Willaim de la Pole, 1st Duke of Suffolk

Born: October 16, 1396

Cotton, Suffolk, England

Died: May 2, 1450 (Age 53)

Suffolk in History

Little is known of the early life of William de la Pole, but considering he was merely a second son of an earl, it is safe to say his fortunes were not particularly promising. 1415, however, would prove to be a decisive year in his life. It was in this year that King Henry V decided to invade France in order to press his claim to the French throne. At the siege of Harfleur, William's father, Michael, was killed, leaving the earldom of Suffolk to his eldest son (William's brother), another Michael. Very shortly after the elder William's death, the new earl was killed at the Battle of Agincourt, leaving the earldom to William, since Michael died childless. Now Earl of Suffolk, William was free to begin his ascent as a soldier. Suffolk continued to serve Henry V in France and, when the king died in 1422, under the Duke of Bedford, the late king's brother and regent of the realm under the new King Henry VI. Participating in a number of significant battles and sieges, Suffolk was rewarded for his services with several important positions and was created a Knight of the Garter.

It was not until 1429 that Suffolk's military achievements would stall. After the siege of Orleans crumbled (with help from Joan of Arc), Suffolk surrendered and was taken prisoner. Although he was released the following year (after paying a huge ransom that involved selling several estates), Suffolk's military career was effectively over, and he returned to England to establish himself as a politician. Suffolk quickly made a name for himself in the minority government of Henry VI, a court dominated by men such as Humphrey of Gloucester and Cardinal Henry Beaufort, the king's uncle and great-uncle respectively. Shortly after his return, Suffolk married Alice, the daughter of Thomas Chaucer, the king's butler and a relative of Cardinal Beaufort, and was made a royal counselor the following year. In addition, Suffolk was made steward of the royal household, a position that involved being in close contact with the king, who was soon to reach his majority. Suffolk seems to have remained somewhat neutral in the bitter conflicts between Gloucester and Cardinal Beaufort that slowly tore apart the English court, but in the end, he seems to have supported the cardinal, who was more in favor of making peace with the French. Throughout the 1430s and 40s, Suffolk built up his power base in his native East Anglia while continuously gaining the trust of the king. Suffolk played a role in concluding a peace treaty with France and marrying King Henry to Margaret, the daughter of the Duke of Anjou. To show his appreciation, the king upgraded Suffolk to marquis.

If Suffolk was not already in full control of government, 1447 would solidly put him in that position. In this year, Suffolk took part in a conspiracy to undo the Duke of Gloucester, who was soon after arrested of treason, only to die on his way to trial. With the death of Cardinal Beaufort shortly after his rival, Suffolk was free to run England in any way he saw fit. This was an easy task considering the weakness of the king's character. Unfortunately, the government was slowing deteriorating, and new political factions were forming. Additionally, the French were threatening once again. To defend the remaining English territories in France, Suffolk sent his political ally the Duke of Somerset to replace his nemesis the Duke of York. This proved to be a fatal mistake, as Somerset lost a majority of the French lands by 1449. Suffolk absorbed all the blame for this folly from the magnates and common people alike. This situation, combined with Suffolk's local quarrel in East Anglia with the Duke of Norfolk, assured his downfall.

It was demanded that Suffolk be arrested and charged with treason. Suffolk was able to defend himself admirably, but still, the king was forced to exile the duke (which he was elevated to in 1448) for a period of five years. On his way to exile in France, Suffolk's ship was intercepted by pirates. The duke was given a mock trial and summarily beheaded. His body washed up on the English coast several days later where it was given a proper burial. It is difficult to ascertain exactly what type of a man Suffolk was. He was certainly widely hated by his contemporaries, and many historians will classify him as a greedy, ambitious man who only cared about his own interests. However, one must remember that, as one is elevated to a higher status in government and, in turn, receives a number of highly important responsibilities, there are many unpopular decisions that must be made. Suffolk, as the king's top adviser, was the one who needed to make most of the decisions despite their popularity and, therefore, took all the blame when something went wrong. One also must remember that Suffolk worked extremely hard to get to his position, both as a soldier and a politician, and paid the ultimate price in the end. Perhaps it is not necessarily fair to call him greedy and ambitious when one considers those facts.

Suffolk in Shakespeare

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

Suffolk first appears in 1 Henry VI as a loyal supporter of the House of Lancaster. This is shown by the fact that he picks a red rose (along with Somerset) in the courtyard scene. In the play's final act he finds Margaret of Anjou as a wife for Henry VI. The two immediately strike up an affair which seems to be genuine love. In 2 Henry VI, the two continue their affair and also plan to undo the Duke of Gloucester. They join forces with York and Cardinal Beaufort to murder the duke, which they succeed in doing. Shortly after the act though, the common people threaten to rebel if Suffolk is not executed or exiled. It is implied that they are aware of his part in Gloucester's murder, combined with the duke's general unpopularity. He and Margaret share an emotional parting scene before Suffolk leaves for exile. While at sea on his way to France, the ship is captured by pirates. After Suffolk refuses to praise such lower-class people, he is beheaded. This fulfills a prophecy from earlier in the play that said Suffolk would die by water (the man who kills him is also named Walter, pronounced "Wat-er). After the body washes up on shore, Margaret carries the head around in mourning. Time is severely conflated within the Henry VI plays and this is shown in many ways. For example, Suffolk was not exiled and murdered until three years after Gloucester's death, and it is unlikely he had the duke murdered (though he did assist in ruining him politically). In addition, Suffolk was already dead before John Talbot (who dies at the end of 1 Henry VI). Finally, it is unlikely there was any love affair between Suffolk and the queen. If anything, the duke played the role of a father figure to the young queen. It was the the Duke of Somerset, if anyone, who was rumored to be engaging in an illicit affair with the queen.


Watts, John. ‘Pole, William de la, first duke of Suffolk (1396–1450)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/22461, accessed 11 Feb 2010]

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