Henry V was not supposed to die on August 31, 1422. Not when he was only his 30s, not when his son was less than a year old, and not when England was establishing a dual empire inclusive of France. The death itself was a national tragedy, one which would have had a huge impact on the health and viability of his successor’s reign regardless, but it was it was his final will and last-minute codicils that first drew the battle lines against which England found itself fighting for the next 60+ years.
Long before England and Scotland were “united” under the rule of James Stuart, and even before the more famous match of James IV and Margaret Tudor, there was another alliance between these two countries that provided an important dynastic link…though not necessarily in a helpful way. In 1424, James I of Scotland married Joan Beaufort, a non-royal Englishwoman, but one whose family was critical to physically restoring her husband to his throne. The union, while successful, did little to help diplomatic ties with England.
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.
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.
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.