Michael De La Pole ( born circa 1331) was created Earl of Suffolk in 1385. It was a meteroric rise to power given that his father was a Hull wool merchant. Of course, there was money involved. Edward III needed a financier and William de la Pole was the man for the job. Unsurprisingly, Michael benefitted from his father’s wealth and influence at the court of Edward III.
He can be found amongst the retinues of the Black Prince and later John of Gaunt. It appears that when he first took arms in 1359 he served in the retinue of Henry of Grosmont a.k.a. the first duke of Lancaster. In 1366 he served under the banner of John of Gaunt and continued in the duke’s service in successive campaigns. This suggests that joining with the Black Prince was something that all men wanted to do irrelevant of where their loyalty would normally lay – don’t forget the Black Prince was the military commander who led the English to their early victories during the Hundred Years War.
It was as a consequence of his affiliation with Lancaster that de la Pole began to rise in position. In 1376 he was made admiral of the fleet north of the Thames (Roscell: 129). He was reappointed to the post when Richard II became king in 1377. Pole was also appointed to be one of Richard II’s advisers. He worked alongside the earl of Arundel who would go on to become Pole’s arch rival and Richard’s bitter enemy.
In 1378 de la Pole was back in France with a commission to take over the castle at Brest – at the behest of Gaunt. During his years as a soldier de la Pole was made a prisoner of war at least once on the second occasion he was part of an embassy negotiating with Wenzel for the hand of Anne of Bohemia. Quite how John of Gaunt must have felt when his former captain managed to get himself captured by brigands in Germany having gone off to negotiate a bride for Richard II can only be imagined. Gaunt agreed to pay 7,000 florins in January 1380 for the return of the embassy that included de la Pole. The ransom would come up at de la Pole’s trial – apparently the ransom constituted rather a waste of money and it hadn’t helped that on his return to England the exchequer was ordered to pay de la Pole his salary as well, inclusive of the time when he was twiddling his fingers in a cell in Germany. As is the way of these things the penpushers dragged their heels and it was only when de la Pole became chancellor that he got his back pay, which ultimately was turned, into a charge of embezzlement.
Richard II made de la Pole chancellor in 1385 but his role as Richard’s man made him a target for an increasingly hostile parliament who regarded Richard’s wish for peace as the result of poor advice. So whose man was de la Pole at this point? He was the king’s friend and adviser and the king wanted peace. It looks like Pole leaned in that direction as well. However Gaunt was for a continuation of the continental conflict – so was Pole still gaunt’s man or not? Possibly not but it was probably just as well that popular opinion had placed Pole in a league of his own because the Hundred Years War took a turn for the worse and even the Scots seemed to have the upper hand. Once again it was the king’s advisers who were to blame – and who better to blame than the jumped-up son of a merchant? In October 1386, just a year after being made an earl the Commons charged him with the crimes of embezzlement and negligence. This did not deter nineteen-year-old Richard who was forced to accept the impeachment of his adviser and friend. De la Pole continued to maintain his place at Richard’s side but Richard’s loyalty to his friend would ultimately see him removed from power. Consequentially, the following year Michael found himself on the wrong side of the Lords Appellants in November 1387. Pole had the sense to flee England in the aftermath of the Appellants’ victory at the Battle of Radcot Bridge so avoided the punishments meted out by the Merciless Parliament. Sentenced for treason he was stripped of his titles. He died in Paris the following year but at least avoided the fates of Robert Tresilian (chief justice, Richard Bembre (former mayor of London) and Sir Simon Burley (Richard’s tutor) who amongst others were executed on the orders of the so-called Merciless Parliament. Richard remained powerless whilst John of Gaunt was overseas trying to secure the throne of Castile. It was only on Gaunt’s return in 1389 that Richard was able to regain the ascendency.
Froissart is not one of de la Pole’s fans. He described him as a man who gave bad advice and who caused trouble for John of Gaunt by making Richard II increasingly suspicious of his uncle. This is usually the evidence that is used to identify the fact that de la Pole was no longer of the Lancastrian Affinity.
And yet, it is clear that once upon a time de la Pole was very much part of Gaunt’s retinue and he is often used as an example of the way in which the Lancaster Affinity found itself in some very important places – which might well account for the duke of Gloucester’s antipathy to his brother and certainly Gaunt benefited from having retainers in high places. In October 1383, by which time de la Pole was chancellor, Michael spoke about the Anglo-Scottish situation in a way favourable to Gaunt who according to Goodman (p98) wanted to go to war in France rather than on England’s northern borders. By the following year Richard’s hostility to his uncle would taint their relationship (again) and the politics of the realm not to mention the way in which Scottish campaigning would be conducted. However, it was the last time that Michael de la Pole took to the field. When the English army marched into Scotland de la Pole arrived with one hundred and forty men and took his place as a retainer to John of Gaunt demonstrating de la Pole’s loyalty to the duke of Lancaster. During the campaign there were accusations of plots and disloyalty which Froissart interpreted as being de la Pole’s fault – a typical example of blaming the poor decisions of a monarch on his bad advisors. There is some circumstantial evidence that suggests that de la Pole maintained some loyalty to the duke of Lancaster throughout his life. When the earl of Oxford, one of Richard’s favourites, plotted to rid the political scene of John of Gaunt’s influence in February 1385 it is possible that it was de la Pole who warned the duke of the plot which would have seen him arrested at a council meeting in Walham.
And as you might expect the more closely that you look at the extended families of Gaunt’s retinue the more it becomes apparent that there was a web of relationships building on Lancastrian links. Blanche de la Pole, Michael’s sister was married to a son of Lord Scrope – another of Gaunt’s prominent retainers. Michael’s other sister, Margaret, was married to Sir Robert Neville of Hornby. Sir William de la Pole – the Hull merchant had successfully married all his children into some of the north’s leading families – and they all happened to have some loyalty to the duchy of Lancaster. It’ll come as no surprise to know that Michael’s brother Edmund was also in the retinue of John of Gaunt – Edmund was also one of the people who was called upon to pay Michael’s ransom.
Armitage-Smith, Sydney. (1876) John of Gaunt: King of Castile and Leon, Duke of Aquitaine and Lancaster
Goodman, Anthony. (1992) John of Gaunt: The Exercise of Princely Power in Fourteenth-Century Europe. London: Longman
Roskell, John Smith. (1984)The Impeachment of Michael de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk in 1386: In the Context of the Reign of Richard II. Manchester: Manchester University Press