The Wars of the Roses - Women of the Wars 1 Alice Chaucer, Duchess of Suffolk

     I.         Key points

This topic is an activity guide for the module ‘The Triumph of the Yorkists 1461-71’ for Unit 2B for A/S level: ‘The Wars of the Roses 1450-1499’. Every time you attempt an essay, pay special attention to the THEMES or ISSUES prevalent in the period:

Primarily (as in all historical topics) the economic, social and political issues; and an OVERVIEW of the hierarchy of the time (the social structure that existed in mid-fifteenth century society).

And then the following subtopics:

  • factions  - rival groups competing for the throne in particular and power in general;
  • authority  - or lack of, something that typified the period; and the nature of kingship (third supplementary guide)
  • legitimacy - who had the best ‘right’ to rule, and why certain claimants were supported by certain factions. This guide will look at the ‘House of York’ and how and why they were at this time, not on the throne. An understanding of this is vital in this Unit.

The de la Poles were just one family whose fortunes linked with kings, and sometimes suffered for it. Alice Chaucer married into this family, to William de la Pole, 1st Duke of Suffolk. So for more on her husband’s side of the family please see the de la Pole guides. Here we are going to look into Alice’s life and how the Wars of the Roses affected her. And yes, her name is important, she was the granddaughter of one of our most famous writers: Geoffrey Chaucer. However, she was an important woman in her own right, as we shall see below. Her family’ first contact with ‘royalty’

   II.         Background

Picture credit:


Geoffrey Chaucer c.1343-1400

He married Philippa; lady in waiting to Edward III’s wife and queen, Philippa; and daughter of Sir Payne Roet, in about 1366, which did his career no harm at all. But he was more than ‘just’ a poet. He was born in London, possibly from a wealthy wine-trader family, believed to have attended St Paul’s Cathedral School, where he read classical works such as Virgil and Ovid. By 1357 he had gained a place in the staff of Elizabeth, Countess of Ulster (see further reading) wife of Lionel of Duke of Clarence, second son of Edward III.


While still a teenager he served in the Hundred Years’ War campaigns, but was captured and ransomed, which Edward III paid due to his royal connections. Through the 1360s, he was engaged on diplomatic missions in France, Spain and Italy for the Royal Service (see further reading) and the 1370s in Florence and Genoa- by now he was one also one of Edward III’s esquires. While establishing an English port in Genoa, he became familiar with the writings of Italian poets Petrarch and Dante. He was rewarded amply for his service, and given the lucrative Comptroller of Customs post, as well as generous pensions by John of Gaunt.


He even was part of the delegation in France to find a wife for Richard II in the 1370s and 80s. But he was ever drawn more to writing poetry and asked for temporary leave. Not that it was much of a ‘leave’-from 1385-9 he became MP for Kent and still had little time to write. When Philippa died in 1387 he lost his royal stipend and he started to slip into debt. Now, for rather urgent reasons, he could now begin to write.


But neither could he give up working in public posts, which as one of Richard’s Clerks of the Works, was dangerous as he was robbed twice by highwaymen! Henry IV when he usurped in 1399 apparently took pity of him and restored his royal pension so he lived the last year of his life in comfort. His death is a mystery and I recommend reading Terry Jones’ ‘Who Murdered Chaucer?’ (2003) to find out more. His works despite his busy life were quite prolific (see further reading) and he was the first poet to be buried in Westminster Abbey. He and Philippa had two sons and two daughters- Thomas, Lewis, Elizabeth and Agnes.


Philippa Roet (c.1346-87) moved in some exalted circles but little is known about Alice’s grandmother. We know her father was one of Philippa of Hainault’s retinue who escorted to new Queen to England but know nothing of her mother (a common fate of medieval women). She was one of four children, one of which of course was Katherine. The others were Elizabeth and Walter. The children were left with the Queen while her father went to serve with the Queen’s sister, Marguerite Empress of Germany. From her posts as lady in waiting to the Countess of Ulster, Queen Philippa and Constanza of Castile she gained annuities (regular monies) from Edward III, Richard II and John of Gaunt (Constanza was John’s second wife.)


It is highly possible her marriage to Geoffrey was arranged, by the Queen, as it was customary for ‘domicellas’ and esquires in the same household to marry. Of her children Elizabeth became a nun (or that could have been her sister Elizabeth) and almost nothing is known of Lewis or Agnes. Thomas was the best known- he too was given a pension by John of Gaunt, giving rise to rumours that he was John’s son (unlikely even for such a sexual profligate as John for he was married to her sister Katherine by that point and it would have been seen as incest.) He wore the Roet coat of arms when he served in France, most likely because the Roets were of higher blood and social standing than the Chaucers. He was also Alice’s father.


Thomas Chaucer’s (c.1387-1434) cousins were the Beauforts, (see the Beauforts geneaology guides) sons and daughters of John of Gaunt and Philippa’s sister Katherine’s children. All of them rose high: John became Earl of Somerset, Henry (who was on the regency of Henry VI) became a Cardinal, Thomas because Duke of Exeter and Joan, Countess of Westmoreland (ancestor of the Middleham Nevilles and the Earl of Warwick). This is despite the fact that until Richard II petitioned the pope, all were illegitimate. Thomas’ life may not have been quite so exalted but he managed to prosper under both Richard II and Henry IV.


His marriage to Matilda, co-heiress of Sir John, nephew of Sir Henry Burgersh (son of the Warden of the Cinque Ports, Sir Robert, which was a high Court post) brought to him extensive lands in Oxfordshire and Richard II appointed him Chief Butler of England, a post he held for 30 years, as well as High Sheriff of Oxfordshire and Berkshire, and Hampshire later (1413) and attended Parliament as a knight of the shire many times between 1400 and 1431. He was Speaker of the House five times, which was very rare. But he was not just involved in domestic affairs- he was sent to Burgundy to treat for a possible bride for Henry V in 1414, was not present at Agincourt but did return to France in 1717 to be part of peace treaty negotiations. He lost the Chief Butler post briefly when the infant Henry VI acceded, and was part of the Privy Council from 1424. Alice appears to have been his only child.


III.         Alice and The Wars of the Roses.

Alice Chaucer (1404-75)

As a minor heiress with connections to the Beauforts as well as a relative of Geoffrey, she was quite a prize maritally for minor nobles. She was only 11 when she married Sir John Philip, a close friend of Henry V, in 1414 but he died in 1415 at the seige of Harfleur (as many did, of dysentery.) Her father bought Sir John’s castle (Donnington.) Sometime after 1421 she was married to Thomas Montacute, 4th Earl of Salisbury. Thomas’s father the 3rd Earl was attainted for rebelling against Henry IV in 1400, but his son regained some of his lost lands. Thomas fought many times in France and was at Agincourt and Harfleur. But like Sir John, he too died in France, but at the Seige of Rouen in 1428. So by the time she was 24 she was twice widowed and without children. She was in France during Salisbury’s campaigns, and it was there some sources say she spiked the interest of the Duke of Burgundy, who earned Salisbury’s emnity and loathing for his temerity.) Montacute loved Alice dearly and in his will called her beloved, requesting his tomb be built so she could lie next to him when his time came; and made her executor of his estate as well as considerably wealthy (including any revenues from lands he had won in Normandy). His death was terrible- half his face was ripped off by a cannonball. Thomas’ only daughter from his first marriage, Alice, married Richard Neville, the 5th Earl of Salisbury (see the Neville guides.) It is important not to get these two Alices confused. Names repeated a lot in noble families, and name fashions likewise.


It was her third marriage that proved significant. This was, in 1430, to William de la Pole, Earl then Duke of Suffolk and a powerful force in the early years of Henry VI’s reign. But when he took over Montacute’s command in France, and met his widow, that was some years away. They married in France, where Suffolk had spent most of his life up to that point, and had even been captured by Joan of Arc in 1429. But it was not only William’s star that rose; Alice’s did too. In 1432 she was made Lady of the Garter and was also part of the entourage that was with William when he escorted Marguerite D’Anjou back to England in 1444 after almost two years of wrangling (see Treaty of Tours in the Anjou guide, and in further reading). Apparently she even pretended to be Marguerite when the latter fell ill during the procession through Rouen (which was English-occupied France.) William was awarded the marquisate of Suffolk in 1444 for his role in gaining a French bride for 1444, and Alice was not left out- she became the Marchioness.


In 1448 an odd event surfaces in Alice’s life- she allegedly had an affair with Sir Thomas Tuddenham, and they disguised themselves so they could sneak away; and when stopped by someone called Thomas Ailmer a fight ensued. Ailmer was imprisoned for 30 weeks by the Mayor on Alice and Sir Thomas’ insistence, as well as anyone who supported Ailmer and gave him aid. This was in Norwich and they used this tale as an ‘excuse’ to become autonomous. It seems incredible, and we do not have any other source apart from a letter found in a collection of old papers by Susan S Madders (1853). But true or not, it does show how unpopular Alice was in the area, and William too. As has been said in the de la Pole guides William was blamed for the loss of French territories (the treaty for the hand of Marguerite in 1444 when he had made the ceding of Maine on Henry VI’s express orders). Add land feuds in Norfolk (see the Howard/ Mowbray and the Paston Letters guides) and the de la Poles became disliked to the point of loathing by 1450. Neither were truly ‘noble’ and to many their ambitions outstripped their status (see the de la Poles guides). De la Pole was hopeful Henry VI would intervene but the king was powerless to do anything but send him to exile. But his ship was captured and Suffolk was mock trialled and beheaded, and thrown into the sea to wash up at Kent.


Alice’s position was now precarious. She was left in England, alone, a widow and with a young son. Again, Alice had authority over de la Pole’s income due to William’s will but it served her little when her lands were raided that year, and when she was accused of being a traitor in Cade’s Rebellion (see that guide) later in 1450. That could have been because part of Suffolk’s overreaching was to troth their only son John to Margaret Beaufort, (dissolved in 1453) and rumour had it William had plans to use the Beaufort connection to usurp the throne. Henry VI still had no heir and he had already started to have episodes of mental illness. But Henry’s Council repudiated the charges against her (probably because they knew they had started the rumour! And her loan of 3500 Crowns for the war in France would have helped too.) Another treason charge was levelled against her in 1451, over what we are not sure, but again she was declared innocent.


Once this turbulent time was over, Alice lost no time in consolidating her position. This was aided in 1453 when Marguerite had a child- Edward, heir to the throne. Marguerite wanted her lady in waiting back with her and Alice jumped at the chance. Not all of de la Pole’s lands had been seized by any means and she still maintained the de la Pole’s holdings at Wallingford which included a castle that doubled as a prison. She was still Constable as the family inherited the position and her son John was too young. And after the ‘Wars of the Roses’ officially started (most historians aver the 1st Battle of St Albans in 1455 was the ‘start’) her role was such that her castle was used to keep Henry Holland Duke of Exeter prisoner- son in law of the Duke of York and a most unpleasant and violent man even for the time, who was captured after that battle.


She ‘swapped’ to Yorkist allegiance as early as 1458 and this was apparent in her marriage brokerage of her son to Elizabeth, daughter of Richard Duke of York. However we must be wary of assuming that marriage to ‘one side’ automatically meant alliance to that ‘side’. It could have merely been astute manoeuvering, as for all the protests about John being pledged to Margaret Beaufort, dissolving the marriage could well have been seen as an insult by others at Court. It proved eventually the right decision, although after Ludlow (1459), which saw the Yorkist leaders outlawed and fled in exile to France and Ireland, and Wakefield (1460) which saw the Duke of York dead, she may well have wondered how wise she had been.


We saw a little in ‘the Paston letters’ guide how loathed both Alice and William were in Norfolk. And Alice was ‘guilty’ of land grabbing in the area- but so were the Pastons. (Also see the Women of the Wars- Margaret Paston guide.) Her motives were most likely to secure an inheritance for her son and also in her husband’s memory (for one of the estates, Cotton, William had had to sell to secure his ransom for release in France and he had always regretted it.) But being ‘too nice’ would have shown her as weak, and weak people did not prosper (remember the raids above). This did not stop her from taking a vow of chastity, either because she still loved William or to avoid being used as a marriage pawn, patronising the arts (especially literature), and setting up an almshouse and school in their now ancestral lands of Ewlme, Oxfordshire (which still exists). Richmond (2000, p7 ff) calls her son John a ‘delinquent’ and accuses Alice of ‘bringing the Pastons to their knees’ and alleges Edward IV let her get away with it, even with murder (some of the Paston’s best servants, Daubeney and Berney, were killed at the seige of Caister (1469), one of the manors over which the Pastons and Alice fought.) But he is relatively balanced and portrays the Pastons as little better. The conflict in Norfolk between the Pastons, Alice and the Duke of Norfolk could even be seen as ‘The wars of the Roses’ in microcosm- bad feeling due to events gone by, land grabs and dodgy dealings.


In 1472, we see how useful she was to York. Marguerite D’Anjou had been captured at the Battle of Tewkesbury (1471) and now also resided at Wallingford. From being one of Marguerite’s retinue from France in 1444 and her lady in waiting, Alice was now her captor. Some sources say (Hookham, 1853, p331; Weir, 2011 p 419) they were friends again before Alice’s death in 1475 (Marguerite may well have taken personally Alice’s ‘defection’ to York) and this action was perhaps meant to be an act of kindness by Edward IV, rather than keeping her in the Tower of London.


The marriage of John to Elizabeth of York had its consequences. (For more on the 2nd Duke of Suffolk; or the ‘Trimming Duke’ as he became known, due to his ‘side changing’ which is hypocritical considering all the nobles were ‘at it’; see the de la Pole guide (part 2)). As a brother in law of Edward IV and Richard III, his son also John, the Earl of Lincoln was far more steadfast a ‘Yorkist’ (as one could be from 1471) and became named heir of the latter after his wife and son died, and after Richard’s defeat at Bosworth (1485) fomented serious rebellion against Henry VII (till he was killed at the Battle of Stoke.) His younger brothers Edmund and Richard also carried on the Yorkist flame of resistance, though with less effect.

IV.         Questions you will need to ask yourself in revision/ essays

  1. From where do the sources of power come within a state? (economic, social and political).
  2. How do those who support kings fare when the regime changes? The de la Poles often did not fare so well at all (see their guide) but Alice weathered the political storm pretty well, escaping the destitution and marriage pawnage that often faced her fellow noblewomen.
  3. What was the impact of the dynastic/monarchic instability on the general populus of all class levels?
  4. What caused the political breakdowns that led to the Wars of the Roses? (political primarily)

Filed Under: The Wars Of The Roses Women Of The Wars Chaucer

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