Wednesday, August 22, 2007

A Tale From Bosworth: John de Vere, Earl of Oxford

The Battle of Bosworth, which occurred on August 22, 1485, can certainly be considered to have had a tragic result. Even if one's not a fan of Richard III, it was an inglorious end to the Plantagenet dynasty, albeit (if one believes, as Unromantic Blogger does, that the story about the pre-contract was a fabrication) one brought about by Richard III himself.

But Richard III's story is not the only one at Bosworth. At the battle where one king lost his throne and an obscure exile gained it, another man, long loyal to what at times must have seemed a hopeless cause, finally triumphed. The man? John de Vere, Thirteenth Earl of Oxford.

John de Vere gained his earldom through a family disaster: the executions of his father, John de Vere, and his eldest brother, Aubrey, in February 1462, supposedly for conspiring with Margaret of Anjou. The Earl of Worcester, John Tiptoft, a cultivated sort who nonetheless later gained the sobriquet "the butcher of England" because of some of his more inventive execution methods, seems to have restrained himself on this occasion, merely beheading father and son a few days apart.

The new head of the family was about twenty when his father and brother were executed. Edward IV treated him kindly, allowing him to enter upon his father's estates in 1464 and to succeed to his earldom. In 1465, he officiated as Elizabeth Woodville's chamberlain at her coronation and was made a Knight of the Bath at the same occasion. In officiating as chamberlain, Oxford poured water into a bowl held by the Duke of Clarence--not the first time the pair was to work together. About this time, Oxford made another fateful connection as well, marrying Margaret Neville, whose brother was the Richard Neville known as Warwick the Kingmaker.

For several years, Oxford went about his business on his estates, occasionally hunting and dining with his mother's cousin, John Howard, who would later become the Duke of Norfolk. In November 1468, however, Oxford was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower for treason. Perhaps he had always secretly harbored Lancastrian sentiments on behalf of his father and brother, or perhaps his new brother-in-law had used his charisma to convert him to the cause. Supposedly he made a confession, saving his own head but resulting in the executions of two other men. If Oxford did betray his co-conspirators, it was the last time he would do so, for after this he was unshakably loyal to the Lancastrian cause.

Oxford was released from the Tower, where he is said to have been kept in irons, by January 1469, and received a royal pardon that April. But Edward could have spared himself the ink. In June, Oxford joined the Earl of Warwick and the Duke of Clarence, and he was present in Calais where the earl's daughter Isabel married Clarence. After a brief spell where Edward IV was Warwick's prisoner, there was a surface reconciliation, which ended abruptly with the flight of Warwick and Clarence to France in April 1470. Oxford soon joined them there. That July, he was present when the Earl of Warwick spent fifteen minutes on his knees begging for Margaret of Anjou's forgiveness. Oxford himself received a gracious welcome from the queen, who said that he had "suffered much thing for King Henry."

By October 1470, Henry VI was nominally, and briefly, back on the throne. Oxford was made steward of the household and Constable of England, and he carried the sword of state when Henry was recrowned. Just two days later he ordered the execution of the Earl of Worcester, the man who had ordered the execution of his own father and brother. John Tiptoft's execution methods of some of Warwick's supporters--he had their bodies impaled after hanging them--had repulsed even his contemporaries, so his own execution was well attended and well applauded.

Soon, however, Oxford was busy raising troops against Edward IV. The forces of Oxford's younger brother Thomas discouraged the ex-king from landing on the Norfolk coast, but Edward managed to disembark at Ravenspur. The end result on April 14, 1471, was the Battle of Barnet, where Oxford commanded the right division. His troops were initially successful, chasing their opponents as far as London and causing rumors of a Lancastrian victory to spread. They were soon caught up in the satisfaction of pillaging, but Oxford managed to round them up and return to the field. There, disaster ensued as John Neville's troops, mistaking Oxford's men in the fog for troops of Edward IV, began to fire on them. Oxford's troops, raising a cry of treason, fled the field, and shortly thereafter the Earl of Warwick lay dead.

Oxford fled to Scotland, finding time on the way to write a letter to his wife, whom he would not see again until 1485. He asked her to send him money, men, and horses and, rather optimistically, advised her to "be of good cheer and take no thought."

For the next couple of years, Oxford managed to make trouble for the restored Edward IV. He carried out raids on Calais and may have been plotting with his surviving brother-in-law, George Neville, Archbishop of York, and perhaps the perpetually discontent Duke of Clarence as well. In May 1473, he attempted to land in Essex but was repelled. Thereafter he took to piracy, the time-honored resort of those down on their luck.

Oxford's buccaneering summer came to an end on September 30, 1473, when he and about eighty other men, including his three brothers, seized St. Michael's Mount in Cornwall. Perhaps he still had plans involving the Duke of Clarence. Such plans never materialized, however, and Edward IV's troops were ultimately able to lure the earl's supporters away with promises of royal pardons. With his situation becoming a hopeless one, Oxford finally accepted a pardon of his life in February 1474 and was sent as a prisoner to Hammes Castle near Calais.

The nadir of Oxford's existence came in the spring or summer of 1478, when he leapt the walls of the castle into chin-deep water. As John Paston wrote, "Some say to steal away, and some think he would have drowned himself." Cora Scofield, best known for her biography of Edward IV, suggests that Oxford may have been in despair brought about by the execution of the Earl of Clarence, probably then his last hope.

Oxford's wife Margaret, meanwhile, had been reduced to penury. One source even states that she was forced to make her living from her needle. John Howard, her neighbor, seems to have assisted her, however, and perhaps her sisters and nieces helped her as well. In 1482 Edward IV granted her an annuity of 100 pounds, which Richard III renewed.

It was the reign of Richard III that spelled salvation for the Earl of Oxford. After what must have been hopeless years following his abortive jump, Oxford succeeded in making a friend of his jailer, James Blount. Perhaps Blount, a former retainer of William Hastings, harbored a grudge regarding the summary execution of his master, whose widow and Oxford's wife were sisters, or perhaps he, like many others, was horrified at the disappearance and probable deaths of the princes who had been placed into Richard's care. In any event, in October 1484, Oxford walked out of prison, accompanied by Blount and the gentleman porter of Calais, James Fortescue. The trio made their way to Montargis, where Henry Tudor and a growing band of English exiles had congregated. Henry was well pleased to welcome the militarily experienced Oxford into his somewhat motley crew.

In August 1485, Henry Tudor and his followers landed near Milford Haven and made their way toward their fateful encounter with Richard III. There is a dispute about exactly where the Battle of Bosworth took place, but wherever it occurred, Oxford led the vanguard of Richard III's troops. His former friend John Howard, now the Duke of Norfolk, led Richard III's vanguard. As reported by Polydor Vergil:

In the meane tyme therle of Oxfoord, fearing lest hys men in fyghting might be envyronyd of the multitude, commandyd in every rang that no soldiers should go above tenfoote from the standerds; which charge being knowen, whan all men had throng thik togethers, and stayd a whyle from fighting, thadversaryes wer therwith aferd, supposing soome fraude, and so they all forbore the fight a certane space, and that veryly dyd many with right goodwill, who rather covetyd the king dead than alyve, and therfor fowght fayntly. Than therle of Oxforth in one part, and others in an other part, with the bandes of men closse one to an other, gave freshe charge uppon thenemy, and in array tryangle vehemently renewyd the conflict. Whyle the battayll contynewyd thus hote on both sydes betwixt the vanwardes, king Richard understood, first by espyalls wher erle Henry was a farre of with smaule force of soldiers abowt him; than after drawing nerer he knew yt perfytely by evydent signes and tokens that yt was Henry; wherfor, all inflamyd with ire, he strick his horse with the spurres, and runneth owt of thone syde withowt the vanwardes agaynst him. Henry perceavyd king Richerd coome uppon him, and because all his hope was than in valyancy of armes, he receavyd him with great corage. King Richerd at the first brunt killyd certane, overthrew Henryes standerd, toygther with William Brandon the standerd bearer, and matchyd also with John Cheney a man of muche fortytude, far exceeding the common sort, who encountered with him as he cam, but the king with great force drove him to the ground, making way with weapon on every syde. But yeat Henry abode the brunt longer than ever his owne soldiers wold have wenyd, who wer now almost owt of hope of victory, whan as loe William Stanley with thre thowsand men came to the reskew: than trewly in a very moment the resydew all fled, and king Richerd alone was killyd fyghting manfully in the thickkest presse of his enemyes. In the mean time also the erle of Oxfoord after a lyttle bickering put to flight them that fowght in the forward, wherof a great company wer killed in the chase.

One legend has it that the 60-year-old Duke of Norfolk died by Oxford's own hand, after which Oxford supposedly made the comment, "A better knight could not die, but he might die in a better cause."

With Henry Tudor the new king, Oxford reaped rewards, becoming the Lord High Admiral of England, Constable of the Tower, and a Knight of the Garter. He was recognized as the hereditary Great Chamberlain of England, a role that took him to three coronations: those of Henry VI, Elizabeth of York, and Henry VIII. He again commanded the king's vanguard at the Battle of Stoke. As Lord High Steward, he presided over the trial of the unfortunate young Earl of Warwick, accused and executed on what were probably manufactured charges of plotting with Perkin Warbeck. On a happier note, the Countess of Surrey, wife of the imprisoned Earl of Surrey and daughter-in-law of the late Duke of Norfolk, wrote a letter to John Paston in which she praised Oxford's kindness to her. Oxford also was faithful to an old friend and comrade, William Beaumont, who went mad in 1487. The earl took Beaumont and his wife to live in his household, where Beaumont died in 1507. Oxford's own wife having died in 1506, he married Beaumont's widow, Elizabeth Scrope.

Oxford died in 1513, childless, at the ripe old age of seventy-one, in his own castle at Hedingham. Had Richard III not taken his nephew's throne, but served as his protector and counselor until he came of age, Oxford might well have died a prisoner at Hammes Castle. It was Richard's own disloyalty to his brother's son that had allowed this diehard Lancastrian to at last emerge triumphant.


Alianore said...

Very interesting to see the ups and downs of families in the Wars of the Roses. I'm glad it all worked out for Oxford in the end, and he sounds a rather nice man. Like the comment in the letter to his wife!

Chris Kaiser said...

Nice site. If John de Vere died childless, how was the famous de Vere family line carried on to the 18th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere's son?

Susan Higginbotham said...

Thanks for visiting, folks! Chris, I knew I should have mentioned that in the post! According to the Complete Peerage, John's heir was his nephew (another John), whose father had been John's younger brother George. The 14th earl was in turn succeeded by a cousin (also named John), who produced the 16th earl. That's when my photocopies from the Complete Peerage stop, unfortunately.

There was a story that the 13th earl, the John features here, had a young son who was imprisoned by Edward IV in the Tower and died there, but Complete Peerage notes that no evidence corroborates this tale.

chris kaiser said...

Thanks, Susan. My particular interest in the de Veres involves the possible pseudonymous use of "Shakespeare" by Edward de Vere. Does this line of research interest you? And if so, what are your thoughts?