Thus began sorrow upon sorrow, and death for death …
THE BRUT CHRONICLE1
King Henry VI grew up beneath an almost crushing burden of expectation. Through no fault of his own, he was the first Plantagenet king finally to achieve what many had attempted: to be crowned king both of England and of France.1 His father had been one of the most famous men in the Christian world, a conquering hero smiled upon by God, whom English propagandists considered ‘able to stand among the Worthy Nine’ (i.e. the Nine Worthies of ancient history) and who even his enemies had been forced to admit was a paragon of wisdom, manliness and courage. 2 The length of Henry’s minority had caused the old king’s reputation to soar to even greater heights. In 1436, the Venetian poet and scholar Tito Livio Frulovisi was commissioned to write Henry V’s posthumous biography, the Vita Henrici Quinti. Frulovisi’s patron was Humphrey duke of Gloucester, and one of Gloucester’s chief purposes in commissioning the Italian was to produce a work that would encourage the sixteen-year-old Henry VI to honour his father’s warrior spirit. ‘Imitate that divine king your father in all things,’ wrote Frulovisi, ‘seeking peace and quiet for your realm by using the same methods and martial valour as he used to subdue your common enemies.’3 This was a lot to ask of a teenager who had grown up without ever actually seeing his father – or indeed anyone else – rule England as a king.
Henry was an innocent-looking young man. In adulthood he stood five foot nine or ten. His face would remain round and boyish well into his mature life. A high brow and curved eyebrows sat above large, wide-spaced eyes, a long nose and a small, delicate mouth much like his mother’s. His most famous portrait, produced in the sixteenth century but probably copied from a lost life-likeness, depicts him with smooth, plump cheeks and a weak chin, wearing a look of faint surprise.4
Henry seems to have been a solemn and sober youth. Certainly he was well educated, and could read and write in English and French with equal fluency. At his English coronation he was seen to gaze ‘sadly and wisely’ at the congregation before him, as if he were older than his years. Foreign observers found him to be a good-looking young man possessed of kingly dignity.5 By the late autumn of 1432, as he approached his eleventh birthday, he had come to terms with some aspects of his status as an anointed king: on 29 November, Richard Beauchamp, earl of Warwick, Henry’s personal tutor, who took responsibility for overseeing his upbringing and education, sat in a session of the royal council and informed them – as the minutes of the meeting attest – that the king was ‘grown in years, in stature and also in conceit and knowledge of his high and royal authority and estate, the which naturally causes him … more and more to grouch with chastisement and to loath it’.6 Warwick requested more powers to insure himself against the king using his royal prerogative to defy or punish his teacher whenever he felt disgruntled or indignant about his lessons.
Yet this was not Warwick’s only concern. In the same meeting, he asked the council to grant him powers to keep ‘ungoodly or unvirtuous men’ away from the royal presence, and similarly to banish anyone whom he deemed ‘suspect of misgovernance and not behoveful nor expedient to be about the king’. The council agreed, recognising an eleven-year-old boy who might easily be swayed by the wrong people unless a careful eye were kept on him. Here was the first inkling of a problem that would be magnified as his life went on: Henry would remain a highly impressionable and suggestible king, permanently childlike in his preference for allowing others to make decisions for him. He could be extremely enthusiastic about certain matters – he was an avid reader of chronicles and histories, and given to religious pet projects, such as his attempt in 1442 to secure sainthood for the great Saxon king Alfred. Yet he remained blandly impassive about serious matters of public and national policy, lacking any real ability to drive government or take charge of the unavoidable business of foreign warfare. These were not the qualities of a mighty king.
The most vivid pen-portrait we have of Henry VI was written by his personal confessor, John Blacman, towards the end of Henry’s life.7 Understandably, given its author’s vocation, Blacman’s memoir makes great play of Henry’s simplicity, his religious fervour, and the general godliness of his life. In places the account is obviously distorted to play up the king’s saintliness, ignoring Henry’s taste for fine clothes, jewels and the trappings of royal pageantry and display, which began to develop from his teenage years. ‘It is well known that from his youth up he always wore round-toed shoes and boots like a farmer’s,’ wrote Blacman. ‘He also customarily wore a long gown with a rolled hood like a townsman, and a full coat reaching below his knees, with shoes, boots and foot-gear wholly black, rejecting expressly all curious fashion of clothing.’ This description seems to chime more with a desire on Blacman’s part to exaggerate the king’s piety – plenty of other accounts recall Henry dressed in rich and vivid splendour on state occasions.
All the same, much of the rest of Blacman’s account agrees with other descriptions and criticisms of Henry as he emerged from the shadow of childhood in the 1430s, from passing references in official records to scornful tracts condemning English foreign policy. The older he grew, the more his unusually limp and often downright vacant personality became apparent. He seems to have been gripped with a crippling sense of inertia in the face of his royal duties. He appeared absent and distracted when engaged in conversation. He spoke simply and in short sentences, and seemed to prefer studying holy scripture to attending to government business. When he wore his crown on grand state occasions, he also wore a hair shirt. According to Blacman, the foulest curse that would pass his lips was ‘forsothe and forsothe’, and he told off those around him who used bad language, for ‘a swearer was his abomination’.8 He was at heart a gentle and malleable soul, timid and reluctant in the extreme to take any significant decisions, squeamish about human flesh, agonised by conflict and war, and virtually incapable of leading men, least of all into battle. He may have been chaste, generous, pious and kind, but these were not very useful qualities in a king who was expected to direct government, keep the peace between his greatest subjects and sail across the ocean at regular intervals to slaughter the French. By these crude measures of kingship, Henry VI would grow up to be a tragic failure.
During the mid-1430s, however, Henry’s adult personality was still a work in progress, and the men of his council could maintain reasonable hope that he would soon begin to feel for the levers of power. History, after all, was encouraging: Edward III had been seventeen in 1330 when he led an armed coup against his mother’s government; Richard II was fourteen when he faced down the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381; Henry’s own father had been sixteen when, as prince of Wales, he had led troops at the battle of Shrewsbury. But the vague hope became an urgent necessity in 1435, when Henry was fourteen, and England suffered two severe blows to her policy in France.
The first concerned the realm’s longstanding alliance with Burgundy. This was the diplomatic bedrock on which all the success of the past two decades had rested. It was the quarrel between the Burgundians and Armagnacs that had destabilised France sufficiently for England to conquer her, and it was the Burgundian alliance that had allowed Henry V to broker the treaty of Troyes and claim the French crown. Burgundian soldiers had captured Joan of Arc and eventually handed her over to the English to be tried, and it was only through good relations with Burgundy that England could hope to continue as a credible occupying force in Normandy and other parts of France. Yet in 1435, at a peace council held in the buzzing Flemish merchant town of Arras, a place famous across Europe for its beautiful woven tapestries, the Anglo-Burgundian alliance dramatically unravelled.
The congress of Arras, held between July and September 1435, was supposed to be a chance to secure a truce between England and France, and to broker a marriage between Henry VI and a French princess. But Henry VI’s embassy, led by Cardinal Beaufort, was comprehensively outmanoeuvred by brilliant French diplomacy, designed to collapse the talks with maximum blame attached to the English. Various proposals were offered by Charles VII’s ambassadors, all of which appeared generous, but effectively demanded that Henry give up his claim to be the rightful king of both realms, return everything won since Agincourt, and hold Normandy only in feudal deference to the French crown. Beaufort did everything he could to negotiate more acceptable terms, but he was refused in such a way that the English were made to look unbending and arrogant. Eventually, on 6 September 1435 Beaufort stormed out of the talks, leaving Burgundy and France to negotiate directly with one another. His retainers were caught in a rainstorm on the way out of Arras and their vermilion cloaks, the word ‘honour’ sewn into their sleeves as a protest against the deceitful tactics to which they had been subjected, were drenched.9
But worse was to follow. On 14 September, a week and a day after the English delegation left the talks, John duke of Bedford, whose health had been failing for some time, died in Rouen, broken by the strain of many years spent overseeing his nephew’s second kingdom. He was forty-six. Bedford left behind him a vast and magnificent household with a large collection of books, plate, tapestries and treasure.10 But no amount of riches could mitigate the loss of his personal influence. For nearly fifteen years he had been a living link between the spirit of Henry V’s conquests and the demands of the present. ‘Much moan [was made] amongst Englishmen that were [at] that time in Normandy; for as long as he lived, he was doutet [i.e. feared] and dread among the Frenchmen,’ wrote the author of the Brut Chronicle.11 In France Bedford had been a majestic regent and an inspiring general. When he had been summoned home to England, he had exercised his unique standing as an invaluable mediator, a great nobleman who stood above faction, commanding the obedience of all. He was the only figure able to hold the peace between his uncle Cardinal Beaufort and his brother Humphrey of Gloucester. His death robbed England of its most important figure of consensus, authority and stability – the nearest thing it had to a surrogate king.
Seven days later Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, arrived at the abbey of St Vaast to sign a treaty by which the two warring factions in France’s civil war agreed to be reconciled. Burgundy would recognise Charles VII as the rightful king of France; in return Charles promised to take action against the men who had killed Philip’s father in 1419. In a matter of weeks England’s whole diplomatic position, carefully constructed over more than twenty years, had been swept away. Their greatest ally had switched sides. It was a blow from which English ambition could never recover.
In the eighteen months that followed Arras, the English position in France began to collapse. In the spring Paris was liberated by forces loyal to Charles VII and his new ally, the duke of Burgundy. After the departure of the last Englishmen from the capital on 17 April 1436, the French began to address their attacks towards the duchy of Normandy, forcing the English into a war of defence and retrenchment. At home, meanwhile, there was a deliberate and desperate attempt to foist adult rule upon the fourteen-year-old Henry VI.
He was brought into his first council meeting on 1 October 1435, and orders began straight away to be made under his authority rather than by the command of the lords of the council alone. This fact was widely publicised: in letters sent to foreign councils and courts it was remarked quite deliberately that the king had begun to attend to his own affairs. In May 1436 the earl of Warwick was dismissed as the royal tutor, and no replacement appointed: a sign that Henry’s period of education was over and his induction to the full scope of kingly duties had begun. Two months later Henry started to sign petitions with his own hand, writing ‘R.H.’ and ‘nous avouns graunte’ below requests that he formally approved.12 The message to the outside world was clear: the minority had come to an end.
Or had it? Superficially Henry had begun to rule. Yet there was much about his kingship that was unsatisfactory. Council minutes began to include notes suggesting that the king was signing off requests which were not just ill-advised but actively damaging to the crown. ‘Remember to speak unto the King to beware how that he granteth pardons or else how that he doeth them to be amended for he doeth to himself therein great disavail,’ read one, from 11 February 1438, when Henry had granted a petition impoverishing himself to the tune of two thousand marks.13 The very next day another, near-identical note proposed that it should be explained to the king that his injudicious granting away of the constableship and stewardship of the castle of Chirk in north Wales had cost him another thousand marks. Tellingly, no attempt was made to take Henry back to Normandy to command his own armies, or even to serve as a figurehead despite the peril resulting from Bedford’s death and Burgundy’s betrayal. Clearly, the boy was not made in his father’s mould.
The combination of Bedford’s death and the young king’s inability to step up to the task of vigorous rule left England with a kind of governmental vacuum. And into this vacuum, over the course of the 1430s, stepped William de la Pole, fourth earl of Suffolk.
Suffolk’s life until this point had been spent in a broadly conventional career of aristocratic soldiering. His father Michael had died of dysentery at the siege of Harfleur; his elder brother, also called Michael, had suffered a rare and unlucky death – for an Englishman – in being killed at the battle of Agincourt. William had therefore unexpectedly become the fourth earl of Suffolk at the age of nineteen. He spent the next decade and a half building up his military experience and establishing a record of total loyalty to the crown. He was a capable soldier, who fought with sufficient distinction in Brittany and Normandy to be named as a knight of the Garter in 1421; later he was awarded several important offices and grants of land in captured territory and served as an ambassador to the Low Countries in 1425.
His final experience of fighting in France, however, had not been a happy one. He was in a position of high command when Orléans fell to Joan of Arc and her army in 1429. In the aftermath he had attempted to lead the retreat of a few hundred Englishmen along the banks of the river Loire. Five or six thousand Frenchmen, led by the duke of Alençon and Joan of Arc, were in fierce pursuit, and it had been all that Suffolk could do to direct his troops to shelter in the town of Jargeau, a small but reasonably well-defended settlement about eleven miles upstream from Orléans, with a town wall and fortifications around a bridge across the river. Once they reached the town, Suffolk commanded his men and the inhabitants of Jargeau to barricade the walled part of the town for the inevitable siege. And sure enough, no sooner had the English settled in than the French ‘immediately surrounded them on all sides, and commenced to attack them very sharply and to assault them in many places’.14
Suffolk had twice attempted to negotiate a short truce and twice the French had rejected his overtures – first because he was deemed to have breached chivalric protocol by negotiating with a captain of low status, rather than with the duke of Alençon, and subsequently because Alençon claimed that the noise of the French assaults was such that he simply did not hear the messages being brought from the town. Given the size of the cannon that the French had deployed to smash down the walls of the bridge and town – including one absolutely massive gun called ‘Shepherdess’, after Joan of Arc – it is just possible that Alençon was telling the truth. In any case, the bombardment was brutal and effective. Although one enterprising Englishman had managed to hit Joan on the head with a rock thrown from the town walls, cracking her helmet in two and knocking her briefly to the ground, her galvanising presence had been enough to spur the French to victory. Jargeau fell in less than a day, Suffolk and his brother Sir John de la Pole were both captured, and another brother, Alexander de la Pole, was killed, along with more than one hundred other defenders. It was a dismal defeat, alleviated only slightly for Suffolk by the fact that he had managed to knight his captor – a lowly soldier rather than a nobleman – before formally surrendering, thereby avoiding the utter chivalric humiliation of having to give his lordly person up to a man of mean status.15
After Jargeau, Suffolk had been taken to Orléans and imprisoned for a number of months. He was finally released in 1430 – for a ransom he would later claim was an eye-watering £20,000, or about seven times his annual income during the wealthiest period of his life. Back in England he began building an extensive and deep-rooted base of power that straddled court, countryside and council and eventually put him in control of the mainspring of royal authority.
Suffolk built up his influence through a combination of boldness, good fortune, excellent connections and old-fashioned stealth. His starting point was the lands associated with his earldom, which gave him a substantial power bloc in East Anglia: he was the dominant nobleman in Suffolk and Norfolk.16 A marriage to the distinguished, stunningly beautiful and extremely rich widow Alice Chaucer, dowager countess of Salisbury, brought more lands in Oxfordshire and Berkshire, close to the centre of royal government; it also introduced Suffolk into the spheres of national politics, since the Chaucers were close associates of Cardinal Beaufort and Catherine de Valois. These connections may well have lain behind Suffolk’s appointment to the royal council in 1431 – but here he was also undoubtedly helped by his easy relations with the other leading voice in the minority government, Humphrey duke of Gloucester. Rare was the man who could straddle the Beaufort–Gloucester split, but Suffolk showed from very early in his political career that he was a pragmatist who preferred working across factional divides to taking sides. He was not an exceptionally charismatic or commanding individual, but what he lacked in personality he amply made up for in diligence and the ability to render himself agreeable to mutually hostile colleagues.
Between 1431 and 1436 Suffolk gradually built up a reputation for assiduous royal service. He was one of the keenest attenders on the royal council, served alongside Cardinal Beaufort in the disastrous embassy at the congress of Arras, and even returned, briefly, to military service following Bedford’s death, attempting to pacify areas of Normandy. In this he joined up with the young and ambitious Richard duke of York, who led an army during the campaigning season of late summer and autumn 1436. Just as importantly, however, from 1433 Suffolk served as steward of the royal household. The steward enforced discipline and supervised all the day-to-day running of a domestic operation involving several hundred officers, servants and assistants. Out of necessity, he had regular, informal and largely unchecked personal contact with the king at all hours of the day. Therefore at the royal court it was an important position, one that Suffolk valued so much that he made sure to have it guaranteed by the council before he left to fight in France. By the second half of the 1430s he had thus established himself as both a stalwart of the administration and the central figure in the king’s household. Other personages, particularly Beaufort and Gloucester, still outranked him and had their own access to Henry; but gradually, through his diligent attendance at council meetings and his pre-eminence at court, Suffolk became, in effect, the main channel for official and unofficial approaches to the king. Throughout the 1430s, as Henry’s councillors attempted to nudge the young king into ruling in his own right, there was a to-and-fro of power between the household and the council chamber. Wherever the power went, Suffolk was there too.
This was not, it should be said, a purely self-interested power-grab on Suffolk’s behalf. Undoubtedly he was ambitious, and he would later brazenly accrue offices and lands for his own personal gain. But Suffolk was allowed to take on the role of royal puppeteer thanks to a general consensus among both his aristocratic colleagues and other important figures at court, driven by the realisation that someone would have to co-ordinate government behind the scenes until such time as the king summoned enough character and maturity to do it for himself. Nevertheless, Suffolk’s omnipresence allowed him to wield influence in a variety of ways and throughout every aspect of government policy and royal activity – which is why we can detect his hand beneath the decision in 1437 to send Edmund and Jasper Tudor to live with his sister Katherine de la Pole at Barking Abbey. And as the years passed it would make him one of the most powerful men in England: Margaret Paston, doyenne of the famous letter-writing East Anglian dynasty, wrote that without Suffolk’s blessing, no one in England could defend their property or enjoy their life. Unless, as she put it, ‘ye have my Lord of Suffolk’s good lordship, while the world is as it is, ye can never live in peace’.17
However, as Suffolk amassed and exercised his considerable wealth and power, ruling quietly in the name of a wavering and inert king, he was inadvertently creating a dangerous political situation. For to operate kingship by stealth – even with the noblest intentions – was to play with fire. As the years passed, the dangers of manipulating the natural means of royal rule steadily increased. Soon enough, the problems of Suffolk’s ‘good lordship’ would be brutally exposed.