Ralph Neville, 2nd Earl of Westmorland c.1406-1484 and one of his wives.  Fine oak effigy once in Brancepeth Church, County Durham.  Destroyed 1998. Drawn by Charles Stothard c.1815.

An interesting life if somewhat tinged by tragedy.    Ralph Neville 2nd Earl of Westmorland, born at Cockermouth in Cumbria (c.1406-1485) was the son of Lord John Neville (b.c1387) who died in Verneuil, possibly of dysentery,  while campaigning in France in 1420 and Elizabeth Holand (b.c.1388 d. 4 January 1423) daughter of Thomas Holand, Earl of Kent.  Lord John was the son and heir of the famous Ralph 1st Earl of Westmorland by his first wife Margaret Stafford.  It was the children Ralph 1st Earl had with Margaret that he would later go on to largely disinherit in favour of the children from his second wife Joan Beaufort.    Ralph,  the 1st Earl who died in 1425 thus outlived his heir John.  Westmorland’s grandson,  the second earl and  the Ralph (I’ll call him Ralph II from now on) we are concerned with here may have been an invalid if historians including Chrimes and W E Hampton are correct. (1)  It has to be said the face on the effigy, which appeared to be an attempt at a true likeness, seems to depict the face of a man who has endured illness and suffering or perhaps just reflects, on the other hand, a man who had reached a ripe old age.   A J Pollard suggests that in his later life Ralph may have succumbed to some kind of mental illness pointing out that William Worcestre noted in his Itinerary that he was ‘simple-minded‘ (innocens homo) and that Sir Thomas Neville, his younger brother (d. c.1461), once had his guardianship. ‘ However James Petre remains unconvinced and declaring the theory ‘unfounded’  because Worcestre’s remark remains the only reference there is to the possibility that Ralph II may have been incapacitated in some way either mentally or physically.   If Ralph did indeed suffer from some sort of ill health  then to add to his woes he had ‘inherited an earldom shorn of its  richest possessions through the influence of his grandfather’s second wife Joan Beaufort.’   Prof Ross explains it well….  ‘The old earl diverted most of the great Nevill estates to his second wife, Joan Beaufort, and so through her to their eldest son Richard, thus largely disinheriting young Ralph. By an elaborate series of fines and conveyances to trustees, the earl succeeded in depriving his grandson, Ralph, . . . of the bulk of the lands in favour of Joan, through whom they were transmitted to the younger branch of the family. . . . Ralph was left in possession only of the lordship of Brancepeth, County Durham, some manors in Lincolnshire, the Nevill Inn, Silver Street in London and some property in Ripon. To Joan went the original Nevill lordships of Middleham and Sheriff Hutton in Yorkshire and Raby in Durham along with the family estates in Westmorland and Essex’

The long and unequal struggle to regain  the major part of  his inheritance  ‘which had been settled by his grandfather on his step-grandmother, and their family ‘ would dominate Ralph’s life with him claiming that his expected income of  £2600 had been reduced to £400 p.a. (2) Ralph II’s first wife –  who he married on the 7 May 1426, at Roche Abbey –  was Elizabeth Percy (b.c.1392 d.1436) daughter of the famous Henry Percy – who earned himself the sobriquet of ‘Hotspur’  – and widow of John,  Lord Clifford.  Ralph and Elizabeth would have a son John, named after his grandfather.  John was to die in 1450 of unknown causes.  The  death of his heir  must have brought fresh devastation to Ralph in an already troubled life.  John’s date of birth is unknown although he was married to Anne Holand daughter of the Duke of Exeter and suggestions of his age when he died range from early teens to early twenties.   The marriage was said to have been unconsummated which would indicate the bride and groom were both underage although his will makes it clear they shared a household.  This will has survived and makes poignant reading.  He requested to  ‘be buriede in the chirch in Hautenprice with in the quere in the mydds of the chauncell’ i.e. in the church of Haltemprice Priory, Yorkshire.  Hardly anything remains of the Priory today except perhaps a doorway leading into a now ruined farm house.  John made further requests leaving his ‘wiff all ye money that is due to me by my said lorde hir fadir. Also I bequeth all my furrs to my wiff Anne. Also I will that my said wiff have holly all the lyflode yat sche was indued inne even like as I have itt’.   This money owed to him by his father in law was from his wife’s marriage portion and would suggest that they had not been married long.  Requests were made for his servants to be paid, one of them Thomas Prowfott  for the rest of his life.  A request was made that  ‘myn executours ordayn an honest and a kunnyng prest to synge for my soule a twelmoneth, and yat he have for his sallary x. marc ‘and a horse by the name of Lyard Neville was bequeathed to the place where his body had lain at rest.   And thus John ‘the hope of a princely house’ was gone (3). The young widowed Anne Holand would go on to marry Sir John Neville, her dead husband’s uncle and their son Ralph – please  keep up at the back dear reader – would go on to become the third Earl.   This Sir John would die at the battle of Towton in 1461.  If Ralph II had his hopes dashed with the early death of his son his hopes were further dashed, on the whole, when he sought to have his grievances addressed concerning the unfair legacy left by his grandfather.  Ralph could not overcome the combined might of the junior branch of the Neville family led by a formidable Joan  Beaufort, his step grandmother, and her eldest son Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury.  After the death of Joan in November 1440 Raby was returned to Ralph but at a heavy price.  From this time forward Ralph who now lacked any ‘confidence in the impartiality of the royal council’ seemed to accept the inevitable and he played no future significant role in politics although he would still be included on every commission of the peace for Westmorland ‘from 1432 to 1459, every one for Northumberland and the North Riding from 1437 to 1460 and every one, but one, for the East Riding from 1443 to 1460.’ (4).  

By his second wife  Margaret Cobham (d.somewhere between 1466-1471)  daughter to Reginald Cobham (and  niece to the infamous Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester who would go on to be imprisoned for life after being found guilty of witchcraft)  Ralph would have but one child, a daughter named Margaret after her mother,  who died in infancy.   Although Ralph’s was a remarkably long life for those times, dying aged about 77, it was also a stressful one, with perhaps more than a fair share of tragedy,  when added to the equation of a life possibly blighted by both mental and physical ill health there were the long standing  repercussions resonating from the unjustness of his grandfather’s legacy to contend with.   Whatever his grandfather’s motives were – he suffered from a  complete  lack of  hindsight, as we all do –    his plans proved to be the catalyst for disaster for both branches of his family,  and there can be no dispute that the treatment of his family from his first marriage, in particular the second earl,  was woefully shabby, shabby, shabby….   This injustice of what amounted to the disinheriting of his sons by his first marriage would lead to years of  turmoil, destruction and bloodshed.  As J L Laynesmith puts it in her biography of Cicely Neville this injustice would ‘inevitably set generations of Nevilles at odds with one another and contributed to the baronial infighting of the Wars of the Roses’.  W E Hampton wrote:‘Ironically,  the brilliant and unjustly favoured offspring of his second marriage were to bring about the destruction of the houses of Lancaster and Beaufort while the issue of the first marriage, although injured by their stepmother,  were to support Lancaster and Beaufort with results disastrous to themselves’. (5)

For those who would like to go more in depth regarding the convoluted ups and downs of the arguments etc., that raged over the years emanating from the injustice of Ralph 1st Earl of Westmorland’s legacy I can recommend two Richardian articles available on line.  They are The Nevilles of Brancepeth and Raby 1425-1499. Part I 1425-1469. Nevill v Nevill. James Petre  and  The Nevills of Brancepeth and Raby 1425—1499. Part II 1470—1499: Recovery and Collapse James Petre.

Ralph 2nd Earl of Westmorland’s Burial Place. St Brandon’s Church Brancepeth.

St Brandon’s Church standing close by Brancepeth Castle and where Ralph’s grandmother Margaret Stafford had chosen to be buried, had stood for over 1000 years but tragically suffered from a catastrophic fire on the 16th September 1998 apparently due to an electrical fault.  The fire was described by Pevsner as ‘Probably the greatest single loss of the North East’s cultural heritage in the 20th century.’  Included in the heartbreaking losses were much wonderful medieval wood carving including the fine oak effigies of Ralph and one of his wives.    These effigies, possibly a pattern for an alabaster monument which may never have been completed through lack of funds, although originally on a tomb chest,  had at some time been placed upon the floor of the south side of the chancel.  Decent photographs of the monument have proved impossible to track down but we are indebted to Charles Stothard who made  beautiful engravings of the effigy when it still retained  some of its colour in the early 19th century. 


Another view of Stothard’s engraving…


Closeup of the beautiful artistic skill of Stothard in Ralph’s intricate belt buckle. 


The clearest photo I have been able to trace of the oak monument to Ralph and wife before its destruction.  Photo thanks to jmc4 Church Explorer.


Brancepeth Castle – A Neville Residence.


The Neville Tower, Link Block and Bulmer Tower at Brancepeth Castle, County Durham.

This range of buildings are the last remaining medieval remnants of the once majestic Brancepeth Castle which was first mentioned in 1216.  These were where the private apartments of the Nevilles were located and where Ralph II spent the the bulk of his latter years.   Of this range the ground floor of Bulmer Tower, with a large vaulted chamber lit by several windows,  is the least altered of the apartments although the upper floor was much altered by the 19th century architect John Paterson who we will return to later.    The  Neville Tower, which has managed to retain its original vaulting, had a bed chamber located on the top floor.  The original approach to these apartments from the courtyard has sadly been destroyed perhaps in the 16th century.  This courtyard entered via a ‘great toure‘ with a gateway was mentioned by Leland on his visit in 1534 when he noted the courtyard and its entrance was the castle’s greatest ‘pleasure‘.    The remainder of the castle was doomed by the endeavours of an over enthusiastic 19th century architect,  John Paterson.  Anthony Emery, the noted architectural historian,  explains that the additions by Paterson are so ‘overwhelming that they smother any appreciation of this important late mediaeval residence.   Unfortunately Patterson possessed little understanding of mediaeval design and form,  limited feelings for mediaeval workmanship and no appreciation for decoration or texture.   The diagonally machine-tooled stone use throughout his work has been admirably likened by Pevsner to the patterning of tweed cloth,   The result is stage scenery of the most dismal sort’ (6)   

And so we leave Sir Ralph Neville, 2nd Earl of Westmorland to his rest.  Let us hope his mortal remains still rest safely and peacefully in a hard to access vault somewhere in St Brandon’s church.  Let’s  also hope besides the enormous amounts of disappointments he encountered during his lifetime there were moments peppered with joy, perhaps in his marriages and his young children,  and  especially in the small but important victories  he gained from time to time.  

An archaeological report –  frustratingly no mention of medieval burials –  made since the fire in St Brandon’s , can be found here.

1. Memorials of the Wars of the Roses p.49. W E Hampton

2. Neville, Ralph, second earl of Westmorland. Oxford Dictionery of National Biography 23 September 2004 A J Pollard.

3. Testamentum Domini Johannis Nevill Militis, Filii et Heredis Radulphi Comitis Westmerland”, Test Ebor vol. 2, p.146

4. The Nevills of Brancepeth and Baby 1425—1499. Part I 1425-1469: Nevill v Nevill Ricardian article December 1981 James Petrie

5. Memorials of the Wars of The Roses p.49. W E Hampton.

6. Greater Medieval Houses of England and Wales. Vol.1. Northern England. p.56 Anthony Emery.









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