If Margaret, Why Not Cecily?

I belong to several Wars-of-the-Roses-related groups on Facebook, and every week or so, the inevitable question arises: Did Richard III murder his nephews? Each time, at least one person comments that Richard did not; rather, the murderer was Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond. After all, we’re told,  she was a ruthlessly ambitious woman who would do anything to put her son, Henry Tudor, on the throne.

But there was another formidable matriarch in England in 1483, one who almost never gets named as a suspect, but who arguably had as good a motive , means, and opportunity as Margaret. Her name? Cecily, Duchess of York, mother to Edward IV and Richard III.

220px-Cecily_nevilleBefore I go further (and before some of you start writing indignant comments), let me make myself clear: I do not believe that the Duchess of York was responsible for the deaths of her grandsons. I do not believe that Margaret Beaufort was responsible for their deaths either. Rather, I am writing simply to point out that if one can entertain the idea that Margaret was a murderer, logic dictates that one should also entertain the idea that Cecily was one. Why?

Cecily’s objection to her son Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville is well known, and there’s little indication that she ever warmed to her daughter-in-law. On these lines, it has been suggested that she supported her son Richard III’s bid for the throne, preferring to see him as king instead of her half-Woodville grandson Edward V. Assuming for the sake of argument that Cecily did indeed approve of Richard III’s actions, it stands to reason that she would want to see him remain on the throne once he got there. The plot to free Edward V and his brother from the Tower that emerged soon after Richard’s coronation could well have made Cecily to decide to help Richard’s cause by eliminating her grandsons.

Cecily had at least as good means and opportunity to kill Edward IV’s sons as did Margaret Beaufort, and quite probably better ones. As the mother of two kings, Cecily would have had the best of connections at court, and her house in London would have given her contacts in the city as well. Even if she couldn’t get into the Tower herself, she certainly had as much ability as did Margaret Beaufort to gain access to those who could. Indeed, as the boys’ grandmother, she had a perfectly plausible excuse to visit them in the Tower (perhaps taking them some poison-laced treats), unlike their more distant relation Margaret.

Furthermore, if Margaret Beaufort arranged for the deaths of Edward IV’s sons during Richard III’s reign in order to advance the cause of her son Henry Tudor, she was taking an enormous risk: if caught, she faced imprisonment at best, execution at worst, and her actions could have been used to discredit her son, putting paid to his chances of gaining support for his invasion. If Cecily, on the other hand, arranged for the boys’ deaths, she ran comparatively little risk, for even if Richard did not welcome such meddling,  it would have hardly benefited him to publicize the fact that his own mother killed her grandsons.

One could argue that Cecily was too pious to arrange for the deaths of two innocent boys. But Margaret was equally pious, and those who argue for her guilt have never allowed this to stand in their way.

Cecily and Margaret had each known more than her share of trouble. The daughter of a possible suicide, Margaret was a widow and a mother by age fourteen. From 1455 to 1471, her male Beaufort relatives were killed one by one by the Yorkists, and her only son grew up in exile abroad. Cecily herself suffered the deaths in battle of her husband and her son Edmund, the execution of her son George, and the demise of a number of her children by natural causes. If life had hardened Margaret, there is every reason to believe that it hardened Cecily as well.

Moreover, the men in Cecily’s life had shown themselves to be ruthless when the occasion demanded it: her husband, Richard, Duke of York, had taken the opportunity to rid himself of Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, on the streets of St. Albans; her son Edward had ordered the execution of his own brother George; and her son Richard had executed William, Lord Hastings, without a trial. Perhaps Cecily, convinced that she was acting for the good of the realm, followed their example.  Perhaps she even decided to take the sin of murder upon herself to spare Richard the responsibility.

Of course, there is a glaring difficulty in assigning guilt to Cecily: lack of evidence.  No contemporary source suggests that Cecily had a hand in the deaths of Edward V and his younger brother. But no contemporary source suggests that Margaret did either. As the evidence stands today, neither the duchess nor the countess could be convicted in a court of law of murder. Yet whereas as far as I know only one or two rather obscure novels have cast Cecily in the role of murderess, Margaret (thanks largely in part to the television series “The White Queen”) has become a leading suspect, often crowding out Richard III and the perennial favorite, Buckingham.

Asked for evidence of her guilt, those implicating Margaret point rather vaguely to her ambition and her devotion to her son  and, more specifically, to her role in the rebellion of October 1483. But while one could try to build a case for Margaret’s guilt upon this shaky foundation, it certainly doesn’t rule out Cecily as an alternative suspect.

As I said earlier, I do not believe that either Margaret or Cecily was responsible for the deaths of the Princes in the Tower. But for those who are convinced that Margaret was responsible, I leave with a parting thought. Motherly love is among the strongest of motivators. If maternal feeling could have driven Margaret to commit infanticide in order to bring her only son to the throne, why couldn’t it have driven Cecily to commit infanticide to keep her last surviving son there?

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21 Responses to If Margaret, Why Not Cecily?

  1. Elizabeth Smith says:

    Every analysis of this “missing persons” case conducted by ex police officers or lawyers, starting with Josephine Tey’s “Daughter of Time” has concluded Henry VII is the most likely suspect. The clinching piece of evidence to the legal mindset is the repeal of Richard III’s Act of Titulus Regius unread. By repealing that Act Henry made his wife legitimate. But in so doing he made her brothers legitimate and the elder King of England.

  2. Karen says:

    Well, I’m convinced!

    • boswellbaxter says:

      Mind you, the novel I read that has Cecily as the killer also has 24-year-old Katherine Woodville sexually molesting poor 12-year-old Buckingham . . .

      • ursula says:

        sorry for the comment 6 months later, but what’s the name of that novel? That sounds like trainwreck I want to check out 🙂 Thanks!

        • boswellbaxter says:

          The one which has Cecily murdering her grandsons? If I recall correctly (it’s been a while), it’s Under the White Boar by Mary Dodgen Few. This novel also has Katherine Woodville sexually molesting her much younger pre-adolescent husband Buckingam (in reality, of course, Buckingham was a couple of years older than Katherine).

  3. Esther says:

    IMO, there is a big difference between Margaret Beaufort suggesting the murder of what where (to her) distant cousins and Cicely Neville, suggesting the murder of what where (to her) her grandsons. (FWIS, I think that Buckingham did it, but I wouldn’t believe Madame Gregory if she told me that two plus two made four.)

  4. Hans./. says:

    Great alternative. And I agree with you: I do not believe that either Margaret or Cecily were responsible. Margaret certainly not for the reason you stated: once found out, it would ruin her life and the future of her son.
    The two people to benefit most by the two boys disappearing still are Richard III and Henry VII. Repealing Titulus Regius made Henry’s claims stronger, and if the boys had been alive in the Tower (or elsewhere in England, under control of the ‘authorities’) it would have faced him with a big problem. So yes, he had motive. But so had Richard. A living ex-king is a problem. A possible focus point for trouble makers. Richard knew that. Think: Henry VI still alive almost thrashed the Yorkist cause. Hence exit Henry VI.
    So, both had an excellent motive. Richard in 1483, Henry in 1485. To my mind the two years are important. During the year 1483 the boys simply disappeared. Somehow that makes Richard gaining on Henry as a suspect.

    Some people use the “but Richard was their uncle” theme. Just like you can say the same in Cecily’s case: “but she was their grandmother”. Well, I do not think that any of my uncles ever planned to do away with me, neither did my grandmothers. The grandmother I remember (the other died while I was still an innocent babe) loved me dearly, and I loved her dearly. And I think most of my uncles at least liked me…
    Does that mean that any grannie or uncle will love grandsons and nephews? No way. Each and every year we find out that next of kin are responsible for the most horrible things imaginable. Incest, murder. Whatever. Parents kill their children, children kill their parents. So, when looking for murder suspects, we should never discount near relations!
    When people chose Margaret Beaufort as the evil lady, in most cases they do so because she was (1) a woman, (2) ambitious, and (3) she was the mother of the victorious Henry VII. Why do I include the first one? Simply because many people think a woman should not be ambitious. Ambitious women in general get treated in a negative way by historians.

    For me, Richard had motive and means, and that combined with the fact that the boys “faded out” in 1583, when he was still very much in control, makes him a more likely suspect than Henry. But that is my opinion…

  5. Jo says:

    I’m tired of the argument, anyone does, but not Richard. I know there are people desperate to dismiss the obvious: that Richard had them dead, that alive, bastards or not, were a threat, that the princes would always be a threat.

  6. Celia Parker says:

    Slightly off-topic, I always like the fact, which inevitably shocks and surprises any Ricardian you mention it to,that Cecily and Margaret were friendly enough for the former to leave the latter a small bequest in her will. We shouldn’t automatically assume that Cecily was happy with what happened in 1483. Yes I know Richard wrote her a dutiful letter or two and visited her once (in 2 years!), but that proves nothing.

    Esther, you don’t need to believe a thing Philippa Gregory writes on the subject. She’s a novelist, she makes things up, although she likes to refer to ‘we historians’ and her ‘research’ (reading secondary sources).

  7. wednesday says:

    There’s no hard evidence that Richard, or anyone else, murdered them. All that’s known is that they disappeared — hence the mystery of the fate of the little brats in the Tower. I personally think whenever someone says, “X did it,” or they accuse X of being a loathsome…whatever…it reveals much more of that someone than it ever could of X.

  8. Jacqueline Baird says:

    You certainly like to play the Devil’s Advocate, don’t you, Susan? I can tell you are a good lawyer. What would poor Amy say about her beloved Cecily?

  9. Sonetka says:

    I think anyone who’s enjoyed “I, Claudius” could get behind this take on the story :). Really, I think the Plantagenets were a lot closer in spirit to the Roman emperors and the Medici than they could possibly have been to us. It’s just a bit more difficult to think of them that way since they had familiar-sounding names and spoke English. (And yes, I know Livia’s role was probably hugely exaggerated, but a fictional Cecily-as-Livia would make a fascinating read. And no, I don’t think she did it. I do think that whatever precisely the plan was, it went massively off-course at some point and resulted in a cluster**** which probably most of the participants at the time didn’t completely understand, let alone those of us who are five hundred years in the future).

  10. Kirsten says:

    The butler did it.

  11. Judith says:

    Hans made a very good case. I remain on the fence about Richard as a nephewside (made up that word. Not very good effort, either.) The lads were widely reported as having been seen no more 1483, on Richard’s watch. Somehow, they were not as well-protected as they ought to have been. Richard was responsible for their welfare and protection. At the least, he bears some responsibility for whatever occurred. But the behaviour of everyone at the time and later, that of Henry vii, muddies the issues. Yes, Kirsten, it was Miss Scarlett in the ballroom, with a candlestick. Or Colonel Mustard with a dagger in the library. I think Kirsten said it all. But it is interesting to keep speculating!

  12. Anerje says:

    Really appreciate this post! We’re always reading it’s anyone other than Richard – so why not Cecily? Trouble is, she’s a Yorkist, and it always has to be a horrid Lancastrian! I’m fed-up of Ricardian propaganda. Currently reading a pro -Henry VII book in which your work is quoted – so refreshing! We’ll never know for certain who killed the princes – but it’s always worth remembering Richard was accused in his own lifetime of doing the deed – so it’s not all Shakespeare’s fault;)

  13. Happenstance says:

    the great problem is that none of the theories are particularly logical – if Richard III did it over the summer of 1483 why did he not display the bodies to prove their deaths and therefore remove the risk of pretenders? if he did it but didn’t want the blame why didn’t he take the opportunity to blame the Duke of Buckingham when the latters head fell off?

    if Richard did it why didn’t Henry VII blame him, hold an investigation, dig up the bodies and hold a great state funeral – in one fell swoop he’d have silenced pretenders, made Richard look bad and make himself look kingly?

    if Margaret Beaufort did it (how is perhaps an even greater question..) why didn’t Richard III use that to politically destroy the Tudors and the Stanleys?

    if Henry VII did it – assuming they’d been spirited to some fortified manor in deepest Yorkshire and then found alive post Bosworth – why didn’t he do the full state funeral, show trials etc…?

    Henry VII, is – for me – spectacularly unlikely to have repealled Titulus Regius unless he was convinced that the two boys were dead, yet when pretenders plagued his rule he made no effort to bring out the bodies that would disprove the pretenders and kill Yorkism stone dead. had he changed his mind about what he believed had happened to the two princes in 1483?

    Richard III’s action don’t make much sense whether he’s guilty or innocent, nor do Henry VII’s, including whether he thought Richard III was guilty or innocent – the only sensible conclusion is that they both, like the other parties of the period, had very significant information that we don’t.

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  15. Crystal Marker says:

    While all of this is very plausable I suppose, except for the entire notion of murder of the nephews/cousins/grandsons in the tower has never been proven to even be a real scenario/event. No murder has ever been proven as no bodies were ever found and the one’s that were found cannot even be proven to be male or female, nor have the ages of the remains been proven and there is no DNA evidence therefore if you do not have a body, you do not have a murder and any and all evidence is purely speculation and conjecture. I personally do not think a murder even took place until much later with “Perkin Warbeck” whom I do believe was the younger of the brothers, King Richard III’s nephew Richard of Shrewsbury. Find his remains and I say you will not only find the truth, but King Richard III will be exhonerated of the allegations against him. I do not believe those boys died in the tower as I believe Richard’s loyalty lead him to see them secreted to safety and out of harms way. He knew the plans, he knew what he was facing and it may well have been that he was hoping to win the battle at Bosworth in the which if he had, he could have brought the lads back to rejoin their mother and sisters and live “happily ever after”.