BEAUFORT, the name of the family descended from the union of John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, with Catherine, wife of Sir Hugh Swynford, taken from a castle in Anjou which belonged to John of Gaunt. There were four children of this union - John, created earl of Somerset and marquess of Dorset; Henry, afterwards bishop of Winchester and cardinal (see Beaufort, Henry); Thomas, made duke of Exeter and chancellor; and Joan, who married Ralph Neville, first earl of Westmorland, and died in 1440. In 1396, some years after the birth of these children, John of Gaunt and Catherine were married, and in 1397 the Beauforts were declared legitimate by King Richard II. In 1407 this action was confirmed by their half-brother, King Henry IV., but on this occasion they were expressly excluded from the succession to the English throne.
John Beaufort, earl of Somerset (c.1373-1410), assisted Richard II. in 1397 when the king attacked the lords appellants, and made himself an absolute ruler. For these services he was made marquess of Dorset, but after the deposition of Richard in 1399, he was degraded to his former rank as earl. In 1401, however, he was declared loyal, and appeared later in command of the English fleet. He married Margaret, daughter of Thomas Holland, second earl of Kent, and died in March 1410, leaving three sons, Henry, John, and Edmund, and two daughters, Jane or Joan, who married James I., king of Scotland, and Margaret, who married Thomas Courtenay, earl of Devon.
Thomas Beaufort (d. 1426) held various high offices under Henry IV., and took a leading part in suppressing the rising in the north in 1405. He became chancellor in 1410, but resigned this office in January 1412 and took part in the expedition to France in the same year. He was then created earl of Dorset, and when Henry V. became king in 1413, he was made lieutenant of Aquitaine and took charge of Harfleur when this town passed into the possession of the English. In 1416 he became lieutenant of Normandy, and was created duke of Exeter; and returning to England he compelled the Scots to raise the siege of Roxburgh. Crossing to France in 1418 with reinforcements for Henry V., he took an active part in the subsequent campaign, was made captain of Rouen, and went to the court of France to treat for peace. He was then captured by the French at Baugé, but was soon released and returned to England when he heard of the death of Henry V. in August 1422. He was one of Henry's executors, and it is probable that the king entrusted his young son, King Henry VI., to his care. However this may be, Exeter did not take a very prominent part in the government, although he was a member of the council of regency. Having again shared in the French war, the duke died at Greenwich about the end of the year 1426. He was buried at Bury St. Edmunds, where his remains were found in good condition 350 years later. He married Margaret, daughter of Sir Thomas Neville of Nornby, but left no issue. The Beaufort family was continued by Henry Beaufort (1401-1419), the eldest son of John Beaufort, earl of Somerset, who was succeeded as earl of Somerset by his brother John Beaufort (1403-1444). The latter fought under Henry V. in the French wars, and having been taken prisoner remained in France as a captive until 1437. Soon after his release he returned to the war, and after the death of Richard Beauchamp, earl of Warwick, in 1439, acted as commander of the English forces, and, with his brother Edmund, was successful in recapturing Harfleur. Although chagrined when Richard, duke of York, was made regent of France, Beaufort led an expedition to France in 1442, and in 1443 was made duke of Somerset. He died, probably by his own hand, in May 1444. He married Margaret, daughter of Sir John Beauchamp, and left a daughter, Margaret Beaufort, afterwards countess of Richmond and Derby, who married, for her first husband, Edmund Tudor, earl of Richmond, by whom she became the mother of King Henry VII. In this way the blood of the Beauforts was mingled with that of the Tudors, and of all the subsequent occupants of the English throne.
The title of earl of Somerset descended on the death of John Beaufort in 1444 to his brother Edmund Beaufort, duke of Somerset (q.v.), who was killed at St Albans in 1455. By his marriage with Eleanor Beauchamp, daughter of the fifth earl of Warwick, he left three sons, Henry, Edmund and John, and a daughter, Margaret.
Henry Beaufort (1436-1464) became duke of Somerset in 1455, and soon began to take part in the struggle against Richard, duke of York, but failed to dislodge Richard's ally, Richard Neville, earl of Warwick, from Calais. He took part in the victory of the Lancastrians at Wakefield in 1460, escaped from the carnage at Towton in 1461, and shared the attainder of Henry VI. in the same year. In May 1464 he was captured at Hexham and was beheaded immediately after the battle. The title of duke of Somerset was assumed by his brother, Edmund Beaufort (c. 1438-1471), who fled from the country after the disasters to the Lancastrian arms, but returned to England in 1471, in which year he fought at Tewkesbury, and in spite of a promise of pardon was beheaded after the battle on the 6th of May 1471. His younger brother John Beaufort had been killed probably at this battle, and so on the execution of Edmund the family became extinct.
Margaret Beaufort married Humphrey, earl of Stafford, and was the mother of Henry Stafford, duke of Buckingham. Henry Beaufort, third duke of Somerset (d. 1464), left an illegitimate son, Charles Somerset, who was created earl of Worcester by Henry VIII. in 1514. His direct descendant, Henry Somerset, fifth earl of Worcester, was a loyal partisan of Charles I. and in 1642 was created marquess of Worcester. His grandson, Henry, the third marquess, was made duke of Beaufort in 1682, and the present duke of Beaufort is his direct descendant.
See Thomas Walsingham, Historia Anglicana, edited by H.T. Riley (London, 1863-1864); W. Stubbs, Constitutional History of England, vols. ii. and iii. (Oxford, 1895); The Paston Letters, edited by James Gairdner (London, 1904).
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)