John Beaufort, 1st Duke of Somerset

Born: 1404

Died: May 27, 1444

Corfe, Somerset, England (Age c. 40)

John Beaufort, Duke of Somerset in History

John Beaufort was the second son of the elder John Beaufort, Earl of Somerset and eldest of the four illegitimate children of John of Gaunt (third surviving son of Edward III) and his long-time mistress (and eventual wife) Katherine Swynford. He inherited the Earldom of Somerset in 1418 upon the death of his elder brother Henry and fought in the Hundred Years War in France under the command of Thomas, Duke of Clarence (King Henry V's brother and stepfather to Somerset). In 1421, Clarence led a disastrous expedition into Maine and was killed at the Battle of Bauge. Both Somerset and his younger brother Thomas were taken captive by the French. Thomas was released in 1427 but Somerset remained in captivity for another nine years, finally being ransomed in 1438. Henry V had long been succeeded by his infant son Henry VI on England's throne, and Somerset was more than happy to immediately jump back into the war. He was joined by his youngest brother Edmund and Lord Talbot (one of the major English commanders during the latter part of the war) in the defense of Normandy in the early 1440s and achieved a moderate amount of success.

Unfortunately, the war was by far going better for the French, who were slowly but surely regaining all the territories they had lost to the English during Henry V's reign. Somerset was rewarded by King Henry VI (who treated him as one of his favorites) and was created a Knight of the Garter and upgraded to Duke of Somerset in 1443. Later that year Somerset led one last expedition to France which ended with mediocre results at best and was shortly after expelled from court, most likely under the advice of the Duke of York, who would prove to be a significant enemy to the Lancastrians down the line. Somerset's health steadily declined after this, and he died in 1444 at the age of forty; some chroniclers claim that he committed suicide. He left no male issue, and his title was left to his only remaining brother Edmund, who would go on to become a major player at the court of Henry VI. Edmund did, however, leave a daughter, Margaret, the mother of the future King Henry VII.

Edmund Beaufort, 2nd Duke of Somerset

Born: 1406

Died: May 22, 1455

St. Albans, Hertfordshire, England (Age c. 49)

Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset in History

Edmund Beaufort was the youngest of the sons of John Beaufort and, by far, achieved the most amount of success. His eldest brother Henry died in 1418 and his two other brothers, John and Thomas, were taken captive in France in 1421, the former of whom was not released until 1438. During this time Edmund made a name for himself as a commander in France in the early years of Henry VI's reign. 1427 proved to be a controversial year in Edmund's life when it was rumored he had an affair with Katherine of Valois, the widow of the former King Henry V and mother to the current king, making many wonder whether Owen Tudor (father to the future King Henry VII) was a result of their affair (Katherine had secretly married the Welshman Edmund Tudor). This blot on Edmund's character does not seem to have affected his political career, and he continued to flourish and gain favor in the eyes of the king and his council. He was continuously given important posts in France, was created a Knight of the Garter in 1436 and Earl of Dorset in 1442. In 1444, he inherited his brother's title of Earl of Somerset (he was upgraded to Duke in 1448) and was awarded the position of lieutenant and governor-general of France in 1447, replacing the Duke of York. This would be a highly disastrous appointment to say the very least. and by 1450, Somerset would lose almost all of the English territories in Normandy with virtually no opposition (though he did not participate directly in the disastrous English defeat at Formigny). 

The fact that Somerset had not even put up a fight greatly angered York, who felt Somerset was guilty of treason for his offenses. Despite Somerset's blunders in France, he remained highly influential at the court of Henry VI and Queen Margaret, which angered York even more. 1453 would become a highly active year. In this year, Queen Margaret gave birth to a son, Prince Edward. This event was soiled by the fact that the English lost their last remaining territories in France (excepting Calais) after the death and defeat of John Talbot at Castillon, bringing on a stroke of madness in Henry VI, which he undoubtedly inherited from his maternal grandfather, the French King Charles VI. During Henry VI's incapacitation, York was created protector, and Somerset was imprisoned in the tower. When the king regained his wits the following year, Somerset was released and returned to favor. This was the last insult that York would take from his nemesis, and he mustered an army with the help of the powerful Neville Earls of Salisbury and Warwick. In May 1455, the armies of York and Somerset met at St. Albans. Somerset was killed in battle, and Henry VI was captured (though not treated badly). This battle is considered to be the first battle of the Wars of the Rose between the houses of Lancaster and York. Five years later, York would claim the throne as his own and pay the ultimate price for his ambition (although two of his sons would go on to be kings). All in all, the character of Somerset is difficult to assess. He was most certainly a loyal servant to the crown and showed strokes of military brilliance. At other times, he displayed downright arrogance and incompetence. In the end, he will be most remembered for his quarrel with York that started a war between two rival royal houses that would last another forty years.

First and Second Dukes of Somerset in Shakespeare

Appear in: Henry VI, Part 1; Henry VI, Part 2

The Duke of Somerset portrayed in Shakespeare's works is a composite figure of the two brothers John and Edmund Beaufort, the first and second dukes, respectively. Somerset first appears in 1 Henry VI in the fictitious garden scene where he and Suffolk pick red roses to symbolize their allegiance to the House of Lancaster, immediately starting a feud between themselves and Richard Plantagenet, the future Duke of York, who has picked a white rose (along with several others) to symbolize his allegiance with the House of York. By the play's end the quarrel between the two men causes the death of Lord Talbot and his son against the French. In 2 Henry VI, Somerset replaces York (who is shipped off to Ireland) as lieutenant in France. While in Ireland, York musters an army and returns to England, claiming he will wage war on King Henry if Somerset is not imprisoned. The king agrees to send Somerset to the tower, and York gladly dismisses his army. But Queen Margaret (who has firm control over her husband) will not see one of her favorites imprisoned, and the two sides do battle at St Albans. During the battle, Somerset is killed by York's son Richard (the future Richard III) in front of a tavern called the "castle in St. Albans," bringing truth to a prophecy made earlier in the play that Somerset should stay in the mountains and avoid "the castle." The Yorkists go on to win the battle over the Lancastrians. Although historically Somerset was indeed killed at the Battle of St. Albans, it was certainly not by Richard, who was a mere two years of age at the time of the battle. 1 Henry VI begins with Richard proudly displaying the severed head of Somerset. Also in this play, Edmund's two sons, Henry and Edmund, are portrayed as a single composite figure.


Harriss, G. L. ‘Beaufort, John, duke of Somerset (1404–1444)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, Oct 2008 [, accessed 1 Dec 2009]

Richmond, Colin. ‘Beaufort, Edmund, first duke of Somerset (c.1406–1455)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, Oct 2008 [, accessed 1 Dec 2009]

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