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The Reign of Henry VI page 10


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The conduct of Suffolk throughout the negotiation was such as made it obvious that he had not secured a previous indemnity for nothing. The father of Margaret, though titular King of Sicily and Jerusalem, was in reality a pauper. He did not possess a single foot of land in the countries over which his royal title extended. Maine and Anjou, his hereditary dukedoms, were in the hands of the English. Under these circumstances, the most that could be expected was that England should be willing to receive the princess without a dower. But Suffolk not only waived any claim of dower, but resigned, as a condition of the marriage, the duchies of Maine and Anjou to Margaret's father. This was a direct act of high treason. These duchies were the very keys of Normandy, and their cession highly endangered all the English possessions in France. Nothing but the most consummate folly, or, what was more probable, the blinding influence which the daughter of King Rene already exerted over Suffolk, could have induced him to perpetrate such a deed. This condition appears to have been kept in the background as long as possible. Whether Beaufort had been a party to this disgraceful measure, or whether he was duped himself by Suffolk, does not appear. He was now an old man of eighty, and since his signal vengeance on Gloucester, by the disgrace and punishment of his wife, had retired to his diocese, as if apprehensive that there might come a repayment of the injury from Gloucester or his staunch admirers, the people.

Suffolk for his success in this negotiation was created a marquis; he married Margaret as proxy for Henry at Nanci on the 28th of October, 1444. Jousts and tournaments were celebrated by the French court in its joy over this event, from which it expected no ordinary advantages. Suffolk does not appear to have been in any haste to return to England with the fair bride; for, though contracted in October, they remained in France all the winter, and only landed at Porchester on the 8th of April, 1445. Great ceremony had been made by the French court on Margaret's departure. The king himself, with a splendid retinue, accompanied her some miles on her way from the city, and separated from her in tears. Her father continued with her to Bar-le-Duc.

On the 22nd of April she was married in Titchfield Abbey to Henry; and on the 30th of May she was crowned with much splendour at Westminster, and very soon showed that she was prepared to exercise to the full her royal authority. The king, charmed with her beauty and address, resigned himself a willing creature into her hands. She formed an immediate and close intimacy with the Beaufort party; her constant counsellors were Somerset, Buckingham, and Suffolk. Suffolk appeared to the people much more the husband of Margaret than Henry. One of the first acts of the queen's party was to procure a repeal of the Act of Henry Y., that no peace should be made with France without the consent of the three estates of Parliament. They obtained ample supplies, and from both Houses the most profuse thanks to Suffolk for his services in accomplishing this happy union.

The people meantime looked on with grumbling distrust. They told Gloucester that they knew he would have obtained them a better queen. But Gloucester saw that a power hostile to him was now in the ascendant. He had struggled against this match so long as it was of use. He had even represented to Henry during its progress that the Count of Armagnac was once more at liberty, and that nothing now prevented his marriage with his daughter, to whom he was, in fact, affianced. All these things had been duly communicated to Margaret by Gloucester's enemies, who surrounded her; and he was marked for the summary vengeance of that woman, whose soul concealed a fount of haughty passion, pride, and vindictiveness which was ere long to justify the expressive epithet, "the wolf of France," which Shakespeare bestowed upon her.

Probably Gloucester had become well aware of this, for he now carefully avoided any public opposition. He went so far as to join in Parliament in expressing approval of Suffolk's management of the marriage treaty; and he was one of the first to pay his respects to the queen on landing by meeting her at Blackheath with 500 men in livery, and conducting her to his palace at Greenwich, where a banquet awaited her. But the rival party, in conjunction with their new ally, the queen, who could never forgive Gloucester his endeavours to prevent her mounting the throne of England, did not abate their enmity any more on account of Gloucester's quiescence. The cardinal came forth again, and took the lead in the councils. He paid the most marked and flattering court to the queen. He was enormously wealthy, and the king was as notoriously poor. Beaufort supplied the needy court with money; and through the medium of the queen now held the most undisputed power over the king.

All things now concurred to favour a blow which should at once gratify the malice of the queen, the cardinal, and the whole party. By some means they contrived to infuse into the mind of Henry a suspicion of the loyalty of his uncle Gloucester. Probably they might extend to him the charges which they had made to tell so fatally already against his duchess, of a design to make away with the king and usurp the throne. Perhaps the repeated instances in which Gloucester had brought forward the Duke of York, in opposition to the cardinal's party, might be made the instrument of their vengeance. The Duke of York was the claimant of the throne in right of the Earl of Marche, a right superior to the usurped claim of the present line, and which he afterwards asserted. Whatever the cause, or the combination of causes, the destruction of Gloucester was determined. Henry summoned a Parliament to meet, not, as usual, at Westminster, but at Bury St. Edmunds, in Suffolk, where the conspirators would be in the midst of the favourite's retainers. The measures which were adopted were ominous of some serious design. The knights of the shire were ordered to come in arms. The king was conveyed to the town under strong escort, and the men of Suffolk were placed in numerous bodies round the royal lodgings. All the avenues to the town were guarded during the night by pickets of soldiers.

The Duke of Gloucester, clearly suspecting no harm, went from his castle of Devizes to the opening of the Parliament, where everything was conducted with the usual form, and nothing took place at all calculated to excite suspicion. But the next day, the 11th of February, 1447, the Lord Beaumont, Constable of England, attended by the Duke of Buckingham, and several of the peers of Suffolk's party, arrested Gloucester, seizing, at the same time, all his attendants, and consigning them to different prisons. The Suffolk party now openly avowed that Gloucester had formed a scheme to kill the king, to usurp the throne, liberate his duchess, and make her queen. The story was too palpably improbable to receive the slightest credence; it was therefore dropped, and Gloucester remained seventeen days in prison, awaiting his trial.

When summoned, at length, to attend the council, he was found dead in his bed, to the great horror of the king, who was obviously unprepared for such a catastrophe. The body was exposed to the view of the Parliament and the people, to convince them that there had been no violence used. There were no marks of violence, indeed, upon it; but this had no weight with the people, who recollected that such had been the case in the mysteriously sudden deaths of Edward II., Richard II., and of the former unfortunate Duke of Gloucester, who had, under precisely similar circumstances, perished in the prison of Calais in Richard II.'s time. This case was the facsimile of that; when the prisoner, before in perfect health, was called for by the king, he was found to be dead. Nothing, therefore, could convince the incensed people that their favourite had died naturally, and their undisguised suspicion fell on the cardinal, the queen, and Suffolk. One historian only of the time, Whethamstede, Abbot of St. Albans, has avowed his belief that the duke died from natural causes, and great weight has been given to his opinion, because he was attached to the duke, and loud io his abuse of his enemies. It is, however, but one opinion against a host; and all the circumstances tend to support the popular belief that Gloucester was murdered, though with great cunning and skill.

Nothing contributed more to confirm this belief in the public than the unseemly haste with which Suffolk and the queen rushed to seize on the estates and substance of Gloucester, who died without an heir. His duchess was declared incapable of claiming as the duke's widow on account of "her former misgovernment of herself;" and the ample territories of the duke were distributed amongst the creatures of Suffolk. The friends and partisans of Gloucester loudly denounced this shameless proceeding, and never ceased their efforts from year to year till they obtained from Parliament a full declaration of his innocence. Meantime, a number of the attendants of Gloucester were brought to trial by Suffolk, who now was all in all at court, on the charge of plotting the release of the Duchess of Gloucester and the murder of the king, in order to set upon the throne the duke their master. They were condemned to be hanged; but after being tied up, they were immediately cut down again; and before the executioner could quarter them as customary in cases of treason, Suffolk produced the king's pardon, and the miserable half-dead men were allowed to recover. Such barbarity, so far from being regarded as mercy by the people, only added to the horror of these transactions,

The Cardinal Beaufort only survived his great rival six weeks. Every reader recalls the celebrated death-scene of this ambitious prelate as described by Shakespeare - King Henry at his bedside, exclaiming -

"Lord cardinal, if thou think'st on heaven's bliss

Hold up thy hand; make signal of thy hope. -

He dies, and makes no sign! O God, forgive him!"

The situation and invocation are undoubtedly those of the poet; but they are founded on the wide-spread belief at the time that Beaufort had the blood of Gloucester on his soul. Whether he deserved it or not, he had the odium of it; and though Roman Catholic writers have laudably endeavoured to vindicate his memory, yet Hall, the chronicler, assures us that his chaplain, John Baker, reported that on his deathbed he lamented that money could not purchase life, and that death should overtake him, now that, Gloucester being dead, he might still hope for the papal tiara. So far as concerned the disposition of his wealth, it was noble, being chiefly devoted to public and charitable purposes. He left 4,000 - equal to 40,000 now - for the relief of poor prisoners in London. He gave 2,000 to two colleges founded by the king at Eton and Cambridge; and the rest founded the hospital of St. Cross at Winchester, now of immense value. He was buried in the cathedral of Winchester, in the beautiful chantry which still elicits so much admiration from the beholder.

The article in the marriage treaty of the queen, which stipulated for the cession of Anjou and Maine, had been kept as secret as possible during the life of the cardinal; but circumstances now rendered it impossible to keep it longer in the background. The court of France insisted on their surrender. When these demands could be no longer resisted - for Charles prepared to invade the provinces - an order under the hand of the king was sent to Sir Francis Surienne, the Governor of Mans, commanding him to surrender the place to Charles of Anjou. Surienne refused to retire, and the Count Dunois invested the city. Surienne was then compelled to surrender, and the Bishop of Chichester was dispatched from England to give up the whole province, with the exception of Fresnoi. It was stated, however, that the King of England did not cede his right to the sovereignty of these states, but merely their enjoyment by the father and uncle of his wife for their natural lives; and it was promised that the grantees of the English crown should receive from France a sum of money equal to ten years' value of the lands they lost.

The consequences were very speedily seen. Maine was filled with French troops, and the Duke of Somerset, the regent, announced to the council that the three estates of Normandy, encouraged by this change, had refused all supplies, and that unless immediate and effectual assistance were afforded from England, these provinces would all be lost. To make matters worse, Surienne, who had reluctantly surrendered Mans, and was refused by Somerset admittance into Normandy, as a dangerous and insubordinate officer, marched into Brittany, seized the town of Fougeres, repaired the fortifications of Pontorson and St. James de Beuvron, and levied subsistence on the whole province at will. The Duke of Brittany complained to Charles; Charles demanded prompt damages to the amount of 1,600,000 crowns, and instead of truce, which had been concluded for two years, the whole war was opened again.

These transactions occasioned a violent outbreak at home. The Earl of Suffolk was vehemently denounced by the people as a traitor, for the wanton surrender of Maine and Anjou to the French. Suffolk was compelled to demand to be brought face to face with his accusers before the king and council. The demand was granted. Both parties were heard, and, as might have been expected, Suffolk, the favourite of both king and queen, was not only acquitted of all blame, but pronounced to have done effectual service to the state, and all cavillers were silenced by the threat of forfeiture of all offices and privileges which they held under the crown.

The English exchequer was empty, and Charles of France, aware not only of that, but of the miserable feebleness of the Government, put forth all his energies to profit by the opportunity. A striking change seemed to have come over him with the advance of years. As if the wondrous Maid of Orleans had left some of her spirit with him, he now exerted himself, with great industry and sagacity, to repair the evils which so long had afflicted his country. He attacked the corruption of the courts and magistracy; he rigorously reformed the discipline of the army; he set himself to restore order and vigour into the finances; he repressed with a bold hand the factions which had so long raged at court; and he took every means of reviving the arts and protecting and encouraging agriculture. It was with astonishment that those who had seen France a few years before now beheld the prosperity which was springing up, and the strength which was becoming visible.

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