Somerset's Coat of Arms
Somerset's Coat of Arms

Somerset is a young lord who opposes Richard Plantagenet’s claim to the Dukedom of York. In the Temple Garden scene Somerset chooses the red rose as his symbol, and York the white. The Lancasters move to protect Somerset’s faction against the Yorks (This happens in 2 Henry 6). This move by the Lancasters makes them direct enemies of the Yorks and it is at this time that the red rose becomes a Lancaster symbol. This argument between Somerset and York comes to a head when Somerset refuses to backup York’s ground troops with his horsemen. Somerset seems to hold more of a grudge than York does, seizing on any opportunity to make the new Duke of York look bad politically.

Historical information

The following information is quoted from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, written by
Colin Richmond

Beaufort, Edmund, first duke of Somerset (c.1406–1455), magnate and soldier, was the younger brother of John Beaufort, duke of Somerset (1404–1444); John and Edmund were the second and third sons of John Beaufort, marquess of Dorset and of Somerset (c.1371–1410), who was the eldest son of John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford [see Katherine, duchess of Lancaster], and his wife, Margaret Holland (d. 1439). Henry, their elder brother, died aged seventeen and unmarried in 1418.

Early life and the affair with Queen Catherine

To some degree, possibly to a large degree, Edmund and John became chivalric competitors in the English wars in France until the dismal failure of John's expedition to Maine and Anjou in 1443, which was followed soon after by his death, apparently by suicide, in 1444. John's lengthy imprisonment after his capture at the battle of Baugé in 1421, when Edmund, although only a year or two his junior, was thought too young to fight, gave the latter the advantage in their competition. He was an ambassador to the general council at Basel in 1434, and a member of the English embassy at the congress of Arras in 1435, and for his successful defence of Calais in 1436 he was made a knight of the Garter, three years before his brother was so honoured. By then Edmund had taken the leading part in the last important English military achievements in France: the bold relief of Avranches in 1439, and the well-executed recovery of Harfleur in 1440. For these exploits he was created earl of Dorset in August 1442. A year later he was made marquess of Dorset and in the following year he succeeded his brother as earl of Somerset. He had been count of Mortain in Normandy since 1427.

1427 was also the year of the only blot upon a hitherto copybook career: Edmund's affair with the widow of Henry V, Catherine of Valois (1401–1437). Almost everything is obscure about a liaison that resulted in a parliamentary statute regulating the remarriage of queens of England, but it is just possible that another of its consequences was Edmund Tudor. It is all a question of when Catherine, to avoid the penalties of breaking the statute of 1427–8, secretly married Owen Tudor, and of when the association with Edmund Beaufort came to an end. Neither of these dates, as might be expected, is known; nor is the date of birth of Edmund Tudor. As Gerald Harriss has written:
By its very nature the evidence for Edmund ‘Tudor's’ parentage is less than conclusive, but such facts as can be assembled permit the agreeable possibility that Edmund ‘Tudor’ and Margaret Beaufort were first cousins and that the royal house of ‘Tudor’ sprang in fact from Beauforts on both sides. (Harriss, 178 n.34)

Detail of a sculpture said to be Somerset
Detail of a sculpture said to be Somerset

It seems unlikely that Edmund Beaufort would have taken so great a political risk as getting the queen dowager with child, but he was a dashing young man (recently released from prison) as well as a Beaufort, and Catherine, who had fulfilled the only role open to her by immediately producing a son for the Lancastrian dynasty, was a lonely Frenchwoman in England, and at thirty or thereabouts was, the rumour ran, oversexed. Many stranger things have happened, and the idea of renaming sixteenth-century England is an appealing one.

A matter of honour: the quarrel with York

After Catherine's early death in 1437, it was Owen Tudor who was imprisoned for having married her without the council's permission, while Edmund Beaufort, who had only had an affair with her, was taking off on his meteoric career. This appeared to culminate in December 1447, when Edmund was appointed lieutenant and governor-general of France and the duchies of Normandy and Guyenne. He succeeded Richard, duke of York, in that position. It used to be assumed that the intense and bitter rivalry between the two dukes—Edmund was created duke of Somerset on 31 March 1448—had its origin in York's resentment at being replaced in France by Edmund Beaufort. Such an assumption does justice neither to Richard of York nor to the extent of the predicament both men found themselves in during the next eight years. The speed with which the English were removed from Normandy in 1449–50, after an occupation of thirty years, followed by the equally dramatic extinction of four centuries of English rule in Gascony, had a traumatic impact. Who was responsible for so great a disaster? The answer late twentieth-century historians wholeheartedly agree upon was not available to mid-fifteenth-century politicians, or at any rate was not pronounceable by them. To stand up in parliament and say it was all the fault of Henry VI was not only impossible because political courtesy forbade it; because political rhetoric did not include it, it was not even contemplated. Politicians had been thinking that the king was an ass ever since Henry had first demonstrated his asininity over a decade previously, but the current vocabulary of politics did not enable them to give such a thought expression.

Someone else had to take the blame. Richard of York blamed Edmund Beaufort. Historians believe he had a case: Somerset's conduct in office, indeed with regard to the county of Maine, his conduct before he at last agreed in December 1447 to take up office, was downright irresponsible and thoroughly reprehensible. The English government had promised to cede Maine to the king of France in 1445; it was a sacrifice it was willing to make in order to hold on to Normandy. Edmund Beaufort had been made captain-general and governor of Maine in 1438; he had received the land rights to the county in 1442. If Maine was to be given up he wanted compensation, and for a year he bargained with the government until he obtained the compensation he wanted—10,000 livres tournois a year from taxation in Normandy, which was fully paid until the outbreak of war in 1449. Only when Beaufort had secured this could the cession of Maine go ahead and only then would he agree to undertake to be lieutenant-general in France, and governor of Normandy. It was scarcely public-spirited to take such an enormous sum from a government that had no money to spare, and Richard of York in his articles of 1452 said so. York was also later critical of Beaufort's administration of Normandy; however, his chief complaint against Somerset concerned the inadequacy of his defence of the duchy when the French invaded in 1449. The entire duchy was overrun in barely a year, with many towns offering no resistance. Somerset himself surrendered Rouen, the capital of Normandy, and several nearby fortresses with it, on 29 October 1449, and agreed to pay a large ransom for himself, his family and his retinue, and to leave a number of hostages for its payment. He then withdrew to Caen, which he surrendered on 1 July following, handing over eighteen hostages as pledges for his and the garrison's departure.

It was this conduct that caused the breach between the two men, after the disgrace and death of the duke of Suffolk in 1450 the two most prominent politicians of the day; it was a breach that was never closed because it turned upon that touchiest of matters, honour. The impossibility of its closure was what led to the first battle of St Albans in 1455; it may fairly be said, therefore, that the Wars of the Roses, as well as the end of the house of Lancaster, were due to Edmund Beaufort's dishonourable conduct in the last stages of the Hundred Years' War. The duke's failure of nerve (or want of chivalry) undid him, and it discredited him, his family, his dynasty, and his country.

Defeat and near recovery

York was not critical, as are historians, of Somerset's involvement in the plan to attack the Breton town of Fougères—the town's capture on 23 March 1449 led to a French declaration of war on 17 July 1449—because Somerset was not solely responsible for the mindless adventurism of the Fougères plan. What enraged him was Beaufort's feeble response to the French invasion of Normandy. York regarded the terms under which Somerset surrendered Rouen and other Norman towns not as misjudged, but as shameful and treasonable. The loss of Normandy, in other words, was due to the self-serving cowardice of his successor as lieutenant-general. As if that was not bad enough, York's own honour was impugned by Somerset's impeachable behaviour, for York himself was captain of the town of Rouen and it was his officers who were at their posts when Somerset's abject composition with Charles VII was made. It is clear that York's return from Ireland in September 1450 was precipitated by Somerset's own return in August, following the English defeat at Formigny and his surrender of Caen. They clashed in the parliament of November 1450, Somerset's castle of Corfe was ransacked by York's tenants, and he himself was attacked by men of York's retinue and ended up in the Tower of London, probably under compulsion, since the king had to intervene to secure his release in December. Ever afterwards, the burden of York's complaints against Somerset was his misconduct in Normandy; he appears to have deemed him unforgivable on that score, imprisoning him in the Tower, when as protector he had the power to do so, in December 1453, and eventually seeing that he was killed at St Albans in May 1455.

It is inaccurate, therefore, to talk only of a personal quarrel between the two dukes. If York was vindictive it was with reason. Neither king nor parliament was willing to try, let alone punish, the man who had given up Henry V's hard-won conquests in France without a fight. Although Somerset came back to England under something of a cloud, and was deprived of his principal estates in the west of England under the Acts of Resumption of 1449–50 (they were later entrusted to the duke of Exeter), he soon recovered his position. As soon as he returned to England he began to attend council meetings, and was shortly afterwards, on 8 September, given responsibility for putting an end to the remnants of disaffection in the south-east, while three days later he was made constable, the supreme military post in the realm. To reinforce what had become his position as effective head of the government, in April 1451 he was appointed captain of Calais. It is not easy to understand Henry VI's trust in Somerset, in the light of the duke's recent failures in Normandy, though the king's dynastic feelings, his natural tendency to put his trust in his Beaufort cousin, cannot be discounted, especially as they would have been bolstered by the queen's support for Somerset, to whom she was paying an annuity of 100 marks from 1451. None the less, it would appear that the duke was moderately, if superficially, successful in restoring the fortunes and reputation of the king's government in the early 1450s. An executive council was established to bring order to the royal finances and oversee daily administration; a series of judicial circuits, headed by King Henry in person, was organized as a means of restoring order; and an expedition to Gascony won back Bordeaux in October 1452. Richard of York was unable to command sufficient influential support to topple his ducal rival. Although the weaknesses of Somerset's government were exposed by its failure to control the increasingly militant rivalry of the Nevilles and the Percys in the north, the acquiescence of king, nobility, and civil service enabled it to keep going. When Margaret of Anjou became miraculously pregnant at Epiphany 1453, it looked as if they might all survive.

Disaster at St Albans

No doubt they would have done had the battle of Castillon on 17 July 1453 not been so comprehensive an English defeat, and had Henry VI not had a mental breakdown, ultimately precipitated, apparently, by this news. The king's illness was Richard of York's opportunity. At a meeting of the great council in November 1453 Somerset was charged (by the duke of Norfolk) with treason; the charges related mainly to his mismanagement of the war against the French; two days later he was arrested and put once again into the Tower. There he remained without trial for over a year. But on the king's recovery at or soon after Christmas 1454 he was released and at council meetings in February and March 1455 he was officially exonerated and rehabilitated, and once again assumed his pre-eminent place in government. York and his new allies, the earls of Salisbury and Warwick, could not stomach such a reversal of fortune. Fearing that moves might be made against them at a great council summoned to assemble at Leicester on 21 May, they took to arms and advanced on London. The confrontation with the hastily raised government army took place at St Albans; negotiations failed, principally it seems because Henry VI would not surrender Somerset to the man who had been his implacable enemy for more than five years. In the resulting engagement on 22 May Somerset, defending himself valiantly, was cut down in the street, and subsequently buried in St Albans Abbey. It was an ignominious but not unfitting conclusion to what had been a very mixed life. He was married before 1436 to the wealthy widow of Thomas, Lord Ros, Eleanor Beauchamp (d. 1467), with whom he had five daughters and three sons, including Edmund Beaufort, styled third duke of Somerset (c.1438–1471), and Henry Beaufort, who was badly wounded beside his father at St Albans. Edmund Beaufort's personality is irrecoverable. T. B. Pugh has called him ‘unscrupulous and resourceful’ (Pugh, 129). In the end he was neither unscrupulous nor resourceful enough. Like his fellow protagonist, Richard of York, he failed to inspire affection, respect, or dread; he had only high birth to recommend him and that was insufficient.

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