On March 16, 1410, John Beaufort, Earl of Somerset passed away at the Hospital of St Katherine’s near the Tower of London. Half-brother to King Henry IV, he was the eldest son born from the union of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and his third wife, Katherine Swynford. He left behind a widow, Margaret Holland, Countess of Somerset, and six children who spanned the ages (roughly) of nine to infancy. His parents already deceased, the protection of John’s heirs and the success of the Beaufort name fell to his two younger brothers, Henry and Thomas Beaufort, who had already forged successful careers in the Church and military, respectively, and were deeply enmeshed in the King’s government.
The new Earl of Somerset was John’s eldest son, Henry, who was the beneficiary of not only his father’s title, but the bulk of his estate and stood to inherit further from his mother’s fortune. Margaret Holland was the daughter of Thomas Holland, Earl of Kent, who had been a half-brother of the last king, Richard II – they both shared the same mother, Joan of Kent, Princess of Wales. As such, she had been quite the catch for John Beaufort and their marriage helped prop him up as he forged his career in the 1390s.
But though a widow and a mother of six, Margaret was only about 25 in 1410 and her wealth ensured that she was an attractive commodity on the marriage market. This was noticed first by none other than her half-nephew by marriage, Henry IV’s second son, Thomas. Three years younger than her and a favorite of the King, the Prince was a compelling potential match and within five months of John’s death the two were contracted to marry.
Sadly, we have no idea what the personal dynamics between the couple, however given that Thomas stood to benefit from Margaret’s money, it’s usually assumed his motivation was mercenary. Notably, we have no idea what the King himself thought of the match, which brings us to what makes this marriage interesting. By 1409, Henry IV’s health was on the decline and eyes began turning towards the next reign. Henry had four sons – Prince Henry of Wales, Thomas, John and Humphrey – all of whom were given age-appropriate responsibilities within the realm that often took them (mainly the eldest three) to put off rebellions and manage the borders in Scotland, Ireland, Wales and the North.
That we don’t know the King’s opinion of his son marrying his late brother’s widow underlines the extent to which he was absent from his court that year, and by the end of it, he had indeed withdrawn from public duties. Instead, the Prince of Wales stepped forth to run Council. Initially, the Prince was in favor of Thomas’s proposed marriage, however he was also close to the Beaufort brothers and Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester was adamantly against the union going forward. His opposition stemmed less from the idea offending his sensibilities, and more from the fact that any children Thomas and Margaret had would rank higher than his nephews and the Beaufort inheritance – at least that which was attached with the earldom of Somerset – would be diminished. More immediately, the marriage would give custody and control of the Beaufort children and their fortune to Thomas, relegating the Bishop to the background.
Somehow, the Bishop managed to get the Prince of Wales on his side, though that may not have been hard to do. For years, resentment between the Prince and Thomas had been simmering thanks to what the elder brother viewed as the King’s favoritism of the younger. That combined with what many saw as Thomas’s neglect and mismanagement of his tasks in Ireland only underlined the Prince of Wales’s belief that focus and attention should be trained on him, not Thomas.
For two years, this opposition managed to delay the marriage from going forward as the two sides negotiated a digestible compromise. Finally, in November 1411, Henry IV regained his health enough that he appeared before Parliament and dismissed his eldest son – not just from his leadership position, but from the Council altogether. By the spring of 1412, Thomas and Margaret were married.
In the midst of this, the greatest opportunity England had seen in a generation sprung forth thanks to a brewing civil war in France that split the Royal Family in two. King Charles VI was mentally ill, prompting the necessity of a regency, but his eldest son was not yet old enough to rule on his own. Instead, his brother, Louis of Orleans, battled it out with their cousin, Jean of Burgundy, until in 1407 the latter arranged the assassination of the former. From then on, the two sides were cemented and families avenged murders and so on and so forth.
While the Prince of Wales led Council, both sides turned to England seeking help in destroying the other, which aligned with the English’s goals perfectly. Their long-held belief was that they had right to large swathes of southern France and, depending on who you asked when, may or may not have been the rightful holders of the French crown. A negotiation that promised English military support in exchange for land was an elegant solution, however which side to support was where the King and the Prince of Wales split.
The Prince had been in favor of supporting Burgundy’s quest, however when Henry IV resumed control, he forged an agreement with the Duke of Orleans’ party and put Thomas, not his elder brother, in charge of the military expedition. In July 1412, Henry IV elevated his second son to Duke of Clarence to ensure that he held the same rank as the Frenchmen he would be fighting alongside, not to mention the Duke of York, who would be his second-in-command.
The arrival of the English in France poured cold water on the domestic hostility. King Charles and the Duke of Burgundy made a frantic peace with the Orleanists (or Armagnacs), thus prompting the latter group to turn back to the English and say essentially, “Never mind.” But the English army was primed for battle and they wanted to be paid, thus prompting a violent ravaging of the countryside and civilians that would become but a precursor for English violence in France over the coming decades.
It ended in February 1413 when Clarence agreed to terms that reinforced Henry IV as the Duke of Aquitaine (or Guyenne…or Guienne, for that matter) and Charles VI as the sovereign. It was for all practical purposes an English victory – one that shamed France and gave England its first taste of military glory in the region since the reign of Edward III.
Within a month, Henry IV was dead and the Prince of Wales ascended the throne as Henry V. Within two-and-a-half years, the siege of Harfleur and the Battle of Agincourt ran up two more English victories and paved the way for the conquest of France.
In 1414, Henry V elevated his younger brothers, John and Humphrey, to the dukedoms of Bedford and Gloucester, respectively, making the point that Thomas wouldn’t be favored at either’s expense. Even so, for the first eight years of his reign, Thomas remained his heir.
Thomas and Margaret never had children, thus voiding Bishop Beaufort’s fears. Thomas died in Anjou in the spring of 1421 following a military skirmish – despite tension with his brother during their father’s reign, he never wavered in his loyalty to him and was a capable executor of his military strategy abroad. He was, however, a rash commander and his death was an avoidable one given that he underestimated the opposing forces and failed to reinforce his party with archers (the pride and joy of the English army).
Margaret lived another 18 years after Thomas’s death, but never remarried. Instead, she devoted herself to raising and overseeing the careers of her children with John Beaufort. Her eldest son, Henry, Earl of Somerset, joined the English army in France in 1417 and died during the siege of Rouen in November 1418. The earldom passed to the next son, John, who, alongside the next brother, Thomas, also went off to France. They were both captured at the Battle of Bauge, the same skirmish that killed their stepfather.
Thomas was eventually freed in the late 1420s, though he continued fighting abroad and was killed in 1431. John, the more valuable of the two, remained in captivity until 1438. He returned home in time to see his mother before her death in 1439, and quickly married and begot one daughter, Lady Margaret Beaufort, before dying in 1444.
The fourth brother, Edmund, also served abroad, but managed to survive it. In 1444 he became the Earl of Somerset and, thanks to his friendship with Henry V’s son, Henry VI, and his wife, Marguerite of Anjou, parlayed his connections into an impressive (if not always successful) military and political career. His feud with the Duke of York would help lead England into the Wars of the Roses, while his military fumbling in France eventually led to the final loss of Aquitaine. He was killed during the First Battle of St Albans in May 1444, which many see as the first battle of the Wars of the Roses.
As for the daughters, Joan and Margaret, they were a bit more successful. Joan married King James I of Scotland, who was held captive in England during the reigns of Henry IV and Henry V. Their marriage in 1424 eventually led to eight children, including the future James II. When her husband was assassinated in 1437, she helped protect the rights of her minor son until her own death in 1445. More on her some other time.
Finally, Margaret, the youngest of the bunch – she married Thomas Courtenay, Earl of Devon in the early 1420s and had eight children. All three of her sons were killed during the Wars of the Roses, all staunch Lancastrians and loyal to their Beaufort kin. Mercifully, perhaps, she wouldn’t live to see any of that; she passed away in 1449, years before the conflict began. Ironically, she was the last surviving Beaufort sibling from her generation.
The marriage of Thomas of Clarence and Margaret Holland is but a blip in the history books, but it was both a factor in and a result of the political tensions towards the end of Henry IV’s reign, and it unfolded in time for the last gasp of the Hundred Years’ War.