William de la Pole, 1st Duke of Suffolk. His life and his murder

William de la Pole [1396-1450] was from a family whose mercantile, administrative, and military efforts had seen them rise in stature from merchants to the peerage. William became Earl of Suffolk following the death of his father and his elder brother whilst campaigning in France. His political stock rose as a result of his military and administrative roles which led to William having a place on the Royal Council in the early 1430’s. On Council he clashed with Humphrey Duke of Gloucester and it has been suggested that de la Pole was responsible for the duke’s death. Wiilliam de la Pole then endured a fall from grace. Instigated by political opponents he was impeached and exiled. On his way to exile William de la Pole was murdered, beheaded on the ship with his remains found washed up on a beach. 

William de la Pole, Royal Favourite

Nonetheless,  the Earl established himself as a Royal Favourite. He negotiated the marriage of the King to Margaret of Anjou and became the most trusted of the king’s advisors and saw him raised from Earl to Duke. That, however, led to William de la Pole being accused of corruption and acting against the King’s best interests. He was one of the men whose work was met with disdain by the rebels of Kent, and whose actions resulted in charges being brought against him in parliament. Despite being the king’s favourite the duke of Suffolk was sentenced to a period of exile. He never reached his intended destination whilst leaving England. He was summarily executed on the sea voyage and his body dumped on the beach.

Quartered Arms of William de la Pole, 1st Duke of Suffolk
Quartered Arms of William de la Pole, 1st Duke of Suffolk

The Murder of William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk.

Murder of William de la Pole Duke of Suffolk. 2nd May 1450

The Duke of Suffolk was a controversial figure. A favourite of the King he had significant influence over policy at home and abroad. His management of crown affairs brought him into conflict with both the commons and his peers among the nobility.

William de la Pole accused of treason

This discontent was to the extent that at the Leicester parliament of 1449-50 there were calls for his execution on the grounds of treason. The murder of a close ally, Adam Moleyns, and increased political pressure led to Suffolk asking for the right to be heard. He was subsequently arrested and impeached by Parliament.

Impeachment of the Duke of Suffolk

The impeachment hearing found the Duke guilty, and he was then sentenced to a period of exile. This sentence would remove the Duke from the heart of English politics, diminish his wealth and authority upon his return and severely limit his chances of gaining senior positions again.

William de la Pole sentenced to exile

The Duke was spared execution due to his affinity with the King. Suffolk made for a life on the continent. He left his wife and son behind and began his journey into exile. It was at this point that his unpopularity among the commons was to prove his undoing.

Bale’s Chronicle summarises it:

…the Duke of Suffolk… rode to the sea, when he was at sea between Dover and Calais he was taken and beheaded, his body cast upon the sands at Dover and his head put upon a stake”.

Depiction of the murder at sea of William de la Pole, 1st Duke of Suffolk.
19th century depiction of the murdrr of William de la Pole.

Biography of William de la Pole

From Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 46.
Pole, William de la (1396-1450) by Charles Lethbridge Kingsford

Family background and the early career of William de la Pole

POLE, WILLIAM de la, fourth Earl and first Duke of Suffolk (1396–1450), second son of Michael de la Pole, second earl [q. v.], was born on 16 Oct. 1396 at Cotton in Suffolk (Napier, pp. 47, 64–5). He served in the French campaign of 1415, but was invalided home after the siege of Harfleur (ib. p. 48). His father died before Harfleur, and his elder brother, the third earl, was slain at Agincourt on 25 Oct., and thus William de la Pole became Earl of Suffolk when only nineteen. Suffolk served in the expedition of 1417 with thirty men-at-arms and ninety archers (Gesta, App. p. 267), and in the early part of 1418 was employed in the reduction of the Cotentin. On 12 March 1418 he was granted the lordships of Hambye and Briquebec (Hardy, Rot. Norm. p. 318). During the summer he served under Humphrey of Gloucester at the siege of Cherbourg, and, when that town fell in October, went to join the king before Rouen (Chronique de Normandie, pp. 183, 191, ap. Gesta Henrici; Page, Siege of Rouen, p. 11). On 19 May 1419 he was appointed admiral of Normandy, in June captain of Pontorson, and in August captain of Mantes and Avranches (Fœdera, ix. 753, 772; Chron. A. de Richemont, p. 22; Doyle). He was a conservator of the truce with France on 27 June 1420 (Fœdera, ix. 856), and during the autumn served at the siege of Melun (Gesta, p. 144). When Henry V took Catherine to England in February 1421, Suffolk was one of the commanders left in charge of Normandy, and on 10 Feb. was named one of the conservators of the truce with Brittany (Fœdera, x. 61, 91, 152). Suffolk was made a knight of the Garter on 3 May 1421, in succession to Thomas, duke of Clarence (Beltz, Memorials of the Garter, p. clviii). When Henry came back to France, Suffolk joined the royal army (Elmham, Vita Henrici Quinti, p. 312); on 28 Sept. he was appointed warden of the lower marches of Normandy (cf. Hall, pp. 108–9).

Campaigns in France 1422-1428

After the death of Henry V, John of Bedford, on 10 Oct. 1422, appointed Suffolk guardian of the Cotentin (Chron. Mont St. Michel, i. 117). In 1423 Suffolk served in the important campaign in Champagne as second in command to Thomas de Montacute, earl of Salisbury [q. v.] In June 1424, he laid siege to Ivry-la-Chaussée. Under Bedford he was present at the surrender of Ivry on 15 Aug., and, when Bedford fell back on Evreux, was despatched with Salisbury to watch the French at Breteuil. Next day Suffolk sent news that the French were holding their ground. Bedford at once advanced, and on the 17th won his victory at Verneuil. On 26 Sept. Suffolk was made governor of the district round Chartres, and during October captured Senonches, Nogent-le-Rotrou, and Rochefort (Beaucourt, ii. 20 n. 4). In November he was at Paris for the festivities held by Philip of Burgundy (Fenin, p. 225). From Paris he was sent by Bedford to endeavour to arrange the quarrel between Humphrey of Gloucester and the Duke of Brabant. On his way he was nearly killed by an accident near Amiens (Stevenson, ii. 400; as to his alleged complicity in a plot of Gloucester against Burgundy see Beaucourt, ii. 658–60). In 1425 Suffolk was employed as lieutenant-general of Caen, the Cotentin, and Lower Normandy, and as constable of the army of the Earl of Salisbury. In May he was detached to direct the siege of Mont St. Michel by land and sea (Chron. Mont St. Michel, i. 201, 213, 244; Dupont, Histoire du Cotentin et ses Iles, ii. 551–3). In the early part of 1426 Suffolk, who was about this time created Earl of Dreux, made a raid into Brittany as far as Rennes. Shortly afterwards his lieutenant, Sir Thomas Rempston [q. v.], defeated Arthur de Richemont at St. James de Beuvron on 6 March. Suffolk came up a few days later, and, after some negotiations, concluded a truce with Brittany to last till the end of June. Almost immediately afterwards he resigned his command in Normandy to the Earl of Warwick (Monstrelet, iv. 284–6). Suffolk took an active part in the warfare of the following year. On 26 May he laid siege to Vendôme, and on 1 July joined Warwick before Montargis, the siege of which place was raised by the French after it had lasted two months.

Captured and ransomed

In the summer of 1428 Suffolk served under Salisbury in the campaign which led up to the siege of Orleans. After Salisbury’s death he was appointed to the chief command on 13 Nov. (ib. iv. 360; Ramsay, i. 384). Under his direction the siege prospered so well that in February 1429 Orleans and the French cause seemed doomed. The appearance of Jeanne d’Arc changed the aspect of affairs. In May the siege was raised, and Suffolk fell back to Jargeau. In that town he was besieged by Jeanne and the Duke of Alençon, and was forced to surrender on 12 June. One story represents Suffolk as refusing to yield himself prisoner till he had dubbed his would-be captor knight. According to another, he would yield only to Jeanne as the bravest woman on earth (Procès de Jeanne d’Arc, vol. iv.; Beaucourt, ii. 220, iv. 148; Vallet de Viriville, ii. 83). Suffolk’s brother, Sir John de la Pole, was taken prisoner with him; a third brother, Alexander, was slain. Suffolk was the prisoner of the Comte de Dunois; he obtained his freedom after a short time, though he had to sell his lordship of Briquebec to raise the money for his ransom, amounting to 20,000l., and give his brother Thomas as a hostage (Chron. Mont St. Michel, i. 156 n.; Rolls of Parliament, v. 176; Napier, p. 317). On 15 March 1430 Suffolk was reappointed to the command at Caen and in the Cotentin (Chron. Mont St. Michel, i. 292). In July he besieged and captured the castle of Aumâle (Monstrelet, iv. 370); and afterwards took part in the siege of Compiègne (Procès de Jeanne d’Arc, v. 73). With this Suffolk’s active participation in the war probably came to an end; for, though he remained captain of Avranches and was captain of the islet of Tombelaine from 1432 to 1437 and of Regnéville in 1438, he exercised his authority by means of lieutenants (Chron. Mont St. Michel, i. 307, ii. 28, 44, 111; Stevenson, ii. 291, 293). It is, however, commonly stated that Suffolk took part in the war in 1431, and attended Henry’s coronation at Paris on 17 Dec. But he was certainly in England in November of that year, and probably some months earlier (Napier, p. 51; Anstis, Register of the Garter, i. 108, where it is said that Suffolk could not attend on 22 April 1431 through illness). Suffolk himself said that he ‘continually abode in the war seventeen year without coming home or seeing of this land’ (Rolls of Parliament, v. 176). But in this statement, if correctly reported, he was clearly in error.

Politics and Diplomacy 1430-1435

The remaining years of Suffolk’s life were occupied with political affairs at home. He was present in the royal council on 10 and on 28 Nov. 1431, and on 30 Nov. was formally admitted a member of the council and took the oath (Nicolas, Proc. and Ordinances, iv. 101, 104, 108). His marriage about this time to the widowed Countess of Salisbury inclined him to connection with the Beauforts. His long experience of the war in France had possibly convinced him of the wisdom of peace. If he had formed such a conviction, it was no doubt strengthened by his association with the captive Duke of Orleans, who was assigned to his custody on 21 July 1432 (ib. iv. 124). Next year Suffolk was made steward of the royal household, and was working actively for peace when Hue de Lannoy came to England as ambassador from Philip of Burgundy. Lannoy and his colleagues met Orleans at Suffolk’s house in London (Stevenson, ii. 218–40), and Suffolk seems to have worked with Orleans in forwarding the negotiations. In 1435 the peace negotiations had so far progressed that a general congress was arranged for, and Suffolk was appointed one of the chief English representatives after Cardinal Beaufort (Fœdera, x. 611). Suffolk and most of his colleagues came to Arras for the congress on 25 July. Beaufort joined them a little later. The English were not prepared to yield to the French demands, and withdrew from the congress on 6 Sept. Their withdrawal was almost immediately followed by the reconciliation of Burgundy to the French king, and by the death of John of Bedford.

The Duke of Suffolk’s Rivalry with the Duke of Gloucester

The double event changed the whole aspect of English politics. For the time it threw increased authority into the hands of Humphrey of Gloucester and the warlike party. Thereupon Suffolk gradually became the chief opponent of Gloucester, and the remainder of Suffolk’s life centres in his rivalry with the king’s uncle. For the time the war feeling was too strong to be resisted, and Suffolk was one of the commanders appointed to go over to France in December 1435. Richard, duke of York, was to have the chief command, but it was not until May 1436 that he and Suffolk crossed over to France. With Richard Neville, earl of Salisbury [q. v.], they were commissioned to treat for peace (Fœdera, x. 642). No practical result came from the negotiations, and Suffolk served during June and July at the defence of Calais. In April 1437 there was some talk of sending him on a fresh embassy to France (Nicolas, Proc. Privy Council, v. 7, 8). Meanwhile he was nominated to many posts of responsibility at home. On 23 April 1437 he was appointed steward of the Duchy of Lancaster north of the Trent. On 19 Feb. 1440 he was chief justice of North Wales and Chester, and of South Wales. On 17 Feb. 1441 he was directed to make inquiry into the royal lordships in the county of Monmouth, and on 23 July as to the government of Norwich (Doyle). In this same year also he was one of the commissioners to inquire into the charges of sorcery against Eleanor Cobham, wife of Humphrey of Gloucester (Davies, English Chronicle, p. 58). In 1442 a marriage was projected for the young king with a daughter of the Count of Armagnac; but Suffolk was instrumental in defeating the project, which was favoured by Gloucester. He resolved that the king should marry Margaret of Anjou.

The King’s marriage to Margaret of Anjou

The match with Margaret was suggested by the Duke of Orleans, who had been released in 1440. From the same quarter, it would seem, came the suggestion that Suffolk should be the chief ambassador in negotiating it. But Suffolk, who was evidently regarded by the people as the most responsible of Henry’s advisers after Cardinal Beaufort, perceived that his acceptance of the mission might be dangerous both to himself and to the policy which he had at heart. At a later time he was charged with having had a corrupt interest in the release of Orleans (cf., however, Beaucourt, iv. 100 n.), and it is clear that he had already incurred some unpopularity. In a council held on 1 Feb. 1444 (Nicolas, Proc. Privy Council, vi. 32–35, where the date is wrongly given) Suffolk himself urged the objections to his appointment. These were finally overruled, but at his own request a formal indemnity was granted on 20 Feb. exonerating him from all blame for what he might do in the matter of the peace or marriage (Fœdera, xi. 53). Suffolk’s embassy landed at Harfleur on 13 March. On 8 April conferences were opened at Vendôme, and a week later Suffolk and his colleagues joined Orleans at Blois. Thence they sailed down the Loire to Tours, and on 17 April were presented to Charles VII at his castle of Montils-les-Tours. It soon became clear that terms for a permanent peace could not be agreed upon, but a truce was nevertheless arranged to last till 1 April 1446.

Suffolk and Margaret (Shakespeare, King Henry VI, Part I, Act 5, Scene 3), print, Charles Heath, the elder, after John Massey Wright (MET, 41.91.165)
Suffolk and Margaret (Shakespeare, King Henry VI, Part I, Act 5, Scene 3), print, Charles Heath, the elder, after John Massey Wright (MET, 41.91.165)

On 24 May Margaret was formally betrothed to Suffolk as Henry’s proxy, the truce was signed on the 28th, and on the next day Suffolk started home. His progress was one continued triumphant procession, and when he entered Rouen on 8 June he was hailed with rapturous shouts of ‘Noel! Noel!’ Suffolk reached London on 27 June, and on the same day the truce was ratified (Stevenson, i. 67–79, vol. ii. pt. i. preface pp. xxxvi–xxxviii; Fœdera, xi. 59–67; Ramsay, ii. 58–60). His success was for the time complete, and was marked by his promotion to a marquisate on 14 Sept. (This is the date of his patent, but he is so styled in the Issue Roll on 17 Aug.) On 28 Oct. he was instructed to bring home the king’s bride. His wife went with him as the principal lady of Margaret’s escort; and his chief colleague in this, as in his former mission, was Adam de Molyneux or Moleyns [q. v.] Suffolk and his retinue left London on 5 Nov., crossed the Channel on 13 Nov., and joined the French court at Nancy. Whether from accident or, as some accounts suggest, through design, Margaret was not present. The French took advantage to extort further concessions, and before he could obtain his object Suffolk had to promise the surrender of all that the English held or claimed in Maine and Anjou (Gascoigne, Loci e Libro Veritatum, pp. 190, 204–5; Ramsay, ii. 62). ‘This fatal concession, wrung from an unwary diplomatist in a moment of weakness, became at once the turning-point of English politics’ (ib.) At a later time, Suffolk laid the responsibility for the transaction on Molyneux (Rot. Parl. v. 182). For the moment, however, all went fairly. Under Suffolk’s escort, Margaret entered Rouen in triumph on 22 March 1445, and on 9 April landed at Portsmouth (Escouchy, i. 87–9). In the parliament which met in June Suffolk made a declaration in defence of his conduct. William Burley, the speaker, on behalf of the commons, recommended the marquis to the king for the ‘ryght grete and notable werkys whiche he hathe don to the pleasir of God’ (Rot. Parl. v. 73–4). Even Gloucester, who had in the previous year endeavoured to thwart Suffolk, found it expedient to express his approval. On 14 July a French embassy reached London. The only practical result was a prolongation of the truce till 1 Nov. 1446. But the record of the transactions shows the thoroughness of Suffolk’s political triumph. The French ambassadors plainly accepted him as the most important person in the state, and Suffolk on his part did not hesitate to speak openly of his wish for peace, and of his disbelief in Gloucester’s power to thwart him (Stevenson, i. 96–131, esp. p. 123).

The Duke of Suffolk becomes a Favourite of the King and Queen

Under Suffolk’s influence negotiations for peace were continued throughout 1446, with no very definite result. The government, however, passed more and more into Suffolk’s hands. The king became alienated from his uncle, who made Suffolk the object of open and repeated attack (Basin, i. 187, 190; Escouchy, i. 115; Croyland Chron. p. 521). To Suffolk and the queen, the complete overthrow of Humphrey’s power appeared a paramount necessity. On 14 Dec. a parliament was summoned to meet at Bury St. Edmunds, ‘a place where Suffolk was strong, and where Gloucester would be far away from his friends, the Londoners’ (Stubbs). The parliament met on 10 Feb. 1447. Some formal action against Gloucester was no doubt intended, and one authority says that Suffolk had all the roads watched with armed men (Davies, English Chron. p. 62). Gloucester himself reached Bury on 18 Feb., and was at once arrested. Five days later he died, no doubt from natural causes accelerated by the shock of his imprisonment. Popular belief, however, laid his death at Suffolk’s door, though no definite charge was ever formulated (the nearest approach is in the petition of the commons for Suffolk’s attainder in November 1451, Rolls of Parliament, v. 226). The death of Cardinal Beaufort, which took place six weeks after that of Gloucester, left Suffolk without a rival.

Charges against William de la Pole in reference to Maine and Anjou

But Suffolk’s tenure of power was from the first troubled. The charges against him in reference to Maine and Anjou at once took shape. On 25 May he had formally to defend his action in the council, and on 18 June a royal proclamation was issued, declaring the king’s satisfaction with what he had done (Fœdera, xi. 173). Gloucester’s death had brought Richard of York a step nearer the throne, and made him the leader of the party opposed to the court. The command in France was now taken away from Richard, who was sent into practical banishment as lieutenant of Ireland, and it was given to Edmund Beaufort, duke of Somerset. Both appointments were ascribed to Suffolk’s influence (Waurin, i. 300). They certainly contributed to diminish his popularity, and made Richard his mortal enemy (Whethamstede, Reg. i. 160; Giles, Chron. p. 35). Suffolk, however, was so strong in the king’s favour that he cared little for the displeasure of others (ib.) At Gloucester’s death he had obtained the earldom of Pembroke, the reversion to which had been granted to him four years previously. On 24 Feb. 1447 he was made chamberlain, constable of Dover, and lord warden of the Cinque ports. On 9 Aug. 1447 he was made admiral of England, and on 9 March 1448 governor of Calais. With his promotion to a dukedom on 2 July of this year, he reached the summit of his power. Maine had been formally surrendered in February 1448, and a truce concluded for two years. The fact of the surrender increased Suffolk’s unpopularity. The truce was ill observed, and Suffolk found it impossible to carry out his policy of peace in full. On 24 March 1449 Fougères in Brittany was treacherously captured for the English by François l’Arragonais or de Surienne. In this impolitic and unjustifiable act Suffolk was probably implicated. François, who had been connected with Suffolk as early as 1437 (Nicolas, Proc. Privy Council, v. 29), expressly declared that he had acted with the duke’s cognisance and approval (Piéces, &c., ap. Basin, iv. 294–300, 337; Stevenson, i. 278–98). The attack on Fougères was followed by open war; one after another the English strongholds in Normandy were lost, and Rouen itself was taken on 29 Oct. This succession of disasters stirred a warlike feeling in England, and finally discredited Suffolk and his policy.

The Loss of Normandy

If the cession of Maine and Anjou had been due to Suffolk’s policy, the loss of Normandy was due to the incapacity of Somerset. But Suffolk, who had long been allied to the Beauforts, in politics and by marriage, was in the popular estimation, at all events, responsible for Somerset’s appointment. It was upon him that the storm broke. As a minister he had been careless about the enmities that he excited. He was charged with pride and avarice, and with having disposed of bishoprics and other preferment from corrupt motives (Croyland Chron. pp. 521, 525; the charge was perhaps a specious one, cf. Beckington, i. 158, and Political Songs, ii. 232–4; certainly many vacant sees had been filled by his supporters).

Parliamentary Trial and the Banishment of William de la Pole, 1st Duke of Suffolk

The parliament of 1449 met on 6 Nov. Molyneux had to resign the privy seal on 9 Dec. Marmaduke Lumley [q. v.] had resigned the treasurership in the previous October. These two had been Suffolk’s principal supporters and colleagues. Their removal marked the decline of his influence. In the first weeks of the parliament no public action was taken against Suffolk. But on 28 Nov., as Ralph, lord Cromwell, who appears to have been the duke’s chief adversary in the council, was entering the Star-chamber, he was hustled in Westminster Hall by William Tailboys, a Lincolnshire squire and supporter of Suffolk. Cromwell accused Tailboys and Suffolk of intending his death. Tailboys, supported by Suffolk, denied the charge, but was committed to the Tower. There were other charges of violence against Tailboys, and in these also it was alleged that he had profited by Suffolk’s patronage. Afterwards Suffolk’s connection with Tailboys formed part of the charges brought against him (Will. Worc. [766]; Rolls of Parliament, v. 181, 200; Paston Letters, i. 96, 97, and Introduction, pp. xliii–xliv). At Christmas the parliament was prorogued till 22 Jan. 1450. On 9 Jan. Molyneux was murdered at Portsmouth. Before his death he made some confession injurious to Suffolk. When parliament reassembled, the duke, in anticipation of attack, at once made an eloquent and impressive speech in his own defence. Odious and horrible language was running through the land to his ‘highest charge and moost hevyest disclaundre.’ He appealed to his long and faithful service, and begged that any accusations against him might be preferred openly (Rolls of Parliament, v. 176). The commons, inspired by Cromwell, at once took up the challenge (Will. Worc. [766]). On 26 Jan. they begged that Suffolk might be ‘committed to ward.’ The council refused, in absence of any definite charge. On 28 Jan. the commons accused Suffolk of having sold the realm to the French and treasonably fortified Wallingford Castle. On this Suffolk was committed to the Tower (Rolls of Parliament, v. 176–177). On 7 Feb. a long indictment was presented by the commons. The chief charges were that Suffolk had conspired to secure the throne for his son, John de la Pole, afterwards second Duke of Suffolk [q. v.], who had married Margaret Beaufort, the infant heiress of John Beaufort, duke of Somerset, and Suffolk’s ward; that he had advised the release of Orleans, promised to surrender Anjou and Maine, betrayed the king’s counsel to the French, failed to reinforce the English armies, and estranged Brittany and Aragon. On 12 Feb. the articles were brought before the council, and Henry ordered the matter to be respited. It was reported that the duke was ‘in the kyng’s gode grase’ (Paston Letters, i. 115), and his pardon was no doubt intended. However, on 9 March the commons presented eighteen additional articles, charging Suffolk with maladministration and malversation, with the promotion of unworthy persons, and with the protection of William Tailboys (Rolls of Parliament, v. 179–82). On the same day Suffolk was brought before the king, and received copies of the accusation. On 13 March he again appeared before the parliament. He denied the charges utterly, and said: ‘Savyng the kynges high presence, they were fals and untrue’ (ib. v. 182). Four days later he once more appeared and repeated his denial. At length on the first bill the king held Suffolk ‘neither declared nor charged;’ on the second bill ‘not by way of judgment,’ but by force of his submission, the king ordered his banishment for five years from the first of May (ib. v. 183). The decision was a sort of compromise intended to save the duke and satisfy the commons.

The Murder at Sea of William de la Pole, 1st Duke of Suffolk

On 19 March Suffolk was set free, and at once left the capital. The Londoners sought to intercept him, and severely handled some of his servants (Will. Worc. [767]). The remaining six weeks were spent by Suffolk on his estate. On 30 April he came to Ipswich, and in the presence of the chief men of the county took an oath on the sacrament that he was innocent of the charges brought against him (ib.) That same evening he addressed a touching letter of farewell to his little son (Paston Letters, i. 121–2), and the next morning set sail with two ships and a pinnace. When off Dover he sent the pinnace towards Calais to learn how he would be received. The pinnace was intercepted by a ship called Nicholas of the Tower, which was lying in wait. The master of the Nicholas bore down on Suffolk’s ships, and bade the duke come on board. On his arrival he was greeted with a shout of ‘Welcome, traitor.’ His captors granted him a day and a night to shrive him. Then, on 2 May, he was drawn out into a little boat, and a knave of Ireland, ‘one of the lewdest men on board,’ took a rusty sword and smote off his head with half a dozen strokes. Some accounts alleged that Suffolk was given a sort of mock trial, and it was also stated that he spent his last hours in writing to the king (ib. i. 124–127; Three Fifteenth-Century Chronicles, p. 66; Davies, English Chronicle, pp. 68–9). His body was taken to land, and thrown upon the beach near Dover, whence, by Henry’s orders, it was removed for burial at Wingfield (Giles, Chron. p. 38). The circumstances of Suffolk’s murder must remain somewhat of a mystery. But the Nicholas was a royal ship, and probably the crime was instigated by persons of influence, possibly by Richard of York, or some of his supporters (cf. Ramsay, ii. 121; cf. Paston Letters, i. 125; Gascoigne, p. 7). It is sometimes said that Suffolk was attainted after his death. But the petition of the commons to this effect in November 1451 was refused by the king (Rolls of Parliament, v. 226).

‘Worthy End of a Traitor’

The general opinion of the time regarded Suffolk’s murder as the worthy end of a traitor (Croyland Chron. p. 525). Public indignation expressed itself in a host of satirical verses (Political Poems and Songs, ii. 222–34). In these verses all the formal charges of the impeachment are repeated, and the hatred for Suffolk continued as a popular tradition; it inspired one of William Baldwin’s contributions to the ‘Mirror for Magistrates,’ and two of Drayton’s ‘Heroical Epistles.’ By later writers Suffolk is even charged with having been the paramour of Queen Margaret (cf. Hall, p. 219; Holinshed, iii. 220; Drayton, Heroical Epistles). The charge is absurd and baseless, but has gained currency from its adoption by Shakespeare (Henry VI, pt. ii. act v. sc. 2). But the popular verdict on Suffolk’s private and public character is not to be accepted without serious qualification. The very indictment of the commons ‘proves that nothing tangible could be adduced against him’ (Ramsay, ii. 117). Lingard (Hist. England, v. 179) well says of his farewell to his son that it is ‘difficult to believe that the writer could have been either a false subject or a bad man’ (see also Gairdner, Paston Letters, vol. i. p. xlvii). The same spirit of unaffected piety and simple loyalty which inspires this letter appears in Suffolk’s speech in parliament on 22 Jan. 1450. The two documents reveal their author as a man who had made it the rule of his life to fear God and honour the king. Suffolk may have been headstrong and overbearing, but his patriotism and sincerity appear beyond question. The policy of peace which he adopted and endeavoured to carry through was a just and sensible one. It was not a policy which would have appealed to selfish motives. Whatever its ultimate wisdom, it was sure to incur immediate odium. Suffolk himself foresaw and endeavoured to forestall the dangers before he embarked on his embassy in February 1444; his conduct at that time shows that he was ‘throughout open and straightforward in his behaviour’ (Stubbs).

Suffolk’s Will and Tomb

Suffolk’s tomb, with a stone effigy, still exists in his collegiate church at Wingfield. It is figured in Napier’s ‘History of Swyncombe and Ewelme’ (plates before p. 81). Walpole gave an engraving of a picture in his possession, representing the marriage of Henry VI, one of the figures in which he takes for Suffolk (Anecdotes of Painting, i. 34, ed. 1762). Suffolk’s will, dated 17 Jan. 1448, is given in Kennett’s ‘Parochial Antiquities,’ ii. 376, and in Napier’s ‘History of Swyncombe and Ewelme,’ p. 82. His seals and autograph are figured in the latter work (p. 89), and his badge—the ape’s clog—in Doyle’s ‘Official Baronage.’ Suffolk was the founder of a hospital at Ewelme, Oxfordshire, in 1437. This charity still continues, the mastership having been long annexed to the regius professorship of medicine at Oxford. He also refounded another hospital at Donnington, Berkshire, in 1448, and intended to refound Snape Priory in Suffolk (Napier, pp. 54, 63; Dugdale, Monasticon Anglicanum, iv. 557, vi. 715–17; Archæologia, xliv. 464).

Alice Chaucer, Duchess of Suffolk

Suffolk’s wife was Alice, daughter of Thomas Chaucer [q. v.] of Ewelme. She was therefore in all likelihood a granddaughter of the poet, and through her grandmother, Philippa Roet, a cousin of the Beauforts. As a child she had married Sir John Philip or Phelip (d. 1415), and afterwards was second wife of Thomas de Montacute, fourth earl of Salisbury [q. v.] Her license to marry Suffolk was granted on 11 Nov. 1430 (Napier, p. 66). Robes were provided for Alice, countess of Suffolk, as a lady of the Garter on 21 May 1432 (Nicolas, Proc. Privy Council, iv. 116). After her husband’s death she was, during Jack Cade’s rebellion, indicted for treason at the Guildhall (Worcester [768]). The charge was more formally repeated in the parliament of November 1451 (ib. [770]; Rolls of Parliament, v. 216). Subsequently Alice made her peace with the Duke of York and his party, her stepdaughter by her second husband being the mother of Warwick ‘the kingmaker.’ She was specially excepted from the act of attainder in 1461 (ib. v. 470). Some fairly numerous references in the ‘Paston Letters’ (vol. iii.) illustrate her later life. Three letters from Alice to her servant, William Bylton, are given by Napier (p. 99). She died on 20 May 1475 at Ewelme, and was buried in the church there on 9 June. Her splendid tomb still exists in fine preservation (plates in Napier, p. 103, and Gough’s Sepulchral Monuments). Her son John succeeded his father as second Duke of Suffolk [q. v.] She is credited with another son, William, and a daughter Anna.

References used by the Dictionary of National Biography

[Stevenson’s Wars of the English in France, with William of Worcester’s Diary, Walsingham’s Historia Anglicana, ii. 345, Beckington’s Correspondence, i. 158, 175, ii. 159, 163, 171, Amundesham’s Annales, ii. 213–20, Whethamstede’s Registrum, i. 45, 160, Wright’s Political Poems and Songs, ii. 222–34 (all these are in Rolls Ser.); Gesta Henrici Quinti (Engl. Hist. Soc.); Three Fifteenth-Century Chronicles, Collections of a London Citizen, Davies’s English Chronicle, 1377–1461 (these three in Camd. Soc.); Giles’s Incerti Scriptoris Chronicon; Chronicle of London, ed. Nicolas, 1827; Continuation of the Croyland Chronicle in Fulman’s Scriptores, vol. i.; Gascoigne’s Loci e Libro Veritatum, ed. Rogers; Paston Letters, ed. Gairdner; Chronicles of Hardyng and Hall. Among French writers there are Monstrelet, Jean le Fevre de S. Remy, Waurin, Gruel’s Arthur de Richemont, T. Basin, Matthieu d’Escouchy (all in Soc. de l’Histoire de France; the first four throw light chiefly on Suffolk’s military career, the last two furnish some information as to his fall); Procès de Jeanne d’Arc (Soc. de l’Hist. France); Cousinot’s Gestes des Nobles and Chron. de la Pucelle, ed. Vallet de Viriville; Chronique de Mont St. Michel (Société des Anciens Textes Français); Æneas Sylvius (Opera, pp. 440–2) gives a foreign opinion hostile to Suffolk; Nicolas’s Proceedings and Ordinances of the Privy Council, vols. iv.–vi.; Rolls of Parliament; Rymer’s Fœdera, vols. ix.–xi., orig. edit.; Dugdale’s Baronage, ii. 186–9; Doyle’s Official Baronage, iii. 436–8; Napier’s Historical Notices of the Parishes of Swyncombe and Ewelme contains a life of Suffolk, together with genealogical tables and some documents of importance. For modern accounts see Gairdner’s Introduction to Paston Letters, i. pp. xxxii–l; Stubbs’s Constitutional History, iii. 136–54; Ramsay’s Lancaster and York; Vallet de Viriville’s Hist. de Charles VII; G. Du Fresne de Beaucourt’s Histoire de Charles VII.]

Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 46
Pole, William de la (1396-1450) by Charles Lethbridge Kingsford

Source Material on William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk

19th Century Illustration of the murder of William de la Pole, 1st Duke of Suffolk
19th Century Illustration of the murder of William de la Pole, 1st Duke of Suffolk

Duke of Suffolk and The Nicholas of the Tower

The summary execution of William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, as described in the introduction to the Chronicles of the White Rose of York. 

As on Monday next after May Day a.d. 1450 (4th May) there came tidings to London, that on Thursday before (30tk of April) the Duke of Suffolk came unto the Coasts of Kent fuU near Dover with his two ships and a little spinner; the which spinner he sent with certain letters, by certain of his trusted men unto Calais ward, to know how he should be received; and with him met a ship called Nicholas of the Tower with other ships waiting on him, and by them that were in the spinner, the Master of the Nicholas had knowledge of the Duke’s coming.

When he espied the Duke’s ships, he sent forth his boat to weet what they were, and the Duke himself spoke to them, and said, he was by the King’s commandment sent to Calais ward, and they said, he must speak with their master; and so he with two or three of his men went forth with them in their boat to the Nicholas; and when he came, the Master bade him, ‘Welcome Traitor,’ as men say. And further the Master desired to weet if the shipmen would hold with the Duke, and they sent word they would not in no wise ; and so he was in the Nicholas till Saturday (2nd May) next following.

Some say he wrote much thing to be delivered to the King, but that is not verily known. He had his Confessor with him and some say he was arraigned in the ship on their manner upon the Impeachments and found guilty. Also, he asked the name of the ship, and when he knew it, he remembered Stacy that said, if he might escape the danger of the Tower he should be safe, and then his heart failed him, for he thought he was deceived. And in the sight of all his men he was drawn out of the great ship into the boat, and there was an axe and a stock, and one of the lewdest (meanest) of the ship bade hin; lay down his head and he should be fairly fared with, and die on a sword ; and took a rusty sword and smote off his head within half a dozen strokes, and took away his gown of russet, and his doublet of velvet mailed, and laid his body on the sands of Dover; and some say his head was set on a pole by it ; and his men sit on the land by great circumstance and pray. And the Sheriff of Kent doth watch the body and (hath) sent his Undersheriff to the Judges to weet what to do; and also to the King (to know) what shall be done. Further I wot not, but thus far is it, if the process be erroneous let his counsel reverse it.

Chronicles of the White Rose of York on the Hathi Trust website.

William de la Pole murdered at sea (Croyland Chronicle)

About this time king Henry held his parliament at Westminster, at which the before-named William Pole was raised from the rank of marquis to that of duke. In consequence of this, his heart was too greatly elated, and became exalted still more and more previously to his downfall; besides which, seeing that the king was now deprived of his kinsmen of the royal blood and all his Mends, so that he could be guided by his own advice alone, in order that he himself might be enabled the more easily* to explain his mind, he made certain persons of his party acquainted with his designs, and introduced them to the private acquaintanceship of the king. These were Master Ayscough, bishop of Salisbury, and James Lord Saye, who forbade all access whatever to all such as attempted to gain the king’s favour, or to appear in his presence without their own connivance. Being also inflamed with the inextinguishable ardour of cupidity, they took the king round to each monastery throughout the kingdom, and in his name accumulated and carried off numerous gifts and presents. They also, by means of their importunity, obtained from the king, and divided among themselves, great sums of money out of the tithes of the Church and the tributes of the laity and other subsidies to the king that had been paid into the royal treasury. Nor even then was this dropsical thirst of the said traitors allayed, but extending their hands to still higher things, with the most presumptuous treachery, for an immense sum of gold they surrendered, by charter patent of the king, nearly all the king’s castles, towns, and estates, held in the parts beyond sea, and which had been obtained, not without blood and the plenteous shedding thereof, by the victorious hands of our kings. In a similar manner, though the intervention of money, they allowed the duke of Orleans, who had been taken prisoner by king Henry the Fifth at the battle of Agincourt, and detained in England in safe custody for many years: after, to return home In the full enjoyment oi his liberty. However, the aveneng anger of God, being desirons to put an end to mischief of thi nature, aroused the hearts of all people to take vengeanice upon their detestable crimes ; so that, publicly proclaiming them to be traitors, they seemed unanimously to concur in their down fall. For the commons of the kingdom, hastily rising in rebellion, first laid hands on the bishop of Salisbury, and without any further judicial process, slew him, pierced with many wounds. They also slew lord Saye at London, and condemned him to pay the penalty of his treason with the loss of his head. The leader also of all these traitors, the duke of Suffolk, was violently torn from the royal presence, and placed in the Tower of London for safe custody in the meantime. After this, on Parliament being called together, taking all due precautions against giving offence to the king, they condemned him to perpetual banishment, and appointed a peremptory day for him to set sail for a foreign country. On the arrival of the day that had been appointed for him to leave England, never again to return there, he embarked ; and, having set sail, supposed that he should enjoy a prosperous course, and had now escaped all quicksand’s as well as the dangers of Scylla, when, on a sudden, he fell into Charybdis. Tor a ship came hastening with all speed from an opposite quarter to meet him, and those who were on board shouted aloud, “”Where is that traitor to England ? where is the duke of Suffolk ?” On denial being made, they speedily resorted to force, and compelled the others to drag him forth from a dark corner, and deliver him up to them; upon which, they immediately seized him, and with great outcries and cheers on part of the sailors, beheaded him on the prow of the ship : and thus did they put a due but inglorious end to this traitor, although he made every offer for the preservation of his life ; but all in vain.

From the Croyland (Crowland) Chronicle.

Image Credits

Featured Image: Seal of William de la Pole, 1st Duke of Suffolk. Circular bronze seal-matrix of William de la Pole with a hexagonal conical handle section ending in a pierced trefoil. A heraldic shield on a pedestal, with the arms of Dreux, chequy or and azure, with a bordure gules, charged with lions, and a canton ermine of Brittany supported by a stag and lion. Legend, within pearled borders. With wax impression. Diameter: 4.35 centimetres. Tonnochy 1952 / Catalogue of Seal-Dies in the British Museum (345). Available a under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license. 

Quartered Arms. Sir William de la Pole, 4th Earl of Suffolk, KG HOPE, W. H. St. John, ‘’The Stall Plates of the Knights of the Order of the Garter 1348 – 1485: A Series of Ninety Full-Sized Coloured Facsimiles with Descriptive Notes and Historical Introductions,’’ Westminster: Archibald Constable and Company LTD, 1901. “ Sir William de la Pole, Count of Dreux, Earl of Pembroke, and Marquess and Duke of Suffolk, K.G. 1421-1450… arms, quarterly: 1 and 4, azure a fess and three leopards’ heads gold (for De la Pole); 2 and 3, silver on a bend gules three pairs of wings silver (for Wingfield)… ” The Stall plate remains intact within the fourteenth stall, on the north side of the quire. Sourced from Wikipedia. CC BY-SA 3.0

Murder at Sea: 19th-century illustration of Suffolk’s murder. James William Edmund Doyle – Doyle, James William Edmund (1864) “Henry VI” in A Chronicle of England: B.C. 55 – A.D. 1485London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts & Green, pp. p. 396. Sourced from Wikipedia. CC BY-SA 3.0

Leave a Reply