The Fall of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester

Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester

Whilst researching my biography of Richard, Duke of York I found myself drawn by a bitter feud that lasted for years and which in many ways was a kind of prequel to the Wars of the Roses. The more I learned about the acrimonious dispute between Cardinal Henry Beaufort and Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester the more it fascinated me and the more I began to see it as a pre-cursor to the troubles that followed. I found it almost impossible to tell Richard, Duke of York’s story without reference to the context provided by this relationship. It has been largely forgotten in the violent civil war that followed its shocking end but without the fall of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester there may never have been a Wars of the Roses.

Cardinal Henry Beaufort was born around 1375, the second son of John of Gaunt by his mistress (and later third wife) Katherine Swynford. His older brother was John Beaufort, Earl of Somerset, whose descendants would become the infamous Dukes of Somerset who would rise to fame in the fifteenth century. His younger brother was Thomas Beaufort, Duke of Exeter, a very capable soldier, and Joan Beaufort, his younger sister, married Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmoreland and became the matriarch of the Neville clan that rose to prominence as opponents of her brother’s Somerset descendants. Henry was half-brother to Henry IV, uncle to Henry V and great-uncle to Henry VI. As Bishop of Winchester he held the richest see in England and this made him invaluable to a Lancastrian crown perpetually short of money.

Cardinal Henry Beaufort
Cardinal Henry Beaufort

Henry Beaufort acted as Chancellor to his half-brother before they fell out, returning to influence under his nephew Henry V, who was close to his uncle. In 1417 Beaufort was created a Cardinal and papal legate, only for his nephew to place pressure on him to give up the Cardinal’s hat. The king feared the encroachment of papal influence but needed to keep his uncle, and not least his money, close. Henry Beaufort (no doubt grudgingly) agreed but in 1426, shortly after the accession of the young Henry VI, he was once more appointed Cardinal. This apparently conflicting role as Papal representative and senior royal counsellor would attract criticism, most notably from Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester.

Humphrey was born around 1391, the fourth and youngest son of the man who would become King Henry IV. Created Duke of Gloucester by his brother Henry V in 1414, Humphrey took part in several campaigns in France, most notably fighting at the Battle of Agincourt. On his brother’s death Humphrey served as Regent in England for his nephew, though his power was severely limited by the Royal Council and was always subservient to the position of his brother John. Often viewed as reckless and bitter, Humphrey was almost permanently at odds with his half-uncle Cardinal Beaufort – and his behavior may have had another explanation as we shall see later.

After the annulment of his first marriage to Jacqueline of Hainult, Humphrey married Eleanor Cobham around 1430. The couple were popular and well liked, their court becoming a centre of poetry and learning. A part of Humphrey’s library was bequeathed to Oxford University and formed the basis of the Bodleian Library. When John died in 1435 it left Humphrey as heir presumptive to his childless young nephew and removed the one control on the rivalry between the duke and Cardinal Beaufort. From this point onwards the feud became ever more bitter and personal.

The first point of conflict came with the decision that had to be made quickly as to the identity of John’s replacement in France. The Cardinal wanted the prestigious position for his nephew John Beaufort, son and namesake of his older brother, as he sought to use his substantial influence to promote the position of his family in Lancastrian England. Humphrey was equally determined not to allow the Beauforts such power and promoted his closest legitimate royal relative, the young and powerful Richard, Duke of York. Humphrey won the argument and York was dispatched to France but the battle was only intensified.

When Parliament opened in November 1439 it was flabbergasted to hear a tirade of complaint from Duke Humphrey against his uncle Cardinal Beaufort just before Christmas. After Christmas the articles were presented in writing, nominally addressed to his nephew but clearly meant for a wide audience. Beginning by complaining about the release of Charles, Duke of Orleans, who had been taken prisoner at Agincourt and whose release Henry V had forbidden, Humphrey quickly launched into a sharp berating of his uncle’s actions over the last decade or so, not least his conflicted role as Cardinal and royal councilor. Charges rained from Humphrey’s pen but, perhaps reflecting the balance of power that was driving him to make his complaints, nothing came of his accusations and Cardinal Beaufort was not even investigated. Instead, the next strike would be made by the Cardinal’s faction.

Humphrey’s wife Eleanor Cobham was arrested and tried for treasonable necromancy in 1441, accused of having engaged the well-known ‘Witch of Eye’, Margery Jourdemayne, to predict the death of Henry VI that would give her husband the throne. Eleanor claimed that she had only sought help to conceive a child but it is unlikely that any defense would have saved her. Although she escaped a death sentence Eleanor was forced to perform a public penance, divorce Humphrey and remain imprisoned for the rest of her life. She eventually died at Beaumaris Castle in 1452, still a prinoner, but the scandal of her arrest, trial and conviction forced Humphrey to retire from public life. It seemed that Cardinal Beaufort had won the war, but Humphrey remained a popular man, well loved by the general populace, viewed as a champion of their cause against a disinterested king and court party.

Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester
Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester

By 1447 the English conquests in France were in the final throes of a prolonged and painful demise. Henry VI’s government, by this point headed up by William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, was trying to hand back vast swathes of land won by Henry V and to the preservation of which John and Humphrey had dedicated their lives. There is little doubt that the government feared a backlash from Humphrey that could gather popular support and become dangerous. On 14 December 1446 Parliament was summoned to meet at Cambridge on 10 February 1447 but on 20 January the location was suddenly changed from Cambridge, where Humphrey was popular, to Bury St Edmunds in the heart of Suffolk’s power base. This clearly suggests that at some point over the Christmas period a plot to deal with Humphrey once and for all was crystalizing.

An English Chronicle recorded that Humphrey arrived after the opening of Parliament, was met outside the town and that before ‘he came fully into the town of Bury, there were sent unto him messengers commanding him on the king’s behalf’. He was ordered to go straight to his lodgings and not to try to see his nephew the king, who seems to have been convinced that his fifty-six year old childless uncle was actively plotting to seize the throne, a notion probably promoted by Suffolk and Cardinal Beaufort, who spied a final end for his longtime nemesis. Humphrey was arrested on 20 February by Viscount Beaumont, accompanied by the Duke of Buckingham, the Marquis of Somerset (Edmund Beaufort), the Earl of Salisbury and Lord Sudeley. Either that day or the following Humphrey suffered what was reported to be a devastating stroke. He lingered until 23 February when he finally died. His body was placed on public display before being buried at St Albans Abbey but rumours quickly sprang up that he had been murdered, perhaps poisoned. There is no evidence to support this and a natural cause is entirely possible, but the belief that Humphrey had been wronged lingered for years and his death was undoubtedly convenient to the government.

Humphrey is often remembered as a reckless, petulant, unreliable and belligerent man who resented his lack of power compared to his brother and the Council. This reading of events is not entirely fair to my mind. At the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 Humphrey had been injured and knocked to the muddy ground. As French knights raised their weapons to finish him off an armoured figure stepped across his prone body and beat the attackers away. So close was the combat that the man defending Humphrey had a fleur de lys cut from the crown atop his helm. Humphrey’s life had been saved by his brother, King Henry V. For the rest of his life Humphrey would devotedly try to see his brother’s aims in France realised, perhaps because he owed his life to the famous warrior. Watching the floundering of English fortunes must have been painful and seeing the Beauforts attempting to use the Cardinal’s wealth to benefit themselves in a way Humphrey probably felt did not benefit England may have been behind his animosity to the Cardinal.

Cardinal Henry Beaufort would appear to have won the long war with Humphrey, though his victory was short lived. He died on 11 April 1447, less than two months after Humphrey. A legend sprang up, probably originating from the Tudor antiquarian Edward Hall and embellished by Shakespeare, that Cardinal Beaufort became delirious on his deathbed and offered Death all of his treasure for a longer life, though the contemporary Croyland Chronicle records simply that he died ‘with the same business-like dignity in which for so long he had lived and ruled’. In his early seventies, he had lived under four kings and amassed huge wealth and influence, a basis from which the Beauforts would flourish further.

Perhaps the real impact of the feud between Cardinal Henry Beaufort and Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester lies in what was to come after both of their deaths. The Beaufort family were set on an upward trajectory and enjoyed the favour of the king that the Cardinal’s influence had won for them. Richard, Duke of York had been promoted by Gloucester as a legitimate member of the blood royal and was widely viewed as the successor to Humphrey’s position opposing the peace party at court, meaning that whether he wished it or not he became an opponent to the Beauforts, perpetuating the feud of a previous generation. This rift would eventually widen until civil war broke out. Humphrey’s name would be closely associated with York’s cause for more than a decade after his death, his rehabilitation promoted by Cade’s Rebellion and his name finally cleared in Parliament when York held power.

The House of York and the House of Beaufort appear to have been set on a collision course by the disputes between Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester and Cardinal Henry Beaufort. Henry VI’s inability to force a closure to the rifts at his court meant that the bitterly opposed factions caused a rupture in the nation that we remember as the Wars of the Roses. It is because of the course that Richard, Duke of York was set upon by these events that I found it impossible not to tell this story in order to explain his actions and the events that surrounded him. Although it is lost in the vicious war that followed, the long battle between Humphrey and Cardinal Beaufort laid the foundations for the Wars of the Roses that followed their deaths and Humphrey’s fall marked the implosion of the House of Lancaster in a manner usually believed to be the preserve of their successors in the House of York.

Humphrey was a well-liked figure who was popular with the common man and retained sympathy for the House of Lancaster as the government of his nephew became increasingly unpopular and out of touch with the country. The policy of eliminating those closest to the throne thrust Richard, Duke of York to prominence as Humphrey’s natural successor, caused those who had looked to Humphrey for a lead to turn their focus from the House of Lancaster and made York, not unreasonably, frightened of meeting the same fate simply by reason of his position. Perhaps paranoia was a part of the makeup of Henry VI’s mental issues even at this early stage, perhaps the Beauforts were manipulating him to improve their own prospects or perhaps it was a little of both. Whatever the reason, it backfired on Henry and the Beauforts, dragging England into a bitter and prolonged civil war.

Matthew Lewis’s has written The Wars of the Roses (Amberley Publishing), a detailed look at the key players of the civil war that tore England apart in the fifteenth century, and Medieval Britain in 100 Facts (Amberley Publishing), which offers a tour of the middle ages by explaining facts and putting the record straight on common misconceptions.

Matt is also the author of a brief biography of Richard III, A Glimpse of King Richard III along with a brief overview of the Wars of the Roses, A Glimpse of the Wars of the Roses.

Matt has two novels available too; Loyalty, the story of King Richard III’s life, and Honour, which follows Francis, Lord Lovell in the aftermath of Bosworth.

The Richard III Podcast and the Wars of the Roses Podcast can be subscribed to via iTunes or on YouTube

Matt can also be found on Twitter @mattlewisauthor.

The Scar of Henry V

On 21st July 1403, a rebel army led by Sir Henry Percy, known as Harry Hotspur, son of the 1st Earl of Northumberland, gave battle to the forces of King Henry IV. The somewhat beleaguered monarch was supported by his oldest son and heir, Henry of Monmouth, Prince of Wales, who was only 16 years of age. This young man was later to become the legendary king of Agincourt fame, “Hammer of the Gauls” as his tomb inscription lauds him. That sunny day was darkened by clouds of arrows and rang with the screams of the many dying. It may also have defined the future Henry V as we remember him.

The background to the Percy rebellion was a mounting list of grievances that they felt was going unaddressed. They had been loyal to the new regime initially, but went unpaid for their ongoing defence of the troublesome and perilous Scottish border. Harry Hotspur, a famed soldier in his early forties, was dissatisfied that his wife’s brother, Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March was being left to languish as a prisoner of the Welsh rebel leader Owain Glyndwr, his ransom unpaid. Harry and his uncle, Thomas Percy, Earl of Worcester marched south to offer battle to the king on the Welsh border. The two armies met on 21st July at Shrewsbury in fierce fighting that Holinshed recounts lasted three hours.

The Battle of Shrewsbury, 21st July 1503
The Battle of Shrewsbury, 21st July 1403
During one of the many volleys of missiles, Prince Henry was hit in the face by an arrow which embedded itself six inches into his right cheek, probably at a downward angle as the arrow fell. Raphael Holinshed, the Tudor chronicler, recounted that;

“The prince that daie holpe his father like a lustie yoong gentleman: for although he was hurt in the face with an arrow, so that diverse noble men that were about him, would haue conveied him foorth of the field, yet he would not sufler them so to doo, least his departure from amongst his men might happilie have striken some feare into their harts: and so without regard of his hurt, he continued with his men, never ceassed, either to fight where the battell was most hot, or to incourage his men where it seemed most need.”

When the battle was finally over, the Percy force fleeing after Harry Hotspur fell, Prince Henry was rushed to receive treatment. The arrow shaft was removed, but the barbed head was lodged, unreachable and immovable. Eventually, the London surgeon John Bradmore was called to see what he could do. Bradmore’s answer was as revolutionary as it was risky. He later wrote a book entitled Philomena, in which he retold the treatment that he devised;

First, I made small probes from the pith of an elder, well dried and well stitched in purified linen [made to] the length of the wound. These probes were infused with rose honey. And after that, I made larger and longer probes, and so I continued to always enlarge these probes until I had the width and depth of the wound as I wished it. And after the wound was as enlarged and deep enough so that, by my reckoning, the probes reached the bottom of the wound, I prepared anew some little tongs, small and hollow, and with the width of an arrow. A screw ran through the middle of the tongs, whose ends were well rounded both on the inside and outside, and even the end of the screw, which was entered into the middle, was well rounded overall in the way of a screw, so that it should grip better and more strongly.

Bradmore worked away at widening the wound to give himself room to reach the arrow head. Once he could access it, he screwed the thread of his newly invented implement into the arrow head. Next, he tells how “Then by moving it to and fro (with the help of God) I extracted the arrowhead”. The next concern was how to treat the gaping wound in the Prince of Wales’ cheek and prevent a deadly infection from taking hold.

The ingenious surgeon tells how he washed the wound with white wine and wiped the inside of it out with a probe covered with honey, an early antiseptic, barley, flour and flax. Bradmore cleaned the wound in this way for the next twenty days, each day making the probe a little smaller to allow the wound to heal over as it was cleansed. To prevent seizures, a possibility that obviously concerned Bradmore, he applied medicines to the prince’s neck to loosen the muscles.

Bradmore describes this wound as being on Henry’s cheek, “next to his nose on the left side”, though it is generally believed that it was the prince’s right cheek that was hit; Bradmore perhaps referring to his own left. The surgeon’s star was in the ascendant. He was paid 40s for medicines provided to the king’s household in 1403 and granted an annuity of ten marks for his successful treatment of the prince. Later, he was made Searcher of the Port of London in 1408. He was also called upon to treat one William Wyncelowe, the king’s pavilioner, whose suicide attempt left him with a wound to his stomach. Bradmore treated him for eighty days and the man survived. He wrote his book, Philomena, before his death in 1412.

The wound left a physical scar on Henry that he carried for the rest of his life. The only remaining contemporary portrait shows him in profile, his left side facing the viewer. It is likely that this was to avoid displaying his damaged right cheek. For all of his fame as the victor of Agincourt and for forcing himself to be recognised as the rightful heir to the throne of France, this early episode and the physical mark that it left upon the prince is often overlooked. Henry’s apparent desire to hide it may suggest that it was not a mark of battle that he wore with pride. Perhaps he did not want his enemies to be made aware of his mortality and the fact that a stray arrow almost killed him at 16. He needed to appear invincible if he was to inspire fear in the French.

It might also be worth considering the psychological impact of this near-death experience on the young Prince of Wales. It is well known that Henry was something of a tearaway in his youth. Honlinshed reports that when he became king, Henry had a sudden, severe change of attitude; “For whereas aforetime he had made himselfe a companion unto misrulie mates of dissolute order and life, he now banished them all from his presence (but not unrewarded, or else unpreferred) inhibiting them upon a great paine, not once to approch, lodge, or sorourne within ten miles of his court or presence”. It is possible that his experience at Shrewsbury caused him to go off the rails for a while, the brush with death causing him to embrace a life of fun and excess whilst his position afforded him that luxury. By 1407, he was key to his father’s efforts in Wales, so must have curtailed his wild living. Once king, it had to end.

The early trauma may have also informed his more sober role as king. Henry was a renowned soldier, but piety and honour forged a strong moral compass (the execution of prisoners at Agincourt is often cited against this, but it can be understood in its context, if not excused because the threatened French resurgence did not materialise). Henry offered the King of France a single combat duel between himself and the French king’s son, The Dauphin (the king being too infirm for such a trial). It is most likely that Henry did so knowing not only that the Dauphin lacked military experience and courage and so would be forced to decline, dishonouring himself, but also that in the unlikely event of acceptance, Henry would win. However, he told the French king Charles VI that he wished to settle the matter in this manner to avoid “the effusion of blood”. Agincourt was to be the only pitched battle of Henry’s French campaign and he perhaps genuinely wished to avoid them where possible, preferring not to spill the blood of thousands of men.

Henry was also famous during his campaign for his treatment of his men, from whatever social level. He would apparently walk the camp frequently, not only keeping his men on their toes, but conversing with them, offering praise where it was due, criticism when it was warranted and encouragement where it was needed. This approach may have been nurtured by his experience at Shrewsbury. He had learned at a young age that any man present might be the one that would save his life. He should therefore be grateful that each one is there and instil in every man the desire to save their good and gracious king. Shrewsbury may, after some reflection, have created and reinforced his believe that God was on his side.

All of this may be to overstate the impact of the injury Henry sustained at Shrewsbury, but it is compelling to see the horrific injury as sending him off the rails as he realised how narrowly he had escaped death, and to see it at work in his later treatment of his men and his behaviour on campaign.

If nothing else, it explains why we see him only in profile on his left hand side.

King Henry V
King Henry V
Here is a video discussing the removal of the arrow head from Prince Henry’s cheek:

I shall leave you with Holinshed’s Chronicle’s assessment of Henry at the end of its detailing of his reign:

“This Henrie was a king, of life without spot, a prince whome all men loved, and of none disdained, a capteine against whome fortune never frowned, nor mis-chance once spurned, whose people him so severe aiusticer both loved and obeied (and so humane withall) that he left no offense unpunished, nor freendship unrewarded; a terrour to rebels, and suppressour of sedition, his vertues notable, his qualities most praise-worthie.”

“In strength and nimblenesse of bodie from his youth few to him comparable, for in wrestling, leaping, and running, no man wellable to compare. In casting of great iron barres and heavie stones he excelled commonlie all men, never shrinking at cold, nor slothfull for heat; and when he most laboured, his head commonlie uncovered; no more wearie of harnesse than a light cloake, verie valiantlie abiding at needs both hunger and thirst; so manfull of mind as never seene to quinch at a wound, or to smart at the paine; nor to turne his nose from evill savour, nor close his eies from smoke or dust; no man more moderate in eating and drinking, with diet not delicate, but rather more meet for men of warre, than for princes, or tender stomachs. Everie honest person was permitted to come to him, sitting at meale, where either secretlie or openlie to declare his mind. High and weightie causes as well betweene men of warre and other he would gladlie heare, and either determined them himselfe, or else for end committed them to others. He slept verie little, but that verie soundlie, in so much that when his soldiers soong at nights, or minstrels plaied, he then slept fastest; of courage invincible, of purpose unmutable, so wisehardie alwaies, as feare was banisht from him; at everie alarum he first in armor and formost in ordering. In time of warre such was his providence, bountie and hap, as he had true intelligence not onelie what his enimies did, but what they said and intended; of his devises and purposes few, before the thing was at the point to be done, should be made privie.”

“Knowen be it therefore, of person and forme was this prince, rightlie representing his heroicall affects, of stature and proportion tall and manlie, rather leane than grose, somewhat long necked and blacke haired, of countenance amiable, eloquent and grave was his speech, and of great grace and power to persuade: for conclusion, a maiestie was he that both lived died a paterne in princehood, alode-starre in honour, and mirrour of magnificence; the more highlie exalted in his life, the more deepelie lamented at his death, and famous to the world alwaie.”

Matthew Lewis is the author of a brief biography of Richard III, A Glimpse of King Richard III along with a brief overview of the Wars of the Roses, A Glimpse of the Wars of the Roses.


Matt’s has two novels available too; Loyalty, the story of King Richard III’s life, and Honour, which follows Francis, Lord Lovell in the aftermath of Bosworth.


The Richard III Podcast and the Wars of the Roses Podcast can be subscribed to via iTunes or on YouTube


Matt can also be found on Twitter @mattlewisauthor.