The Queen’s Sister: Cecily, Viscountess Welles

Stained glass at Canterbury Cathedral depicting Cecily and her sisters.

Stained glass at Canterbury Cathedral depicting Cecily and her sisters.

Cecily, the third daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville and the second to survive adolescence, was born at Westminster on 20 March 1469. It seems likely that one of her godmothers was her grandmother, Cecily, Duchess of York. Young Cecily was less than a month old when she became the topic of international gossip: Luchino Dallaghiexia, an ambassador in London, reported to the Duke of Milan, “The queen gave birth to a very handsome daughter, which rejoiced the king and all the nobles exceedingly, though they would have preferred a son.”

In October 1470, the toddler’s comfortable routine was shattered when Edward IV was forced by the rebellious Earl of Warwick to flee the country, causing his pregnant queen, her mother, and her daughters to take refuge in Westminster Abbey’s sanctuary. There, on 2 November, Elizabeth was delivered of her first royal son, Edward. The next spring, Edward IV recovered his throne, and Cecily resumed her life as a royal princess—albeit one now overshadowed by her brother.

Nonetheless, royal daughters had their own importance, and on 26 October 1474, Edward IV and King James III of Scotland agreed that Cecily would marry his heir. In 1482, however, when Anglo-Scottish relations soured, Edward IV offered Cecily to James’ rebellious younger brother, Alexander, Duke of Albany—although this would require Albany to free himself from his wife. In the end, however, Albany’s royal ambitions failed, as did both of Cecily’s prospective Scottish matches.

Meanwhile, on 15 January 1478, Cecily, a couple of months short of her ninth birthday, attended the wedding of her four-year-old brother Richard to the five-year-old Anne Mowbray. With her parents the king and queen, her grandmother Cecily, Duchess of York, her brother Prince Edward, and her older sisters, Elizabeth and Mary, Cecily stood under a canopy at St. Stephen’s Chapel at Westminster awaiting the young bride.

At some point in her father’s reign, Cecily was admitted to the Ladies’ Fraternity of the Order of the Garter. Her father ordered Garter liveries on 6 June 1482 for Cecily, her sisters Elizabeth and Mary, and  the queen.

In company with her sister Elizabeth, Cecily inscribed the Estoire del Saint Graal (British Library Royal 14 E III). Both sisters signed themselves as “the king’s daughter.” The book was also signed by “E. Woodville,” possibly their uncle Edward Woodville or their mother Elizabeth Woodville before her marriage, and by a cousin’s wife, Alianore Haute. Elizabeth and Cecily’s signatures also appear in the Testament de Amyra Sultan Nichemedy, Empereur des Turcs; the title page is dated 12 September 1481.

Signature of Cecily on Royal 14 E III, f. 1

Signature of Cecily on Royal 14 E III, f. 1

In 1482, Cecily’s older sister Mary, two years her senior, died. As Mary was the closest sister to Cecily’s age, it seems likely that her death must have been a particular blow to Cecily.

Cecily’s fortunes underwent another downward turn when her father died in April 1483. Amid the turmoil that followed, Elizabeth Woodville again fled to sanctuary, once more with her children in tow. This time Cecily did not emerge until March 1484, when the new king, Cecily’s uncle Richard III, pledged that he would provide for Elizabeth’s daughters—all of whom had been declared illegitimate based on the alleged invalidity of Edward IV’s marriage to their mother—and would arrange respectable marriages for them to “gentlemen born.”

In the event, Richard had time to arrange for only one such marriage—Cecily’s. Probably in early 1485, Cecily was married to Ralph, a younger brother of Thomas, Lord Scrope of Upsall. Born around 1465, twenty-year-old Ralph was four years older than sixteen-year-old Cecily.  The marriage, however, was short-lived. Henry VII’s victory at Bosworth brought him the hand of Cecily’s sister, Elizabeth. Cecily’s marriage to Scrope was annulled, and before 1 January 1488, she had married John, Viscount Welles. John was a younger son of Lionel (or Leo), Lord Welles, who was slain at Towton in 1461. Through his mother, Margaret Beauchamp, duchess of Somerset, the widow of John Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, John was a half-brother of Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond, mother to Henry VII. He had rebelled against Richard III in 1483 and had joined Henry Tudor in exile in Brittany. John’s manors were centered in Lincolnshire, where he sat on commissions of the peace.

As the queen’s oldest sister, Cecily was a prominent figure at court ceremonies. On 24 September 1486, she bore Prince Arthur to the baptismal font, assisted by her uncle Thomas Grey, Marquis of Dorset and by John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln. The ceremony complete, Cecily bore the prince to his proud parents.

The following year, on 24 November, Cecily bore her sister’s train as Elizabeth left her chamber to ride from the Tower to Westminster in preparation for her coronation. Cecily and her aunt Katherine, Duchess of Bedford and Buckingham, rode behind the queen in a chair “covered with rich cloth of gold, well and cleanly horsed.” Farther back, Cecily’s gentlewomen rode in their own suite. On the day of the coronation itself, Cecily again carried the queen’s train. She and her aunt Katherine sat on the left side of the queen’s table at the banquet that followed. Cecily was also present at the New Year’s ceremonies on 1 January 1488; at this time, she was identified as sister of the queen and as Viscountess Welles.

Elizabeth Woodville, Cecily’s mother, died on 8 June 1492. Cecily’s younger sisters, Anne, Katherine, and Bridget, attended the funeral, while Cecily did not. The reason for her absence is unknown; perhaps Cecily was attending Queen Elizabeth, who was confined due to her latest pregnancy.  Cecily’s husband, however, did attend the ceremony.

Three years later, Cecily’s grandmother and namesake, Cecily, Duchess of York, died. In her will, dated  31 May 1495, the Duchess of York left Cecily two “portuouses,” which were breviaries or daily service books, one of which had silver and gilt clasps and was covered with purple velvet.

By 1492, Cecily and John Welles had two daughters, Elizabeth and Anne, whom John, preparing to go to France, mentioned in his will. Sadly, neither survived childhood. Elizabeth, who had been promised in marriage to the heir of George Stanley, Lord Strange, died in 1498, and Anne had also died before John Welles’ death on 9 February 1499. With these losses in such rapid succession, it was no wonder that Cecily was styled “not so fortunate as fair” by Sir Thomas More.

Cecily and John’s marriage has been portrayed in some novels as an unhappy one, but there seems to be no historical basis for this. John made Cecily an executor of his will, along with Sir Raynold Bray, a clear sign of his trust in her. He left his “dear beloved lady and wife” a life estate in all of his property and the residue of his goods. John asked that Cecily, the king and the queen, and Margaret Beaufort decide where he was to be buried, and left the making of his tomb to their discretion as well. He was buried in the Lady Chapel of Westminster Abbey.

On 14 September 1499, Cecily received a dispensation to have masses and other services celebrated in her chapel if she should happen to be staying in the diocese of Lincoln.

Cecily continued to play a role at court after her husband’s death. At the wedding of Prince Arthur to Katherine of Aragon on 14 November 1501, Cecily had the honor of bearing the bride’s train. The wedding was followed by days of festivities, during which the guests were treated to a series of elaborate pageants. Following the third pageant, Prince Arthur and Cecily led off the dancing by performing two stately basse-dances, followed by Katherine of Aragon and one of her ladies, then by the Duke of York (the future Henry VIII) and his sister Margaret.

But Cecily’s days at court were drawing to a close. Sometime in 1502, Cecily married Thomas Kyme of Friskney, a Lincolnshire esquire, without royal license. This Thomas Kyme was the son of John Kyme, and appears to have had at least one son, Thomas, from a previous marriage.  Cecily’s marriage to a man far below her rank infuriated Henry VII and resulted in the seizure of Cecily’s estates. Fortunately, Cecily had a powerful friend and advocate: the king’s mother.

Margaret Beaufort and Cecily had long been on friendly terms. Henry Parker, Lord Morley, recalled that on New Year’s Day 1496, when he was a fifteen-year-old  employed in Margaret’s household, he saw Cecily sitting by Margaret’s side under the cloth of estate. Now Margaret intervened on Cecily’s behalf. She allowed Cecily and her husband to stay at her house at Collyweston while she brokered a settlement involving the king, Cecily, and the coheirs to the Welles estates. By 1503, Cecily agreed to surrender certain manors in Lincolnshire to the king; she was to hold the other manors for life, after which they would revert to the crown for ten years before being distributed to the Welles heirs. Her husband was allowed to retain the revenues he had received from the Welles estates. Although it has been suggested that the validity of Cecily’s unlicensed marriage was never recognized, the parliamentary petition for approval of this arrangement refers to Cecily as Kyme’s wife.

While all this wrangling over Cecily’s estates was occurring, Cecily’s sister Queen Elizabeth died on 11 February 1503, of the aftereffects of pregnancy. If she had approached the king on Cecily’s behalf, it is not recorded. Cecily had been in Elizabeth’s company at some point before 18 May 1502, when she was repaid the 73 shillings and 4 pence (3l, 13s, 4d) she had lent the queen. Cecily does not appear to have attended her sister’s funeral, where her younger sister Katherine served as chief mourner. Presumably she was still out of favor. Nonetheless, she was remembered by the young Thomas More in his verses commemorating the queen’s death:

Lady Cecily, Anne, and Katherine

Farewell my well beloved sisters three

O lady Bridget other sister mine

Lo here the end of worldly vanity

A story has arisen that Cecily’s husband was a native of the Isle of Wight and that the couple lived there; however, Rosemary Horrox finds this tradition, and an accompanying one that gives Kyme and Cecily children, to be unfounded. (Cecily’s inquisition post mortem for Essex mentions no children.) Probably Cecily and her husband spent their time on his estates and on the estates Cecily had recovered from the king, which included Gaynes Park, Hemnalls, and Madells in Essex. She was in Herefordshire before 11 December 1506, when Henry VII paid a messenger for riding to her. Cecily and her husband also continued to spend time with Margaret Beaufort, who in 1506 set aside a chamber at Croyden for Cecily’s use. During their visits to Margaret, Cecily, her husband, and their servants were charged for their board, as were other guests. Margaret gave a “fine image” to Cecily in 1503, and owned a “printed legend” purchased from Cecily.

At the age of thirty-eight, Cecily died at Hatfield in Hertfordshire on 24 August 1507; she had been staying in that house, then a possession of the Bishop of Ely, for three weeks. (Horrox notes that the tradition that Cecily was buried at Quarr Abbey on Isle of Wight is disproved by Margaret’s accounts.) Cecily was buried at a place identified only as “the friars,” with Margaret Beaufort paying most of her funeral expenses.

Thomas Kyme appears to have survived his wife; a Thomas Kyme of Friskney figures in litigation, both as a plaintiff and a defendant, in the first few decades of the 1500’s. It may have one of his descendants who married the ill-fated Anne Askew.

Update: A novel published in 2014 depicts Cecily as the lover of her uncle, Richard III. There is no historical basis for this depiction of Cecily.

Sources:

Marie Axton and James P. Carley, eds., “Triumphs of English”: Henry Parker, Lord Morley, Translator to the Tudor Court.

Calendar of Inquisitions Post Mortem, Henry VII, vol. 3.

Calendar of State Papers and Manuscripts in the Archives and Collections of Milan – 1385-1618.

James P. Carley, “Parker, Henry, tenth Baron Morley (1480/81–1556),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.

Emma Cavell, ed., The Heralds’ Memoir 1486-1490: Court Ceremony, Royal Progress and Rebellion.

James L. Gillespie, “Ladies of the Fraternity of Saint George and of the Society of the Garter,” in Albion (Autumn 1985).

Mary Anne Everett Greene, Lives of the Princesses of England.

Michael Hicks, “Welles, Leo , sixth Baron Welles (c.1406–1461),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.

Rosemary Horrox, ‘Cecily, Viscountess Welles (1469–1507)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.

Rosemary Horrox, Richard III: A Study in Service.

Gordon Kipling, ed., The Receyt of the Ladie Kateryne.

Michael Jones and Malcolm Underwood, The King’s Mother: Lady Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond and Derby.

St Thomas More, The History of King Richard III and Selections from the English and Latin Poems (Richard S. Sylvester, ed.).

Arlene Naylor Okerland, Elizabeth of York.

Parliament Rolls of Medieval England.

Vivienne Rock, ‘Shadow Royals? The Political Use of the Extended Family of Lady Margaret Beaufort’ in Richard Eales and Shaun Tyas, eds., Family and Dynasty in Late Medieval England.

Alison J. Spedding, “‘At the King’s Pleasure’: The Testament of Cecily Neville,” in Midland History (Autumn 2010).

Surtees Society, North Country Wills.

Anne Sutton and Livia Visser-Fuchs, The Royal Funerals of the House of York at Windsor.

Malcolm Underwood, ‘Politics and Piety in the Household of Lady Margaret Beaufort, in Journal of Ecclesiastical History (January 1987).

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15 Responses to The Queen’s Sister: Cecily, Viscountess Welles

  1. Celia Parker says:

    Margaret Beaufort gets accused of all sorts of unsympathetic behaviour, everything from being the third person in her son’s marriage to murdering the princes in the Tower, oh and let’s not forget ‘betraying’ Richard III. So it’s always pleasant to read something showing a different side. Lord Welles, Cecily’s first husband, being Margaret’s brother, it might be expected that she would be as annoyed as Henry by Cecily’s misalliance, but if she was, she responded in a spirit of Christian charity, by helping the couple. Which is also good to know- you’re often given the impression (particularly in novels) that her religious concerns weren’t really genuine, more a matter of show.

    • boswellbaxter says:

      Very true! She seems to have been close to her extended family as well, contrary to her portrayal as virtually friendless.

  2. Sonetka says:

    Nice to get a glimpse of Lord Morley in the early days before he became Jane Boleyn’s father :). I wonder if Margaret Beaufort was both being charitable and reminding her son that she was a force to be reckoned with? I’ve never thought her piety was put-on — it seems very uncharacteristic of the age — but there’s no contradiction being being pious and still having very strong opinions of one’s own.

  3. Jim Welles says:

    Does anyone have any info on ther ancestry of Robert Welles (b, 1484), who apparently was raised by John Welles and Cicily? No one ever mentions him.

    • Jochanan Ver Walensis says:

      Yes, I can tell you that Robert Welles married and had a son who carried their line into colonial America as part of the Connecticut colony. A daughter married into the descendants of the D’Abrichecourts of whom one was a founding knight of the Most Noble Order of the Garter. In fact, the Welles’ along with eight other families of founding knights of the Most Noble Order of the Garter and one King Edward III descending apart from Edward IV can be counted as ancestors of several large colonial families. One Welles daughter married Dabridgecourt Belcher’s son, and both families ended up being merged into another old line descending from Normandy. These founding families of Connecticut flourished having founded Norwich (co-founder Major John Mason’s daughter married into the noble Norton Family which lent its name.) There are still branches of the Plantagenets as strong as ever among those extra sons who came to the colonies for land. Of course as strong as these histories appear, one still has to be very judicious in researching apart from ancestry websites whose pedigrees are incredibly errant. In any event, nobility is a seed planted long before history came to be recorded, that grows randomly in the choices all make when presented.

      • Jim Welles says:

        Very interesting, but do you know that Robert was the genetic son of John Welles and/or Cicely, for that matter?

        • Jochanan Ver Walensis says:

          Hmmm, As all things are subject to controversy and change—these links are now questioned by several sources.
          For now, they must be seen as inconclusive until someone proves either way.

  4. Jo says:

    EWWWW obviously all writers think Richard III, is or a “dreaming” prince that no woman can resist * snort * or a pervert. poor Cecily her too! no!

  5. Marianne says:

    It looks as if Robert was Cecily’s illegitimate son, probably not the son of Ralph Scrope or John Welles, and he was born in circa 1484 or 5, having been conceived not long after Cecily came out of Sanctuary. He’s mostly
    ignored by historians because of the double standard of sexual morality. Cecily would have been embarrassed by her wild oat. Her father was proud of his.

    forgotten bfo

    • boswellbaxter says:

      What evidence is there of this?

      • Dan Raab says:

        I know of no objective evidence that Robert, 1484, was a child of Cicely’s – by any father. This appears to be a wild goose chase in the genealogy and has been well documented as such.

        Robert Welles, 1484 seems to have been hatched as there are no credible data sources for his parents of which I am aware.

        For all those of us looking to make that connection to Royalty – I think we need to keep searching!

        If anyone has any objective evidence regarding Robert’s parents please e-mail me at txfromwi@swbell.net.

    • Jim Welles says:

      I THINK Robert’s father was Thomas Kyme–Cicely’s long-time love. Robert named his first son Thomas and his first daughter Cicely. That’s the nearest thing to proof I have. It is nice to think that Cicely married Thomas for love, and it explains the introduction of the name Thomas into the family history.
      If anyone wants to check records, go to Richmond, England and look for the birth of a Robert Kyme 1484-1485. That is where Cicely was at the time, but there would be no record of a Thomas Welles.

  6. Sharee Schultz says:

    I think Lady Margaret Beaufort or Margaret Regina would have been a lovely lady as long as she was in power. If it made her look like she was the person granting the permission/or item than she would be happy to do this. I think she was also about keeping family close.
    I am certain she minded the King (her son) that she was the main reason he sat on the throne!

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