Post-classical history

28

LORD OXFORD TURNS PIRATE,
1473

LORD OXFORD

The author of the Arrivall of King Edward IV tells his readers that in a short time the King ‘shall appease his subjects through [out] all his realm; that peace and tranquility shall grow and multiply’. But, even though Henry VI and his son might be dead, opposition survived, led by the Earl of Oxford, who was inspired by hatred of Edward rather than devotion to the House of Lancaster. There are strong indications that its hopes centred on King Edward’s brother George, Duke of Clarence.

Clarence had emerged unscathed from the events of 1469–71, for all his treachery. Astonishingly, honours were heaped upon him; he was restored to his old office of Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland, created Earl of Warwick and Salisbury, and appointed Great Chamberlain of England. Admittedly, after a long and vicious dispute, he had been forced to share his father-in-law’s estates with his brother Gloucester, but the latter’s marriage to the Earl’s other daughter gave him a clear right to half of them. Nonetheless, he was still a power in the land. ‘These three brothers, the king and the two dukes, were possessed of such surpassing talents that, if they had been able to live without dissensions, that such a threefold cord could never have been broken without the utmost difficulty,’ comments the Croyland chronicler.

However, so arrogant and unstable a man as George of Clarence could never rest content. In November 1473 Pietro Aliprando, the Papal envoy, observed that the English did not love their king and were convinced that another Earl of Warwick would come – Edward should take care that he was not overthrown by his brother, the Duke of Clarence.

The one Lancastrian leader who had not publicly submitted was Lord Oxford, who had succeeded in reaching Scotland safely after escaping from Barnet. From there he had gone on to France. The French were still at war with England and, financed by King Louis, during the spring of 1472, he led small raiding parties against Calais and the Pale.

The sole Nevill brother to survive was the Archbishop of York, who had made his peace with Edward when the King entered London just before Barnet. Although he had not been reappointed Lord Chancellor, he was undisturbed and allowed to enjoy his immense revenues in his own self-indulgent way. He visited the King at Windsor during the first months of 1472 and, according to Dr Warkworth, ‘hunted, and had there right good cheer; and supposed that he stood in great favour with the king’. Edward told the Archbishop that he would come and hunt with him at his house, The Moor, near London.

But on the day the King was due to arrive, he summoned Archbishop Nevill to Windsor instead, where he ordered his arrest, accusing him of high treason – of helping the Earl of Oxford. ‘My lord archbishop was brought to the Tower on Saturday at night, and on Monday at midnight he was conveyed to a ship, and so into the sea, and as yet I cannot understand whither he is sent,’ John Paston informed his brother, Sir John, on 30 April. Dr Warkworth tells us that he was ‘sent over the sea to Calais, and from thence to the castle of Hammes and there he was kept prisoner many a day’. He also says that King Edward appropriated his revenues and all his goods, using the jewels from his mitre to make himself a crown.

In his letter, John Paston mentions that ‘The countess of Oxford is still in St Martins; I hear no word of her.’ Nevertheless, her husband was undeterred by his wife having to remain in sanctuary. He was hoping to obtain a base in Scotland, since James III was in the process of negotiating an anti-English alliance with King Louis. Sir John Paston told his brother on 16 April that ‘the earl of Oxenford was on Saturday at Dieppe and is purposed into Scotland with a dozen ships. I mistrust that work.’ In addition, he had heard alarming rumours, though he does not say exactly what – ‘there be in London many flying tales, saying that there should be a work, and yet they wot not how’. (By ‘work’ he means armed rebellion.)

Some sort of plot was afoot and, although never named, the Duke of Clarence must have been in the Pastons’ mind. He was the only man capable of undoing the settlement imposed by Barnet and Tewkesbury. If there is no firm evidence, it is nonetheless almost certain that he was in touch with both Oxford and Louis XI – the latter desperately anxious to detach England from her alliance with Burgundy. The Duke had plotted against his brother before and, however unreasonably, he was outraged at being made to share his father-in-law’s inheritance with Gloucester.

From London on 18 May Sir John Paston wrote, ‘I heard say that a man was this day examined, and he confessed that he knew great treasure was sent to the earl of Oxford, whereof a £1,000 should be conveyed by a monk of Westminster, and some say by a monk of [the] Charterhouse.’1 It was possible that the man would accuse a hundred gentlemen in Norfolk and Suffolk who had promised to help the Earl when he landed in their counties, ‘which, as it is said, should be within eight days after St Dunstan [19 May], if wind and weather serve him – flying tales’.

Sure enough, on 3 June Sir John was writing, ‘I trow ye have heard [on] your part how that the earl of Oxenford landed by St Osith’s in Essex the 28th day of May, save he tarried not long.’ Oxford had fled on learning that the Earl of Essex, together with Lords Dynham and Duras, was riding to intercept him. People were expecting some sort of trouble but did not know what – ‘men buy harness fast’. He comments that London was full of household men of both the King and the Duke of Clarence, in large numbers, as if this were something strange. He adds, ‘men say that the earl of Oxenford is about the Isle of Thanet hovering, some say with great company and some say with few’.

We know from a Milanese source that early in July Lord Oxford, asking for money to start ‘the war’, sent the King of France twenty-four ‘seals of knights and lords and a duke’ as proof of their determination to rise against Edward IV. However, the seals failed to convince King Louis, who gave the Earl no more money and little encouragement.

Oxford had been engaged in piracy since the spring of that year, 1473, and, so Warkworth informs us, had acquired plenty of booty and ‘riches’. He had sold captured English and Burgundian ships with valuable cargoes in Scotland, but after complaints from England the Scots refused to renew his safe conduct. His next move, totally unexpected, had no obvious explanation. On 30 September he seized St Michael’s Mount on the Cornish coast. ‘A strong place and a mighty, and cannot be got if it be well victualled with a few men to keep it, for twenty men may keep it against the world’ is Dr Warkworth’s comment. Oxford’s garrison of 80 men included his three brothers, George, Thomas and Richard, and also Viscount Beaumont, who had escaped with him from Barnet.

Six years older than Oxford, William Beaumont was another Lancastrian diehard. His father had been killed at Northampton in 1460 and he himself taken prisoner at Towton. He had twice been attainted; most of his former estates in Leicestershire now belonged to Lord Hastings.

Warkworth was correct in thinking the Mount impregnable, the British Mont St Michel. The archangel had appeared here at the end of the fifth century and a fortified abbey was perched on the great crag rising out of the sea opposite Marazion, cut off from the mainland for twenty hours a day. It belonged to the nuns of Syon – history does not relate if any of them were in residence and, if so, how they got on with the garrison. Although it may look the same from a distance, the only building that remains from 1473 is the beautiful little chapel.

Warkworth says that when Lord Oxford arrived at the Mount, ‘he and his men came down into [the] county of Cornwall and had right good cheer of the commons’. This welcome was largely due to Sir Henry Bodrugan of Bodrugan (otherwise known as Henry Trenowith), who has been described by a modern historian as ‘the local party boss’. He was little more than a bandit; a petition to Parliament of this date complains of Bodrugan’s ‘Murders, robberies, as well as by water as by land, ravishments of women, extortions, oppressions, riots, unlawful assemblies, entries with force and wrongful imprisonments.’ Because of his activities no foreign merchant dared to visit Cornwall, and no Cornish merchant put to sea so that ‘merchandise in the said shire is utterly decayed and brought to nought’. Nevertheless, on 23 October Henry Bodrugan, together with Sir John Arundell and John Fortescue, Sheriff of Cornwall, were commissioned by the King to reduce St Michael’s Mount. His employment of a pirate such as Bodrugan explains why Edward was not popular in some areas.2

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Lord Beaumont, the Earl of Oxford’s comrade at the battle of Barnet, in exile in Scotland and during the siege of St Michael’s Mount. He spent the last twenty years of his life as Oxford’s guest, after going mad in 1487. From a brass of 1507 at Wivenhoe, Essex.

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St Michael’s Mount on the Cornish coast, where the Earl of Oxford, his brothers and his friend Lord Beaumont were besieged by Yorkist troops in 1473.

What was Oxford hoping to achieve? If he meant to use the Mount as a base for piracy, it would soon be blockaded. The only feasible explanation is that he expected Louis XI to relieve it with an expeditionary force which was going to be joined by Clarence’s supporters. On 6 November Sir John Paston reported to his brother from London that most of the men about the King were sending for their armour, that the Duke of Clarence was boasting of how he would deal with Gloucester, but that the King meant to force them to agree – ‘and some men think that under this there should be some other thing intended, and some treason conspired’ [my italics]. Whatever the truth, there was neither invasion nor rising.3

Even so, Oxford continued to hold out. At first the Earl sometimes sallied forth to look for supplies, being wounded in the face by an arrow on one occasion, but soon there was no need. Warkworth (our main source of information) tells us that ‘every day the earl of Oxford’s men came down under truce to speak with Bodrugan and his men; and at the last the said earl lacked victuals and Bodrugan suffered him to be victualled’. Such a friendly relationship developed between besieged and besiegers that afterwards some of the garrison joined Bodrugan’s bully boys and went plundering with them. The Cornishman’s behaviour may well have been due to Oxford telling him that a rising was about to break out in favour of Clarence.

In November Richard de Vere, the Earl’s brother, sailed to Normandy, asking King Louis for help. However, the French King had lost quite enough money backing Warwick, and in any case did not see Oxford as another kingmaker. He merely dispatched two boat-loads of supplies, neither of which seem to have got through. For a blockade began in December; commanded by Edward Fetherston in the Caricou, four ships with a complement of 600 men patrolled the sea below the Mount throughout the winter.4

Also in December, Edward put Fortescue in charge of the siege instead of Bodrugan – Arundell had died – and sent artillery. At first little progress was made, although ‘for the most part every day each of them fought with the other, and the said earl’s men killed divers of Fortescue’s men; and sometimes when they had well there fought, they would take a truce for one day and a night, and sometimes for two or three days’.

But the King had given Fortescue most effective weapons – pardons in return for surrender, though Oxford and his brothers were promised no more than their lives. In consequence, ‘the earl had not eight or nine men that would hold with him, the which was the undoing of the earl. For’, adds Warkworth,

there is a proverb and a saying, that a castle that speaketh and a woman that will hear, they be gained both . . . And so this proverb was proved true by the said earl of Oxford, which was fain to yield up the said mount and put himself in the king’s grace – if he had not done so, his own men would have brought him out.

Although he had supplies to last until midsummer, Oxford surrendered on 15 February 1474. Together with Lord Beaumont and two of his brothers, he was taken prisoner to King Edward.

The Earl went off to imprisonment at Hammes, the period’s maximum-security gaol, joining Archbishop Nevill. What happened to his brothers is unknown, though they were attainted with him in 1475, forfeiting their lands and goods. In any case the de Vere estates, including Hedingham and Wivenhoe, had been in the Duke of Gloucester’s hands since 1471.

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After being in sanctuary at St Martin’s for nearly four years, the Earl’s wife, Margaret, was given a pardon in 1475 though, if Robert Fabyan is to be believed, she was penniless and reduced to ‘what she might get with her needle or other such cunning’. The Countess had lost even her dowry. However, in 1481 King Edward granted her an annuity of £100 during her husband’s lifetime; when he died she would be allowed to recover her property.

Oxford’s defenceless mother, ‘Dame Elizabeth’, the dowager Countess who had been born in 1410, suffered almost as much as her son. Not content with being granted all the Earl’s lands, young Richard, Duke of Gloucester, was determined to have those which the old lady held in her own right. According to a petition that Oxford presented to Parliament many years later, ‘in such time as the said John de Vere was not at liberty but in prison’, the Duke, ‘acting of his insatiable covetise’, obtained her estates illegally ‘by great threat and heinous menace of loss of life’. Because of her well-known loyalty to the late King Henry, Edward IV had had the dowager confined in a convent at Stratford-le-Bow – Bromley Priory, a small Benedictine house with less than a dozen nuns. Here, early in December 1472 – ‘in the Christmas season’ – Gloucester and his servants burst in on her. He announced that his brother the King had given him custody of her person and lands. At this ‘the said lady wept and made great lamentation’. She was made to give the keys of her coffers to the Duke’s men so that they could search them, and was then dragged off to Sir Thomas Vaughan’s house at Stepney where Gloucester had installed his household. Ignoring the old woman’s tears, he demanded that she make over all her estates to him – or else he would send her to Yorkshire and keep her a prisoner at Middleham. ‘Wherefore the said lady, considering her great age, the great journey and the great cold which then was, of frost and snow, thought that she could not endure to be conveyed thither without great jeopardy of her life and [was] also sore fearing how she should be there entreated . . .’ She gave in, crying, ‘I thank God heartily . . . I have these lands which now shall save my life.’ After being kept in a room in Vaughan’s house until she had agreed to all the Duke’s demands, she was taken on foot, by night through the snow, to a house at Walbrook where she was confined while the necessary documents were drawn up and duly signed and sealed. Her trustees and advisers were bullied into acquiescing – when her chaplain, Piers Baxter, protested, Lord Howard called him ‘False priest and hypocrite!’ Afterwards she was heard lamenting how bitterly she regretted having to disinherit her heirs.5

Although Lady Oxford had been born a Howard and was Lord Howard’s first cousin, he too was in the plot. As an only daughter, she had inherited the Howard family estates which through her marriage had passed to the de Veres, and he saw a chance to recover some of them. This is the first recorded episode in his long and unholy alliance with the Duke of Gloucester.

Eventually, stripped of her possessions and her livelihood, the dowager was sent back into confinement at Stratford. Her former servant, John Power, visited her shortly after. She told him, ‘I marvel greatly that ye durst come to see me, remembering the trouble I am in.’ He asked how she was. ‘Sore troubled,’ answered the Countess.

Nevertheless, I know well ye have loved me and all my blood, wherefore I trust you and pray you to show unto my son John, earl of Oxenford if ever ye speak with him, as I trust in God ye shall, that all such estates and releases as I must make of my manors and lands to the duke of Gloucester I do for great fear and for the salvation of my life, for if I make not the said estates and re-leases [over to him] I am threatened to be had into the North Country, where I am sure I should not live long . . .

John Power visited the dowager again a year later, just before Christmas 1473 when, although bedridden, she was still confined to the convent at Stratford. From her bed she explained that she was very ill indeed, probably dying. The old lady begged Power to keep in mind what she had told him and to tell her son, ‘and also to say that she sent him God’s blessing and hers’. She died eight days afterwards. Always noted for piety, the Duke of Gloucester attended her funeral at the Austin Friars’ church in Broad Street, accompanied by Lord Howard.

Even before the Countess’s death the Duke had been trying to sell her house in London Wall, ‘The earl of Oxenford’s Place’, offering it to Sir John Risley, who was an Esquire of the Body to Edward IV. While hunting with the King in Walthamstow Forest, Sir John asked him for his advice. Plainly embarrassed, Edward replied, ‘Risley, meddle not ye with the buying of the said place.’ Perhaps the title to the house was good enough for his brother or some powerful magnate, yet ‘might it well be dangerous to thee to buy it’. The King admitted frankly that Gloucester had bullied the old lady into parting with her house.

Not only great lords but great ladies faced ruin in the Wars of the Roses. The story of the dowager Countess of Oxford’s despoliation is unusually well documented, because her son obtained official copies of the depositions that were later made by witnesses. They cast a chilling light on the character of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, when still only twenty.

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At Hammes the Earl of Oxford had ample leisure in which to brood over the wrongs done to his womenfolk by the Yorkists. He could also reflect on how very foolish he had been in placing so many hopes in the Duke of Clarence – indeed, any hopes at all. For while ‘false, fleeting, perjur’d Clarence’ may well have dreamt of taking his brother’s place on the throne, they were dreams which at most led only to wild talk. The Duke lacked the political skill and the widespread popular support which were prerequisites for challenging anyone quite so formidable as Edward IV. At the end of his tether, Oxford had set far too much store by sensational rumours of the sort reported by Sir John Paston. He would have done much better to have stuck to piracy than to have relied on a rising led by the Duke of Clarence.

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