The Lonely Death of Duke Humphrey


{Humphrey of Gloucester’s quarters marked by a plaque, now near Bury St. Edmunds’ Tesco and opposite the railway station.}

Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, was the youngest son of Henry IV (Bolingbroke) and so the youngest brother of Henry V, with whom he fought at Agincourt.After the death of Henry V, he became Protector (in England) for his nephew Henry VI, although his powers were always limited, and at times superseded, not least when his elder brother, Bedford, came home from France.

Humphrey was a man of pronounced opinions, and was not always noted for his responsibility. For example, his actions in trying to take power in Flanders, on the basis of a very dubious marriage to Countess Jacqueline of Holland,Zeeland and Hainault, helped drive a huge wedge between England and its principal ally, Burgundy.

By 1441, Jacqueline was long gone, and Humphrey was married to his sometime mistress, Eleanor Cobham. It was through this lady that his enemies opened their attack against him.

Why did Humphrey have enemies? It is simplistic to speak of a ‘war party’ and a ‘peace party’ at court. There was a range of opinions, and most people recognised that the long, losing war with France needed to be settled by negotiation. The burning question of the day was how far should concessions be made. Humphrey was not inclined to make any concessions at all. He strenuously opposed the release of the Duke of Orleans (in English custody since 1415) and seems to have taken the view that nothing much would do except the implementation of the Treaty of Troyes in full. Given the military situation in France at this time (and indeed for some years before) this was totally unrealistic. Humphrey appears to have thought that ‘one last push’ would do it. That a powerful English army, sent into France, would win another Agincourt and the supporters of Charles VII would just give up.

The snag with this theory is that England did not have the resources (in men and money) to put such an army in the field. The crown was hugely in debt, and Parliament was reluctant to find money for ambitious ventures on the scale required. (In addition, there is really no reason to think that even another Agincourt would have made Charles VII give up. His armed forces had gone from strength to strength, and the French had amply proved their resilience.)

Henry VI was strongly in favour of peace at almost any price. His preferred advisers (Suffolk and Somerset) took a similar view, but undoubtedly felt threatened by Humphrey and his supporters. The King’s uncle was still popular in certain circles (notably London) and he and those who thought like him were apt to categorise any concession to the French as treason – or at least the next thing to it.

(The parallel with Richard II and his dispute with his Uncle Gloucester, Thomas of Woodstock, in the 1390s is almost complete. Except that Humphrey had at least seen serious action in the field, which was more than could be said for Woodstock.)

Eleanor Cobham consulted astrologers. There was nothing wrong with this, as it was common practice among the upper classes. Where she made her mistake was to ask Thomas Southwell and Roger Bolingbroke to cast a horoscope for Henry VI. They predicted he would die in July or August 1441. This was ‘imagining the death of the King’ and counted as high treason. How the powers-that-be learned of the matter is unknown, but governments generally have spies. Southwell was lucky to die in prison, Bolingbroke (the principal of St Andrew’s Hall, Oxford) was hanged drawn and quartered and Margery Jourdemayne (who had provided Eleanor with potions to help her conceive) was burnt at the stake, presumably because her actions were considered treasonable.

As for the Duchess herself, she was made to perform a Jane Shore style penance through the streets of London on three occasions, then imprisoned for life. She was also forcibly divorced from her husband by the church authorities.

Although there was no suggestion that Duke Humphrey was personally involved in the matter, the outcome of these events was that he became a pariah at Court, and much of the obstruction to the King’s peace plans were removed.

However, Gloucester’s enemies still did not feel secure. In particular, the proposed cession of Maine (as part of the package that would eventually bring Margaret of Anjou to England) was highly controversial and was likely to lead to opposition which Gloucester would be well qualified to lead. The Parliament of February 1447 was likely to provide a suitable platform. Suffolk (or someone close to him) decided that a pre-emptive strike against Humphrey would be the thing, and the only suitable method was an accusation of treason.

The Parliament was moved at short notice from Cambridge (where Humphrey had some support in the University) to St. Albans. When Gloucester arrived he was greeted by two knights, John Stourton and Thomas Stanley (apparently the father of that Thomas Stanley). They persuaded him to go straight to his lodgings instead of attending the King. Later that day, a group of peers, headed by Somerset, arrested him, and his request to be allowed to see Henry VI were denied. Over the next few days forty of his followers, including his natural son, Arthur, were arrested.

Although Yorkist chronicles suggest that Gloucester was murdered, it seems more likely that the shock brought on a major stroke or a similar medical event. He lay in bed for three days, unresponsive, before dying on 23 February 1447.

Eight of his followers, including his son, were found guilty of treason, but were quite literally reprieved on the gallows and given pardons. It is highly unlikely they were guilty of anything. The allegations were that Gloucester had been planning a rising in Wales, or that alternatively he had planned to kill Henry VI during the Parliament, make himself King and free his wife. Neither seems credible.

Had Humphrey not died when he did, it’s unlikely he’d have been given a fair trial, as some of his property was granted away several days before his death, and much more on the day of it. He was rich and therefore a target for the land-hungry. The Duke of York, outside the ruling clique and with considerable property, no doubt took due note. It is hardly surprising that York grew increasingly suspicious of the likes of Suffolk and Somerset – he had good reason.

On the last day of the Parliament, Eleanor Cobham was declared legally dead, to ensure she had no possible claim on Duke Humphrey’s estate. It is interesting to note that Edward IV was not the first to think of such a device.


Conquest; Juliet Barker.

The Reign of King Henry VI; Ralph A. Griffiths.

 Henry VI; Bertram Wolffe





  1. Interesting ,on many levels. I am reminded that Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, has a tomb in St.Albans Cathedral .I was staggered to learn the the young brother to Henry V had a tomb there that was easily accessible to the public. How accessible ? Well , recently , on Medieval Dead , channel 5 , Tim Sutherland ( battle field archaeologist ) and a historian we given permission to film with the crypt/ grave. Just below floor level and down a few steps they found his bones .What was left of them. apparently the public had been allowed in over last few centuries and were not prevented from taking a few ” keepsakes ” away with them. !! Even Tim felt quite free to pick up the remaining humerus and compare it to his own. Thereby confirming that he had been quite a tall large boned man.
    At the time of watching ,I had him confused in my head with the Duke of Bedford.But now I realise I was wrong , and why this historic figure has remained virtually anonymous in St.Albans.
    It’s so satisfying when bits of the historic jigsaw come together.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. My original post said:

      It is interesting that Eleanor Cobham was declared legally dead so that she would have no claim on Humphrey’s estate. All the comments I have read about Edward IV using this approach seem to indicate that he ‘invented’ the procedure to enable the Countess’s sons in law to take her estates. However, if it had been used previously in the case of Eleanor, I wonder just how common a procedure it was.

      A second thought – if Eleanor had been divorced from Humphrey, was imprisoned for life and had no children, on what grounds would she have had any sort of claim on Humphrey’s estates?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Does ‘having a claim on’ mean the same as ‘receiving a bequest from’? Could Humphrey have left things to her in his will? If there’s a difference, seeing to it that she was ‘dead’ would stop that too.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. lorr957, your information about St Albans makes me think of Tewkesbury Abbey, and the remains of George, Duke of Clarence, in a small vault behind the altar. It is usually closed, but at a recent ‘Armour in the Abbey’ festival, the public was allowed down there. George’s bones (well, it’s debatable now how many of them, if any, are his) are in a glass cabinet fixed to the wall opposite the steep, rather dangerous steps.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. A lot would depend on when Humphrey wrote his will, but given that she had been condemned to life imprisonment and the couple had been forced to divorce, it is difficult to see he would still remember her in his will.


  2. I feel that if the couple had been forced to divorce, it does not mean their emotions were divorced too. He might well have wanted to leave her a few trinkets (maybe knowing that was all he could possibly do), but Eleanor being declared ‘dead’ would chuck a spanner in those works. Only hazarding guesses here.


  3. I would be interested in the source for Eleanor being declared legally dead. I have been looking at a number of on line sources and all I can find (so far) is a footnote from the article by Griffiths (The Trial of Eleanor Cobham) which says only that a Special Act of Parliament was passed which deprived her of any claim to dowry after Humphrey’s death. (Ref. Rot. Parl. v 135 CPR 12447-1452 pp 11, 546). Unfortunately I do not have a subscription to the relevant service, so cannot read the original source.

    Does anyone else have a subscription and could look up this Act?


  4. The source for the legally dead matter is Conquest by Juliet Barker. She does say that the statute ‘effectively’ declared her legally dead, which I suppose on reflection means it was not necessarily spelled out but had that impact. As they were divorced, it’s hard to see what claim she would have had anyway, but it looks as if someone was determined to dot the i and cross the t. It may indeed have had something to do with his will, because as he was not convicted his will ought to have stood.


  5. Just to confirm – the Parliament was at Bury St. Edmund’s NOT St. Albans. A silly error on my part. Thanks to Susan Troxell for flagging this up.


  6. Humphrey died in Bury St Edmunds and Parliament was held there too, not St Albans. But he is a totally fascinating character and his lifelong feud with Cardinal Beaufort, his uncle, shaped english history for sure. Both power gripping, ruthless and very intelligent, both more suitable for the mid 14th century, especially Humphrey. But Humphrey as a patron of books, his library in Oxford, unique, a very renaissance man of his time with a behaviour of a 14th century feudal lord. Beaufort not much better, but how bright must you be, to serve as chancellor under 3 kings….


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