Cecily Bonville: The Heiress Whose Money Divided Her Family

Melita Thomas

6 mins

06 Sep 2019

Queen Elizabeth Woodville had an eye for a bargain, so it is not surprising that, in 1474, she arranged the marriage of her son, Thomas Grey, to Cecily Bonville, Baroness Harington and Bonville, one of the richest heiresses in England.

The Bonvilles had been Yorkists, whilst Thomas’s father, Sir John Grey, had fallen while fighting for the Lancastrian cause at the Second Battle of St Albans so, as well as snaring a fortune for her son, Elizabeth was carrying out Edward IV’s policy of reconciliation between the factions.

She was also strengthening the ties between her own family and her husband’s – Cecily’s mother, Katherine Neville, was the king’s cousin.

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A match well-made

Cecily and Thomas were well-matched – he was about eight years older, but both had been brought up in the intellectual atmosphere of the Yorkist court and knew each other before their marriage.

Shortly after Cecily was declared of age in April 1475 and they took possession of her lands, Thomas was raised to the marquisate of Dorset.  Over the following twenty-five years, the couple were to have at least thirteen children. The oldest son was another Thomas, followed by six more boys and as many daughters.

In between childbirths, Cecily was a regular attendee at court, taking part in the christenings of the royal children and the Garter ceremonies on St George’s Day. Dorset was a champion jouster and on excellent terms with his stepfather: the young couple appeared to have everything – looks, rank, wealth and heirs.

Things go pear-shaped

Edward IV c.1520, posthumous portrait from original c. 1470–75. His death in 1483 caused great trouble for Cecily.

Cecily’s comfortable world was turned upside down in April 1483 when Edward IV died, and her husband and stepfather, Hastings, clashed over the right way to manage the minority of Thomas’s half-brother, twelve-year-old Edward V.

Thomas believed that the government should be in the hands of a council of regency, as previously implemented for underage kings, whilst Hastings supported the claims of the king’s uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, to be Lord Protector.

The two quarrelled violently. There may also have been a more personally distressing element to the quarrel for Cecily – according to Dominic Mancini, Hastings and Thomas were rivals for the favours of a lady.

Gloucester intercepted the entourage bringing Edward V to London and arrested the king’s councillors, Thomas’s uncle, Earl Rivers, and brother, Sir Richard Grey.

By the end of June 1483, Rivers, Grey and Hastings had been executed on Gloucester’s orders and Dorset was in hiding. The duke took the throne as Richard III, while Edward V and Thomas’s other half-brother, Richard, Duke of York, disappeared in the Tower of London.

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Revolts

During this turmoil, Cecily stayed quietly on her estates, but the sudden executions of her stepfather and brother-in-law, and the disappearance of her other brothers-in-law made her fearful for Thomas, especially after he joined the Duke of Buckingham in rebellion.

The revolt failed, and the king issued a proclamation against Thomas, putting a price of 500 marks on his head. The news that Thomas had escaped to exile in Brittany, where he joined the Lancastrian claimant, Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, must have been welcome to Cecily, although she probably thought it unlikely that she would ever see her husband again.

In August 1485, Henry Tudor landed in Wales to claim the crown, leaving Thomas behind in France as pledge for the loan raised to pay the troops.

Following his surprising victory at the Battle of Bosworth, Henry was crowned as Henry VII. He swiftly ransomed Thomas, who returned to England before the end of the year.

Bosworth Field: Richard III and Henry Tudor engage in battle, prominently in the centre. Henry’s surprise victory was good news for the fortunes of Cecily and Thomas.

Royal favour

Now reunited, Cecily and Thomas were once again important figures at court, with Thomas’s half-sister, Elizabeth of York, becoming Henry VII’s queen.

Cecily carried the christening robe for Prince Arthur, and attended the funeral of her mother-in-law, Elizabeth Woodville, in 1492.  Cecily’s eldest son, who took the title of her barony of Harington, was created a knight of the Bath at the investiture of the king’s second son, Henry, as Duke of York in 1494.

The celebrations were splendid, with Cecily following the duchesses in the procession.  Three years later, after the defeat of Perkin Warbeck at Exeter, Cecily and Thomas probably entertained Henry VII at Cecily’s manor of Shute.

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The next generation

As the fifteenth century closed, Cecily and Thomas were busy arranging marriages for their offspring. Harington was to marry a niece of the king’s mother, whilst Eleanor was to marry a Cornish gentleman, Mary to wed Lord Ferrers of Chartley and Cicely was betrothed to the son of Lord Sutton.

As well as matchmaking, they were building – she was extending Shute, whilst he was creating a huge family residence at Bradgate in Leicestershire, the centre of his patrimony.

The couple’s younger sons were educated at the new secular school at Magdalen College, Oxford, where they were taught by a promising young cleric by the name of Thomas Wolsey. Wolsey so impressed the Dorsets that he was granted a living on Cecily’s manor of Limington.

Old Shute House today, originally built in the late 14th century for the Bonville family.

Family troubles

Thomas died in 1501. Cecily was named as chief executor of his will, which included instructions to complete Bradgate, and to enhance the family mausoleum at Astley, Warwickshire. His bequests were many and generous, whilst the value of his estates was limited, and Cecily struggled to fulfil them.

Harington, now second marquis of Dorset, was unhappy with the little amount of his inheritance he could claim – an unhappiness that was intensified when he heard the shocking news that Cecily intended to marry again – to a man more than twenty years younger than herself, Henry Stafford, brother of the Duke of Buckingham.

Dorset saw his inheritance slipping from his grasp, as Stafford would be entitled to hold Cecily’s lands until his own death, if she predeceased him.

Mother and son quarrelled so violently that the king intervened, bringing them before the Council to

‘see and set the said parties at unity and peace…for all manner of variance, controversies, matters and causes depending between them.’

A legal settlement was devised, which, whilst severely curtailing Cecily’s rights to manage her own property, did not satisfy Dorset. Nevertheless, Cecily proceeded with her new marriage. It probably did not bring her the happiness she sought – the quarrel with Dorset was never resolved.

A question of money

The problem centred on the payment of dowries for Cecily’s daughters, which Dorset thought Cecily should pay, even though they were owed from his patrimony. Even if Cecily had been willing to pay the dowries out of her own lands, it seems that Stafford prevented it.

Stafford was, however, quite content to spend his wife’s money on himself, sporting a fabulous diamond and ruby brooch in his hat in 1506 when the English court entertained Philip of Burgundy.  Meanwhile, Cecily continued her building projects, creating the superb Dorset Aisle at Ottery St Mary, in Devon.

Fan vaulted ceiling of the north aisle (“Dorset Aisle”) of Ottery St Mary Church, built by Cecily Bonville, Marchioness of Dorset. Image Credit: Andrewrabbott / Commons.

In 1507 Henry VII became suspicious of Dorset’s Yorkist links and dispatched him to prison in Calais. He was still there in 1509, when Henry VIII ascended the throne. Cecily’s worries were compounded when Stafford was also sent to the Tower.

Return to favour (again)

Fortunately, both husband and son were released, and Stafford acquired his own title of earl of Wiltshire. Wiltshire, Dorset, and Cecily’s younger sons, John, Arthur, Edward, George and Leonard, were soon high in royal favour, taking part in the tournaments that were a feature of Henry VIII’s early reign.

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Dorset, Edward and Elizabeth Grey accompanied Princess Mary to her wedding to Louis XII in 1514, while Margaret entered Katharine of Aragon’s household, and Dorothy married first, Lord Willoughby de Broke, then Lord Mountjoy, the queen’s Chamberlain.

Elizabeth caused a stir when she married the Earl of Kildare without Cecily’s consent, but matters were smoothed over and Cecily later forgave the shocking filial disobedience.  Nevertheless, quarrels over money persisted, despite Cardinal Wolsey’s efforts at arbitration.

Final years

In 1523, Cecily was widowed again. She regained control of her property, but Wiltshire had left debts exceeding £4,000, which Cecily was obliged to pay.  Cecily also elected to take on the financial obligation of her daughters’ dowries, and to provide for her younger sons, retaining less than half her income.

Despite this, she and Dorset remained at loggerheads.  This bitterness informed her will. After fulfilling Thomas’s incomplete bequests, she reaffirmed her legacies to her younger children, then, in three different clauses, instructed her executors that, if Dorset attempted to upset her will, they were to divert his inheritance to charity.

Cecily’s verdict on her second marriage is indicated by her omission of Wiltshire from the beneficiaries of the masses requested for her soul and Thomas’s.

It was also Thomas with whom she wished to be buried, and they lie side-by-side in Astley church, where Cecily’s marble effigy marks the grave of a woman whose wealth, although it brought her rank and ease, cost her much family heartache.

Melita Thomas is the co-founder and editor of Tudor Times, a repository of information about Britain in the period 1485-1625. The House of Grey: Friends and Foes of Kings, is her most recent book and will be published on 15 September 2019, by Amberley Publishing.

Featured Image: The ruins of Bradgate House, completed around 1520. Astrokid16 / Commons.