William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, KG, 1396-1450

AV 9 William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, K.G..jpg
AV 9 William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, K.G..jpg

William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, KG, 1396-1450

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A wealthy wool merchant in Kingston-upon-Hull, and Member of Parliament for that borough, William’s great grandfather was a self-styled Yeoman. Rich enough to be able to end to King Edward III he so advanced the fortunes of the family that he was created Earl of Suffolk. William’s father, Michael fell from grace and wealth through his association with King Richard II and when accused of treason fled to Paris where he died in 1389. His son, Michael was restored in blood but fell at the Battle of Harfleur and his eldest son at Agincourt in 1415. Thus William, the second son, became Earl of Suffolk aged 19. For the next 15 years he was continually involved in the 100 Years War in France. He was eventually captured by Jeanne d'Arc and the Due d'Alençon at Jargeau and ransomed for £20,000. He then spent years helping the King seek peace in France, but in doing so acquired the enmity of the powerful Duke of Gloucester. Suffolk arranged the King’s marriage wit Margaret of Anjou against Gloucester’s wishes. When Gloucester, the great benefactor of Oxford University, died, it was suspected that William was somehow to blame. From this great height, the fall was swift and bloody for his enemies now included the Duke of York. The Commons proffered charges and he was banished for 5 years. En route to France to serve his banishment he was intercepted and executed on board.

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Even under the feudal system, where each man was born into and lived and died in that station of life to which the accident of birth had assigned him, it was possible for him to improve his lot and William de Ia Pole was the founder of a family whose name rings loudly, if mournfully, across the bloodstained fields of English mediaeval history.

He was a wool merchant in Kingston­ upon-Hull and was representative in parliament for that borough between 1328 and 1338. He styled himself 'yeoman' but he was clearly a very wealthy yeoman as he lent considerable sums of money to King Edward III and received in return lucrative posts and grants of land. One of his sons, Michael, so advanced the fortunes of the family that in 1385 he was created Earl of Suffolk. He married Katherine, daughter and heir of Sir John Wingfield of Wingfield, Suffolk, and it is her arms which are quartered with those of Pole in the Duke of Suffolk's effigy. Earl Michael was clearly regarded as a parvenu and, as one chronicler rather maliciously puts it, 'Vir plus aptus mercimoniis quam militae’. He was found guilty of treason by the baronial party and, in his absence abroad, forfeited his honours. He died in Paris in 1389 and nine years later his son and heir Michael was restored in blood. Michael himself fell at the siege of Harfleur and his eldest son at the battle of Agincourt in 1415. So it came about that William, the second son, became fourth Earl of Suffolk at the age of nineteen.

Earl William is supposed to have asserted that he 'continually abode in the war seventeen year without coming home or seeing this land'. Although this is not quite true he was certainly employed continuously in the French wars until about 1430. During these years he seems to have acquitted himself well, having been made a Knight of the Garter in 1421. Eventually he was forced to surrender Jargeau to Jeanne d'Arc and the Due d'Alençon and became the prisoner of the Comte de Dunois. His ransom cost him £20,000 and thereafter he did little more fighting, devoting his time to politics. He was appointed to the Council and bent his efforts to securing peace with France. In this he found himself opposed to the king's uncle, Humphrey Duke of Gloucester, an antagonism which was to prove fatal to him.

It was Suffolk who arranged Henry VI's marriage with Margaret of Anjou contrary to the wishes of Gloucester, and at the same time he negotiated a two-year truce with France. He was rewarded by being created a Marquess, the fourth of that degree ever made.

He had married Alice, only child and heir of Thomas Chaucer and widow of Sir John Philip and of Thomas Montagu, Earl of Salisbury, and he and his wife had been granted the reversion of the Earldom of Pembroke on the death of the Duke of Gloucester. This occurred in 1447, five days after Gloucester had been seized and imprisoned by the court party which was no longer willing to suffer his repeated attacks on Suffolk's French policy. Although no open accusation was ever made, popular - belief laid the death of 'Good Duke Humphrey', the great benefactor of Oxford University, at the door of him who stood most to benefit by it politically and materially, William de Ia Pole. A few months later Cardinal Beaufort, Suffolk's other rival, died. The marquess was created duke and the king lavished favours and offices on him. He had reached the zenith of his power and influence.

The reader will scarcely need to be told what happened next. It is simply a question of detailing the order of his going, for he commanded far too much power to stay long in office. He made an enemy of Richard, Duke of York, who now became leader of the opposition in place of Gloucester; he was unpopular over the loss of Maine and Anjou, a concession which he was accused of having made to the French; the truce he had negotiated with France was being violated and Normandy had been lost. In addition to these crimes, pride, avarice, and misappropriation of funds were inevitably laid to his charge. The degree of his guilt is doubtful, but as principal minister it was his head which had to fall. The Commons proffered charges against him and eventually he submitted and was banished for five years. This sentence was a compromise, intended to satisfy the people and save a life dear to King Henry. There were, however, some people whose names are not known, who were unsatisfied       by this judgement and when he sailed for France to start his sentence his ship was intercepted by the 'Nicholas of the Tower', he was invited on board and there his head was hacked off with six strokes of a rusty sword wielded by an Irishman, 'one of the lewdest men on board'. His body was left on Dover beach and he was buried at Wingfield by order of King Henry, the only person who seems to have mourned his passing.

Poor Suffolk! The odium he attracted during his life was not dispelled by death, except that the improbability of the stories spread by his detractors has, reductio ad absurdum, softened the judgement of history.

In his effigy he wears no jupon[1], but the arms of de la Pole, Azure[2] a Fess[3] between three Lions' Faces Or[4] (a blue shield with gold charges on it and a gold band across it) are shown on his right and the same arms quartered with those of Wingfield, Argent[5] on a Bend[6] Gules[7] three Pairs of Wings conjoined in lure[8] tips downwards of the field[9] (a silver shield with three pairs of silver wings on a red bend) are shown on his left. The quartered coat is that which appears on his Garter stall plate in St George's Chapel, Windsor, where it may still be seen, surmounted by his crest of a savage's head.

The body armour can be seen to consist of a plain metal breastplate called the cuirass to which is attached a fauld[10] of six articulated hoops or lames[11]. Pendant from the lowest lame are two small metal plates, known as tassets. These, which were introduced in the middle of the fifteenth century, were destined to grow longer and more elaborate as time passed.

This period of armour, where the knight is unadorned either by jupon or tabard[12] of arms, is characterized by the profusion of protective plates which became increasingly larger and more decorative until it is difficult to see how this human tank was able to manoeuvre or support the weight of its defences. In Suffolk's armour can be seen the elaborate pauldrons[13] and gardes de bras[14] which gave extra protection to shoulders and elbows respectively.

The reason why the left and right sides are not identical is simply that the right side, being the sword side, was offensive, the left defensive and the armour constructed accordingly. The gauntlets, now mittens not gloves are characterized   by their long, pointed cuffs, and the knees are further protected by extra plates beneath.

 

[1] A close-fitting tunic or doublet; esp. one worn by knights under the hauberk, sometimes of thick stuff and padded.

[2] Blue.

[3] A charge on a coat of arms that takes the form of a band running horizontally across the centre of the shield.

[4] Gold

[5] Silver.

[6] a band or strap running from the upper dexter (the bearer's right side and the viewer's left) corner of the shield to the lower sinister (the bearer's left side, and the viewer's right). 

[7] Red.

[8] An apparatus used by falconers, to recall their hawks constructed of a bunch of feathers, to which is attached a long cord or thong.

[9] The background of the shield.

[10] Pieces of plate armour worn below a breastplate to protect the waist and hips.

[11] A thin plate, esp. of metal; a thin piece of any substance, a lamina; spec. applied to the small overlapping steel plates used in old armour.

[12] A short surcoat open at the sides and having short sleeves, worn by a knight over his armour, and emblazoned on the front, back, and sleeves with his armorial bearings.

[13] A piece of armour covering the shoulder, a shoulder-plate.

[14] Arm guards.