The Wars of the Roses is traditionally recorded as beginning in 1455 with the First Battle of St Albans and ending in 1485 with the victory of Henry Tudor at the Battle of Bosworth. But as with most civil wars, there are grey areas on either side that show the rise and fall of violence and political tension. With this particular war, the domino effect of events can take you back decades – Joan of Arc, the Treaty of Arras in 1435, the death of John, Duke of Bedford or the arrival of Marguerite of Anjou. None of these, in a vacuum, caused a civil war, but they were pivotal moments that drew the lines between our main opponents more firmly.
Today we’re going to look at once such moment: the assassination of William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk.
Suffolk was born in 1396 to Michael de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk and his wife, Katherine de Stafford. His father was killed in the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, thus promoting him to his family’s earldom when he was just 19. When Henry V launched his second invasion of France two years later, Suffolk was among the nobles at his side, and for the next decade plus his life revolved around England’s war effort. When Henry V died and the crown passed to the infant Henry VI, Suffolk rose even higher, becoming a trusted commander for John, Duke of Bedford and Thomas Montagu, Earl of Salisbury.
This is actually critical to understanding Suffolk’s later political life: he began as a seasoned and respected soldier. In 1428, Salisbury was killed and the command of an attack on Orleans was handed instead to Suffolk. By the spring of 1429, he was up against Joan of Arc at the height of her influence – the effort resulted in his capture that June. He was released just seven months later on the grounds that he help France negotiate the release of a long-time English prisoner, Charles, Duke of Orleans (widower of Isabelle of France and cousin of Charles VII).
He swiftly returned to England and began the next chapter of his life – courtier. By the end of the year he was married to Geoffrey’s Chaucer granddaughter, Alice, a woman with whom he was already acquainted, for she was Salisbury’s widow. They may well have run in to one another in France – there is an anecdote that the Duke of Burgundy earned himself Salisbury’s enmity for making a pass at Alice and it was from this that Salisbury decided to ignore Bedford’s wishes and make war on Orleans…the very siege that Suffolk picked up when Salisbury died.
Regardless, the marriage was a successful one by all reports and the couple were fixtures at court for the next two decades. Alice would give birth to only one child that we know of – a son, John, born in 1442.
In the meantime, Suffolk was choosing sides in an increasingly fractured political environment. In 1435, England was dealt the double whammy of Bedford’s death and the Peace of Arras, in which England’s ally, Burgundy, made peace with France at its expense. It still held on to Normandy and other French territories, but the tides of momentum were turning and England was exhausted of men, money and morale. Suffolk grew to espouse the ideals of what can be called the “peace party,” one whose figurehead was Henry VI’s great-uncle, Cardinal Henry Beaufort. In other words, he was for brokering a deal with France that kept as much of their conquered land as possible, but made compromises so as to put active warfare to bed.
It was a position notably not endorsed by Henry VI’s uncle and Bedford’s younger brother, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. Gloucester and the Cardinal were at each other’s throats for most of the 1420s and 1430s, and behind them stood a slew of men on each side who grew increasingly polarized. Suffolk, for all practical purposes, was the Cardinal’s political heir apparent, and by the dawn of 1440s was a leader in his own right as the older man began making concessions to age.
Within this, Suffolk allied himself closely with the center of the royal family, which in those years meant Henry VI and his mother, Katherine of Valois. When the Dowager Queen died in 1437 and it became clear that a clandestine relationship with the Welshman Owen Tudor had resulted in two sons who needed protection, it was to Suffolk that she entrusted their immediate care. Suffolk oversaw the transport of young Edmund and Jasper Tudor to Woking Abbey where his sister served as Abbess – they remained there until Henry VI took charge of them a few years later.
Perhaps it was this familial link which helped drive Henry’s trust in Suffolk, for when the adolescent King took the reins of his government, Suffolk became one of his closest advisers. In 1444, he was elevated from earl to marquess and sent to negotiate Henry’s marriage to Marguerite of Anjou and it was here where Suffolk’s trouble really began.
Suffolk was empowered to hash out the deal that would allow England to reach a truce with Charles VII, and within that he was able to give up certain territories that England claimed as their own. Two such territories were Maine and Anjou, which, a bit trickily, were also claimed by Marguerite of Anjou’s father. In exchange for these lands, England was to receive the insurance policy of Charles VII’s niece for a queen and their hold on the more valuable territories of Normandy and Aquitaine. It wasn’t a bad deal, per se, but the issue was that it wasn’t shared with the English public, and it was premised on trust that Charles wouldn’t still go after Normandy and Aquitaine when this short-term truce was up.
Marguerite came to England without a dowry and her very presence was a stand-in for a daughter of Charles, which is what England originally sought. For those who remembered the reign of Henry V, the glory days of the English conquest and the double-dealings of the French before and during negotiations hitherto this point, this was nothing short of an embarrassing retreat that weakened England. It was a point of view candidly expressed by Gloucester on Suffolk’s return – in front of Parliament, no less – and though the full terms of the marriage treaty weren’t widely known, the situation made Suffolk as dependent on Marguerite as she became on him. In other words, they both needed the other to succeed.
Marguerite proved herself a woman of strong opinions and unwavering loyalty, and she viewed Suffolk as the man who brought her a crown. She quickly espoused his political opinions and those of his allies, and supported Henry’s trust in his council. Professionally, the late 1440s were a good time to be Suffolk. The problematic voice of the Duke of Gloucester was silenced in 1447 when the man died in disgrace with Henry and Marguerite, but any political victory that came from it was short-lived. Gloucester’s death was swiftly followed by that of Cardinal Beaufort, leaving Suffolk as the de-facto leader of his party and Edmund Beaufort, Earl of Somerset as his right-hand man, albeit one with royal blood and high ambitions.
By then, the Beaufort family had alienated the man who many saw as Henry’s natural heir so long as he was childless – Richard, Duke of York. As of Marguerite’s marriage, York served as Lieutenant of France, the same role once held by Bedford. Shortly after her arrival in England, Henry recalled him home with little warning and still less explanation, though the popular consensus is that it was done at the behest of Somerset. Somerset, mind you, already had good reason to dislike York thanks to the Duke’s bitter feud with Somerset’s deceased brother over dealings in France. In 1448, Suffolk and Somerset were both elevated to the dukedoms, bringing them, pointedly, to the same status as York. It was from that year forward that York began using the surname “Plantagenet” so as to reference his royal descent from Edward III.
The lieutenancy in France was duly awarded to Somerset, while York was instead made Lieutenant of Ireland (aka political exile). Ironically, York made a success of Ireland, while Somerset would end up a dismal failure. Under his tenure, huge swathes of Normandy, including Rouen, and Harfleur were lost, while his retreat to Caen after surrendering Rouen was viewed by many as cowardice. His performance didn’t only give his reputation a black mark, but it reverberated back home to the King’s government. The popular narrative became that Henry himself was well enough, but he was surrounded by a French wife and duplicitous, self-serving councilors, of which Suffolk was the most visible.
The Lord Privy Seal, Bishop Adam Moleyns of Chichester, was compelled to resign his position by the end of 1449. On January 9, 1450, he addressed an angry mob of sailors calling for retribution against Suffolk when the crown failed to pay them as promised, but his defense fell on deaf ears and the crowd descended on him and killed him in cold blood. Moleyns’s death sent shock waves through court, for it made clear the level of animosity directed at them all. As for Suffolk, he clearly sensed his time in power was coming to an end, for he hastily began putting his affairs in order. One such move was arranging the marriage of his eight-year-old son with Lady Margaret Beaufort, Somerset’s four-year-old niece and one of the wealthiest heiresses in all of England.
In the days before Parliament re-convened, Suffolk appealed directly to Marguerite for her protection, and while she fought ferociously for him, there was only so much that she – or even Henry – could do in the face of this much public anger. The government needed a whipping boy and London had chosen Suffolk. On January 22, he addressed Parliament directly and argued that he had demonstrated decades of service to the crown and was the victim of rumor-mongering. He failed to make his case and was roundly impeached and then arrested – four days later he was escorted to the Tower of London.
On February 7, Commons petitioned Henry to charge Suffolk with treason; among the claims was that he had secretly signed away Maine and Anjou five years before. Henry responded by demanding Suffolk’s fate be referred to him, a move that has Marguerite’s handiwork all over it. A month later, he ordered Suffolk to again appear before Parliament and plead his case, apparently hoping tempers had cooled – they hadn’t. Nothing less than Suffolk’s execution would satisfy them, though a livid Marguerite convinced Henry to commute the sentence to exile. Their hope was to at least spare Suffolk’s life and leave open the possibility that he could someday return.
Unfortunately, it left everyone unhappy. The House of Commons was angry that Suffolk lived, the House of Lords was upset they had had no say in the decision and Henry and Marguerite were nervous as to where they were left after his departure. Suffolk left the Tower on March 18 to say goodbye to his family, and on the 30th he set sail for Calais.
Shortly after his departure – indeed, he was still in the straits of Dover – his ship was intercepted by a fleet of small vessels and he was forced on board one of them. When he asked for the boat’s name he was told it was the “Nicholas of the Tower,” to which he responded that he had once been told a prophecy that if he could escape the Tower than his life would be spared. If true, it was cruel moment of irony for a man who had quite literally just escaped the Tower of London.
The boat’s captain greeted Suffolk as a traitor and for the next few days kept him as a prisoner. It’s unclear what his original motive was – quite possibly he meant to ransom him, but when men in Suffolk’s entourage attempted to rescue him, the captain promptly pulled out a sword and performed an indelicate beheading that reportedly took six tries. Suffolk’s head was stuck on a pike, while his body was discarded on a beach. It remained there for several weeks until Henry ordered its removal.
It was Suffolk’s widow, Alice, who broke the news to Marguerite. The Queen was so upset by the news that she wept for three days straight and remained confined to her personal chambers, unable to eat or sleep. When she emerged, a new phase of Henry’s reign had begun and England was careening towards civil war. Henry and Marguerite were well-aware of just how bad things could get (or so they thought), while the Queen’s relationship with Londoners calcified into a mutual loathing.
Suffolk’s reputation has ebbed and flowed in the centuries since his death, bearing in mind that the Yorkists won the war in the short-term and by the time Lancaster won out, Henry’s reputation would be rehabilitated to the detriment of everyone around him. Whether you believe Suffolk incompetent and greedy or not, it is fair to say that he was the scapegoat for events beyond his control and, to a certain extent, it was not so much the Tower from which he could not escape, but England’s failing conquest of France.