John Beaufort, as well as being the grandson of John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford, was also the first Duke of Somerset. Just to confuse things his father was only the Earl of Somerset. It was only in the reign of Edward III that Duke’s were added to the list of English nobility. Initially it was a title reserved for the king’s sons prior to that time the title ‘Earl’ was the highest ranking title in the peerage below that of King. Our John, depicted here in an eighteenth century engraving, was the second son of John Beaufort, First Earl of Somerset. He became the third earl when his brother, Henry, died in 1418 – somewhat bizarrely making him Earl and Duke of Somerset.
Beaufort fought in Henry V’s army in France. In 1421, he accompanied the king’s younger brother Thomas of Lancaster to the fighting in Anjou. Thomas was killed at the Battle of Baugé and Somerset was captured. He remained a captive until a ransom was paid and then he continued a military career which was not an unmitigated success.
In August 1443, having been created Duke of Somerset, Earl of Kendal and Knight of the Garter by King Henry VI, John led an army to France where he managed to loose badly. He had to turn to Richard, Duke of York for support – a bitter pill for the Duke of York to swallow, as John’s army had been financed while his own army was not. Unable to bear the stigma of defeat it is thought that John Beaufort, First Duke of Somerset, committed suicide.
The Earldom of Kendal was not a new title when Henry VI gave it to him. This, of course, is one of the things that make titles hard to follow. It had been re-created from a Norman title for a son of Henry IV but it became extinct on his death. It became extinct once more when John Beaufort died. Oddly, John Beaufort has something in common with Charles I’s nephew, Prince Rupert of the Rhine because he too was given the title Earl of Kendal and once again it became extinct with the earl’s death without legitimate issue. The only thing that can be said about the Earldom of Kendal after the Norman period is that it was given to someone with a familial connection to the king!
The question then becomes why don’t we known John Beaufort as the Earl of Kendal? Well, quite simply a duke is more important than an earl. Of course, just to complicate things there is a title between Duke and Earl – Marquess- but there aren’t very many of them.
King Richard II introduced the title ‘marquess’ in 1385 when he made Robert de Vere, who was already Earl of Oxford, Marquess of Dublin. The title was removed from de Vere in 1386 on account of the rest of the earls being decidedly underwhelmed. The title remained unpopular. John Beaufort, 1st Earl of Somerset (the John of this blog’s father) asked not to be known by the title Marquess of Dorset because he said that it was ‘strange’ in England.