Beaufort, Edmund d. 1455, second Duke of Somerset, statesman and general, was the younger brother of Duke John, and excelled him in the brilliancy of his early military exploits. He held his first command in France in 1431, and nine years later he succeeded in recapturing Harfleur, the loss of which had shaken the English ascendency in Normandy. He was at once invested with the garter on the scene of his triumph. In 1442 he obtained the earldom of Dorset for having relieved Calais, and on his return home after a successful expedition into Anjou in conjunction with his future antagonist the Duke of York, he was raised to a marquisate. But on succeeding his brother in the earldom of Somerset in 1444 (he was created a duke anew in 1448), though he gained in political influence, military success deserted him. The government recognised that England could not hope to permanently hold France as a conquered country, and sought an honourable peace. With this end in view they concluded a truce in 1444, and shortly afterwards married Henry VI to Margaret of Anjou, ceding Anjou and Maine, nominally to her father, really to Charles VII. This policy was wholly unpopular in England, where the warlike spirit remained in the ascendant; and the Duke of York, seizing the opportunity of Gloucester's death to head the opposition to the court, was superseded in the lieutenancy of France by Somerset, whose uncle, Cardinal Beaufort, was chief minister. The truce was taken advantage of by the French to prepare for a final effort to drive the foreigner out, while the English ministers and commanders were especially engaged in swelling their private fortunes. On the one side patriotism, on the other love of plunder, led to frequent breaches of the truce, and removed more and more the prospect of a definitive peace. At length the commander of one of the English detachments, with the secret support of Somerset, surprised the town and castle of Fougères, and Somerset, who probably profited largely by the spoils, refused to give it up, or even exchange it. Hence in 1449 regular war recommenced, in which the English were completely overmatched. Their outposts fell rapidly into the hands of the French, who in October invested Rouen. The inhabitants were their eager partisans, and Somerset, unable to contend with enemies within and without, retired into the castle. His energy seemed paralysed; he had neither courage to make a desperate effort to cut his way out, nor determination to at once capitulate on honourable terms. At last, being hard pressed, he consented to give up not only Rouen but six other strongholds and a large sum of money for the deliverance of his person, wife, children, and goods. The parliamentary opposition in England at once impeached Suffolk, now chief minister, and prepared accusations against Somerset. But Henry VI retained his ministers, and, by pawning his jewels and resorting to other such financial expedients, sought to raise a sufficient force for the campaign of 1450. Unfortunately the English troops were cut to pieces at Formigny in May, and a huge French army advanced against Caen, where Somerset lay with a garrison of 3,000 men. As no relief was possible, he capitulated after a three weeks' siege. His position in Normandy was gone, that in England threatened. Suffolk and two ministerial bishops had been murdered, Cade and the Kentish rebels had occupied London, and York was preparing to take advantage of his popularity and seize upon the government. After five years' marriage Henry remained childless. Of the two possible heirs to the throne, Margaret, Somerset's niece, represented the parliamentary, York the hereditary title. Whichever party was in power at the moment of the sickly king's death would crown their candidate. Supported by Henry, Somerset, on his return from Caen, carried on the government despite the popular hate; but success abroad would alone secure him in power against the attacks of York, and he bent every effort to re-establish the English ascendency in Gascony, where the strictness of French rule was unpopular. He got supplies from parliament, and raised a fleet and army. But the death of the veteran Talbot and the surrender of the English at Chatillon in 1453 put an end to his hopes. The disaster brought on Henry's first attack of insanity; parliament, now supreme, appointed York protector, and sent Somerset to the Tower. He was saved from further proceedings against him by the recovery of the king, who restored him to power and made him captain of Calais, the only continental appointment remaining in his gift. Though the birth of a Prince of Wales changed the quarrel of the two dukes from a dynastic into a personal one, it was none the less bitter. After what had passed one could not brook the existence of the other. Failing to get his enemy tried for treason, York appealed to arms, and, according to a contemporary, raised a force and attacked Somerset, who was then in St. Albans, preferring that Somerset should be taken prisoner than that he should be seized and slain by Somerset. The first battle of St. Albans was fought in May 1455, and in it Somerset was killed. His blood was the first shed in the war of the Roses, which proved fatal to his sons, and ended the male line of the Beauforts.
The Wars in France under Henry VI, Rolls Series, No. 22
Blondel's Reductio Normanniæ, Rolls Series, No. 32
Rot. Parl. v. 210-81
Stow's Chronicle, 385-400.
Contributor: H. A. T. [Henry Avray Tipping]