Friday, June 17, 2016

Edmund Beaufort, a mover and shaker in the Wars of the Roses

by Derek Birks

First of all, it is important to remember that there were at least four Beaufort Dukes of Somerset populating the period and two of them were called Edmund. Get over it. This is the Wars of the Roses and it was never simple.

The Edmund Beaufort I’m writing about here was the grandson of John of Gaunt, one of the many sons of Edward III.  Both Edmund and his king, Henry VI, therefore had Lancastrian royal blood in their veins, but the Beauforts by law could not inherit the throne. Their line of descent came from an illegitimate liaison between John and Katherine Swynford. Though they were later legitimised, Henry IV barred them from the succession by letters patent.

Edmund was the younger brother of John Beaufort and became Duke of Somerset after his brother’s death.

Alright, so why do we care? What part does he play in all the carnage?

Well, if you were to regard the Wars of the Roses as a barrel of gunpowder, Edmund Beaufort was the fuse – completely harmless of course, until…

Why Did Somerset Become a Problem?

King Henry VI was well-disposed towards the Beauforts in the 1440s at a time when Henry’s government was dominated by William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk.

Edmund was appointed to a command in France where he replaced Richard, Duke of York. York did not take it well, resenting Somerset’s rise. His annoyance was compounded by the fact that Somerset was not a very competent commander. His resentment was further fuelled by the fact that Somerset was promised £25,000 to fund his campaign whereas York had received nothing and was owed many thousands. York was then sent to rule Ireland – far from the centre of power.

Why Was the Rivalry Between York and Somerset a Problem?

Richard, Duke of York
In 1450 a wave of popular unrest caused several attacks against Suffolk’s corrupt government, culminating in the murder of several members of the king’s inner circle, including Suffolk. This left a void at the heart of the government. Whatever happened next there would be a new regime.

York was an obvious candidate for advancement since he was the most prominent nobleman and, if King Henry were to die childless, then York was the heir presumptive. York, keen to take what he saw as his rightful place, returned from Ireland unbidden and began a propaganda campaign against the king’s corrupt councillors, especially Somerset.

Undoubtedly Henry preferred Somerset and recalled him from France, where the war was going badly, to bring him back to the centre of his government. He could of course, if he wished, remove the legal impediment to Somerset inheriting the throne. If he did so then Somerset, not York, could be seen as the heir presumptive.

York feared exactly that. He posed as a seeker after justice and had notable support in the House of Commons. Henry’s response in May 1451 was to dissolve parliament. In the end, the only opinion that mattered was Henry VI’s.

Meanwhile Somerset was appointed Captain of Calais, a prestigious post reserved for trusted men. So Henry trusted Somerset where he did not seem to trust York, possibly because he feared that York wanted the throne.

Somerset’s new appointment and dominance incensed York. Once more he embarked on an extensive campaign against government corruption, hoping to rise on a tide of popular support. He raised troops and marched to London intending to remove Somerset by force if necessary.

Henry VI
The king and Somerset rallied some support too and their small army also camped outside the city.
Few nobles supported York. Most had no stomach for taking up arms, even against Somerset. So negotiations followed and the councillors agreed that if York dissolved his army, then Somerset would be imprisoned and tried for his poor conduct of the French war. It seemed that the king agreed to this but after York sent his men away, he found that Somerset was still there by the king’s side. Instead York was treated like a prisoner – after all, what he had done certainly amounted to treason.

In the end though, Henry VI let him go and York retired from London to lick his wounds for royal service had beggared him. Later in the year Somerset could not resist rubbing York’s nose in his failure when he presided over the trial of some of York’s followers at Ludlow in the very heart of York’s powerbase. Somerset now had the king in the palm of his hand.

What went wrong then for Somerset?

It started in June 1453 when the king gave Somerset some estates in south Wales. Somerset was desperate for landed income since the Beaufort family did not have much. His income came otherwise from the various royal pensions and grants he received from the king and the profits from any offices he held.

Unfortunately, the lands Henry gave him belonged to Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. When it came to land grabbing, Warwick was up there with the best and he strongly resented losing estates in an area where he was keen to build up influence. From then on, Somerset was a legitimate target as far as Warwick was concerned, but poor Somerset carried on oblivious to his peril.

Edmund in France (Rouen)
The really bad news though was to come in July 1453 when the French war – always the elephant in Henry VI’s chamber – took a turn for the worse. A military catastrophe occurred when the heroic John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, was defeated and killed at Castillon. England’s last significant army in France, apart from the Calais garrison, was destroyed.

Even worse was to follow. The king suffered a debilitating breakdown which left him immobile. Whether it was brought on by the news from France is not clear, but England now lacked a king at the helm. For the queen, soon to give birth to a male heir, and Somerset, it made government almost impossible. For a few months Somerset muddled through by putting off matters upon which only the king could decide. But by October the king’s council agreed that someone must be appointed with authority to rule for the king.

They recalled York from the political wasteland to re-join the council. There, for various reasons, not least the little matter of estates in south Wales, York found support from the powerful Neville family. Somerset suddenly found himself confined to the Tower whilst the council argued over who should rule. The queen, worried for her new son if York should take charge, tried to have herself declared regent, but the council refused and in 1454 chose York as Protector of the Realm.

How then did Somerset extricate himself from the Tower?

The start of the Wars of the Roses. York picks white
flowers, Somerset red (Henry Arthur Payne)
It was quite simple really: the king recovered – at least enough to tell the difference between York and Somerset. By February 1455, York had to step down. Somerset was released from the Tower and at once contrived to forge an alliance with all those who were rivals of the Nevilles and York. The rivalry between York and Somerset, if left to continue, would destroy the kingdom; something had to give. York and his allies left London in haste to prepare for war.

Somerset and the queen were of one mind: York had to go. A Great Council was summoned to meet at Leicester on 21st May, 1455. It was hand-picked and the hand didn’t pick York or any of his allies because, of course, the purpose of this Council was to condemn them. The Council, however, never met.

Somerset was a poor strategist – as his French exploits had proven. Thus, he was slow to react when York left London and only began to muster troops when York was already on his way south with an army.

On 21st May, Somerset and the king set off for St Albans to await the arrival of the retinues they had summoned. They spent the night of 21st at Watford. Overnight there was an exchange of messages with York. The latter stressed his loyalty and desire for a council without Somerset in it. Early on the morning of 22nd May a final message came from York. It said little new but the king summoned his council to discuss what to do.

Somerset, surprised by the speed of York’s advance, advised waiting at Watford until they had gathered more strength. A more moderate councillor, the Duke of Buckingham, proposed continuing to St Albans, arguing that York was merely exerting pressure and would not push for a fight. Henry took Buckingham’s advice not Somerset’s and continued to St Albans, arriving about 9am. York and the Neville lords were already camped in the fields on the outskirts of the town but King Henry continued into the town centre.

What happened at St Albans?

Many of those with Henry assumed that, after all the posturing, there would be negotiations and the matter would be settled peacefully. Heralds were sent to and fro to see if such a process could be started. This was normal procedure – a sort of last ditch effort to avoid actual fighting. But even whilst the heralds were still working, the skirmishing began and by 10am York was on the attack. He did not find it easy though to break through the town’s defences. His men toiled for an hour or so to no avail.

York had got nowhere but Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, was a little more creative in his tactics. Driven on by his desire to resolve his differences with Somerset by force, he broke through some gardens and houses of the town, taking the King’s household by surprise. Many were not even wearing armour and they scattered across the town seeking refuge wherever they could. The Duke of Buckingham fled to the abbey and Somerset dived into the Castle Inn. York’s men now broke into the town and, once victory was achieved, he ensured the safety of the wounded king who was hiding in a tanner’s cottage.

The Duke of Somerset, trapped in the inn, knew very well that York and Warwick would not let him live. So, with his loyal retinue, he tried to fight his way out. It is said that Somerset killed four men before he himself was hacked to death.

The events of 22nd May 1455 are sometimes referred to as the First Battle of St. Albans. Some have argued over the term “battle” suggesting it was only a skirmish. Casualties probably amounted to less than a hundred, but York’s objective was achieved: Somerset and the northern rivals of the Neville lords, Northumberland and Clifford, were not just removed but killed.

This was a coup d’etat more than a battle and soon after a bill passed through parliament blaming Somerset for causing the affray.

What then was Somerset’s contribution to the Wars of the Roses?

Few nobles were especially enamoured with either Somerset or York as individuals. Most accepted that factions in a king’s council were inevitable. A strong king might have dealt more even-handedly with York and not showered so many honours upon Somerset. Was that Somerset’s fault? Not really for he, like York, was playing his hand in the game as all nobles did.

Somerset’s government was corrupt and he was a poor war leader but, by killing him, York changed the rules of the game. It appeared that on Henry VI’s watch, it was alright to use force of arms to gain political advantage – NB. Political advantage, not the throne, because in 1455 it was not yet a “Game of Thrones.” Not yet.

All images in the Public Domain via Wikipedia


Derek Birks was born in Hampshire in England but spent his teenage years in Auckland, New Zealand, where he still has strong family ties. For many years he taught history in a secondary school but took early retirement to concentrate on writing. Apart from his writing, he spends his time gardening, travelling, walking and taking part in archaeological digs at a Roman villa.

Derek is interested in a wide range of historical themes but his particular favourite is the late medieval period. He writes action-packed fiction which is rooted in accurate history.

His debut historical novel, Feud, is set in the period of the Wars of the Roses and is the first of a series entitled Rebels & Brothers which follows the fortunes of the fictional Elder family.
The fourth and final book of the series, The Last Shroud, was published in the summer of 2015.

Find out more about Derek on his website, on his blog, or on his Amazon page.


  1. Hmmmmm. Interesting article, but it seems to me that it is only really believed Somerset was evil and corrupt because York said so, and his cronies later on. The Yorkists were very good at using propaghanda to vilify thier rivals, especially posthumously.

    Also, York was the greatest landowner in the Kingdom after the King himself. He may have had financial problems, but he did not need any more land, and certainly no more offices then he already had, and to be honest, the King at every right to give patronage to his Beaufort relatives. Personally, I think York comes across as greedy and resentful of anyone who he saw as threatening his power and wealth- not some champion.
    There's even suggestion that he arranged the marriage of Margaret Beaufort to his half-brother in the hope that thier children would be possible alternative heirs.

    1. Yes, I have some sympathy with your view of York, but I think there's evidence that the corruption of Somerset's government went beyond what was accepted - though he inherited much of that from Suffolk. York undoubtedly used propaganda as a tool to try to gain power though in fact it was not very successful - like most of York's gambits.

    2. I wonder how much that can actually be laid at the feet of Somerset and Suffolk themselves, and actually existed at the lower levls of government with ordinary officials and civil servants.

      One thing I was taught about the failure of war in France is that there was a lot of scapegoating going on. We English were proud and somewhat arrogant and did not want to accept that the French were beating us because they had grown stronger, or had a better army or superior tactics.
      We had to believe that our defeats were caused by treason or corruption- and then wanted someone to blame for that 'treason' and corruption. That was Suffolk, and later probably Somerset.

      There is evidence that even Suffolk might not have been as bad as he is made out to be, and was not trying to deliberately sabotage England's interests in France.

    3. Yes, and of course, the fortunes of war affected what people thought in England. Jack Cade's revolt and the ferocity of the attacks on Suffolk and others in 1450 suggest much discontent with the government. Also there seems to have been general approval for York's performance as Protector by comparison with Somerset. Of course Somerset did not have the same powers as York. Somerset needed the income from his offices at court because of his relatively few land holdings. This meant that by accumulating such benefits he laid himself more open to the charge of corruption.

  2. Sorry, I was referring to Henry VI when I mentioned the marriage of Margaret Beaufort to 'his half brother' not York!


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