William was 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 was killed. 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 ofCardinal 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 but 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 (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.

The following three years saw the near-complete loss of the English possessions in northern France, and 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 and imprisoned in the Tower of London. He was banished for five years, but on his journey to France his ship was intercepted, and he was executed on 2 May 1450. It was suspected that his archenemy the Duke of York was responsible for his beheading on the gunwales of a boat and his body was thrown overboard. He was later found on the seashore near Dover and the body was brought to a Church in Suffolk, possibly Wingfield, for burial, seemingly at the wishes of his wife Alice.

Williams, Edgar Trevor and Nicholls, Christine Stephanie (eds) (1981) The Dictionary of national biography, Oxford University Press, 1178 p., ISBN 0-19-865207-0

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