Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset and Richard, Duke of York made several attempts to destroy each other as they vied for supremacy. But how did this rivalry lead to the Wars of the Roses, which ended the Plantagenet dynasty and created the new line of the Tudors?
Edmund Beaufort, 2nd Duke of Somerset was a grandson of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and his third wife, previously his mistress, Katherine Swynford.
Edmund’s father John was the oldest of the illegitimate children born to Gaunt and Swynford who would be legitimised after their parents’ scandalous marriage. Although it is often believed the Beaufort line was barred from the throne, this was not part of their legitimisation and was never approved by parliament.
Born around 1406, Edmund’s family became critical allies to the Lancastrian dynasty. Edmund’s father was half-brother to Henry IV, and so the Beaufort fortunes were closely tied to those of the House of Lancaster. As the Wars of the Roses loomed Edmund was a second cousin once removed to King Henry VI.
That was the same relationship as Richard, Duke of York. Both Somerset and York were great-grandsons of Edward III, and Henry VI was a great-great-grandson. As long as Henry remained without a son, there was a question mark over who might succeed him.
Lieutenant-General in France
Richard, Duke of York served as Lieutenant-General in France from 1436-7 and again from 1440-5. During his second term, he was forced to fund much of the effort himself and was unhappy when Edmund and his older brother John were given men and money for a campaign.
The expedition was a terrible failure, and John died in disgrace shortly afterwards. When York returned to England in December 1445, he appears to have expected to be reappointed. The position meant responsibility for maintaining the lands England held in France and was prestigious, though increasingly difficult.
In early 1446, York found himself faced with charges of mismanagement in France by some members of Henry’s court. On Christmas Eve 1446, Edmund Beaufort was handed the position of Lieutenant-General and York was made Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. He perhaps suspected the charges were an excuse to make this swap.
Edmund was handed what was probably by now a poisoned chalice. France, under Charles VII, had been rebuilding its military to be more than a match for England. Henry VI, who favoured peace, had married Margaret of Anjou with no dowry and had promised to hand back Maine and Anjou to France.
Edmund was Count of Mortain, had control of Maine, and was given cash and the post of Lieutenant-General to smooth his acceptance of the loss of this territory. Edmund stumbled into trouble, which Charles VII sought as an excuse to reopen hostilities, when he used language that allowed the French king to take offence.
French heralds refused to deliver one set of letters from Edmund ‘because they were in a style derogatory to the honour of the king, and different from what had been used in time passed by the duke of York’.
The King’s Favourite
A French army entered Normandy on 26 August 1449 and the capital, Rouen, was surrendered by Somerset on 29 October. Edmund fell back to Caen, a city that belonged to the Duke of York. On 1 July 1450, Somerset surrendered it against the protestations of York’s man Sir David Hall.
During the siege, a gun stone had reportedly landed between Somerset’s wife and their children, at which point she insisted her husband give up and get them to safety.
Somerset returned to England, but not under a cloud. Cade’s Rebellion, a popular revolt, had rocked England in June and July, and Henry’s chief advisor, the Duke of Suffolk, had been murdered on 1 May.
Somerset slid into the space left at Henry’s right hand with an ease that, after his failures in France, raised many eyebrows. Amongst those raised highest were York’s.
Friction with York
Whether their personal feud began with the Beaufort campaign in France, or Edmund’s surrender of York’s city of Caen, or as a result of both men’s return to a tense and incendiary England is hard to pinpoint. York arrived home from Ireland after Somerset and found the place at Henry’s side firmly taken.
Henry was still childless, and although York was widely viewed as the heir to the throne, nothing was certain, and Somerset might have able to use his influence to promote his claim.
In February 1452, York wrote a letter to Shrewsbury, and probably other towns along the Welsh border, asking for support and blaming Edmund Beaufort to a whispering campaign against York at court.
By the end of February, York was at Dartford, east of London, with an army of 23,000 men. When a delegation sent by the king asked what he wanted, he told them Somerset should be arrested and tried for treason. The king agreed, and York disbanded his army immediately.
When he came before Henry, York was shocked to see Somerset at the king’s side. York was taken into custody and paraded through London as a prisoner. Somerset had outmanoeuvred York, but it only served to intensify the bitter rivalry.
The War Begins
When Henry VI fell ill in 1453, York was appointed Protector of the Realm, and he had Somerset arrested, though not tried or executed. Henry recovered on Christmas Day 1455, and it has been said that if the king’s illness was a disaster, his recovery was a catastrophe.
Henry dismissed York, who most felt had done a good job, undid many of the reforms York had begun and released Somerset.
York had, by now, been joined by his wife’s family, the powerful Neville affinity, in opposition. When they were summoned to a great council, they suspected a trap and took an army. Confronting the king at St Albans, with the royal contingent within the town, York initiated a parlay.
There has been suspicion ever since that the messages from York never reached the king, but that Somerset intercepted them and replied. There would be no negotiation. The First Battle of St Albans took place on 22 May 1455. Yorkist forces broke into the town and won the day. Edmund was killed in the fighting.
Legend has it he made a brave stand outside the Castle Inn, fulfilling a prophesy he had heard years earlier that he would die beneath a castle.
Often given as the starting date for the Wars of the Roses, St Albans was, in reality, a private feud between York and Somerset for the right to advise the king. Somerset’s son would seek vengeance for his father, though the figting would not become a dynastic scrap for the crown for another five years.
The sons of those killed at St Albans took revenge at the Battle of Wakefield in 1460, only to create another cycle of violent retribution. The French chronicler Basin described Edmund as handsome, with gentle and cultured manners, but an insatiable greed. He managed to become the favourite of Henry VI, but his bitter rivalry with the Duke of York cost him his life and set England on a course to civil war.