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When the English ruled the Bastille….!

Historical reconstruction showing the moat below the walls of Paris (left), the Bastille and the Porte Saint-Antoine (right) in 1420

Historical reconstruction showing the moat below the walls of Paris (left), the Bastille and the Porte Saint-Antoine (right) in 1420

We all know about the storming of the Bastille on 14th July, 1789, resulting in the continued annual celebration of the occasion throughout France. But the Bastille was a medieval fortress, and we, the English, had a hand in its history. In fact, we were the reason it was built in the first place.

During the Hundred Years’ War, there was a perceived threat to Paris, especially from the east, where it was vulnerable to English attack. After France was defeated at the Battle of Poitiers, and King John II was captured and imprisoned in England, it was decided by the Provost of Parish, Étienne Marcel, that the Paris defences had to be considerably strengthened.

Among these new defences were two fortified gates, each flanked by high stone towers. These gateways were of a type known as a “bastille”. But the capital’s defences were still deemed unsatisfactory, and it was decided that a much larger fortification should be built to protect the city’s eastern flank at the Porte Saint-Antoine. “Work began in 1370 with another pair of towers being built behind the first bastille, followed by two towers to the north, and finally two towers to the south. The fortress was probably not finished by the time Charles V died in 1380, and was completed by his son, Charles VI. The resulting structure became known simply as the Bastille, with the eight irregularly built towers and linking curtain walls.” The whole was encircled by ditches that were syphoned from the Seine.

View of the porte Saint-Antoine and the Bastille (detail from Turgot's 1739 map of Paris)

View of the porte Saint-Antoine and the Bastille (detail from Turgot’s 1739 map of Paris)

The 15th century saw more danger from the English, culminating in the capture of Paris by Henry V of England in 1420, and the garrisoning of the Bastille. This was the state of affairs for sixteen years. The Bastille had already been used as a prison by the French, and the English continued to use it this way.

Henry V

Henry V

Paris was eventually retaken by Charles VII in 1436, but was then seized by the Burgundians in 1464. Which leads to the obvious conclusion that for all its power and strength, it was less a defender of Paris than a stronghold for its enemies!

Its eventual downfall came during the French Revolution, and it is for this that the great fortress is really known now. Of course, the sneaky English might say the French burned the place down before it was lost again to the Rostbifs across La Manche! No, no, my French friends, I’m only joking…. Happy Bastille Day!

The Storming of the Bastille - de Launay 1740-1789

The Storming of the Bastille – de Launay 1740-1789

Thomas Langton: Richard III’s Character Witness

RICARDIAN LOONS

Amongst the glories of Winchester Cathedral, there is a chantry chapel of outstanding beauty and magnificence. The man who is buried there, and for whom the roof bosses provide a rebus clue, is Thomas Langton, who died of plague in 1501 only days after being elected by Henry VII as Archbishop of Canterbury. Earlier, he had served as the Bishop of Winchester (1493-1501), Salisbury (1484-93) and St. David’s (1483-84), and acted as a servant to three — or four, depending on how you count — English kings. As the information plaque at Winchester Cathedral succinctly announces, Langton had been a chaplain to Edward IV and Richard III, and Ambassador to France and Rome.

Although his death came as a surprise in his 70th year, he did have the opportunity to make an extensive will, showing he died a very wealthy man. It runs to over 100 items, and contains…

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Come into my parlor said The Spider…

louis xi 2

An engraved portrait of Louis XI in 1450

 

One of the most intriguing and, let’s face it, entertaining characters in all of Ricardian history must be King Louis the Eleventh of France – known to history by his sobriquet The Spider.  Others may cite Margaret Anjou or Henry Tudor as a deeper thorn in the flesh of King Richard the Third but surely the relentless Louie got under his skin in a much more personal and pesky way.

Although King Edward IV had been dealing with this eccentric and conniving monarch for awhile, it was not until the peace treaty of Picquigny in the summer of 1475 that the young Duke of Gloucester got his first taste of Louis. Edward, along with his brothers Richard and George, had landed in Calais in July with the royal army prepared to do battle.

Meeting up with Charles the Duke of Burgundy, his erratic brother-in-law, the English king quickly became frustrated with the Duke’s lack of military support.  That, combined perhaps with the encroaching sloth that would eventually consume him, convinced Edward that a victory with France could not be exploited properly and might very well drain the treasury.  So, to the astonishment of his youngest brother, Edward sued for peace – and a major payoff.  The terms of that peace were a bit more than thirty pieces of silver delivered by Louis.  In fact, the deal included 75,000 gold crowns delivered immediately with an additional 50,000 to be given once a year; his young daughter, Elizabeth, was pledged in marriage to the French king’s son and a somewhat nasty pact was struck to crack down on rebellious subjects in either country.  To sign the treaty, the two monarchs met on a bridge; one dressed as a magnificent prince of the realm and the other looking like he had been dragged through a hedge backwards.

“Oh, he’s a very handsome King, that one!” Louis gleefully noted to his advisors.  “He’s crazy about girls!”

Meanwhile, the young Gloucester, ever ready for battle, fumed and refused to be a party to the treaty and was not seen upon the bridge.  Later, pushed by his big brother, Richard came into the parlor of The Spider where he was forced to dine and accept plate and fine horseflesh.  Apparently, it did not break the ice.  Instead, it reminded the French king that not every English royal or noble could be seduced with large bribes.  It would be the beginning of a long-running feud between the two stubborn monarchs.

King Louis the Eleventh reigned as King of France for approximately twenty years, dying in 1483.  But from his boyhood as Dauphin until adulthood, he managed to engage in so many feuds, so many intrigues and banishments by his harassed father Charles VII, that he early on acquired the name “The Universal Spider” and “The Cunning.”  Caring nothing for ceremony or dress – with the exception of a peculiar winged cap – he often sat with servants at suppertime and in old age indulged in a loopy obsession with exotic animals that included a vast number of large birds that were either caged or allowed to soar free inside his caltrop-encrusted fortress at Plessis-les-Tours.  But for all his eccentricities, he was no Henry VI.  He was a wily and formidable opponent who never gave Europe a minute of peace during all his years on the throne.

Is it any wonder that he has intrigued writers from Shakespeare to Sir Walter Scott, Balzac, Victor Hugo?  Or that he has been portrayed many times in  films, most notably the story of Francois Villon in “If I Were King” (in which he is played by Oscar-nominated Basil Rathbone) as well as the Charles Laughton version of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” wherein the ubiquitous Hollywood actor Harry Davenport took the role?

harry davenport

Harry Davenport as Louis XI in The Hunchback of Notre Dame

The next time Louis clashes with Richard was in 1483 shortly before his fatal illness.  Refusing to be stymied by mundane death, The Spider was still up to his old tricks.  He busily seized English ships and merchandise until merchants feared venturing into Bordeaux and other places under French authority.  These merchants were forced to stand by mutely as Louis happily trashed truces and treaties with all the rebellious spirit of his youth.  He ignored Richard’s coronation and when he did get around to congratulating him, did it in brief and dismissive tones.  At that point, Richard took up his pen rather than his sword and behaved without the murderous psychopathic anger ascribed to him by traditionalists and lady novelists turned historian.  Instead, he wrote the following:

“…in order that my subjects and merchants may not find themselves deceived as a result of this present ambiguous situation, I pray you that by my servant this bearer, one of the grooms of my stable (no more impressive envoy being called for!), you will let me know in writing your full intentions, at the same time informing me if there is anything I can do for you in order that I may do it with good heart.  And farewell to you, Monsieur mon cousin.”

Unfortunately, Richard never got to make good on his sly jest to place a knave before a king.  Shortly after he wrote this letter, The Spider popped off in his French fortress, undoubtedly surrounded by his beloved greyhounds and screeching parrots.

One wonders whether his court mourned or breathed a sigh of relief!

Louis_XI_of_France

A portrait of a younger Louis XI in which he’s no doubt thinking up various intrigues.

 

This essay is based on Paul Murray Kendal’s “Richard the Third” and “Louis XI” as well as “Richard III” by Charles Ross.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

William de la Pole – the most hated man in England

As the sun rose on the morning of 2nd May 1450, it revealed a grisly sight on Dover beach. A headless body lay on the sand, dried blood staining the butchered neck. Beside the body, atop a stake, the vacant eyes of William de la Pole, 1st Duke of Suffolk stared out over the sea where he had met his fate, a fate that many felt he deserved. His family had risen from humble beginnings, a fact that had contributed to the odium that caused those of more noble families to turn their noses up at them. From such a height, the fall was devastating.

In the mid 14th century, William de la Pole, great grandfather of this duke, was a successful and wealthy wool merchant, lending money to the crown under Edward III. His sons enjoyed favour at the court of King Richard II, the eldest, Michael, becoming Chancellor on 1383 and being elevated to the peerage as Earl of Suffolk in 1385. Michael’s younger brother Edmund served in the prestigious position of Captain of Calais.

The family’s star was in the ascendant, but was closely aligned now with that of King Richard II. As his popularity plummeted, Michael took the brunt of the hatred as a figurehead of his government. Criticising God’s anointed king was not an option, and so his closest advisors must take the wrath of a nation. In 1387 the Lords Appellant accused him of treason and before the Merciless Parliament sat in February 1388, Michael fled to Paris, where he died the following year aged about 60.

Michael’s son, another Michael, father to our duke, was 22 when his father died and found himself without the lands and title that his father had been stripped of. He was more closely aligned to the Lords Appellant, which left him out of favour with Richard II. He fought for the restoration of his lands and properties over the years that followed his father’s death, finally being restored as 2nd Earl of Suffolk in 1398, shortly before Richard II fell. Although Michael heeded the Duke of York’s call to arms to defend the kingdom from Henry Bolingbroke, he eventually embraced the cause of Henry IV.

As a part of Henry V’s campaign in France, Michael died of dysentery in September 1415 at the Siege of Harfleur, not yet 50 years of age. Michael had been blessed with five sons and three daughters but the king’s efforts in France were to decimate his family after claiming his life. His oldest son, Michael, had travelled to France with his father and was one of the few notable English casualties at the Battle of Agincourt. Aged only 19, he had been 3rd Earl of Suffolk for only a month before his death.

Coat of Arms of William de la Pole

William de la Pole became 4th Earl of Suffolk on his brother’s death. His other brothers were all to perish over the next two decades in France. Alexander was killed in 1429 at the Battle of Jargeau, the first encounter with a resurgent France led by Joan of Arc. John died a prisoner in France in the same year and Thomas perished while acting as a hostage for William.

When he returned to England, William grew ever closer to the meek and peaceable King Henry VI. By this time William was nearing forty and had been fighting in France for most of his adult life, almost twenty years. It would be interesting to know what this old soldier thought of his king, son of the Lion of England, but described as a lamb who had an acute distaste for war. Whatever their differences, Suffolk grew close to his king and, as his grandfather had done, he was soon to find his fortunes all too closely tied to a failing king.

King Henry VI

Suffolk’s first major contribution to English politics was to organise a marriage for King Henry VI in 1444, by which time the king was 22. Suffolk selected Margaret of Anjou in a match that was to cause outrage. The king’s uncle Humphrey was dismayed that he intended to ignore the contracted union to the Duke of Armagnac’s daughter. Grafton wrote that “Humfrey Duke of Gloucester, Protector of the realme, repugned and resisted as muche as in him lay, this newe alliaunce and contrived matrimone: alleging that it was neyther consonant to the lawe of God nor man, nor honourable to a prince, to infringe and breake a promise or contract” (Grafton’s Chronicle (Richard Grafton) (1569) p624).

Baker wrote of the problems that this match created for Suffolk. “In the mean time the Earl of Suffolk, one of the Commissioners for the Peace, takes upon him beyond his Commission; and without acquianting his fellows, to treat of a Marriage between the King of England, and a Kinswoman of the King of France, Neece to the French Queen, Daughter to Rayner Duke of Anjou styling himself King of Sicily and Naples: In which business he was so inventive, that it brought an aspersion upon him of being bribed” (A Chronicle of the English Kings (Baker) p187). It was soon to be revealed that, due to the poverty of Margaret’s father, not only was there no dowry for the marriage, but Suffolk and the king had agreed to hand a quarter of England’s territory in France back by ceding Maine and Anjou. For his part in the arrangements, William was further elevated as Marquess of Suffolk.

After the death of John, Duke of Bedford in 1435 and the emergence of Henry VI’s personal distaste for fighting, the campaign in France had ground to a halt, frequently deprived of funding and commitment. It is possible that this situation led to Suffolk’s negotiation. Marriage to Margaret of Anjou, a niece of the French king Charles VII, would bring the peace that Henry craved. Giving back Maine and Anjou would sweeten the deal and might also have been intended to make English territory in France more manageable. If that was the intention, it was to fail spectacularly. The effect of the handover of the vast tracts of land was to embolden the French and lead them to seek to drive the English from France altogether. Suffolk was blamed for opening the door through which the English would be expelled from France so that within a few years only Calais remained in English hands.

The king’s uncle Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester died in 1447, with many believing that he had been murdered at the queen’s behest. Gloucester had been Protector during Henry’s minority and his loss saw the end of an era as the last son of King Henry IV passed. Suffolk, it seems, stepped into the void quite willingly, but suspicion grew all about him, not least that he had been the instrument of Humphrey’s destruction. By 1448 William had been created Duke of Suffolk, reaching the pinnacle of the nobility and attaining a title previously reserved for princes of the royal blood. His ascendancy was complete, and that brought him enemies.

One writer tells how “Many now recollected how stoutly the duke of Gloucester had stood up against the surrender of those provinces from which the king of France had made his attack” (History of England Volume II (A Clergyman of the Church of England) (1830) p524), further accusing Suffolk “of plotting to get the English crown into his own Family, by marrying his infant ward, Lady Margaret Beaufort, to his own son;- she being, they observed, the presumptive heiress of the royal house of  Lancaster, as long as the king had no children.” William had married his son to the Beaufort heiress Margaret. Although the marriage was annulled by Henry in 1453, it drew accusations that by promoting Margaret as a potential heir to the throne while Henry remained childless, he was seeking to see his son made king. The unlikely scenario of her accession though suggests that the attraction may have been the same financial one that saw Edmund Tudor marry her soon after the annulment.

By 1450, Suffolk was unable to fend off the charges of treason any longer. He was accused of meeting with the French in an attempt to have England invaded. Baker wrote “That he had Traiterously incited the Bastard of Orleance, the Lord Presigny, and others to levy War against the King to the end that thereby the King might be destroyed; and his Son John who had married Margaret Daughter and sole Heir of John Duke of Somerset, whose Title to the Crown the said Duke had often declared, in case King Henry should die without issue, might come to be King.” (A Chronicle of the Kings of England (Baker) p189). Henry could no longer protect his favourite and even the indomitable queen could not save him. He was arrested and charged with treason. Before Parliament, a long list of charges were laid before him, each of which he denied fervently. But his defence was never going to prevail.

At this point, Henry intervened on behalf of his favourite, exercising his prerogative to deal with the matter personally in the same way as Richard II had intervened on behalf of the duke’s grandfather. Henry refused to find Suffolk guilty of treason but found against him on some other more minor charges. Henry sentenced Suffolk to banishment for a period of five years, beginning on 1st May 1450. As he tried to move to his London home Suffolk was mobbed in the streets. Driven from London by the furious crowds, he retired to his manor at Wingfield. His son John was now 8 years old. William, fearing that he was to miss the formative years of his only son, wrote him a letter before he left which is filled with the kind of fatherly advice that Shakespeare’s Polonius was to employ. He counselled John as follows;

My dear and only well-beloved son,

I beseech our Lord in heaven, the Maker of all the world, to bless you, and to send you ever grace to love Him and to dread Him; to the which as far as a father may charge his child, I both charge you and pray you to set all your spirits and wits to do and to know His holy laws and commandments, by which ye shall with His great mercy, pass all the great tempests and troubles of this wretched world.

And also that weetingly ye do nothing for love nor dread of any earthly creature that should displease Him. And whereas any frailty maketh you to fall, beseech His mercy soon to call you to Him again with repentance, satisfaction, and contrition of your heart, nevermore in will to offend Him.

Secondly, next Him, above all earthly things, to be true liegeman in heart, in will, in thought, in deed, unto the King, our elder, most high, and dread Sovereign Lord, to whom both ye and I be so much bound; charging you, as father can and may, rather to die than to be the contrary, or to know anything that were against the welfare and prosperity of his most royal perity of his most royal person, but that so far as your body and life may stretch, ye live and die to defend it and to let His Highness have knowledge thereof, in all the haste ye can.

Thirdly, in the same wise, I charge you, my dear son, always as ye he bounden by the commandment of God to do, to love and to worship your lady and mother: and also that ye obey alway her commandments, and to believe her counsels and advices in all your works, the which dread not but shall be best and truest for you.

And if any other body would steer you to the contrary, to flee that counsel in any wise, for ye shall find it nought and evil.

Furthermore, as far as father may and can, I charge you in any wise to flee the company and counsel of proud men, of covetous men, and of flattering men the more especially; and mightily to withstand them, and not to draw nor to meddle with them, with all your might and power; and to draw to you, and to your company, good and virtuous men and such as be of good conversation and of truth, and by them shall ye never be deceived nor repent you of.

Moreover, never follow your own wit in any wise, but in all your works, of such folks as I write of above ask your advice and counsel, and doing thus, with the mercy of God, ye shall do right well, and live in right much worship and great heart’s rest and ease.

And I will be to you, as good lord and father as mine heart can think.

And last of all, as heartily and as lovingly as ever father blessed his child on earth, I give you the Blessing of Our Lord, and of me, which in his infinite mercy increase you in all virtue and good living and that your blood may by His Grace from kindred to kindred multiply in this earth to His service, in such wise as after the departing from this wretched worlde here, ye and they may glorify Him eternally amongst His angels in Heaven.

Written of mine hand,

the day of my departing from this land,

Your true and loving father

SUFFOLK.

Wingfield Manor

With that, Suffolk took ship to head into exile on 1st May 1450, the date appointed for the beginning of his five year expulsion. As his boat crossed the channel a huge ship of the royal fleet, The Nicholas of the Tower, intercepted him. William Lomner wrote to John Paston on 5th May that men of the Nicholas boarded Suffolk’s ship and “the master badde hym, ‘Welcom, Traitor,’ as men sey”. He described Suffolk’s fate, continuing “and thanne his herte faylyd hym, for he thowghte he was desseyvyd, and yn the syght of all his men he was drawyn ought of the grete shippe yn to the bote; and there was an exe, and a stoke, and oon of the lewdeste of the shippe badde hym ley down his hedde, and he should be fair ferd wyth, and dye on a swerd; and toke a rusty swerd, and smotte off his hedde withyn halfe a doseyn strokes” (The Paston Letter 1422-1509 Volume II James Gairdner 1904 Ed).

It was an ignominious end for a duke, a man whose family had risen in four generations from merchants to the height of England’s nobility. Perhaps the only consolation that William could have taken was that his son seemed to have heeded his words. John became 2nd Duke of Suffolk and has been nicknamed The Trimming Duke, perhaps for his ability to trim his sails to suit the prevailing political winds. He married a sister of the Yorkist King Edward IV and lived into the Tudor era without ever finding himself in any trouble. It was not to last though. John’s son, the Earl of Lincoln was appointed heir to Richard III and rebelled unsuccessfully against Henry VII. Another son, Edmund, 3rd Duke of Suffolk, took up the cause of the White Rose. He was imprisoned by Henry VII and finally executed by Henry VIII in 1513. Edmund’s youngest brother, Richard de la Pole continued the fight from the continent until he was killed fighting at the Battle of Pavia in 1525 to the delight of Henry VIII. The brother between Edmund and Richard, Sir William de la Pole holds a most dubious record. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1502 and remained there for 37 years until his death in 1539. No one else has remained imprisoned in the Tower for longer in all of its history.

It is hard to determine whether William, Duke of Suffolk acted out of greed or well meant service, doing what he determined was best in spite of the consequences. As with most things, I suspect that the truth lies somewhere in the space between the two extremes. His letter to his son has been cited as proof of his good character, yet a man can be a father, a warrior and a politician without any of his facets overlapping. There is no room for the contemplative advisor of his letter on the field of battle, yet I suspect that a man would need something of the warrior about him to survive the politics of Henry VI’s court, particularly if his background allowed others to sneer upon him.

William de la Pole, 1st Duke of Suffolk stood at the apex of his family’s power. It took four generations of work to get to where he was. In two further generations the family was destroyed. As his empty eyes stared out across the Channel toward the land where his fortune had been made, he would never again look upon the country that had turned its back on him, nor would he see the bitter civil war that followed. His place was swiftly filled by Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset and it is this, and the conflict it was allowed to breed, that lays the blame for the fate of so many at the clasped, praying hands and bowed head of the Lamb of England, King Henry VI.

War was on that horizon that William gazed upon without seeing.

The Strange Death of Lancastrian England

When Henry IV had his final succession statute passed through Parliament he made no provision for the throne beyond his children and their offspring. Neither the Beauforts, the Yorks, or even the Hollands got so much as a line. This was quite understandable, given that he had four sons and two daughters. No one could have been expected to anticipate that those six young people would produce but two legitimate heirs between them. Of these, Blanche’s son, Rupert of Germany, died in 1426. The other was the future Henry VI, who would turn out to be (arguably) the least capable person ever to rule this country.

That Henry IV had doubts about the Beauforts (especially the eldest, who was certainly conceived in Sir Hugh Swynford’s lifetime) seems to be clear from his decision to explicitly exclude them from any rights to the succession in his exemplification of Richard II’s statute of legitimisation. But – at the time – any prospect of the Beauforts getting a sniff of the crown was remote in the extreme, and Henry’s exclusion of their claim was almost an irrelevance.

Once Henry V had dealt with the Cambridge Plot and gone on to win the Battle of Agincourt, the prospects for the Lancastrian dynasty looked rosy indeed. A few years on, with the Duke of Burgundy murdered by supporters of the Dauphin, Henry found a powerful ally in the new Burgundy (Philip the Good), and soon afterwards concluded the Treaty of Troyes with Charles VI, by which he (Henry) was declared Heir and Regent of France, and married to Charles’s daughter, Katherine of Valois. The Dauphin (future Charles VII) was disinherited.

This might be seen as the high-water point of the entire Lancastrian dynasty. What could possibly go wrong? Well, for a start, there was an awful lot of France still to conquer, and the people living there had not simply laid down their arms and accepted Henry on hearing of the Treaty. Meanwhile, Parliament, back in England, was already growing reluctant to pay for the necessary war. As they saw it, Henry had won his (not England’s) realm of France – great! Now it was now up to that realm, not England, to pay the cost of putting down the ‘rebels’ who so inconveniently still occupied the greater part of it. This probably seemed quite reasonable to the Honourable Members, with their typically English dislike of paying tax. However, assuming that the war was to be won, it was a completely unrealistic attitude to take.

Henry’s next brother in age, Thomas, Duke of Clarence was killed at the Battle of Bauge (21 March 1421). Clarence made the mistake of advancing on the enemy without his supporting archers, and the result was a costly defeat, both in terms of men killed and captured and in the boost the victory gave to French (or technically Armagnac) morale. Among those captured was the head of the Beaufort family, John, Earl of Somerset. He was to remain a captive until 1438, though it must be said he was not much missed.

So matters stood when King Henry died on 31 August, 1422, at the relatively young age of 35. Ironically, he never wore the crown of France as his father-in-law, the hapless Charles VI, contrived to outlive him.

Some authors have suggested that if Henry had lived, things might have turned out differently. I doubt it, because it wouldn’t have made the English Parliament any more generous, and that was the key factor. As Regent of France Henry was succeeded by his brother, John, Duke of Bedford, one of the most able rulers to emerge in the entire middle ages. Bedford was an efficient soldier, politician and administrator. He proved the former by commanding at the Battle of Verneuil (17 August 1424) which was in some respects a more crushing victory than Agincourt. His skill as politician and administrator prolonged the life of the English Kingdom of France, and it’s unlikely that anyone (even Henry V) could have done much better.

Bedford’s task was not made easier by his only surviving (and younger) brother, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. Gloucester was to prove something of a loose cannon throughout his remaining career. He was Protector of England (during Bedford’s (usual) absence from the country), but his official powers were limited, much to his frustration. When he was not arguing with his uncle, Bishop Henry Beaufort, he was ‘marrying’ Jacqueline, Countess of Hainault and Holland, and fighting against England’s ally, Philip of Burgundy, in an attempt to secure her inheritance. (I say ‘marrying’ because, inconveniently, the lady already possessed a living husband, and in due course the Pope declared her ‘marriage’ to Humphrey invalid. Not that matters were quite that simple.)

Humphrey went on to marry his former ‘wife’s’ lady-in-waiting, Eleanor Cobham. This was clearly a love match, not least because it seems Eleanor was his mistress before he married her. However, they were fated not to have children together, and Humphrey’s only offspring, Arthur and Antigone, were illegitimate.

Bedford’s own marriage, to Anne of Burgundy, was arranged for reasons of state, but nevertheless it proved a successful one at a personal level. Unfortunately, it also remained childless. This may help to explain why Bedford was so quick to marry Jacquetta of Luxembourg after Anne’s death. It is sometimes suggested that the swift remarriage angered Anne’s brother, the Duke of Burgundy, but if so it was only in the way of one more straw on the camel’s back. Philip’s attachment to the English alliance had been waning for some time. He was able to see the way the wind was blowing. Bedford’s death (14 September 1435) made matters still worse and left the English leadership in some disarray, but the Congress of Arras was already in progress at the time. Although the English were invited to take part, the terms offered to them were totally unacceptable. Burgundy, on the other hand, was accommodated and was happy to make a separate peace with Charles VII. From that moment on the English Kingdom of France was doomed (if it was not already) and the remarkable thing is not that it ultimately fell, but that it struggled on until 1453.

Objectively, the English probably ought to have accepted the Arras peace, however harsh, as it would have left them something of their conquests. However, this is to ignore the political situation in England. Hardliners such as Gloucester essentially regarded the acceptance of anything short of the terms of the Treaty of Troyes as bordering on treason. This was a totally unrealistic view to hold, in view of the improvement of the French position in both political and military terms, but questions of personal and national honour were in play, and common sense was banished from the equation.

Henry VI began his personal rule at the age of 16 in 1437. While the depth of his incompetence was not yet apparent, even the most able of rulers would have faced a daunting task. The kingdom was next door to bankruptcy and quite unable adequately to finance the cost of fighting the ongoing war in France. The reinforcements sent abroad gradually grew smaller in number, and it was increasingly difficult to find commanders of a suitable rank who were willing to participate. While the war had, in the past, been profitable for some private individuals – if not for the nation – anyone with any sense could calculate that the opportunities for profit were shrinking by the day, while on the other hand there was a much increased prospect of being captured and having to pay ransom oneself. In other words, the war was an increasingly bad investment.

As for the Lancastrian dynasty, it now comprised, as far as males were concerned, Henry VI and his Uncle Humphrey. It scarcely helped that these two were completely at odds as to how to settle the war, the King being for peace at almost any price, while Gloucester was of the ‘one last heave’ school, and believed that a suitably large English army (preferably led by himself) would smash the French in another Agincourt and enable the English to impose their own terms. (It was actually an academic argument, as Parliament was not willing to finance the cost of such an expedition, and it’s questionable whether enough men could have been put together even had the taxes been forthcoming.)

The Duchess of Gloucester’s ill-advised attempts to find via astrology and/or magic whether she was to bear a child, and for how long Henry VI would live were a perfect gift to Gloucester’s political opponents. Her fall from grace (which involved not only penitential parades through London but life imprisonment for the unfortunate woman) had consequences for her husband, whose remaining political influence was virtually destroyed overnight. Since they were forcibly divorced, Gloucester could, in theory, have married again but in practice he did not. So when he died on 23 February 1447, the sole remaining legitimate male member of the Lancastrian family was Henry VI himself. (Unless you count the Beauforts, and as far as legitimate accession to the throne or the Duchy of Lancaster is concerned, you really shouldn’t.)

By this time, Henry had secured a sort of peace (no more than a short truce bought at the cost of great concessions) and as part of the bargain had married Margaret of Anjou. Though in due course this union produced a son, Edward, it would appear that the deeply-religious King found married life something of a chore. There is no real reason to assume that Prince Edward was not fathered by Henry, but there were rumours around that he was not. Rumours were of course a commonplace of medieval England. (They were often slanderous, and are only taken seriously by historians when they are negative and concern Richard III.)

The Lancastrian dynasty, which within living memory had seem rock solid and beyond challenge, was now on its last legs. The loss of Lancastrian France was inevitable, given the crown’s lack of resources. However, there were many in England all too ready to blame the disaster on the shortcomings of the King and his advisers. Henry’s limited political skills, his tendency to put complete trust in certain favoured counsellors to the exclusion of his powerful cousin, York, and the rising influence of Queen Margaret all added to a toxic political mixture. Of course, in addition to all this, the King was increasingly troubled by mental health problems that at times left him catatonic for months on end. These attacks gave York a couple of opportunities to rule as Protector, but the usual way of things was that as soon as the King recovered he went back to his reliance on Queen Margaret and whichever Somerset was currently alive.

Despite his dismal record as a ruler, very few people seem to have disliked Henry VI personally, and that is one reason why he survived in power as long as he did. Indeed, it might be argued that even York and his allies did all they could to keep Henry on his throne. It was only after the Battle of Wakefield and the death of York himself that the Yorkist faction decided they had no choice but make a clean sweep.

 

The Lonely Death of Duke Humphrey

Humphrey.jpg

{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.

Sources:

Conquest; Juliet Barker.

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

 Henry VI; Bertram Wolffe

 

 

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