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The Not-So-Perplexing Case of the Death of Duke Humphrey of Gloucester

Their mistakes were many. As far as murders go, this was sloppy. Though it was later surmised that the murderers “laid fair the bed” (3.2.11) after having “dispatched the Duke as […] commanded” (3.2.2), the simple ruse meant to disguise foul play could not hide dubious physical signs:

“his face […] black and full of blood;

his eyeballs further out than when he lived,

Staring full ghastly, like a strangled man;

His hair upreared, his nostrils stretched with struggling;

His hands abroad displayed, as one that grasped

And tugged for life and was by strength subdued

[…] on the sheets his hair […] sticking

His well-proportioned beard made rough and rugged” (3.2.173-181).

The list of suspects left nothing to the imagination. It is well known that “Both [Suffolk and Beaufort] were vowed Duke Humphrey’s foes/And [the Cardinal] would not feast him like a friend” (3.2.189-191). Queen Margaret admitted that even “foe as [Humphrey] was” (3.2.61) to her she grieved; however, she was also aware that since she and Humphrey were “but hollow friends/It may be judged [she] made the Duke away” (3.2.68-69). At no prompting she instantly came to Suffolk’s aid when “It [was] reported […]/That good Duke Humphrey traitorously [was] murdered/By Suffolk and the Cardinal Beaufort’s means” (3.2.127-128). Warwick’s accusation prompted Margaret to demand evidence of the murder weapon(s) even as she railed against Warwick that he “dare[] not calm his contumelious spirit/Nor cease to be an arrogant controller (3.2.212-213). In the end there was very little for any policing power to do. The Commons more or less took the situation into their own hands, sending word to the king through Salisbury that “Unless Lord Suffolk straight be done to death/Or banished fair England’s territories,/They [would] by violence tear him from [the] palace/And torture him with grievous ling’ring death” (3.2.253-255). The multitude’s vengeful fervor was advantageous in removing one they considered a “fell serpent […]/whose envenomèd and fatal sting left Duke Humphrey “shamefully bereft of life” (3.2.275-278) and posed a threat to the king (3.2.258).

The conspirators failed at every step other than that of achieving their ultimate goal. Duke Humphrey’s demise mutually benefitted each conspirator’s own strategy for manipulating or seizing the crown. The Cardinal Beaufort and Gloucester were known to have verbally sparred at almost every meeting, forging a weak truce only at King Henry’s request in King Henry’s presence. It was always tenuous at best. Suffolk was the conspicuous favorite of the Queen with ambitious aims. The Duke of York, too, was a member of this intrigue. He was seemingly more successful in distancing himself from the crime, remaining on the fringes of the conspiracy without wielding specific responsibility and biding his time until his later attack on Henry and attempt on the crown. Queen Margaret saw Duke Humphrey as a threat even as she manipulated stripping away his power as Protector. Disposing of the Duke entirely would be the logical course of action to “rid [them all] from the fear [they] have of him” (3.1.236). One thing true that came to light: the aforementioned parties, all of whom had reason, were indeed co-conspirators, though Suffolk bore the brunt of the punishment and accusation. The conspirators adopted a temporary alliance in order to remove a mutual problem. Since they all spoke aloud this desire and wish and then agreed to execute it, “it skill not greatly who [would] impugn [their] doom” (3.1.238). All make each other known to the others in the conspiracy in a way they had previously avoided.

As typically happens with these situations, the conspirators fell victim to the consequences of their actions, again negating the necessity for any authoritative enforcement of punishment. Suffolk’s supercilious nature and shameless ambition perhaps getting the better of him made him an easy target for the Commons to rise against him in revenge. The king charged Suffolk that “If, after three days’ space, [he there was] found/On any ground that [Henry is] ruler of/The world [would] not be ransom for [his] life” (3.2.305-308). Thus one conspirator was expelled.

King Henry had no way of knowing that Suffolk’s past would catch up with him even in banishment. Captured at sea while disguised “muffled up in rags” (4.1.47) he most un-fortuitously found himself a prisoner of the very man he was told would be

responsible for his death by water (4.1.35-37). His captors believed he “by devilish policy [had] grown great” (4.1.89) and blame Suffolk for England’s misfortunes and division amongst the nobility. Proud until the end, Suffolk chose to “rather let [his] head/Stoop to the block that [his] knees bow to any/Save to the God of heaven and to [his] king” (4.1.132-134). Thus Suffolk met his end shortly after having been banished for orchestrating Duke Humphrey’s death.

The Cardinal Beaufort also met his demise shortly following Duke Humphrey’s murder. Described as “raving and staring” (3.3 stage direction), the Cardinal became victim of a “grievous sickness […]/That ma[de] him gasp and stare and catch the air,/Blaspheming God and cursing men on Earth./Sometimes [talking] as if Duke Humphrey’s ghost/Were by his side” (3.2.383-387). He was tormented, asking, “Died he not in his bed? Where should he die?/Can I make men live whe’er they will or no?” (3.3.9-10). Furthermore, he was reported to have requested to be brought “unto [his] trial when you will” (3.3.8) and that he would confess (3.3.11), that he would “give a thousand pound to look upon him” (3.3.13). It is unclear if he desired solace, for when King Henry prompted him to “Hold up [his] hand; make signal of [his] hope” if he thought “on heaven’s bliss” (3.3.27-28), he “ma[de] no sign” (3.3.29). Warwick insisted that “So bad a death argues a monstrous life” (3.3.30) but it remains uncertain if the ‘he’ Beaufort mentioned in his ravings was the recently murdered Duke Humphrey, as some thought, or someone else entirely. Regardless, Suffolk’s banishment and decapitation and the Cardinal’s death took care of half the suspects.

Queen Margaret, it was ascertained, had no direct role in Gloucester’s death, though she remained under suspicion for her closeness with Suffolk and dislike for the Duke. Unlike Suffolk and Beaufort, she did not die shortly after the murder took place. Queen Margaret did, however, plan to “repeal [Suffolk], or, […]/Adventure to be banishèd” herself since “banishèd [she was], if but from [Suffolk]” (3.2.362-364). She described parting from him as a “fretful corrosive […]/applied to a deathful wound” (3.2.418-419). It was not surprising then, that “now Suffolk is deceased” she claimed her “hope is gone” (4.4.57) as she continued to lament and mourn his death (4.4.22). Most disturbing is that she seemed unable to separate herself from her grief, carrying Suffolk’s head with her (4.4 stage direction) and speaking of his ability to subdue Cade’s rebels (4.4.15-18, 42-43). She became a shadow of herself until circumstances demanded otherwise. By all accounts it was she who convinced King Henry that “if [they] haply scape […]/[they would] to London get, where [he is] loved/And where [the] breach now in [their] fortunes made/May readily be stopped” (5.2.80-84).

Of the conspirators, only York emerged with what he desired. Suffolk and Beaufort’s deaths were two less things for him to worry about as he “seduced a headstrong Kentishman […]/To make commotion” (3.1.361-362) to “stir up in England some black storm” that would “not cease to rage” (3.1.354-356) “Whiles [York] in Ireland nourish[ed] a mighty band” 3.2.353) so that he could “come in with [his] strength/And reap the harvest which that rascal sowed” (3.2.385-386). He knew that Duke Humphrey’s death would create its own upheaval that he would be able to use to his own advantage. He made it known that “From Ireland [came] York to claim his right/And pluck the crown from feeble Henry’s head” (5.1.1-2) when “with a puissant and a mighty power/of gallowglasses and stout kerns,/[he marched] in proud array” (4.9.26-28). York openly challenged the king and announced his goal of taking the throne. His waiting game seems to have served him well, but it remains to be seen what will happen. Little else can be done about Duke Humphrey’s murder in the chaos ensuing since. For now the best course of action appears to be inaction while the nobility sort themselves out.

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