Henry Beaufort, third duke of Somerset, 1436-1464

Henry Beaufort, third duke of Somerset (1436-1464) was a major Lancastrian military leader during the first phase of the Wars of the Roses. He considered the death of his father at the first battle of St. Albans as a murder that had to be avenged, and despite the best efforts of Edward IV to win him over died fighting for Henry VI.

In 1436 John, earl of Somerset, was a prisoner of the French, having been captured at Bauge in 1421. John's brother Edmund (Henry's father) was heir to his titles, but it was by no means certain that he would succeed. John was released in 1438, and married Margaret Beauchamp of Bletso in 1439. The marriage was childless, and Edmund inherited his brother's titles after his death in 1444. At this point the young Henry was eight, and had now been promoted from son of a second son to heir to an earldom. In 1448 his father was made Duke of Somerset, and Henry's prospects improved again, although the family wasn't wealthy by the standards of the contemporary aristocracy, with an annual income of only £300. From 1448 Henry was known as earl of Dorset, a title he held until his father's death in 1455.

Battles of the Wars of the Roses
Battles of the
Wars of the Roses

The young Henry Beaufort made a number of early appearances at court. Henry VI was his godfather and like his father he would be fierce supporter of the Lancastrian dynasty. In May 1455 the nineteen year old Henry was part of the Royal party that left London to head towards St. Albans and a possible clash with an advancing Yorkist army. The Royal party was surprised by the speed of the Yorkist advance. On the morning of 22 May they found the Yorkists camped outside St. Albans. The king moved into the centre of the town and his men prepared to defend the easily fortified market place. Despite a promising start the first battle of St. Albans ended as a Yorkist victory. Henry fought alongside his father, who was eventually trapped in the Castle Inn. Somerset decided to make one last stand and was killed while fighting outside the inn. Henry saw his father's death, and was so badly wounded that he had to be taken away in a cart. Much of his future career was probably influenced by his desire to take revenge on the Yorkists, who he considered to have murdered his father.

Only three Lancastrian peers had been killed at St. Albans - Somerset, Henry Percy, earl of Northampton, and Lord Clifford. Of their heirs the young duke of Somerset was the most hostile to the Yorkists. During a great council that was held at Coventry in October 1456 he attempted to attack the duke of York. In November in London he nearly attacked Richard Neville, earl of Warwick and his younger brother Sir John Neville.

In March 1457 Somerset officially came into possession of his estates. Military commands soon followed. On 14 October 1457 he was appointed constable of Carisbrooke Castle and lieutenant of the Isle Wight, a key post in the defence of the South and especially relevant after a recent French attack on Sandwich.

In March 1458 Henry VI attempted to reconcile the Yorkists and the heirs of the dead of St. Albans. The 'Loveday' of 25 March 1458 had little impact, but Somerset seems to have especially unwilling to participate, making another attempt to attack Warwick on 9 March. York granted him 5000 marks in Royal debts, but unsurprisingly this didn't make any difference.

In 1459 the attempts to keep the peace finally failed. Warwick was already in open rebellion at Calais after a disastrous meeting at London late in 1458. Early in 1459 the court began to arm for war, and in the summer a council was held at Coventry from which the Yorkist lords were excluded. In September they began to move. Warwick sailed from Calais and made for London, then headed into the Midlands on his way to join Richard of York at Ludlow. Somerset was given the job of stopping Warwick, and on 21 October came close to intercepting him at Coleshill (Warwickshire). Warwick was able to elude the trap and joined York and his father the earl of Salisbury at Ludlow. Despite have united their armies the Yorkists were still outnumbered, and the battle of Ludford Bridge (12-13 October 1459) would be remembered as a humiliation for them. Overnight the Yorkist leaders slipped away from their outnumbered supporters and went into exile. Warwick returned to Calais.

On 9 October Somerset was appointed Captain of Calais. This was a key role, as the garrison of Calais was the most important permanent military force under English control. The garrison was largely loyal to Warwick, although a contingent under Andrew Trollope had deserted him at Ludford Bridge when it became clear that they were expected to fight against Henry VI in person.

Somerset's first significant military command was thus a difficult one. He somehow had to cross the channel with a significant army and gain control of Calais while at the same time making sure he didn't leave it vulnerable to the French. He was also faced with the most able of the Yorkist commanders - Warwick's father Richard Neville, earl of Salisbury and York's oldest son Edward, earl of March, were both at Calais.

Somerset crossed the channel in November 1459. He was unable to gain access to Calais, but did manage to get control of Guines, one of the outlying fortresses. From there he harassed the Yorkists, carrying out a series of raids. His allies on the English side of the Channel were less successful. In January 1460 Warwick raided Sandwich, dispersing Somerset's reinforcements and capturing Lord Rivers. On 23 April 1460 Somerset made his biggest effort yet to capture Calais, but was repulsed at Newenham Bridge.

In June the situation got worse - the Yorkists raided Sandwich again, but this time they established a beachhead in England, and on 26 June Warwick and the main Yorkist leaders launched an invasion of England. On 10 July 1460 they defeated the Lancastrians at the battle of Northampton, and captured Henry VI. Somerset was now in a hopeless position, and for once he moderated his hostility to the Yorkists. When Warwick returned to Calais to negotiate Somerset agreed to give up his attack and go into exile. Some sources suggest that he also promised never to take arms against the Nevilles again - if so he soon broke this oath. He was welcomed by Charles VII and by Charles, count of Charolais, the son of the duke of Burgundy.

Although victory at Northampton had given the Yorkists control of the King and of London, the Lancastrians still held much of the country. In October 1460 Somerset sailed from Dieppe to Dorset and made his way to Corfe. He then began to raise an army in the south-west.

Richard of York was now faced with revolts in the south-west, Wales and the north of England. He decided to head north to deal with the Percies, leaving Warwick at London to watch Henry, while Edward, earl of March, was sent to the Welsh Borders. Somerset realised that this gave him a chance to catch York. He led part of his army north. By 21 December he had caught up with part of York's army at Worksop, and he was soon able to join up with Queen Margaret. York found himself almost besieged in Sandal Castle, and on 30 December made the disastrous decision to attack a nearby Lancastrian force. This turned out to be Somerset's main army, and the resulting Battle of Wakefield was a rare crushing Lancastrian victory. York was killed in the battle, as was Richard Neville, earl of Salisbury and York's son Edmund, earl of Rutland. 

After this victory Somerset took command of the Lancastrian army and led it south towards London. On 17 February 1461 the Lancastrians won another major victory at the Second Battle of Albans, this time over the earl of Warwick. This must have been a satisfying victory for Somerset, marred only by Warwick's escape. After the battle Henry VI was found almost abandoned, and reunited with his wife.

The Lancastrian advantage was short-lived. London was suspicious of their northern Army, and Queen Margaret had deliberately avoided the capital for some time. While the Lancastrians attempted to convince the Londoners to let them in, Edward earl of March, the new Yorkist leader, approached from the west and was able to gain access to the city. Queen Margaret and Somerset were forced to retreat north. Edward claimed the throne as Edward IV, then led his army north to deal with the Lancastrians.

The command structure of the Lancastrian army at Towton (29 March 1460) isn't entirely clear. Henry was left at York, so the Lancastrians lacked a single clear focus. Somerset presumably held a senior position, and probably overall command. He is said to have led a successful attack on the Yorkist left that pushed Edward's line back some way, but the battle turned when Yorkist reinforcements arrived on the right. The Lancastrian line crumbled and those leaders who could escaped as their army was crushed. The Royal party reached safety in Scotland, as did Somerset.

In June 1461 Queen Margaret appointed Somerset as her ambassador to Charles VII of France, with orders to raise a loan and recruit and army which he was to lead to Wales. Somerset arrived in France only to find that Charles had died and been succeeded by Louis XI, who at that moment favoured the Yorkists. Somerset was arrested on 3 August and imprisoned for two months. He was finally released after the intercession of the count of Charolais (son of the Duke of Burgundy), and after a brief audience with Louis on 22 October he was allowed to travel to Flanders. From March 1462 he was based in Bruges.

Somerset's hatred of the Yorkists appears to have been fading by 1462. By September he had opened negotiations with Warwick, but he wasn't yet ready to change sides. In October he joined a small army led by the French commander Pierre de Brézé that occupied a series of Northumbrian castles, but on 24 December he surrendered Bamburgh to the Yorkists.

Edward IV was determined to end as many of the feuds of the civil war as possible, and he now restored Somerset to favour with quite remarkable speed. He took part in Warwick's siege of Alnwick, where he was said to have fought well. He was granted a full pardon on 10 March 1463, while the Westminster Parliament of April-June 1463 reversed the act of attainder that had seen him stripped of his estates. On 22 June he was granted an annuity of £222, and his brother Edmund Beaufort was released from prison. Somerset hunted with Edward IV, and the king made great efforts to win him over. This change was took much for many, and in July Somerset was nearly lynched by a mob in Northampton. He was went to his estate at Chirk for his own safety.

Sadly all of Edward's efforts had been in vain. In November Somerset returned to his original loyalty, joining Henry VI in Northumberland. By March 1464 Somerset had gained control of much of the north-east of England. This disrupted peace talks between Edward IV and Scotland, which had to be moved from Newcastle to York. John Neville, Lord Montagu, was sent to escort the Scottish commissions from the border to York. Somerset attempted to ambush him at Hedgeley Moor (25 April 1464), but suffered a significant defeat after his left wing fled.

After this defeat Somerset retreated to Alnwick. By now Edward IV was raising a large army which he intended to lead north to deal with Somerset, who realised that he needed a victory before these reinforcements arrived. Taking Henry VI with him Somerset marched into the Tyne Valley but on 15 May 1464 he was defeated by Montague at Hexham. Montague's men smashed into Somerset before he was able to get his army fully formed up. The resulting battle was a rout. Somerset's army panicked and broke and Somerset was captured. On the day after the battle he was beheaded. He had no direct heirs, although the Lancastrians considered his brother Edmund to be the next duke of Somerset.

Books on the Middle Ages - Subject Index: War of the Roses

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (pending), Henry Beaufort, third duke of Somerset, 1436-1464 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_somerset_henry_3rd_duke.html

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