Post-classical history




More than once during the year 1463 Lord Hastings must have had the privilege of seeing Henry, Duke of Somerset, in Edward IV’s bed when, at first light, as was his duty as chamberlain, he drew the splendid bed curtains and woke the king. Somerset enjoyed the reputation of being the most ferocious of all the Lancastrian leaders, even fiercer than the brutal Duke of Exeter, and it is clear that many Yorkists were afraid he was going to murder their king. Indeed, it is far from impossible that Edward narrowly escaped death at his hands. Nonetheless, the King not only shared his bed with Somerset but made him captain of the royal bodyguard.

Eventually, the attempt to win over the Duke of Somerset to the cause of York failed in circumstances of some drama, and the episode is one of the more bizarre to emerge from the Wars of the Roses.1 But nothing illustrates better Edward’s political genius. Had he succeeded in detaching the Duke from Henry VI’s cause, he would have deprived the Lancastrians of their most formidable leader, making them incapable of further military resistance in the north of England.

Edward’s motives for trying to win over Somerset become clearer when one understands the King’s dangerous isolation. Despite the Yorkists’ overwhelming triumph at Towton, comparatively few magnates welcomed the new regime unreservedly, even if they and their affinities might ride with Edward on his campaigns. He knew very well that in the north, the West Country and throughout Wales support for Lancaster remained high. While Henry VI was scarcely a daunting opponent, his son – the grandson of the hero of Agincourt – might grow up to be a very different foe, and in the not too distant future.

The Duke of Somerset was unquestionably the ablest of the Lancastrian commanders, a brilliant soldier. Since commanding King Henry’s army at Towton, he had had an adventurous career. Admittedly, it was not quite as colourful as some claimed; there was a rumour that, after Towton, Henry had been poisoned by Queen Margaret who, it was said, intended to marry the Duke. What did happen is that in the summer of 1461 Margaret sent Somerset over the North Sea from Scotland to France, to beg for troops and money. Without a proper safe conduct, the Duke was arrested but forced his way into the presence of the new French King, Louis XI. Once there, his behaviour was scarcely prudent; he boasted that he had slept with the Queen of Scots, Mary of Guelders. The King sent him back to Scotland in a carvel, with nothing to show for his pains. Margaret may well have given her paladin a cool reception before she herself set off for France. Reports of Somerset’s boast, apparently given wide circulation by the mischievous King Louis, reached Mary of Guelders, who was so furious that she tried to persuade her real lover, the Master of Hailes, to murder him.

In September 1462 a correspondent of the Pastons reported a rumour in London that Somerset was willing to change sides – ‘it is said that my lord Warwick had sent to the king and informed his Highness that the Lord Somerset had written to him to come to grace.’ However, in October the Duke was with the Lancastrian forces that occupied the Northumbrian castles after these had gone over to Queen Margaret and her French troops. He was at Dunstanburgh just after Christmas, when the garrison accepted unusually generous terms and surrendered to the Yorkists.

Instead of taking advantage of a safe conduct, like Dr Morton, and returning to Scotland, Somerset chose to go to King Edward at Durham, where he and Sir Ralph Percy (a brother of the Earl of Northumberland killed at Towton) formally swore allegiance to him. This surprising conversion to the Yorkist cause was taken at face value, and they were granted their lives and lands. The Duke was immediately sent to help Warwick reduce Alnwick, still holding out, where he made a useful contribution to the siege. When Alnwick too surrendered on 6 January 1463, Somerset accompanied the King to London. On 10 March he received a general pardon. As soon as Parliament met, his attainder was reversed, and he was restored to ‘all estates, honours, dignities, styles and titles [and] his name and fame’. The rolls of Parliament record that Edward’s intention was ‘that thereby, of very gentleness and the noble honour that ought to be grounded in every gentleman, he should have been [e]stablished in firm faith and truth unto his Highness’.2 He was also given an annuity of £222 and a similar sum in cash for immediate expenses. His brother-in-law, Sir Henry Lewis, also had his attainder reversed, his mother, the dowager Duchess, received an annuity, and his brother Edmund was released from the Tower of London.

Edward was undeterred by the behaviour of Sir Ralph Percy. Placed in command of Bamburgh and Dunstanburgh in March, Sir Ralph betrayed his trust by immediately handing them over to a new Lancastrian force of French and Scots. Yet the King was convinced that Somerset was sincere and genuinely wanted a reconciliation.

If Lancastrians were horrified by the Duke deserting Henry VI, Yorkists were deeply alarmed by Edward’s intimacy with him. Gregory records wonderingly in his chronicle:

And the king made full much of him; in so much that he lodged with the king in his own bed many nights, and sometimes rode a hunting behind the king, the king having about him not passing six horse[men] at the most and yet three were the duke’s men. The king loved him well, but the duke thought treason under fair cheer and words, as it appeared.

One should not read any hint of homosexuality into Somerset being ‘lodged’ in Edward’s bed. Until the present century hospitable peasants in some parts of Europe would invite guests to share the family bed, and during the fifteenth century even monarchs owned very little furniture. The royal bed would have been distinguished for its size and rich materials – coverlets of silk and fur, down pillows – besides being swathed in elaborate curtains to keep out the draughts of winter. Indeed, it was such a precious object that Richard III took his with him on campaign, his money chest concealed underneath in a secret compartment.

At Whitsun King Edward staged a tournament at Westminster for Somerset, ‘that he should see some manner sport of chivalry’, during which the Duke impressed spectators by wearing a straw hat instead of a helmet.

During the months when the Duke of Somerset was the guest of Edward IV, Lord Hastings must have been closely involved in entertaining him. The nature of his post as chamberlain and proximity to the King would have brought him into contact with the Duke on many occasions. Presumably he watched him climbing into Edward’s bed. Since he was responsible for organizing the royal amusements – to such an extent that he was later considered to be a bad influence – he had to arrange for this most important guest to take part in them too. No doubt he accompanied the King and the Duke on hunting parties, and probably on whoring parties too – Edward’s favourite pastime. Undeniably, king, duke and chamberlain had a good deal in common, as virile soldiers who indulged a compulsive taste for wenching. (Somerset had an illegitimate son by a certain Joan Hill, from whom the Dukes of Beaufort descend.) Even so, William would have been less than human not to fear for the safety of his master; a swift dagger thrust from the Duke might only too easily put an end to King Edward IV.

Few at the Yorkist court can have forgotten Somerset’s bloodstained record as the principal Lancastrian commander. His victory at Wakefield had been accompanied by a notoriously vicious slaughter, as had been that at the second Battle of St Albans – after his savage northern army’s pillaging march south. Despite the material rewards, his newfound loyalty seemed barely credible to many contemporary observers, if the chroniclers can be believed, and we know now that the pull of the Duke’s old allegiance to Henry VI was very strong indeed. Moreover, the chroniclers also make it clear that Somerset had a reputation for being revengeful, hot-tempered and violent. As one of Edward’s bodyguard, Ralph Hastings must also have shared his brother’s misgivings. But voicing them to the King, if either ever dared, can have made no difference.

When the King rode up to Yorkshire during the summer of 1463, ‘to see and understand the disposition of the people of the North’, according to Gregory, he ‘took with him the duke of Somerset, and 200 of his men well horsed and well a-harnessed. And the said duke, Harry of Somerset, and his men were made the king’s guard, for the king had that duke in much favour and trusted him well. But the guard of him was as men should put a lamb among wolves or malicious beasts; but Almighty God was the shepherd.’ (Only Gregory could compare Edward IV to a lamb.)

Just how astonishing Edward’s treatment of Somerset appeared to contemporaries may be seen from an incident during their journey to Yorkshire. When they reached Northampton on 25 July, uproar broke out. Locals had neither forgotten nor forgiven the town’s sack by the Lancastrian army in 1460. Whatever the King might think, the men of Northampton and the country round about were furious when they saw that ‘the false duke and traitor was so nigh the king’s presence and was made his guard’. They tried to lynch him, apparently in the royal apartments at the castle, in front of Edward. He was saved by the King ‘with fair speech and great difficulty’. Gregory comments, ‘and that was pity, for the saving of his life at that time caused many men’s deaths soon after, as ye shall hear.’ Edward pacified the Northampton men with a cask of wine which he had placed in the marketplace, and smuggled Somerset out of the town and away to Chirk, a royal castle in Wales where he would be safe. The Duke’s men were sent up to Newcastle, to reinforce the garrison.

The pull of dynastic loyalty was too much for Somerset. He could not forget that he was a Beaufort and therefore a member of the House of Lancaster, that his true sovereign was Henry VI. He chose to return to his old allegiance, even if he must have known that this meant danger and privation, and the almost certain prospect of a violent death. Perhaps the lynching party at Northampton had made up his mind for him.

According to Waurin, while in Wales the Duke contacted local Lancastrians and persuaded not less than seventeen leading Welsh landowners to rise for King Henry should the summons come. He also enlisted many gentlemen in southern England, especially in the West Country.

Gregory takes up the tale:

And this same year [1463] about Christmas that false duke of Somerset, without any leave of the king, stole out of Wales with a privy mesnie towards Newcastle, for he and his men were confederated to have betrayed the said Newcastle. And in the way thitherwards he was espied and like to have been taken beside Durham in his bed. Notwithstanding, he escaped away in his shirt and barefoot, and two of his men were taken. And they took with them that false duke’s casket and his harness. And when that his men knew that he was escaped, and his false treason espied, his men stole from Newcastle as very false traitors, and some of them were taken and lost their heads for their labour.

Nevertheless, Somerset succeeded in reaching the Lancastrian garrison at Bamborough where King Henry had now installed himself. The Duke assured Henry that his cause was far from lost. A very serious challenge to the Yorkist regime was being mounted; there were risings in Wales and in Cheshire, traditionally Lancastrian areas.

Although the Welsh and Cheshire revolts were put down with ease, operating from Bamborough the Lancastrians managed to capture several small castles in Northumberland and even in Yorkshire. However, the reinforcements they were expecting to come from France never arrived. Unable to put a proper army into the field, their commanders found themselves reduced to mere guerrilla warfare; Somerset’s troops never amounted to more than 500 men-at-arms. Finally, in May 1464, the last Lancastrian fighting force was ambushed and routed near Hexham by Lord Montagu, the Duke being captured. In the words of Polydore Vergil, ‘the duke of Somerset, for altering his mind, was beheaded out of hand’. This was at the express command of the King, enraged by his betrayal.

King Edward’s bitterness is eloquently reflected in the wording of the Act of Parliament of the following year which posthumously attainted the Duke for a second time. He had acted ‘against [the] nature of gentleness and all humanity, remaining secretly and fraudulently in his old insatiate and cruel malice’. One guesses that William Hastings had sympathized with the Northampton men who tried to lynch Somerset, was secretly relieved when he reverted to his Lancastrian allegiance, and rejoiced at the news of his execution. Both contemporary chroniclers and modern historians blame Edward IV for his foolishness in trusting the Duke of Somerset. Yet it is also possible to see his behaviour in another light. It can be argued that the King showed extraordinary imagination as well as magnanimity in his attempt to win over the Duke of Somerset. Where he erred was in underestimating the fierce loyalty of Lancastrians to the uninspiring Henry VI – despite every discouragement, loyalty to the death.3

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