By Tyler Parsons
The fortunes of the House of Neville burned brightly in the middle decades of the 15th century, but it was not to last. Only elevated to their first earldom in 1397 in the person of Ralph, Earl of Westmoreland, in the fifty years between 1428 and 1478 the family would gain and lose four earldoms, a marquessate, and a duchy. They would end the century little better off than they started it, possessing just that first Earldom of Westmoreland, and a couple of baronies. The rise was enabled, at first, by shrewd matchmaking. Richard Neville, eldest son of Ralph’s second marriage, acquired the Earldom of Salisbury by marriage to Alice Montagu in 1428. Their eldest son, also named Richard, similarly acquired the Earldom of Warwick by marriage to Anne Beauchamp in 1449. Two of Salisbury’s younger brothers, William and Edward, attained the baronies of Fauconberg and Bergavenny by similar means, whilst a third, George, inherited that of Latimer from an uncle in circumstances of dubious legality. The further ascent of the family was enabled by the close ties several members had to the House of York. Salisbury and Warwick came to ally with Richard, Duke of York, in the mid-1450s. Further rewards naturally followed after York’s son Edward secured the throne in 1461, with elevations for other members of the family active in Yorkist service. William, Lord Fauconberg, was elevated to the Earldom of Kent, though that title went extinct upon his death in 1463. Salisbury’s younger son John was named Baron Montagu in 1461 and Earl of Northumberland in 1464, the latter having been stripped from their great northern rivals the Percies, many of whose properties were granted to John. In 1470, however, John would be deprived of Northumberland, with Edward IV restoring it to the proper Percy heir. This came after John’s brother Warwick had rebelled against the King in 1469, even imprisoning Edward for a time, but John himself had remained loyal. Edward’s actions were seemingly non-punitive, with John promoted to Marquess of Montagu and given new grants in the southwest carved out of the lands of the attainted Courtenay Earls of Devon. Indeed, it has been argued that the reassignment came because John had failed to win over traditional Percy retainers in Northumberland, and Edward saw the restoration of Henry Percy as the best way to secure the northern border. In any case, Edward further tried to assuage any ill-feeling by betrothing John’s son George to his eldest child, Elizabeth of York, and elevating the boy to the Duchy of Bedford. Nevertheless, John was left dissatisfied, reputedly declaring that the King had given him an empty title and ‘’a pie’s nest to maintain it with’’. When Warwick returned to England from exile in September 1470, as an unlikely champion of the deposed Lancastrian King Henry VI, John joined his brother. This defection seems to have caught Edward IV off guard, and contributed to his decision to flee to the continent.
The following year, John would be killed alongside his brother at Barnet- a defeat that saw the Earldoms of Warwick and Salisbury, and the Marquessate of Montagu, pass forever from the hands of the Neville family. Only the less prominent branches persevered. The last Neville Earl of Westmoreland fled into exile after leading the Catholic Rising of the North against Queen Elizabeth in 1569 and the Latimer title was lost through marriage in the sixteenth century, whilst the Barony of Bergavenny has a torturous legal history but did provide the basis of the Marquessate of Abergavenny, which is still held by the Neville family. There was a chance for the more prominent Salisbury branch of the family to persist, however, and continue to play a major role on the national stage. Perhaps the most obvious solution is for Warwick the Kingmaker to have a son, but such a personage seems likely to go down with his father in 1471. A more interesting figure is John’s only son, George Neville, Duke of Bedford. George Neville, Duke of Bedford: A Life Born in 1461, George’s early prospects were glittering. John, as we have seen, was granted extensive properties by Edward IV- first those taken from the attainted Percies in the north, and then those of the attainted Courtenays in the West Country. His mother, Isobel Ingoldsthorpe, was a significant heiress in her own right and additionally stood to inherit a third-share of the property of her childless uncle John Tiptoft, Earl of Worcester. Furthermore, George stood as heir to all his sonless uncle Warwick’s male-entail properties- these being the heartland Neville properties in the north, such as Sheriff Hutton, Middleham, and Penrith, rather than the more recently acquired lordships associated with the Montacute Earldom of Salisbury and Beauchamp Earldom of Warwick. By the calculation of historian Michael Hicks, the aggregation of these diverse lands would provide an income comparable to that of George, Duke of Clarence- who was the foremost and wealthiest magnate in the realm in the later 1460s. Additionally, an early match mooted for George was the King’s niece Anne Holland, who stood as sole heir to the estates of her father the Duke of Exeter. Anne being snatched away for marriage to Edward IV’s stepson Thomas Grey was one of the many grievances Warwick nursed against the Woodville clique at court. As it was, George saw essentially none of this after the deaths of his father and uncle. As they were never attainted, the Neville lordships should have passed to George, but they were instead vested in Richard, Duke of Gloucester, by an act of parliament. Curiously, in a legal settlement that has never made any sense whatsoever to me, Richard’s title was confirmed only so long as the Marquess of Montagu had living male heirs. Should that line fail his hold over the estates would be reduced to a mere life interest- that is, they would not pass to Richard’s heirs upon his death. An unforeseen third marriage by George’s great-uncle the Earl of Worcester, and the subsequent birth of Edward Tiptoft, also seemingly denied him any share of the Worcester lands. Needless to say, the betrothal to Elizabeth of York also evaporated with his father's treason.
George remained in the custody of his mother until her death in 1476, at which he inherited her not insubstantial holdings. Nevertheless, he was stripped of his title by parliament on the grounds that he lacked the means to support the dignity of a duke, and his wardship was thereafter granted to Gloucester. Both moves were likely engineered to reduce the threat he posed to Gloucester’s hold on the Neville patrimony, with the wardship (and control over his marriage) meaning George could not seek out a powerful father-in-law who might assist him in recovering his inheritance. Ultimately, George died, still unmarried, in March 1483. This, of course, had a catastrophic effect on Richard’s tenure over the Neville lordships- with George’s death his hold was reduced to a mere life interest. The properties central to his powerbase as ‘Lord of the North’ would not pass on to his own son Edward of Middleham- indeed, Edward of Middleham wouldn't even inherit Middleham. Some have identified his restlessness as to this fact as a major motivating factor in Richard’s usurpation of the throne later that year. Whilst I wouldn’t assign it a decisive role in Richard’s thinking, a fear that the Woodvilles might assail his tenuous hold on his northern properties as part of broader conspiracies against him could reasonably have played some role in his actions. George Neville, Duke of Bedford: Potentialities Much could be done with George. In a- not especially plausible- world where Warwick and his brother never break from the House of York, George will emerge as one of the wealthiest noblemen in the realm by the close of the 15th century, possibly possessing a royal or semi-royal wife. In a world where Edward V comes to the throne as an adult, or Richard III’s coup is otherwise averted, George might have a major role to play in factional power struggles at court. Tension between the Woodvilles and Gloucester might lead the former to show favour to George. The threat that his parliamentary title to the Neville estates could be revoked in George’s favour, ripping the heart out of his northern powerbase, would be a powerful threat to Gloucester’s position. Any such alliance between the Woodvilles and a Neville would be deeply ironic given enmity between the two families essentially tore apart the Yorkist court in the 1460s, but reconciled enemies were a feature of the Wars of the Roses. Another possibility is that Richard seizes the throne as OTL but George becomes involved in agitations against his reign. Perhaps he would find his way overseas, pledge himself to Tudor, and see some measure of restoration after Bosworth, building a place for himself as a leading northern lord in the Tudor era. He could equally choose to keep his head down and be a political nonentity, persisting off his maternal inheritance- which would be bolstered by the death of his cousin Edward Tiptoft, 2nd Earl of Worcester in 1485- and founding a relatively humble branch of the Neville dynasty. A Loyal Montagu Perhaps the most interesting scenario, however, is one where John Neville stays loyal to Edward IV. There’s numerous potential PODs here. John could simply appraise things differently in 1470 and decide he’s better off sticking with the King rather than throwing in with his brother. Alternately, maybe not being deprived of Northumberland keeps him loyal, but the Percies hanging around means that title will always be tenuous. Maybe Anne Holland hasn’t been snatched away and she remains betrothed to George, and the combination of her bounteous inheritance and the Courtenay properties he’s been granted make it so John can see a meaningful future for his family in the Southwest. This could have major butterflies- without the shock of Montagu’s defection, Edward IV may not withdraw into exile and instead make a fight of things in 1470. If victorious he’d avert the Lancastrian Readeption, but his reign going forward would be bedevilled by the continuing existence of the Lancastrian exiles on the continent. By contrast, IOTL his disastrous deposition led the Lancastrians to come out of the woodwork on the continent, and be decapitated in the two battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury. However, to keep this post a manageable length we’ll assume that Montagu’s loyalty has a negligible effect and things go roughly as they did IOTL. So as things stand in 1471 Edward has won back his throne, effectively destroyed his Lancastrian enemies, and rid himself of his overbearing cousin Warwick. What role would Montagu have in the Edwardian regime going forward?
For one, I cannot see the match between George Neville and Elizabeth of York going ahead. Edward has little reason to waste his eldest daughter on a domestic match- the betrothal has already had its desired effect in separating Montagu from his brother Warwick. This will undoubtedly frustrate Montagu, but there is little he can do other than grind his teeth- his brother is dead, and the Lancastrian party gutted. Perhaps Edward tries to mollify him with an heiress or one of his de la Pole nieces. Of course, if the reason Montagu stayed loyal is that Anne Holland wasn’t snatched away for the King’s step-son and remained betrothed to George then this whole issue is avoided. Another cause of tension with the King, and probably a more serious one, will be the fate of Warwick’s Neville estates. If Warwick goes unattainted, then legally the male-entail properties should pass to Montagu- and he can be expected to be a more active claimant to them then his young son was IOTL. There are essentially two scenarios here. The first is that things go as IOTL, and the properties are passed to Richard, Duke of Gloucester, in a dodgy legal settlement. Perhaps Warwick is formally attainted here, which means that legally they pass to the Crown and can be handed to whomever Edward likes (such as Gloucester). Nevertheless, to receive none of his ancestral patrimony after siding with the King and letting his brother die would be a major slap in the face to Montagu. In such circumstances Richard’s hold on the estates will be even more tenuous than IOTL. The true heir is not poor, marginalised, George Neville, but his father- an adult man of military talent who possesses a significant powerbase in the southwest. Additionally, Montagu will also have significant personal contacts amongst the northern Neville affinity, among which he spent his youth, and this might frustrate Richard’s attempts to build his own powerbase there. If he has married his five daughters astutely, Montagu might also have many friends amongst the nobility to call upon. Come 1483, Richard may still make a play for the throne, but the north will be less united behind him, and he has an embittered enemy in the West Country- which was already a focus of dissent early in his reign IOTL. Much would depend on certain factors- whether Montagu is still alive (not unlikely, given he would be ~52 and his relatives were often long-lived when they weren’t dying violent deaths) and whether he can bring himself to ally with the Woodvilles. The second option is that Edward lets the Neville patrimony pass to Montagu, in which case Gloucester’s career is radically altered. He might still marry Anne Neville and wrangle with Clarence over a different portion of the Warwick inheritance, or he might be forced to make his career elsewhere. Where would he go? During his first reign Edward IV seems to have been uncertain as to where to establish his youngest brother, and seems to have mainly been concerned with giving Richard an appropriate income rather than any territorial coherence. Greater direction for Richard only emerged after Clarence and Warwick’s rebellion in 1469. One of that rebellion’s victims had been William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, and Richard was subsequently deputised to replace Herbert as the chief royal representative in Wales. Perhaps this could have been made permanent, with Richard’s influence there bolstered by grants of some of Warwick’s ephemeral territories in Glamorgan and Abergavenny. Wales, however, is somewhat crowded. Herbert’s namesake eldest son could hope to recover his father’s position there, though IOTL he subordinated himself to Richard and married Richard’s bastard daughter Katherine in 1484. Others issues might prove more serious. Historically Edward IV established a Council of Wales headed by his infant son in 1472, dispatching the child to Ludlow under the tutelage of the prince’s maternal uncle Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers. This helped alienate Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, who also nursed ambitions in the area. Buckingham subsequently became an enthusiastic supporter of Richard in 1483, being rewarded with an unprecedented vice-regal status in Wales, before losing his head in rebellion. If Richard retains his status in Wales, with the Prince being established elsewhere, he will be responsible for frustrating Buckingham’s Welsh aspirations and draw the ire of a man who was instrumental in his rise to the throne IOTL. Alternatively, he might find his influence being chipped away by that of the Prince’s Council. Perhaps his brother induces him to swap out of Wales with some choice grants elsewhere- maybe building on Richard’s scattered holdings in East Anglia, or the various lands he’d been granted from the attainted Lord Hungerford. Any such move would, however, force Richard to embark on the time consuming process of building up a regional powerbase from the very beginning. It seems to me that in either case- him holding the Neville lands but facing the enmity of the powerful Montagu, or him being denied his OTL northern powerbase and having to establish himself elsewhere- Richard’s path to the throne would be significantly complicated. Perhaps he wouldn’t even have the confidence to attempt it, or things might go awry long before that fateful day in August 1485- all because John Neville, Marquess of Montagu, made a different decision in 1470.