On May 15, 1464, Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, fought his last battle. Defeated at Hexham and captured immediately afterward, he was beheaded that same day in Hexham’s marketplace. He was twenty-eight years old. Despite his relative youth, he left a colorful career behind him when he was buried at Hexham Abbey.
Henry, described as “nearly of full age” on March 1, 1457, was born in early 1436. His parents were Edmund Beaufort, who was later made the Duke of Somerset, and Eleanor Beauchamp, daughter of the Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, commemorated in The Beauchamp Pageant. Henry VI stood as godfather to his namesake.
In August 1450, Edmund Beaufort, having lost Normandy to the French, returned home to England in high disgrace, a state of affairs that was exploited thoroughly by Richard, Duke of York. Young Henry Beaufort, who was fourteen at the time, had been with his father in France and must have felt his father’s shame deeply.
The struggle for power between Edmund Beaufort and the Duke of York (complicated by Henry VI’s temporary lapse into insanity and the birth of a son to Margaret of Anjou) culminated on May 22, 1455, at the first battle of St. Albans, where Edmund Beaufort was slain, by one account taking four of his Yorkist opponents with him as he fought his way out of an inn where he had taken shelter. As C.A.J. Armstrong points out in “Politics and the Battle of St. Albans, 1455,” there are hints in the various accounts that Edmund was not so much as killed in the fighting as specifically targeted for assassination. Whatever the truth of this, Henry Beaufort, age 19, was also present at St. Albans (he held the title of Earl of Dorset at the time) and was so “sore hurt” that he had to be carried off in a cart. It seems likely that he would have been fighting near his father and thus witnessed his death; perhaps he incurred his serious injuries trying to save Edmund Beaufort’s life.
Following the battle, Henry Beaufort was placed in the custody of the Earl of Warwick, who had been largely responsible for the Yorkist victory at St. Albans: as William Barker wrote in June 1455, “The Erle of Dorsete is in warde with the Erle of Warrwyk” (Paston Letters). Paul Murray Kendall in Warwick the Kingmaker writes, “If [Warwick] hoped to make a friend of young Henry, he utterly failed, for the new Duke of Somerset was to spend the rest of his short life seeking vengeance.” It is unlikely, though, that Warwick took Henry into his custody to gain his friendship; more likely he viewed the young man as a threat to him. By March 8, 1456, Somerset was presumably out of Warwick’s custody, since his widowed mother was granted 200 pounds a year for his sustenance on that date.
Warwick and York had every reason to be worried about the young duke. In the first few years after St. Albans he was certainly inclined toward vengeance, which suggests that he indeed regarded his father’s death at St. Albans as a murder rather than a death in plain battle. In October 1456 at a great council at Coventry, he tried to attack York, resulting in an affray in which several watchmen were killed. Humphrey Stafford, the Duke of Buckingham, whose eldest son was married to one of Somerset's sisters, had to intervene to protect Somerset from the townspeople’s wrath. Undeterred, Somerset in December 1456 got into a staring match (“grete visagyng to gidder”) with Warwick’s younger brother, John Neville, in Cheapside, which led to the young men going off to collect reinforcements so that they could rumble together properly; this time, London’s mayor intervened before the two sides could come to blows. Probably in November 1457 (though a chronicler gives the date as 1456), Somerset and others tried to seize Warwick himself at Westminster. When Henry VI called the parties together to make peace in 1458, the long-suffering mayor of London sensibly ordered Somerset to lodge his men outside of the city, while the Yorkist lords were allowed to keep their men inside the city.
Meanwhile, Somerset had been allowed to enter his estates on March 1, 1457, shortly before he came of age. After the peace of 1458 was concluded with the famous “Loveday” procession, during which Somerset walked alongside Warwick’s father, Somerset did indeed behave himself. During the Whitsuntide celebrations of 1458, Somerset jousted before the king and queen; the other named jouster was Anthony Woodville, whose family members still were Lancastrian stalwarts at that time.
War was soon to provide Somerset with a more satisfactory outlet for his energies and his desire for revenge. After the battle of Blore Heath, Somerset’s forces tried and failed in September 1459 to intercept Warwick’s forces at Coleshill. At Ludford Bridge the next month, Somerset is said to have been instrumental in persuading Anthony Trollope and his men to desert Warwick, setting in motion the events that led Warwick and company to flee. Subsequently, Somerset was appointed Captain of Calais, the hitch being that Warwick was in Calais and was not inclined to give it up.
As Michael K. Jones points out, it was Somerset’s attempts to seize Calais from Warwick that would change his reputation from that of a young hothead to that of a determined military commander. His efforts, albeit unsuccessful, won him the respect of both Charles VII and Charles, Count of Charolais, the heir to the Duke of Burgundy.
When Somerset returned to England, he would win the battle of Wakefield and the second battle of St. Albans for Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou. The victory at St. Albans must have been a particularly sweet one for Somerset, as it was the town in which his father had been slain and he himself nearly killed six years before. His luck changed disastrously at Towton, and in 1461 he fled to Scotland with Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou.
Somerset was sent on an embassy to Charles VII in July 1461; unfortunately, when Somerset arrived in France, he found that Charles had died, leaving him to deal with his slippery heir, Louis XI, who promptly arrested Somerset. He was freed after two months. An odd story has it that when Somerset finally met with Louis XI, he took the opportunity to inform the French king that he had had a love affair with the widowed Mary of Gueldres, the Queen of Scotland, who was serving as regent for her son James III. Mary, the story goes, furious when she learned of Somerset’s tale-bearing, then conspired with her new lover, Adam Hepburn, to kill Somerset. Such locker-room boasting by Somerset seems unlikely, however, given that Somerset knew well that Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou were still dependent on Scottish aid. More likely the story was part of a later attempt by Mary's enemies to smear her reputation.
After a sojourn in Bruges in the spring and summer of 1462, during which time his household clashed with English merchants, Somerset returned to Scotland, after which the Lancastrians succeeded in seizing several English castles. Besieged by Yorkist troops at Bamburgh Castle, where he and the garrison were reduced to eating horsemeat, Somerset then entered into the strangest episode of his career: on Christmas Eve of 1462, he surrendered the castle and made his peace with Edward IV. Why he did this is unclear. He might have become convinced that the Lancastrian cause was hopeless; he might have been concerned for his younger brother Edmund, who was Edward IV’s prisoner; he might have tired of the life of a rebel.
Edward IV quickly rewarded Somerset for his desertion of the Lancastrian cause. He was given money for his expenses, and the attainder against him was reversed by Parliament in the spring of 1463. Somerset was given the honor of sharing the king’s bed (a mark of favor without sexual connotations) and went hunting with the king. His brother was released from prison. Edward even arranged a tournament in Somerset’s honor, where Somerset’s “helme was a sory hatte of strawe.”
In July 1463, Edward IV’s forces, including Somerset, began moving north to encounter the remaining Lancastrians, who despite the loss of Somerset were doggedly preparing an invasion from Scotland. Somerset, however, never made it past Northampton. While the king’s entourage was staying there, a group of townspeople attempted to murder Somerset, who had to be rescued by the king. After winning over the surly townspeople with a gift of wine, Edward IV sent Somerset to Chirk Castle, which Cardinal Beaufort had acquired some years before. By late November 1463, Somerset had returned to the Lancastrian fold.
Why did Somerset desert Edward IV? It seems unlikely that he planned to do this all along. Michael Jones and Malcolm Underwood suggest that he was unnerved by the attack on him at Northampton, while Michael Hicks suggests that he was motivated by a sense of allegiance to Henry VI. Probably Somerset also felt isolated at Chirk, far from the royal favor he had enjoyed just months before. Whatever his motive, it was certainly not a desire to be on the side that was winning or to gain a material advantage, for the fortunes of the House of Lancaster were dismal at the time: the Scottish invasion had failed miserably, as had Margaret of Anjou’s efforts to obtain foreign assistance. With a truce being negotiated between England and Scotland, Henry VI would soon lose his Scottish refuge, and Margaret of Anjou was living an impoverished existence in one of her father’s castles. Somerset would also have certainly guessed that his chances of surviving if he fell again into Edward IV’s hands were extremely slim.
Having made his decision to trade the comforts of Chirk Castle for the uncertainty of life as a rebel, Somerset set off from Chirk with the intent of taking over Newcastle, which Edward IV had sent some of Somerset’s entourage to garrison following the Northampton incident. Somerset, however, was recognized at Durham, and, the story goes, was nearly taken in his bed but escaped in his shirt and barefoot. He eventually made it safely to Northumberland, where by December 8 Henry VI was staying at Bamburgh Castle.
Somerset’s change of heart temporarily revitalized the Lancastrian cause, but in fact Somerset’s share in it had just a few months left to run. When John Neville, now Lord Montagu, went to escort some Scottish envoys for further peace talks at York, he was attacked on April 25, 1464, at Hedgeley Moor by Somerset’s forces. Montagu’s men killed Sir Ralph Percy, scattering Somerset’s men. Meanwhile, Edward IV was mobilizing men to crush the rebellion in the north for good. It turned out, however, that only Montagu was needed for the task. He surprised Somerset’s men near Hexham on May 15, 1464. Somerset was captured and taken to Hexham, where he was beheaded that same day. Over the next few days, around thirty other men would be rounded up and executed. Less than two weeks later, Edward IV rewarded the industrious Montagu with the earldom of Northumberland.
Somerset was buried at Hexham Abbey, although the location of his grave is unknown. His half-brother, Thomas Ros, nine years older than Somerset, had served the Lancastrian cause consistently and had often fought alongside Somerset. The battle of Hexham was no exception. Having been captured in a wood after Hexham, Ros was executed at Newcastle on May 17, 1464. He was buried at Hexham; it’s pleasant to think that he might have asked to be interred near his younger brother.
Somerset left one remembrance when he died: at some point he had acquired a mistress, Joan Hill, who presented him with a bastard son, Charles, around 1460. Joan was granted an annuity by Henry VII in 1493, but otherwise nothing seems to be known about her. Charles Somerset was raised in exile in Flanders and in France; judging from his later career, someone took the trouble after his father’s execution to make certain that he was given the training suitable for a nobleman’s son. Like those of so many other exiles, his fortunes changed in 1485 with the invasion of Henry Tudor. Knighted at Milford Haven on August 7, 1485, he served both Henry VII and Henry VIII as an administrator, a diplomat, and a soldier and was made the Earl of Worcester in 1514. The magnificence of the Field of the Cloth of Gold was largely a product of his organizational flair. He died on April 25, 1526, and was buried in St George's Chapel, Windsor. In 1492, he had married an heiress, Elizabeth Herbert, the daughter of William Herbert, Earl of Huntingdon, and Mary Woodville (a sister of Elizabeth Woodville). From Charles and Elizabeth—and, of course, from Henry Beaufort and his obscure mistress—descend the present-day Dukes of Beaufort.