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John of Gaunt’s illegitimate line, whose role in the Wars of the Roses led to the capture of the crown…
We’re excited to host Nathen Amin’s book tour today on Our Site. Look for our book review of House of Beaufort: The Bastard Line that Captured the Crown in our September 18th issue of The Medieval Magazine. We’re pleased to feature an excerpt for you to enjoy before you get your hands on this fascinating book!
This is the latest title in Amberley’s Wars of the Roses biographies. The Wars of the Roses history is popular due to the success of TV series ‘The White Queen ‘and books like Philippa Gregory’s ‘The Red Queen ‘.
The Wars of the Roses were a tumultuous period in English history, with family fighting family for the greatest prize in the kingdom – the throne of England. But what gave the eventual victor, Henry Tudor, the right to claim the throne? What made his mother the great heiress of medieval England? And how could an illegitimate line come to challenge the English monarchy?
While the Houses of York and Lancaster battled directly for the crown, other noble families of England also played integral roles in the war; grand and prestigious names like the Howards, Nevilles, and Percys were intimately involved in the conflict but arguably none symbolized the volatile nature of the period quite like the House of Beaufort. The story of the Beauforts, with their rise, fall and rise again, is the story of England during the period, a dramatic century of war, intrigue and scandal. Many books have been written
about individual members of the dynasty but never has the whole family been
explored as one.
Chapter 21: Fire, Rancour and Envy, 1453–1455
The Death of Edmund Beaufort at the Battle of St Albans…
The following is an extract from the book House of Beaufort, focusing on the battle of St Albans and the violent death of Edmund Beaufort, duke of Somerset, at the hands of the Yorkist faction led by Richard, duke of York, and the Neville earls of Salisbury and Warwick.
In the late spring of 1455, the royal court was planning to withdraw from London to Coventry for the summer and announced a Great Council to meet in Leicester on 21 May to discuss the recent political turmoil. The duke of York and his allies, however, were hesitant to attend a summit in the centre of the Lancastrian heartland, anticipating the proceedings were an attempt to bring about their ruin rather than to impartially arbitrate any dispute with Somerset. The duke of Gloucester had fallen victim to a trap at Bury St Edmunds in 1447, and York had no desire to become similarly ensnared. In any event, he had little intention of reconciling with his Beaufort rival, whom he was set on destroying once and for all.
York and the Nevilles rapidly assembled a force of around two thousand men by combining their considerable resources, and together purposefully marched south, bypassing Leicester before setting up camp on 20 May near the Old North Road in Royston, Hertfordshire. The king, preparing to depart Westminster for the Midlands with his court, was informed of the movement and dispatched orders for the duke and two earls to disband their force, tersely reminding Richard, in particular, of his public oath outside St Paul’s three years earlier which had included the specific promise never to ‘gader any riottys or make any assemble of your people’ without the king’s consent. The Yorkists reaffirmed their loyalty, but stubbornly defended their right to bear arms as a protective measure against enemies who, they claimed, were poisoning the king’s mind against them. Somerset, in particular, was once again denounced as a traitor. Edmund Beaufort must have viewed events with a degree of trepidation, not only concerned for his political position, but perhaps even fearful for his life. Was it reasonable to expect the king to continue disregarding York’s appeals for Somerset’s arrest, particularly when York was willing to resort to arms to advance his cause? At what point did Henry cut his losses and consign his favourite servant to a fate like Suffolk in 1450? Henry was a compliant monarch, and if York could get word to the king, perhaps he could be convinced to sacrifice Somerset for the common good.
The opposite may have been true, of course. There is nothing to suggest Henry was unwavering in his commitment to his Beaufort cousin, who could also count on the friendship of the queen, herself becoming a formidable ally. There was also little clamour amongst the lords in general for Somerset’s removal, with dissent largely emanating from the commons and those few nobles who had flocked to York’s side. Somerset had already fended off several challenges from York, and although the latter’s advancement south at the head of an army was the most serious yet, Edmund could be forgiven for his arrogance. His supremacy, as always, depended on the king, and provided Henry didn’t abandon his kinsman upon sight of York’s army, Somerset’s status as the leading royal councillor was secure.
On 21 May, the Yorkist army reached Ware, from where another letter was dispatched to the king, humbly addressing Henry as the ‘moste Cristen Kyng, ryght high and myghty Prince, and our mooste redoubted souverayne Lord’. York was careful to avoid any language that could be construed as treasonous, although the sentiment was probably earnest; Richard was not intending to overthrow the king, but merely to remove Somerset and from Henry’s presence. The letter expressed the Yorkists’ annoyance, ‘to our grettyst sorrow’, that the court party led by Beaufort, ‘kepe theym self under the whyng of your Magestee Royall’ at their expense, his ‘true and humble liege men’. York implored the king to no longer ‘geve trust of confidence unto the sinistrez, maliciouse and fraudulent laboures and rapports of our sayd ennemyes’, although it is unclear if Henry ever witnessed the missive; Somerset, or another member of the duke’s circle, could conceivably have intercepted the letter before it reached the impressionable king.
York and the Nevilles continued their march westwards unabated, and by following morning, 22 May 1455, were camped to the east of St Albans, blocking the royal convoy from continuing their journey. King Henry had left Westminster two days earlier with a fine array of nobles, for along with Somerset, he was accompanied by the duke of Buckingham, the earls of Pembroke, Northumberland, Devon, Stafford and Wiltshire and the lords Clifford, Dudley and Roos, amongst many other lesser knights and royal servants.
Travelling with Somerset was his eldest son Henry Beaufort, only around nineteen-years-old. On the cusp of adulthood, it was presumably considered an ideal opportunity for the Beaufort heir to witness the inner workings of a largescale royal progress and develop relations with other members of the court, not to mention a rare chance to enjoy an extended break under his father’s personal guidance. Unfortunately for the Beauforts, the ‘fyre, rancour and envy’ that had been brewing between York and Somerset was about to manifest itself violently, erupting in ‘great and hote flamys of open warre and wrath’. Thoughts of any fraternization between father and son was put on the back-burner the moment York appeared menacingly on the landscape.
self under the whyng of your Magestee Royall’ at their expense, his ‘true and humble liege men’. York implored the king to no longer ‘geve trust of confidence unto the sinistrez, maliciouse and fraudulent laboures and rapports of our sayd ennemyes’, although it is unclear if Henry ever witnessed the missive; Somerset, or another member of the duke’s circle, could conceivably have intercepted the letter before it reached the impressionable king.
York and the Nevilles continued their march westwards unabated, and by following morning, 22 May 1455, were camped to the east of St Albans, blocking the royal convoy from continuing their journey. Thoughts of any fraternization between father and son was put on the back-burner the moment York appeared menacingly on the landscape.
The attack, when it came, was sudden, and devastated the ill-equipped Lancastrian force. York had grown frustrated by the lack of progress after three hours of fruitless discussions, and around eleven o’clock in the morning gave the order for his men to advance on the town, quickly filling the narrow streets and frantically hacking at the makeshift blockades manned by royal soldiers under the command of Lord Clifford. Although the barricades were enough to repel York and Salisbury, other sections of the eastern approach were crucially left unmanned, and the perceptive
twenty-five-year-old earl of Warwick took advantage of the stretched Lancastrian resources by creeping through the back gardens with a small but hardy force of his best soldiers, avoiding detection until they reached the centre of the town.
As the core of the Lancastrian army ambled about in the Market Square and on St Peter’s Street, many without their helmets or armour on, Warwick and his men pounced sleying alle those that wythestood theym’ as the frightened citizens scarpered in every direction to avoid the bloodshed. Abbot Whethamstead later claimed he witnessed a man fall ‘with his brains dashed out, there another with a broken arm, a third with a throat cut, and a fourth with a pierced chest’, adding ‘the whole street was full of dead corpses’ Somerset’s heart surely sunk at the sight of Warwick’s men slashing their way through the royal troops, and he frantically sought refuge in the Castle Inn. With little prospect of escape, and resigned to the likelihood his capture would end in execution, Edmund courageously rallied and charged back out into the street, slaying several men with his sword before finally succumbing to the superior numbers. As a royal duke, Somerset was conspicuous in his costly armour, probably covered in a surcoat or tabard bearing his dynastic arms, those of the king bordered with blue and white segments. Around him, his closest retainers were easily identifiable by the blue and white woollen bends, or diagonal sashes, they bore, each embroidered with Beaufort badges such as the portcullis and spotted panther. Those Beaufort symbols now represented a target for the soldiers who faced Somerset, lunging at the duke with their weapons until he fell in a blooded heap, according to Edward Hall, ‘under the signe of the Castle’.
Writing just under a century later, Hall mentioned the duke had been forewarned to ‘eschew all Castles’, drawing his information from the English Chronicle, written less than fifteen years after the battle and which recalled how Somerset ‘had herde a fantastyk prophecy that he shuld dy undre a castelle’. Whilst he had feared the royal fortress of Windsor as a result, of which he remained constable up until his death, it was in St Albans, where there was ‘an hostry having the sygne of a castelle’, that Somerset ultimately fell. The prophecy was expanded upon in Shakespeare’s play Henry VI Part 2 when a spirit recommended the duke shun castles, whilst in the nineteenth century it was further suggested he had consulted with the notorious ‘Witch of Eye’ Margery Jourdemayne, who similarly advised he would be slain near a castle.
As news of Somerset’s demise spread through the ranks, the fighting gradually ground to a halt, although not before Warwick had ordered his archers to fire towards the king’s guard, injuring Buckingham in the process and leaving the king ‘hurte with the shotte of an arrowe in the necke’. The frantic attack barely lasted half an hour, by the end of which Henry Percy, 2nd Earl of Northumberland and Thomas, Lord Clifford, lay bloodied and lifeless alongside Somerset. Beaufort’s teenage son Henry survived the slaughter, albeit ‘sore hurt’ and ‘caryede hom in a cart’. It was a resounding victory for the Yorkists, who had followed through on their threats to annihilate their principle foes in one fell swoop.
If York’s intention had been to kill Somerset, as seems likely, then on that May morning in 1455 he accomplished his goal in the bloodiest of circumstances. In death, there would be no reprieve, no resurgence, or no return to power for Edmund Beaufort. York had long tried, and failed, to politically ruin his rival, and eventually resorted to violence to achieve his objective, knowing that whatever his punishment, the deed was done. It was an outrageous, divisive, and undeniably treasonous act, regardless of how the House of York later tried to justify the deed. York had consciously chosen to disregard the king’s command and take the law into his own hands, although he wasn’t acting alone. Salisbury and Warwick were also in a triumphant mood, for with the Percy patriarch also among the dead, their supremacy in the north would henceforth be unchallenged. The morning after the battle, the jubilant trio marched to London with King Henry in tow. The message was clear; Henry remained king, but it was they who now governed the realm and dictated policy. The short-lived Beaufort ascendancy was over.
About the Author
Nathen Amin grew up in the heart of Carmarthenshire and has long had an interest in history. He has a degree in Business and Journalism and runs the Henry Tudor Society. He has an active social media presence promoting historical sites in Wales. He now lives in York.
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