William de la Pole, 1st Duke of Suffolk, KG (16 October 1396 – 2 May 1450), was an English commander in the Hundred Years’ War and Lord High Admiral of England from 1447 until 1450. He was nicknamed Jack Napes, from which the word “jackanapes” derives. He also appears prominently in William Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 1 and Henry VI, Part 2.
William de la Pole was born at Cotton, Suffolk, the second son of Michael de la Pole, 2nd Earl of Suffolk, and Katherine de Stafford, daughter of Hugh de Stafford, 2nd Earl of Stafford, KG, and Philippa de Beauchamp.
Almost continually engaged in the wars in France, he was seriously wounded during the Siege of Harfleur (1415), where his father died from dysentery. Later that year his older brother Michael de la Pole, 3rd Earl of Suffolk, was killed at the Battle of Agincourt, and William succeeded as 4th Earl. He became co-commander of the English forces at the Siege of Orléans (1429), after the death of Thomas Montacute, 4th Earl of Salisbury. When that city was relieved by Joan of Arc in 1429, he managed a retreat to Jargeau where he was forced to surrender on 12 June. He remained a prisoner of Charles VII of France for three years, and was ransomed in 1431.
After his return to the Kingdom of England in 1434 he was made Constable of Wallingford Castle. He became a courtier and close ally of Cardinal Henry Beaufort. His most notable accomplishment in this period was negotiating the marriage of King Henry VI with Margaret of Anjou (1444). This earned him elevation to Marquess of Suffolk that year; though a secret clause was put in the agreement which gave Maine and Anjou back to France, which was partly to cause his downfall. His own marriage took place on 11 November 1430, (date of licence), to (as her third husband) Alice Chaucer (1404–1475), daughter of Thomas Chaucer of Ewelme, Oxfordshire, and granddaughter of the notable poet Geoffrey Chaucer and his wife, Philippa (de) Roet.
With the deaths in 1447 of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester and Cardinal Beaufort, Suffolk became the principal power behind the throne of the weak and compliant Henry VI. In short order he was appointed Chamberlain, Admiral of England, and to several other important offices. He was created Earl of Pembroke in 1447, and Duke of Suffolk in 1448. However, Suffolk was later suspected of being a traitor. On 16 July he met in secret with Jean d’Orléans, comte de Dunois, at his mansion of the Rose in Candlewick street. The first of several meetings in London, they planned a French invasion. Suffolk passed Council minutes to Dunois, the French hero of the Siege of Orleans. It was rumoured that Suffolk never paid his ransom of £20,000 owed to Dunois. Lord Treasurer, Ralph Cromwell, wanted heavy taxes from Suffolk; the duke’s powerful enemies included John Paston and Sir John Fastolf. Many blamed Suffolk’s retainers for lawlessness in East Anglia.
The following three years saw the near-complete loss of the English possessions in northern France. Suffolk could not avoid taking the blame for these failures, partly because of the loss of Maine and Anjou through his marriage negotiations regarding Henry VI. On 28 January 1450 he was arrested, imprisoned in the Tower of London and impeached in parliament by the commons. The king intervened to protect his favourite, who was banished for five years, but on his journey to Calais his ship was intercepted by the “Nicholas of the Tower“; Suffolk was captured, subject to mock trial, and executed by beheading. He was later found on the sands near Dover, and the body was probably brought to a church in Suffolk, possibly Wingfield.
Suffolk was interred in the Carthusian Priory in Hull by his widow Alice, as was his wish, and not in the church at Wingfield, as is often stated. The Priory, founded in 1377 by his grandfather, Michael de la Pole, first Earl of Suffolk, was dissolved in 1539, and most of the original buildings did not survive the two Civil War sieges of Hull in 1642 and 1643.
Suffolk’s only known legitimate son, John, became the 2nd Duke of Suffolk in 1463.
Suffolk also fathered an illegitimate daughter, Jane de la Pole. Her mother is said to have been a nun, Malyne de Cay. “The nighte before that he was yolden [yielded himself up in surrender to the Franco-Scottish forces of Joan of Arc on 12 June 1429] he laye in bed with a Nonne whom he toke oute of holy profession and defouled, whose name was Malyne de Cay, by whom he gate a daughter, now married to Stonard of Oxonfordshire”. Jane de la Pole (d. 28 February 1494) was married before 1450 to Thomas Stonor (1423–1474), of Stonor in Pyrton, Oxfordshire. Their son Sir William Stonor, KB, was married to Anne Neville, daughter of John Neville, 1st Marquess of Montagu and had two children: John Neville, married to Mary Fortesque, daughter of Sir John Fortesque of Punsburn, Hereford, but died without issue; and Anne Neville, married to Sir Adrian Fortesque, who distinguished himself at the Battle of the Spurs; he was beheaded in 1539. Thomas Stonor and Jane de la Pole’s two other sons were Edward and Thomas. Thomas Stoner married Savilla Brecknock, daughter of Sir David Brecknock. His great-great-grandson Thomas Stoner (18 December 1626 – 2 September 1683) married in 1651 Elizabeth Nevill (b. 1641), daughter of Sir Henry Nevill, 9th Baron Bergavenny and his second wife Katherine Vaux, daughter of The Hon. George Vaux and sister of Edward Vaux, 4th Baron Vaux of Harrowden. Thomas’s son John Stoner (22 March 1654 – 19 November 1689) married on 8 July 1675 Lady Mary Talbot, daughter of Francis Talbot, 11th Earl of Shrewsbury and wife Jane Conyers, daughter of Sir John Conyers.
De la Pole’s nickname “Jacknapes” comes from “Jack of Naples”, a slang term for a monkey at the time. The phrase “of Naples” was rendered “a Napes” in vernacular. It probably derives from *Jak a Napes, presumably circa 1400. Monkeys were one of many exotic goods from Naples exhibited in Britain, hence he acquired the nickname “Jack a Napes”. It acquired the meaning “upstart person”, from its use as de la Pole’s nickname. He was one of first nouveau riche nobles, risen from the merchant class. The family used a collar and chain on its coat of arms, which was an unfortunate choice, as this was more associated with monkey leashes, leading to the derisive nickname “Jack Napis” for de la Pole, yielding the insult.