A few months ago Sarah Gristwood came on the podcast for an interview and we talked about her book Blood Sisters: The Women Behind the Wars of the Roses. At the time the remains of King Richard III were being tested to confirm it was actually the King. During the interview Sarah explained how the DNA from his mother, Cecily Neville and Sister Anne of York would determine the outcome. If you haven’t listened to the interview yet it is definitely worth the time.
With the confirmation of Richard’s remains this month, which I covered in the latest podcast, Sarah wrote an article about the women behind the DNA.
Her book Blood Sisters: The Women Behind the Wars of the Roses is available in hardback in the US and the UK paperback version will be released on 04 March. Thanks to Sarah and Harper Press for the article.
The women behind Richard’s DNA
We know Cecily Neville lavished a fortune on clothes, and ordered a specially padded loo seat. We know that in youth, stories said she had an affair with a common archer, and that in old age she lived a life of extraordinary piety. And now we also know that when the bones found in a Leicester car park were identified as those of Richard III, it was through a descendent who shared with him the DNA of his sister, Anne, and of their mother Cecily.
Richard must be the most controversial figure in British history. But the mysteries surrounding him almost pale compared with those surrounding Cecily Neville. She was the matriarch of the York clan, a mighty figure in her day, and one about whom we know some riveting details. But what we don’t know is even more extraordinary. Where did she stand when her son Richard took over the country, amid rumours he had murdered his nephews, her grandsons, the ‘Princes in the Tower’? Or when her eldest son Edward ordered the death of his next brother Clarence in the famous butt of malmsey?
Cecily’s life is the stuff of writer’s fantasy. Born in 1415 as the beautiful ‘Rose of Raby’, she was daughter to the powerful Earl of Westmorland. Married young to Richard, Duke of York, she accompanied him when he went to govern England’s territories in France, living in high spending luxury.
Two of her sons were born in Rouen; indeed, it was later alleged that she also, while there, had an affair with an archer named Blaybourne, and that her eldest son Edward was the child of this adultery. It was one of the grounds on which Richard III claimed the throne rightfully belonged to him. But – perhaps tellingly – there is no sign that Cecily’s husband complained at the time.
As the Wars of the Roses set her husband at armed conflict with the crown, Cecily suffered a dizzying series of changes of fortune; at one point left alone with her younger children to face a hostile army. Her son Richard had been born in 1452 and the event may indeed have been traumatic in some way. Sir Thomas More recorded that it was a breech birth, and Cecily could not be delivered ‘uncut’.
Cecily’s husband and second son Edmund were killed at the battle of Wakefield in 1460. But only three months later, her eldest son took the throne as Edward IV, and it was soon said that his mother ‘holds the king at her pleasure’, to rule as she wished.
Perhaps that didn’t survive his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville. Cecily was horrified at this love match with a mere commoner. As rivalry came between Edward and his next surviving brother George, Duke of Clarence, Cecily tried unavailingly to mediate between her sons; though contemporaries wrote that it was her pleas won the rebellious Clarence the right at least to choose the manner of his death.
Only five years later Edward himself died, leaving his twelve year old son to rule a turbulent country, and one theory suggests that Cecily was the guiding spirit behind a family decision that the adult and experienced Richard should instead assume the throne. Evidence, however, is scanty.
It is possible, instead, that Cecily took a step backwards away from the spotlight in the years following Clarence’s death. She was after all already in her sixties, and it would have been understandable if she were simply as punch drunk as any other old fighter, keeping herself out of the fray.
Her daily life was recorded a few years later. ‘She is accustomed to arise at seven o’clock and has ready her chaplain to say with her matins of the day, and matins of Our Lady; and when she is full ready she has a low mass in her chamber, and after mass she takes something to recreate nature; and so goes to the chapel, hearing the divine service and two low masses . . . ’. She was living the life of a lay nun, effectively.
But the same could not be said, during her lifetime, of Cecily’s eldest daughter, Anne – through whom was passed on, through seventeen generations, the DNA that identified Richard’s bones.
Mitochondrial DNA is passed on through the female line – from daughter to daughter. So even if we could trace surviving children of Richard’s, they wouldn’t carry it – any more than would Britain’s present royal family. So it’s down to the long-forgotten Anne – herself a figure of scandal. A woman who openly took a lover; divorced her husband; and kept his family lands anyway.
Anne was only seven years old when in 1447 she was married to Henry Holland, fifteen year old heir to the Duke of Exeter, himself descended from John of Gaunt and thus in the line of succession to the throne. From the start, she seems to have detested him – and with reason, probably. The young Exeter (as soon he became) was reported to be a violent and angry young man – ‘fierce and cruel’ as an Italian report has it. Anne may have taken her lover, a Kentish gentleman called Thomas St Leger, before she was twenty. As the Wars of the Roses broke out, Anne bore Exeter a single daughter. But soon the armed conflict was calling husband and wife to different sides of the fray.
The Wars set Anne’s father York in conflict with the Lancastrian king and queen, Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou. But Exeter took the Lancastrian side, being actually a commander at the Battle of Wakefield in 1460 in which Anne’s father York was killed. He fought again just months later at Towton; but this time it was a Lancastrian defeat and Exeter had to flee abroad with the deposed queen Margaret.
When Anne’s eldest brother Edward took the throne in 1461, he had every reason to take his sister’s side in the marital dispute. Exeter was attainted; his forfeit lands granted to Anne, to be inherited by ‘her heirs by the duke’, ie their daughter. In 1464 Anne and Exeter secured a formal separation.
In 1467 Edward IV took a further step. He ‘extended the remainder’ of the greater part of the lands from his sister herself to any heirs of her body – that is, decreed that they could pass not only to her daughter by Exeter, but to any children she might bear in a subsequent marriage. The comparatively humble St Leger had been in Edward’s favour from the first days of his reign, made an esquire of the body and awarded a steady stream of grants and lands; and it was probably Anne who won him such favour.
But there is a reason that the Wheel of Fortune was so popular an image in these years; and in 1470 Edward himself was briefly deposed from the throne he had captured. Exeter came back with the Lancastrians; taking back from his wife his great house of Coldharbour. Edward and Anne’s disaffected brother Clarence had thrown his lot in with the rebels, but it was ‘the mediation of his sisters, the Duchesses of Burgundy and Exeter’ that persuaded Clarence to turn his coat back again, and restore Edward IV to the throne.
As the house of Lancaster was defeated so too was Exeter; wounded and left for dead on the field at Barnet. The duke’s servant found him lying wounded, and took him to sanctuary at Westminster, where he languished until transferred to the Tower. In 1472 Anne was granted what the chronicler John Stow called a divorce, but was probably an annulment; and a year or two later she married her lover St Leger.
When Edward IV mounted an expedition against the French in 1475, Exeter ‘volunteered’ to serve, and was released to do so; but on the voyage back he fell overboard and was drowned. ‘How he drowned, the certainty is not known’, says the chronicler Fabyan, but the Milanese envoy in Burgundy reported definitely that he was killed on Edward’s orders.
By this time, Anne was already pregnant with her second husband’s child. In the January of 1476 bore St Leger a daughter – and in doing so, she herself died, which at least meant she was spared the subsequent traumas of the York dynasty. Her bloodline, however, carried on, right through to the 21st century – a dynastic, a genetic legacy. For a woman of her day, it was the ultimate victory.
Sarah Gristwood is the author of Blood Sisters: The Women Behind the Wars of the Roses (HarperPress/Basic Books)
Sarah can be found on the internet at