Spare Dukes: What to do with a younger brother in 1,000 years of English and Scottish royal history (Part I)

Dad: “Why would he do a ridiculous thing like that?”
Wally: “‘Cause he wanted to be like you, Dad.”
Dad: “But Wally, when I said 20 miles a day, I was just using a round figure.”
Wally: “Yeah, well, you and I know that, Dad, ‘cause we’re grown up, but gee, the Beaver, he’s just a kid.”

Millions of families have a Wally and a Beaver—mature, handsome, dependable Wally, and mischievous and kinda nuts Beaver, who just wants to be respected and treated like an equal part of the family. If you’re a fan of 1950s American television, I’m sure you can hear Wally’s voice: “Gee, he’s just a kid!” The relationship between the royal heir and the ‘kid brother’ is one of the most interesting aspects of the story of dukes and princes in European history. Sometimes the brother cold be loyal, a capable contributor to the success of the reign; sometimes he could be a minor irritant; sometimes he could be a serious threat to his brother, and several met a grisly end.

the murder of Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, in 1397, in Calais

Starting in the 14th century dukedoms were used to placate a king’s younger brother, so he could rule a small patch of territory on his own. In later periods, when this autonomous power was curtailed, the king’s brother could at least outrank all but the most powerful noblemen of the kingdom. I’ve written a lot about this for France in recent years (and you can read about it in my book from 2021, Monsieur), so I thought, in light of the recent media attention being given to two of the royal brothers in the House of Windsor—for better or for ill—I’d have a look at the phenomenon in the two kingdoms that eventually formed the United Kingdom of Great Britain. Ireland will of course come into this story too, with some of the later royal dukedoms, like Connaught. But a close look at the history of native Irish dynasties deserves its own blog post—see my previous post about driving in Ulster for the O’Neills; and stay tuned in 2023 for a post about the MacCarthys of Munster. Overall, we see over a millennium of fraternal struggles, the same kind that is seen in great narratives of the past, from the stories of Cain and Abel to Mufasa and Scar.

The pre-Conquest history of England and Scotland is pretty much terra incognita for me, and there doesn’t seem to be any sort of ‘system’ in place for keeping younger royal sons happy. In general there was a more sense of collective authority, so all the members of the House of Wessex were called ‘Ætheling’, as someone of royal blood worthy of being selected to rule; whereas the Celtic kingdom of Alba (and older name for Scotland) in the north used a system of alternating lineages, so a king was selected from one line, and then the other. When this system was disrupted, bloodshed broke out, as in the story of Macbeth. In some instances, one of the younger Scottish princes could be given a sub-kingdom to rule, like Strathclyde in the southwest or Moray in the north.

It wasn’t until the Norman Conquest that specific titles were given to a king’s brothers, though at first these were still about dividing the patrimony. William the Conqueror’s sons divided their inheritance: Normandy to the eldest, Robert, and England to the second, William. The third son Henry got very little so probably had a hand in William’s murder in 1100, becoming King Henry I of England, and in 1106 he took over the Duchy of Normandy as well. Similar strife is seen north of the border when the sons and younger brothers of King Malcolm III fought each other over the Scottish throne, until some satisfaction was reached in the creation of powerful earldoms in Lothian, Atholl and Fife in the 1090s, and in 1107, one of the strongest of the sons, David, was created ‘Prince of the Cumbrians’, aka the old kingdom of Strathclyde, stretching from Glasgow to Carlisle. David then became king himself in 1124, and later created autonomous earldoms for this rivals, his nephews, in the far north, in Moray and Ross.

Henry I of England had one legitimate son, William, who was named Duke of Normandy in 1115, mostly so he could do homage to the king of France without the embarrassment of one king doing homage to another. But William died before his father, leaving only a sister (the famous Matilda) and two illegitimate brothers, who were each given sizable territorial bases in England. The King’s elder son, Robert, was created the 1st Earl of Gloucester, in about 1122, centred on lands brought to him by marriage (a feudal barony based around the cities of Gloucester and Bristol—one of the largest in England). Robert added lands in Devon and Glamorgan (south Wales), and he and his heirs administered this powerful earldom from the Castle of Caerphilly in the Welsh Marches. After his son died in 1183, the earldom passed through daughters to other Norman families, the Mandevilles, the de Burghs, the FitzWilliams, and finally the de Clares, who we’ll encounter again in this post. By the mid-15th century the earldom of Gloucester had reverted to the Crown, and in 1385, was re-created as one of the earliest dukedoms in England for one of the sons of Edward III—but that’s getting ahead of ourselves.

The second illegitimate son of King Henry I was Reginald, created Earl of Cornwall in about 1140 with lands acquired either through marriage to a local Cornish heiress, or taken from one of William the Conqueror’s Norman nephews. He based himself at the recently built Launceston Castle. The earldom was given out again in 1225 to the younger brother of King Henry III, Richard, who rebuilt Launceston in the 1230s, built a new castle at Tintagel in 1225, and acquired another Cornish feudal barony, Trematon, in 1230. Much later he moved the capital to Lostwithiel in the 1270s, and built a ‘Duchy Palace’. But to be closer to political centres, Richard was mostly based at Wallingford Palace in Oxfordshire.

Launceston Castle, Cornwall
the ruins of the Ducal Palace

Richard, Earl of Cornwall is a pretty fascinating figure in English history, mostly forgotten, and quite often a pain in his older brother’s side. He revolted a couple times in England, then went abroad to seek his fortune: he was a Crusader, tried and failed to establish his authority in the county of Poitou, was briefly considered for the throne of Sicily, then was elected king of Germany in 1157. Although he was only elected by 4 of the 7 German electors, he got himself crowned in Aachen—but only visited Germany a few times. Back in England, Richard ‘of Almayne’ (Allemagne, ie Germany) he founded Hailes Abbey, which became one of the major pilgrimage sites of medieval England, then died in 1272. His son Edmund, the 2nd Earl, was Regent of England, 1286-89, when Edward I was out of the kingdom fighting in France or Scotland. The earldom of Cornwall was given out again to John, younger brother of Edward III, in 1328. He too was named ‘Guardian of the Realm’ when his brother was overseas, and Warden of the Northern Marches, commanding armies in the wars of Scottish Independence. There were plans for him to marry great heiresses, in Castile or in Brittany, but these came to nothing and he died in 1337 in Scotland.

the seal of Richard of Cornwall as King of Germany

That year, Cornwall was given out again, but raised to the rank of a duke—the first in England. This was given to the son and heir of Edward III, in part to compensate for the final loss of Normandy as an honorific title that could be used by the heir. It has remained the automatic title—and source of revenue—for the heir to the throne ever since.

In Scotland, a similar set-up for the heir was established, a few decades later. The 12th-century princes had either been satisfied with Cumbria, as above, or a newly re-established autonomous earldom of Northumbria—which was soon taken away by the English king and incorporated into England. Some were also given the very lucrative English earldom of Huntingdon. When the original house of Scotland died out in 1290, the throne eventually passed to the Robert the Bruce, who satisfied his younger brother Edward’s urge for power by supporting his quest to be crowned as King of Ireland, which he temporarily succeeded at doing, between 1316 and 1318. Edward’s earldom of Carrick, in southwest Scotland, passed to his nephews in the House of Stewart, who by 1371 took over the throne of Scotland itself. King Robert II (Stewart) had a wild set of six sons, whose stories are fascinating as examples of fraternal strife. As we’ve seen previously, as their father became old and incapacitated, most were given parts of the kingdom to rule themselves, notably the heir, John, ruling Atholl (the old royal heartland), Robert in Fife in the east, Alexander in Buchan in the far northeast, and David in Caithness (up at the very top). They built independent strongholds to defend their power: Robert at Castle Doune in Perthshire and later Falkland in Fife; Alexander at Lochinder Castle in Speyside; David at Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness.

Castle Doune, seat of the dukes of Albany

Once the eldest, John, became king in 1390 (and changed his name to Robert III), he balanced the aspirations of his two potential heirs, his son and his brother, by creating the former, David, Duke of Rothesay, and the latter, Robert, Duke of Albany, both in 1398. Rothesay is an island in the Clyde Estuary in western Scotland. Like the duchy of Cornwall, it was assigned to always be the title for the heir to the throne (though not officially confirmed by Parliament until 1469); but unlike Cornwall, it doesn’t have a territorial component tied to the island, or specific revenues or fiscal privileges. Albany is even more honorific, as not really designating anywhere in specific, but referring to the ancient royal heartland (Perthshire, Atholl) and its old name, Alba. The Duke of Rothesay and the Duke of Albany, uncle and nephew, struggled to control the kingdom as Robert III became ill, and eventually Albany captured Rothesay, and the latter died a few years later in prison, in 1402. Rothesay’s younger brother James soon succeeded as king of Scots, but was a ‘guest’ of the King of England for nearly 20 years, leaving Albany as regent from 1406 till he died in 1420. Later dukes of Albany would prove to be just as powerful within the Scottish royal family, as we’ll see again below.

seal of Robert, Duke of Albany
the coat of arms of the Duke of Albany, shows that he is the second son of Scotland (the red lion with a blue label indicating junior status) as well as second son of the House of Stewart (the checky pattern on gold, again with a blue label)

Back in England, in the mid-12th century, the original House of Normandy was replaced by the House of Anjou, so King Henry II’s younger brothers were heavily involved in French politics. Geoffrey was given lands in Anjou, and hoped to succeed his father as Count of Anjou; when that failed he tried to marry the great heiress, Eleanor of Aquitaine. When that too failed, and she married his elder brother instead, he aligned with the French king, Louis VII, and tried to dismantle Henry and Eleanor’s empire in western France. Geoffrey died after several years of rebellion, in 1158. He was only 24. The youngest brother, William ‘Longspee’ was given lands in Normandy, and was at first considered an ideal prince to be put onto the throne of Ireland, newly conquered by his elder brother Henry II. Henry then tried to marry him to one of the wealthiest of English heiresses, Isabel de Warenne, Countess of Surrey, but the Archbishop of Canterbury prohibited it due to consanguinity (ie they were too closely related). The King and the Archbishop (Beckett) continued to clash until the latter was murdered, but that’s another story. Isabel instead was married to the King’s older half-brother, Hamelin, who became Earl of Surrey and founded a new dynasty based at Conisburgh Castle in Yorkshire.

Conisburgh Castle

The Earl of Surrey was one of the strongest supporters of King Henry II. In contrast, as those who love the movie ‘The Lion in Winter’ will remember, the King’s sons repeatedly rebelled against him. The eldest son, Henry, was created Duke of Normandy and Count of Anjou in 1170. Richard was given his mother’s Duchy of Aquitaine in 1172. A decade later, the third son, Geoffrey, married the heiress to the Duchy of Brittany. These three sons had rebelled against their father in 1173 (supported by their mother Eleanor and the King of France); but in 1183, they re-aligned, and Henry and Geoffrey fought with their father against Richard. The King wanted to take Aquitaine away from Richard to give it to the baby boy, Prince John (‘Lackland’, since he so far had been given nothing of his own). There had been other plans for John: marriage to the heiress of Savoy-Piedmont, then marriage to the heiress of the earldom of Gloucester (see above). This was followed by an appointment as ‘Lord of Ireland’ in 1177, and even a request to the Pope to crown him King of Ireland in 1185 (the Pope declined).

‘The Lion in Winter’. Eleanor of Aquitaine faces off against her husband Henry II, while a mostly passive Richard stands helplessly by

But the eldest son Henry died that rebellious year of 1183, and Richard not only kept hold of Aquitaine, but also succeeded to the English throne in 1189. Geoffrey had already died. So John was the only remaining brother—Richard wanted to go on Crusade, but feared John’s ambitions, so at first he gave him the County of Mortain in Normandy, and required him to stay on that side of the Channel. John soon returned to England, however, and set up his own rival court. In 1193, he allied with his cousin, King Philip of France, hoping to take Normandy and Poitou from his brother; when Richard returned from Crusade, John was deprived of his by now vast estates in Gloucester and Cornwall. Yet they were reconciled and John proved a loyal brother in keeping Normandy loyal to Richard in his last years. When Richard died in 1199, John swiftly took the thrones of England, Normandy and Aquitaine, as well as the throne of Brittany from his little nephew, Arthur (Geoffrey’s son). In this scenario, Prince Arthur can be seen as a forerunner of the ‘princes in the Tower’, and John one of the best examples of the ‘wicked uncle’.

the children of Henry II (here as ‘Duke of Aquitaine’), with John ‘Lackland on the far right

When John became king, he had therefore outlived all his brothers. But he did have some illegitimate half-brothers. Geoffrey was Bishop of Lincoln and Lord Chancellor of England during his father Henry II’s reign. King Richard promoted him to Archbishop of York in 1189. He quarrelled frequently with King John, and was exiled to France for his last years. William (also called ‘Longspee’) was married to the heiress of the earls of Salisbury and named Sheriff of Wiltshire (and based his court at Salisbury Castle, in Wiltshire—an example of how in this period, earldoms were still tied to the actual area they took their name from). John honoured him with important posts: Viceroy of Ireland, Lieutenant of Gascony, Warden of the Welsh Marches. Unsurprisingly, he was one of the few English barons to remain loyal to John in the great revolt of 1215-16; and was then an important figure in the minority of young King Henry III. Illegitimate younger brothers could be a real asset to royal rule.

the tomb of William Longspee, Earl of Salisbury, in Salisbury Cathedral

Henry III also had several illegitimate half-brothers, and most of these were given castles and estates, but no great lordships. His one full brother was Richard of Cornwall, already noted above. King Henry also had two sons, Prince Edward, who was created Duke of Aquitaine (in 1249, when he was only 10), and Prince Edmund. Edmund is another fascinating second son whose history has mostly been forgotten. Nicknamed ‘Crouchback’ (perhaps a corruption of ‘cross-back’ as someone who took the cross on Crusade), he made a name for himself as one of the greatest landowners in England, as a magnate in northern France, and even briefly as a candidate for a royal throne in Sicily. The last of these was actually first, and young Edmund, aged only 10, was invested by the Pope as King of Sicily in 1255, with a promise from his father, Henry III, of large subsidies and a promise to drive the Hohenstaufen family out of Sicily and southern Italy. None of this materialised, and Edmund was formally ‘deprived’ of his throne by the end of the decade. Back in England, he was given the large estates confiscated from the rebel Simon de Montfort, in 1265. This included the earldom of Leicester (an earldom originally created in 1107 for a Norman family). He was also given the lands of other rebels: the Segrave family (also in Leicestershire), and the Ferrers family, earls of Derby, which included lands in Leicestershire and Staffordshire, and more importantly, lands between the rivers Ribble and Mersey, and up to the castle of Lancaster, which were erected, in 1267, into the earldom of Lancaster. Part of the earldom of Lancaster—far from Lancashire itself—included the barony of the Three Castles in Monmouthshire: Grosmont, Shenfrith and White Castle. These three castles remained part of the earldom, later duchy, of Lancaster until the 1820s, when they were sold by the Crown to the Duke of Beaufort.

Edmund ‘crouchback’ (or possibly his son), Earl of Lancaster, facing St George
As in Scotland, by the later 13th century, younger sons in England were using the royal arms with labels of various shades and baring different symbols, like the fleurs-de-lys here for the earls of Lancaster.

Edmund was also appointed High Sherriff of Lancashire, Constable of Leicester Castle, and Lord High Steward of England. He was definitely a force to be reckoned with in central and northern England. He founded and constructed abbeys and priories all over his two earldoms of Leicester and Lancaster. But his marriage to Blanche of Artois in 1276, shifted his focus—she was a niece of King Louis IX of France, and widow of Henry I, King of Navarre and Count of Champagne. Edmund was named co-regent of Champagne on behalf of his step-daughter, Joan, while Navarre was given over to French-appointed governors. When Joan came of age and married the French king in 1184, Edmund relinquished any claims. He did acquire, as part of his wife’s dowry, the lordship of Beaufort in Champagne, a name which will re-appear later in Plantagenet history. When Edmund Crouchback died in 1296, he was succeeded by his son, Thomas, 2nd Earl of Lancaster, who added the lands of the de Lacy family, earls of Lincoln, which included Bolingbroke Castle, and Halton Castle in Cheshire (near Runcorn). The 4th Earl, Henry of Grosmont (taking his name from the castle in Monmouthshire), added yet another earldom, Derby, in 1337, then was created Duke of Lancaster in 1351—the second in England, with palatine powers (ie, almost royal legal autonomy). Henry’s daughter Blanche married John of Gaunt, 3rd son of Edward III, and he thus became Duke of Lancaster, Earl of Leicester, Earl of Derby, Lord of Bowland (a huge barony in Lancashire, still a separate estate today), and Lord of Halton (which also had ‘palatine powers’ over parts of Cheshire). Prince John was thus as rich as any monarch, and held his own splendid court at Kenilworth Castle, in Warwickshire, which he augmented with a splendid Great Hall. He even had his own foreign policy at times, pressing to claim the Kingdom of Castile in his wife’s name in the 1370s-80s, then as Duke of Aquitaine in the 1390s. When John’s son, Henry of Bolingbroke, took the throne of England in 1399, this vast inheritance was thus merged with the Crown. King Charles III today is still Duke of Lancaster and derives much of his income from it. The House of Lancaster also spawned the semi-legitimate House of Beaufort (taking their name from the lordship in Champagne), which included the dukes of Exeter and Somerset, and later dukes of Beaufort, which continue into the present—these will form a separate blog post.

the lands of the House of Lancaster (from an online German atlas), showing clearly the power block between Lincolnshire and Lancashire
John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster–by now all English princes are quartering England with France; but he has added Castile and Leon too
Kenilworth, with the medieval Clifford Tower on the right, Robert Dudley’s Elizabethan buildings on the left, and the ruins of John of Gaunt’s Great Hall in the centre.

But this brings us back to the main royal line. Edward I had five sons, from two marriages. The eldest, Henry, didn’t live very long; nor did the second, Alphonso, who was briefly called Earl of Chester—the title usually given to the heir, after Normandy was lost (1204), but before Cornwall was erected as a duchy. It is thought the King had intended to give the lucrative earldom of Cornwall to one of his younger sons, but before he could do so, his surviving heir—the third son, Edward, named the first Prince of Wales in 1301—gave it to his own favourite, Piers Gaveston. The remaining two younger half-brothers of Edward II were given lands and titles of their own, to keep them happy and loyal—hopefully. In 1312, Thomas of Brotherton was given the earldom of Norfolk, with the vast estates in East Anglia of its previous holders, the Bigod family, and their stronghold, Framlingham Castle, in Suffolk. The Bigod earls were also heirs of the Marshal family, who were hereditary Earl Marshals of England, so Prince Thomas also received this office. He did not stay loyal to his brother the King, however, and allied with his sister-in-law the Queen and her favourite Roger Mortimer in the overthrow and trial of the King’s favourites in 1326, and the deposition of the King himself in 1327. the Earl of Norfolk then acted as a guardian and advisor to the young Edward III. His son predeceased him so his daughter, created Duchess of Norfolk in her own right in 1397, passed the Norfolk titles and estates to her daughter, Elizabeth Segrave, whose heirs married the Howards, who thus began their rise to the very top of the English noble hierarchy, based at Framlingham (until the 17th century), and wielding the prestigious post of Earl Marshal still today—organisers of royal funerals and coronations.

Thomas of Woodstock, Earl of Norfolk, here labelled as ‘Comte Mareschal’ (Earl Marshal)
Framlingham Castle, long the stronhold of the earls and dukes of Norfolk

The youngest brother of Edward II, Edmund of Woodstock—all these place names refer to the place they were born, in this case the Palace of Woodstock in Oxfordshire, not to any possession of land—was initially much closer to his older brother, and was given the earldom of Kent, in 1321, and the important post of Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, trading towns along the southeast coast. He was an important part of Edward II’s government, as a diplomat in France and Scotland, and as Lieutenant of Aquitaine in 1324. But while he was in France, he too joined the Queen’s party, and participated in his brother’s overthrow in 1327 (and was rewarded with confiscated Despencer lands, and the estates of another rebel, the earl of Arundel, notably the castle of Arundel in Sussex, which became his seat). But he fell foul of the regime of Queen Isabella and planned his own rebellion, which failed, and he was executed in 1330. It’s thought that the Earl of Kent’s death, and the idea of executing a royal prince, was the impetus that drove young Edward III to remove his mother and her lover Mortimer from power, and he pardoned his uncle post mortem, and restored the earldom of Kent to his cousin, also named Edmund (Arundel was restored to the FitzAlan family). The 2nd Earl of Kent died within the year, and his brother the 3rd Earl (John) established his seat at Woking Manor in Surrey. When he died in 1352, his estates passed to his sister, Joan, the ‘Fair Maid of Kent’, and thus to her children in the Holland Family. We’ll pick up the Kent pathway again after it returns to the Crown.

Edmund of Woodstock, Earl of Kent

King Edward III had only one younger brother, John of Eltham, who was created Earl of Cornwall, who, again, we’ve already looked at. It is with the sons of Edward III that we once again get an explosion of titles, and now, royal dukedoms. As we’ve seen, the eldest, Edward (the ‘Black Prince’) was created Duke of Cornwall in 1337. He was then named Prince of Wales in 1343 and Duke of Aquitaine in 1362. The four younger sons were created dukes: Clarence, Lancaster, York and Gloucester. Lancaster we’ve already looked at, so we can look at the other three in turn.

In the 14th century, younger sons of kings were encouraged to marry heiresses, rather than rely on royal gifts of lands and titles. The second son of Edward III, Lionel of Antwerp, married the heiress of the de Burgh earls of Ulster, in 1352. The heiress, Elizabeth, was also Lady of Connaught, and brought into the marriage extensive lands in Ireland, and the main fortress of the earldom, Carrickfergus Castle, outside of Belfast. She was also heiress of her grandmother, Elizabeth de Clare, Lady of Clare in Suffolk. It was this lordship, which gave Lionel the name for his dukedom, Clarence, created in 1362. This is one of the anomalies of the English royal dukedoms in that it does not refer to any major county or shire. The honour (another term for lordship) of Clare is in southwest Suffolk, on the border with Essex. The original de Clares came with William the Conqueror and built a castle here in about 1090. They were later earls of Gloucester (from above). The heiress, Elizabeth de Clare, enlarged Clare Castle and its orchards and vineyards. She also endowed Clare College, Cambridge. The new Duke of Clarence took up his wife’s Irish heritage and was Governor of Ireland on behalf of his father, 1361-66, and was also proposed by his father to be King of Scots in 1362. As with so many English princes in this era, he also had an eye to obtaining wealth and authority overseas, so after his first wife died, he travelled to Milan in 1368 to marry a Visconti (her brother was just a teenager, so it was possible she could have inherited the powerful lordship of Milan). Lionel died in Italy, and left a daughter, Philippa, who took the de Burgh and de Clare lands—and a good claim to the English throne—to the Mortimer family, and from there to the House of York. Clare Castle eventually became Crown property, and although some of its lands were made part of the Duchy of Cornwall (and remains so today), the castle was given by Mary I to the Elwes family who kept it until the 19th century. It was mostly dismantled by the 18th century, and is today a pretty indistinctive local country park.

Clare Castle, Suffolk
Carrickfergus, outside Belfast

The dukedom of Clarence, however, was revived for the second son of Henry IV, Thomas of Lancaster, in 1412. He had already been named Lord High Steward of England in 1399, and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1401—though he was only 14, he went to Ireland and did his best to govern for eight years. His father, feuding with his first son (Shakespeare’s ‘Prince Hal’) over keeping the peace with France, replaced the heir with the spare on the royal council in 1411. But when his brother succeeded as Henry V in 1413, Thomas was immediately at his side and ready for war. He fought in France with King Henry in 1418 and 1419 with the title Constable of the Army, and was left in charge of English troops in France in 1421, when Henry returned to England. Later that year, however, he engaged with a Franco-Scottish army at Baugé in Anjou, and was killed.

The Battle of Baugé, presumably showing the death of Thomas of Lancaster, Duke of Clarence

Four decades later, the younger brother of the newly proclaimed Yorkist king, Edward IV, was created Duke of Clarence. Prince George of York was also named Lord Lieutenant of Ireland that same year (1461). He married the daughter of the ‘Kingmaker’, Isabel Neville, and joined his father-in-law when he switched sides to oppose his brother the King in 1470, probably at first hoping to be named king instead, but settled for the position of third in line to the restored Henry VI. Yet when Edward IV took back the throne in 1471, Clarence was forgiven, named Great Chamberlain of England, and was recognised as Earl of Warwick in name of his wife, and then Earl of Salisbury in his own right. But only a few years later he rebelled against his brother again, offended because his brother blocked his marriage to the richest heiress in Europe—here again is that perennial desire to go overseas to obtain a sovereign territory to rule—Mary, Duchess of Burgundy, heiress to Holland, Flanders, Luxembourg, etc. Clarence was accused of using the ‘dark arts’ to kill the King and was executed in February 1478 in a ‘private’ execution (hence the rumour of the butt of Malmsey) inside the Tower of London. His son was denied the succession to the dukedom of Clarence, but was called Earl of Warwick instead. He was later executed by Henry VII, leaving only Margaret, later known as Lady Pole, and finally allowed to use her father’s other title, Countess of Salisbury, until she too was executed by the paranoid Tudor regime in 1541.

George, Duke of Clarence

The title ‘Duke of Clarence’ was proposed for Guildford Dudley as consort to Queen Jane in 1553. That didn’t happen, and his life also ended in execution. Two centuries later, this curious ducal title was revived again for one of the Hanoverian princes, so we’ll pick it up again below.

Jumping back to the first generation of royal dukes, the sons of Edward III, we come to the fourth son, Edmund of Langley, Duke of York. He was born at Langley Palace in Hertfordshire, once a grand royal residence, but now no more than a field. At first, Prince Edmund was given the lands of his godfather, the Earl of Surrey (John de Warenne), who had died in 1347 with no heirs. This included Conisburgh Castle (which we’ve encountered above) in Yorkshire, but also manors in Wakefield, Sowerby, Dewsbury and Halifax. In 1362 his father created him Earl of Cambridge, and in 1376, Warden of the Cinque Ports. When the old king died in 1377, his heir, the Black Prince, was also dead, so it was a nephew, not a brother, who raised Edmund to a dukedom in 1385. The city of York had been the centre of a Viking kingdom, and then an Anglo-Saxon earldom in the 10th century, administering the southern half of the ancient kingdom of Northumbria. With two brief exceptions, the earldom of York was never used again, and once the dukedom of York was created, it remained one of the most significant of the royal dukedoms for the next six hundred years. The 1st Duke of York, Prince Edmund, was favoured by his nephew, King Richard II, in preference to his older brother John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. So he was appointed ‘Keeper of the Realm’ several times in the 1390s while the King was away; some historians think the childless King even wanted to name York as his heir in 1399, instead of Henry of Bolingbroke, but by the end of the year, Bolingbroke had taken the throne (as Henry IV) and York was pushed aside and died a few years later.

the tomb of Edmund of Langley, Duke of York, in Langley Church

The House of York was born, and based at both Langley and Conisburgh. The dukedom merged with the Crown when the 4th Duke took the throne as Edward IV in 1461. It was re-created for the King’s second son, Prince Richard, in 1474, when he was still an infant—he was later also created Earl of Nottingham and Duke of Norfolk (as husband of the heiress to the Mowbray family, heirs of Thomas of Brotherton). In April 1483, he became heir to the throne when his brother became Edward V, but by June, both boys were declared illegitimate by their uncle, Richard of Gloucester, then disappeared into the Tower. From this point on, York emerged as the go-to dukedom for second sons: created in 1494 for Prince Henry, second son of Henry VII; 1605 for Prince Charles, second son of James I; and 1633 for Prince James, second son of Charles I. In all these cases, the Duke of York eventually succeeded his older brother to become king (Henry VIII, Charles I, James II). The latter made the most of his position as Duke of York, as Lord High Admiral and Warden of the Cinque Ports from the 1630s, and an active naval administrator in the 1660s: it is in his honour that the newly seized Dutch colony in the New World was renamed ‘New York’ in 1664. You might say this was his ‘apanage’ as it included extensive land grants; but unlike the medieval royal dukedoms, there was no specific land attached to the duchy of York—instead, James was given lots of financial benefits, from income derived from the postal service to wine tariffs. He also gained significant revenue from his appointment as governor of the Royal African Company. The Duke of York was a significant and divisive figure during the reign of his elder brother Charles II, notably in his conversion to Catholicism, but even more worryingly in his propensity towards the absolutist style of rule favoured by his cousin Louis XIV, which became even more apparent once he succeeded to the throne as James II of England and James VII of Scotland, and led to his deposition in 1688. James had also been Duke of Albany in Scotland, an early example of the pairing of English and Scottish dukedoms that would become the norm in the Hanoverian era. But before we move forward, we need to jump back once more, to the last royal dukedom created for a son of Edward III.

young James, Duke of York, with his father, Charles I

Edward III’s fifth son, Thomas of Woodstock, had at first been Earl of Buckingham (1377), and Earl of Essex, by marriage to the heiress of the vast eastern estates of the de Bohun and Mandeville families. He was also appointed to the traditional Bohun office, Constable of England. Unlike his older brother York, Prince Thomas allied with their other brother the Duke of Lancaster, in opposition to the rule of their nephew Richard II. He was created Duke of Gloucester in 1385, but this does not seem to have helped win his loyalty. He was also given the shadowy Duchy of Aumale in Normandy, but this was contested territory between England and France, and it is doubted whether this title really meant anything. The earldom of Gloucester, as detailed above, had been centred on a significant Norman feudal barony, but most of its lands were still held by the various heirs of the de Clare family, so the dukedom was based instead on the Bohun lands in Essex, notably Pleshey Castle. There was a link however, in that the Bohun earls of Hereford were co-heirs to one of the early Norman lords of Gloucester. Pleshey Castle, a short distance to the southeast of Stansted Airport, was built in the 11th century by the de Mandeville family, and remains today one of the best preserved motte and bailey castles from the Norman era. It later became part of the Duchy of Lancaster, and was sold by Elizabeth I in 1559, soon becoming derelict.

Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester
the remains of Pleshey Castle, Essex

The first Duke of Gloucester and his wife Eleanor de Bohun rebuilt some of Pleshey as a royal residence, but by 1397, his rivalry with his nephew Richard II had become toxic, and he was arrested and imprisoned in Calais, where he was murdered. His titles were declared forfeit, so his son was called only Earl of Buckingham. When he in turn died in 1399, his sister Anne of Gloucester took this grand inheritance to the Stafford family, and her descendants were eventually created dukes of Buckingham. With such significant royal blood and vast estates across England, it is therefore understandable why the Tudors saw this family as a threat, and brought the Duke of Buckingham down in 1521.

Another reason for this dynastic conflict was that Eleanor de Bohun had a sister, Mary, who took the other half of the Bohun lands to the House of Lancaster (which later morphed into the House of Tudor). Henry IV, before he became king, had married Mary and took the title Earl of Hereford (later briefly elevated to a dukedom for him in 1397). Henry IV had four sons: the eldest, Henry, Prince of Wales (and Duke of Aquitaine, the last English prince to be called this); the second son, Thomas, Duke of Clarence (see above); John, Duke of Bedford; and Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. Henry and Thomas received their titles from their father, but John and Humphrey had to wait until their elder brother became king (Henry V) in 1413. We’ll return to Bedford below. Henry V also had half-brothers, the de Beauforts, who were given prominent titles and offices by their father, Henry IV, before he died: John was Earl of Somerset and Constable of England; Henry was Bishop of Winchester and Lord Chancellor; Thomas was Earl of Somerset, Admiral of the North and Lieutenant of Aquitaine. The latter two would remain prominent in the early regency government of young Henry VI, Winchester now as Cardinal de Beaufort, and Somerset, now as Duke of Exeter.

The head of this regency in 1426 was Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. He had been a companion of Henry V in his campaigns in northern France, but became more interested in books and collecting than his older brothers, at first in his manor house on the banks of the Thames southeast of London, Bella Court, also known as the Palace of Placentia (or ‘Pleasance’, and eventually Greenwich Palace—rebuilt by Henry VII around 1500, and demolished in the 17th century), and later as a founder of Duke Humfrey’s Library at Oxford University (founded on collections he donated on his death in 1447). Like so many younger brothers we’ve encountered so far, Humphrey also wished to acquire a foreign principality to rule himself—he thought he had successfully obtained this with a marriage to the heiress of the counties of Holland and Hainault in 1423, but this clashed with the ambitions of the key English ally, the Duke of Burgundy, and the marriage was annulled in 1428. He died with no children.

Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester receiving a book now in the Duke Humfrey’s Library, Oxford
Placentia, as rebuilt by Henry VII about 1500

The dukedom of Gloucester was re-created for Richard of York, youngest brother of Edward IV, when he took the throne in 1461—though Richard was only 11. He was also given the castles and lands of Pembroke in Wales, and Richmond in Yorkshire, confiscated from the Tudor brothers. He was already being set up as the Yorkist power in the north, and in 1462, was named ‘Governor of the North’, and continued to reside in the north at the stronghold of his mother’s family, the Nevilles, Middleham Castle in Wensleydale, North Yorkshire. Richard consolidated his hold on power in Yorkshire in 1472 when he married his cousin Anne Neville, one of the co-heiresses of Middleham Castle and other estates in the north. This 12th-century stronghold of the Nevilles was later absorbed by the Crown under the Tudors, then sold by James I and slowly fell apart in the 17th century. In the 1470s, the Duke of Gloucester was loaded down with other royal offices, including Constable of England, Great Chamberlain of England, and Lord High Admiral. He took over other Neville estates such as Sherriff Hatton in Yorkshire and Penrith in Cumberland. As is well known, he was named Lord Protector for his nephew Edward V in 1483, then seized the throne and reigned for two years as Richard III before being killed in the Battle of Bosworth by Henry Tudor.

Middleham Castle, Yorkshire

Gloucester was once again a ‘third son’ dukedom for the youngest son of King Charles I, Prince Henry. He had been named Duke of Gloucester already as an infant in 1640, but was formally created as a duke and peer (with rights to sit in the House of Lords) in 1659, with the earldom of Cambridge, on the eve of the restoration of his brother Charles II in 1660. King Charles also appointed him Chief Stewart of Gloucester, an interesting attempt to re-connect the title to the place, but young Henry died shortly after. Another young prince, William, son of Princess Anne (the future Queen Anne) and Prince George of Denmark, was named informally Duke of Gloucester at his birth in 1689. He died in 1700 before this could be formally confirmed. But even though his life was brief, he did give his name, Duke of Gloucester, to the well-known main street of Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia (known fondly to students of the College of William & Mary as ‘DoG Street’). The title briefly appeared again in 1717 for Prince Frederick of Hanover, son of the Prince of Wales, though this was later superseded by the dukedom of Edinburgh in 1726, and then he himself became Prince of Wales in 1729. The pairing of Gloucester and Edinburgh then re-appeared a few years later as one of the ‘double duchies’ of the Hanoverian era, so we can return to it later.

Returning to the sons of Henry IV and the House of Lancaster, John, was created Duke of Bedford by his brother Henry V in 1414. Bedford had been an earldom, briefly, in the 1130s, centred on Bedford Castle; and again briefly in the 1360s, for a French son-in-law of Edward III. Prince John of Lancaster was first given forfeited lands of the Percy family and was created Constable of England in 1403. In addition to the title Duke of Bedford in 1414, he was also called Earl of Kendal and Earl of Richmond. In 1422, the King left him in charge in France as regent, after the death of King Charles VI (and the dispossession of the Dauphin’s rights to the French throne). The Duke of Bedford arranged the coronation of his young nephew Henry VI in Paris in 1431. He was also Governor of Normandy and founded the University of Caen. He lived in Rouen, in the Castle of Joyeux Repos. In Rouen he oversaw the trial and execution of Joan of Arc in 1431, and he died there a few years later—divine justice?

John, Duke of Bedford

As a ducal title, Bedford was briefly re-created for George Neville in 1470, then even more briefly for George, a forgotten third son of Edward IV, who only lived for two years (1477-79). It was then created again in 1485 for Jasper Tudor, which finally brings us a good link to the Tudors. Bedford itself was re-created once more, as an earldom, for the Russell family in 1551, who eventually became dukes of Bedford from 1694 to the present day. Jasper Tudor was one of the half-brothers of Henry VI. He had been created Earl of Pembroke in 1452, establishing himself in that great Welsh fortress, until he was deprived of it by the Yorkists in 1461. Restored to his lands and created Duke of Bedford in 1485 by his nephew, Henry Tudor, now Henry VII, he remained a faithful uncle until his death in 1495. Jasper’s older brother, Edmund, was created Earl of Richmond in 1449, probably to counter-balance the power of the House of York in the North, and in 1455 was married to the Beaufort heiress and given lots of lands in Westmorland and Lancashire, plus Baynard’s Castle for a residence in London. When he died in 1456, his posthumous son, Henry, became Earl of Richmond.

We’ve seen the name Richmond a few times already in this post. It was at first a Norman barony (or ‘honour’), centred in northwest Yorkshire—one of the largest estates in England. It was granted by William the Conqueror to a Breton lord, whose heirs were created the first earls of Richmond (1136), then succeeded to the Duchy of Brittany itself in 1156. For the next 200 years, the Yorkshire earldom and the Breton duchy were united. After 1342 the earldom of Richmond was confiscated and given to John of Gaunt, and later to John, Duke of Bedford—though the Breton dukes continued to claim the title, and it even passed into the royal family of France in the 16th century. Henry Tudor was Earl of Richmond after 1456, but lived in exile for much of his early life (supported ironically by the Duke of Brittany who claimed the same title), and the Yorkists considered his title forfeit and regranted the earldom to the Duke of Clarence and then the Duke of Gloucester. After the Lancastrian Earl of Richmond defeated Richard III at Bosworth in 1485, the title and its extensive lands merged with the Crown. Henry VII renamed the manor of Sheen southwest of London and built a palace there, Richmond. The palace is mostly gone, but the town and the great park retain the name Richmond. Henry VIII’s illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, was created Duke of Richmond in 1525, and also Duke of Somerset (a title associated with the Beauforts), but he did not live long with these honours and died in 1536, still a teenager. Richmond was re-created as an English earldom (1613) and then a dukedom (1623) for Ludovic Stewart, 2nd Duke of Lennox, by his cousin, King James VI and I. When this line died out in 1672, the dukedom of Richmond was re-created for an illegitimate son of Charles II, Charles Lennox, in 1675, and the Lennox family still hold this title today (and will be the subject of a separate blog post).

Richmond Castle overlooking the River Swale, Yorkshire

This link conveniently allows us to return to the Stewart Dynasty, and the 15th-century history of royal siblings in Scotland. This is also a good place to pause this narrative—stay tuned for part two of the story of ‘spare dukes’.

(images from Wikimedia Commons)

Published by Jonathan Spangler

I am a historian of monarchy and the high aristocracy of Europe. I focus primarily as an academic on the early modern period and France, but my interests range from early medieval Ireland to 20th-century Russia. I teach history at Manchester Metropolitan University in Manchester, England, and am the senior editor of The Court Historian, the journal of the Society for Court Studies. I am also a musician and an avid traveler. I love heraldry and genealogy. My ancestors came from Germany to the American colonies in the 18th century and I am a proud Virginian.

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