Ralph de Neville, 1st Earl of Westmorland
Raby, Durham, England
Died: October 21, 1425 (Age 61)
Westmorland in History
Ralph Neville was a member of the prominent Neville family in the north of England and continued the family tradition of being border lords against the Scots. It was through his services in the north that Ralph gained an excellent reputation with King Richard II by the 1390s. Although the Nevilles were not nearly as powerful as the Percies, a rival family in northern England, Ralph was able to gain enough power and influence to gain a spot on the king's council. In 1397, Neville took place in the proceedings that saw King Richard destroy the Lords Appellant, a group of nobleman that had humiliated him several years earlier and who he was just now taking his revenge on. For his loyalty Neville was created Earl of Westmorland and given several other rewards. One must also know that the Neville family had close ties with John of Gaunt, and the earl married John's daughter Joan in 1396. It was these ties that most likely helped Neville's decision to put his support behind Henry Bolingbroke, Gaunt's son, who invaded England in 1399 to ultimately seize the crown. After Bolingbroke was crowned as King Henry IV, Westmorland was given a number of important titles and responsibilities and became one of the king's most trusted advisers. The earl's rise to power was certainly strengthened by the fact that he was the new king's brother-in-law.
When the Percies (who were considered to be the king's biggest supporters on putting him on the throne) rebelled in 1403, Westmorland shared in the spoils. Henry "Hotspur" Percy was killed at the Battle of Shrewsbury, and his father, also named Henry, Earl of Northumberland, was forced to submit to the king. Westmorland was one of the biggest advocates of seizing the Percy lands as punishment for their disloyalty, advice that the king listened to. In 1405, Westmorland played a highly significant role in subduing the rebellion of Richard Scrope, Archbishop of York, and Thomas Mowbray, Earl Marshal, when he persuaded the two to dismiss their armies at Shipton Moor. After they did so, the earl had the rebels arrested; they were soon after executed for treason. To heighten his fortunes even more so, the Earl of Northumberland now became a hunted rebel for his participation in the rising and fled England, paving the way for the Nevilles to become even more influential in England's north.
After the events of 1405, Westmorland seems to have gradually retired from public life. When Henry V ascended to the throne Neville was not treated as cordially as he was under Henry IV's reign. A kinsman of his, Sir Thomas Grey, took part in the Southampton Plot against the king and was soon after executed. It is most likely this did not help the relationship between Henry V and Westmorland. In 1417 the Percy heirs were restored to their land, and Westmorland made peace with them by marrying off one of his daughters to the new Earl of Northumberland. King Henry V died in 1422 and was succeeded by his nine-month-old son as Henry VI. Westmorland, by this point, was considered an elder statesman and was appointed to the council to guide the new king. He died in 1425 at the age of sixty-two. Ralph Neville was a loyal servant his whole life to all the kings he served and made more of a name for his family than any of his ancestors had. Despite his less than reputable activities displayed at certain points in his life (the deception of the Archbishop and his blatant destruction of the Percy family, for example) it is difficult to debate the fact that Ralph Neville asserted himself in England's government and became a powerful figure by the time of his death.
Westmorland in Shakespeare
Appears in: Henry IV, Part 1; Henry IV, Part 2; Henry V
Throughout the Henry IV plays Westmorland appears as a loyal servant to the king. He fights for him at Shrewsbury and is present when Prince John dupes the Archbishop and Earl Marshal into dismissing their armies. He continues his loyal service to the crown in Henry V. Westmorland is heard wishing for more soldiers just before the Battle of Agincourt, where he is rebuked by the king, who then delivers a patriotic speech to motivate the English army. In reality, Westmorland was not present at Agincourt or, as far as can be seen, in France at all during the Hundred Years War.
Tuck, Anthony. ‘Neville, Ralph, first earl of Westmorland (c.1364–1425)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/19951, accessed 2 Nov 2009]