William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, was the effective head of the English government in the late 1440s. The king, Henry VI, was pious, frail and mentally unstable; during his reign a succession of his relatives or favourites largely took charge of affairs of state.
With the deaths in 1447 of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester and Cardinal Beaufort, Suffolk became the principal power behind the throne.
However, Suffolk was widely blamed for a series of military disasters in the long war against France; to the point where he was accused of being a traitor and plotting to support a French invasion of England.
He was also accused large scale corruption, that he had embezzled vast sums of money which should have been spent on the war effort, and of allowing his personal retainers in East Anglia to run riot.
“Whichever way Suffolk looked, there were only enemies to be seen. His appointment as the King’s Chief Minister would have given rise to jealousy and hatred among other greedy, ambitious and sometimes able men who would not have scrupled to pull him down and disgrace him if they could in the hope that they might replace him, or at least enjoy some of the power and the fruits of his office. The only way that Suffolk could have survived as Chief Minister for any length of time would have been to provide successful government, and his had been spectacularly unsuccessful… He owed his position to his friendship with Queen Margaret [a French princess, which made her immediately suspect to most ‘right-thinking’ Englishmen…!], who saw to it that her weak-willed husband, the King himself, accepted Suffolk as his favourite. ]There were even stories that Suffolk was Margaret’s lover]… Suffolk’s haughty demeanour had done nothing to endear him to the new up-and-coming men, often of humble birth, who felt that their talents, which were often considerable, entitled them to a say in public affairs. He behaved towards them as one of the ancient nobility towards the new parvenues, a view which was scarcely justified, because the de La Poles had only been ennobled during King Richard II’s time. Nevertheless, he treated them with all the contempt of the highly-born aristocrat and caused much resentment in those whose friendship he would have been well advised to seek.”
In short, popular feeling was against Suffolk, and in January 1450 he was impeached in Parliament, and locked up in the Tower. Tried for treason and embezzlement in March, he was banished from the realm for five years.
Riots broke out in the City and in Deptford (where Suffolk owned estates, and seems to have been widely hated) on 17th March as the sentence was announced… As the common people saw it, the sentence of banishment was only intended to get Suffolk out of the way for the time being, and at an appropriate moment in the near future, it would be lifted and Suffolk would be restored to the King’s Grace. When the situation seemed to be less tense, Suffolk rode for his mansion near Ipswich to use the remaining time before the 1st May to put his affairs in order before a long absence. He was waylaid by the London mob, aiming to seize and lynch him, which his strong escort, provided by Queen Margaret, had difficulty in beating off. There was a fierce scuffle, and lives were lost on both sides.
The Duke sailed from Ipswich on 30th April 1450 in two small vessels, bound for Calais. However, his ship was waylaid by some of the king’s ships, though on whose orders was never made clear. Suffolk’s ship was hailed by the ship, Nicholas of the Tower, and bidden to send Suffolk on board. Suspecting nothing, he duly went, to be greeted by her Captain with the single word “Traitor” and being put under close arrest. The seamen formed an impromptu ‘court’ and ‘tried’ Suffolk. He refused to plead before such an assembly, and not surprisingly, was sentenced to death. In mock deference to his rank, he was told that he would be beheaded rather than hanged from the yard-arm. The next day, his head was forced over the gunwale of one of the boats, and was struck from his body with one of the ship’s cutlasses. His headless corpse was thrown onto the Dover sands.
It seems likely Suffolk was largely fitted up, a victim of both populist disappointment with the course of the war in France, and the myriad mazes of court rivalries, caught up in the earliest deadly manoeuverings among rival aristos that would very shortly erupt into the War of the Roses.
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online