The Foremost Man of the Kingdom, by James Ross

An excellent sourcebook, packed full of everything one could possibly want to know about John de Vere.
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This is an excellent sourcebook, packed full of everything one could possibly want to know about John de Vere, 13th earl of Oxford and his family. And, perhaps, everything one might not want to know.

The book is split into two parts. The first is a study of Oxford’s ancestors and his remarkable career. Plenty of noblemen fell from grace in the bloody, unpredictable world of late 15th century England. Not many rose again, Lazarus-like, to claw back all they had lost and die in bed, at an advanced age, rich and respected. At his lowest point, Oxford found himself up to his chin in the watery ditch of Hammes castle, in what looks like a suicide attempt. Within a few years, he was fully restored to wealth and power in England, and stayed that way.

Yet Ross is careful not to glamorise his subject. For instance, in 1468 Oxford fell under suspicion and was locked up in the Tower. To save himself, he turned king’s evidence and ratted on his co-conspirators, who were executed. The alternative was to go the block himself, but the episode doesn’t cast Oxford in a very attractive light. It was him or them, and it sure as hell wasn’t going to be him.

The author also deconstructs the image of Oxford as a Lancastrian diehard, as Shakespeare portrayed him. In reality he was driven by revenge on Edward IV, who had executed his father and elder brother. In that respect he was neither pro nor anti-Lancaster, except where it suited his purpose. First he threw in his lot with the Duke of Clarence, then the King of France, or anyone who might help him get revenge. Finally he joined Henry Tudor, in 1485, because it represented his last chance of regaining his lost earldom. Otherwise he would die in exile or prison.

The second half, after Oxford’s restoration, is less exciting. This section is devoted to the earl’s household, governance of East Anglia (his power base) and dealings with local gentry and townships. To that end Ross seems to have combed every single surviving record, and put them in the book. This includes hundreds of dry financial and court records, and lengthy discussion thereof. Excellent for researchers and archivists, but not exactly racy, page-turning stuff. Nor is it meant to be, of course.

With my novelist hat on, I would have preferred a little more swashbuckling, and a little less estate management: for instance, Oxford’s attack on the town of Ardres near Boulogne – ‘the betinge down of Adre’ – is referred to a single line. Since this was the only excitement of Henry VII’s French campaign in 1492, I would have liked to know more. Then again, perhaps there isn’t much more to tell. Ross is a scholar to his boots, and doesn’t really ‘do’ speculation. Which is fair enough, when you consider the raging speculation this era tends to attract (*cough Richard III cough*)

Apart from that murky business in the Tower, Oxford emerges as a relatively attractive figure; or as attractive as a violent, power-driven late medieval aristocrat can be. Unlike several of his peers, he fully appreciated the need for ‘good lordship’ i.e. being good to his underlings. They, in turn, would deal fairly with him. One gentleman, who had profited from de Vere’s largesse, even asked to be buried at the foot of his tomb. De Vere could also be generous to people further down the scale: he paid for the wedding of a servant, which is a nice touch.

Oxford also recognised the need for reconciliation. He took several former Yorkists into his service, with no grudges held, and was magnaminous towards former political rivals. He was particularly generous towards the Howard family after Bosworth, which came as a great relief to the Countess of Surrey. As she remarked in a letter to John Paston:

“…hym I drede mooste and yet as hyther to I finde hym beste”

Otherwise, the earl comes across as an efficient, no-nonsense magnate, who kept East Anglia firmly under control. As Ross shows, this contrasts starkly with the chaos in other parts of England, particularly during the first half of Henry VII’s turbulent reign. Henry, usually so suspicious, put his complete trust in the earl, who repaid it in spades. The story that Henry slapped Oxford with a heavy fine for illegal retaining appears to be just that, a story. Apart from lack of proof, the first Tudor king was not about to alienate his go-to fixer and military commander.

Whenever there was a crisis – every five minutes or so – Oxford was sent to deal with it. To quote Prince Harry in The Black Adder, this usually involved a certain amount of violence. Oxford not only led the line for his master in three battles (Bosworth, Stoke and Blackheath), but stamped on dangerous conspiracies and usurpers, from Northumberland to Cornwall. Thanks to the aforesaid ‘good lordship’, he was able to call up the men of East Anglia, time and time again. Henry VII’s carefully constructed image of the ‘Mab Darogan’, a Welsh saviour who came to liberate his country under the red dragon of Cadwalader, rather belies the fact that he owed his survival to a bunch of obscure blokes from Norfolk. Some of these men have names – John Colt, Roger Wiseman, Robert Tyrell – many others are just numbers on a payroll. They saw hard service, and risked death and maiming for Henry’s sake.

Oxford was a busy man, and left few records of his thoughts. This leaves many of his more personal actions open to interpretation. For instance, did he take custody of his friend Viscount Beaumont, after the latter went insane, out of kindness or self-interest? When Beaumont died, Oxford was quick to marry his widow. Perhaps there was genuine affection between them, or it was just a way of securing her late husband’s estates. Or perhaps all the above. People are not straightforward, and it is too easy to assign a single motive.

Overall, the 13th earl comes across as a conventional nobleman of the time, but an exceptionally tough and determined one. His tastes were conventional: hunting, gambling, tennis, some literary interests, although vague references to ‘frenshe and englisshe bokes’ in his possession don’t shed much light. There are no touches of humour in his surviving correspondence, sadly, although one can expect too much: he wasn’t writing for our amusement, after all.

The Foremost Man of the Kingdom by James Ross is out now. David Pilling is a historian and novelist.