Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Everything you know about John de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, is wrong

John de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, was born on 27th September 1442 to William de la Pole, then Earl of Suffolk, and his wife Alice Chaucer, granddaughter of Geoffrey Chaucer. Born some eleven years after they married, he was their only child.

The story of William de la Pole`s life is well known. Though high in Henry VI and Margaret Anjou`s favour, and reaping the benefits of this, which included an elevation to marquis and eventually duke, he was very unpopular for his involvement in several controversial government policies and his steep rise while being of comparatively humble background. This unpopularity eventually came to haunt him. On 28th January 1450 he was arrested, and subsequently he was impeached and accused of treason. He escaped the death penalty for this only through Henry VI`s intervention, and his eventual punishment was to be five years of exile. On his way to exile, however, his ship was intercepted and on 2nd May 1450, William de la Pole was murdered by beheading.

Following his father`s death, the then seven-year-old John succeeded to his father`s titles, though over the years of his minority, he lost several lands and privileges his father had held. He was one of the poorest of titled nobility at the time, at times not even having enough to support an earldom, let alone a dukedom, though he kept the title.

John`s wardship was not granted to another lord after his father`s death, but he remained in his mother`s household and under her care. In February 1458, when John was 15, Alice Chaucer arranged for her son a marriage to Elizabeth, the second daughter of Richard, Duke of York and his duchess Cecily. His new wife was almost to the day two years younger than John.

The marriage lasted until John`s death in 1492, and appears to have been very successful. They had eleven known children together, though there is some evidence there were more whose names and birth dates are no longer known.

Over the course of their marriage, John and Elizabeth not only became parents several times, they were also the guardians of at least four children: Francis`s cousin Henry, Lord Morley, who was married to their oldest daughter Elizabeth, as well as Francis himself and his sisters Joan and Frideswide. Francis seems to have been close to John, probably seeing in him a substitute father, and emulated him in many ways. Of John`s relationship to his other wards, not much is known, though it is possible that Frideswide called her first child after him.

Though John and Elizabeth`s son, John, Earl of Lincoln, has achieved a certain fame, and John`s father William is certainly (in)famous, John, Duke of Suffolk has not often excited the interest of historians and researchers by himself. The Victorian Henry Alfred Napier called him "under-researched", something that some 150 years later has not really changed. Though there are a few (very few) articles on him, there is no comprehensive study of his life, and when he is mentioned in other historical works, such mentions are often based on assumptions which are not entirely correct or plain entirely wrong. As a consequence, some claims about him have become "common knowledge" despite being either stripped of their context or just untrue.

Several of these claims are:

(1) He always kept out of conflicts for the throne and never got involved.

Though naturally, at the age of not quite 13, he was too young to become involved at the beginning of the conflicts now known as the Wars of the Roses, by early 1461, he was on the Yorkist side. Presumably this was not an indicator that he thought this side was the one in the right, but simply due to family connections through his wife. What his thoughts were on the conflict is unknowable, but he is reported to have fought on the Yorkist side at the second Battle of St Alban`s, as well as at the Battle of Ferrybridge and at the Battle of Towton. Strangely, despite this and the fact he was his brother-in-law, Edward IV did not grant him any rewards or special privileges for this. However, even so, John appears to have fought on his side again three years later, at the Battle of Hexham on 15 May 1464. However, at this battle something appears to have happened to him. Some three weeks later, on 8 June 1464, Margaret Paston wrote a letter to her husband John, in which she reported, among other things, "it is told that the Duke of Suffolk is come home, and either he is dead, or else right sick, and not like to escape". Sadly, she does not elucidate this any more, but given that she immediately afterwards, clearly in connection with it, goes on to explain about Sir John Howard and Lord Rivers`s activities about punishing those who did not come to Edward`s help soon enough, it is a reasonable assumption that whatever sickness John was afflicted with, it was connected to the battle.
Obviously, John survived, but after 1464, never fought again. Despite this, however, he never contemporarily acquired a reputation similar to for example Thomas Stanley`s, for sitting on the fence and waiting everything out, nor was he ever accused of cowardice. It seems likely that something happened at the Battle of Hexham that made him unable to fight later on, and that this was known contemporarily.
John does not seem to have been particularly interested in national politics, but it is simply untrue that he never fought, and in fact it might not even have been his fault that he stopped.

(2) He always did what those in power demanded of him and never drew attention to himself

Evidence suggests that while John  did not get involved much in national politics, this was not because he wanted to keep his head down but simply because he wasn`t interested. Certainly, he did not always do what was demanded of him. There are several instances of him refusing to come to court when it was demanded of him, under a variety of excuses. Early in Edward IV`s reign, he sent a response to Edward`s summons saying he could not come, he was too poor to keep up the status expected of him when coming to court. During the Lancastrian re-adaption, in January 1471, he asked his brother-in-law Thomas Stonor (husband of his illegitimate half-sister) to excuse him from meeting the Lord Chancellor, as many of his servants had been sent into Suffolk to be with his children there, and most of the rest had accompanied his wife Elizabeth on a recent visit there to her children, and he had too few servants to travel to London.
In 1487, only shortly after his oldest son John, Earl of Lincoln, had died in rebellion against Henry VII, John refused to come a festivity for the Order of the Garter, saying the celebration was not lavish enough for him to attend. There are other such instances, which clearly show not a willingness to please those in power at all costs, but, if anything, a complete disinterest in being involved in national politics.  In fact, there are some instances which clearly illustrate that if the sitting king gave orders which interfered with his own interests, John showed no inclination to keep to them. The clearest such example is when he swore, along with other lords, to Henry VII that he would not distribute livery or gather large retinues. Though he did not protest the oath at all, he apparently saw no reason to keep to it and continued distributing livery and gathering large retinues in his own name until his death.

(3) He always kept his head down

This is, of course, related to the points above, and it is equally untrue. John did not keep his head down when he considered something worth fighting for. His quarrel with the Paston family for several manors is legendary for a reason, and presumably the thing he is best known for. His actions there ranged from, as was quite normal in such quarrels, sending men to take a manor he considered his, to petty personal actions, such as visiting a manor he claimed as his own but which was held by Paston and eating as much fish as he possibly could so that there would hardly be any left for Paston should he visit there. During the course of these quarrels, he also did not hesitate to threaten Paston, and at least once in 1465, his men ransacked and ruined a manor Paston was holding, as well as robbed a church connected to it, though John denied knowledge of it and distanced himself from this.

(4) His actions, or lack thereof, in national politics were only for personal gain

Naturally, this would be hardly unnormal, and John was hardly uninterested in personal gain. However, if it was his plan to keep out of national politics so he would be rewarded for his apparent loyalty to whoever was in power, he not only went about it wrongly - see point (2) - it also failed spectacularly, and he would surely over the course of thirty years have realised that. Though he had more when he died than he had in 1461, he was comparatively poor all his life, and several instances of him needing money badly during these years are recorded. At times, his need for money was so bad he pawned jewellery to Edward IV, simply to keep up a certain lifestyle expected of a man of his status.

(5) He was a coward, afraid of his father`s fate happening to him

There is a zero indication he was in any way a coward, and surely refusing the summons of several kings on more or less flimsy excuses - see point (2) - and proceeding to do what he wanted to do would not be something a coward would do, nor someone who was desperately afraid of losing favour. There is also no indication his father`s fate informed any of his actions. It is probably safe to assume that it influenced him in some way, as it is only human nature, but that this is what caused his disinterest in national politics is at best sheerest speculation, and not borne out by his actions. All we know of John`s relationship to his father`s memory is that he did the traditional and expected thing and had prayers read for him. That`s all.