A Will and a Letter from William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk

Yesterday, while doing research for my novel about Margaret of Anjou (don’t worry, I’m actually doing some writing for it also), I came across the will of William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, who was responsible for arranging Margaret’s marriage to Henry VI. It’s one of the more moving wills I’ve come across.

Suffolk wrote the will on January 27, 1450, just before he was hauled off as a prisoner to the Tower of London. The English had met with drastic reversals in France, and Suffolk, though by no means the only person in England who had brought about the disaster, was being made the scapegoat for the government’s missteps. The primary charge that would be brought against him–that in 1444 he had promised the surrender of Maine without being authorized to do so–has long since been disproved by historians. (Henry VI, however, explicitly promised the surrender of Maine in a letter dated December 22, 1445.) Among the wilder accusations against him was one that he had married his young son, John, to little Margaret Beaufort with the intention of killing Henry VI and making John king.

As Bertram Wolffe points out, Suffolk was in an impossible position: though he vigorously defended himself against the charges that were brought against him by the Commons, he could not do so adequately without attacking the king, who bore the ultimate responsibility for the disasters in France. But Suffolk was unshakeably loyal to Henry VI, and in any case, he depended upon the king for his life. Henry tried to save Suffolk by ordering that he be banished for five years. (Echoes of Edward II?) Unfortunately, the commoners, for whom Suffolk symbolized all of the shortcomings of Henry VI’s reign as an adult, wanted Suffolk’s death, not his disappearance. As Suffolk sailed toward Burgundy, his ship was intercepted by a vessel named Nicholas of the Tower. Suffolk was forced off his own ship, given a mock trial, and beheaded on May 2, 1450, after six strokes from a rusty sword. Whether the murderers acted entirely on their own or in the hire of someone more highly placed remains a mystery.

Among the slanders that were later to be circulated about Suffolk was that the 53-year-old Suffolk and the 20-year-old Margaret of Anjou were lovers. There’s no evidence to support these allegations, which seem to have originated in Tudor times with the chronicler Hall and which were given vigorous life by Shakespeare. (Shakespeare, at least, has the excuse of borrowing from Hall; one 21st-century historical novelist who has accused Suffolk of fathering Edward of Lancaster in 1453 despite having been dead since 1450 is on rather shakier ground.) What makes these slanders so patently cruel is the evidence that whatever else his faults, Suffolk dearly loved his wife, Alice Chaucer (granddaughter of Geoffrey), and their son. Having ordered that his body be buried at Charterhouse at Hull, Suffolk (who wrote his will in his own hand) directs:

where y wol my ymage and stone be made and the ymage of my best beloved wyf by me, she to be there with me yf she lust, my said sepulture to be made by her discretion in ye said Charterhouse where she shal thinke best, in caas be yat in my dayes it be not made nor begonne; desiringe, yf it may, to lye so as the masses that y have perpetuelly founded there for my said best beloved wyf and me may be daily songen over me. And also ye day of my funeralx, the day of my berieng, that ye charge thereof be bysette upon pore creatures to pray for me, and in no pompes nor pryde of ye world. Also y wol yat my londes and goodes be disposed after that that y have disposed them in my last wille of ye date of these presentez, and only ordeyne my said best beloved wyfe my sole executrice, beseching her at ye reverence of God to take ye charge upon her for the wele of my soule, for above al the erthe my singuler trust is moost in her, and y wol for her ease, yf she wol and elles nought, that she may take unto her such on personne as she lust to name, to helpe her in yexecution yerof for her ease, to laboure under her as she wold commande hym. And last of al with the blessing of God and of me, as hertely as y can yeve it to my dere and trew son, y bequethe betwene hym and his moder love and al good accorde and yeve hym her hoolly, and for a remembraunce my gret balays to my said son.

(The “gret balays” seems to have been a ruby.)

Suffolk’s one son, John, having been born late in Suffolk’s and Alice’s marriage, was only seven at the time of his father’s murder. Before leaving England for what would prove to be his fatal journey into exile, Suffolk wrote an affectionate letter to the young boy in which he further emphasized his love for his family and his loyalty to his king:

My dear and only well-beloved son, I beseech our Lord in Heaven, the Maker of all the World, to bless you, and to send you ever grace to love him, and to dread him, to the which, as far as a father may charge his child, I both charge you, and pray you to set all your spirits and wits to do, and to know his holy laws and commandments, by the which ye shall, with his great mercy, pass all the great tempests and troubles of this wretched world.

And that also, weetingly, ye do nothing for love nor dread of any earthly creature that should displease him. And there as any frailty maketh you to fall, beseech his mercy soon to call you to him again with repentance, satisfaction, and contrition of your heart, never more in will to offend him.

Secondly, next him above all earthly things, to be true liegeman in heart, in will, in thought, in deed, unto the king our aldermost high and dread sovereign lord, to whom both ye and I be so much bound to; charging you as father can and may, rather to die than to be the contrary, or to know anything that were against the welfare or prosperity of his most royal person, but that as far as your body and life may stretch ye live and die to defend it, and to let his highness have knowledge thereof in all the haste ye can.

Thirdly, in the same wise, I charge you, my dear son, alway as ye be bounden by the commandment of God to do, to love, to worship, your lady and mother; and also that ye obey alway her commandments, and to believe her counsels and advices in all your works, the which dread not but shall be best and truest to you. And if any other body would steer you to the contrary, to flee the counsel in any wise, for ye shall find it naught and evil.

Furthermore, as far as father may and can, I charge you in any wise to flee the company and counsel of proud men, of covetous men, and of flattering men, the more especially and mightily to withstand them, and not to draw nor to meddle with them, with all your might and power; and to draw to you and to your company good and virtuous men, and such as be of good conversation, and of truth, and by them shall ye never be deceived nor repent you of.

Moreover, never follow your own wit in nowise, but in all your works, of such folks as I write of above, ask your advice and counsel, and doing thus, with the mercy of God, ye shall do right well, and live in right much worship, and great heart’s rest and ease.

And I will be to you as good lord and father as my heart can think.

And last of all, as heartily and as lovingly as ever father blessed his child in earth, I give you the blessing of Our Lord and of me, which of his infinite mercy increase you in all virtue and good living; and that your blood may by his grace from kindred to kindred multiply in this earth to his service, in such wise as after the departing from this wretched world here, ye and they may glorify him eternally amongst his angels in heaven.

Written of mine hand,
The day of my departing fro this land.

Your true and loving father

John de la Pole became the second Duke of Suffolk and (his childhood marriage to little Margaret Beaufort having been dissolved) went on to marry Elizabeth, a daughter of Richard, Duke of York, making him the brother-in-law of Edward IV and Richard III. Though his own son, the Earl of Lincoln, would rebel against Henry VII, with fatal results for the earl, the second duke seems to have generally followed his father’s advice with regard to kings: having deserted the Lancastrian cause in 1461, he would thereafter be loyal to Edward IV, Richard III, and Henry VII in turn.


Michael Hicks, ‘Pole, John de la, second duke of Suffolk (1442–1492)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/22450, accessed 20 Sept 2009]

C. L. Kingsford, Prejudice and Promise in Fifteenth Century England.

J. N. Larned, A Multitude of Counselors (a version of Suffolk’s letter in modernized spelling; the version with the original spelling can be found in Gairdner’s edition of The Paston Letters).

Surtees Society, North Country Wills

John Watts, ‘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 20 Sept 2009]

Bertram Wolff, Henry VI.

11 thoughts on “A Will and a Letter from William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk”

  1. What a fascinating post. I know very little about Suffolk and what I do know (though I'm not at all convinced that 'know' is the correct word) is entirely negative, so it's great to see that deeply moving letter to his son. Lovely!

  2. One can only wonder how English and consequently British History would have turned out if Suffolk had kept his head and his son John married Margaret Beaufort instead of her marrying Edmund Tudor.

    I don't know if you were aware of it but it seems that prior to the birth of Edward of Lancaster Henry VI had contemplated naming Margaret as his heir. That might well account how Suffolk came to be accused of trying to oust the King.

    As for the Tudor historians they might have had reason for focusing attenion on Suffolk given what I said in an earlier blog that Jasper Tudor, uncle of Henry VII was rumoured to be another paramour. In his case it would have been worse because given atitudes of the time he would have been considered not only guilty of adultery but owing to the fact that Queen Margaret was his sister-in-law of incest as well.

    Finally it seems QM's beef with the Yorkists was not so much their leader but the Nevilles hardly surprising if they were the ones to start the rumours that her son was a bastard. Given the dirt I've dug up on that family even the Wydevilles are looking saints by comparision. They were also the ones that begun the propaganda against the Wydevilles who had become their bete noire long before Edward IV became king.

    One of these days I will get the name 'Henry' right. It still comes up as 'Hnery' AAAArgh!

  3. Great post. Suffolk's final letter to his son is moving indeed, although my opinion of the man is clouded by the fact that he may very well have raped a nun earlier in his life. It seems that the night before he surrendered to the Scots after the siege of Jargeau in 1429, (according to a contemporary chronicler) " he laye in bed with a Nonne whom he toke oute of holy profession and defouled, whose name was Malyne de Cay, by whom he gate a daughter ", named Jane.

    Suffolk remained a prisoner of the French for three years. And while it's understandable that he was under tremendous distress at the time, his actions, even by the rampantly misongynistic standards of the15th century , were considered reprehensible.

    Suffolk did do right by Jane, though. He acknowledged and supported her and arranged a good marriage to Sir William Stonor.

  4. That was an amazing post. He truly loved his family. Touching and heartfelt.

    I gave you an award over on my page because of posts just like this. Swing by and pick it up if you like.

  5. Susan Higginbotham

    Trish, hadn't heard the bit about Jasper.

    Cmc, nice to have you here! It would be interesting to know the truth about the nun story, which I've been looking into myself. It appears in the commons' rejoinder to Suffolk, who had apparently prepared a response to the charges against him in which he stressed his military service:

    "People fell from him, and worse [people] were encouraged to stay in the king's service and wars [gap] worshipful taking without reproof or cowardice. The night before he was captured, he lay in bed with a nun whom he took out of her holy orders and defiled. Her name was Malyne de Cay, by whom he had a daughter who is now married to Stonor of Oxfordshire. He was coming from his position down to the place over the bridge past Jamet de Tille, which sinful abandonment [of his post] was not only the cause of his shameful capture but also of the death of his brothers and of many a notable person there [gap] same time behaving badly [gap] which is shameful to hear of in the case of a man who bears a noble title. And where he claims that he paid for his finance and ransom the sum of £20,000 and more, know in truth that he was [put to ransom for] 12,000 marks at the most, to which he sealed an agreement with the Frenchmen and his brother which we [gap] at Oxford he stood as pledge for him etc."

    (This is from the Medieval Rolls of Parliament CD-ROM.)

    Assuming that the commons were telling the truth about Jane's mother being a nun, which I think is somewhat doubtful, one could read this as saying that he raped the nun or that he simply had consensual sexual relations with a nun (which, of course, doesn't reflect well on him, but is a step up from rape). Since he did take responsibility for his daughter and married her well, I'm inclined to think that whatever went on between him and Malyne was more than a one-night-stand or a rape. But I guess we'll never know.

  6. There is a biography about Jasper Tudor in the BL so I'll check it out.

    Other rumoured paramours were Edmund Beaufort Duke of Somerset and James Butler – no relation to Eleanor – Earl of Wiltshire.

    The BL has been kind enough to provide me with a list of other books on MOA (ex Maurer) if you're interested including 3 by French authors. Be interested to know what the French take is

    I can't remember if it was you or Brian who mentioned her
    but a good read one of the few I've enjoyed is J.L. Laynesmith
    The Last Medieval Queens – Oxford University Press 2004

  7. Thanks for this wonderful post Susan!
    I learn so much from your posts and comments! I have your next book pre-ordered and am so looking forward to it!

  8. I have searched for "The Last Medieval Queens" on the inter-library loan system and there is NO listing anywhere! Amazon has it but it's a bit rich …..sounds as though it would be a very good resource for study.

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