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Cecily Neville: Mother of Richard III Hardcover – 18 Apr 2018
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About the Author
Dr John Ashdown-Hill is a well-known medieval historian, having published extensively on a variety of topics within that period but focussing mainly on the Yorkist era. He is best-known for his pivotal role in uncovering the burial place of King Richard III for and for tracing collateral female-line descendants of Richard s elder sister to establish his mtDNA haplogroup, which matched the mtDNA of the bones found in the Leicester car park. He continues to write about this period of history, and in 2015 he was awarded an MBE for services to historical research and the exhumation and identification of Richard III .
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This biography of Cecily Neville exemplifies both his virtues and his faults as a historian.
He was a keen researcher with a particular interest in East Anglian history and some of the fruits of this can be found here, in details of the relationship between Cecily, as dowager duchess of York, and John Howard, later a keen supporter of Richard III. He also published a number of books of popular history, seeking to dispel ‘myths’ about 15th century history and in particular the Yorkist period. Some would argue that in doing so he created a few myths himself.
He rightly dismisses the story of Cecily’s supposed adultery and Edward IV’s illegitimacy as a political smear dating from the 1460s. However, he is quite capable of perpetuating other myths that suit his purpose.Thus Edmund Beaufort, duke of Somerset, Henry VI’s closest adviser after 1450, probably ‘worked with’ the childless queen Margaret to ensure an ‘heir’ for Henry. [p 82 ]. Given that elsewhere he treats us to a half–page digression on the menopause (complete with references to his grandmothers’ menopauses!), he seems surprisingly unacquainted with the vagaries of fertility. Surely the biographer of Cecily, who was 24 when her first child as born after almost a decade of marriage should be aware that Margaret’s 8 barren years were not wholly unusual. He should also know better than to suppose that because Henry VI, a genuinely pious man, was shocked by some of the more indecent displays of his courtiers, he was ‘said to be [by whom?] opposed to sexual contact.’ Chastity then as now was a Christian virtue and doesn’t imply any sexual abnormality or incapacity.
A thread that runs though many of his books is a rather prurient interest in the sexual activities of his subjects. Here we are told repeatedly that Cecily and her husband must have made love about 9 months before the birth of a child- obvious one would have thought – and there is speculation as to how Edward IV fitted attempts to seduce his supposed future wife,Eleanor Butler, into military campaigning.
Mention of Lady Eleanor highlights another of his failings. Having proved to his own, if not everyone’s, satisfaction in ‘The Secret Queen’ that Edward had indeed contracted marriage with Eleanor before he married Elizabeth Woodville, he treats it as fact, not theory. One of his more recent books ‘The Private Life of Edward IV’ (which someone suggested should have been called ‘The Sex-Life of Edward IV’) interprets the favour shown by Edward to the Lancastrian duke of Somerset as an indication that Edward was ‘gay’ and this unfounded assertion is again made as a matter of fact in this book.
The book has all the appearance of being a first draft which never received very necessary editing. This is perhaps understandable in the circumstances, but it does the author no favours. It is neither a clear narrative (essential for popular history) nor a thematic treatment of Cecily’s life and as such falls between two stools and ultimately disappoints.
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