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.
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.
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
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.