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The Downfall of Good Duke Humphrey

Humphrey Duke of Gloucester

On 20 February 1447, the King’s own uncle, Duke Humphrey of Gloucester was arrested and charged with treason.  He was taken into custody and held at Bury St Edmunds where he died a few days later before he could be brought to trial. 

But how had things come to this?  Why had the duke been arrested?  And how is it that he died so suddenly thereafter?  At the time, there were dark rumours of poisoning.  But could there be any truth in this?

The Old Guard

By 1447, Gloucester was one of the political old guards of the Lancastrian regime. 

Following the untimely death of his brother, Henry V in 1422, Gloucester played a leading role in the minority government of the infant Henry VI.  He, his older brother John, Duke of Bedford, and their uncle Cardinal Beaufort dominated the regency council of the 1420s and early 1430s.

However, by 1447, an adult Henry VI had fully assumed the reins of power.  Gloucester found himself increasingly out of favour as Henry sidelined the aging duke. Henry preferred to award key positions to new men of his own choosing such as the Duke of Suffolk and Bishop Adam Moleyns.  By this time, John of Bedford was long dead, and the venerable Cardinal Beaufort had effectively retired. 

The sad fact was that Gloucester, at 56, was a mere shadow of the political force he’d once been.  

Prescient

Gloucester was a stalwart believer in the dream of his brother Henry V – the dream of a Lancastrian France.  In his view, Henry VI’s regime had been hijacked by corrupt and treasonous men, whose ‘evil councils’ were sabotaging the war effort.  However, his uncompromising stance regarding the Hundred Years’ War found him increasingly out of step with the new regime.  By 1447, the fact was that Gloucester was yesterday’s man.

Within a decade of Humphrey’s death England was plunged into the horrors of civil war as the Yorks and Lancastrians fought for the crown.  The Yorkists accused the Lancastrian regime of corruption, fiscal ineptitude and of negligent incompetence that had led to the loss of the Hundred Years’ War.  In the case of this latter criticism, the Yorks found common ground with the long dead Humphrey. 

With the benefit of the hindsight of the 1460s, much of what Duke Humphrey had stood for seemed to make sense.  He’d accused the Lancastrian court of failing to prosecute the war in France vigorously enough.  His warnings went unheeded and sure enough, by 1453 the English had been comprehensively defeated.  He’d accused the Lancastrian court of corruption and treason, but the king had failed to act.  Sure enough, the Yorkists argued, that corruption had festered until lawlessness and chaos followed.

The Good Duke

It was easy enough for a Yorkist of the 1460s to view the dead duke with considerable sympathy (even if he had been a Lancastrian).  Indeed, it was even possible to appropriate Gloucester as a martyr to the Yorkist cause.  It was in this context that the epithet ‘Good’ Duke Humphrey emerges.  One of the earliest recorded uses of this term appears in a Yorkist poem from the early 1460s:

“The good duke of Gloucester, in the season

Of the parliament at Bury,

Was put to death; and ever since great mourning

Hath been in England, with many a foul stench,

Falsehood, mischief, and secret conspiracy,

Causing England to fall into endless indolence.”

From ‘A Political Retrospect’, Yorkist poem of the early 1460s

From this perspective, then, the duke’s downfall and death could be viewed as a watershed moment.  It marked the beginning of the end of good rule in England.  The moment when Henry VI’s corrupt and inept courtiers finally went too far.  After this time, England’s decline proceeded apace.  France was lost, law and order broke down, and corrupt and incompetent men like the dukes of Suffolk and Somerset led the country to ruin.  Or so, at least, Yorkist propaganda of the time would have us believe.

But was it so simple?  Was Duke Humphrey so ‘good’?

The Hawk

Duke Humphrey of Gloucester had, ever since the death of Henry V, dedicated his political career to championing his brother’s French dreams.  Over the years he’d remained a consistent advocate for prosecuting the war in France with greater vigour.  He persisted in arguing that not enough was being done to win a decisive final victory.  More money needed to be raised, more armies despatched, and a bolder and more ambitious strategy adopted.

Any moves for peace were vociferously opposed by Gloucester, often with violent and inflammatory language.  The mere suggestion of a negotiated peace was, in Gloucester’s eyes, a betrayal of Henry V’s legacy and, indeed, of England.  To even suggest compromise with the French was, for Gloucester, tantamount to treason.  Indeed, over the years he had been quick to openly accuse anyone who argued for a compromise with France of treason, corruption, and evil councils. 

Gloucester’s uncompromising hawkishness certainly had appeal in England.  His resolute patriotism struck a chord with many people who yearned to see the return of the glory days of Agincourt.  However unrealistic Gloucester’s plans may in fact have been, he promised glory and greatness.  His jingoism made him very popular with a large section of the commons.

The Flawed Politician

Gloucester may have been consistent in advocating a vigorous and aggressive stance to the war in France, but the truth was his political abilities were seriously flawed.  While he may have embraced the spirit of Henry V’s policies, he was no Henry V.

Lacking his famous brother’s charisma and laser focus, he was not the skilled and meticulous military organiser than Henry V had been.  He did not, as Henry V did, understand the importance of aligning diplomacy with military ambition.  Nor did he possess his brother’s ability to raise the necessary finances to maintain a sustained offensive campaign in France.

As a result, many of Gloucester’s schemes proved to be ill-advised and highly unrealistic.  These were traits that frequently brought him into conflict with his more capable brother, John of Bedford and his clever uncle, the Cardinal, during the 1420s and 30s.

Ambition

Gloucester had, however, always been a highly ambitious man.  In the immediate aftermath of Henry V’s death, he had agitated to be made regent, with the power to rule England and France.  However, it was an ambition that was strongly opposed by the lords of the land.  Instead, it was agreed that a regency council should govern.  Gloucester had a seat on the council but was bound to abide by the decisions of a majority vote.  It was a blow to his ego, and he made no secret of voicing his dissatisfaction with it.

Gloucester’s response was to look to fulfil his personal ambitions elsewhere.  In the early 1420s he married Jacqueline of Hainaut, a noblewoman from the low countries.  Jacqueline, at this time, was involved in a political dispute over the control of various territories on the continent.  It was in these disputes that Gloucester vigorously involved himself, hoping to be able to claim the title Count of Holland, Zeeland, and Hainault.  This would have allowed him to establish his own personal fiefdom.  Unfortunately, it proved to be a reckless adventure.

Fiasco

Gloucester’s meddling interfered in a dispute which the Duke of Burgundy, England’s key ally in the war with France, considered to fall under his purview.  Unwilling to back down, Gloucester engaged in a personal war with Burgundy – much to the consternation of his brother John.  To bolster his cause, Gloucester even incited Londoners to engage in xenophobic attacks on Burgundian merchants.

The whole affair ended in fiasco.  Gloucester’s continental adventure was a military disaster; the forces mustered were no match for the Burgundians.  Gloucester achieved nothing other than offending a key English ally. 

Duke Philip of Burgundy was a key ally for England in the struggle for the French throne.  Henry V regarded the preservation of the Burgundian alliance as being of paramount importance. However, Gloucester’s personal feud with Philip placed that alliance in serious jeopardy.

Gloucester’s confrontation with Burgundy illustrates most clearly his poor judgement.  He may have positioned himself as the champion of Henry V’s legacy but, when the chips were down, he displayed a very poor appreciation of his brother’s policies.  Henry V had been very clear on his deathbed that the alliance with Burgundy should not be jeopardized under any circumstances.  Gloucester, unfortunately, was more than willing to risk it if it offered the possibility of personal self-aggrandisement.

Inconstancy

The failure of Gloucester’s ill-judged attempts to claim his wife’s continental legacy in the 1420s meant that she was no longer any political use to him.  It wasn’t that long before he unceremoniously dumped her in favour of her chamber maid – Eleanor Chobham. 

Eleanor was a woman of relatively lowly social status, hardly an acceptable match for a duke in the eyes of the English nobility.  Nevertheless, Gloucester pressed ahead and married her anyway.  The affair was widely viewed as scandalous.  More importantly, it gave the nobility even greater cause to question Gloucester’s judgement.

The Decline of English Fortunes

English fortunes in the Hundred Years’ War went into serious decline after Joan of Arc’s spectacular victory at Orleans in 1429.  Gloucester, frustrated at the lack of aggression shown by his brother’s military efforts in France, had instigated the siege of Orleans in the first place.  It had been a bold and ambitious gamble.  But, as Bedford had feared, it proved to be a disastrous over-extension. The English forces were overwhelmed, and the victorious French quickly overran large swathes of English held territory.

The English managed to stem the tide to a degree and even enjoyed some tactical success in stabilising the situation.  But, by this time, the high cost of war and growing systemic fiscal problems meant that the Lancastrian regime was accruing substantial debts.

Joan of Arc’s spectacular victory at the siege of Orleans in 1429 marked a key turning point in the Hundred Years’ War.

By the autumn of 1433 the debts ran to a staggering £165,000 and, every year, they were growing by a further £22,000.  Yet, despite this, Gloucester cooked up yet another grand scheme to retake the military initiative from the French.  To finance it he suggested the state borrow a further £50,000.  It was a plan utterly divorced from reality and, unsurprisingly, it was soundly rejected by the English establishment.

Burgundy Abandons England

In 1435, the alliance with Burgundy collapsed.  The alliance had been under strain for a while.  It was becoming increasingly obvious that the French king was unlikely to be defeated any time soon.  The fact that the Duke of Burgundy switched sides to France as soon as John of Bedford died says a lot.  With Bedford gone, Gloucester was set to emerge as a dominant political force in England.  Unfortunately, for the English, Gloucester was not a man that the Duke of Burgundy had any desire to deal with.

From that point onwards, there was no realistic prospect of the kind of glorious final victory that Gloucester had always dreamed of.  Indeed, from 1435 onwards, the English could do little more than hold onto the gains they’d made.

By the late 1430s, Gloucester was increasingly isolated.  He continued to vociferously oppose any moves for peace even though some form of negotiated settlement was surely the only sensible option.  Furthermore, it was an option that the young Henry VI increasingly favoured.

Much to Gloucester’s consternation, in 1439, the English and French entered tentative peace talks.  Both sides were motivated to at least try to end the war, given the mounting financial drain on both countries.  However, the two sides were still very far apart. 

Roadblock to peace

Despite their many differences, the English and French negotiators eventually thrashed out a tentative deal.  However, it only allowed for a truce, rather than permanent peace.  The French agreed to allow the English to hold onto their French possessions for the time being.  In exchange, the English had to release the Duke of Orleans (who’d been a prisoner in England since Agincourt), and Henry VI had to stop using the title ‘King of France’.

These terms still needed to be agreed by the two kings and, inevitably, they would have to be run past the respective royal councils.  Many on the English side had their suspicions as to whether the French offer was genuine, but it was Gloucester, as usual, who was the main roadblock to peace.  The idea that Henry should ever relinquish his claim to the French throne was anathema to him.  When the king asked his opinion on the subject, Gloucester raged that it was “the greatest sign of infamy that ever fell to you…I would never agree to this and would rather die!”

Not only did Gloucester oppose the truce, but he also went further, accusing the key English negotiators of usurping Henry’s authority, of fraud, and treason.  These accusations came to nothing, but Gloucester’s vituperative attacks were more than sufficient to scupper any hope of peace.

Lost Credibility

The final nail in the coffin of Gloucester’s political career came in 1441.  At that time Henry VI was still unmarried and had no heir.  Should he have died, his uncle would have been next in line to the throne.  Gloucester’s own ambitions were, as it happened, well matched by his wife.  The duchess foolishly consulted astrologers, seemingly looking for signs as to whether her husband might one day inherit the crown.  Of course, this could only happen if the much younger Henry VI were to die before his uncle. 

There was a fine line to be drawn between seeking signs that the king might meet with some untimely end and actively seeking his demise.  And that line was fine enough for Gloucester’s political enemies to take full advantage.

Gloucester’s wife, Eleanor Chobham, was forced to perform public penance for practicing ‘necromancy’’.  She escaped execution but faced lifetime confinement.

Eleanor was arrested and charged with treasonable necromancy.  Although she was spared death, she was forced to live out her life in confinement and made to divorce her husband.  The charges against her had almost certainly been greatly exaggerated for political reasons.  However, it was very clear to most people that her actions had, at the very least, been naïve and extremely foolish.  It confirmed what many members of the nobility had suspected for years – that Gloucester’s judgement in marrying Eleanor had been seriously flawed in the first place.

The Treaty of Tours

Although the peace talks of 1439 came to nothing, it remained in the interests of both sides to find a way to come to terms.  The primary drive for peace on the English side was, increasingly, Henry VI himself.  Henry lacked the martial instincts of his father and never led an army in battle.  A pious man, he almost certainly regarded the pursuit of peace as far more spiritually meritorious than seeking glory in battle.

One final lacklustre military campaign in 1443, finally convinced Henry to make a renewed effort to sue for peace.  The result of these renewed negotiations was the Treaty of Tours.  In the initial instance this resulted in a temporary truce and a marriage alliance between Henry and Margaret of Anjou (the king of France’s niece).

Aside from the marriage and the truce, the fuller details of these negotiations were kept secret.  However, most people were relieved that England would know true peace for the first time in decades.  The marriage to Margaret was taken by many as a hopeful sign; a portent, perhaps, of better things to come.  Few people in England could find much to complain about in what was made public in the initial instance.  Few people, that is, except for one.

“A Queen not Worth Ten Marks”

Gloucester, as ever, remained deeply suspicious of the French and was deeply unimpressed by Margaret.  She was not one of the French king’s daughters for one thing and for another her family, though it had an illustrious history, was poor.  He openly voiced what some people felt and, typically, he chose to do so in a most undiplomatic manner.  Parliament, he complained, “…had bought a queen not worth ten marks.”

Quite what Margaret felt about that is unrecorded.  However, as a 15-year-old girl about to travel to the land of her enemies to marry a man she’d never met, it must have been very intimidating.

Margaret came to England to become its queen in 1445.  She had been sent there with the aim of working towards some kind of permanent peace.  As such, her role naturally brought her into direct conflict with the hawkish Gloucester.  Their first meeting was reported as frosty but cordial.  It did not improve from there.

In a strange way, Margaret and Gloucester had a fair bit in common.  Both were well educated and keen champions of renaissance learning.  Both could also be quite feisty, passionate personalities; not at all the sort of people who were inclined to back down from a fight.

Anjou and Maine

At some point during the peace negotiations, it was agreed that England would surrender Anjou and Maine to the French.  This concession had first been requested by Margaret’s father, René (they were his family’s ancestral lands).  Whether this term was agreed initially or later and, if later, when, is impossible to say with any certainty.

It was, of course, a concession that was utterly unacceptable to Gloucester (as well as many others in the English camp).  However, it was either not fully agreed or deliberately kept a secret for some time after Henry’s marriage to Margaret. 

When the details finally emerged, those opposed to these terms blamed bad councillors rather than Henry VI himself.  Suffolk was, of course, the primary target.  So too were other prominent members of the court faction such as Moleyns and Edmund Beaufort (then Earl of Somerset).  The queen herself was also a target (perhaps unsurprising given her father’s involvement). 

Margaret’s Role

Margaret does seem to have encouraged Henry to stick to his concessions.  However, she would not have been involved with the original negotiations.  As a result, she had little to no influence over the actual decision, only over its implementation.

The extent of Margaret’s political role at this time has been exaggerated with the passage of time (mainly in the light of her prominence in political events a decade later).  In 1445, however, she was still only a young teenager, largely unfamiliar with English court politics. Rumours of her being seduced by Suffolk into championing his agenda at court are not contemporary.  The first recorded suggestion of any affair with Suffolk does not appear until a century later (and then only in a single unreliable sixteenth century source).

Whilst Henry’s queen and his councillors all played some role in the decision, the elephant in the room was surely Henry himself.  Ultimately it was his decision. Based on the account of the peace talks held in England in the summer of 1445, Henry emerges (certainly in French eyes) as the primary champion of peace.  A more realistic assessment is that Henry himself was the prime mover behind these concessions.  Such a conclusion was, of course, quite unpalatable, even for the regime’s most vociferous critics of the time.

A bad deal

What had been agreed at Tours, including the terms relating to Anjou and Maine, were never intended to serve as a final agreement.  Both sides had hoped that it would serve as a stepping stone for a permanent settlement.  What had been agreed was seen by many as a step in that direction, but it remained far from adequate to say the least.

The main problem was that the treaty did not result in a permanent peace, only a temporary truce.  The idea was only to buy time whilst a permanent peace was agreed.  But the two sides were too far apart for that to be remotely likely without one or both making very significant concessions.  The French wanted not only Anjou and Maine but also Normandy.  They also wanted Henry to renounce his claim to the French throne.  They were willing to let him keep Gascony and Calais, but only on condition that he acknowledged the French king as overlord in these territories.

This was unacceptable to most on the English side and certainly to the likes of Gloucester.  The fact was that the Treaty of Tours was seriously flawed.  Pressing ahead with handing back Anjou and Maine was both foolhardy and inadequate under these circumstances.  However, Gloucester, who quickly emerged as the treaty’s greatest critic, had no practical or constructive alternatives to offer.

Intransigence

Gloucester, by this time, was a man living in the past.  The only alternative he could offer was to scrap the treaty, raise an army and push onward to victory.  It was a completely impractical position.  There was no way that the English parliament would ever agree to finance a military effort on the scale needed.  The only alternative was to dramatically raise royal debts, even though royal debts were already unmanageably large.  This was before we even consider the fact that England now lacked the benefit of a Burgundian alliance.  This was a factor that Henry V had rightly considered an essential precondition for any victory.

Gloucester may not have had any practical answers, but this did not deter him from highlighting the flaws in the treaty.  Gloucester’s influence at court was negligible by this time.  Furthermore, his credibility with the wider nobility was shot to pieces.  Nevertheless, his jingoism and his ability to hark back to the lost glory days of Henry V still had the power to rally significant popular support.  In short, Gloucester still had the potential to cause trouble, especially if he could whip up enough support for his views with the commons.

Roadblocks to Peace

To make matters worse, the details of how and when Anjou and Maine should be handed over became bogged down in the ongoing negotiations.  There were all sorts of complications that slowed things down and made the French suspicious.  One of the biggest practical barriers to implementing the terms of the treaty was Edmund of Somerset.

Although Somerset is often cited as one of the central supporters of Suffolk’s court faction, he was not about to let politics get in the way of personal interest.  Somerset had been the governor of Maine, a position he was not willing to give up without substantial compensation.  Negotiating the details of this compensation dragged out and so Somerset dragged his feet.  In practical terms he slowed the whole process down far more effectively than Gloucester.

A key parliament was due to be held in early 1447 in which, the court faction hoped, progress could be made with implementing their peace agenda.  Gloucester was looking increasingly like he’d serve as a very unpleasant fly in that particular ointment.  His criticisms were not only vociferous but actively confrontational.  It was not enough for Gloucester to accuse his political foes of incompetence.  In Gloucester’s mind anyone who advocated handing over Anjou and Maine was quite simply a traitor.

Gloucester’s Arrest

Nervousness over the parliament of early 1447 is evident from the fact that the venue was changed on more than one occasion.  It was moved away from London, where Gloucester was known to command strong local support.  Eventually, Bury St Edmunds was chosen, a place that sat squarely within the Duke of Suffolk’s sphere of influence.

On 20th February, Gloucester arrived with a small entourage and was directed to an inn.  As he and his companions were taking their ease there, the court officers struck.  Gloucester was arrested and charged with treason, along with several of his key supporters.  Elsewhere across the country, others from amongst his household, including his illegitimate son, were arrested on similar charges.

In the initial instance he was incarcerated, safely out of the way, whilst the parliament was conducted.  However, he was never brought to trial since he was dead within three days of his arrest.

The timing was suspicious, leading some to suspect poisoning or some other nefarious means of assassination.  However, Humphrey was in his late fifties by this stage and not in especially good health.  It is more likely he suffered a stroke or heart attack, probably induced by the shock of his arrest.  

Gloucester’s Legacy

Many of those arrested with Gloucester were ultimately pardoned.  Details of the accusations were made public.  The charges appear trumped up.  Whether Gloucester himself would have been seriously prosecuted or whether his arrest was simply a device to keep him away from the parliament is hard to say.  In the end his political enemies had no reason to pursue the matter further once he was dead.

Later, his arrest, his death and his long-standing opposition to the court faction would lead many Yorkists to co-opt him as an early martyr to their cause.

At the time, however, though his arrest and death had been a shock, the response of the English nobility and parliament was muted.  It helped greatly that his lands and possessions were parcelled out to the nobility.  Such gifts clearly made his passing far easier to bear without complaint.  And the truth is that Humphrey was not a popular man with anyone in the establishment.  His fiery and bellicose nature had made him a hard man to like and most felt that his judgement had been seriously flawed.

Even the Duke of York, whose own political career had benefited from Humphrey’s patronage, raised no objections at the time.  On the contrary, he happily accepted a gift of some of Gloucester’s old landholdings.

Humphrey the Good

In the final analysis Duke Humphrey was not the great champion for justice and good policy that Yorkist propaganda might have us believe.  In many ways he was seriously flawed.  He became a useful propaganda tool for the Yorkists but only by picking and choosing those elements of Humphrey’s career that suited their narrative. (His suggestion for dramatically increasing royal debts to finance the war effort were conveniently forgotten).

Gloucester’s criticisms of the Treaty of Tours were nevertheless spot on in one key respect.  The treaty was a fatally flawed deal.  The problem was that Humphrey’s alternatives were completely impractical.  Worst still, his intransigent opposition to peace talks of any sort had seriously limited England’s negotiating position over the years.  Without his jingoistic rabble-rousing, it might just have been possible for England to have negotiated a better peace deal far sooner than 1444.   

Gloucester’s legacy was ultimately mixed at best.  Certainly, the idea of Gloucester as the ‘Good’ duke of later Yorkist propaganda owed more to highly selective dreamy-eyed romanticism than reality.

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If you would like to read my articles covering key events in the reigns of other late medieval English kings…

Henry VI:

1 The Legacy of Henry V and the Infant King

2 The Parliament of Bats

3 The Minority of Henry VI

4 Jackanapes – the Rise of the Duke of Suffolk

5 Young Margaret of Anjou

6 The Treaty of Tours – Peace in Our Time 1444

Henry V:

1 The Making of Henry V

2 The Invasion of France

3 The Battle of Agincourt

4. The Scourge of God

Henry IV:

1 Adventures of Young Henry of Bolingbroke

2 The Elected King

3 Founding of a Dynasty

Richard II:

1 Boy King

2 Tyranny

3 The legacy of Richard II

Edward III:

The End of an Age – an introduction & overview of the origins of the Wars of the Roses and the fall of the Plantagenets

References and further reading

Duke Humphrey of Gloucester in the eyes of posterity: Lancastrian rule and Tudor propaganda – Alessandra Petrina, Università di Padova, 2016

Henry VI, Margaret of Anjou and the Wars of the Roses, Keith Dockray, 2016, Fonthill Media

Lancaster & York: The Wars of the Roses, Alison Weir, Pimlico, 1998

Shadow King, The Life and Death of Henry VI, Lauren Johnson, Head of Zeus, 2020

Images

Humphrey of Gloucester – Illustration by Jacques Le Boucq (Wiki Commons)

Phillippe the good; Roger van der Weyden (via Wiki Commons)

Joan of Arc enters Orleans, Jean-Jacques Scherrer, 1887, Musée des Beaux-Art (Wiki Commons)

A Chronicle of England – Page 392 – The Duchess of Gloucester Does Penance James WE Doyle (via Wiki Commons)

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