Depending on how well you know your English history, the name “Beaufort” is probably familiar to you. The most famous figure within that family was Margaret Beaufort (1443-1509), best-known as the mother of Henry VII and grandmother of Henry VIII. In other words, she was the true matriarch of the House of Tudor. A generation before and alongside her, the Beauforts were known as loyal supporters to the House of Lancaster during the Wars of the Roses, their patriarchs rising to the rank of “Duke of Somerset.”
This grandeur – or rather, the possibility of accessing this level of status – is thanks to four siblings born in the second half of the 14th century. Neither of their parents shared their surname – it was in fact chosen – and they were born on the wrong side of the blanket, as they say. Their mix of illegitimacy and royal blood positioned them for a strange half-life, one in which they were allowed close to the crown itself, but never held it. That they ended up not only legitimized but intertwined with their royal relations speaks to both the grace of their parents and their own abilities, which were remarkable.
The four siblings – the first Beauforts – were John, Henry, Joan and Thomas, the bastard offspring of their father John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and his long-time mistress Katherine Swynford. We covered Katherine’s life, and her relationship with Gaunt, in more detail here, so for the purposes of today we’re going to go sibling by sibling as we cover these four impressive careers.
John, the eldest of the lot, was likely born in the winter of 1372/3 at his mother’s home of Kettlethorpe in Lincolnshire. At the time, Katherine was a cash-poor widow with three young children who had previously served John of Gaunt’s wife, Blanche of Lancaster, and his mother, Queen Philippa, before they died. Her relationship with Gaunt likely began between January and May of 1372, just a few months after her husband’s death and shortly after his own second marriage to Constance of Castile.
During Katherine’s pregnancy she attended on Gaunt’s wife in childbirth where she delivered a daughter, ironically also named Katherine. The name Beaufort was chosen thanks to a former French possession of Gaunt, for bestowing any legal name or title was inappropriate given his illegitimate status and the presence of his legitimate son, Henry of Bolingbroke.
Katherine was eventually welcomed back into Gaunt’s household, but this time as a governess to his three children via his first marriage – Philippa, Elizabeth and Henry. John, and the siblings who followed him, were raised alongside them and their Swynfold half-siblings. The Beauforts were accepted by their immediate family, and even more importantly they were accepted by their father’s royal kin, including his nephew, Richard II, who ascended the throne as a child in 1377.
Even so, it was up to John to make his own way, or at the very least, to make the most of his paternity. He went about this, like so many younger sons before him, by seeking military glory. At the age of roughly 18 he joined the Barbary Crusade in North Africa under the Duke of Bourbon, serving abroad from May to September of 1390. On his return to England, he was awarded manors that afforded him at least some independent income.
On June 7, 1392, Richard II appointed John one of his household knights, also granting him an annual salary that was further bolstered by his father. Two years after that, he joined another crusade in Lithuania and Hungary with the Teutonic Knights, while back home he was given further manors in Somerset. It was around this time that John was betrothed to Margaret Holland, daughter of Thomas Holland, Earl of Kent, an elder half-brother to Richard II (they shared the same mother, Joan of Kent, Dowager Princess of Wales). Margaret was only around nine at the time, so marriage itself was held off – even so, it was a sign of marked favor for John and the start of a seemingly profitable royal career.
Yet another milestone for the Beauforts that year was the death of their father’s wife, Constance, in March. It was followed by the marriage of their parents in January 1396 in Lincoln Cathedral, an act for which Gaunt had to receive a papal dispensation given their illegitimate children and prior adultery. But even if the Beauforts were accepted in the eyes of the church, they still had no standing under English law. As such, Gaunt sought their legitimization from Parliament, which was granted with Richard II’s help in February 1397. On the very day the Act was passed, Richard granted John the earldom of Somerset in an ornate ceremony during which he personally vested his cousin with the tokens of his rank. Shortly afterwards, he was inducted into the Order of the Garter and summoned to take his place in Parliament. That autumn, John was again elevated, this time as the Marquis of Dorset. A month later, he was made constable of Wallingford Castle.
But if John was shown marked favor by Richard, his half-brother, Henry, then the Duke of Hereford, had a harder time of it. After opposing Richard in the late 1380s, peace was restored, but in September 1398 Henry was banished from England, Gaunt assuming the running of his estates and protection of his children. Five months later, Gaunt died and Richard took the opportunity to seize the enormous wealth of the Lancastrian estates, disinheriting Henry and extending his banishment for life. Henry acted swiftly, returned to London, forced Richard’s abdication and had himself crowned king that October. Now, the Beauforts were siblings, not cousins, of the sovereign.
John attended Henry’s coronation at Westminster Abbey, bearing one of four swords of state. Notably, though, John was not viewed by his peers as having supported his half-brother as fully as he ought – in fact, he never protested Henry’s banishment, nor did he rush to his side as others did when he first arrived in England. In actuality, it seems that John was hedging his bets, perhaps out of self-preservation and perhaps out of loyalty to a cousin who had never been anything except supportive of him.
Whatever the case, John and Henry were reconciled and the former remained loyal for the rest of his life. Even so, he was demoted from Marquis of Dorset to Earl of Somerset, and a number of positions were stripped of him, even as he was awarded others – like Chamberlain of England – in the new reign.
In 1401, John helped quash a rebellion in Wales and that November he was named Captain of Calais. By now, Margaret Holland was 15 or 16 and had joined her husband’s household – their first child, a son named Henry, was born in 1400/1. They would go on to have five more children over the next several years – John, Thomas, Joan, Edmund and Margaret.
In the spring of 1402, John was present at Eltham to witness the proxy wedding of Henry and Jeanne of Navarre, Dowager Duchess of Brittany. That summer, he escorted his niece, Henry’s daughter, Blanche, to Cologne to marry Louis, Count Palatine of the Rhine, a notable honor given that Blanche was one of Henry’s favorite children. John witnessed the wedding ceremony and was the one to formally “give the bride away” to her new husband.
Months later, John and his younger brother, Henry, played the same role, but in reverse, this time escorting Jeanne of Navarre from Brittany to England to marry the King. The wedding went forth on February 7, 1403 at Winchester Cathedral. A little more than three months later, the Beaufort children were dealt a blow when their mother, Katherine, passed away in Lincolnshire on May 10.
The following spring, John was granted a place on the King’s council, a massive honor that brought with it political influence and power. Even so, it was his positions as Captain of Calais and Lieutenant of South Wales that required most of his time and attention. In January 1404, John raised in Parliament the need for funds to be directed towards Calais, which the King promised in due course, however uprisings throughout the country in 1405 delayed their delivery. According to historian Nathen Amin, that John was able to maintain the garrison and keep the soldiers at their post is a tribute to his leadership skills.
In February 1405, Henry IV granted John several forestry grants, but still Calais required urgent assistance. That October, John told the King that villagers from Suffolk had been captured by the French and English ships destroyed, leading to a shortage in supplies at the garrison. The King ordered provisions be donated across the Channel, but the entire situation was a mess. It was but one factor that lead in 1406 to the creation of a council tasked with looking at the financial management of the King’s government. John and his younger brother, Henry, both sat on the council, as did Henry IV’s eldest son, the Prince of Wales, and a number of other leading councilors.
That same year, the Prince of Wales, was confirmed as his father’s heir, however the issue brought up the larger question of the succession. Henry IV had four sons, however none of them were married or had children, thus prompting questions as to who would, theoretically, follow the House of Lancaster on the throne.
The Mortimers were brought forth as contenders, but it raised the question as to whether the Beaufort siblings, now fully legitimized for a decade, could not also succeed their brother and nephews – particularly since John and Margaret Holland had a plethora of sons themselves. In February 1407, John requested that his and his siblings’ legitimacy be re-confirmed in the new reign, which Henry IV duly granted. However, in the reading of the Act, three key words were inserted which empowered the Beauforts to every dignity save the royal dignity. In other words, they couldn’t inherit the throne.
Much has been debated as to whether this was legally enforceable – or whether the simple assertion read out was in any way official. Even more ink has been spilled questioning why Henry IV did this and what it said about his relationship with his half-siblings. We can’t say for certain, but based on his continued closeness to them before and after this move, it seems safe to argue that it likely had nothing to do with trusting them or not, and more to do with either political optics or a way of specifically elevating his sons. As for whether it was enforceable – a rather crucial question given that generations later Henry VII claimed the throne as a half-Beaufort – the truth of the matter is that the 1397 Act would have had to have been rescinded or an addition ratified. This didn’t happen in 1407 – as such, the Beauforts were viable claimants.
For the next three years the Beauforts, including John, saw themselves aligned more tightly than ever with the Prince of Wales, even occasionally at the expense of Henry IV. The King’s health was on the decline and the Prince stepped forward to assume day-to-day control of council for a period of two years, beginning in 1409. It was a harbinger of what was to come, but John wouldn’t live to see it through. On March 16, 1410, John passed away from an unidentified illness in St Katherine’s by the Tower, a hospital, aged just 37. His title – Earl of Somerset – passed to his eldest son, Henry, who was just nine or ten at the time.
Henry, the second Beaufort sibling, was born roughly 18 months after his elder brother, in the summer of 1373. Like John, he was born at Katherine’s residence of Kettlethorpe in Lincolnshire and spent his childhood in his father’s household with his mother acting as a governess figure to his half-siblings until the early 1380s. 1397, the year that the Beauforts were legitimized following their parents’ marriage, was a turning point, but unlike John, who was elevated to the peerage, Henry was destined for the church. It’s unclear whether this was his personal desire, or whether his intellectual abilities provided a natural transition, but if Henry wasn’t the smartest of his siblings, he was certainly the best-educated.
Gaunt sent him to Oxford to “make a great jurist of him,” and on January 5, 1397, he became the Dean of Wells after briefly ruffling Richard II’s feathers for seeking the appointment without his approval. By the spring he was serving as Chancellor of Oxford University, a lofty position given that he was only in his early 20s. On February 27, 1398 Henry was named Bishop of Lincoln by Pope Boniface IX and on July 14 he was officially consecrated. As Amen writes:
“On the morning of his consecration, Henry rode from the priory to one of the city’s gateways where he humbly removed his shoes before continuing his journey barefoot to the cathedral doors. Received by the dean and prior, Henry swore an oath of fidelity to defend and uphold the rights and liberties of the Church, earnestly vowing to protect the interests of the diocese and its inhabitants. Once all religious rituals had been observed and the inauguration complete, Henry took his seat upon the episcopal throne and thoughts turned to the lavish feats that followed. One wonders whether the bishop displayed any nerves during the ceremony, particularly taking into account his unusually young age. Henry may very well have confidently risen to the occasion; his later character as one of England’s foremost public servants strongly suggests he was a natural when placed in front of substantial crowds.”
With his new role came earthly wealth, not least of which was the Bishop’s Palace opposite Lincoln Cathedral.
The following year Henry escorted his father’s body as it was transported from Leicester to London for burial next to his first wife’s body. A fight broke out during the journey when Abbot John de la Mote of St Albans Abbey perceived Henry’s presence to his jurisdiction as a threat, though feathers were eventually smoothed. While there is no mention of any of the Beauforts being present for Gaunt’s funeral in St Paul’s Cathedral, it is thought likely that Henry was there.
Later that year, Henry was at his half-brother’s coronation as King Henry IV (yes, two brothers were both called Henry, which makes this post quite fun), playing a role in his consecration.
In 1403, he accompanied John to escort Jeanne of Navarre to England. Upon meeting her in Brittany they celebrated a turbulent Channel crossing with a feast, during which 100 barrels of wine were purchased for their party. Once they returned home, Henry officiated the wedding ceremony between Jeanne and the King at Winchester Cathedral.
In a further nod to Henry’s clear abilities, he was named Lord Chancellor soon after and opened Parliament in January 1404. His first task was raising taxes, an issue as unpopular then as it is today. In the end, he reached a compromise with Parliament that promised the royal household would reduce its costs and a new council would be formed focused on “good governance.” Even so, he was forced in the autumn to ask for even more funds and by the time he succeeded he had garnered himself a reputation as an able politico and administrator.
His reward came a month later when, in November, he was made the Bishop of Winchester. With the new position came more responsibility, more power and much more wealth. By the time he resigned the Chancellorship in March 1405, Henry had developed a taste for power that was never fully sated.
When John died in March 1410, Henry became the eldest Beaufort sibling, assuming unofficial responsibility for not only the family name, but John’s widow and young children, including the new Earl of Somerset. Margaret Holland was also a wealthy heiress in her own right, her fortune and estates a package that the Beauforts were keen to keep very much within their grasp. Unfortunately, just five months after John’s death, Henry IV’s second son, Thomas, sought to marry Margaret, his actions and the speed with which he went about them suggesting his primary motivation was money. Not only was that alarming – and offensive – to Henry, but so too was the idea that any children Thomas and Margaret had being ranked higher than their Beaufort half-siblings.
Notably, Henry was able to pull the Prince of Wales to his side, the younger man already resentful at what he viewed as his father’s preferential treatment of his second son over his first. The marriage was delayed – not stopped – and went forward somewhere between the autumn of 1411 and the spring of 1412. Luckily for Henry, it was childless.
The most tangible result of the tussle was the marriage of Henry’s and the Prince of Wales’s ambitions, for in 1413 Henry IV died and the younger man ascended the throne as Henry V. The Beauforts were political allies from the start, helping to facilitate the funding and military organization that would be so crucial to the new King’s success in France. Symbolically, when the English troops entered London victorious from their win at Agincourt in October 1415, it was Henry who led the service of thanksgiving in St Paul’s Cathedral. Five years later, he welcome Henry and his new wife, Katherine of Valois, when they entered London after the stunning success of the Treaty of Troyes, which effectively laid out the road map for an English-led dual empire.
While it would be Thomas Beaufort who fought alongside the King in France, it was the Bishop who called in favors, strong-armed and cajoled their side’s way in to accessing the funding needed to keep the war on. As the years unfolded, he would at various points infuse his own wealth into the royal coffers, which only underlined his influence with the crown.
Two years later Henry V was prematurely dead. He was followed to the grave within two months by his father-in-law, Charles VI, and the new king of England and its vast French territory was the eight-month-old Henry VI. For Henry Beaufort, it would mean stepping up to the plate for a delicate struggle for supremacy in a power vacuum until the infant was of age. In the short-term, he was one of four men tasked with overseeing his great-nephew’s finances.
With the rest of the Beaufort men increasingly abroad, it was the Bishop who held down the fort for the family in the capital – and who strategized other ways to build their influence. In 1424 that meant arranging the marriage of his niece, Joan Beaufort, with King James I of Scotland, who had been held captive in Scotland since Henry IV’s reign. For a granddaughter of Katherine Swnyford, wearing the crown of Scotland was no mean feat – and it was one for which she had Henry to thank.
That summer he was once again made Chancellor, however this time he had made himself an enemy: Henry V’s younger brother, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. To the Bishop, Humphrey was foolish, power-hungry and more focused on personal gain than public service. To Humphrey, the Bishop was too ambitious for his own good and had too much control over the direction of the government thanks to his personal funding of the ongoing military efforts in France. When they were both focused on machinations of Westminster, they would prove an explosive, almost deadly, combo, but respite came in waves when either or both became preoccupied with other agendas.
For Henry that was a cardinal’s hat. During Henry V’s reign he had found himself on the outs with his nephew when he sought the elevation without receiving proper approval. Not one to suffer threats to his authority, the King had responded quickly and bluntly, blocking the nomination and keeping Henry where he needed him, in his service. Nearly a decade later Henry V was gone and with the Bishop and Humphrey at loggerheads in London, Henry V’s other brother, John, Duke of Bedford, gave way and Henry finally became a cardinal in 1427.
The position brought him more frequently on the continent, and just in time, for Joan of Arc made her debut in 1429. Her rise and her military success prompted the urgent need for some good old-fashioned propaganda. The child king was brought to France and crowned with all pomp and ceremony in Paris to put a face to an intangible idea for his French citizens. Henry oversaw the coronation, which in and of itself created a PR blunder when French customs for the religious service were ignored.
Still, the son of the long-dead Charles VI and brother of Katherine of Valois, “the dauphin” (or Charles VII), had finally gained momentum. Henry returned to England for the Parliamentary session that opened in January 1431 and successfully advocated for the deployment of fresh troops. Within weeks he was back in France, this time to oversee Joan of Arc’s trial once she had been captured and delivered by the English’s ally, the Duke of Burgundy.
Joan’s trial – and the politics behind it – was complex and so I won’t attempt to delve into it here, but Henry’s role in her death cannot be diminished. In fact, it was he who made the final call to condemn her, though that wasn’t the English’s goal at the outset. He was present on May 30, 1431 when Joan was famously burned at the stake in Rouen, and it was he who ordered her ashes be scattered in the Seine to avoid relics and shrines from her bones and burial site.
Within weeks he was back in England to clear his good name before council after another failed attempt by Humphrey to shunt him aside. By then the political landscape was shifting: England’s hold on its French territory was untenable – it was draining the treasury, quite literally depleting manpower and the country was psychologically exhausted. So, too, were England’s allies. In 1435 the Congress of Arras convened, ostensibly a four-way negotiation between England, Burgundy, “France” (the faction led by Charles VII) and Brittany, but it was a dismal failure for England despite the good faith lobbying done by Henry and his peers. Burgundy reneged on its allegiance to England and, just as painful for the King’s government, the Duke of Bedford died.
Henry VI turned 16 in 1437 and the year marked his first grasps at the reins of his government. Notably, one of his first acts was to issue grants to the Bishop, a clear sign of a close relationship the older man had been carefully cultivating for years. In 1439, Henry was deputized to lead peace talks with France – they failed, Humphrey publicly held him responsible and in 1440 fresh English troops were required to continue to unrelenting war effort. It was a pattern that would continue, though in 1444 they were given a new twist when Henry VI became betrothed to Charles VII’s niece, Marguerite of Anjou.
By then, Henry was past 70 and his focus was on preparing the next generation of Beauforts to maintain power within the House of Lancaster. His protege was John’s son, Edmund, who would eventually be elevated to Duke of Somerset in 1448. Unfortunately, Henry wouldn’t live to see it. Just a few weeks after Gloucester died in disgrace (amidst rumors of poison), the Cardinal fell ill just after Easter 1447 and passed away on April 11. He was the last surviving grandson of Edward III.
The only daughter born to Gaunt and Katherine, there is some debate over Joan’s birth order, but I am inclined to agree with Alison Weir that she was the third Beaufort, born early in 1377. As a woman, Joan’s career would be a domestic one, but her success on this front was arguably as influential and enriching as the political and martial exploits of her brothers.
Joan was groomed for marriage early on, well before she and her brothers were legitimized – as such, her prospects started out fairly modest. In 1386, when she was around seven, she joined her mother in the household of Mary de Bohun, Countess of Derby, the first wife of Henry IV before his ascended the throne. It was there that she finished her education and learned the useful skills of household management that she would someday need. Around the same time, she was betrothed to Robert Ferrers, the 10-year-old son of Baron Ferrers of Wem. It wasn’t a spectacular match for a daughter of John of Gaunt, but it was perfectly suitable for a daughter of Katherine Swynford.
The wedding went forward in 1392 and Joan gave birth to two daughters – Elizabeth and Mary – within four years. We know virtually nothing about Joan’s marriage to Robert, save that it was short. He passed away at some point in 1396, leaving Joan a 19-year-old widow and young mother. By then, Gaunt had married Katherine Swynford and the papal dispensation that legitimized Joan and her siblings made her unmarried status a valuable commodity. Even before Parliament legalized her enhanced status in England – and less than a year after her first husband’s death – Gaunt arranged a second marriage for his daughter, this time with Ralph Neville, Baron Neville of Raby.
At the time of their union, Ralph was a widower in his early 30s with two sons and six daughters from his first marriage. An up-and-coming landowner in the north, the Nevilles owned an impressive swath of land, including the residences of Middleham, Sheriff Hutton and Raby Castle, among others. Once married, Joan was the mistress of an enormous estate – while privy to an immense fortune, she was also tasked with the not insignificant task of helping with the administration and upkeep of these holdings. Less than a year into their marriage, Ralph was elevated to Earl of Westmoreland, making Joan a countess.
Alongside this, she also produced 14 children, 10 of whom survived into adulthood. The two most famous were without a doubt her eldest son, Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury, who would in turn become the father of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick – the Wars of the Roses’ infamous “Kingmaker” – and Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, who would become the mother of both Edward IV and Richard III. Thus, Joan Beaufort is an ancestor to every monarch since the 15th century.
But Joan was successful at marrying off all of her daughters – her daughter Katherine married the Duke of Norfolk, her daughter Anne married the Duke of Buckingham and her daughter Eleanor married the Earl of Northumberland. For her sons, there were heiresses and bishoprics. In short, there wasn’t a layabout among them by Medieval standards.
That level of dynasty making was no trivial task – it meant that a generation later, nearly every premier noble family in England boasted not only Neville blood, but Beaufort blood too. Considered alongside the fact that it was this generation who would see the country through a bloody civil war premised in part on a dynastic dispute and you have family, quite literally, pitted against family.
But against these achievements was a little something called the Neville-Neville feud. Not long after Joan and Ralph married, he resettled his estates on the heirs of his second marriage, bypassing his eight children from his first marriage (including two sons). Notably, he made this move before the birth of their eldest son in 1400 meaning that this wasn’t an emotionally-charged decision, but rather an ambitious one – marriage to Gaunt’s daughter was a good career move and he was focused on advancing the children born from the union.
As for Ralph’s actual eldest son, though he inherited his father’s title and became the Earl of Westmoreland, he missed out on the massive estate that was once to go with it. The situation created a bitter and long-lasting feud between the two sets of Neville siblings, one which would carry on after both Ralph and Joan died.
Two years after Henry IV died and Henry V ascended the throne an attempted coup was discovered that implicated the Earl of Cambridge. He was swiftly executed and then two months later his elder brother, the Duke of York, was killed during Agincourt. Left behind was a four-year-old boy named Richard who was suddenly and unexpectedly the Duke of York and holder of a massive estate. A Plantagenet through and through, his blood was in fact better than the Beauforts’ – as such, Bishop Henry Beaufort was quick to secure his wardship for Joan and Ralph. The details of York’s childhood are occasionally murky, but he was brought up in the north and betrothed to Cecily during childhood. And so it was the founding marriage of the House of York was forged.
When Ralph died in 1425, Joan continued to carefully care for the then-adolescent York, facilitating the beginning of a career at court. Unfortunately, his proximity and access to the Beaufort family never led to friendship – a quarter-century later his feud with the Beaufort men would jump-start the Wars of the Roses. Given Joan’s abiding loyalty to the Beauforts – and her focus in later years on rehabilitating the reputation of her mother – it’s interesting to speculate how Cecily felt about all of this. Once married, her fate was forged with her husband, but in the years leading up to the outright conflict, it’s hard not to wonder what she made of York’s antipathy to her mother’s family.
Joan would never live to see Cecily’s career play out, nor meet her two grandsons who would become kings. She passed away on November 13, 1440, having spent the last two years of her life at a manor called Howden in York. Her will left significant funds to monasteries in the north, her servants and tenants residing on her farms. She requested to be buried alongside her long-dead, but entirely still beloved, mother. Their tombs are still located together today within Lincoln Cathedral.
The youngest of the Beauforts, Thomas was born in 1381. When the Beauforts were legitimized in 1397, Thomas was made a knight in Richard II’s household for life. That November, he was betrothed to 14-year-old Margaret Neville, an heiress who would grant her husband the lordship of Hornby.
Two years later, his fortunes were on the upswing thanks to the accession of Henry IV. In August 1402, the King made Thomas Captain of Ludlow Castle to address issues with the Welsh border – it marked the young man’s first significant appointment and led to several years of violence in the region dominating his time and attention.
In the summer of 1409, Thomas was appointed Admiral of the Fleet to the North and West, taking ownership of the ports of Ireland, Aquitaine and Picardy. It was considerable responsibility and one which gave him his own distinct area of expertise separate and apart from John and Henry. He did well enough with it that in January 1410 he was named Chancellor, following in Henry’s footsteps. Thomas’s tenure, however, was marked by the Prince of Wales holding control of Council during Henry IV’s illness. As such, Thomas, along with Henry, was quick to align themselves with their half-nephew, understanding that a new reign wasn’t too far off.
The Prince of Wales’s two-year term as the head of Council for his father was successful, but still ideologically opposed to many of the King’s policies. When Henry IV regained his health, the Council was disbanded at the end of 1411 and Thomas dismissed. A new council was appointed, this one without the Prince of Wales or any Beaufort. For the Prince, this was an embarrassing blow, one which led to well over a year of being politically sidelined by his father in favor of his younger brother, Thomas (not to be confused with Thomas Beaufort). For the Beauforts, it was merely a small hiccup.
On June 10, 1412, Thomas was appointed as one of the principal leaders of a military expedition into France on behalf of the Duke of Orleans (the French King’s nephew) and the Armagnac party (an issue touched upon in more detail here). And on July 5, Thomas was finally made a peer when the King named him Earl of Dorset. It was one of but three investitures Henry IV made during his reign – it was also one of his last acts.
Thomas remained abroad in Aquitaine when his half-brother died – as such, he missed both the funeral and Henry V’s coronation. Instead, he spent the rest of the year successfully making inroads into Aquitaine, taking advantage of the inconsistent civil war going on in France. Finally, on February 2, 1414 he reached a truce, spent of money and momentum, and returned home where he was financially rewarded for his achievements.
In February 1415, Thomas was sent again to France, this time on a peace mission. He and his party were outfitted so well for the excursion – meant to set the tone for Henry V’s reign abroad – that even the Parisians were impressed, and they were feted by Charles VI, Queen Isabeau, Orleans and other French noblemen. A significant portion of the negotiating talks was focused on the possibility of marriage between Henry V and Charles VI’s daughter, Katherine of Valois, but while the French were eager to seal the deal, the English were more preoccupied with acquiring land. If the French weren’t willing to pony up to what they saw as wholly unreasonable demands, like all of Aquitaine, then war was more palatable.
The next months were spent preparing for an invasion and fundraising to do so – the latter was a skill set more closely associated with Henry Beaufort, but Thomas did his fair sure while the King elevated his naval authority. That summer, Thomas was among the commanders who set sail for France, a conquest that began with the successful siege of Harfleur and ended in an unfathomable victory at Agincourt. But while Thomas was there for the first, he missed the glory of Agincourt, having been deputized by the King to manage England’s hold of their newly-won strategic port.
It was a tall order, but one that Thomas was well-suited for, even as the French surrounded the area in the hopes of starving the English out. Nevertheless, for the next several months Thomas was involved in skirmish after skirmish with the French in order to maintain hold of Harfleur, while funding from London was scant. In recognition for his ability – and what that meant for England’s long-term goals in France – Thomas was elevated to Duke of Exeter in November 1416.
Over the next six years, Thomas was instrumental in achieving – and sustaining – English victory in France. He was present for the sack of Rouen in 1418 and 1419, an effort that cost him one of his nephews, and then became its captain. In 1420 he helped negotiate the Treaty of Troyes and was present when Henry V finally did marry Katherine of Valois. When his half-nephew returned to England to have his wife crowned, Thomas was in Paris helping to evolve the presence of the English in the heart of the French government.
Indeed, he didn’t return to England until the summer of 1422 when Henry V succumbed to illness and he served as an executor of his will. Tellingly, it was Thomas who was granted possession of the King’s infant son in his last wishes – as such, it was Thomas who was charged with raising and molding a new king.
Though he would return to France for long stints as the war effort required of him, he did spend more time in England as the 1420s unfolded. Unfortunately, by 1426, just as the rivalry between his brother, Henry, and Humphrey of Gloucester was reaching its apex, Thomas grew ill and finally passed away that December. After his death, the dukedom of Exeter reverted to the crown, for though Thomas had been married to Margaret Neville for years, their marriage had resulted in only one son who died in infancy.
In one generation, the Beaufort siblings spanned five reigns, established themselves as the most trusted and loyal of families alongside the House of Lancaster, and positioned their successors to build on that power. Their offspring, via John and Joan, did just that. Two of Joan’s grandsons would wear crowns, while the House of Tudor was founded by John’s great-grandson, Henry VII.