Before Woodville: John, Duke of Bedford & Jacquetta of Luxembourg

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John of Bedford, kneeling

The pairing of John, Duke of Bedford and Jacquetta of Luxembourg is one which never fails to jar me in hindsight. What are the odds that the Duke’s second wife would go on to become the mother of a queen of England via her own second marriage, particularly given the outrageousness of each match? Well, they’re nil. Much like how it can still be difficult to fathom that the marriage of Katherine of Valois’s that became most dynastically significant was hers to Owen Tudor and not Henry V.

But let’s back up: John of Bedford was the third son of Henry IV and his first wife, Mary de Bohun, born long before there was any indication his father would take the throne. His place of birth is unknown, but was believed to have taken place on June 20, 1389. His mother would die when he was about five years old and five years after that, his father usurped the throne from their cousin, Richard II, and established the House of Lancaster. Four years later, Henry IV remarried to Jeanne of Navarre, Duchess of Brittany, however by that time John was 14 and well on his way to establishing his own career.

His two older brothers were Henry, Prince of Wales and Thomas, Duke of Clarence, the latter of whom was their father’s favorite. John, on the other hand, ended up aligning himself politically with his eldest brother, a move that paid off in spades once he inherited the throne. Henry IV died in 1413 and two years into his reign, Henry V would invade France for the first time, capture Harfleur and win the Battle of Agincourt.

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Henry V

The Treaty of Troyes in 1420 established the concept of a “dual empire,” so to speak, in which Henry V was named heir of Charles VI, King of France and married to his daughter, Katherine of Valois. At various points during the French invasion, John, now Duke of Bedford, had acted as regent of England while his brothers (including his younger brother, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester) fought in France. However, he did serve his stints abroad, particularly from Troyes onwards where he began to act as his brother’s deputy in Normandy and Paris.

But very quickly after this political coup things began to fall apart. First, Clarence was killed fighting in Anjou and then, a little over a year later, Henry V succumbed to illness. Two months after that, Charles VI also died, and the empire was nominally run by the 10-month-old Henry VI. In practice, responsibilities were divvied up between Bedford, Gloucester, the ambitious Beaufort family and a council of trusted advisers who served as a balance of power (more about this can be found here).

The powerful and strategically positioned duchy of Burgundy was crucial to England maintaining control of its conquered territory and in 1423, Bedford did his duty by marrying the Duke of Burgundy’s younger sister, Anne. The marriage appears to have been successful, even if not a love match. Anne was popular with the public and they appeared to have a cohesive working relationship. It was, however, a childless union and when she died in 1432, Bedford was still without an heir at 43.

That fact was somewhat important given that he was his nephew’s heir apparent until the boy married and had his own children. If, God forbid, anything happened to Bedford and the King, next up was Gloucester, which was something no one with any intimate knowledge of the man in either England or France could have stomached. Thus, while it was not a dynastic crisis by any means, it would certainly have been preferable for there to be a better-established Lancastrian line of succession.

But how Bedford sought to handle the situation remains a bit baffling. This was a man who had never put a step wrong, really – who always appeared to do the right thing for England and English power. More specifically, this was a man who had fought ferociously to protect the alliance with Burgundy and who understood better than anyone how critical it was that this unnatural alliance – Burgundy with England against “France” – stay in place.

Yet on April 22, 1433, some five months after Anne’s death, he married the 17-year-old Jacquetta of Luxembourg, the beautiful daughter of Peter I, Count of Saint-Pol. The union was rushed and, from the outside, looked disrespectful. Certainly that’s how it read to the Duke of Burgundy and while it’s too neat and tidy to apply cause and effect to the marriage and the subsequent Peace of Arras, it was a critical point that put Bedford and Burgundy at odds, and eventually played a role in the dissolution of the alliance.

So, why did it happen?

We don’t know, really, but I have a feeling it’s for rather mundane reasons. Bedford was middle-aged, exhausted and had spent a lifetime cleaning up the messes of others’ ambition and passions. He married a beautiful teenager (the optics of which were, granted, less grotesque in the Middle Ages) because he needed children. It reads like a tired, desperate move, though it should be noted it’s not as though he had married his mistress or a lady-in-waiting – Jacquetta came from a perfectly reputable and powerful French family. But it wasn’t a smart move and perhaps Bedford was betting he deserved at least one folly.

Jacquetta’s own life before her marriage is largely a mystery. We know she was born in 1415/6 and thus for her entire life, England had been a military presence in France. We know that she was her parents’ eldest daughter and there were eight siblings in all. Her two younger sisters, Isabelle and Katherine, would go on to make their own important marriages, to Charles, Count of Maine and Arthur III, Duke of Brittany, respectively.

The marriage was relatively brief. Jacquetta accompanied Bedford to England and was introduced to the Lancastrian royal family. After the Queen Dowager, Katherine of Valois, she was the highest-ranking woman in England. When Bedford returned to Normandy she resided in his home in Rouen, which housed his impressive collection of French literature and art. What we don’t know, unfortunately, is anything substantial about their relationship. Jacquetta was beautiful and so perhaps we can assume Bedford found her attractive, but we know nothing of her temperament, particularly in her youth, and to what extent they got on.

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Image by Ghislain Mary

In any event, after a little over two years of marriage, Bedford died in September 1435. The Peace of Arras was concluded within days and England was left out in the cold as Burgundy and the House of Valois reconciled after nearly 20 years at each other’s throats. It was the death knell of the empire, though England would retain a foothold in Normandy until 1453.

And then a strange thing happened: At first, Jacquetta indicated she wished to remain in Rouen, as opposed to travel to England or return home. But there were other factors at play for, within a few months of Bedford’s death, the secret marriage of Katherine of Valois, the Queen Dowager, and a Welsh member of her household, Owen Tudor, was discovered, as well as the existence of their children. The autumn before that Gloucester, now deeply suspicious of his brothers’ widows, ordered Jacquetta return to England.

To gather her, he sent none other than Richard Woodville. At some point between the autumn of 1436 and the spring of 1437, the two secretly married. Woodville and Jacquetta would have known each other and it’s entirely possible the attraction began before Bedford’s death. It’s highly unlikely a physical affair took place, but certainly whenever feelings did take root, the couple acted on them. Their marriage was certainly not the secret marriage of most concern, thanks to Katherine of Valois, but it was still a scandal.

Jacquetta’s brother, now Count of Saint-Pol on the death of their father, was livid. Henry VI’s Council was horrified and Gloucester was beside himself. The couple were forced to pay a hefty fine and, had their eldest daughter not played her own role in the history books, they likely would have faded from view. They would eventually be back in the King’s good graces and both were present at court in the late 1430s and 1440s, before civil war broke out. Jacquetta ended up becoming good friends with Henry VI’s wife, Marguerite of Anjou – Jacquetta’s younger sister, Isabelle, ended up married to Marguerite’s paternal uncle, the Count of Maine.

But that friendship only truly receives attention because of the fact that Jacquetta’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth Woodville, famously married King Edward IV – the man who deposed Henry VI – in 1464. Against all odds, what has made Jacquetta famous in English history has very little, if anything, to do with her marriage to Bedford, but it’s certainly worth acknowledging that without it, she would never have gone to England and would never have married Richard Woodville.

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