Early in 1426, a tense, angry Parliament met at Leicester. One of the king’s uncles accused another of his uncles of treason. The atmosphere was tense, violence threatened to erupt at any time. England was on the brink of chaos.
But how had it come to this?
A new regime
As 1422 ended, England was adjusting to a new regime. An infant king, Henry VI, sat on the throne. Effective government of now lay in the hands of a council dominated by three men. John Duke of Bedford, as the elder of Henry’s two uncles, was the senior figure in the new regime. However, since he was preoccupied with the ongoing war in France, he was rarely present in England.
In John’s absence, Henry’s other uncle, Duke Humphrey of Gloucester, acted as Lord Protector. The third key figure was the politically adroit Bishop Henry Beaufort, Henry VI’s great uncle.
This arrangement did not auger well. Gloucester was a volatile man, apt to place his own personal interests before all else. Beaufort was a ruthless and experienced politician, adept at manipulating events from behind the scenes. With hindsight, confrontation between the two seemed almost inevitable.
However in the initial instance, the council had one obvious item on its agenda that had to take priority over all else – the ongoing war with France.
The struggle for France
Henry V had died in the middle of fighting a major war in France. It was a war which the English were winning but final victory was still a long way off. Winning the war would undoubtedly take considerable military and political skill. Luckily John of Bedford was an experienced military commander and pragmatic politician. There was no one better to take on the challenge. But he was no Henry V.
Bedford understood victory in France depended on England’s key ally, Duke Phillippe of Burgundy. Burgundy hated the Armagnac dominated French court, but his support was far from guaranteed. To help cement the alliance, Bedford married Anne of Burgundy, the Duke’s sister, in June 1423.
In terms of prosecuting the war, Bedford pursued a policy of steady consolidation rather than gambling on any bold offensives. But he would soon find his military skills put to the test.
The old French king, the mentally incapacitated Charles VI, died shortly after Henry V. By the terms of the Treaty of Troyes, little Henry VI now also inherited the French throne. This inheritance was accepted by England’s Burgundian allies but not by the Armagnacs and their leader, the Dauphin Charles.
The French Counter-Offensive
The Armagnacs had suffered a series of defeats at the hands of Henry V and were running low on manpower by late 1422. However, over the next year they managed to raise new forces, supplemented by Scots and Milanese mercenaries. French victory at La Brossinière in September 1423 coupled with the arrival of fresh troops, encouraged them to take to the offensive in 1424.
In August 1424, an Armagnac army led by Count Aumale advanced into southern Normandy. The army was supplemented by a large force of Scots mercenaries commanded by the Earl of Buchan. Aumale also had a crack force of mounted Milanese men-at-arms at his disposal. The Milanese were especially feared since they were equipped with the finest heavy armour available at the time.
On 15th August, Bedford received the news that Aumale had taken the town of Verneuil. He wasted no time in marching south to repel the incursion.
The two armies clashed, just outside Verneuil, on 17th August 1424.
The Battle of Verneuil
The battle commenced as the Milanese cavalry charged the English longbowmen. Much to the archers’ dismay, their arrows had virtually no effect on the heavily armoured Milanese. To make matters worse they’d been unable to plant defensive stakes, since the ground had baked rock hard in the sunny summer weather. The Milanese ploughed straight through them, hacking down many and putting the rest to flight.
As the Milanese chased the routing archers off the field, an English defeat looked imminent. However, the Milanese, being mercenaries, had little interest in following up their initial success. Instead, they made a beeline for the English baggage train, keen to loot it for plunder. This gave Bedford enough time to rally what was left of his army to meet the Franco-Scots infantry assault that followed.
Fortunately for Bedford, the French had been as surprised as the English by the devastating effectiveness of the Milanese charge. Keen to capitalise on the advantage they had launched a hasty follow-up assault. However, they had not given themselves time to properly co-ordinate their attack. As a result, it hit home in a somewhat piecemeal manner. The fighting was fierce, with Bedford himself in the thick of the melee, wielding a large poleaxe. But, for a time, neither side looked like gaining an advantage.
A Victory to Match Agincourt
With the Milanese pre-occupied with plunder, the English archers began returning to the field. It was enough to tip the balance. As more and more archers returned, the odds gradually swung in favour of the English. The tide turned and the French line began to collapse. In the end only the Scots remained to make a last stand.
By the time the Milanese returned to the field it was far too late. The English had won the day. The Milanese, now outnumbered, were quickly driven off after making a token effort to counterattack.
It was an impressive victory and, although casualties had been high, it effectively ended the French capacity to take the offensive for the time being. Some even regarded Bedford’s victory as a second Agincourt. It certainly secured the English position in northern France and enabled Bedford to focus his efforts on subduing Anjou and Maine largely unhindered.
Meanwhile, back in England, John’s brother, Duke Humphrey of Gloucester, had not been idle. But not in a good way. He’d been busy embroiling himself in a complex web of continental political disputes. It was precisely the kind of shenanigans that the English nobility had been afraid of and precisely why they had not trusted Gloucester with the regency
In March 1421, Countess Jacqueline of Hainault arrived in England as a refugee. She was made welcome at Henry V’s court and even given the honour of being named as one of Henry VI’s godparents. Not that long after her arrival, the amorous Duke Humphrey began to show an interest.
But why had the countess been forced to flee to England in the first place? And what exactly was Gloucester getting himself involved with?
Jacqueline was the only daughter of William VI, Count of Holland. When William died in 1417, she’d staked her claim to inherit his titles. In Hainault, the female line of succession was well established, and she was readily accepted. However, in Holland, her position was more controversial. Her uncle, John III, contested her claim. To complicate matters further, John was supported by the German King Sigismund. And to complicate matters even further, England’s key ally, the Duke of Burgundy, also contested her succession.
To strengthen her hand, Jacqueline wanted to marry John IV, Duke of Brabant. A husband by her side would make her claim to Holland more palatable. However, since John and Jacqueline were cousins, her political enemies persuaded the Pope to refuse dispensation for the marriage. Undeterred, they married anyway in March 1418.
Conflict and Betrayal
Meanwhile open conflict between the various competing factions had already broken out. For the next few years Jacqueline contended with John III for control of Holland. She even managed to win an early victory against her uncle at the battle of Gorkum.
However, political horse-trading between the various players did not work in Jacqueline’s favour. Despite finally getting papal approval for her marriage in 1419, her husband proved to be very far from the asset she’d hoped for. Against her wishes he signed the Treaty of St. Martinsdyk with John III, which granted her uncle control of Holland for twelve years. In exchange her uncle agreed a payoff and promised not to contest Jacqueline’s claim to Hainault. Eventually her husband even offered to sell off Hainault. This was the final straw and, in 1421, Jacqueline petitioned for a divorce.
Despite all her efforts, her uncle was steadily gaining the upper hand. When he captured Leiden, it finally became clear that her position had become untenable, and she was forced to flee to England.
Jacqueline’s exile generally suited everyone. Her uncle was the obvious winner. The powerful King Sigismund was placated. And the Duke of Burgundy was pleased to see peace restored to a region he considered to be within his sphere of influence. No one wanted to see Jacqueline dead, so a peaceful retirement in England seemed ideal.
It is unclear when exactly Gloucester began courting Jacqueline’s affections. They may well have been having an affair whilst Henry V still lived. Even so, so long as it remained nothing more than an affair, it mattered little. Certainly, there was no chance of it becoming anything more than this whilst Henry V lived. But then, Henry V died.
In 1422 Jacqueline obtained a divorce from John IV, but it was recognised only in England. Gloucester moved fast. Whether out of genuine affection for Jacqueline or ambition for her titular claims, Gloucester married her in secret in early 1423. By October of that year, she’d formally assumed the title of Duchess of Gloucester.
Next the pair approached the pope to formalise Jacqueline’s divorce and recognise her new marriage. However, this move was opposed by her uncle, John III, and, more ominously, by the Duke of Burgundy.
Count of Hainault, Holland, and Zeeland
Gloucester wasted little time in actively pursuing his wife’s titular claims on the continent. This was a big diplomatic problem. He asked the Duke of Burgundy for permission to march an army through his lands to enforce his wife’s claims. This the duke refused. The last thing he needed was Gloucester stirring up trouble on his back doorstep. Burgundy even approach Bedford and implored him to do what he could to dissuade his reckless brother from re-opening old wounds.
However, Gloucester’s mind was made up. In the autumn of 1424, he arrived in Calais with an English army of some 5,000 and proceeded with his wife to Hainault. There he was formally declared count. The Duke of Burgundy attempted to broker a compromise solution through Bedford. However, Gloucester was not willing to listen to reason. For Burgundy, it was the final insult, he was now determined to resist Gloucester with the full force of his power.
By the start of 1425 Gloucester had started calling himself the Count of Holland in his official correspondence, inflaming the situation even further.
War with Burgundy
John III died in early January 1425. John of Brabant now saw no reason to remain loyal to Jacqueline. For him there was far more to be gained by currying favour with the powerful Duke of Burgundy. He therefore signed over the regency of Holland to Burgundy, placing Burgundy and Gloucester in direct dispute for control of the country. Neither Gloucester nor Burgundy were willing to back down.
The two enemies finally clashed at the bloody siege of Braine-Le-Comte in March 1425. Gloucester was now dragging England into a war with her Burgundian allies. All Bedford’s hard work to secure northern France for Henry VI was in danger of unravelling.
In the end, further conflict was averted only when Gloucester and Burgundy agreed to settle the matter in a duel. The armies withdrew and Gloucester returned to England to make the necessary preparations. However, he left some of his troops behind under his wife’s command to allow her to continue to press her claims.
Gloucester’s ill-judged embroilment in Burgundian affairs had consequences beyond damaging England’s relations with her key ally.
Whilst Gloucester had been focusing his energies on his continental dreams, Bishop Beaufort had not been idle. He used the opportunity to strengthen his grip on the reins of power in England. He became Chancellor of England in 1424 and, as 1425 wore on, his influence in the regency council became increasingly dominant.
With his continental adventure temporarily stalled, Gloucester returned to England. It didn’t take him long to realise that he’d taken his eye off the political ball at home for far too long.
Gloucester’s clash with Burgundy had incited existing xenophobic hatred towards Flemish merchants present in London. England was heavily dependent on trade with Burgundy, so any conflict was sure to be damaging in the short term. However, the prospect of Gloucester gaining control of Holland had the potential to open highly lucrative opportunities for London merchants in the future. For this reason, many were keen to back him.
The Duke of Burgundy responded to these provocations by banning English cloth from his domain, hitting London merchants hard in the coin purse. Naturally, this only served to incite xenophobic feelings even further. From early 1425 anti-Flemish pamphlets began circulating in London and Flemish traders and their servants were increasingly viewed with paranoid suspicion. The threat of riots and disorder loomed large on the horizon.
Chancellor Beaufort attempted to defuse the situation and impose order by installing a strong garrison, commanded by Richard Woodville, in the Tower of London. Many Londoners were less than happy. They could not understand why Beaufort was not doing more to support Gloucester against the foreigners.
Gloucester’s return in April 1425 only served to inflame the situation further. He was especially incensed to find Beaufort had secured the Tower with men who seemed to answer only to Beaufort. Gloucester soon began to make angry threats against the Bishop. All too aware that Beaufort had been getting the upper hand, he resorted to appealing to the populist xenophobic sentiments of the London mob.
The parliament of that spring was a chaotic affair. Conflicting demands for financing for the war in France and Gloucester’s Flemish adventure were submitted for consideration. Populist xenophobia dominated proceedings, with representatives demanding punitive measures be imposed on foreign ‘enemies’ living in England. As regards the granting of finances, the only thing parliament could agree on was that taxpayers should avoid footing the bill as far as possible. Any grants of money that were forthcoming were dependent upon xenophobic restrictions and punitive measures being imposed on foreigners.
Despite these measures being voted through, Beaufort effectively de-railed their implementation with bureaucratic inertia. They were, after all, highly damaging both to England’s political and economic interests in the long run. No matter what Gloucester did, it was becoming increasingly clear that the wily bishop always seemed to be a step ahead.
The brooding duke
Gloucester was ultimately unable to galvanise the political establishment behind his continental adventure. He’d successfully whipped up a considerable amount of jingoistic popular support but no significant financing. Furthermore, both he and Burgundy were being pressurised by Bedford and the pope to call off their ridiculous duel.
To Gloucester it seemed his ambitions were being thwarted at every turn. And it now seemed obvious that the man most active in thwarting his ambitions was Bishop Beaufort.
The latest rumours reaching Gloucester’s ear was that Beaufort’s handsome young nephew, Edmund Beaufort, was wheedling his way into Queen Katherine’s affections. If, God forbid, the younger Beaufort were to go so far as to marry King Henry’s mother, that crafty Bishop would gain intolerable influence over the infant king.
Indeed, the little king and his household resided at Eltham Palace, south of the river Thames. Bishop Beaufort now spent most of his time at his Southwark residence, also south of the river, within easy reach of Eltham. Coincidence? Gloucester thought not.
Gloucester, angry he wasn’t getting his own way, was becoming increasingly paranoid about Beaufort’s political influence. Beaufort was constantly outmanoeuvring him by methods that were far too subtle for the obtuse duke.
In the end, Gloucester finally cracked.
On 29th October 1425, the newly elected Lord Mayor of London was sitting down to an official dinner with his aldermen. Just as they were beginning their meal, they received an urgent summons from the Duke of Gloucester. They hurried to Gloucester’s residence at Baynard Castle, where he warned them that they needed to take desperate measures to forestall an insidious plot.
Bishop Beaufort, he informed them, was planning a coup. Apparently, the bishop had secretly assembled a private army with a view to seizing control of the infant king at Eltham Palace. The militia and all good citizens should assemble the following morning to storm the bishop’s residence in Southwark to thwart his treasonous plans!
The next morning an angry mob, whipped into a frenzy by Gloucester’s demagoguery, duly assembled. They made for London Bridge with a view to crossing over to Southwark to deal with the hated bishop.
However, word of these events had reached Beaufort in time for him to assemble enough of his men to barricade the southern end of the bridge. Archers, in Beaufort’s service, were positioned ready to fire upon anyone seeking to storm across from the north bank.
It was a stand-off.
‘Such a brother you have here’
The more level-headed members of the nobility present in London at the time now desperately attempted to diffuse the situation. All day messengers passed back and forth between Gloucester and Beaufort to negotiate a stand-down.
Eventually an uneasy peace was restored, and the immediate threat of armed conflict averted. However, the capital remained on edge, and it was clear to everyone that violence might break out at any time.
Beaufort had no option but to write to Bedford, for help. He ended his letter with the plea for Bedford’s swift return, “…for by my troth, if you tarry, this land will see battle. Such a brother you have here, may God make him a good man.”
The war in France would clearly have to wait. The situation back in London had become so desperate that Bedford had little choice but to return.
Bedford arrived back in England in early December to restore order. He immediately summoned a parliament which would be held away from the volatile capital, in Leicester. Fortunately for all concerned his mere presence was enough to put a lid on any further disorder.
Meanwhile, unbeknown to Bedford, Beaufort, or Gloucester, Gloucester’s continental adventure was about to come to an ignominious end.
The Duke of Burgundy’s army decisively crushed Jacqueline’s Zeelanders and Gloucester’s English soldiers at Brouwershaven in January 1426.
It was now very clear that Gloucester was never going to realise his ambition of becoming count of Holland. The disaster at Brouwershaven was the final nail in the coffin of his continental ambitions.
And by this time there was another good reason for Gloucester to turn his back on Jacqueline’s struggles. At some point in 1425, whilst his wife was desperately fighting for her inheritance, he started an affair with Jacqueline’s young lady-in-waiting, Eleanor Chobham.
From now on Jacqueline was on her own. As far as Gloucester was concerned, he had no further use for her.
Now that Bedford was in England, Gloucester’s powers as Lord Protector were effectively suspended. Bedford was officially in charge and, in any case, the nobility much preferred to take their lead from the level-headed Bedford than his reckless brother. However, mediation between Gloucester and Beaufort proved far more difficult that anyone could have predicted.
Bedford set the date for the parliament in mid-February. The intention was to have any disputes largely resolved by this time and use the parliament to put the whole matter to bed.
With this in mind, Bedford convened more than one council meeting with the intention that his brother’s case be debated and hopefully resolved in good time. However, each time, Gloucester refused to attend. Instead, he preferred to sulk at his country estate near Devises with his new mistress. His unreasonable behaviour was now becoming a national embarrassment.
Gloucester even threatened to refuse to attend the parliament unless Beaufort was first removed from his post as Chancellor and barred from attending. The exasperated Bedford then announced that the parliament would be opened by the infant king. To refuse a summons to such a parliament was treason. Gloucester would be forced to attend and debate the matter, whether he wanted to or not.
The Parliament of Bats
The date for the parliament finally arrived. Leicester was not cursed with the same tense atmosphere that poisoned the capital. Nevertheless, Bedford was mindful of the fact that feelings were running high. Many of the London members of the Commons were likely to be sympathetic to Gloucester and fully bought into his incendiary demagoguery.
Bedford also knew that if there was one thing his brother was good at, it was playing to an audience. Taking no chances, MPs were specifically instructed not to bring weapons such as swords to the parliament. However, in the paranoid atmosphere of 1426, many brought clubs and stones instead of swords, fearing an outbreak of violence. For this reason, the parliament became known as the ‘Parliament of Bats’.
Despite the nervous atmosphere, order was maintained and, at last, Gloucester appeared to air his grievances.
As expected, Gloucester complained that Beaufort had secured the Tower of London against him. He also repeated his allegation that Beaufort had been planning a coup, to seize control of the infant king at Eltham. This much came as little surprise to anyone. But then Gloucester went further, presenting scandalous new allegations against Beaufort for the very first time.
The assassination plot
Gloucester claimed that his brother, Henry V, had told him a terrible secret before he died. Apparently, Beaufort had once tried to assassinate Henry V!
The assassination attempt had occurred when their father Henry IV had still been king. An assassin had been caught in the green chamber at Westminster Palace and had confessed to having been paid by Beaufort to assassinate Henry V (then Prince Henry). As to why this news had never come to light before, Gloucester was vague. As to what had happened to the assassin, Gloucester claimed the fellow had been killed and his body dumped in the Thames.
Beaufort, of course, denied all the allegations made against him. As far as the alleged assassination attempt was concerned, Beaufort’s defence was straightforward. Everyone knew Henry V had been a strong king who had always dealt very firmly with his enemies. If Henry V had really suspected Beaufort of trying to assassinate him, why had he not acted on this once he’d become king? Why, indeed, had he placed so much trust in Beaufort? And why had he raised Beaufort to high office?
Beaufort’s defence made a great deal of sense. For anyone who’d known Henry V, Gloucester’s allegations must have seemed very hard to believe.
A pyrrhic victory
In the end the dispute was resolved in the form of a compromise. It took fully two weeks of angry arguments and horse-trading to arrive at a position that everyone could sign up to.
Beaufort was declared innocent of any suspicion of treason. However, to placate Gloucester, Bedford had Beaufort dismissed from his position as Chancellor and removed from the council.
Gloucester, probably reluctantly, finally agreed to a reconciliation. He had, it seemed, managed to get at least something of what he’d wanted. Beaufort’s political wings had been publicly clipped… or so it seemed.
Nevertheless, Beaufort was a political survivor. He had survived political setbacks before. History had shown that, when the dust from political battles finally settled, Beaufort had an uncanny knack of re-emerging as the last man standing.
True enough, Beaufort was Chancellor no more. He did not even have a seat on the Council. There was now a new Chancellor, Archbishop John Kemp. However, as time wore on it became increasingly clear that Kemp was Beaufort’s man. Beaufort also retained a close relationship with Bedford, returning to the continent with him in 1427.
Freed from his secular duties Beaufort was able to focus on his career in the Church. Sure enough, within a short period of time, he was promoted to the rank of Cardinal. Even in apparent defeat, Beaufort seemed to thrive.
In certain respects, Gloucester’s paranoia had some justification. Beaufort was indeed working hard behind the scenes to control the levers of power. It was also quite likely he was working to find a way to control the young king once the boy came of age. But his methods were not so crude or obvious as Gloucester had alleged. Beaufort was a man who thrived in the world of background deals and political games.
Assassinations and coups were just not his style. But politics certainly was.
Henry VI’s government had, for now, averted political implosion. However, its credibility had been seriously undermined and England’s relationship with her Burgundian allies seriously damaged.
Despite their apparent reconciliation, everyone realised there was no love lost between Gloucester and Beaufort. The two men were now bitter enemies. It would only be a matter of time before their rivalry caused further problems.
Gloucester’s relationship with Bedford had also been damaged. He resented his brother’s senior position in the government and his unwillingness to back him to the hilt in his dispute with Beaufort.
However, Gloucester had not only made an enemy of Beaufort, he’d also made an enemy of the Duke of Burgundy. Burgundy was not about to abandon his alliance with the English just yet, but the experiences of 1424-1426 may well have sewn seeds of doubt in the duke’s mind. Was Burgundy really better off with England? Or would perhaps (and just perhaps), some kind of reconciliation with the Armagnacs be a wiser course?
All this spelt trouble ahead.
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References and further reading
The fiscal constitution of later medieval England: the reign of Henry VI, Alex Bryson, 2013, PhD paper, University of York
Cover piece (angry MP); cropped from a portrait of Raoul de Presles by Rex Franciae (via Wiki Commons)
Battle of Verneuil; Phillippe de Mazerolles (via Wiki Commons)
Jacqueline of Hainault; attributed to Jan van Eyck (via Wiki Commons)
Phillippe the good; Roger van der Weyden (via Wiki Commons)
Beaufort and Joan of Arc (cropped); Paul Delaroche (via Wiki Commons)