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4th Earl of Suffolk (1415-1450)
1st Earl of Pembroke (1443-1450)
1st Marquess of Suffolk (1444-1450)
1st Duke of Suffolk (1448-1450)
Born 1396 Died 1450

William de la Pole was born on the 16th October 1396 at the village of Cotton in Suffolk, the second son of Michael de la Pole, 2nd Earl of Suffolk, and himself the grandson of another Michael de la Pole who had once been the principal advisor to king Richard II.

As the second son, William had no particular expectations, but circumstances were to place him at the forefront of events at a comparatively young age. His father Michael was killed at the siege of Harfleur on the 14th September 1415 (when William was himself wounded) and his elder brother Michael, despite succeeding to the earldom, was soon killed at the battle of Agincourt a few months later on the 25th of October 1415.

William at War

Thus events conspired to propel the nineteen year old William to succeed to the earldom of Suffolk, and as Earl of Suffolk William was expected to fulfil the military obligations that came with his position in an age when war with France was an almost constant factor. He therefore served in the French campaigns of Henry V in Normandy in the years between 1417 and 1422. In 1423 he joined the Earl of Salisbury and fought at the battle of Crevant and later served under John, Duke of Bedford, at the battle of Verneuil on the 17th of August 1424.

During the period 1424 and 1428 he was second in command to Thomas Montague the Earl of Salisbury, who was in command of the English forces in France and after Thomas Montague was killed at the siege of Orleans on the 3rd November 1428, William took over in command of the English forces at Orleans. The siege was of course, raised by the French partly through the efforts of Joan of Arc, and in the end William was defeated and captured at the battle of Jargeau on the 12th June 1429. William was however, soon ransomed and spent two more years in Normandy commanding the English forces there before returning to England in the November of 1431.

"the great and new-made Duke of Suffolk"

At the age of thirty-five William had just spent the last fourteen years' of his life in almost continuous military service in the field. Now back in England, he entered into civilian life, serving as a royal councillor and carrying out the odd occasional diplomatic mission on behalf of the crown and in 1433 was appointed to the important post of Steward of the Royal Household.

It appears that his experience to date had convinced him that Henry V's dream of the conquest of France was unlikely to be realised and that English could not prevail against a rejuvenated French Monarchy. It was natural therefore that he fell in with Henry Beaufort known as the Cardinal Beaufort, then one of the leading ministers in Henry VI's government who was similarly convinced that a general peace with France was desirable. In this policy the Cardinal Beaufort was opposed by the king's uncle Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester who favoured the continued and vigorous prosecution of the war - but it was the Beaufort faction that had the ear of Henry and dominated his councils.

With the Cardinal's retirement in 1443 William came to prominence as the leader of the 'peace party' and with the question of Henry VI's marriage and continuing war with France at the forefront of his mind William opened negotiations with the French. In June 1444 he returned to England having successfully negotiated the Treaty of Tours which included a truce of two years duration and an agreement to the marriage of king Henry to Margaret of Anjou. The Treaty however included a secret clause by which Henry agreed to surrender Anjou and Maine to the French; when the contents of this clause later became public knowledge it was the cause of much criticism of the administration, and was generally regarded as a poor deal for England.

The tendency has been to blame William for the whole affair but it does appear that William was reluctant to even go to France, as he was well aware of the fact that the French would demand concessions and that these would be unpopular at home. It seems most likely that it was Henry's enthusiasm for marrying Margaret and his willingness to make whatever concessions were necessary to win her hand that were the real cause of the problem.

Of course as far as Henry was concerned the Treaty of Tours was a sound deal and William was duly rewarded with the grant of the title of Marquess of Suffolk. The death of his main political opponent Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester in February 1447, followed by that of the Cardinal Beaufort a few weeks later left William as the unquestionable leader of the administration and in the July of 1448 he was created Duke of Suffolk, the first example of the award of an hereditary dukedom to a non-royal.

This marked perhaps the zenith of William's career, but despite his prominence and newly acquired high rank he remained unpopular. He had won the reputation of being over-friendly with the French, rumours circulated suggesting that he killed the Duke of Gloucester, whilst the peace and its consequent concessions once they became known, a source of much discontent as many regarded it as a craven relinquishment of English territory.

William also faced criticism for his decision to place Edmund Beaufort, the Duke of Somerset in charge of the English army in France in place of the popular Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York who now emerged from the shadow of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester as the leader of the war party. And the Duke of York lost no opportunity to fan the flames of discontent as he pursued his own ends.

The fall of the Duke of Suffolk

It was possibly this widely held belief that William was soft on the French that persuaded him to prove his critics wrong and countenance the decision to break the renewed truce and permit the English attack on Fougeres in Brittany during March 1449. In the event the French proved better prepared for war than the English, launching an invasion of Normandy which overwhelmed the abilities of the Duke of Somerset and English forces were soon in retreat all across Normandy; Rouen fell and all Normandy was lost shortly thereafter.

Military disaster in France brought forth a rising clamor against William and his policies; during the February and March of 1450 he faced repeated accusations of treason in parliament based on his perceived general maladministration and the failure of his French policy. He was accused of selling Normandy to the French, on top of which it was alleged that the betrothal of his son, to the Lancastrian heiress Margaret Beaufort was a sign that he was scheming at the throne.

William put up a spirited defence but the weight of opinion was against him. Henry was reluctant to condemn a man that had served him well but ultimately, as a compromise, the king sentenced him to a period of exile, and banished him from the kingdom for five years. On the 1st May 1450 William set sail for France but he never reached there.

William was intercepted enroute by the ship the Nicholas of the Tower, and taken aboard. There it is said, he went through a form of trial and was 'convicted' of treason. He was then removed into a small boat drawn up alongside the Nicholas. There he was executed by an Irishman who, it was said, took three or four blows to finally sever his head. William's murder was clearly the work of his political opponents, but their identity has never been satisfactorily established.

His body was later left on the beach at Dover with his severed head impaled on a stake. It remained there for a month quietly rotting away until Henry VI gave instructions for William's remains to be removed to St Andrew's Church at Wingfield in Suffolk.

"By thee Anjou and Maine were sold to France"

The character of William de la Pole appears in both Henry VI, Part 1 and Henry VI, Part 2 where William Shakespeare portrayed the Duke of Suffolk as the murderer of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester and the lover of the queen, Margaret of Anjou, and as a man whose arrogance brings about his own death when he underestimates the threat posed by Cade's Rebellion.

In reality the Duke of Gloucester died of natural causes; there is no evidence that Margaret of Anjou took any lovers; and Cade's Rebellion took place after William's death. But despite this lack of historical accuracy, Shakespeare's portrayal has inevitably coloured the view taken of William de la Pole. In the popular imagination he became branded as a 'traitor'- the man responsible for the loss of Normandy - a view that was happily accepted by later propagandists of both Yorkist and Tudor persuasion who saw no reason to correct this view as by denigrating William they sought to magnify the achievements of their chosen heroes.

The opinions expressed on William de la Pole have since had to contend against this weight of condemnation. The historian John Lingard commented on the basis of the speeches William made in his defence before Parliament that it was "difficult to believe that the writer could have been either a false subject or a bad man".

Desmond Seward described his administration "as harsh as it was incapable and corrupt" whilst admitting that William was "loyal to his friends and in his own incompetent way he tried to serve his king" Alison Weir described William as "a man of pleasant appearance and manner, and a competent soldier imbued with high chivalric ideals", although she also described him as a "greedy, ambitious, selfseeking man", which is to say that he was little different from the rest of his contemporaries.

Which could probably be summarised as; nice man, reasonable soldier, out of his depth in government.


William was married in 1430 to Alice Chaucer, the widow of Thomas Montague, the Earl of Salisbury, and his former commander in France. (Alice was herself the granddaughter of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer.) Their only child was a son named John de la Pole who succeeded to the title of Duke of Suffolk.

One of his last acts before fleeing England was to sit down and write a letter to John, which he likely knew was his final opportunity for contact with his son which included the words,

as heartily and as lovingly as ever father blessed his child in earth I give you the blessing of our Lord and of me; who of his infinite mercy increase you in all virtue and good living

SOURCES

  • The 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica entry for SUFFOLK_WILLIAM_DE_LA_POLE_DUKE_OF.
    See http://1911encyclopedia.org/index.htm
  • Alison Weir Lancaster and York: The Wars of the Roses (Pimlico 1998)
  • Desmond Seward The Hundred Years War (Robinson 2003)
  • William Shakespeare King Henry the Sixth, Part 2

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