Cecily of York was born on 20 March 1469 as the third daughter of King Edward IV of England and Elizabeth Woodville. As the third consecutive daughter born to a reigning King without sons, her birth was a disappointment and the King and his lords “rejoiced exceedingly, though they would have preferred a son.”1 The following year, her mother gave birth to a son, the future King Edward V. Several more siblings followed over the years, including two more brothers, though not all would survive to adulthood. Cecily was delivered by a midwife named Marjorie or Margaret Cobb, who was granted a pension and later also delivered her younger brother Edward.
As the daughter of a King, Cecily was brought up to be pious and morally irreproachable. She and her sisters were taught to be future Queens and to run their own households. They were taught to read and write, though Cecily’s handwriting and spelling were considered to be atrocious. She would have also learned to dance, to ride, play a musical instrument and needlework.
In October 1474, then just aged five, Cecily was betrothed to the future James IV, King of Scots, himself only two years old at the time. This was done “in the interest of peace.”2 A formal ceremony of betrothal took place in Edinburgh and a proxy stood in for Cecily. From then on, she was styled as “the Princess of Scots.”3 The following year, her elder sister Elizabeth was betrothed to the future King Charles VIII of France and it was decided that she would go to France at the age of 12. She became known as “Madame la Dauphine” at court.4
Cecily and her sisters Mary and Elizabeth were present at the wedding of their four-year-old brother Richard to the five-year-old heiress Anne Mowbray on 15 January 1478. They sat beneath a canopy of cloth-of-gold while the dispensation permitting the marriage was read out. Two years later, Cecily and Mary were made Ladies of the Garter, following their elder sister Elizabeth who had been made a Lady of the Garter in 1477.
More marriages were in the works; in 1481 Prince Edward was betrothed to Anne of Brittany, heiress to the duchy of Brittany, and Mary was betrothed to the future King Frederick I of Denmark. The Scots also began pressing Cecily’s father to have her sent to Scotland, but the marriage treaty came under threat when King James III led a raid over the border. The engagement was broken off, and she was betrothed Alexander Stewart, Duke of Albany, the exiled younger brother of James III, King of Scots. However, this changed again when the Duke of Albany made peace with his brother, and Cecily was once more betrothed to James’s son. In October 1481, the betrothal was called off once and for all. The alliance with Denmark died when young Princess Mary died at the age of 14 on 23 May 1482. At the end of 1482, the alliance with France was also in shreds. Cecily’s father’s grand design for his daughters came to nothing.
The following Christmas was the last one the family would spend together. On 9 April 1483, King Edward IV died after a short illness. Cecily’s 12-year-old brother was proclaimed King Edward V two days later. The following tumultuous period saw the destiny’s of Cecily and her siblings changed forever. Cecily’s uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, seized power and became King Richard III, with her parents’ marriage being declared null and void and Cecily and her siblings declared illegitimate. Cecily fled into sanctuary with her mother and siblings – save for Edward, who was already with his uncle. Young Edward was lodged in the Tower of London as the council tried to persuade Cecily’s mother to leave sanctuary. Eventually, she was forced to give up her second son Richard to the Duke of Gloucester as well. He was lodged in the Tower with his brother, and they would never emerge from there – disappearing sometime that summer.