The Battle of Agincourt and the Earls and early Dukes of Suffolk   Leave a comment

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The Earldom of Suffolk played a significant role in the Hundred Years’ War between England and France, and the succeeding Dukedom became pivotal in the Wars of the Roses which dominated the second half of the fifteenth century. It was first created in 1336 for Robert de Ufford, a great landowner in the east of the county and, of course, a close attendant of the king, but the Ufford line failed after only two generations and, in 1385, the title was revived for Michael de la Pole. Despite their name, the de la Poles were not soldier-landowners of Norman stock; they were merchants from Hull, originally named Poole, who had added the French prefix in order to become landowners. They rose to prominence by lending money to Edward III. Michael’s father had bought land in Suffolk and married his son into the great local family of Wingfield. Michael won the confidence of the ten-year old Richard II and used his position to extend and consolidate his Suffolk estates. At Wingfield he built an impressive, new, fortified manor house (see above). Still standing, it is the oldest castle in England to have been continuously occupied to this day. However, in 1387 he was hounded out of office by jealous rivals and had to flee to France disguised as a peasant. His son waited eight years to succeed to the title and then held it only for five weeks, before perishing during Henry V’s Agincourt campaign of 1415. The de la Poles were part of the small army which seized Harfleur, a siege made famous by Shakespeare’s play Henry V, but the elder Earl died, less poetically, of dysentery a few days later. His son, the third Earl, then became one of the few English aristocrats to be killed at the Battle of Agincourt. His cadaver, flayed and pickled after the battle, according to custom, was returned for burial at Wingfield.

The lands and dignities of Suffolk now passed to the third Earl’s nineteen-year-old brother, William. As fourth Earl, he played a leading part in the power struggle which broke out at the accession of the infant Henry VI. William became constable of Wallingford Castle in 1434. In 1437 the Duke constructed the God’s House at Ewelme, a reminder of the de la Pole’s Catholic devotions. William married Thomas Chaucer’s only daughter Alice, by whom she had a son John in 1442 (who became 2nd Duke of Suffolk in 1463). Alice could be both ruthless and acquisitive in pursuit of her son’s inheritance. She was a lady-in-waiting to Margaret of Anjou in 1445, and a patron of the arts.

William worked his way into a position of almost supreme power, bringing about a marriage between the King and Margaret of Anjou, whom many believed to be his mistress, and dominating the pious, weak-minded Henry. His only strong opponent was Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. He removed that obstacle in 1447 by summoning a parliament to meet at Bury St Edmunds, a town which the Earl could easily pack with his own supporters. When Gloucester arrived he was arrested and confined to his lodgings. The following morning the Duke was found dead. Lands, offices and tithes were now de la Pole’s for the taking, and he became the first Duke of Suffolk in the following year.

William was steward of the household to Henry VI, and from 1447 to 1450 was the dominant force in the council and chief minister to the king; as such he was particularly associated with the unpopular royal policies whose failures culminated in the anti-court protest and political violence of Cade’s Revolt in 1450. Drunk with power, de la Pole had pursued his own policies, accrued further wealth, harrassed his enemies and was quite open in his contempt for public opinion, which was running strongly against him. He was accused of usurping royal power, committing adultery with the Queen, murdering Gloucester, despoiling men of their possessions, giving away lands in France and plotting to put his own son on the throne.

By 1450 Suffolk’s opponents were strong enough to force him to stand trial and William was impeached by the Commons in parliament, but Henry VI intervened to exile his favourite rather than have him tried by the Lords. Instead, he was banished for five years. Dissatisfied with this, his enemies had him followed to Calais. On his way across the Channel his vessel was intercepted by The Nicholas of the Tower whose crew subjected him to a mock trial, after which the Duke’s head was hacked off by an inexpert sailor with a rusty sword and his body was thrown overboard, a scene made even more gruesome by Shakespeare in Henry VI, Part II, in which the bard also makes fun of the name of the great family. William’s remains were recovered from a beach at Dover, and Alice had her husband buried at the Carthusian Priory in Hull, founded in 1377 by his grandfather, Michael de la Pole, first Earl of Suffolk. After William was killed, his properties including the castle and Honour of Wallingford and St Valery passed to Alice. She lent the Crown 3500 Marks and the king spared the fate of attainder of title. She survived many challenges to her position, including a state trial in 1451. Whilst Alice had benefited from Lancastrian connections, she switched to supporting the House of York during the Wars of the Roses. In 1455 she was custodian of the Duke of Exeter at Wallingford Castle.

After her husband’s death, Alice had become even more ruthless and took back many of her friend’s Margaret Paston’s manors in Norfolk, with dubious title deeds. The Pastons now grew to loathe the Yorkist family, notorious for their corruption. William’s heir, John, was the greatest landowner in Suffolk and Norfolk and kept an army of retainers to enforce his will.

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Above: The Paston House in Norwich.

The Paston family were among those who fell foul of the second Duke on more than one occasion. In 1465 de la Pole sent men to destroy the Pastons’ house at Hellesdon. Margaret Paston reported the incident to her husband:

There cometh much people daily to wonder thereupon, both of Norwich and of other places, and they speak shamefully thereof. The duke had better than a thousand pounds that it had never been done; and ye have the more good will of the people that it is so foully done.

The second Duke of Suffolk could afford to upset farmers, merchants and peasants. He was married to Elizabeth, the sister of King Edward IV. His mother, Alice, remained castellan at Wallingford until at least 1471 and possibly until her death in 1475. In 1472 she became custodian of Margaret of Anjou, her former friend and patron. A wealthy landowner, Alice de la Pole held land in 22 counties, and was a patron to poet John Lydgate, no doubt playing a role in having his poetry printed by William Caxton, along with the works of her grandfather, Geoffrey Chaucer.

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