John, duke of Bedford
Brother to Henry V
Regent of France
Born in 1389 to King Richard II’s cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, who usurped Richard as Henry IV (1399). Like many aristocrats of his generation he was bi-lingual in French and English and had the expectation of spending part of his life in France. He learned his trade as a knight with the Nevilles against the Scots in the north of England.
During Henry V’s campaign of 1415 Bedford took charge of government in England as lieutenant. He held the same position when Henry returned to conquer France in 1417-19 and in 1417 Bedford once again fought the Scots. Bedford was with Henry V in France to seal the Treaty of Troyes (1420) which recognised the English claim to the throne of France and spent much of the remainder of his life defending English interests in France.
After Henry V died (1422) Bedford was heir apparent to the infant Henry VI. In Henry V’s will he was appointed Regent in France, and, when in England, was to be the most senior noble, over his younger brother Humfrey. Bedford married Anne of Burgundy, sister of Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, in 1423. This cemented an alliance which was crucial to English power in France.
He achieved some notable military victories; at Verneuil (1424) by comprehensively defeating a Scots-French army and ending any significant Scottish involvement in France. By 1425 he had secured Normandy & Maine and established Rouen as his base.
A major setback was the defeat of the earl of Salisbury’s army at Orléans (1429) by French troops inspired by Joan of Arc. In response to the subsequent Coronation of the Dauphin at Reims, Bedford arranged for the young Henry VI of England to be crowned as a rival King of France in Paris (December 1431) but only after the trial and execution by burning of Joan of Arc (30 May 1431). With centuries of hindsight, this travesty is now regarded as a political trial rather than the ecclesiastical trial for heresy that it was dressed up as at the time.
Bedford was recalled to England several times to mediate in disputes between his younger brother and Cardinal Beaufort (1425-28 and 1433-4). This conflict flared up further after Bedford’s death (1435). These bitter policy differences and personal enmities may be regarded as one of the factors leading to England’s loss of territory in France and hence to the internal political and later military strife of the 1450’s.
After Henry VI’s coronation, Bedford’s authority in France was reduced and 1432 saw significant gains by the dauphin (Charles VII). In November of that year, Anne of Burgundy died. The following April he married the seventeen-year-old Jacquetta of Luxembourg, daughter of the Count of St Pol and niece of Henry VI’s Chancellor in France, Louis of Luxembourg. This was meant to be a useful alliance, but it proved the last straw for his already strained relationship with the duke of Burgundy. Matters came to a head at the Congress of Arras in the late summer of 1435. Bedford had been ill for some time and his position was undermined by the duke of Burgundy’s decision to support French claims. Bedford abandoned the congress and died shortly afterwards at Rouen Castle on 14 September 1435. He was buried in the cathedral there.
A week after his death, the Treaty of Arras cemented the new Franco-Burgundian alliance and the English continued to lose ground in France without a clear policy and single Regent. He had no legitimate children by either of his marriages. His widow, Jacquetta, later married Sir Richard Woodville, (created 1st Earl Rivers under Edward IV) became the mother of Elizabeth Woodville and thirteen other children.
Like his brother Humfrey’s second wife, Jacquetta was accused many years later of witchcraft but being very well connected at court was acquitted, unlike Eleanor Cobham.
In conclusion, during his lifetime Bedford exercised at times the powers of a king in both England and France, maintained the English hold on French territory and, by his choice of second wife, set off a chain of events in motion which had a profound impact on the English political scene for fifty years after his death.
Part of his legacy is a rich collection of illuminated manuscripts such as the Bedford Hours (links to examples