On May 27, 1444 an Englishman named John Beaufort, Duke of Somerset died at the age of 40. Ever since then, the question has been raised whether or not his death was a suicide. While it’s impossible to answer the question in complete confidence, it’s significant that the notion was initially floated by contemporaries and the events leading up to it played a considerable role in the political ecosystem moving towards the Wars of the Roses.
So, first things first, who was John Beaufort? The Beaufort line signified the illegitimate offspring of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster (son of King Edward III) and his long-time mistress, Katherine Swynford. They had four children while Gaunt was still married to his second wife; after her death, the couple married and their adult children were legitimized by Parliament during the reign of Richard II. They might have faded into a tier of middling aristocracy had it not been for the fact that in 1399 their half-brother usurped Richard’s throne as Henry IV and established the House of Lancaster.
The eldest of the Beaufort children was another John Beaufort (our John’s father) and he rose to the level of Marquess of Somerset. However, he had remained loyal to Richard against his brother, and though he and Henry were reconciled in the new reign, his title was reduced to that of earl.
He married a wealthy heiress named Lady Margaret Holland, daughter of the Earl of Kent, and together they had six children, of which our John was one. He died unexpectedly in March 1410 and within a year his widow remarried to Henry’s second son, Thomas, Duke of Clarence.
John, likely born at the end of 1403, was around seven when his father died. He was the second son and, as such, would have been expected to make his own way in the world to the extent that members of the nobility did. By that, he had the dual option of marrying well or currying favor via a career at the royal court, preferably both. When he was 10, his cousin came to the throne as Henry V. Two years later the new king officially launched a military campaign in France to “take back” Normandy and Aquitaine – lands English tradition maintained belonged to them. The effort resulted in two critical coups, the capture of Harfleur and a win at the famous Battle of Agincourt.
When Henry launched a second campaign in 1417, John’s older brother, Henry, who had inherited their father’s title of Earl of Somerset, joined the war effort alongside their stepfather, Clarence. He was involved in the several months-long siege of Rouen, which wiped out a considerable portion of the English army thanks to illness. Henry was among the casualties, his date of death given as November 25, 1418, though the exact cause is unknown. As a result, John unexpectedly inherited the family title of Somerset and the following year he and his younger brother, Thomas, sailed to France to join a fresh campaign at the ages of 15 and 14, respectively.
For two years they fought in the English army, primarily supporting Clarence. They were around for some of the most significant and famous military and diplomatic coups in their country’s history, including the 1420 peace treaty at Troyes that saw their king marry the French princess, Katherine of Valois, and be named heir to King Charles VI. The following year Henry V returned to England to crown his new wife, put domestic affairs in order and raise funds for the army. As the King’s heir, Clarence led the war effort abroad, including an ill-advised stake into Anjou and a last-minute skirmish at the Battle of Bauge. The battle ended in Clarence’s death, while John and his brother were captured.
Kin to the House of Lancaster, particularly given that they were male relations to a childless king, wasn’t an insignificant coup for the French (or “Armagnacs” as the English would have called them) forces. Their uncle, the Bishop of Winchester, was a powerful member of King Henry’s government and their mother a royal war hero’s widow to the public consciousness. Even so, no ransom was paid and no deal was worked out to exchange the Beaufort boys for any of the prized French prisoners toiling on English soil.
Nearly a decade passed before Thomas was freed. He rejoined the war effort, now fighting for Henry’s young son who has succeeded his father as an infant in 1422. There, he was reunited with the youngest Beaufort son, Edmund, who had not only grown up, but was rumored to have had an affair in the mid-1420s with the widowed Katherine of Valois. John, however, remained a prisoner. The eldest son, he was the most valuable and the French had more to gain by keeping hold of him.
In late 1435 the Peace of Arras was signed between France, Burgundy and Brittany, an accord which signified the end of hostilities between England’s greatest enemy and its most potent ally. The English were left in the cold, huge swatches of their gained territory lost. They were nearly bankrupt after 20 years of sustained fighting, exhausted and the new generation of young men of age to join the fight had little to no memory of the “glory days.” It was time to strike peace, or at least time to find a diplomatic way to bow out gracefully.
John was finally set at liberty in 1438, 17 years after being taken hostage. To be clear, as a noble prisoner with financial value, John was not ill-treated. He was neither tortured nor deprived of basic necessities. To what extent he was wholly comfortable is unclear, but he was certainly not languishing in an actual prison for all that he was a prisoner. What he lacked, however, was his liberty, which may have had a severe mental and emotional impact on him. His existence was in limbo, his career and potential stalled and he was completely separated from his home and family.
When he left his confinement he was 35 years old and the greatest tool in his arsenal was that he was uniquely schooled in all things French, having spent half his life abroad. He returned home to England and was reunited with his mother, Margaret Holland, shortly before her death. He took a wife, the wealthy Lady Margaret Beauchamp of Bletsoe. He was also rewarded handsomely with both titles and money and found himself welcomed into the heart of the royal court.
But for all that these honors could have made up for his years of service and sacrifice, they did not denote experience. Given significant military and political responsibility, John in fact had very little experience, having only fought for two years in adolescence. He proved an incompetent commander, an unfortunate mixture of rough circumstances given the political advantage France held by the early ‘40s and his own wrong calls.
Politically, he was also caught in the middle of the two rival factions that would eventually morph into the Wars of the Roses, though it was too early to have seen it at the time. Half of the English government, including John’s uncle, the now-Cardinal Beaufort, advocated for peace. Henry V’s younger brother, the Duke of Gloucester, pushed for continued military aggression. John, exhausted and offering a point of view wholly foreign to men like Gloucester, who had been mostly removed from on-the-ground fighting, advocated alongside his uncle for diplomacy.
When France’s King Charles VII threatened both Aquitaine and Normandy, the English government was faced with the predicament of deciding which to save in an environment lukewarm towards war. The decision they landed upon, a plan spearheaded by William de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, was kept secret, but marketed as one to send an army to Normandy and indirectly support the Aquitaine territories of Guyenne and Gascony. John, a man politically sympathetic to Suffolk and his mentor, Cardinal Beaufort, was their first choice, but John had little interest in leaving England and returning to France. He declared himself too old and seemed more interested in living a life of peace at home with his new wife than returning to a declining war effort – and really, who can blame him?
Finally, the government sweetened the deal by offering an elevation to Duke of Somerset and that, combined with what amounted to financial bribery, finally moved John to accept the role. Unfortunately, there was already a Lieutenant of France and it was unclear how John’s role was meant to fit alongside or over that. The holder of that position was none other than Richard, Duke of York, a royal cousin to Henry VI and man wholly aware of his lineage and sensitive to slights to his position and authority. To make matters worse, he was both personally and professionally under-funded – when news spread as to how John had been rewarded, York was livid.
The real problem, however, was yet to come. The English army, led by York, was depleted, Normandy and Aquitaine were under fire and a bastion of English soldiers needed support from French attack at Dieppe. The army under John’s control was meant to alleviate all of that and, given its size, theoretically could have. But John had little interest in leaving. He dithered through the spring of 1443 in England, delaying his departure month after month while York and his men were desperately waiting. Finally, in August, having lost the crucial summer months, he landed in France.
Instead of moving to Normandy or Aquitaine, however, he moved west and south through Anjou – the traditionally French stronghold of Charles VII’s territories. The question stands: was this Suffolk’s plan? John’s army, which had been coupled with forces under the command of his brother, Edmund, were massive and if ever there was a moment to cause real damage to Anjou, it was then. It would have proved a distraction from the French attention paid to England’s territories and, if successful, completely changed the trajectory of the war. If that was the plan (it’s still a secret, naturally), John faltered.
For whatever reason he instead moved to Guerche, ordered a siege and sent his men to raid the countryside. Small problem: Guerche was not, in fact, French. It was held by Brittany, which was at that point allied with England. John refused to divulge why he gave the direction or why they weren’t relieving Normandy of Aquitaine. Nor did he have a good explanation when the Duke of Brittany, enraged, demanded an explanation from him and the English government.
Guerche, meanwhile, didn’t have much time to wait for someone to figure out what was going on. They offered John gold to stop the siege and he accepted it. York, ostensibly still the Lieutenant of France, had no idea what was going on. The English government back home was humiliated, but could not answer whether it was because John had erred in or given up on the “secret plan” too easily. Whatever the case, the government held their hands up and let John take the reputational fall. By Christmas 1443 he returned to Normandy and spent the holiday with York, who really couldn’t have been that happy to see him – in fact, by this time, York had all but declared a blood feud with the Beaufort family.
In the new year John finally returned home to England. Within months he was dead. It’s been reported that John was ill during his last months in France, which begs the question was poor health at all a factor in any of his confusing military decisions in the last campaign? Unfortunately the fact that the government’s plan for the entire escapade have never been divulged has made it impossible to know whether John was following orders or messing about. Given his delay in departing, however, I’m inclined to believe it was the latter – that the scheme had more to do with poor instincts and leadership than playing the part of sacrificial lamb. I’m also willing to bet that given his decision to accept the elevation to duke and the fact that his brother, Edmund, held land in Anjou, personal enrichment was a powerful motivator.
Perhaps, after nearly two decades as a prisoner, he felt he had given enough – that the Beaufort family had been asked to sacrifice enough. This doesn’t, however, answer the question as to whether he committed suicide. One has to consider the religious ramifications of suicide in the 15th century, at which point it was considered a mortal sin. At the same time, the fact that it has never been established as anything more than a rumor could very well be a result of the Beaufort family rushing to cover it up so as to avoid further embarrassment. Suicide is a rare charge to be levied in the 15th century and my instinct is to say there is likely some truth to it.
But there is one more significant event to consider from 1443: Before his departure to France, John’s wife gave birth to their first and only child. It was a daughter, christened Margaret after her mother. Left fatherless only a few months after her birth she grew up an incredibly valuable commodity on the marriage market. Though she was first awarded as a ward to none other than Suffolk, this arrangement was later broken and she instead married Henry VI’s younger half-brother, Edmund Tudor. Yes, that Tudor.
Much is made of the fact that Henry VII’s paternal grandfather was Owen Tudor, but rarely is it mentioned that his maternal grandfather was John Beaufort, 1st Duke of Somerset. As such, John was Henry VIII’s great-grandfather, Elizabeth I’s great-grandfather, and through his granddaughter, Margaret Tudor, he is an ancestor of all subsequent British monarchs.