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How much of ‘history’ is just myth?

In the current edition of the Ricardian Bulletin is an excellent article by Joanna Laynesmith about Cecily, Duchess of York. Laynesmith demontrates conclusively:

1. That there is no evidence Cecily was born at Raby.
2. The ‘Rose of Raby’ epithet dates from no earlier than the eighteenth century and probably comes from – shock horror! – a novel.
3. There is no fifteenth century reference to her looks, and the nearest source (Edward Hall) claims that she was short of stature.
4. She did not have a daughter called Joan.
5. She was not (in context) irresponsible in her spending on clothes.
6. There is no reference to ‘Proud Cis’ prior to 1713.

This contradicts so much that we ‘know’ about Duchess Cecily that it seems to me that we are saddled with more myth than history. Nor was all this myth invented by the despised class of modern novelists.

One is left wondering just how much of ‘history’ in general is equally mythical when examined closely.

Joanna Laynesmith is publishing a new biography of the Duchess in 2016. It should be well worth reading.

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12 thoughts on “How much of ‘history’ is just myth?

  1. viscountessw on said:

    Perhaps we cannot even be sure her name was Cecily? No, I don’t mean that, but it does begin to get ridiculous when there’s more fiction than fact. Fiction-writers have a lot to answer for, and by this I mean the likes More and Shakespeare, of course, not present day novelists. But I also mean the biased ‘factual’ writers who wrote nothing but fiction, yet claimed it was the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. And they are considered to be primary sources!

    There appeared to be a drive recently to rename the Wars of the Roses as the Cousins’ War, but that seems to be in retreat again, thank goodness. Awful name. But then, the wars weren’t called the Wars of the Roses at the time either. They were plain old blue-blooded infighting that cost many lives. It was brutal, but given an almost romantic air by linking it to white and red roses. So many things we take for granted now, as with the WOTR, turn out to be later inventions. It’s becoming difficult to know if we can safely say eggs is eggs.

    Liked by 2 people

    • The two roses thing was a part of the Tudor myth – the Tudor red-white rose as a symbol of unity and peace after the “war of the red and the white rose”, even though the Lancasters actually had barely ever used a red rose as symbol.

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  2. sighthound6 on said:

    I doubt whether the people of the time saw it was a ‘war’ as we understand World War II or even the Civil War. It was more like a series of incidents over two or three decades that would have been perceived as ‘risings against the Lord King.’ For ‘civilians’ – the overwhelming majority – the Wars of the Roses would have had have minimal impact, or would at worst have been a minor inconvenience, like a train strike or road closures for the Tour de France. I suspect we put far more weight on the battles and the politics than the average Joe of the time would have done. Indeed, I suspect that if you’d been (for example) a country gentleman down some back road in Norfolk, you’d hardly have noticed the war, except insofar as it had an impact on the local power brokers.

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    • Good point. But even if we see it as one civil war, how long did it last and when exactly did it start and end? It’s usually considered that it lasted from 1455 to 1487, when, according to the traditional history, Henry VII ended it and a period of peace started. But, there were no rebellions against Edward IV after 1471 and no civil war fought, with Henry VI and Edward of Lancaster dead and Henry Tudor living in exile – it was 12 years of peace until the Buckingham rebellion (aka Henry Tudor’s first attempted invasion). Then Richard III squashed it, and may have gone on to rule for years if not for Henry’s second, successful invasion in 1485. So, Henry ended the so-called “War of the Roses” only after having restarted it himself. And he had a lot more trouble with rivals and pretenders to the throne – even it never amounted to another important battle after Stoke – than Edward IV did after 1471.

      If Henry had lost at Bosworth, or if the rebels of 1487 or Perkin Warbeck had managed to depose him, the entire picture of when the civil war or wars was/were fought, when it ended, what it was, how many of them were… would no doubt be completely different.

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  3. Many times little things like “Rose of Raby” are handed down by word of mouth for couple generations before someone actually puts pen to paper to record it. And how does the fact that she was “short of stature” affect her potential for being, perhaps, stunningly beautiful unless you measure it by today’s standards of beauty, tall and grotesquely refugee skinny. I think we should be careful what we dub “myth” at the word of another novelist.

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  4. white lily on said:

    I am curious as to what the author says might be Cecily’s birthplace. Perhaps it was elsewhere, but is there any theory that she was raised somewhere other than Castle Raby in Yorkshire (or is it County Durham)? The castle was her father’s principle residence, I believe, but now I’m starting to question even that. If you could give me any additional information, much appreciated.

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    • Rainey on said:

      Raby Castle is definitely in County Durham as I don’t live far from it – and from another Neville branch residence at Brancepeth Castle!

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  5. sighthound6 on said:

    The author mentions several locations owned by the Nevilles, including Middleham. The point is we do not have any evidence as to where Cecily was born or brought up. She *may* have been born at Raby and spent her early years there, but there is no evidence for it. So if, for example, one was writing a novel about her, such matters would have to be made up.

    Similarly, with regard to her ‘looks’ there is no contemporary description of her at all. One might assume that as the granddaughter of Katherine Roet she might well have been handsome, but no one actually tells us what she looked like. The nearest thing to a contemporary report was written (roughly) fifty years after her death, and according to Laynesmith it says she was short. Being ‘short’ is an entirely neutral statement when it comes to ‘beauty’ or perceived beauty. Since the notion of ‘beauty’ has varied greatly over time, even if she was said to be ‘beautiful’ it would mean by the standards of her time, as it was then judged. But the thing is, we have *no* description of her from the fifteenth century of any variety.

    If I am being honest, if you’d asked me to describe Cecily prior to this article I’d have said she was born at Raby, famous for her beauty, tall (because Edward IV’s stature is often claimed to ‘come from the Nevilles’ for some reason, probably blonde (as it appears Edward was and York wasn’t) and with a reputation for being ‘proud’. It appears – from the article – that there is no direct evidence for *any* of these things. In other words a lot of what we took as read is apparently myth.

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    • Well, Edward IV had brown hair, that much we know… and the contemporary drawings make him look very dark haired, so he’s really unlikely to have been anywhere near blond. I don’t know if there’s any evidence of Richard, Duke of York’s hair color.

      I hadn’t heard that Edward IV’s height was supposed to come from the Nevilles (or that any of the Nevilles were supposed to be tall), but if I were to guess, Cecily couldn’t have been particularly tall, or else Warwick’s argument that Edward’s height meant he was an archer’s son wouldn’t have sounded convincing at all, and it seems that that rumor was quite widespread and believed by quite a few people. Although the reputed height of Margaret of York, Duchess of Burgundy shows that Edward was not the only tall York sibling.

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  6. mairemartello on said:

    I wish the author had provided some footnotes on this.

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  7. halfwit36 on said:

    We can’t make Edward IV short or Richard III tall, but if we don’t know about the appearance of a certain historical person, an author is free to describe him or her as desired. Or just leave that person undescribed and let the reader fill in the blanks.

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