During the 15th and early 16th century, the De La Pole family played an important part in the politics of England and sometimes even of France. Here are ten facts about this fascinating family.
1. They were descendants of Geoffrey Chaucer
John de la Pole, 2nd Duke of Suffolk, and his children were the only known descendants of the famous poet Geoffrey Chaucer. John’s mother Alice was the poet’s granddaughter through her father Thomas Chaucer.
2. Their dukedom was not coupled to royal blood
Though John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln, and his siblings had royal blood, as their mother Elizabeth, Duchess of Suffolk, was the sister of King Edward IV and King Richard III, they were the first in the family to be blood related to the royal family. In fact, by the standards of the day, the de la Pole family was uncommonly low-born for members of the nobility. John, Earl of Lincoln’s grandfather William de la Pole came from a family who started as rich but untitled wool merchants, while his grandmother was born a commoner with ties to the landed gentry.
The family’s rise from humble beginnings raised some eyebrows in the established nobility, especially when Henry VI granted William a dukedom in 1448. Until that time, dukedoms had been reserved for men of royal blood, brothers, uncles or cousins to the king. William was the first man to receive this high title without such a blood relation. John, who inherited the title after his father’s death in 1450, became the second person, at the age of only 7.
3. The family were chronically in debt
Holding a title was, during the Middle Ages, not just a privilege. It also came with duties and obligations. A title had to be supported by the proper show of dignity and had to support many people. Naturally, this cost a lot of money, which meant that a dukedom usually came with large amounts of lands and income. However, when William de la Pole died, the crown took back many of the grants made to him, which meant little John was left with a title he was too poor to support. This never changed for the rest of his life, and there are several instances of him complaining about his lack of income and heavy debts.
After his death, Henry VII took the dukedom from his son and heir Edmund de la Pole with the excuse that he did not hold enough lands to gain the money needed to support a dukedom.
4. The family attracted trouble for generations
By the time John de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, inherited his title, the De La Pole family already had a long history of being dogged by difficulties and trouble. John’s great-grandfather Michael de la Pole, 1st Earl of Suffolk, was declared a traitor and died in exile in France. His son, Michael, worked himself up in Richard II’s favour and was granted the family’s earldom back, only to lose it again when Henry IV usurped Richard.
Though he eventually received the earldom back again, his fate was not a nice one. At the age of 48 he was part of Henry V’s French campaign, and died of dysentery in Harfleur. His two oldest sons, his namesake heir Michael and William, were also members of this campaign. Michael jnr, age 20 and already a father of four daughters, the oldest of whom was 7 years old, was one of the few English casualties of the Battle of Agincourt.
William de la Pole was his heir and though he survived all engagement in France, he was injured once and imprisoned twice. Nor did his survival mean that he died a natural death. Though he lived to the age of 53 and had several peaceful years in England as Henry VI’s advisor, he was eventually accused of treason, sentenced to exile and murdered on his way there.
His son John, Duke of Suffolk, escaped such a cruel fate, dying in his bed, but the family bad luck, hounded several of his sons as well. John, Earl of Lincoln, died during the Battle of Stoke, having risen against Henry VII. Richard de la Pole became a claimant to the throne held by the Tudors, but eventually died in the Battle of Pavia, unrelated to his claim to the English throne. Edmund de la Pole was executed for treason in 1513. William de la Pole jnr died after having spent 37 years in the Tower of London for nothing more than his family connections.
5. The family were favourites of Henry VII at the beginning of his reign
Despite the fact the de la Pole family had been very close to Richard III, with John Duke of Suffolk being his brother-in-law and John Earl of Lincoln not only his nephew but his heir presumptive at the time of his death, the family originally did very well under Henry VII. The new king did not seek to punish them as supporters of the king he had usurped. On the contrary, he showed a lot of favour especially to John, Earl of Lincoln, including him in his entourages and trusting him with sensitive tasks.
When this trust turned out to be unwarranted and the Earl of Lincoln rose in rebellion against Henry VII, the Tudor king did not immediately turn against the family, instead granting many of the honours and tasks previously held by the Earl of Lincoln to his father, the Duke of Suffolk. Only when Suffolk died in 1492 did Henry turn against the family, at first by stripping Edmund de la Pole of his father`s dukedom. In the following years, the situation between king and the formerly ducal family became worse and worse, until Edmund and Richard de la Pole ended up exiled traitors and their brother William imprisoned because of his relation to them.
6. They did not like taking orders
Though their approach to politics was often different, John, Duke of Suffolk and John, Earl of Lincoln shared one characteristic: neither of them were fond of taking orders. Suffolk signalled his unwillingness to do as told in a rather subtle way, always offering good excuses as to why he did not follow orders. These excuses were always truthful and always based on a situation Suffolk himself created. One example of this is his sending his wife away to visit their children with almost all servants, then saying he had not enough servants with him to go to Parliament.
Lincoln, on the other hand, was more straightforward in his refusal to do as told, and just did what he felt like doing. This led to him not swearing fealty to Henry VII until after the latter’s coronation, and not fighting in Edward IV’s campaigns in Scotland in 1481/2.
Curiously, both men were never punished for their refusal to do anything but what they wanted.
7. They had a long standing feud with the Paston family
His feud with his Oxfordshire neighbour John Paston and his family might be John, Duke of Suffolk’s greatest claim to fame, more so than even his royal relations. This feud spanned several decades and varied in intensity, from court cases to outright attacks on each other’s property.
It also spanned generations, having been started by Suffolk’s father William de la Pole and John Paston, and was carried over to John Paston’s two oldest sons, also called John. Only when Suffolk died in 1492 did the feud sizzle out.
8. They were no warriors
William de la Pole was noted to be a good and fierce warrior when he was a young man, spending over a decade fighting for Henry V and Henry VI during the Hundred Years War. In his later years, however, he was one of the strongest supporters of peace between England and France, maybe because of the many losses his family suffered during these campaigns.
Possibly, it was this influence that caused John de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, to avoid fighting whenever he could. He did not get involved in any battles during the Wars of the Roses until early 1461, despite considerable pressure to do so from 1459 onwards.
When he did finally get involved, his career as a warrior was a short one. After surviving a life-threatening injury received during the Battle of Hexham in 1464, he never fought again.
His own son, John, Earl of Lincoln, was also notable for managing to avoid any and all military action he did not want to be involved in, fighting neither during his uncle Edward IV’s wars at the Scottish border nor at the Battle of Bosworth. The Battle of Stoke during which he died was his first and his last battle.
9. They were big supporters of education
Although of William de la Pole, Earl and later Duke of Suffolk’s education, nothing is known, it is known that both he and his wife were big supporters of education, having a school built close to Alice’s ancestral manor of Ewelme. Alice sponsored poets, and William is known to have written several poems himself, some of which were written for Alice.
It comes as no surprise that their son, too, was highly educated and a big supporter of arts and knowledge. He is known to have understood three languages, and have had books in English, Latin and French.
10. They had an unusual number of clergy in their family
Of John, Duke of Suffolk’s children, 10 survived childhood. Of these, 4 would take vows and enter the church – Anne, Humphrey, Geoffrey and Edward. This was an unusually high number of clergy for a single family. By comparison, only their siblings got married during their parents’ lifetime, and one was engaged, though the marriage fell through after Henry VII usurped the throne.
Michèle Schindler studied at Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, reading English Studies and history with a focus on medieval studies. In addition to English and German, she is fluent in French, and reads Latin. She is the author of Lovell Our Dogge: The Life of Viscount Lovell, Closest Friend of Richard III and Failed Regicide as well as De La Pole, Father and Son. The Duke, the Earl and the Struggle for Power, both published by Amberley Publishing and available to buy now.