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Beaufort, Henry, second duke of Somersetlocked

  • Michael K. Jones

Beaufort, Henry, second duke of Somerset (1436–1464), magnate, was born early in 1436, the eldest son of Edmund Beaufort, first duke of Somerset (d. 1455), and his wife, Eleanor, daughter of Richard Beauchamp, earl of Warwick (d. 1439), and widow of Thomas, Baron Ros of Helmsley. The strong links between Henry Beaufort's family and the Lancastrian ruling house were emphasized when Henry VI stood as his godfather. Beaufort, styled earl of Dorset from 1448 to 1455, made occasional appearances at court in the early 1450s. He was present, with his father, at the celebration in Westminster Abbey of the Feast of the Assumption on 15 August 1450 and in May 1455 he was a member of the royal army that left London for a proposed meeting of the great council at Leicester. He succeeded to the dukedom of Somerset on 22 May 1455, after the death of his father at the first battle of St Albans. He had fought by his side and had been so badly wounded that he had to be carried away in a cart. The chronicler Waurin believed his later career was dominated by the desire to avenge his father, the leader of the court faction and chief enemy of the duke of York. Certainly after St Albans he was the only heir of those nobles killed in the battle considered irreconcilable. He was kept in Warwick's custody before the parliament that commenced on 9 July 1455, and on 18 July a bill was passed that blamed the late duke of Somerset for the conflict but removed all mention of Percy and Clifford, providing clear evidence of the reluctance of Somerset's heir to co-operate. The latter was soon to take his father's place as the most prominent Lancastrian nobleman.

Somerset's animosity quickly became apparent. At the great council summoned at Coventry on 10 October 1456 he had to be restrained from attacking York and in November in London nearly came to blows with first Warwick and then his younger brother, Sir John Neville. According to Gregory's chronicle an accommodation had been arranged between Somerset and the Neville family at Coventry in March 1457, when the young duke formally took possession of his estates. However this ‘pacification’ is not mentioned in any other source, and the attendance of lords recorded in the Coventry leet book reveals that the Nevilles had wisely decided to stay away. On 14 October 1457 Somerset received his first military command, the constableship of Carisbrooke and the lieutenancy of the Isle of Wight, in the aftermath of the French attack on Sandwich. The measures to defend the south coast saw all the key posts shared among the queen's confidants and aroused considerable suspicion among the Yorkists. The only real attempt at arbitration occurred early in 1458 when the rival lords gathered in London. Somerset and his retinue were billeted outside the city but this did not prevent him from attempting another attack on Warwick on 9 March. The ‘loveday’ agreement of 25 March, by which Richard, duke of York, settled 5000 marks of debts owed to him by the crown on Somerset and his widowed mother by way of compensation for St Albans, soon proved to be ineffective. In May, Somerset and Rivers jousted with members of the queen's household at the Tower of London and Greenwich. These were not jousts of peace but partisan gatherings that presaged further violence. Waurin believed that Somerset was behind the attack on Warwick in London in late October 1458 and by the summer of 1459 it was clear that both sides were drifting towards war. On 21 September 1459 Warwick and his retinue narrowly escaped an armed clash with Somerset at Coleshill, Warwickshire. The decision to appoint Somerset to the captaincy of Calais, already held by Warwick, on 9 October made further conflict between the two men inevitable, and the rout at Ludford, which followed on 13 October, marked a permanent breach between the court party and the Yorkists.

If Somerset's early career had been dominated by the violence of his vendetta against York and the Nevilles, his valiant efforts to wrest Calais from Warwick were to show his worth as a commander, and established his reputation internationally. On 10 November 1459 he indented with the crown for an army of 1000 men, and crossed the channel with the first part of this force shortly afterwards. Although denied access to Calais itself, Somerset was able to establish himself within the pale at Guînes and launched a series of vigorous raids that impressed contemporaries by their boldness and enterprise. Gregory's chronicle described how he 'fulle manly made sautys [assaults]' to win over Hammes and encourage desertions from Rysbank. Somerset was assisted by the experienced war captain Andrew Trollope, whom he had won over to the Lancastrian cause at Ludford Bridge: together the two men represented a formidable military partnership. But in January 1460 the remainder of Somerset's force, gathering at Sandwich, was dispersed by Warwick, and its commander, Lord Rivers, captured. The Calais staple gave Warwick substantial support and Somerset's own financial situation became increasingly desperate. He chose to engage the enemy on St George's day (23 April 1460) but was repulsed at Newenham Bridge. The news of the destruction of further reinforcements under Osbert Mundeford (25 June) and Lancastrian defeat at Northampton (10 July) made Somerset's position hopeless. He came to terms with Warwick, surrendered Guînes, and took shelter in France. Charles VII, who had been struck by the courage of Somerset's resistance, granted him safe conduct on 16 July 1460, lodged him at Montivilliers, and met the expenses of his retinue. Somerset had also won the admiration of Charles, count of Charolais, the son and heir of Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy. The two met at Ardres on 12 August. Charolais entertained his guest with a lavish dinner and a firm friendship was forged.

In October 1460 Somerset returned to England. He sailed from Dieppe in ships provided by Charles VII, landed in Dorset, and quickly made his way to his regional power base at Corfe. His intention was to join with the Courtenay earl of Devon and raise the west country for Margaret of Anjou. On 10 November, Somerset and the earl of Devon were in Exeter gathering troops. They then moved on to Bridgwater. The anxious citizens of Exeter sent on a gift of £5 to Somerset as a sign of their goodwill, while secretly dispatching a messenger to London to warn York of his activities. Faced with another Lancastrian army growing in the north, York made a disastrous miscalculation. He assumed there would be an attempt on Bristol, and warned the mayor and council of the city to defend the castle against a likely attack by the duke of Somerset. He then divided his strength, leaving Warwick in London and marching north with the earl of Salisbury. Somerset seized his opportunity. After consulting with Trollope, he and Devon secretly took a picked mounted force and rode northwards, through Bath, Cirencester, Evesham, and Coventry. On 21 December they caught up with the unsuspecting scouts of York's army at Worksop, and soon afterwards made contact with Margaret of Anjou. Somerset had totally outmanoeuvred York, who, vastly outnumbered, was overwhelmed at Wakefield on 30 December.

The Wakefield campaign showed a new style of leadership among the Lancastrians, aggressive and imaginative, that owed much to the skill of Somerset and Trollope. Somerset now took command of their forces. He was in overall charge at the second battle of St Albans on 17 February 1461, a victory that opened up the road to London and secured the person of the king, who had been captured by the Yorkists at the battle of Northampton. The capital was in a state of panic at the approach of an army perceived to be full of rampaging northerners, and anxious citizens painted the Beaufort badge, the portcullis, on their doors in an effort to stave off looting. Somerset's advance riders were already nearing London when Margaret of Anjou made her fateful decision to retreat northwards. The initiative had been lost. Henry VI's forces were faced with fresh financial difficulties and, on 6 March, Somerset headed a commission that ‘extorted’ a forced loan from Boston. The young Edward, earl of March, entered London, was proclaimed king and led a revitalized Yorkist army north to meet them. The two sides clashed at Towton on 29 March, a battle fought in a blinding snowstorm. According to Waurin, Somerset and Trollope set up the possibility of a Lancastrian victory with a daring cavalry attack, but the earl of Northumberland failed to support them in time and the opportunity was lost. Eventually the Yorkists triumphed. Andrew Trollope, Somerset's able lieutenant, was killed in the fighting; the duke fled into Scotland with the remnants of the Lancastrian party.

Margaret of Anjou now turned to diplomacy. On 20 July 1461 the queen empowered Somerset to negotiate on her behalf with Charles VII, to raise a major loan and recruit a new army, which was to be sent to Wales. Somerset's embassy sailed from Edinburgh into a fresh political crisis. On his arrival in France the duke learnt that Charles had died. The new king, Louis XI, had sent an armed contingent to support the Yorkists at Towton and now moved swiftly, ordering Somerset's arrest on 3 August. He was imprisoned in the castle of Arques. All his letters and papers were confiscated and he was repeatedly interrogated. Louis kept Somerset in custody for over two months and he was only saved through the intercession of the count of Charolais. The duke was escorted to Tours, where he was granted a brief royal audience on 22 October, and given safe conduct to travel to Flanders. Charolais ensured that Somerset was properly received at the Burgundian court and by 11 March 1462 he had set up household in Bruges, where he was to stay throughout the spring and summer. Somerset's isolation from other Lancastrians led to a period of disenchantment. As early as September 1462 he had opened negotiations with Warwick. Although in October he joined the small army recruited by Margaret of Anjou and Pierre de Brézé that occupied the Northumbrian castles, he showed little stomach for the fight; he surrendered Bamburgh on 24 December and came to terms with Edward IV.

The Yorkist king restored Somerset to favour with a speed that shocked contemporaries. In January 1463 he was allowed to join Warwick's forces at the siege of Alnwick, and Edward granted him money to cover his expenses. On 10 March he was granted a full pardon and the Westminster parliament, which sat from 29 April to 17 June 1463, reversed the attainder passed against him in 1461, allowing him to recover his landed estate. On 22 June an annuity of £222 was returned to him and shortly afterwards his younger brother Edmund Beaufort was released from the Tower. This dramatic reconciliation was followed with considerable interest on the continent; a letter to Louis XI of 1 July 1463 reported how Somerset was in close attendance on the king. Edward had made extraordinary efforts to win the duke's trust and allegiance: he hunted with him, arranged a tournament in his honour, and even shared a bed with him. It was all too much for some of the king's subjects. When the royal entourage passed through Northampton in late July the townspeople rioted and Somerset had to be sent to his Welsh lordship of Chirk for his own safety. He was soon engaged in plotting with other Lancastrians, and in late November rejoined Henry VI in Northumberland leaving a trail of rebellion in his wake. Foreign observers believed that by March 1464 Somerset had been able to establish a small, independent principality in the far north of England. But his act of defiance was quickly brought to heel. An attempt by the Lancastrians to waylay John Neville, Lord Montagu, was repulsed at Hedgeley Moor on 25 April 1464, and a further defeat at Hexham on 15 May saw the complete destruction of their small army. Somerset was executed immediately after the battle and buried in Hexham Abbey. He had died unmarried, but, with a mistress, Joan Hill, had a bastard son, Charles, who was created earl of Worcester in Henry VII's reign.

Somerset's martial exploits won him international renown. But the depth of his vendetta against the Yorkists led to breaches of oaths and promises. Waurin claimed that the terms of his agreement with Warwick at Newenham Bridge in July 1460 included a vow never again to take up arms against the Nevilles; and many contemporaries believed that the battle of Wakefield was the result of Somerset's deliberately breaking a local truce. Given his reputation for untrustworthiness, Somerset's acceptance by Edward IV was remarkable, and his subsequent defection made any further reconciliation extremely unlikely.


  • Bibliothèque nationale, MS Fr 6967, 6970, 20430
  • TNA: PRO, C 1/73/69
  • TNA: PRO, E 404/71
  • TNA: PRO, E 28
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  • CPR, 1485–1509

Wealth at Death

approx. £700 p.a. from landed estate; £222 p.a., annuity from the crown: CIPM, valors, minister's accounts, warrants for issue

in practical terms Somerset's estate was valueless at the time of his death as a result of his rebellion: TNA: PRO C 1/73/69

Camden Society
Early English Text Society
Devon Record Office, Exeter
English Historical Review
National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London
Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research