Lancaster and York: The Wars of the Roses by Alison Weir


  By the end of 1447 it was apparent that the emergence of the Queen on to the political stage had given birth to a new factional rivalry to replace that of Gloucester and Beaufort. Beaufort’s peace party had become the court party, headed by the Queen, Suffolk and Somerset, which controlled the King and the government. The opposing faction comprised a group of lords who had, for various reasons, been excluded from this charmed circle, mainly because they upheld the ideals for which Gloucester had fought for most of his career, or were critical of the ruling party. This faction now looked to York to lead them.

  The court party feared York, had consistently blocked his attempt to participate in government, and had been searching for ways to neutralise his influence. As with Gloucester, they wanted him out of the way. On 9 December 1447 he was appointed the King’s Lieutenant in Ireland for a term of ten years. This ill-conceived appointment was the brainchild of Suffolk, and it was obvious to York that he was being sentenced to virtual exile. Hence he managed to delay his departure for two years.

  York had rendered loyal service, digging deep into his coffers to finance his expenditure on behalf of the Crown. Not once had he displayed any inclination to press his superior claim to the throne. Yet Henry and his advisers now treated him as an enemy; and by their wholly unjustifiable slights against one who was a prince of the blood and premier magnate of the realm, they made him an enemy.

  November came and went, and still Henry VI had not handed over Maine and Anjou. In February 1448, Charles VII, tired of his prevarications, led his armies into Maine and laid siege to the city of Le Mans. When the garrison claimed it could not hold out, Henry at last agreed on a formal surrender, which took place on 16 March and was conditional upon the truce being extended until April 1450. In England, the surrender was greeted with anger and bitterness. A worried Queen urged Henry to promise financial compensation to dispossessed English landowners returning from Maine, which he did, though the money was never forthcoming and this created more ill-feeling. So did the fact that the Queen’s father had fought at King Charles’s side in Maine, which did not endear Margaret any more to the English though in fact it had caused her great distress. Naturally, it was she and Suffolk who bore the brunt of public opprobrium.

  In the spring of 1448 the King demonstrated his confidence in the leaders of the court party by creating Edmund Beaufort Duke of Somerset, which meant that his twelve-year-old son Henry was now styled Earl of Dorset, and William de la Pole was created Duke of Suffolk. This was the first time that ducal rank had been conferred on anyone other than members or relatives of the royal family, and reflects the enormous influence and prestige enjoyed by Suffolk. Possibly Henry wished to raise the two men at court to equal rank with York, and it may have been in response that York began using the surname Plantagenet, which had been in abeyance since the twelfth century, when it had been borne by Count Geoffrey of Anjou, father of Henry II.*5 York adopted it in order to emphasise his royal connections and proximity to the throne, implying, perhaps, that it should have been he who was advising the King, not an upstart like Suffolk or a magnate tainted by bastard descent such as Somerset. There is no evidence, however, that York at this date had any designs on the throne, and it would be more than a decade before he himself would dispute Henry’s title.

  In 1448, York’s chief concern was that the King would repudiate Henry IV’s letters patent and declare Somerset his heir. He felt, quite justifiably, that the elevation of Somerset was a deliberate attempt to block his own political and dynastic ambitions, and knew that it was Suffolk and Somerset, and not the King, who were responsible for his political exile. Thus the rivalry of York with the two men now crystallised into a deadly political feud that would have serious repercussions throughout the next two decades. The situation was such that a man could not support one side without being deemed the enemy of the other.

  Somerset and the Queen began a whispering campaign, spreading rumours that York, by calling himself Plantagenet, was plotting treason, intending to mount a coup and take the throne. Tainted with suspicion and impeded by his own aloofness and arrogance, York found it increasingly difficult to win the support of his fellow magnates. At length, says Waurin, in 1449, York was ‘expelled from court and exiled to Ireland’, this being ‘provoked by the Duke of Suffolk and other members of his party’, including Somerset, who was ‘responsible for these deeds’ and ‘overjoyed’ at the Duke’s departure. York’s post was no sinecure, for Ireland at that time was a land riven by tribal feuds and struggles. His achievements there were modest, but he did win the favour and affection of the Anglo-Irish settlers and even some of the native Irish, thus establishing a long-standing affinity between Ireland and the House of York.

  That same year, at a salary of £20,000, Somerset, as Governor of Normandy and chief commander of the English forces in France, took up residence at Rouen, capital of the duchy. His appointment, says Waurin, was ‘due to the solicitation and exhortation of the Queen and of some of the barons in power’. The truce with France still held, but the Duke was assured that his allowance would be paid even if war did break out. There is, however, no evidence that he ever received it.

  As commander-in-chief Somerset was a failure, having neither ability nor capacity for the job. Waurin says he carried out his duties ‘so negligently that afterwards, due to his misconduct, the whole country was returned to the control of the King of France’, and in fact his term of office marked the beginning of the end for the English in France. In March 1449, Henry VI himself, urged on by Suffolk, broke the truce and reopened hostilities, authorising an attack on the Breton town of Fougères, which the English speedily occupied. The onslaught made nonsense of Henry’s much-vaunted desire for peace and effectively amounted to a new declaration of war. It gave the French the opportunity they had been waiting for, and in June they launched a full-scale attack on Normandy, determined to reconquer it. In July, Charles VII formally declared war on England.

  Fears were voiced that the French offensive would lead to the ‘shameful loss’ of Normandy, the centre of English power in France, ‘which God ever defend’, and by 15 August, according to the chronicler Henry Benet, ‘about thirty fortified towns in Normandy were lost’. Charles VII’s status among the monarchs of Europe was now in the ascendant, and his victories gave both him and his subjects new confidence and the impetus to carry to a successful conclusion what had been begun.

  In the late summer of 1449, his armies overran Normandy and began an assault upon Rouen, which had been in the hands of the English for thirty years. Somerset agreed to discuss terms and to withdraw from Rouen if the French would leave the English in possession of the towns they held along the Norman coast. This was agreed, and in October the Duke surrendered Rouen to the victorious French, handing over the veteran John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury and others as hostages. The cheering citizens, who regarded King Charles as their liberator, then flung open the gates and welcomed him and his army with ecstatic rejoicing. Somerset, says Benet, ‘fled to Caen’. The French were now determined to have all, and soon broke their agreement with the Duke. In December, the ports of Harfleur – so dearly won by Henry V – and Honfleur fell to Charles VII.

  By now, the disastrous effects of the peace policy were plain to see, and the mood of the English people was ugly. Rumours were spread alleging that Margaret was not René’s daughter but a bastard, and therefore unfit to be Queen of England. Public anger was also fuelled by high food prices and the profligate alienation of crown lands. In July, Parliament had ventured to suggest that an Act of Resumption be passed, which would revoke all grants of land and annuities made by the King since his accession, but Henry, manipulated by those who had profited by such grants, had refused to authorise it; instead, he had dissolved Parliament.

  But it was Suffolk who was the real target of the people’s hatred. Few Council records for this period survive, which suggests that the Duke had often acted independently of the Council and taken upon himself much of the imp
ortant business of government. He was doing the House of Lancaster no favours, for its prosperity depended upon a Council that was publicly perceived to be united and equitable. Instead, thanks in no small measure to Suffolk, it was riven by factions, excluded from decisions affecting the weightier affairs of state and its reputation was now such that many people had lost all confidence in it, seeing it purely as the focus for the private ambitions of the landed aristocracy.

  The virulent criticisms of Suffolk greatly alarmed the Queen, and she urged Henry to deal forcefully with his fractious subjects. He, who had also to consult Parliament on the critical situation in France, summoned it to meet on 6 November. There were many who perceived that Suffolk was unlikely to survive this latest storm with his power intact; his supporters, guessing that this was the end for him, hastened to dissociate themselves from him, some even resigning from their posts in the royal household. His enemies were poised for the kill.

  The Lords and Commons combined to bring Suffolk down. The process began when the Duke’s long-standing enemy, Lord Cromwell, rose in Parliament and publicly accused Sir William Tailboys, Suffolk’s squire, of plotting to kill him. Suffolk denied that he knew anything about such a plot, but this did not help Tailboys: people believed him guilty, and he was fined £3000.

  In Ireland, York was being kept informed of what was happening in England and holding himself in readiness to support the attack on Suffolk, anticipating that the fall of the favourite would provide an opportunity for him to elbow his own way on to the Council. His informants had already told him that there were others of like mind to himself who desired reform of the administration and would be glad to see Suffolk go.

  On 9 December Adam Moleyns, Bishop of Chichester, resigned as Lord Privy Seal. Moleyns, a political animal rather than a churchman, was a member of the court party, a former supporter of Suffolk who now believed that the Duke had abused his power and should be ousted from it. On 9 January, he was in Portsmouth, attempting to explain Suffolk’s misdeeds to an angry and unruly mob of sailors who were about to embark for Normandy. He had also brought their wages, long unpaid, but when he handed them over, the sailors found that they had received far less than was their due. They shouted abuse at the Bishop, denouncing him as the betrayer of England, and when he haughtily reminded them that they were insulting a man of God, his manner so incensed them that they fell on him and mortally wounded him. Later, it was alleged that, as he lay dying, he accused Suffolk of being responsible for the loss of Maine and Anjou. After the murder Parliament, which had been in recess over Christmas, refused to reassemble. Thus began the violent, watershed year of 1450.

  Suffolk was frantically trying to consolidate his position. Early in 1450, with the help of the Queen, he secured a great matrimonial prize for his son John – his ward, the seven-year-old Lady Margaret Beaufort, a very wealthy little girl who was also the direct descendant of John of Gaunt and had a better claim to the throne than her uncle, the Duke of Somerset, whom many expected to be named heir-presumptive. Margaret’s claim had until now largely been overlooked because she was female and a child, but an ambitious husband, with the means and determination to do so, might well be successful in pressing it.

  The significance of this betrothal was not lost on Suffolk’s contemporaries, some of whom drew the unlikely conclusion that he was in fact plotting the overthrow of Henry VI in order to secure a crown for his son and thereby establish the de la Pole dynasty on the throne of England. Others believed, perhaps correctly, that the Duke hoped to persuade the King to recognise Margaret Beaufort as his heir. Either way, the confusion surrounding the future succession proves that at the time the people of England had no clear idea as to who had the best claim to succeed a childless Henry VI.

  When Parliament finally reassembled on 22 January, Suffolk felt it appropriate to justify his rule. He reminded the assembly how loyally his family had served the Crown, both in England and against the French, and declared he had been of late the victim of ‘great infamy and defamation’, and was much misunderstood. He swore he had never betrayed his king or his country. Was it likely he would do so for ‘a Frenchman’s promise’?

  The Commons were unimpressed. Suffolk’s day was done; there had to be a scapegoat for the recent disasters and humiliations in France and misgovernment at home. On 26 January an angry Parliament petitioned the King that he be arrested and impeached, and the Duke was sent to the Tower of London while the Commons prepared a Bill of Indictment. The Lords had decided to keep a low profile until specific charges were made. While the Duke was in the Tower, there was a great armed presence of the watch of the city of London about the King and in the capital, ‘and the people were in doubt and fear of what should befall, for the lords came to Westminster and Parliament with great powers as men of war’. Influenced by York, the Council sent officers to Norfolk to put a stop to the local tyrannies there of Suffolk’s agents, Thomas Tuddenham and Henry Heydon.

  On 7 February the Commons presented the King with a formal petition to indict Suffolk. There were many charges, the most serious being that in July 1447 Suffolk had treasonably plotted an invasion of England with the French ambassador and had divulged secret intelligence to the French. He had promised to cede Maine and Anjou to Charles VII ‘without the assent, advice or knowing of other [of] your ambassadors’, which had led directly to the loss of Rouen and other towns in Normandy. He had also plotted the deposition of King Henry with the intention of setting on the throne his own son John, whom he had betrothed to Margaret Beaufort, ‘presuming and pretending her to be next inheritable to the Crown’. Not once was the Queen’s name mentioned.

  On 12 February, the King, using his royal prerogative, commanded that the charges against Suffolk be referred for his own decision, even though the Commons wanted the Duke arraigned at the bar of the Lords. Then Henry dithered for a month. His frustrated Commons, meanwhile, added on 9 March other charges to the petition, accusing Suffolk of ‘insatiable’ covetousness leading to the embezzlement of crown funds and taxes and the impoverishment of the monarchy, and influencing the appointment of sheriffs who would ‘fulfil his desires for such as him liked’. He had committed ‘great outrageous extortions and murders; manslayers, rioters and common, openly-nosed misdoers, seeing his great rule and might in every part of your realm, have drawn to him and been maintained and supported in suppressing of justice, to the full heavy discomfort of true subjects’. Much in these charges was certainly justified, but there is no evidence that Suffolk planned to make his son king, nor that he had plotted with the French. Nor was he the only magnate to indulge in bribery and corruption on a grand scale.

  Henry VI refused to allow any of the charges to be formally examined by Parliament. Instead, on 17 March, he called upon Suffolk to answer them. The Duke denied them all, describing them as ‘too horrible to speak more of, utterly false and untrue, and in manner impossible’. The Chancellor then informed him that the King held him ‘neither declared nor charged’ a traitor ‘in respect of matters mentioned in the first bill’. Because the Commons were loudly baying for Suffolk’s blood, the King conceded that there might be some truth in the second set of charges. The Queen, anxious to save the man who had arranged her marriage and been father-substitute and support to her ever since, had persuaded Henry that a sentence of exile should be sufficient to satisfy the Commons. When the storm had blown over and a suitable time had elapsed, Suffolk could be brought back and restored to favour. The King agreed to this, and sentenced Suffolk to exile for five years from 1 May.

  The Commons and the people were furious. To them, it seemed that parliamentary justice had been circumvented by those whose proper function it was to enforce it. By his intervention the King had saved Suffolk’s life: the mood of Parliament was such that, had the Duke stood trial, he would undoubtedly have been condemned to a traitor’s death. The Lords were angry because they had not been consulted as to Suffolk’s fate. The Londoners, in particular, were incensed by the sentence: when t
he Duke was released from the Tower on 18 March, he went to his house at St Giles to prepare for exile, but a mob tried to force an entry, intent upon lynching him, and he was obliged to escape by a back door. Frustrated of their prey, the Londoners seized his horse and assaulted his servants instead. The Duke took refuge at his country seat at Wingfield in Suffolk, where he remained during the six weeks prior to his banishment. An emotional farewell letter to his son still survives, in which he urges the boy to be loyal to God and his sovereign.

  On Thursday, 30 April, Suffolk sailed from Ipswich for Calais and exile with two ships and a little pinnace, which (according to a letter written by William Lomnour of London to John Paston in Norfolk on 5 May) he sent ahead with letters ‘to his trusted men in Calais to see how he should be received’. Later that day, in the straits of Dover, the Duke’s ship was intercepted by a fleet of small vessels which had been lying in wait for him, ‘and there met with him a ship called the Nicholas of the Tower’. The Nicholas was not a pirate ship, as some later historians have suggested; Benet describes her as ‘a great vessel’, and she was in fact part of the royal fleet, her master being Robert Wennington, a ship-owner of Dartmouth.

  Rumour later had it that, when Suffolk saw this ship approaching, he asked what name it bore, and when he was told he remembered an old seer who had once prophesied that if he could escape the danger of the Tower, he should be safe. Now ‘his heart failed him’. The master of the Nicholas ‘had knowledge of the Duke’s coming from them that were in the pinnace’, and now he sent his men in a small boat to Suffolk to say ‘he must speak with their master. And so he, with two or three of his men, went forth with them in their boat to the Nicholas, and when he came there, the master bade him, “Welcome, Traitor!”’ Suffolk was on the Nicholas ‘until Saturday following, and some say he was tried after their fashion upon the articles of his impeachment and found guilty. And in the sight of all his men’ – presumably Suffolk’s small fleet was following – ‘he was drawn out of the great ship into a boat, and there was an axe and a stock, and one of the lewdest of the ship bade him lay down his head’. If he co-operated, he was told, ‘he should be dealt with fairly and die on a sword’. So saying, the sailor ‘took a rusty sword and smote off his head with half a dozen strokes, and took away his gown of russet and his doublet of velvet, mailed, and laid his body on the sands of Dover. And some say that his head was set on a pole by it.’ The head and body lay rotting on the beach for a month until the King gave orders for their removal to Wingfield Church for burial.

 
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