The Rise to Power of William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk
The Wars of the Roses, and the political turmoil that led up to them, involved many notorious political actors. Perhaps one of the most controversial was William de la Pole, the Duke of Suffolk. So controversial, in fact, that his enemies gave him the nickname ‘jackanapes’. Which is a word now synonymous with conceit and mischief as a direct result of Suffolk’s historic reputation.
Suffolk rose from a career soldier, languishing in French custody, to become the most powerful man in England in little more than a decade. But how and why did he rise to such prominence? And how did he come to acquire such notoriety?
William de la Pole was born in 1396, the second son of Michael de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk. He did not come from an especially prestigious line. Back in the time of Edward III his ancestors had been untitled wool merchants. His grandfather, the first Earl of Suffolk rose to prominence largely due to the patronage of Richard II. His links to Richard led to his impeachment in 1386 and had he not fled to France, he might well have been executed by Richard’s enemies.
The de la Poles had gradually restored their reputation under the Lancastrians but held limited political influence. Indeed, as a second son, William was not even destined to inherit his father’s title.
At the age of 16, young William left England with his father and elder brother to join Henry V in his bid to seize the French throne. In the Agincourt campaign both his father and brother fell, leaving William to unexpectedly inherit the earldom just a few days after his 17th birthday.
During the years that followed the young Earl of Suffolk devoted himself to military service. At this stage there was little sign that he had any ambition to pursue a career in politics. Indeed, he spent the next 14 years serving in France in the Hundred Years’ War.
By 1421 he had impressed enough to receive a more prestigious command in the marches of Normandy. And in 1423 he’d joined Thomas, Earl of Salisbury on campaign in Champagne. He remained in position as Salisbury’s second-in-command for most of the 1420s.
In 1428, Suffolk accompanied Salisbury on a daring campaign to take the heavily fortified city of Orleans. Success would deliver a major strategic blow against the French, but it was a gamble.
At the time, three key men dominated the regency government of the boy-king Henry VI. One was the young king’s great uncle, Cardinal Beaufort. The other two were Henry’s surviving uncles; John, Duke of Bedford and Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. However, there was disagreement amongst the three on the wisdom of the campaign.
Gloucester had always been a hawk, keen to see that Henry V’s dreams of conquest were vigorously pursued. Now he and Salisbury wanted to take the fight to the enemy and strike a daring decisive blow. Bedford, however, had misgivings. He was concerned their plans would over extend the already stretched English resources. Nevertheless, Gloucester and Salisbury had the necessary backing from parliament to proceed.
The Siege of Orleans
At first the plan went well. The English managed to secure key Loire strongholds and the area around the city. Salisbury pressed home an aggressive assault. But just when it looked as if the city might fall, disaster struck. The French managed to reinforce the city garrison and, to make matters worse, Salisbury was killed in artillery fire.
The new command fell to Suffolk and the experienced Talbot, the Earl of Shrewsbury. The city’s defences were now too strong to risk an all-out assault, so the English settled in for a long siege.
The siege dragged on for months. Neither side seemed able to break the deadlock. Then, in the autumn of 1429, the French defenders, inspired by Joan of Arc, broke the siege.
In the lightening campaign that followed the French cleared the Loire region of resistance. The English forces in central France collapsed. Bedford had been proven right.
Suffolk himself was taken prisoner at Jargeau on 12th June. He remained a prisoner for the next two years, until finally ransomed in 1431. It was a most disappointing end to a career that spanned 14 years of continuous military service.
It was to be a turning point in Suffolk’s life.
From around this time Suffolk began to display one of the key qualities that facilitated his rise to power – charm.
It began when he was taken prisoner at Jargeau. He claimed to be so impressed by the martial prowess of his captor, Guillaume Renault, that he knighted the young Frenchman on the spot. This, of course, meant that Suffolk was taken prisoner by a knight rather than an esquire. It also flattered and impressed the young frenchman. Such diplomatic skill no doubt went someway to easing the path to his eventual ransom and release. It was a talent he deployed to great effect as he embarked on his political career.
When he finally returned to England, he was a changed man. Despite having served as a soldier for most of his adult life, Suffolk increasingly positioned himself as a peacemaker. Perhaps 14 years of war, with no end in sight, had convinced him that a negotiated settlement was the only way forward.
Suffolk’s big political break came in 1433. It happened as an almost incidental result of a confrontation between Gloucester and Beaufort the previous year. Gloucester had resented the fact that he had not been granted the regency after Henry V’s death. Instead, he’d been forced to share power with his brother and, worse, endure constant political interference from his wily old uncle, Cardinal Beaufort.
In the early 1430s, with Beaufort and Bedford pre-occupied with affairs in France, he took the opportunity to re-organise the royal household. Out went anyone who Gloucester felt was sympathetic to Beaufort or Bedford. In came men who Gloucester thought he could trust.
But Gloucester’s plans came to nothing. His clumsy efforts to get Beaufort tried for treason were quashed by the young king himself. To make matters worse, Bedford re-organised the royal household to include men who were more to his liking.
One of these new men was Suffolk, who suddenly found himself made Steward of the Royal Household. No doubt Bedford favoured him in no small part because Suffolk was a veteran of the French wars just like himself. And, since Suffolk was a former associate of Salisbury, a Gloucester ally, his appointment was less likely to offend.
Suffolk managed to tread a careful balancing act in his relations with Gloucester and Bedford whilst both still lived. It was by no means an easy task. His natural charm seems to have been his main weapon. Burgundy’s ambassador, who visited England in 1433, was among those who succumbed to the Suffolk spell. He reported to the Duke of Burgundy that Suffolk was one of the few, amongst the English, who could be regarded as a true friend. Suffolk appears to have instinctively known what to say to get people to warm to him in one-on-one situations.
Suffolk’s marriage to Alice Chaucer (the granddaughter of the famous writer), in the early 1430s, also proved to be a shrewd political move. She, like Suffolk, was ambitious and politically adroit. She also had powerful connections. Her father, Thomas Chaucer, was an important political figure with a long career in high office. Thomas was also Cardinal Beaufort’s cousin.
As steward, Suffolk had the opportunity to get close to the young king, just as the boy was maturing into a man. Suffolk’s political star was now on the rise and, sure enough, in 1434, he was rewarded with the office of Constable of Wallingford Castle.
Magnate of East Anglia
Outside of the court, Suffolk’s main power base lay with his land holdings in East Anglia. At the time, East Anglia was also home to another major magnate, John Mowbray, the Duke of Norfolk.
Mowbray had inherited the dukedom in 1432 at the relatively young age of 17. His primarily residence, at Framlingham, was only a few miles from Suffolk’s East Anglian seat at Wingfield Castle.
Clashes between neighbouring magnates over land ownership was by no means uncommon in the Middle Ages. As the 1430s wore on Norfolk and Suffolk came into increasing conflict. The first sign of troubles ahead can be found in local court records of 1435.
This early dispute involved various officers and associates of the two lords, rather than either man directly.
The Murder of James Andrew
James Andrew was a prominent member of East Anglian society. He had served as a knight of the shire and held lands at Stoke and Baylham. By profession, he was a lawyer, having served in this capacity on behalf of the de la Pole family as early as 1408.
By the mid-1430s Andrew had been involved in an increasingly bitter legal dispute with a certain Richard Steresacre. The argument was over land ownership in the Baylham estates. Things took an ugly turn when Steresacre enlisted the aid of a group of men who made violent threats of against Andrew.
In July 1434 a gang of hired thugs ambushed Andrew and beat him up. They may not have intended to kill him but, whatever their intent, the old man died.
Court records show that in addition to those directly involved, several influential local men were accused of organising the attack. These included Sir Robert Wingfield, Steward of Framlingham; William Thornham, the deputy keeper of Marshalsea; and Gilbert Debenham. All three were close associates of the Mowbray family.
When John Edward, the Alderman of Bury, attempted to arrest Wingfield and his comrades, more violence ensued. Wingfield and his men strung their bows and fired on the arresting officers. They were then able to make good their escape in the confusion.
Escalation and Resolution
Up until this point neither Norfolk nor Suffolk appear to have been directly involved. However, Wingfield and his associates appealed to Norfolk for protection. On the other side, the widow and relatives of James Andrew appealed to Suffolk for justice. On this occasion both magnates agreed to respect the wishes of the regency council and to act as ‘good lords’ to all involved.
It certainly helped that both men were distracted with other more pressing matters. Suffolk had to leave for France in the middle of 1435 to participate in the Congress of Arras. Norfolk, for his part, left England in 1436 to accompany Gloucester to Calais on campaign.
By the late 1430s, peace of a sort had been restored. Norfolk eventually managed to obtain pardons for Wingfield, Thornton, and Debenham. However, he was either unwilling or unable to intervene effectively on behalf of those more directly involved. The three ring-leaders got away with paying fines; the others were all outlawed.
Direct conflict between the two magnates had been avoided for the time being. The minority council that still ruled England before 1437 had proven resolute enough to at least maintain the peace. But the world was changing, and this was just the first incident in an ongoing feud between Suffolk and Norfolk.
John, Duke of Bedford died in 1435 and, in 1437, Henry VI brought the period of the minority government to an end. From now on the King ruled directly. He still maintained a council, but it was now officially subordinate to his authority.
Gloucester and Beaufort remained dominant forces in government, but the political landscape was shifting. A new generation of men close to the King were emerging to wield increasing political influence. And Suffolk, as Henry’s Steward, was one of the most prominent members of this new inner circle.
In the late 1430s the young King began to place his personal stamp on the new regime. Unlike his warlike father, Henry VI was not a man of war. He was a pious man of peace by nature, fully embracing the Christian virtues of generosity and forgiveness. Above all, Henry appears to have been determined to be a ‘good’ king within the context of an idealised Christian vision of kingship.
Patronage and Good Works
Amongst the most notable acts of his early reign, Henry initiated several ‘good works’, founding Eton and Cambridge colleges in quick succession. Worthy though such projects were, they were also expensive. Henry’s generosity and eagerness to please also extended to grants of land and titles. During the 1430s Henry liberally distributed both to relatives, friends, and close associates.
There was nothing unusual about a king granting such favours. However, Henry was particularly generous. Overly generous in the view of many. He also appears to have lacked a firm grasp of the consequences of his generosity. The royal treasury had serious debts even before Henry had assumed control of the government. The long and expensive war in France coupled with a fall in royal income from wool duties had taken their toll. Henry even seemed to lose track of the decisions he’d taken. On one occasion he granted the same office to different people within a few days of each other.
Many people began to fear he was weak, inattentive, and open to manipulation. In the early years the principal beneficiaries of his generosity included his two uncles Gloucester and Beaufort. However, members of his royal household also benefited, including Suffolk.
In time all this led to a suspicion that the King was being exploited by corrupt and unscrupulous men in his service. Such suspicions were perhaps preferable to entertaining the alternative – that Henry simply wasn’t up to dealing with the practicalities of government.
Suffolk was among those who came under suspicion, especially as he continued to gain power and influence at court. Like everyone else within close orbit of the King, he benefited from royal generosity. By 1437 he was a Steward of the Duchy of Lancaster and by 1440, Chief Justice of North Wales and Chester.
Part of this suspicion was undoubtedly fuelled by jealousy. Suffolk was a member of the nouveau riche. A man who lacked true noble heritage. His ancestors were common wool merchants. It was no surprise to some that a man from such a background pursued material wealth at any cost.
Suffolk’s feud with Norfolk in East Anglia further fuelled these suspicions as the 1440s wore on. In this instance it was certainly a case of six of one and half a dozen of the other. Both men’s agents and servants appear to have behaved badly. Norfolk’s willingness to shield men like Wingfield from justice showed he was every bit as partisan in protecting his people as Suffolk.
Such suspicions led Suffolk’s political enemies to label him ‘jackanapes’. However, in Suffolk’s time, that word did not have quite the same connotations as it does today.
Suffolk’s nickname originated from the de la Pole family badge. This took the form of an ape’s clog and leash. Such devices were often used to restrain monkeys and, monkeys were commonly referred to as ‘Jack of Naples’ in the C15th. It was from this that the word jackanapes eventually derived.
What began as a derogatory reference to the family badge eventually took on the meaning of a conceited, roguish, upstart – which was how many of Suffolk’s enemies came to view him.
However, by the end of the 1430s, Suffolk was only just beginning to acquire such notoriety. This was in no small part because he was still operating in the political shadow of Cardinal Beaufort.
War or Peace?
The big political question of the late 1430s was what to do about the war with France. Everyone agreed that the war was going badly. There was also no denying that royal finances were in a parlous state, drained by years of war. The only question was, what should be done?
Increasingly, political forces coalesced around two opposing views. The first was the faction led by Gloucester. For him, the martial legacy of Henry V should be protected at all costs. Consequently, he advocated one final massive military effort be made to secure the kingdom of France for Henry VI once and for all.
On the other side sat Cardinal Beaufort and his allies. And, for Beaufort, the facts spoke for themselves. The conflict had been dragging on for a century and victory was still nowhere in sight. The war was going badly. There was no money to finance any significant military campaign. The Burgundian alliance that had facilitated Henry V’s spectacular success was long dead. For Beaufort, a negotiated peace was the only sensible option.
Suffolk, for his part, positioned himself firmly in the Beaufort camp.
Peace Talks at Oye
The prospect of a permanent peace settlement held attraction for the French as well as the English. The war was costly after all. But as it was a war the French were winning, they expected favourable terms.
Both sides eventually met for peace talks at Oye in the summer of 1439. The English negotiating team was led by Beaufort and Archbishop Kemp. Suffolk, of course, accompanied them. The French offered to let the English keep Normandy and Gascony. However, this offer came at a price. Not least, Henry VI would have to desist from using the title ‘King of France’.
Rather predictably, as soon as the draft details became widely known, Gloucester and his supporters were in uproar. Gloucester scuppered any chance of accepting such terms with a series of blistering polemical attacks. He even went to far as to accuse Beaufort and the peace faction of deceiving the King with corrupt and evil councils.
Henry VI ignored Gloucester’s salacious accusations, but any chance of a peace settlement was dead by 1440.
Gloucester had primarily directed his attacks against his old enemy Beaufort. However, Suffolk’s close association with the peace faction clearly marked him out as Beaufort’s protégé. Or, looking at it unkindly, his performing monkey – jackanapes.
Gloucester’s Fall from Grace
Gloucester may have succeeded in blocking Beaufort’s treaty, but it came at the expense of alienating Henry VI. His political influence at court was now at a low ebb.
But things were about to get a lot worse for Gloucester. His reputation was not destined to survive 1441. His final fall from grace came as a surprise to everyone, even Beaufort. Unbeknownst to anyone, Gloucester’s wife, Eleanor, had been dabbling in the occult. She had consulted an astrologer who had foolishly predicted that the King would fall ill and die. If this horoscope came true, Gloucester would be king. For Beaufort, it was a political gift beyond his wildest dreams.
Eleanor was duly charged with ‘treasonable necromancy’. The evidence was overwhelmingly bad; a sinister wax doll was even discovered. It was an easy enough task to secure her conviction. However, she was not executed. Instead, she was made to undertake several shameful public penances and sentenced to life imprisonment. She was far more useful to Beaufort alive. She would live on, serving as constant reminder of Gloucester’s flawed judgement in marrying such a woman in the first place.
Gloucester’s reputation with the nobility of England was in tatters.
The Next Generation
Beaufort had finally succeeded in neutralising his old enemy. The issue of a peace accord with France could now be re-visited. However, following the fiasco at Oye, the French would need a lot of convincing. Indeed, in 1442 the French launched a major offensive against Gascony. It was clearly going to take a lot of hard work to get them back to the negotiating table.
By 1443 Cardinal Beaufort had been a major force in English politics for four decades. He first held high office as Lord Chancellor in 1403, under Henry IV. Now approaching 70, and with his protégé Suffolk firmly established at court, he decided it was time to retire from political life.
It was the end of an age. Beaufort, Gloucester, and Bedford had dominated the government for the past two decades. Now Bedford was dead, Gloucester discredited, and Beaufort retired. It was time for a new generation of political actors to take their place.
Chief amongst them was Suffolk, now poised to assume the role of Henry VI’s principal advisor. To cement his position in the King’s favour he knew he had to deliver what Beaufort had never quite managed – peace with France.
Suffolk’s rise to power was complete. The only question now was what he would do with it…
Keep up to date with our stories…
If you like reading our work and would like to keep up to date with the latest stories and news from our blog page, you can follow us on Facebook. We always announce any news and promote new stories as they are published here:
If you would like to read my articles on the reigns of other medieval English kings…
References and further reading
de la Pole family coat of arms – wikimandia (via wiki commons)
Jeanne d’Arc au siège d’Orléans, painted by Jules Eugène Lenepveu, 1886-1890 (via wiki commons)
Framlingham Castle – geograph.org.uk – photography by Keith Evans (via wiki commons)
De la Pole family badge – Complete Guide to Heraldry Fig682 Arthur Charles Fox-Davies 1909 (via wiki commons)
Humphrey Duke of Gloucester – illustration by an unknown artist late C18th (via wiki commons)
Cardinal Beaufort – cropped from a portrait by Paul Delaroche – Beaufort and Joan of Arc (via wiki commons)