Who's Who

Cardinal Beaufort

Published in History Today 1989
  • Cardinal Beaufort. A study of Lancastrian ascendancy and decline
    G. L. Harriss - Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1988 - x + 448pp

Henry Beaufort was one of the dominant political figures of his age. For nearly four decades, from the reign of Henry IV to that of Henry VI, he was a leading light on the council and a generous provider of loans to the Crown. His influence was recognised not only by the English political nation but by rulers and princes abroad who sought to direct their dealings with the English court through him. Yet for all his undoubted importance he has never attracted the scholarly attention that he deserves.

There is no multi-volume biography of him as there is of two of the kings whom he served – Henry IV and Henry V – nor even a medium-length biographical study, as there is of his contemporary and rival, Humphrey of Gloucester. In part this is because, for a medieval figure, the materials for a biography in the modern sense are, to say the least, exiguous; but in part too it is because in Beaufort's case so many of his life’s secrets are locked away in the history of his loans, which only a scholar well versed in the intricacies of Echequer finance would be qualified to unravel.

The Oxford medievalist, K. B. McFarlane, made a start on unravelling them in his Magdalen Fellowship dissertation in the 1920s and in a couple of outstanding articles published some twenty years later; but, because he was sceptical of the possibility of medieval biographical history, he shrank from attempting the full-length biography which he was pre-eminently qualified to write. The book that his pupil, G. L. Harriss, has nom given us is very much a political Iife rather than a biography as such. It is a shrewd and penetrating study nonetheless, and one which comes as close to capturing the inwardness of its subject as any study is likely to. It is surely a volume to which McFarlane would have given his approval.

Its underlying theme is the role played by the Beauforts in the story of the rise and fall of the Lancastrian monarchy. In the early chapters attention is focused on the origins of the family as a quasi-royal line, and it is shown how they prospered in the service of their patron, the first Lancastrian king, Henry IV – John and Thomas by gaining elevation to the peerage and Henry, their clerical brother, by being appointed to the wealthy see of Winchester. In the middle and later chapters the spotlight focuses more sharply on the person of Bishop Henry himself. It is shown how he articulated the king's vision of uniting England and France in perpetual peace under a common monarchy, and how after the king's death it became his life's work to sustain that vision diplomatically – just as it became his nephew Bedford's to sustain it militarily. In the end, however, as Harriss shows, it was given to neither to succeed. With the collapse of the English alliance with Burgundy and the gradual recovery of the Dauphin's fortunes, the Lancastrian position in France became increasingly untenable. In the final years of his life Beaufort was condemned to suffer the disappointment of a man whose moment in history had passed.

Allied to the major theme of the Beauforts' involvement in Lancastrian imperialism is the minor one of the cardinal's long-running argument with his nephew and arch-rival Humphrey of Gloucester. If there was a victor to emerge from this unseemly squabble it was probably Beaufort, on points. He had the better political brain; he had the backing of the Regent, Bedford; and above aIl, he had the advantage given to him by his enormous wealth – which, as Harriss shows, he was unhesitant in using as an instrument of political leverage. In 1437, for example, when money was needed to despatch an expedition to France, he lent only on condition that the command was given to his nephew, the Marquess of Dorset. Two years later, when the Exchequer was empty and there was no security for repayment, he made his loan conditional on being allowed to purchase a group of estates temporarily in royal custody which he used partly as endowment for various of his kin. On other occasions he used the leverage given by his wealth to obtain grants of Crown lands – as in 1436, for example, when he procured the grant of the manors of Canford and Poole. If the Beauforts were able to become a major political force during Henry VI's personal rule, it was largely because of their rich uncle's efforts on their behalf in his years of power.

At the end of the book Beaufort emerges as a wholly characteristic medieval magnate – a man with ambitions not only for himself but also for his family: a dynast, that is, as well as a statesman. To an extent this was an outlook conditioned by the circumstances of his birth. Close though he was to the royal family, he could never forget that he was only of the half-blood, and his judgement at times was clouded by recollection of that fact. Occasionally as a result he committed tactical errors – as in 1411, when he is reported to have advocated Henry IV's abdication, and 1417 when he accepted a legateship from the pope against Henry V's wishes. The allegations made by Gloucester of inordinate ambition and readiness to make wealth serve political advantage were thus not entirely without foundation. All the same, in any assessment of his strengths and weaknesses, precedence should be given to his strengths. He was a formidable politician, a polished diplomat and a vigorous defender of the rights of his office and see. ln a word, he was a great man, and Harriss' study affords a measure of his greatness. It is a book which is in many ways a mirror-image of its subject – it is eloquent and persuasive, intelligent and forceful. It deserves to be read by anyone with a serious interest in the period.

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