Longsword by David Pilling

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Happy Birthday...

...though I nearly missed it, to John de Vere, 13th Earl of Oxford, born on this day in 1442. Oxford was an extraordinary survivor, and without him the Tudor dynasty might have never been established. His life reads like some improbable adventure story, especially between the years 1471-85, which is why I have devoted this rather long blog post to him.

John de Vere, 13th Earl of Oxford

In an era of shifting loyalties and even shiftier personalities, Oxford stood out for his deathless loyalty to the House of Lancaster, even when the Lancastrian cause was all but dead and buried. Born the second son of the 12th Earl, another John, he was just twenty when his father and elder brother Aubrey were convicted of high treason and executed at Tower Hill within six days of each other. Both men had been convicted of plotting against the Yorkist King Edward IV, and their deaths may explain Oxford's unwavering commitment to bringing down the Yorkist regime.

For the time being he had no choice but to grin and bear it. Throughout the 1460s he kept up a reasonably convincing pretense of loyalty to a king he loathed, and was allowed to inherit his attainted father's titles and lands. In 1465 he was made a Knight of the Bath at the coronation of Edward's queen, Elizabeth Woodville, but in 1468 was committed to the Tower on suspicion of conspiring against the king. He probably only saved his head by dishing the dirt on two of his co-conspirators, who were sent to the block instead of him. A pretty unsavoury act, you might think, but the line between survival and the chop was often a mere hair's breadth in those days. Oxford had no intention of going the same way as so many of his peers.

He was released from the Tower and received a pardon in 1469, but King Edward would have done better to separate Oxford's body and soul when he had the chance. By July of that year Oxford had joined the disaffected rebels led by the Earl of Warwick - later known as The Kingmaker - and took part in the Edgecote campaign. He then fled overseas to join Henry VI's exiled Queen, Margaret of Anjou, and her son Prince Edward. In 1470 he joined Warwick and Clarence's invasion of England, which sent Edward IV fleeing into exile and restored Henry VI.

Edward IV

Alas, poor Henry. His wits were completely gone by this point, and he apparently had to be tied to his horse to prevent him sliding off when he was shown to the people. Mad or not, he was still the rightful anointed King of England to many, including Oxford. When Edward IV invaded England to reclaim his crown (England was pretty much Invasion City) he was confronted by an army commanded by Warwick. Cue the Battle of Barnet.

Oxford was in charge of the Lancastrian right wing. Frothing to get at the enemy, he led his men in a blood-and-thunder charge through thick mist directly at the opposing division. Depending on which source you believe, the Yorkists were either led by Lord Hastings or the teenage Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Whichever was in command, he could do little to prevent his division being smashed to bits by the ferocity of Oxford's charge.

Sadly, Oxford's victorious men got carried away and pursued the fleeing Yorkists for miles, or else got lost in the mist. Their commander managed to scrape together a few hundred of them and led them back to the field. Warwick's men, alarmed by the sudden appearance of troops behind them, mistook Oxford's livery badge, a star with streams, for King Edward's sun in splendour - or "Sunne in Splendour" for Sharon Penman fans - and loosed arrows at them. Panic swiftly spread through the Lancastrian ranks, and soon Warwick's army was scampering in all directions. The Kingmaker was caught and disposed of with a knife to the eye while trying to escape, while Oxford fled north with two of his brothers and just a few men for company.

A few days later the last remaining Lancastrian army was shattered at Tewkesbury. Prince Edward was slaughtered on the field, his mother packed off back to Anjou, and poor mad Henry died in the Tower of a lethal fit of depression induced by a club to the back of his head. The fat lady had sung until she was hoarse for Lancaster, and surely it made sense for any surviving loyalists to make their peace with the triumphant Edward IV.

Not Oxford. Undaunted by these catastrophes, he made his way to France from Scotland, got together a bunch of ships and turned to piracy, preying on Yorkist shipping in the Channel. From lord of the manor to Long John Silver. In England his lands were seized and his loyal wife, Margaret, subjected to great hardships, even being obliged to make her living as a seamstress for a while. Fancy a noblewoman having to work for a living, eh?

St Michael's Mount in Cornwall

Tired of playing pirate, in 1473 Oxford tried to land at St Osyth in Essex, but was repelled. A few months later he popped up in Cornwall, where he seized the remote fortress of St Michael's Mount and dared the Yorkists to prise him out. A brave gesture, but pretty futile by this point: the capture of one pipsqueak of a fortress in Cornwall wasn't likely to cause Edward IV many sleepless nights. Even so, Oxford held the Mount against repeated assaults until February 1474. At last, deserted by most of his men and injured by an arrow-wound to his face, he was compelled to surrender, and carted off to prison at Hammes Castle near Calais.

Oxford was a prisoner for ten years. During that time his widowed mother was forced to sell her lands for about half their annual value to Richard of Gloucester - that's Saint Dickon of Middleham, by the way - and his old ally, the Duke of Clarence, executed by King Edward after one nefarious antic too many. It may have been Clarence's death that prompted Oxford to make an attempt at either suicide or escape: in 1478 he escaped his prison, scaled the walls of the castle and hurled himself into the moat, breaking both his legs. The guards fished him out before he could drown, and carried him back to pokey.

So now the Lancastrian cause consisted of a few scattered malcontents, one nobleman languishing in custody with busted legs, and an obscure quarter-Welsh exile named Henry Tudor. A pretty hopeless cause, but everything changed when Edward IV caught a chill while out boating and died unexpectedly in 1483. Much shenanigans ensued, the precise details of which will be squabbled over (probably via Facebook) until Doomsday, but the upshot was that the dead king's youngest brother, Richard of Gloucester, emerged from the scrum with the crown and the 'III' after his name.

Richard III

Whatever you make of Richard, his vile usurpation/rightful accession acted as a magical kiss of life to the ailing Lancastrian patient. His brief two-year reign was beset with rebellions and conspiracies, most of them focusing on the pretender across the Channel, Henry Tudor, he of the Welsh blood and extraordinarily dubious claim to the throne. Henry's first attempt at an invasion in 1483 fizzled out, but his cause was boosted when Oxford suddenly appeared at his court in Brittany.

The subtle earl, plenty more than just a bone-headed soldier, had spent the years since his accident cultivating the friendship of his gaoler at Hammes, Sir James Blount. When Richard III gave orders for Oxford to be transferred to England, Blount instead released his prisoner and rode with him to join Tudor. Henry was apparently "ravished with joy incredible" at acquiring Oxford for an ally, and the cherry on the cake was when Oxford rode straight back to Hammes and fetched the garrison to join the steadily growing rebel army.

Along with Henry's uncle Jasper, Oxford was the most experienced soldier at Henry's command, and was part of the ragbag army of exiles and French mercenaries that landed at Milford Haven in 1485 and marched to the fateful meeting with Richard III's forces at Bosworth.

Oxford commanded Henry's vanguard at the battle. Determined to make up for his mistakes at Barnet, he employed some clever tactics, ordering his men to stay within ten feet of their standards and maneuvering to keep the sun and the wind behind him as he advanced up the hill to meet Richard's vanguard. The Yorkists, led by the Duke of Norfolk, broke their teeth on Oxford's well-ordered lines. At some point Norfolk himself was slain, possibly in single combat with Oxford himself. Shortly afterwards Richard launched his famous last charge, to meet with glory and death just a sword's-length from Henry Tudor.

With the accession of Henry VII, the wheel of fate had turned again for Oxford. He was restored to all his estates and titles and loaded down with important offices, including Lord Admiral. Bosworth was not to be his last fight, and he led the line again for King Henry at Stoke and Blackheath, but he would never again be reduced to poverty, piracy or prison. In the fullness of time he died, full of years and honours, at Castle Hedingham in 1513. Highly thought of by his peers, the last word on him goes to the Countess of Surrey, who wrote:

"I have found my lord of Oxford a singular very good and kind lord to my lord and me, and steadfast in his promise...for him I dreaded most and yet as hitherto I find him best."

"Steadfast in his promise" serves as a fine epitaph for John de Vere, a man who never wavered from the oath he swore to his king.


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  6. Great article, as usual. However, can you clarify which side of the Wars of the Roses you favor? ;-)

    1. Neither, believe it or not! Or at least it would be neither if the coverage and popular depiction was even-handed, which it isn't.

  7. Interesting one Dave Pilling. I was taught that Oxford's mother was 'encouraged' to give up her lands to Glouceste with some rather underhand tactics. So much for Saint Dickie.....

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