Post-classical history

6 : A Dear Marriage

A nervous crowd stood waiting on Blackheath. It was Friday 28 May 1445 and the large grassy area of common land on the south bank of the Thames, just downriver from Southwark, swarmed with London’s most notable citizens: the mayor, the aldermen of London’s governing council, representatives of all the wealthy liveried companies of the city, all former London sheriffs and a group of minstrels. The city had been preparing for this day for the better part of a year and everyone of note was dressed identically, in custom-stitched gowns the colour of the bluest summer sky, trimmed with red hoods and embroidered with the crest of the wearer’s profession. The design of these fine robes had been a matter of intense civic debate, causing arguments that had raged for several weeks in the council chamber the previous August. It had taken considerable political energy to defeat the idea that the aldermen ought to be wearing saffron rather than blue. These were no petty squabbles. It was vital that the leading citizens of London represent the city at its most dazzling, for they had gathered to celebrate the arrival of a highly esteemed visitor.1

She was Margaret of Anjou, fifteen-year-old daughter of Duke René of Anjou, a famous but impoverished nobleman from central France. René held a number of splendid-sounding titles – he was, in theory, king of both Sicily and Jerusalem – but he was also a penniless and serially unlucky soldier, who had spent most of his daughter’s youth locked in his enemies’ jails or being beaten in wars on the Italian peninsula (a fact that had allowed the women of his family to wield a relatively large degree of political power and autonomy on his behalf ). Nevertheless, René was the brother of the queen of France, which made Margaret the king’s niece. Her father may have been a relative pauper but the young girl was born of high blood, and her family was well connected, which was why Margaret had come to England to fulfil a political role of her own. She was the new bride and queen consort of King Henry VI.

Margaret’s marriage to Henry was Suffolk’s brainchild. The girl’s father was so poor that she came with a pitiful dowry – a measly twenty thousand francs and the hollow promise that one day the English king would inherit René’s claim to the crown of Majorca. But marrying Henry to the French king’s niece seemed to serve two greater purposes: it would bring England a diplomatic and military truce in the French wars and it would enable Henry and Margaret to rebuild the dwindling stock of the English royal family.

Since Bedford’s death in 1435, England’s French policy had been a mess. A famine caused by crop failures in England and Normandy between 1437 and 1440 had impoverished the realm on both sides of the Channel and the Crown was heavily indebted and in arrears with its payments to captains and troops. Parliaments now grumbled loudly when asked to approve new taxes for the never-ending war. At no point since his French coronation had any really serious effort been made to take Henry back to France at the head of an army. (Neither would the king ever be taken to Scotland or Ireland.) It was true that his rival Charles VII had also avoided taking command in the field, but Charles was at least a vigorous director of strategy. The same could not be said of his nephew. During the early 1440s Henry VI had thrown a great deal of his energy into supporting the foundation of Eton College, a grammar school dedicated to the Virgin Mary whose architectural plans he pored over and annotated with his own hand. At the same time he had sponsored the establishment of King’s College, Cambridge, a large, rich place of higher education explicitly founded for ‘poor and indigent scholar clerks’. Few Plantagenet kings ever took as keen an interest in popular education as Henry VI. But few ever took less interest in warfare. Thus in England a series of confused, conflicting and counterproductive policies had been pursued under the leadership of various loud voices in government.

In 1440 Cardinal Beaufort had gambled away one of England’s most valuable diplomatic chips by permitting the release of the duke of Orléans, a prisoner taken at the battle of Agincourt in 1415, who had spent the ensuing twenty-five years writing romances in English castles, including the first recorded Valentine’s poem. (‘Je suis déjà d’amour tanné / Ma très douce Valentinée …’ – ‘I am already sick of love / My very sweet Valentine …’) Orléans’s release had enraged Humphrey duke of Gloucester, whose chief desire never wavered from all-out attack on France. Gloucester saw it as a disgrace to Henry V’s memory and made his feelings widely known, though he would soon be compelled to direct his attentions closer to home.

In 1441 a scandal blew up involving the duke’s second wife, Eleanor Cobham, the spirited young lady-in-waiting for whom he had abandoned his first wife, Jacqueline of Hainault, in 1428, when their childless marriage was annulled by the pope. The circumstances of the marriage were somewhat controversial, given Eleanor’s relatively lowly social status. But she proved to be a stately and intelligent woman who revelled at the head of the sumptuous Renaissance court that she and her husband held at their manor of Greenwich, where they hosted poets, musicians and playwrights.

The death of Bedford meant that Gloucester was heir presumptive; by extension Eleanor found herself potentially the next queen. The thought clearly thrilled and intrigued her, and she began consulting astrologers and necromancers to predict the date of the king’s death and thus, by extension, ‘King’ Humphrey’s accession. But in this matter she had grievously overreached. The astrologers whom she consulted were men of considerable academic standing – for this was an age when the realms of science and superstition largely overlapped. But if her diviners were well schooled, they were also politically naïve. They predicted that, in the summer of 1441, Henry VI would sicken and die. Eleanor, or those around her, found it impossible to keep this a secret, and rumours of the king’s death began to swirl around the capital and the country.

The high standing of her husband was not enough to protect Eleanor. In July she was arrested, tried and, as one chronicler put it, ‘damned for a witch and an heretic, and put in perpetual prison’. Her associates were put to death, but Eleanor managed to escape the flames. She was sentenced to a very public and humiliating penance: ordered to walk barefoot, carrying a candle, about the streets of London on three occasions in November. She was forcibly divorced from the duke and sentenced to an indefinite jail term, which she served at ever more remote castles in Kent, Cheshire, the Isle of Man and finally, from 1449, Beaumaris on Anglesey.2 Gloucester was personally shaken by the loss of his wife and his public standing never recovered from the scandal: his credibility and the scope of his political influence were at a stroke smashed.

With Gloucester’s fall, Cardinal Beaufort’s influence grew. He had long been the largest financial creditor of the Crown and a consistently cautious voice on the royal council. But in 1442 the cardinal abandoned his own long-favoured policy of containment and reconciliation and turned heedless aggressor. He convinced the council and parliament to permit a military expedition to France led by his nephew John Beaufort, duke of Somerset. Its purpose was ostensibly to join up the two main blocs of English power in Normandy and Gascony by conquering further territory in the region around Maine. Somerset’s expedition, undertaken in the late summer of 1443, was an aimless fiasco, which looked like a shallow attempt by the Beaufort family to endow themselves with booty seized and lands conquered in central France. It annoyed Richard duke of York, who succeeded Bedford as lieutenant of France only to find his authority undercut by Beaufort’s independent commission. And it wasted a vast amount of money. Somerset died shortly after his return, humiliated by his failure and very possibly driven to suicide. Cardinal Beaufort now joined his rival Gloucester in effective political retirement.

All this left England with an acute need for peace. Suffolk, now the chief force in English politics, was determined to meet the challenge. He departed for France early in 1444 with the aim of taking decisive action to bring a temporary halt to warfare. He came back with Margaret’s hand in marriage as the seal on an agreement with her uncle Charles VII for a two-year truce, a window in which to negotiate for a longer and more lasting peace.

Following the usual diplomatic protocol, Suffolk had personally stood in for Henry and married the fourteen-year-old Margaret by proxy. In the presence of the French king and queen and a vast array of French nobles, he had taken the girl’s hand and slipped on the marriage band in the cathedral at Tours on 24 May 1444. The first response of all who heard about the match was apparently one of joyous relief. At the French banquets that followed Margaret’s proxy marriage it was said that the common people ‘made joy and mirth, and song (all with high voyce) Nowell! Nowell! Nowell! and peace, peace, peace be to us! Amen!’3

The great English war captain John Talbot, earl of Shrewsbury, commissioned for the new queen the most magnificent book of hours, which still survives complete with a copy of the royal genealogy with which the duke of Bedford had bombarded Normandy during the 1420s, showing Henry VI as the rightful lineal heir to the crown of France.4 (See plate section.) On his return to England, Suffolk was promoted from earl to the rank of marquess. (In 1448 he would be raised yet again, to become a duke.) The following year he crossed the Channel to collect the king’s bride and bring her back in triumph to her new kingdom. Among his companions on the trip was one Owen Meredith – most likely Owen Tudor, who was now around forty-five years old.

So it was that Margaret landed at Southampton on 9 April 1445, frail from a longstanding illness made worse by seasickness following a very stormy crossing of the Channel aboard the Cock John. While recovering her health she slowly made her way from the south coast towards the capital. Her journey took her through rural Hampshire, where her first appointment was at Titchfield Abbey, a modest house of Premonstratensian canons more famous for the austere and scholarly lives of its brethren than for the abundance of its hospitality. In this quiet, monkish setting Margaret finally married Henry in person. The king gave her a fine gold ring set with a ruby, remoulded from the sacred ring he had worn during his coronation as king of France.5 Then they made their way together towards London. And so it was that on 28 May 1445, when England’s new queen rode up to London she was not just greeted by the ranked welcome party of London’s azure-clad worthies; behind them the whole city had been decked out to celebrate her arrival.

London excelled at pageantry. Though the city was not looking quite its best – the wooden steeple of St Paul’s had been set alight during the winter by a direct lightning strike, and the city gates were in need of repair – it still had the power to dazzle and enthral. Streets had been tidied and houses secured to celebrate Margaret’s arrival. Gutters were cleared, roofs strengthened to support clambering spectators, and tavern signs made safe to prevent them from falling on partygoers’ heads. Thousands of pounds raised by a council grant and public subscription had been spent on a series of eight lavish pageants with spoken English captions, each showing and hailing Margaret in a similar light: as the bringer of peace, the saviour of Henry’s two realms and a gift sent from heaven. The young queen travelled in a litter through the streets thronged with merrymakers, seeing tableaux that likened her variously to the dove that brought Noah his olive branch and to the virgin St Margaret, who tamed ‘the might of spirits malign’.6 She was lodged in the Tower of London until, two days after her formal entry into the city, she emerged dressed all in virginal white with a crown of gold and pearls, to be drawn in a carriage to Westminster and crowned. England greeted its new queen with three days of feasts and jousting. Soon, it was hoped, Margaret would use her connections to help bring a long-awaited and lasting peace.

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At the time of Henry and Margaret’s marriage the future of the English royal line was a matter of uncertainty. True, there was little chance that Henry VI would emulate his father by dying anywhere near a foreign battlefield. But as the poet John Lydgate wrote, ‘experience showeth the world is variable’.7 Life was short and death could be sudden and unpredictable. The last formal provisions for the royal succession had been made in parliament by Henry IV in 1406, when it was agreed that the crown should fall first to Henry V and the heirs of his body, and subsequently to Henry V’s three brothers and their heirs: Thomas duke of Clarence, John duke of Bedford and Humphrey duke of Gloucester. By 1445 Clarence and Bedford had both died without issue and Gloucester, despite marrying twice, had only fathered two bastards, whose names, Antigone and Arthur, reflected his interests in classical literature and British mythology. He was fifty-five years old, his marriages had failed without providing him with a single legitimate heir, and his disgrace following the fall of Eleanor Cobham had severely compromised his status as heir apparent. Henry VI was thus the only surviving grandchild of Henry IV, and he was near-certain to remain so. Who might follow him if he were unexpectedly to die was not wholly clear. This did not, in itself, put Henry’s hold on the crown in danger. But it promised plenty of uncertainty for the next generation. For outside Henry’s immediate family there was a tremendous profusion of men with some degree of royal blood in their veins. At least four families could claim descent from Henry VI’s great-great-grandfather, Edward III.

The first was represented by Richard duke of York. Born in 1411, York inherited royal blood from both his parents: by his mother he was descended from Edward III’s second son, Lionel; from his father he was the heir of Edward III’s fourth son, Edmund. (See House of York genealogical table.) His other ancestors included members of many of the greatest noble families in England’s recent history: Mortimer, Clare, Despenser, de Burgh and Holland.8 Throughout the early part of the fifteenth century, his father’s side of the family had been involved in rebellions in which they were trumpeted as the rightful kings of England. One great-uncle, Sir Edmund Mortimer, had joined Owain Glyndwr’s revolt against Henry IV, proclaiming another uncle – Edmund earl of March – to be the true heir to the crown. York’s father shared the belief and was found guilty in 1413 of plotting to depose Henry V and put March on the throne, a crime for which he was beheaded as a traitor.

But if rebellion and ambition ran in the blood, it was a mark of England’s relative stability during Henry’s long minority that Richard had not been tainted by his relatives’ earlier crimes. Over a period of several years leading up to 1434 he had been allowed to inherit all his family’s extensive estates: he held the duchy of York and the earldoms of March, Cambridge and Ulster, all of which were traditionally associated with the Mortimer family from whom he was descended. His lands lay right across England, Wales and Ireland, and his properties included mighty castles on the coasts and in the Welsh marches (the collective name given to the large swathes of land on the borders of England and Wales, which stretched in some places as far west as the coast.) In truly princely fashion, York also owned stunning, palatial fortresses like Fotheringhay on the banks of the river Nene in Northamptonshire, and farms and forests from Yorkshire to Somerset.9 His personal connections reached even further: in 1429 he had married Cecily Neville, a daughter of one of the greatest noble families of the north. He was knighted at the age of fifteen, brought to court at eighteen and admitted to the Order of the Garter when he was twenty-one. In 1436, after Bedford’s death, the twenty-five-year-old York was appointed to the lieutenancy of France, a post he was given not just because he was considered a talented young soldier, but because he was, as his commission papers put it, a ‘grant prince de nostre sang et lignage’ and ‘nostre beaucousin’ (‘a great prince of our blood and line’ and ‘our dear cousin’).10 Huge grants of land in Normandy were given to him in 1444, which at a stroke made him the most important English landowner in the duchy.11 In short, Richard duke of York was the richest layman and mightiest landlord in England after the king.

He was not, however, anything more than that. In the early 1440s, while he was serving in France, there were no suggestions whatever that he harboured designs on the crown. He was ambitious, to be sure, and conscious of his status. His wife, Cecily, produced a great brood of children: their first daughter, Anne, was born in 1439, a short-lived son named Henry arrived in 1441, and eleven more children followed over the course of the next ten years. The eldest of the surviving sons, Edward and Edmund, were shown exceptional royal favour. By 1445 Edward – then no more than three years old – had been created earl of March and Edmund, a year younger still, had been made earl of Rutland. The main purpose of elevating York’s infant sons to the peerage seems to have been to marry one of them to a French princess. But if these were extraordinary honours, there was little sign that the young duke dreamed of creating a rival royal dynasty. His family’s own history amply demonstrated that the exercise of naked ambition was a certain way to lose one’s head. At the time of the king’s marriage to Margaret of Anjou, York was generally committed, like his peers, to maintaining the form of rule by which England muddled along, with Suffolk leading government quietly from the household, with the tacit backing of those magnates who wanted to keep an underwhelming king from losing control of his twin realms.12

All the same, so long as the king remained childless, some thought had to be given to the status of those like York, who were near to him in blood. During the 1440s three other families profited from their descent from Edward III, and around the time of the king’s marriage all of them were elevated in status, giving the sense, albeit rather a confused one, of an extended royal family.

The Beauforts, kinsmen of Cardinal Beaufort, were the most prominent members of this greater royal family. Their descent, like the king’s, came through John of Gaunt and the house of Lancaster. Gaunt’s third wife, Katherine Swynford, had borne him three sons. They were considered illegitimate – not unreasonably, since they had been born while Gaunt was married to someone else – and although in later years Gaunt and Katherine had been married, and the children’s taint of bastardy removed by an act of parliament, it had been made very clear – again by parliamentary law – that they were debarred from ever inheriting the crown.

In the 1440s, Cardinal Beaufort was the only surviving son of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford, but the family continued through the cardinal’s nephews. In 1443, John earl of Somerset was raised to the rank of duke, and given specific precedence over the duke of Norfolk, the head of one of the oldest and most prominent families in England. As we have seen, this grand elevation did John Beaufort very little good, for he died in unhappy circumstances following his woeful 1443 expedition to France. The family’s involvement in politics passed to John’s younger brother Edmund Beaufort, who took over the Somerset title in 1448 and fathered a clutch of children of his own. Finally, there was Joan Beaufort, who had been married to James I of Scotland and enjoyed an exciting career in the north, where she served for a brief time as regent, while her son, James II of Scotland, was a minor.

The Beauforts were thus closely connected to the crown, even if technically they were barred from any future succession. So were others. The Holland family traced their own royal ancestry through Henry IV’s sister Elizabeth. In January 1444 the most senior Holland, John earl of Huntingdon, was promoted to duke of Exeter, with precedence over all other dukes except for York – another elevation specifically credited to his closeness in blood to the king. John Holland died in August 1447, and his son Henry Holland eventually succeeded to his duchy.

Then there were the Staffords, another family with direct links to the Plantagenet dynasty. The Staffords were descended from Thomas of Woodstock: Edward III’s youngest son and the bitterest enemy of the deposed King Richard II. In 1444 Humphrey Stafford, the most senior member of the family, was made duke of Buckingham, and three years later he was, like York, Somerset and Exeter, given a special precedence: specifically, he was to rank above all other dukes who would be created in the future, unless they were of the king’s blood.13

Thus, around the time of the king’s marriage, a loose sort of succession plan had been made – or at the very least there was a hierarchy of aristocracy, in which York, Somerset, Exeter and Buckingham all knew their rank. With a new queen there was now the promise of further expansion of the dynasty. Was a new generation finally stepping forward to take command of England’s destiny?

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The personal relationship between Henry VI and Queen Margaret seems to have been close and even tender. The king’s confessor, John Blacman, wrote in his memoir that ‘when he espoused the most noble lady, Lady Margaret … he kept his marriage vow wholly and sincerely … never dealing unchastely with any woman’. (This chastity was in large part temperamental, since Blacman also records that the king was mortified by the sight of nudity and ‘was wont utterly to avoid the unguarded sight of naked persons’. When one Christmas ‘a certain great lord brought before him a dance or show of young ladies with bared bosoms … the king … very angrily averted his eyes, turned his back on them and went out to his chamber’. He was also apparently shocked by the sight of naked men when he visited a warm spa in Bath.)14

There was chivalry and even real romance. When Margaret arrived in England, Henry kept up his family’s tradition of greeting his new wife incognito, dressed as a squire, and only later revealing his identity. After their marriage the couple spent much of their time together in the royal palaces dotted near the banks of the Thames: Windsor, Sheen, Eltham and Greenwich. Henry bought his wife jewellery and numerous horses in which she particularly delighted. He allowed her to found Queen’s College in Cambridge in 1448 to mirror his own foundation of King’s seven years earlier.15In a warrant for payment to one London jeweller, Henry describes Margaret as ‘our most dear and most entirely beloved wife the queen’.16 A touching vignette is preserved describing the royal couple during the New Year festivities not long into their marriage, receiving gifts as they lay in bed together, staying there all morning and apparently enjoying one another’s company. Yet if they shared a happy bed, it was not a fruitful one. Eight years would pass between their marriage and the birth of their first child.

This was a problem in its own right. More serious, however, was the complete failure of Margaret’s arrival in England to bring about the glorious peace that the marriage had seemed to promise. In July 1445 a magnificent diplomatic delegation – including Margaret’s father, René of Anjou – arrived from France to meet with the English in London. It was the greatest peace council of its sort to have taken place in thirty years. There were high hopes – not least from the king, who seems genuinely to have had a desire for peace with the French and whose appearance before the ambassadors at the beginning of the talks was marked by warmth and friendliness. Henry greeted the French diplomats personally, and although royally dressed in red cloth of gold, he raised his hat to them, patted them on the back and appeared to be quite overcome with brotherly love and rejoicing.

Henry’s ministers, led by Suffolk, hoped that improved relations with France would lead to a settlement in which they could keep the conquered lands in complete sovereignty. But the French had no intention of agreeing to such terms. They stipulated that for a final peace to be made, the English would be allowed to hold on to their historical lands in and around Gascony, along with Calais and Guînes, but everything else should be surrendered, and English claims to the French crown dropped. Henry and his advisers could not countenance such terms. After a promising beginning an impasse was reached and a mere seven-month extension to the truce was agreed. Plans were made for Henry and Margaret to travel to France in 1446 to continue talks face-to-face with Margaret’s uncle, Charles VII.

They never went. Instead, in the autumn of 1445 another French delegation arrived in London, followed by a flurry of letters between Charles, Henry and Margaret. In October the French proposed new conditions: there would be no final peace, but in return for a twenty-year truce the English were asked to surrender possession of the county of Maine to Margaret’s father, René. It is possible that this had been the French plan ever since the first negotiations for Margaret’s marriage, and it may have been suggested to or even verbally agreed by Suffolk at Tours in 1444 or Henry in July 1445. But it was just before Christmas 1445 that the deal was actually done. On 22 December Henry wrote to Charles VII, saying that since ‘it appeared to you that [ceding Maine] was one of the best and aptest means to arrive at the blessing of a peace between us and you … favouring also our most dear and well-beloved companion the queen, who has requested us to do this many times … we signify and promise in good faith and on our kingly word to give and deliver … Maine by the last day of April next coming …’ This may have been a necessary move towards peace, but the consequences for England, and for the young queen’s reputation, would be disastrous. 17

By agreeing to surrender Maine and its capital Le Mans, Henry had placed his government in a difficult position. The terms were basically humiliating – the surrender of hard-won territory for mere promises and talk from the French. The deal was bound to upset both the duke of York, whose authority in France was once more undermined, and Edmund Beaufort, the future duke of Somerset, who stood to lose a great deal of land and his title of count of Maine. Worst of all, surrendering Maine gave the French a fresh military route to attack the English both in Normandy and in Gascony. And it confirmed the general sentiment that the English war effort was one of retreat and slow humiliation.

Attempts were made to keep the deal secret. Henry’s proposed personal embassy to France now appeared to be a dangerous liability at which any number of further calamitous concessions might be made, and Suffolk stalled desperately through 1446 and 1447 to delay sending the king for a follow-up mission and giving back the promised land. But it was pointless. Charles VII was a shrewd negotiator and an accomplished king. The English, who were attempting through Suffolk to govern around the king, were diplomatically outflanked.

There was huge disaffection, bordering on mutiny, among the English soldiers who garrisoned Maine and Le Mans. They dragged their heels at every order to co-operate. As a result, Maine and Le Mans were not physically surrendered until the spring of 1448, but returned they were: the start of the final collapse of England’s position in the Hundred Years War, whose preservation had been Henry V’s most important legacy, had begun. Chroniclers with the benefit of hindsight would much later write that Henry’s wedding ‘was a dear marriage for the realm of England’.18

Marginalised since his wife’s disgrace in 1441, Humphrey duke of Gloucester had become a meek bystander, openly mocked by Suffolk in front of the French ambassadors. As a mark of his dwindling relevance he was not included in the peace negotiations of 1445. And yet, as news began to filter out that the cession of Maine was the price to be paid for a long-term truce, Gloucester’s insistent hostility to the French seemed finally vindicated. It did not require much imagination on the part of those who had made the deal to see that when the news became fully public, Gloucester might be thrust back into the heart of politics. It was possible that a new faction, opposed to Suffolk’s concessions, might be drawn together around the ageing Humphrey. If the king (and therefore Suffolk and probably the queen) really were to leave England to negotiate further terms with Charles VII, then Gloucester would have a very good claim on exercising the powers of regency in his absence. Late in 1446 a decision was taken by Suffolk and his closest allies to silence the duke before he had a chance to embarrass them.

In February 1447 a parliament was summoned to meet in the unusual location of Bury St Edmunds, a ‘safe’ venue in the heart of Suffolk’s territory. According to the records of the parliament, the weather was ‘fervent cold … and biting’.19 Gloucester had been summoned to appear before the parliament. Clearly he was suspicious, for he came to Bury ten days after it had opened, with a huge retinue of armed Welshmen. It is possible that he came in the hope of bargaining for the release of his former wife Eleanor from her jail cell on the Isle of Man. But it was obvious that he was in considerable danger. Rumours had been put about of a plot to kill the king, rumours which were quite probably fabricated in order to place Gloucester under suspicion and facilitate an attempt to destroy him on charges of treason. Contemporary chroniclers were in very little doubt: the parliament, said one, ‘was made only for to slay the noble duke of Gloucester’, and the prime mover in the conspiracy was Suffolk.20

When Gloucester arrived at Bury shortly before 11 a.m. on Saturday 18 February his fears were confirmed. He was prevented from going to meet his nephew the king and was advised ‘that he should take the next way to his lodging’ at St Saviour’s Hospital, the abbey infirmary, just outside the north gate of the city.21 The journey took him through the town’s horse market and down a small street known as the Dead Lane. It was a prophetic path to tread. After Gloucester had eaten dinner a delegation of peers arrived to arrest him on the authority of the royal council. His head servants were also arrested, and the more menial ones were ordered to disperse. The most senior judges in England – the chief justices of the courts of King’s Bench and Common Pleas – had been instructed to suspend their business and come to parliament. It seemed that a trial, one likely to be concluded with the duke’s final disgrace, was inevitable.

But fate intervened. On Thursday 23 February at around 3 p.m., some five days after he was arrested, Gloucester was dead. ‘How he died or in what manner the certainty is unknown, but only to God,’ wrote one chronicler. ‘Some said he died for sorrow, some said he was murdered between two feather-beds; and some said he was thrust into the bowel with an hot burning spit.’22 In fact, he had probably suffered a stroke, for he lay three days in a coma before finally expiring.

Gloucester was buried in St Albans. Before he was laid in his tomb, his body was displayed openly in an effort to dispel any talk of foul play. In the weeks that followed the end of the Bury parliament, several members of the duke’s household were tried and found guilty of plotting to kill the king and rescue Eleanor Cobham from prison. They were pardoned on the gallows – suggesting that the charges against them were either invented or had been exaggerated for effect, and that the whole campaign against Gloucester was one designed to discredit him and silence any criticisms of Suffolk’s peace with France. These grotesque and unsubtle tactics would backfire. Over the years, as the situation in France deteriorated, a legend of Humphrey the ‘good duke’ arose. This was quite a distortion: in life Gloucester had been quarrelsome, factious, somewhat conceited, impossibly aggressive and at times the single greatest danger to the stability of the realm. His most lasting achievements were in the realm of scholarship, where his patronage of Italian Renaissance artists and scholars was at the forefront of English secular learning, and his library numbered among the finest in the country. But his reputation would swiftly outstrip reality. The ‘good duke’ would be contrasted ever more fiercely and contemptuously with hostile portrayals of Suffolk and King Henry himself. This hostility would soon erupt in the most fearsome demonstration of popular anger seen in England for nearly seventy years.

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