George Neville, archbishop of York, 1432-1476

George Neville, archbishop of York, 1432-1476, was a brother of Richard Neville, earl of Warwick, and played a part in both the establishment of the Yorkist dynasty in 1460-61 and his brother's revolts in 1469-71.

George Neville was the fourth son of Richard Neville, earl of Salisbury, and was chosen for a church career at an early age. In 1442 he was collated to a canonry in Salisbury Cathedral, and in 1446 was given his first significant church office, the 'golden prebend' of Masham in York Minister. His young age was legally a barrier to his promotion, but he received papal dispensations in 1447 and 1452.

In 1454 Salisbury was appointed Chancellor during the Duke of York's first protectorate and George Neville began to accumulate an impressive collection of offices. The most dramatic promotion came in 1455-56 during York's second protectorate, when aged only 25 he was made bishop of Exeter. For the next two years the post was held by suffragans, but Neville was finally consecrated as bishop in 1458. Despite his aristocratic background and the fairly blatant political nature of his appointment, the young bishop did prepare for his role, studying at Balliol College, Oxford, in the late 1440s. He received a BA in 1450, an MA in 1452 and supplicated for a doctorate of theology in 1457 (although may not have actually received that final degree). During his career Bishop Neville displayed a mix of the aristocratic, the political and the learned that was not unusual in the period. He went on to play an active role in the administration of the university, served as its chancellor from 1453-57 and 1461-72.

In 1459 Neville's father and brother (Richard Neville, earl of Warwick) were both involved in the Yorkist campaign that ended disastrously at Ludford Bridge. The Yorkist leaders were forced into exile, but Bishop Neville had stayed out of the revolt and was even commended for his loyalty by Henry VI.

In June 1460 Salisbury, Warwick and York's son Edward, earl of March, invaded from Calais. Neville was one of a group of bishops who met the invaders at Southwark, where he took their oaths of allegiance to Henry. He also brought troops with him, and accompanied the rebels as they headed north to find the king. On 10 July 1460 the Royal army was defeated at Northampton (mainly due to treachery) and Henry was captured. On 25 July Henry, who was now in Warwick's custody, appointed Neville as Chancellor of England. That title was confirmed by Edward IV on 10 March 1461, and Neville held it until 1467.

Battles of the Wars of the Roses
Battles of the
Wars of the Roses

In March 1461, after a dramatic winter that had seen York and Salisbury killed at Wakefield, Warwick defeated at St. Albans and Edward, earl of March capture London and emerge as the new Yorkist leader, Bishop Neville played a part in Edward's seizure of the throne. On 1 March he preached a sermon in front of a crowd that then demanded that Edward take the throne. On 3 March he was one of the Yorkist peers who supported Edward's selection as king and on 4 March he preached in favour of the new king. He also opened Edward's first and second parliaments.

During the early 1460s the bishop accompanied his brother Warwick on some of his campaigns against the Lancastrians in the far north of England. He was also used on a number of diplomatic missions. He can only be proved to have visited Exeter once, but in March 1465 he was promoted to the archbishopric of York. Although the motive was largely political, he was also a far more active bishop at York than he had been at Exeter, visiting at least one each year.

In the second half of the 1460s a rift began to develop between Warwick and Edward IV. Archbishop Neville would suffer from this and on 8 June 1467 the king sacked him as chancellor. He also decided to nominate Thomas Bourchier, archbishop of Canterbury to become a cardinal rather than Neville. His aim was partly to establish his independence from the Nevilles and partly diplomatic - Warwick was in favour of a French alliance, but the king had decided to go with Burgundy.

In 1469 Warwick openly turned against the king, beginning the second phase of the Wars of the Roses. He formed an alliance with Edward's brother George, duke of Clarence, who at this stage was Edward's heir. Warwick planned to marry his daughter Isabel to Clarence. He would then take advantage of revolts in the north of England to trap Edward, gaining control of the king. Archbishop Neville played an active part in this plot. Edward had refused permission for the marriage, but Neville continued to work to gain a necessary Papal dispensation (needed because the bridge and groom were relatively closely related). He then travelled to Calais, where on 11 July 1469 he conducted the marriage. Calais was chose as it was outside the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who could have caused problems with the legality of the marriage.

Neville accompanied Warwick as he returned to England. At this time Edward had gone north to deal with Robin of Redesdale's revolt, but the rebels slipped past Edward's army and defeated his allies at Edgcote (26 July 1469). Edward didn’t learnt about this defeat in time, and was arrested by Archbishop at Olney manor in Buckinghamshire. Edward was imprisoned, first at Warwick and then at Middleham.

The earl of Warwick now attempted to rule through a captive king. The Archbishop was left to control London, while Warwick remained in the Midlands and the north, but the new government quickly collapsed. Warwick was unable to raise an army to deal with Lancastrian rebels led by Sir Humphrey Neville, and had to release the king. The Archbishop was chosen to carry out this difficult mission. With Edward IV back at the head of his government an army was soon found and the rebels defeated. Edward was then able to return to London where he resumed his power.

In the spring of 1470 Warwick made a second attempt to overthrow Edward, this time with the help of Lincolnshire rebels. This time his allies were defeated and Warwick was forced into exile. Archbishop Neville wasn't involved in this second revolt, although he was forced to take an oath of loyalty to Edward. He also wasn't involved in Warwick's return later in 1470, but after its success he rallied to his brother and served as chancellor in the 'readeption' government.

Edward returned from exile in the spring of 1471. Warwick and Montagu had powerful forces in the North and Midlands, but mishandled the resulting campaign and by early April Edward had slipped past them and was heading for London.

Archbishop Neville found himself in charge of the defence of the city.  He summoned every Lancastrian in the city to assemble at St. Pauls, but only 600-700 armed men turned up. He then attempted to raise support by parading Henry VI through the city, surrounding him with symbols of his illustrious father Henry V. Unfortunately Henry VI was only a shadow of his father and years in the Tower hadn't improved him. The Archbishop had to hold his hands for the entire parade, and the display only served to reduce enthusiasm for the Lancastrian cause. The archbishop entered into negotiations with Edward, who was able to enter the city unopposed on 11 April.

Three days later, at Barnet, Edward defeated Warwick's army. Warwick and his brother Montagu were both killed, leaving only the Archbishop left of Salisbury's four sons. As was so often the case, Edward was willing to pardon a former enemy. The Archbishop was pardoned on 16 April and released from imprisonment on 4 June. He swore allegiance to Edward's eldest son Edward, and had a chance to continue as archbishop. Instead he appears to have chosen to support a half-baked plan for yet another revolt against Edward in Yorkshire. The archbishop was arrested on the night of 25-26 April 1472 and was imprisoned at Calais. He remained imprisoned until the end of 1474, and he finally returned to England on 19 December. He accompanied Edward IV's invasion of France, but was now an ill man. He was finally allowed to head north to visit his diocese in 1476 but he died at Blyth in Nottinghamshire on 8 June 1476 before he could complete the journey.

Books on the Middle Ages - Subject Index: Wars of the Roses

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (21 March 2014), George Neville, archbishop of York, 1432-1476 ,

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