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Ramon Jiménez reviews John de Vere: Thirteenth Earl of Oxford, The Foremost Man of the Kingdom by James Ross

`The Foremost Man of the Kingdom’: John de Vere, Thirteenth Earl of Oxford (1442-1513) by James Ross. The Boydell Press. 2011. Paperback ed. 2015.

Reviewed by Ramon Jiménez

Review first published in the Summer 2015 issue of the Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter

Oxford’s Most Illustrious Ancestor—John de Vere, the Thirteenth Earl

In his opening paragraph, James Ross describes John de Vere, thirteenth Earl of Oxford, as “the last great medieval nobleman.” He continues:

Earl of Oxford for fifty years, subject of no fewer than six kings of England during one of the most turbulent periods of English history, De Vere’s career included more changes of fortune than almost any other. . . . He suffered personal tragedy as a teenager, with the execution of his father and brother, and a decade in prison in Hammes castle . . .

A more dramatic, uncertain, and unsettled a life may only be imagined, yet by the age of forty-three, after a leading role in the Battle of Bosworth and the accession of the first Tudor king, the thirteenth Earl achieved such a level of wealth and influence that he was called “the foremost man of the kingdom.” But by then he was nearly alone. The entire previous generation of de Veres was dead. Only one of his four brothers remained alive, and he had no children of his own.

James Ross’s biography of John de Vere is wide-ranging, detailed and heavily annotated. He cites dozens of manuscripts, hundreds of printed sources (including the well-known Paston Letters), and more than a dozen unpublished theses. But his narrative style is light and readable, he is careful to claim no more than he can document, and he often includes contrary opinions.

by 1500 Oxford became one of the richest men in the kingdom. He restored and modernized Hedingham Castle after fourteen years of disuse, constructing the surviving bridge and the great hall, and building the first tennis court on the property.

In 1462, at the age of nineteen, John de Vere barely escaped execution with his father, John, the twelfth Earl, and his older brother Aubrey for a plot against Edward IV, who had seized the crown from Henry VI the previous year. He recovered his family’s wealth and lands, and his earldom only a few years later, after marrying Margaret Neville, sister of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, a key supporter of King Edward. But his alliance with Edward and the Yorkists was short and uneasy, as Warwick and Edward fell out over Edward’s secret marriage to Elizabeth Woodville and whom to support in the French civil war. Under suspicion of treason, Oxford was seized and put in irons in the Tower late in 1468, with rumors flying about his beheading. Pardoned a few months later, he was among those who fled to France with Warwick in 1470 to join Henry VI and Queen Margaret.

Later in the year, Oxford was with the invading Lancastrian army, headed by Warwick and backed by France, that surprised Edward and caused him to flee to the continent with a few followers. In October, the thirteenth Earl bore the sword of state as Henry VI was recrowned at St. Paul’s. Oxford was appointed Constable of England and Steward of the Royal Household, but Henry’s restoration did not last long. Just a few months later, Edward and his army landed in Yorkshire and gained enough support as he traveled south that an opposing force under the Duke of Exeter and the Earl of Oxford was obliged to fall back rather than challenge him. In April 1471 Edward entered London unopposed and imprisoned Henry VI.

Less than two weeks later, Edward and his Yorkist army met the Lancastrians, under the command of the Earls of Warwick and Oxford, in a critical battle near Barnet, just north of London. In the early fighting, Oxford’s men on the right routed the Yorkist left and entered the town, but in the ensuing confusion they were misidentified as Edward’s troops and attacked by another contingent in their own army. The result was a chaotic retreat and a resounding defeat of the Lancastrian army, during which the Earl of Warwick was killed.

Ross is dubious of the traditional story that the badge that Oxford’s men wore, “a star with streams,” Oxford’s emblem, was mistaken for King Edward’s badge, “the sun with streams,” causing the incident of friendly fire. He argues that Oxford’s men, if not wearing the full de Vere coat of arms, would have been wearing a simple mullet, a five-pointed star, not a star with streams, which he asserts was “an unknown de Vere badge.” It is more likely, he writes, that the friendly fire was due to “a group of men in the fog returning to a battlefield which had swung nearly ninety degrees and coming up on their own men by mistake.”

In Richard III, Edward IV credits John de Vere with striking him down at the battle of Tewkesbury, but the historical Earl was not there.

Oxford again fled England, this time to Scotland, where he and his brothers were issued a six-month safe conduct by King James III. At about the same time, Queen Margaret and her son, the eighteen-year-old Prince Edward, landed in Dorset with yet another Lancastrian army that they had raised on the continent. The final crucial battle came in early May 1471 at Tewkesbury, where Edward overwhelmed their army, captured Margaret, and killed her son. Now Edward ordered the murder of Henry VI, thus ending, if only temporarily, the seven-decade-long reign of the house of Lancaster. Again in full control of the country, Edward awarded nearly all of Oxford’s estates, including Hedingham Castle, to his own brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester.

The thirteenth Earl remained at large, returning to France and obtaining aid from Louis XI, who was eager “to stir up trouble for Edward.” In the spring of 1473, he led a dozen or so ships in raids on England’s eastern and southern coasts, and late in September sailed to Cornwall and seized the castle on St. Michael’s Mount. He remained there for nearly six months with no more than eighty men, including his brothers, George and Thomas, before surrendering with only a promise that he and all his men, save two, would be spared their lives. Edward imprisoned Oxford in Hammes Castle on the outskirts of Calais, and a year later the three de Vere brothers were attainted, all their remaining lands and goods being forfeited to the King. In the meantime, Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, the last of the Beaufort branch of the house of Lancaster, was seeking support in France for an overthrow of Edward IV.

Alliance With the Tudors

Ironically, it was the seizure of the crown by Richard III in 1483, and the subsequent alienation of many of Edward’s followers, that led to Oxford’s escape from Hammes. In late 1484, his custodian, Sir James Blount, abandoned his post, and the two of them joined Henry Tudor and his expatriate court in Paris. Oxford’s reputation, military experience, and lengthy opposition to the Yorkists made him a most welcome addition to Henry’s cause. In describing this incident, Ross cites a report that it was Thomas, Lord Stanley, Richard’s Constable of England at the time, who persuaded Blount to release Oxford. What makes the story likely is that in 1472 Thomas Stanley had married Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry Tudor. This affinity would have given him ample reason to facilitate Oxford’s support of his stepson.

In August of the following year, Henry’s invasion fleet of less than 3000 men landed at Milford Haven in Pembrokeshire, friendly Tudor country. The march into Leicestershire and the subsequent defeat and death of Richard at Bosworth are well known. Despite Richard’s superior numbers, Oxford’s contingent of archers, in the vanguard, held off the Yorkists until the last-minute intervention of 3000 troops under the command of Sir William Stanley, Thomas’s younger brother, secured Henry’s victory.

Within a month of the victory at Bosworth, Oxford was made Admiral of England and Constable of the Tower of London (and keeper of the lions and leopards in the Tower). He officiated as Lord Great Chamberlain at the coronation of Henry VII, the first de Vere to do so in a hundred years. A year later the christening of Henry’s son Arthur was postponed for four days so that Oxford could be present. With the recovery of his ancestral lands and various royal appointments, as well as additional purchases of rent-producing estates, by 1500 Oxford became one of the richest men in the kingdom. He restored and modernized Hedingham Castle after fourteen years of disuse, constructing the surviving bridge and the great hall, and building the first tennis court on the property. Ross supplies a map of five East Anglian counties showing more than eighty estates, manors and other properties in his possession. Rents from his properties, combined with fees from royal appointments, wardships, etc., gave him an annual income of more than £4000. In contrast, the seventeenth Earl, just sixty years later, inherited an income of approximately £2200 per year.

But even after Bosworth, Oxford’s military exploits were not finished. In June 1487 Henry VII defeated an invading army of diehard Yorkists under the Earl of Lincoln at Stoke Field in Nottinghamshire. As before, Oxford commanded the vanguard of 6000 men that “broke the back of the rebels’ resistance” in the last battle of the so-called Wars of the Roses. (Despite writing at least four plays treating the wars, Shakespeare never used the phrase.)

Within a month of the victory at Bosworth, Oxford was made Admiral of England and Constable of the Tower of London (and keeper of the lions and leopards in the Tower).

For nearly thirty years after Bosworth, the thirteenth Earl reigned as the most important magnate in East Anglia and served in Henry’s inner circle of counselors. Various documents of the time attest to his generosity toward his household and the surrounding community. To honor a family tradition, he arranged for the remains of his father, brother and mother to be moved from their graves in London to the family mausoleum at Earls Colne. According to Ross, the Earl could read French and Latin, as well as English, and was an occasional patron of literature, commissioning several translations into English by William Caxton. He had a particular interest in music and kept a “chapel,” a choir or body of singers that doubled as a company of players. The thirteenth Earl died at seventy at Hedingham Castle in 1513, and the earldom passed to another John, son of his younger brother Sir George Vere.

In Ross’s opinion, we can put to rest the report that Henry VII fined the thirteenth Earl 15,000 marks for “retaining” too many servants. That account appears in a 1621 biography of Henry VII by Francis Bacon, in which he claimed that at his departure from Hedingham Castle on one occasion, Henry noted the multitude of the Earl’s servants ranged in lines on either side of him. According to Bacon, the Earl replied that most of them “are come to do me service at such a time as this, and chiefly to see your Grace.” But there is no record of the Earl paying such a fine, and no record of its receipt by the Crown. Ross calls the story “century-old hearsay,” citing two historians of the period who agree with him and one who doesn’t. Bacon himself introduced the episode with the phrase, “There remaineth to this day a report . . . .” Other background information—about the practice of fines for “retaining,” and about the small amounts that the Earl did pay to the Crown—makes it nearly certain that the report is apocryphal.

The Thirteenth Earl and Shakespeare

The prominence of the thirteenth Earl in the Bosworth bas-relief, just behind Henry Tudor, makes it likely that it was he who commissioned it, and installed it at Hedingham Castle… It is also likely that it was still there in the 1550s, and that the young Edward de Vere saw it every day during the time that he lived there. 

Ross’s biography fills a gap in the history of the Oxford earls, and enhances our understanding of the seventeenth Earl. Although they were only distant cousins, and separated by three generations, the seventeenth Earl, who at the age of twelve lost his own father, probably took a keen interest in the dramatic reversals of fortune that his ancestor experienced. He would have found his exploits in the chronicles of Robert Fabyan, Polydore Vergil and Edward Hall, each of which was in the library of his tutor, Sir Thomas Smith, or that of his guardian, Lord Burghley. He must have been proud of Earl John’s example of military activity, bravery and persistence of purpose. In one of a dozen short speeches he gave him in 3 Henry VI, the thirteenth Earl alludes to Edward IV’s executions of his father and brother, and declares, “while life upholds this arm / This arm upholds the house of Lancaster” (III.iii.101-105). In Richard III, Edward IV credits John de Vere with striking him down at the battle of Tewkesbury, but the historical Earl was not there. He was with the Earl of Richmond in the same play, however, at Bosworth, where, as the chroniclers report, he was put in command of the vanguard of Richmond’s army.

The positive role given to Thomas, Lord Stanley in Richard III—only partially supported in the chronicles—has been noticed by several scholars, and is further evidence that the seventeenth Earl was the author of the Shakespeare canon. Without Thomas Stanley’s intervention in 1484, John de Vere might have remained in Hammes Castle and Henry Tudor’s invasion might have faltered. Similarly, without Sir William Stanley’s last-minute support of Henry at Bosworth, it is likely that Richard would have prevailed. (In the play, this role is given to Thomas Stanley, later Earl of Derby, who withheld aid from Richard at the crucial moment.) Absent these actions by the Stanleys, the thirteenth Earl might have died in prison or fallen at Bosworth. In either case, it is likely that the Oxford earldom would have been extinguished, and there would have been no Tudor dynasty. The author of the canon had reason to be grateful to the Stanleys. (So had the author of The True Tragedy of Richard the Third, Oxford’s first attempt at the story, where he included the same favorable treatment of the Stanleys.)

It is well known that Edward de Vere fervently wished to serve his Queen in the military. But to our good fortune, his contribution to the Tudor legacy, one hundred years after Bosworth, would be literary rather than military.

The Bosworth Bas-Relief

The cover of the book is illustrated with a small section of the Bosworth bas-relief, the magnificent, sculpted chimney-piece discovered in an Essex barn in 1736. Its provenance prior to that is unknown, although local historians suggest that in the 1680s it was situated in Bois Hall, a manor in Halstead that may have belonged to the Earls of Oxford. After its discovery in 1736, it was restored and installed in the library at Gosfield Hall, just outside of Halstead. In her article in this Newsletter in 1993 (v. 29:4), Linda McLatchie described it as follows:

The artistic center of the carving is Henry VII, wielding a sword and rearing up

on his horse. Directly behind Henry VII is John, 13th Earl of Oxford, commander

of the Lancastrian archers during the battle. . . . All combatants are on horse, with

the exception of Richard, who is unhorsed and lying under the hooves of Henry

VII’s horse. . . . The prostrate Richard, still in full battle armor, grasps his crown

with both hands. Also shown fallen in battle, although still on horse, is the Duke

of Norfolk. Other notables who are armorially represented are Herbert, Stafford,

Surrey, Blount, Digby, Brandon, and Radcliffe.

Carved in stone, the bas-relief is nearly seven feet long and two feet high. At either end are statues of Henry VII and Queen Elizabeth of York, grandmother of Elizabeth I. On the plinth holding Henry’s statue, a red rose has been painted; on that of Elizabeth, a white rose—signaling the reconciliation of the houses of Lancaster and York.

By the end of the eighteenth century, Gosfield Hall had come into the possession of George Grenville, first Marquess of Buckingham. About two decades later, his son moved the bas-relief to his mansion at Stowe in Buckinghamshire, where it was installed in the Gothic Library. After a checkered history during the nineteenth century, the mansion was sold to a private party, and in 1923 opened as Stowe School, a public school for boys, where the bas-relief can be seen today in the headmaster’s study.

The prominence of the thirteenth Earl in the Bosworth bas-relief, just behind Henry Tudor, makes it likely that it was he who commissioned it, and installed it at Hedingham Castle at some time during the two decades following the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. It is also likely that it was still there in the 1550s, and that the young Edward de Vere saw it every day during the time that he lived there. But, as noted, nothing is known of the bas-relief prior to 1736. Although the publisher claims that the bas-relief was “made for Castle Hedingham,” both the archivist at Stowe School and the thirteenth Earl’s biographer, James Ross, replied to my inquiries that they had no information about who commissioned it, who made it, when it was completed, or where it was installed. Answers to these questions, if they can be answered, will depend on further research.