1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Suffolk, William de la Pole, Duke of
SUFFOLK, WILLIAM DE LA POLE, Duke of (1396–1450), second son of Michael de la Pole, second earl of Suffolk, was born on the 16th of October 1396. His father died at the siege of Harfleur, and his elder brother was killed at Agincourt on the 25th of October 1415. Suffolk served in all the later French campaigns of the reign of Henry V., and in spite of his youth held high command on the marches of Normandy in 1421–22. In 1423 he joined the earl of Salisbury in Champagne, and shared his victory at Crévant. He fought under John, duke of Bedford, at Verneuil on the 17th of August 1424, and throughout the next four years was Salisbury’s chief lieutenant in the direction of the war. When Salisbury was killed before Orleans on the 3rd of November 1428, Suffolk succeeded to the command. After the siege was raised, Suffolk was defeated and taken prisoner by Jeanne d’Arc at Jargeau on the 12th of June 1429. He was soon ransomed, and during the next two years was again in command on the Norman frontier. He returned to England in November 1431, after over fourteen years’ continuous service in the field.
Suffolk had already been employed on diplomatic missions by John of Bedford, and from this time forward he had an important share in the work of administration. He attached himself naturally to Cardinal Beaufort, and even thus early seems to have been striving for a general peace. But public opinion in England was not yet ripe, and the unsuccessful conference at Arras, with the consequent defection of Burgundy, strengthened the war party. Nevertheless the cardinal’s authority remained supreme in the council, and Suffolk, as his chief supporter, gained increasing influence. The question of Henry VI.’s marriage brought him to the front. Humphrey of Gloucester favoured an Armagnac alliance. Suffolk brought about the match with Margaret of Anjou. Report already represented Suffolk as too friendly with French leaders like Charles of Orleans, and it was with reluctance that he undertook the responsibility of an embassy to France. However, when he returned to England in June 1444, after negotiating the marriage and a two years’ truce, he received a triumphant reception. He was made a marquess, and in the autumn sent again to France to bring Margaret home. The French contrived to find occasion for extorting a promise to surrender all the English possessions in Anjou and Maine, a concession that was to prove fatal to Suffolk and his policy. Still for the time his success was complete, and his position as the personal friend of the young king and queen seemed secure. Humphrey of Gloucester died in February 1447, within a few days of his arrest, and six weeks later Cardinal Beaufort died also. Suffolk was left without an obvious rival, but his difficulties were great. Rumour, though without sufficient reason, made him responsible for Humphrey’s death, while the peace and its consequent concessions rendered him unpopular. So also did the super session of Richard of York by Edmund Beaufort, duke of Somerset, in the French command. Suffolk’s promotion to a dukedom in July 1448, marked the height of his power. The difficulties of his position may have led him to give some countenance to a treacherous attack on Fougéres during the time of truce (March 1449). The renewal of the war and the loss of all Normandy were its direct consequences. When parliament met in November 1449, the opposition showed its strength by forcing the treasurer, Adam Molyneux, to resign. Molyneux was murdered by the sailors at Portsmouth on the 9th of January 1450. Suffolk, realizing that an attack on himself was inevitable, boldly challenged his enemies in parliament, appealing to the long and honourable record of his public services. On the 7th of February and again on the 9th of March the Commons presented articles of accusation dealing chiefly with alleged maladministration and the ill success of the French policy; there was a charge of aiming at the throne by the betrothal of his son to the little Margaret Beaufort, but no suggestion of guilt concerning the death of Gloucester. The articles were in great part baseless, if not absurd. Suffolk, in his defence on the 13th of March, denied them as false, untrue and too horrible to speak more of. Ultimately, as a sort of compromise, the king sentenced him to banishment for five years. Suffolk left England on the 1st of May, He was intercepted in the Channel by the ship “Nicholas of the Tower,” and next morning was beheaded in a little boat alongside. The “Nicholas” was a royal ship, and Suffolk’s murder was probably instigated by his political opponents.
Popular opinion at the time judged Suffolk as a traitor. This view was accepted by Yorkist chroniclers and Tudor historians, who had no reason to speak well of a Pole. Later legend made him the paramour of Margaret of Anjou. Though utterly baseless, the story gained currency in the Mirrour for Magistrates, and was adopted in Shakespeare’s 2 Henry VI. (act iii. sc. ii.). Suffolk’s best defence is contained in the touching letter of farewell to his son, written on the eve of his departure (Paston Letters, i. 142), and in his noble speeches before parliament (Rolls of Parliament, v. 176, 182). Of the former Lingard said well that it is “difficult to believe that the writer could have been either a false subject or a bad man.” The policy of peace which Suffolk pursued was just and wise; he foresaw from the first the personal risk to which its advocacy exposed him. This alone should acquit him of any base motive; his conduct was “throughout open and straightforward” (Stubbs). Whatever his defects as a statesman, he was a gallant soldier, a man of culture and a loyal servant.
Suffolk’s wife, Alice, was widow of Thomas, earl of Salisbury, and granddaughter of Geoffrey Chaucer. By her he had an only son John, second duke of Suffolk.
Bibliography.—Suffolk is necessarily prominent in all contemporary authorities. The most important are J. Stevenson’s Wars of the English in France, Thomas Beckington’s Correspondence, T. Wright’s Political Poems and Songs, ii. 222–234 (for the popular view)—these three are in the Rolls Series; and the Paston Letters. Of French writers E. de Monstrelet and Jehan de Waurin are most useful for his military career, T. Basin and Matthieu d’Escouchy for his fall (all these are published by the Société de l’Histoire de France). For modern accounts see especially W. Stubbs, Constitutional History (favourable), The Political History of England (1906), vol. iv., by C. Oman (unfavourable), and G. du Fresne de Beaucourt’s Histoire de Charles VII. See also H. A. Napier’s Historical Notices of Swincombe and Ewelme (1858). (C. L. K.)