Post-classical history




At least one peer had always remained staunchly Lancastrian and was ready to join in any rising against the House of York. As a younger son, John de Vere can never have expected to succeed to the earldom of Oxford. However, when his father, the twelfth Earl, and his elder brother Sir Aubrey were executed, Edward IV allowed him to inherit the title and the estates. But the King deceived himself in thinking that John’s loyalty could be purchased so easily. The Veres were one of the only great magnate families that always remained consistently loyal to the House of Lancaster throughout the Wars of the Roses.

If they did not fight at Towton in 1461, spending the winter on their broad Essex acres, we know that the Veres were horrified by the defeat and ruin of Henry VI. They concealed their dismay, however, even when the coveted office of Great Chamberlain of England (hereditary in their family from Norman times until 1399) was given to Warwick. In 1460 old Lord Oxford had been excused from attending any parliaments or councils on account of ‘infirmities’, an excuse to avoid sitting in a House of Lords dominated by York. Even so, despite being ‘far stricken in age’ (he was in his fifties), he rallied sufficiently to go to London for Edward IV’s first Parliament in the autumn of 1461, though he left before it had finished sitting. He went back to Essex with Aubrey to plan a rebellion.

Even before the end of 1461 there were rumours that Lord Oxford was behind a series of raids on the East Anglian coast, by Lancastrian privateers operating from French ports. Early in the following year, letters between Oxford, Sir Aubrey and Queen Margaret were intercepted, which revealed a conspiracy to overthrow Edward IV. Arrested on 12 February, the Veres were taken to the Tower, tried by the court of the Constable of England (John Tiptoft, Earl of Worcester) and executed without delay. One source says that Aubrey had accused his father of organizing a Lancastrian landing on the Essex coast, but such treachery conflicts with what is known of his character.

The Veres seem to have involved as many neighbours as possible. Three other East Anglian gentlemen, perhaps members of their affinity, were arrested and condemned with them: Sir Thomas Tuddenham of Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk, Sir William Tyrrell of Gipping in Suffolk, and John Montgomery of Faulkbourn in Essex. (Tuddenham had been treasurer of King Henry’s household and keeper of the King’s wardrobe.) The Abbot and monks of Bury St Edmund’s were placed under arrest but escaped with a fine.

Sir Aubrey died first, on 20 February, drawn on a hurdle from Westminster to Tower Hill. On a scaffold eight feet high, specially built to give the crowd a better view, he suffered the statutory penalty for treason. Hanged until half choked, he was cut down to be disembowelled and castrated still alive, the remains being beheaded and cut in four; his entrails and offal were burnt on the executioner’s fire but the head and quarters – boiled in salt and coated in pitch to stop the birds eating them – were stuck up on Tower Bridge and other places. Aubrey had been an attractive personality. In 1460 William Paston had observed of him ‘he is great with the Queen’, while years after, despite having remarried, his widow asked to be interred ‘where the body of my dear heart and late husband resteth buried’. The East Anglian gentlemen were executed three days later.

Old Lord Oxford died on the same tall scaffold on 26 February. Waurin says he was tied to a chair in front of a great fire and had his entrails wound out of his body and burnt, after which he was castrated, what was left of him being thrown on the fire.1 In fact the Earl’s sentence would have been commuted to beheading, his privilege as a peer. Waurin’s informant was probably a Burgundian unfamiliar with English customs, who had caught a glimpse of Sir Aubrey’s execution.

Lady Oxford was punished too, being kept under house arrest until the late spring. However, Edward officially forgave her in a document dated 28 March in which, because of ‘the humble, good and faithful disposition of Elizabeth, countess of Oxford, and the age, weakness and continued infirmity of body of the said Elizabeth, and the true faith which she bears us’, he accepts her as his ‘faithful subject’ – permitting her release from any form of custody or surveillance.

The King began to build up the powers of other landowners in East Anglia, to diminish the standing of the Veres. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s brother, Lord Bourchier – their neighbour at Little Easton, who had recently been created Earl of Essex and given confiscated Lancastrian estates – was soon countering their influence throughout the region. Henry Bourchier, steward of the royal household from 1463 until 1471, was an old Yorkist workhorse, born at the beginning of the century. Although far more of an administrator than a soldier, he would cross John de Vere’s path on at least one occasion.

Another rival whom King Edward transformed into a great East Anglian magnate was Lady Oxford’s cousin, Sir John Howard, the squire of Stoke-by-Nayland in Suffolk. This brutally capable careerist and servant of the new dynasty would eventually become the first Howard Duke of Norfolk. He too was going to cross John’s path.

Despite killing his father and brother, ill-treating his mother and favouring his rivals, Edward IV assumed somewhat optimistically that the young John de Vere would be loyal to the House of York. Since John’s father had not been attainted but only condemned to death by the Constable’s Court (which had no powers to confiscate a peerage), he was allowed to call himself Earl of Oxford. He was also able to inherit the family estates, though he had to wait until June 1464 before he was permitted to reoccupy Hedingham and Wivenhoe. During the parliament of that year he petitioned the King to reverse the attainder of his great-grandfather, the Duke of Ireland, which had been the work of ‘Henry, Earl of Derby [Henry IV] acting against the law of God and of the Land, his faith and his allegiance’. No wording could have been more tactfully anti-Lancastrian, and the King granted his petition, restoring valuable estates to him.2

Marks of royal favour followed. At Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in May 1465, Lord Oxford officiated not only as her chamberlain but, Warwick being absent, as Lord Great Chamberlain of England – that long-lost family dignity which was still coveted so desperately by the Veres. In addition the Earl was among the Knights of the Bath whom Edward created in honour of Elizabeth’s crowning. He was even given a Nevill bride, Warwick’s youngest sister, Margaret, becoming like Lord Hastings the King’s first cousin by marriage.

Nevertheless, in retrospect it is quite obvious that young Lord Oxford nursed an abiding if well-concealed hatred for the entire House of York, and that he was an irreconcilable Lancastrian. He would have noticed with satisfaction the country’s increasing restiveness under the Yorkist regime, not least because of Edward IV’s taxes. The King himself was uncomfortably aware that he was growing much less popular, and tried to defuse the situation at the parliament that met in the spring of 1467.

Edward’s attitude towards Parliament was simple enough. He used it to establish his legal right to the throne, to destroy enemies by attainder, and to raise extra income when money was needed for a war or putting down rebellions. He had men in the House of Commons who ensured its co-operation, MPs who were royal officials or retainers of trusted friends such as Hastings, and he always took very good care to treat it with the utmost courtesy. This time the Speaker whom the Commons elected was John Say, a member of his council.

‘John Say and ye, Sirs, come to this my court of parliament for the commons of this my land, the cause why I have called and summoned this my present parliament is that I purpose to live upon my own and not to charge my subjects’, Edward told them reassuringly. At face value, the words ‘to live upon my own’ meant that he would finance his government from his own revenues and impose no more new taxes. However, his handsome promise failed to soothe the Commons, who complained of increasing lawlessness throughout the land – murders and riots – and, by inference, of his failure to stop them. They demanded new measures to deal with piracy, Scottish raids and the emergence of even more anarchy than usual in Ireland.


A colleague of Lord Hastings, the Earl of Essex (in his robes as a Knight of the Garter) who was Treasurer of England. From a brass of 1483 at Little Easton, Essex.

Oxford must also have watched with increasing excitement the dangerous division between the King and the Earl of Warwick which had followed the Woodville marriage, observing their growing estrangement. In May 1467, without warning, Edward rode to Archbishop George Nevill’s house at Charing Cross just outside the City and ordered him to surrender the great seal – dismissing him from his office of Lord Chancellor. Sacking Warwick’s brother was a declaration of hostility so far as the Nevills were concerned, even if the King did not want an outright rupture with them.

In any case, by then Edward was showing a preference for Burgundy as England’s principal ally, rejecting Warwick’s advocacy of France. ‘It is a question of who shall be master and who shall be servant,’ reported one of Louis XI’s ambassadors. If Edward should definitely choose Burgundy, it would be a bitter humiliation for the Earl. We know from the Croyland chronicler that Warwick hated Duke Charles of Burgundy ‘with a most deadly hatred’, though precisely why is not recorded. But in July 1468 King Edward’s sister Margaret of York married the Duke of Burgundy. (John Paston, who was present at her wedding in Bruges, marvelled at the Burgundian court – ‘I heard never of none like it, save King Arthur’s court.’) The marriage completed the rift between king and kingmaker.

In June 1468 the authorities had arrested John Cornelius, a tailor, at the little port of Queenborough in Kent where he was about to board a ship to France. He was a servant of Sir Robert Whittingham, a well-known supporter of Queen Margaret, who was with the Lancastrian garrison of Harlech – still holding out, though at its last gasp. Apparently Cornelius was returning to Margaret after delivering letters to a Lancastrian cell in London. He was ‘burnt in the feet’ until he named them. They ranged from knights and squires to rich merchants.

Among the names was that of a servant of Lord Wenlock, John Hawkins. After being ‘set upon the brake [rack] called the duke of Exeter’s daughter’, in his agony Hawkins accused a leading City alderman, Sir Thomas Cook, of treason. Cook, a draper and former mayor, was an old friend of the King, having lent him very large sums of money. Hawkins even hinted at the involvement of Lord Wenlock.

Queen Elizabeth’s mother, the Duchess Jacquetta, coveted a wonderful tapestry at Cook’s house, ‘wrought in most richest wise with gold of the whole story of the siege of Jerusalem’ (which had cost him £800, according to his apprentice Fabyan), but he refused to let the Duchess have it ‘at her pleasure and price’. She and her husband saw their chance of revenge when Cook was rearrested in 1468 after Jasper Tudor’s raid and sent to the Tower.

Lord Rivers and his cousin Sir John Fogge, treasurer of the royal household, sent men to break into Cook’s house and plunder it. They stole jewels, a great silver gilt salt and quantities of plate together with his tapestries – not just the Jerusalem arras but others too, depicting the Passion, Judgement Day and the lives of King Nebuchadnezzar and Alexander the Great. Very inconveniently, Hawkins then withdrew his allegations about Cook, the sole testimony against him. Even so, Chief Justice Markham was dismissed from the King’s Bench when he declined to find Sir Thomas guilty of treason. Cook was deprived of his aldermanry on Edward’s orders and, although pardoned, released only after paying the huge fine of £8,000.

Under an old law called ‘Queen’s Gold’, Queen Elizabeth then demanded a hundred marks (£66) for every thousand pounds Sir Thomas had paid in fines, which he was forced to pay after a long and costly legal action. Nor did he ever recover the goods stolen by Rivers and Fogge. The King’s jester joked that the rivers in England were so high that he was barely able to wade through them, meaning – Fabyan explains ponderously – ‘the great rule which the Lord Rivers and his blood bare at that time . . . But this was an ill prognostication, as ye shall shortly hear after.’3

Meanwhile, two young gentlemen who had gone to Burgundy with the Duchess of Norfolk for Margaret of York’s Arthurian wedding, John Poynings and Richard Alford, were arrested as soon as they returned to England at the end of July. The charge was that while in Burgundy they had had ‘familiar communication with the duke of Somerset and his accomplices there, in the which they were both detected of treason’. Found guilty, the unlucky pair were executed on Tower Hill in November. They died the day after Richard Steeres, a member of the Skinners’ Company who was ‘one of the cunningest players of the tennis in England’; a former servant of the Duke of Exeter, he had been caught carrying letters from the exiled Queen Margaret. There was a further wave of arrests during the same month. This time the two principal suspects were West Countrymen, Sir Thomas Hungerford, who was Lord Hungerford’s heir, and Mr Henry Courtenay, who was the heir to the confiscated earldom of Devon.

Soon after, according to Fabyan, the Earl of Oxford was ‘taken by a surmise in jealousy of treason’. A servant of Sir William Plumpton wrote to his master that ‘My Lord of Oxford is commit to the Tower, and it is said kept in irons, and that he has confessed much . . .’4 It looks as though his confession doomed Hungerford and Courtenay, who were duly hanged, drawn and quartered. Yet Oxford was released, after a very short spell in prison, probably at Christmas 1468 and certainly before 7 January. He was extremely lucky to have escaped with his life. However, on 15 April 1469 King Edward granted a general pardon to ‘John de Vere, knight, earl of Oxford, for all the offences committed by him before 14 April’. The influence of his brother-in-law, Warwick, may perhaps have contributed to his surprising survival.5

What was the attitude of Jane Shore’s family to all these rumours of Lancastrian plots? Although they have not left any letters, we can nevertheless obtain some idea of what they were thinking from the London chronicles. King Edward IV seems to have been reasonably popular in the City; he made a point of flattering the leading merchants and their womenfolk, the latter perhaps a little too much. On the other hand, the Queen’s kindred were widely disliked – for their rapacity and for being jumped-up folk of obscure origin. By contrast, so Fabyan tells us, because of his hospitality the Earl of Warwick ‘was ever had in great favour of the commons of this land’.

The Shores and Lamberts undoubtedly knew some of those arrested during the treason scares of 1468. Besides Cook they included Humphrey Hayford, one of the sheriffs, and Sir John Plummer, a rich grocer and fellow alderman, almost certainly Lancastrian sympathizers, though there was not enough evidence to convict them. The draper Piers Alfrey was found guilty but escaped the gallows, unlike the skinner Steeres. Commenting on Hayford’s impeachment, Gregory says ‘many more of the City lost much good for such matters’.

William Shore and his father-in-law must have been all too conscious that the recession showed no sign of ending. Foreign trade was seriously disrupted. Pirates continued to be a menace – a merchant could be ruined by the loss of a single cargo. If commercial relations were bad with France, they were even worse with Burgundy. Despite the repeal of the Act of Parliament that forbade the import of Burgundian goods into England, the Burgundians went on banning English cloth and yarn.

Even so, numerous City merchants had lent Edward IV large sums of money whose repayment depended on his survival. Before the end of 1469 John Lambert and Thomas Gay had jointly loaned him a further £95 8s, which they were not going to recover until 1477 at the earliest. For this reason if no other, Jane’s menfolk wanted him to stay on the throne.

However, from at least 1467 the Earl of Warwick had been determined that if Edward was going to remain there, it should only be as his puppet. Dr Warkworth, an extremely shrewd and well-informed observer, tells us that after the King dismissed Warwick’s brother Archbishop Nevill from the chancellorship during that year, ‘the earl of Warwick took to him in fee as many knights, squires and gentlemen as he might, to be strong’. The word ‘fee’ is significant here – these were men who did not sign indentures but instead received a discreet down payment in return for a private promise to put on the Earl’s livery when summoned and to fight by his side.

The struggle between Warwick and the King which ensued was a personal duel. They had so much in common. The Earl was a larger-than-life figure whose opulence and open-handed generosity won him many followers. Often arrogant and overbearing, fearsomely hot-tempered, at the same time he was genial and obviously possessed enormous charm. Yet he also had a strangely devious streak, with a sinister flair for concealing his real intentions. King Edward, no less of a swashbuckler, no less overbearing and no less charming, and equally ruthless, was by far the cleverer of the two. Clearly he was suspicious of Warwick, and Warkwork tells us that after dismissing George Nevill he ‘did that he might to enfeeble the earl’s power’. His weakness lay in his excessive self-confidence and optimism. His judgement was distorted by his own amazing success hitherto.

Even with hindsight, the events that followed remain obscure. The Earl moved with the utmost caution so that it was months before Edward, despite his natural wariness, began to feel suspicious. At first Warwick had only one unhesitating ally, his haughty brother George Nevill, the ex-chancellor. His other brother, John Nevill, Earl of Northumberland (soon to be Marquess Montagu), held back. However, Warwick quickly found another in the King’s brother and heir presumptive, the eighteen-year-old Duke of Clarence, to whom in 1467 he offered the hand of his elder daughter, Isabel.

When Oxford became involved has not been recorded, for obvious reasons, but with his tragic family background he was a natural ally against Edward. As recent events had hinted, he possessed contacts among the Lancastrian exiles, and since his house lay on the shores of the North Sea it would be easy for him to communicate with the exiled court if necessary. But, to begin with, Warwick had no plans for a Lancastrian restoration.

In July, less than three months after his general pardon, the Earl of Oxford went down to Canterbury. Warwick was waiting for him, together with his daughter, Lady Isabel, Archbishop Nevill and Clarence. The party set sail for Calais where Warwick was Captain, and where Isabel and Clarence were to be married – although the King had expressly forbidden the match. The voyage set in motion a chain of events which, within a year, would bring about the flight of Edward IV and the return of Henry VI to the throne of England.

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