklegate Bar in York. A paper crown adorned York's brow in a final act of malicious humiliation.
To mark this sombre occasion Cecily held the 'year's mind', the solemn Requiem Mass on the anniversary of her husband's death. Such a service would by custom be held in the church where the body of Richard was buried, but on this occasion, this was not so. Richard's body, recovered from the battlefield, had been hurriedly buried in the Priory of St John the Evangelist at Pontefract, where it still lay with the earthly remains of Rutland and Salisbury.
Instead, Cecily held the 'year's mind' in great splendour in Old St Paul's Cathedral. A hearse covered with a pall was set up before the High Altar with banks of candles burning around it. The funeral rites were then repeated as if in the corpse's presence. Thus it was as if the dead were re-called, being brought before the living once more, for prayer and and a final re-commital to the grave.
It must have been a magnificent memorial, although the names of those who attended were not recorded. We know that Cecily spent one hundred and fifty pounds on the candles to illuminate the pall-covered hearse, a vast sum in 1461 and indicative of the impression she wished to make.
What a bitter experience this was for the Dowager Duchess as she looked back over her year of mourning, in spite of the victory and coronation for her son Edward. Did she find some consolation in the severe words of the Requiem, in the sacred ceremony with its weight of death and judgement and all its candles. A heart-wrenching occasion before she returned to Eltham to the festivity of New Year's Gift Giving.
What we do know is that the Duchess was not satisfied with the burial of the Duke of York and her son in Pontefract. It was her intention to bring their bodies home to Fotheringhay, to be buried there in the most important of Yorkist bases. This was not achieved until sixteen years later.
The Queen's Rival
One family united by blood. Torn apart by war…
The Wars of the Roses storm through the country, and Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, plots to topple the weak-minded King Henry VI from the throne.
But when the Yorkists are defeated at the battle of Ludford Bridge, Cecily’s family flee and abandon her to face a marauding Lancastrian army on her own.
Stripped of her lands and imprisoned in Tonbridge Castle, the Duchess begins to spin a web of deceit. One that will eventually lead to treason, to the fall of King Henry VI, and to her eldest son being crowned King Edward IV.