As Guides, we introduce him as ‘the only royal burial in St Albans Cathedral’, however he was much more than that. He was a warrior who fought at the Battle of Agincourt, a lover who picked up several unsuitable wives, and an intellectual who was a great patron of literature and art. His life ended with accusations of treason and as a possible murder…
Let’s find out more.
Born in 1391, he was the youngest son of Henry IV and Mary Bohun. During his younger years, he attended Oxford University and thrived – studying subjects such as medicine, classics and astronomy. It was there that he found a lifelong friend in John Bostock, who went on to become John of Wheathampstead, Abbot of St Albans Abbey (1420-1440; 1452-1465). Here began Humphrey’s connection and loyalty to St Albans Abbey, which he visited many times throughout his life and became the place of his burial.
Duke Humphrey’s brother became King Henry V in 1413 and, with Humphrey’s help, fought to keep control of England’s territory in France. In 1415, at the Battle of Agincourt, Humphrey fought on the front line, helping England to victory. In a dramatic turn of events, Humphrey was seriously wounded and was saved from some attacking Frenchmen by the king himself. Humphrey was a successful commander throughout the war and an outspoken proponent for continued fighting in France, causing trouble within the pro-peace council. War was an expensive business. At one point, Humphrey was tasked with going to London to obtain more funding and yet somehow charmed his way through town, earning the nickname ‘The Good Duke Humphrey’.
Despite his popularity, Humphrey was unlucky in love. His first wife Jacqueline was married to her first husband when they courted and their families were unimpressed. In spite of this, in 1423 they spent Christmas at St Albans Abbey and on the Feast of the Epiphany were honoured with induction into the Fraternity of St Alban. Sadly, the marriage was not to last. When faced with difficulties, Humphrey abandoned his wife, never to see her again.
As soon as the Pope gave permission, Humphrey tried again, this time marrying one of Jacqueline’s ladies in waiting, Eleanor Cobham. She developed a soft spot for the Abbey after praying at the shrine of St Alban during a particularly bad instance of toothache. She was miraculously cured and, in thanks, she sent a golden tooth to be hung at the shrine.
After Henry V died in 1422, his infant son succeeded him as King of England and France. Humphrey became Lord Protector of England. Despite the glamourous title, the position left him with no real power or voice on the council. The decision to exclude Humphrey was, in part, due to his constant struggles with his uncle, Henry Beaufort who claimed Humphrey was too unstable to be regent. It was only after his older brother John died in 1435 that Humphrey finally gained the title of regent and became heir apparent.
The forces at court were unhappy with Humphrey being so close to power, and in 1441 his wife Eleanor and several members of their household were accused of witchcraft and heresy. Eleanor escaped execution for a plot to poison the King, but was made to endure a Game of Thrones-esque punishment. After performing several walks of penance, barefoot and wearing only a thin simple dress, she spent the rest of her life in prison.
Due to his wife’s public downfall, Humphrey was forced into an early retirement, which he spent surrounded by his beloved books at his home in Greenwich. It was during this time that he built his chantry chapel at St Albans Abbey. This could not have been further from the golden years Humphrey imagined when he returned in glory from Agincourt all those years before.
The final straw came when his nephew Henry VI married Margaret of Anjou in 1445. Humphrey was outspoken in his opposition to the marriage and loudly critical of the one of the king’s chief advisers, the Earl of Suffolk. These actions resulted in his exclusion from the Privy Council and earned him a deadly enemy.
Humphrey’s death was sudden and mysterious. We know that in 1447 he was summoned to a parliament at Bury St Edmunds. Before entering the town he was separated from his entourage and went to dinner with his servants. He was then arrested on charges of treason, after which, he became ill and died several days later. His body was put on display (to show that there had been no foul play) and was then escorted to St Albans, where he was laid to rest in his burial chamber on 22 March 1447.
So, was Duke Humphrey murdered by his enemies at court? Contemporary sources do not seem to think so. His friend, Abbot John, claimed he died of a sickness caused by his sudden arrest. However, it is not hard to imagine the motivation behind eliminating Humphrey as heir to throne. There is no hard evidence pointing to foul play in Humphrey’s death, only speculation – and of course Shakespeare. According to Shakespeare (in his plays Henry IV, I, VI) Humphrey was quite clearly poisoned by the Earl of Suffolk and this became fact for many years after.
The location of Duke Humphrey’s tomb was eventually forgotten and it was not discovered again until 1703 when ex-mayor of St Albans and tanner John Gape died. It was whilst the floor of the Shrine Chapel was being excavated to accommodate his grave that the trap door to Humphrey’s burial chamber was discovered. When the lead coffin was opened, they discovered a body that was extraordinarily well preserved in a mysterious liquid. The parish clerks took advantage of the interest in Duke Humphrey and allowed the public down to have a look and take away a small vial of the liquid (for a small fee) for many years.
As time went on, the mysterious liquid slowly disappeared through evaporation and consumption, causing Humphrey’s body to fully decay (despite the rumour that the landlord of the White Hart pub across the road secretly came in at night to top it up as he was getting such good trade from the tourists). Eventually his bones began to be taken, and by the 1870s his tomb was shut to visitors. What does remain are the 114 signature graffiti on the walls of the tomb, dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries.
Today he is remembered as the loyal (if not politically savvy) son, brother and uncle to three English kings, one of the first promoters of humanist thinking in England and a huge patron of the arts. He was a lifelong benefactor of Oxford University and left the institution his extensive library when he died. The donation was used to found the Bodleian Library, and you can sit in the Duke Humphrey reading room today.
If you want to learn more about Humphrey and his connections to St Albans, make sure you visit the Cathedral and join one of our free Guided Tours!