Post-classical history


In legal documents John de Vere styled himself proudly ‘earl of Oxford, Viscount Bulbeck and Lord Scales, great chamberlain and admiral of England’. In addition, he was Admiral of Ireland and of Aquitaine, High Steward of the Duchy of Lancaster south of the River Trent, steward of the forests of Essex, and Constable of the Tower of London, where he had apartments and was keeper of the lions and leopards. His income from his offices and his estates came to nearly £2,000 a year.10 The stately old warrior must have cut a fine figure at court, with his admiral’s badge of a mariner’s whistle (‘of ivory garnished with gold’) hanging from the heavy gold chain around his neck.

During the Parliament of 1495 he petitioned the Lord Chancellor, Morton, to annul his mother’s surrender of her lands in 1472. The petition says that the old Countess of Oxford had done so because she was ‘menaced, put in fear of her life, and imprisoned by King Richard III, late in deed but not of right king of England, whilst he was duke of Gloucester’, who had been angered by her steadfast loyalty to the ‘most blessed prince King Henry [VI]’. Oxford recovered all his mother’s property which till then had still been in other hands. It included Wivenhoe in Essex, a house where he must have spent much of his boyhood.11

The Earl translated a Life of Robert Earl of Oxford from the French – probably the Robert de Vere who witnessed Magna Carta. No copy survives, though he had it printed by William Caxton, who refers to him as ‘my singular and especial lord’. Caxton had reason to do so. Not only did Lord Oxford commission another book in 1488, the Four Sons of Aymon (the story of four brothers and their magic horse who fought against Charlemagne), but he introduced the printer to Henry VII. The King asked Caxton to produce an English version of a French treatise on war, the Faytes of Arms. In its colophon or tail-piece Caxton gives a tantalizing glimpse of Oxford in attendance on Henry, relating how at the Palace of Westminster in January 1489 the King had entrusted the manuscript to him, ‘that every gentleman born to arms and all manner men of war, captains, soldiers, victuallers and all others should have knowledge how to behave them[selves] in the feats of war and of battles and so delivered me the said book, then my lord the earl of Oxford awaiting on his said grace’.12

In August 1498 Henry VII visited the Earl at his grim family seat, Castle Hedingham, staying for almost a week. Francis Bacon relates how despite being sumptuously entertained Henry was so angry at seeing gentlemen and yeomen wearing Oxford livery – who at the King’s departure ‘stood in a seemly manner, in their livery coats with cognisances, ranged on both sides and made the king a lane’ – that he fined him 15,000 marks – £10,000. Bacon’s story of the fine is improbable. Although there was a law against livery and retaining, there is no documentary evidence for the story, and it seems most unlikely that Henry would have risked alienating the Earl.13

The visit may have been to celebrate the refurbishment of Castle Hedingham, which had fallen into decay during the Earl’s absence at the Wars. Since 1485 he had added a chapel, a new great hall and other rooms. About 1540 the topographer John Leland recorded how ‘afore the old earl of Oxford’s time, that came in with King Henry the VII, the castle of Hedingham was in much ruin and [what] is now there was in a manner of this old earl’s building except the gatehouse and the great donjon tower.’ However, all Lord Oxford’s rebuilding vanished long ago and only the donjon survives. Some of his badges, moved from the castle walls during the seventeenth century, can be seen on Hedingham church tower and over the church’s west window.

He kept 120 servants, his senior household men being ‘mine old friend Sir Thomas Lovell, Knight’, ‘my cousin John Vere’, Sir William Waldegrave and Mr Burton, all of whom had their own chambers at Castle Hedingham. Clearly it was a household designed to give its master pleasure as well as to inspire respect; besides ‘old Jegon the parker’, who looked after the hunting, he employed a ‘dissembler’ (a master of the revels). More soberly, the Earl maintained a large choir, with two gentlemen singers, twelve singing boys and a master – a complete schola cantorum – accompanied by two organs. The choir served two chapels in the castle (one in the donjon, another in the Earl’s closet) and a church in the courtyard, besides a chapel at Wivenhoe. Nevertheless, reading the inventory of his household goods, one has a distinct impression of shabbiness, apart from the splendid gold and silver plate; carpets and cushions are frequently described as ‘old’ or ‘sore worn’, even in ‘my lord’s chamber’ or the ‘inner chamber of my lady’.14 In addition to Castle Hedingham and Wivenhoe, the Earl had apartments in Colchester Abbey, in Colne Priory, and ‘at Sudbury in the Friars’.

Lady Oxford, Warwick the kingmaker’s sister Margaret, died at the end of 1506. Lord Beaumont, the Earl’s old friend and house guest who had lived with him since losing his wits in 1487, went the year after, and in 1508 Oxford married his widow, the former Elizabeth Scrope. Somewhat pathetically, although such an old man and although his new bride must have been nearly forty, he still seems to have hoped for a son and heir. In the will that he made on 10 April 1509, he says, ‘I will that if I have issue male of my body lawfully begotten that then my same issue male shall have the goods and jewels ensuing . . .’15 However, there would be neither sons nor daughters and, while Elizabeth – ‘my most loving wife’ – would live on until 1537, it was not to be a very long marriage.

In the year before King Henry VII’s death, the Flemish ambassadors reported that the Earl of Oxford was ‘the principal personage in this realm’, which was what he remained for as long as he lived. A few weeks before his coronation, the young Henry VIII confirmed the grant of the castle and town of Colchester, which the Empress Matilda (William the Conqueror’s granddaughter) had made to the first Earl of Oxford. It was a graceful, neatly contrived compliment which publicly acknowledged the antiquity of the oldest peerage in England.

During the coronation in June 1509 Lord Oxford officiated once again as Great Chamberlain of England. Fortunately, his duties were scarcely onerous for by then he was sixty-five years old. They consisted of seeing to the King’s robing on the morning before the crowning, and then offering him water in which to wash his hands at the beginning and at the end of the banquet in Westminster Hall. For this he received forty yards of crimson velvet, the royal bed, bedding, apparel and all the furniture of the room in which the King had slept the night before the coronation, together with the two silver gilt basins that had held the water.

He died at Castle Hedingham on 10 March 1513. His will begins, ‘I, John de Vere, earl of Oxenford, being in good health and perfect mind, not grieved, vexed, troubled, nor diseased with any bodily sickness, knowing and considering well the uncertainty and unstableness of this wretched life.’ The last words can be read as conventional piety, yet they also reflect the nagging insecurity of the early Tudor regime. Besides land in eleven counties, he bequeathed a great treasure of gold, silver gilt or silver plate, jewellery, tapestry and church vestments.

As a good Catholic, he first left a jewel to the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham – ‘a splayed eagle of gold with an angel face, with six diamonds and eleven pearls with four rubies’, valued at £30. There were three gold salts, a tall silver gilt standing cup with a flower in the bottom, weighing twenty ounces – ‘which is my daily cup’ – and countless other vessels of silver gilt or silver. Among them were a salt of beryl (green crystal) resting on a silver gilt blackamoor, and an ostrich-egg cup mounted in silver gilt. Another salt, ‘of silver and gilt with a pearl in the top’, went to his old friend Sir Thomas Lovell. Personal jewellery included four gold chains, one of 121 links, worth £243, and a gold belt of tiny chairs set in gems – emblems of his office as Great Chamberlain. Four tapestries told the story of Porsenna and Cloelia; others bore whistles and chairs. Curiously, there was no suit of steel plate in the Earl’s armoury, only sallets and brigandines with armour for his legs and arms.

Lord Oxford directed that he be buried ‘in a tomb which I have made and ordained for me and Margaret [Nevill] my late wife’ before the high altar of the Lady Chapel at Colne Priory, ‘which house is of the foundation of me and mine ancestors’. Sadly, the couple’s alabaster sepulchre was destroyed in Hanoverian times. However, a more enduring monument to the Earls of Oxford (who died out during the seventeenth century) is the sign of the blue boar hanging outside so many public houses in East Anglia. Wherever you see the crest of the de Veres, you may be sure that the Earls were once paramount in the neighbourhood.

‘A significant number of families chose to support the cause of Lancaster to the bitter end at the cost of life, forfeiture and the ruin of their families,’ writes Charles Ross. ‘The Wars of the Roses provide plenty of examples of rampant self-interest, of treachery and of cynical changes of side. The contrasting examples of stubborn loyalty to a cause have perhaps not received as much emphasis as they should. The English aristocracy during the fifteenth century was by no means uniformly selfish or politically cynical.’16 The finest example of such loyalty is certainly John de Vere, Earl of Oxford.

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