Through his quarrel with Richard PLANTAGENET, duke of York, Edmund Beaufort, second duke of Somerset, helped initiate the political conflicts that eventually escalated into the WARS OF THE ROSES.
Edmund Beaufort was a younger son of John Beaufort, earl of Somerset (d. 1409), eldest of the legitimated children of John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster (1340–1399), by his mistress Katherine Swynford (d. 1403). As a branch of the house of LANCASTER, the BEAUFORT FAMILY held a claim to the Crown that could possibly rival the claim of the house of YORK. Beaufort succeeded his elder brother John as earl of Somerset in 1444 and as duke of Somerset in 1448. He served in FRANCE from the 1420s, recapturing Harfleur in 1440 and relieving CALAIS in 1442. In 1446, he succeeded York as lieutenant of France, but his failure to hold Normandy against French assaults, though not entirely his fault, earned him great unpopularity.
In 1450, anger over the defeats in France sparked JACK CADE’S REBELLION, which in turn led to the overthrow and murder of HENRYVI’s chief minister, William de la POLE, duke of Suffolk. Despite his unpopularity and his military failures, Somerset enjoyed Henry’s confidence and assumed leadership of the royal government. York, angered by Somerset’s appointment to the French governorship and believing him to be ambitious for the throne, attacked the duke as an obstacle to needed reforms and as a traitor responsible for the loss of France.
Holding few lands of his own, Somerset was staunchly loyal to Henry VI, upon whom he depended for favor and office. The king frustrated all York’s attempts to remove Somerset from power until 1453, when the onset of Henry’s mental illness initiated York’s FIRST PROTECTORATE and allowed the duke to commit Somerset to the TOWER OF LONDON. Released immediately upon Henry’s recovery in early 1455, Somerset was acquitted of all charges and restored to office. Fearing perhaps that Somerset meant to destroy him, York and his noble allies, Richard NEVILLE, earl of Salisbury, and his son Richard NEVILLE, earl of Warwick, took arms against the COURT. After failing to achieve Somerset’s surrender, York and his allies attacked a royal party at the Battle of ST.ALBANS in May 1455. The battle ended when York’s forces slew Somerset. Considering his father’s death a murder, Henry BEAUFORT, third duke of Somerset, intensified his family’s rivalry with the house of York, thereby ensuring the continuance of civil strife.
Further Reading: Allmand,C.T., Lancastrian Normandy, 1415–1450 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983);“Edmund Beaufort,” in Michael Hicks, Who’s Who in Late Medieval England (London: Shepheard- Walwyn, 1991), pp. 285–287; Griffiths, Ralph A., The Reign of King Henry VI (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981); Storey,R. L., The End of the House of Lancaster, 2d ed. (Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK: Sutton Publishing, 1999);Wolffe, Bertram, Henry VI (London: Eyre Methuen, 1981).