Although appointed to the lieutenancy of Normandy for three years in December 1446, Edmund Beaufort did not move there until early 1448. His own men took over from York’s Anglo-Normans during 1447, but the province was essentially leaderless during a period of great uncertainty about the peace policy launched in 1444. Charles VII had agreed to extend the two-year truce agreed at Tours, but Henry failed to follow through with a journey to meet him in France in 1446. The main reason was financial – he had exhausted his credit to pay for Suffolk’s two embassies and could not afford the magnificence the occasion demanded.
A greatly aggravating factor was Edmund’s insistence that he be compensated for the loss of his holdings in Maine before he would consent to handing over the county, as privately agreed by Henry in a letter to his ‘dear uncle of France’ dated 22 December 1445. The letter stressed entreaties by his ‘most dear and well-beloved companion the queen’, who had been assured by her father and Charles himself that the cession of Maine would lead to a lasting peace.
Finally Edmund obtained a settlement of 10,000 livres tournois [nearly £1 million], to be paid annually by the already hard-pressed Norman exchequer. Only then did he move to Rouen, perhaps to ensure he received the agreed compensation. Although he was supposed to share it with the Anglo-Normans who would also be dispossessed, he did not. Consequently a deputation of English knights and squires obstructed the negotiations for the handover, to the point that in February–March 1448 they were besieged at Le Mans and even bombarded by a French army commanded by Pierre de Brézé. The knights handed over the town on 15 March after Charles VII agreed to compensate them himself, but of course they never saw a penny.
Henry was so greatly relieved that on 31 March he recreated the dukedom of Somerset for Edmund. This was further salt in the wounds of the dispossessed Anglo-Normans, particularly those of Richard of York’s affinity, some of whom trickled back to England seeking his ‘good lordship’. The trickle became a flood in 1449–50, and was the reason York became such a determined enemy of Somerset; which, since Somerset enjoyed the unconditional support of the king, brought York into ultimately mortal conflict with the house of Lancaster.
Somerset’s performance of his duties as Lieutenant of Normandy was abject. When all the arguments about the inevitability of the outcome are weighed, the outstanding fact is that he made no serious preparation to resist French aggression. He appears to have shared Henry’s wishful thinking, in the teeth of abundant evidence that Richemont’s military organization was well advanced and could only have one purpose. Even if there might have been some doubt previously, there can have been none after the siege of Le Mans.
Possibly he thought the French would continue to nibble at the edges of Normandy through a process of armed negotiation. This would have granted him time to accumulate as much money as he could before returning to England, leaving his successor to deal with the consequences. The French did not oblige, and Somerset’s ruin would have been complete were it not for the king’s dogged loyalty to him, which may have been born in part of guilty knowledge that he should never have appointed Somerset to an office which required great personal wealth.
Another, stronger reason was that the collapse of the truce was precipitated by a personal decision made by Henry. During the night of 23/24 March 1449, the Aragonese captain known as François de Surienne, a Garter knight for his services to the English crown, took the Breton border fortress of Fougères in a daring escalade. The purpose was to force the Duke of Brittany to release Gilles of Brittany, Henry VI’s childhood friend, imprisoned since June 1446. Henry knew Gilles had been arrested in the first instance by French soldiers acting on the orders of Charles VII. He regarded it as a breach of the truce, and the seizure of Fougères as therefore justified.
Charles, however, saw it as the opportunity he had been waiting for to conclude an explicitly anti-English alliance with Brittany, denounce the truce, and to declare war on 31 July. A year and a fortnight later, to the exhilarated satisfaction – and no small surprise – of the French commanders (among them Marguerite’s father, René d’Anjou), the last of Henry V’s and the Duke of Bedford’s conquests were in French hands.
Hardly any of the smaller fortified towns put up a fight. In most, the inhabitants opened their gates and welcomed the French armies or, as at Verneuil, helped them scale the walls. Most of the English garrisons that prevented this were persuaded to capitulate on generous terms. One such was Regnéville, a port on the coast of the Cotentin peninsula near Coutances, where the king’s stepfather Owen Tudor surrendered to the Bretons after six days. He was permitted to take ship to England with his men, their dependants and possessions.
Obdurate garrisons were bypassed, to fall like ripe fruit in due course. The outstanding example was Fresnay-sur-Sarthe, a small town on the border of Maine. Fresnay held out from September 1449, when the Duke of Alençon recovered his long-lost county in a whirlwind campaign, until March 1450, when the last hope of relief was extinguished. Somerset must have expected many more such hold-outs to buy him time, but Fresnay was held by Anglo-Normans dispossessed in Maine, who judged they had nothing more to lose. Somerset’s own fief of Mortain welcomed the French invaders with open arms, as did Évreux, the chief town of Richard of York’s appanage.
The English were vastly outnumbered. Not counting the Bretons, the four French armies numbered over 30,000 against 6,000–8,000 English in scattered garrisons. But the crowning humiliation was that they were defeated by equal numbers in the only pitched battle of the campaign. On 15 April 1450, about 4,500 men sent from England under Thomas Kyriell (the only knight banneret to respond to John Beaufort’s summons in 1443), joined by 1,500 drawn from the Cotentin peninsula garrisons, were routed at Formigny by two French armies totalling about 5,000. The French commanders were Richemont himself and the Duke of Bourbon, leader of the 1440 revolt against Charles VII.
There is a common belief that Formigny was the first battle won by field artillery, but its role was only indirect. It was an encounter battle in which neither side had been well served by scouts. Taken by surprise and outnumbered, Bourbon did employ a couple of light cannon: but his aim was to keep the enemy out of longbow range. After the English archers rushed the guns he was in serious trouble and was on the verge of defeat when Richemont, marching towards the sound of the guns, appeared on Kyriell’s flank. So, although the guns brought about the timely convergence of the French armies, it was tactical agility, supposedly the decisive advantage enjoyed by the English, which won the day.
The new French guns did, however, bring about the rapid capitulation of major fortresses that in former times had confidently withstood prolonged sieges. In 1414–15 the port of Harfleur held out against Henry V’s primitive bombards for over a year. It fell in three weeks in 1450. Massive Château Gaillard, built on an immensely strong position overlooking the Seine, resisted Henry V for a year in 1419. In 1449 it was battered into submission in less than two months, and was never rebuilt.
Accordingly, when in 1452 York accused Somerset of treachery for capitulating at Rouen after a siege lasting barely a week, and seven months later at Caen after twenty days, he could not argue that further resistance would have affected the final outcome. By convention a fortress commander would hold out while there was hope his own side might send an army to lift the siege, and there was no dishonour in seeking terms when there was no such prospect. It was Somerset’s haste and the terms he negotiated that York judged contemptible.
Somerset had thoroughly alienated the people of Rouen, probably because he needed to wring every penny out of his lieutenancy. Even though the Norman capital had much the largest garrison, commanded by none other than Somerset’s fearsome brother-in-law John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, in October 1449 they abandoned the city to a popular uprising and pulled back to the enormous castle. The main French armies were elsewhere and their heavy guns were at Château Gaillard, so even the minimum precondition of an effective siege had not been met when Somerset capitulated.
Along with the castle, he surrendered the fortified towns of the Pays de Caux and the port of Honfleur on the southern bank of the Seine estuary, which would have isolated Harfleur, on the north bank. In addition, he agreed to pay a ransom of 50,000 Norman saluts d’or [£7,314,000] for himself and his family to travel to Caen. As a guarantee he left Talbot and four other officers as hostages.
Intriguingly, Talbot bore Somerset no ill will; indeed he and his sons were to support him against York in the following years. A hypothesis to fit these facts is that by becoming a hostage for Somerset’s debt Talbot avoided being held to ransom in his own right. What is generally judged to have been an exceptionally shameful act turns out, on closer examination, to have been probably an act of clever collusion between the two peers.
The captain of Honfleur refused to obey Somerset’s order and held out until after Harfleur surrendered, capitulating on 18 January 1450. Talbot remained a hostage until July, when Andrew Trollope, one of his retainers and captain of Falaise, one of the last Norman towns still in English hands, made his release a condition of capitulation. Talbot swore never to bear arms against France again, and was to abide by the letter of his oath. He was unarmed when killed three years later during the last battle of the Hundred Years War.
The Earl of Oxford’s son Robert Vere, commanding the Caen garrison, was able to prevent a revolt by the inhabitants. Besieged during June 1450 by an army led by Charles VII himself, he conducted an active defence of the city that may have included a bribe to Scots members of Charles’s bodyguard to kill him. This, at least, was the charge levelled against them in 1453. One of the illustrations in the 1487 Vigiles du roi Charles VII shows an English sortie against the French bombards (the modern guns had not yet arrived), which finally put a stone shot through the window of the room where Somerset’s duchess and children were sheltered.
Somerset immediately agreed terms of capitulation including an astronomical ransom of 300,000 écus d’or [£43,884,000], with 18 hostages as surety, to permit Somerset, his family and the garrison to evacuate by sea. The ransom was totally unrealistic – it would have wiped out both the Norman and English exchequers – and the hostages were later released for the derisory sums they raised themselves. Understandably uncertain of the loyalty of his troops or of the reception awaiting him in England, Somerset sailed separately to Calais.
With the Normandy debacle well under way, the Parliament summoned to vote emergency funds in November 1449 was in a vengeful mood. Driven by Lord Cromwell, the Tailboys impeachment segued into a full-scale parliamentary attack on Suffolk. The first notable rat to desert the sinking ship was Adam Moleyns, Bishop of Chichester, who in early December resigned the office of Lord Privy Seal, pleading ill health and a belated desire to attend to his neglected diocese, which he had visited only to be invested in 1446.
A month later, he was in Portsmouth delivering wages to the troops assembling for Kyriell’s expedition when a group of Normandy veterans seized him and announced he must die for his role in handing over Maine. He tried to save himself by accusing Suffolk of embezzling the money intended for the defence of Normandy, but was slaughtered regardless. The murder of a bishop was a deeply shocking act in itself; but for the royal household the more worrying aspect was that the killers were men who had served under York, who may have been avenging Moleyns’ attempt to blame him for the parlous state of Normandy’s defences.
Suffolk issued a statement denying Moleyns’ accusation at the opening of the new session of Parliament on 23 January 1450, but it backfired. The Commons cited his own words as proof ‘there was an heavy noise of infamy upon him’, which required he should be brought to trial. Suffolk’s response was worded in a way to imply that the murdered bishop was indeed to blame for the surrender of Maine. This was demeaning: everybody knew the king was personally responsible, but it was treasonable to say so. The feeling was that Suffolk, having profited so greatly from being the king’s chief minister, should now manfully accept his role as chief scapegoat.
On 7 February, the Speaker read out a very long indictment accusing Suffolk of a fantastical plot with the French king to depose Henry VI and to replace him with Suffolk’s son John, whom he had betrothed to his ward Margaret Beaufort to give him a claim to the throne. This and other wild accusations about dealings with the French were simply embellishments to the core charges, which concerned the alienation of crown lands and rights to himself and his affinity. The result, said the indictment, was that there was not enough left to support the king’s government, requiring the Commons to make good the deficit with taxation.
Suffolk was consigned to the Tower to await trial. When he was brought out on 9 March, he did the only thing he could and cast himself on the king’s mercy. On 17 March the king summoned the lords to his inner chamber. In their presence, Suffolk knelt before him to assert his innocence, and once again threw himself on his mercy. Henry made no judgement on the charges against him, but banished him for five years from 1 May. The intention, clearly, was to recall him when the heat had died down.
Suffolk departed for his home in Ipswich, heavily guarded against a London mob intent on lynching him in revenge for what they believed was his murder of ‘Good Duke Humphrey’ in February 1447. When he got home he put his affairs in order and wrote a loving valedictory letter to his young son. The second paragraph, couched as advice, gives us an insight into how Suffolk himself had won the unreserved confidence of the king:
Next [to God], above all earthly things, be a true liegeman in heart, in will, in thought, in deed, unto the King, our elder, most high, and dread Sovereign Lord, to whom both ye and I be so much bound; charging you, as father can and may, rather to die than to be the contrary, or to know anything that were against the welfare and prosperity of his most royal person, but that so far as your body and life may stretch, ye live and die to defend it and to let His Highness have knowledge thereof, in all the haste ye can.
Suffolk sailed from Ipswich on 30 April, bound for Calais. His two ships were intercepted by a flotilla led by the ‘great ship’ Nicholas of the Tower, flying the royal colours, which summoned him. He had himself rowed across without hesitation, perhaps believing the king had changed his mind, only to be seized, ‘tried’ for treason by the crew and his head hacked off with a cutlass. His torso was cast ashore at Dover.
Although Henry and Marguerite were devastated by the news, the circumstances of Suffolk’s death were not investigated. It was clearly not an act of piracy – there must have been collusion with the master of Suffolk’s ship for the interception to take place at all, and no pirate operated a ‘great ship’. One is inescapably drawn to the conclusion that the murder was the work of young Henry Holland, Duke of Exeter. As Lord Admiral, Exeter’s father had enjoyed a unique naval affinity, which made him, in practice, pirate-in-chief. The shamelessly corrupt Court of Admiralty was an extremely lucrative operation that provided his principal source of income, and continued to do so for his successors well into the seventeenth century.
When the older Exeter died, Suffolk added the Court of Admiralty to his own bag of offices. Without the income from the court the younger Exeter was decidedly poor. Not only did this give him reason to hate Suffolk, but he would also still have had contacts within the seafaring community made while his father was alive. The remaining members of the royal household would not have dared suggest to the king that a prince of his blood would be capable of such a thing, and the office of Lord Admiral now reverted to the psychopathic young man.
The household’s suspicion that Exeter had assassinated Suffolk would have been subsumed into a growing panic about what they believed was a greater threat. Their fear, which soon infected the king himself, was that the murders of Moleyns and Suffolk were the product of a conspiracy with Richard of York at its heart. Suffolk’s downfall had been initiated by Lord Cromwell, one of York’s councillors, and Exeter was York’s son-in-law. To their fearful minds it looked a lot like two plus two adding up to a deeply ominous four.
After the leader of the London riot against the release of Suffolk suffered the gruesome fate reserved for traitors, his quarters were sent to Coventry and Winchester, where there had been disturbances of the peace, and to Newbury and Stamford, where there had not. They were, however, boroughs owned by York. Further panicked by a lightning strike that severely damaged his favourite palace at Eltham, and by an outbreak of the plague, the king fled to Leicester. On his way there, another man earned a traitor’s death by lashing the ground in front of Henry’s horse, calling for York to do the same to the king’s government.
There is not the slightest evidence that York had anything to do with any of the shocks suffered by the court at this time. Barring the lightning strike, they were the result of a long period of misgovernment. This was not, however, an explanation the king and his household were prepared to contemplate. Much better to blame an external agency of infinite cunning and resource – the essential ingredient of every conspiracy theory throughout history.