Thomas Beaufort, 1st Duke of Exeter
Died: December 31, 1426
Greenwich, London, England (Age c. 49)
Exeter in History
Thomas Beaufort was the third illegitimate son of John of Gaunt (third surviving son of King Edward III) and his long-time mistress Katherine Swynford. The Beaufort children were legitimized in 1396 when Gaunt and Swynford finally married, though they were later barred from the royal succession by their half-brother, John of Gaunt's one legitimate son, the future Henry IV. At first, Thomas was a loyal supporter of King Richard II and, in 1398, actually shared in the spoils of Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, who had been exiled along with Henry Bolingbroke (Beaufort's half-brother) for a quarrel they had. However, when Bolingbroke returned from his exile the following year and ultimately seized the throne for himself, Thomas immediately became a loyal supporter of his half-brother. During the reign of Henry IV Thomas spent his time attempting to subdue the rebellions in Wales and most likely fought at the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403. He was also given the responsibility of keeping England's waters safe from invaders (the French in particular) as an admiral in the navy.
Throughout this period Thomas grew close to King Henry's eldest son, and heir to the throne, Prince Hal. In the king's later years, when he was often incapacitated due to illness, the young Prince of Wales became more powerful at court and was certainly encouraged to try and wrestle power away from his increasingly sick father. Unfortunately, the prince and his council were dismissed by the king in late 1410, though it does not appear that Thomas fell out of favor with his half-brother to any significant extent. In fact, he was created Earl of Dorset in 1411 and admiral of England for life in 1412 by King Henry. Ultimately, the king and prince resolved their differences, and there was a smooth succession when Henry IV died in 1413. Under the new King Henry V, Thomas continued to flourish and was one of the king's most trusted advisers, and he played a part in the "negotiations" with France when Henry V proposed renewing the Hundred Years War started by Edward III (the king never expected the French to accept his outrageous terms for peace and, therefore, war was imminent).
When the king departed for France in 1415, Thomas was at his side. It was he who took part in (and was most responsible for) the success of the lengthy siege of Harfleur and was created Duke of Exeter for his services the following year. Exeter continued his success in France throughout the reign of Henry V, participating in the important siege of Rouen in 1418 and being made governor of Paris in 1421. When Henry V died in 1422, Exeter had proven to be such a loyal adviser to him that he left the guardianship of his infant son, the new King Henry VI, to his uncle. Unfortunately, it appears that Exeter suffered from near-continual bad health during the first few years of Henry VI's minority reign and did not play a huge role in politics or in the ongoing war with France. His political views, however, seemed to be more in line with his brother Henry, Bishop (and soon to be Cardinal) of Winchester over the infant king's youngest uncle Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. Exeter died in 1426 at the age of forty-nine, just four years into his new charge. Since he had no heirs, his possessions were distributed to various charitable organizations. This was indeed one last noble deed from a noble man.
Exeter in Shakespeare
Appears in: Henry V; Henry VI, Part 1
In Henry V, Exeter appears as a sort of right-hand man to his nephew, King Henry V and is given several important responsibilities. It is he who is sent as an envoy to France to warn them of the imminent war, and he takes part in both the siege of Harfleur (which surrenders much more quickly in the play than in reality) and the Battle of Agincourt. Exeter's presence at Agincourt is fictitious as he was actually still at Harfleur when the battle took place. In 1 Henry VI, Exeter is given a role similar to a prophet or soothsayer. He gives several soliloquys predicting the bad events that will happen in the future with the war in France and the civil wars that will haunt Henry VI in the latter part of his reign. The figure of Exeter represents one of Shakespeare's most absurd changes in history for the storyline of 1 Henry VI. By the play's end, Exeter (who historically died in 1426) is still alive, while both his nephew Bedford (who died in 1435) and Lord Talbot (who was killed in 1453, 27 years after Exeter's death) are deceased. When looked at from the standpoint of a historian, these changes are difficult to swallow (and there are many more seemingly irrational changes in the play). It seems likely that Shakespeare simply wanted to utilize one of his characters to speak directly to the audience (outside of the action of the play) to help them understand the events that would occur later in the Henry VI trilogy. Being that Exeter did not have a specific role to play (given the fact that he was, conveniently, deceased for most the events portrayed), he would seem to be the perfect candidate to serve the bard's purpose.
Harriss, G. L. ‘Beaufort, Thomas, duke of Exeter (1377?–1426)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/1864, accessed 9 Nov 2009]