BEAUFORT, HENRY (c.1377-1447), English cardinal and bishop of Winchester, was the second son of John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, by Catherine, wife of Sir Hugh Swynford. His parents were not married until 1396, and in 1397 King Richard II. declared the four children of this union to be legitimate. Henry spent some of his youth at Aix la-Chapelle, and having entered the church received various appointments, and was consecrated bishop of Lincoln in July 1398. When his half-brother became king as Henry IV. in 1399, Beaufort began to take a prominent place in public life; he was made chancellor in 1403, but he resigned this office in 1404, when he was translated from Lincoln to Winchester as the successor of William of Wykeham. He exercised considerable influence over the prince of Wales, afterwards King Henry V., and although he steadily supported the house of Lancaster he opposed the party led by Thomas Arundel, archbishop of Canterbury. A dispute over money left by John Beaufort, marquess of Dorset, caused or widened a breach in the royal family which reached a climax in 1411. The details are not quite clear, but it seems tolerably certain that the prince and the bishop, anxious to retain their power, sought to induce Henry IV. to abdicate in favour of his son. Angry at this request, the king dismissed his son from the council, and Beaufort appears to have shared his disgrace. When Henry V. ascended the throne in 1413 the bishop again became chancellor and took a leading part in the government until 1417, when he resigned his office, and proceeded to the council which was then sitting at Constance. His arrival had an important effect on the deliberations of this council, and the compromise which was subsequently made between the rival parties was largely his work. Grateful for Beaufort's services, the new pope Martin V. offered him a cardinal's hat which Henry V. refused to allow him to accept. Returning to England, he remained loyal to Henry; and after the king's death in 1422 became a member of the council and was the chief opponent of the wild and selfish schemes of Humphrey, duke of Gloucester. In 1424 he became chancellor for the third time, and was mainly responsible for the conduct of affairs during Gloucester's expedition to Hainaut. He was disliked by the citizens of London; and this ill-feeling was heightened when Gloucester, who was a favourite of the Londoners, returned to England and was doubtless reproached by Beaufort for the folly of his undertaking. A riot took place in London, and at the bishop's entreaty, the protector, John, duke of Bedford, came back to England. As this dispute was still unsettled when the parliament met at Leicester in February 1426, Bedford and the lords undertook to arbitrate. Charged by Gloucester with treason against Henry IV. and his successors, Beaufort denied the accusations. But although a reconciliation was effected, the bishop evidently regarded this as a defeat; and having resigned the chancellorship his energies were diverted into another channel.
Anxious to secure his aid for the crusade against the Hussites, Pope Martin again offered him a cardinal's hat, which Beaufort accepted. He went to France in 1427, and was then appointed papal legate for Germany, Hungary and Bohemia; and proceeding eastwards, he made a bold but futile effort to rally the crusaders at Tachau. Returning to England to raise money for a fresh crusade, he was received with great state in London; but his acceptance of the cardinalate had weakened his position and Gloucester refused to recognize his legatine commission. Beaufort gave way on this question, but an unsuccessful attempt was made in 1429 to deprive him of his see. Having raised some troops he set out for Bohemia; but owing to the disasters which had just attended the English arms in France, he was induced to allow these soldiers to serve in the French war; and in February 1431 the death of Martin V. ended his commission as legate. Meanwhile an attempt on the part of Gloucester to exclude the cardinal from the council had failed, and it was decided that his attendance was required except during the discussion of questions between the king and the papacy. He accompanied King Henry VI. to Normandy in April 1430, and in December 1431 crowned him king of France. About this time Gloucester made another attempt to deprive Beaufort of his see, and it was argued in the council that as a cardinal he could not hold an English bishopric. The general council was not inclined to press the case against him; but the privy council, more clerical and more hostile, sealed writs of praemunire and attachment against him, and some of his jewels were seized. On his return to England he attended the parliament in May 1432, and asked to hear the charges against him. The king declared him loyal, and a statute was passed freeing him from any penalties which he might have incurred under the Statute of Provisors or in other ways. He supported Bedford in his attempts to restore order to the finances. In August 1435 he attended the congress at Arras, but was unable to make peace with France; and after Bedford's death his renewed efforts to this end were again opposed by Gloucester, who favoured a continuance of the war. On two occasions the council advised the king to refuse him permission to leave England, but in 1437 he obtained a full pardon for all his offences. In 1439 and 1440 he went to France on missions of peace, and apparently at his instigation the English council decided to release Charles, duke of Orleans. This step further irritated Gloucester, who drew up and presented to the king a long and serious list of charges against Beaufort; but the council defended the policy of the cardinal and ignored the personal accusations against him. Beaufort, however, gradually retired from public life, and after witnessing the conclusion of the treaty of Troyes died at Wolvesey palace, Winchester, on the 10th of April 1447. The "black despair" which Shakespeare has cast round his dying hours appears to be without historical foundation. He was buried in Winchester cathedral, the building of which he finished. He also refounded and enlarged the hospital of St Cross near Winchester.
Beaufort was a man of considerable wealth, and on several occasions he lent large sums of money to the king. He was the lover of Lady Alice Fitzalan, daughter of Richard, earl of Arundel, by whom he had a daughter, Joan, who married Sir Edward Stradling of St Donat's in Glamorganshire. His interests were secular and he was certainly proud and ambitious; but Stubbs has pictured the fairer side of his character when he observes that Beaufort "was merciful in his political enmities, enlightened in his foreign policy; that he was devotedly faithful, and ready to sacrifice his wealth and labour for the king; that from the moment of his death everything began to go wrong, and went worse and worse until all was lost."
See Historiae Croylandensis continuatio, translated by H.T. Riley (London, 1854); Proceedings and Ordinances of the Privy Council, edited by N.H. Nicolas (London, 1834-1837); Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, Historica Bohemica (Frankfort and Leipzig, 1707); W. Stubbs, Constitutional History, vol. iii. (Oxford, 1895): M. Creighton, A History of the Papacy during the Period of the Reformation (London, 1897); and L.B. Radford, Henry Beaufort (1908).
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)