The Medieval Review 11.07.13

Ross, James. John de Vere, Thirteenth Earl of Oxford, 1442-1513: 'The Foremost Man of the Kingdom'. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2011. Pp. xi, 281. $99. 9781843836148. . .

Reviewed by:

Joel T. Rosenthal
State University of New York at Stony Brook (emeritus)

That we cannot write "real" biographies of medieval men and women has become an accepted commonplace. The usual problem is the lack of sources that reveal the inner thoughts and private life of the individual (or family, for collective biography), or so we are told. I suggest that this accepted wisdom could use some rethinking. In the first place, whatever the limits imposed by lost or opaque or official sources, biography continues to exercise a fascination for historians (and, we hope, for their readers). Turning to James Ross's bibliography of secondary materials as given in this well-researched and readable study of the 13th Earl of Oxford, there are eight references to royal biography (going back to Cora Scofield's 1923 study of Edward IV) and twenty-six to books and articles on people of note below the royals. So whatever the obstacles that confront those who choose to write about medieval lives, our interest in learning about people of the past seems to override them by a considerable margin; biography is just too appealing to keep away from. My other criticism of the commonplace about "real" biography is to suggest that the value of inner thoughts and private lives is easily over- estimated. Neither the Earl of Oxford nor the Kingmaker of Warwick nor the Stanley earls of Derby, nor any of their fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century contemporaries, are likely to be mistaken for the intellectual equal of Bertrand Russell or the sentient siblings of John Keats, even were their private diaries and notes of their therapy sessions to turn up in the archives. I offer that the "inner lives" of such people--male or female, royal or of a lesser sort--are adequately illuminated by a close study of what they did and said, as far as our records inform us. I doubt if the inner thoughts of the 13th Earl of Oxford would take us much farther than Ross has been able to go.

The 13th Earl of Oxford was the only peer of the very long-lasting de Vere family--with the short-term exception of the 9th earl, Richard II's duke of Ireland (d. 1392)--to rise and then to maintain a position of power and eminence in both his regional sphere and in the king's counsels. The 13th earl owed his "foremost man" status to a number of factors, the most important being those twists and turns of politics that brought Henry VII to the throne with Oxford as one of his inner circle. Oxford, born the second son of the 12th earl, was an unforgiving and consistent opponent of the Yorkist dynasty, his disaffection no doubt being rooted in his resentment of the rather casual executions of his father and older brother (by "the law of Padua") for their supposed role in the mysterious conspiracy of 1462. Earl John, our earl, laid low and survived, escaping from prison to join the Lancastrians on the Continent (and later to join Henry Tudor as well). His sustained and unquestioned Lancastrian sympathies and efforts, including a valiant if losing command at Barnet in 1471, ultimately paved the way for his central role under Henry VII.

Ross works through the long and successful career of Oxford, post 1485, in a series of parallel narratives. First, and most important and accessible, is the tale of Oxford's political and military service to the first Tudor king: raising troops and fighting at Bosworth in 1485, at Stoke in 1487, and at Blackheath in 1497. He proved to be a brave and capable soldier who learned from defeat at Barnet, fighting for a king with virtually no battlefield experience of his own. Such service earned the rewards that came the earl's way: admiral, great chamberlain, knight of the garter, steward of the royal household, trier of petitions in parliament, master forester of Essex, among other formal (and lucrative) honors and offices. After the political we turn to the economic. Though the earl's own landed estate was modest (de Vere manors are shown on a map [92]), it was supplemented by a series of royal grants and favors, minorities, purchases, claims through marriage, marriages and wardships of minors; the usual perquisites of good service. So while Oxford's lands were worth about £2000 per annum, this only represented roughly half his yearly income. In toto his resources put him near the top as aristocratic revenues went. They more than sufficed for even a great household, and for a man who was able to create a loyal affinity without huge cash outlays from his own purse, they left him enough for various ambitious building projects that went beyond the expected level of conspicuous consumption.

Next Ross deals with the earl's almost-unqualified success in creating that affinity that gave him unwonted power in East Anglia, a position that came to him by virtue of his ability, the king's favor, and the eclipse of some powerful aristocratic families (de la Pole, Howard, and Bourgchier) that had pushed earlier earls of Oxford into a second- tier position in East Anglia. Lastly Ross looks at the more personal; the earl's (conventional) religious convictions and benefactions, his disposition of his vast wealth and estate (going primarily to his brother's son, the wastrel and incompetent 14th earl), and what we can say about his character and personality. That the earl died (at 9 pm on 10 March, 1513, at Castle Hedingham) with £2100 in ready money, another £1300 outstanding as owed to him, and about £4800 in goods and personal possessions is a powerful testimonial to a lifetime of good service, to being in the right place at least some of the right times, and of a frugality that was never considered to be mean or ungenerous for a man of his stature.

This is a good, fairly standard, biography of an important man, looking mostly at his many days in the sun. One interesting theme that Ross enlarges on is how the new king needed the earl of Oxford almost as badly as the earl needed the new king. De Vere's age, experience, military prowess, and unquestioned loyalty created a reciprocity that is easy to overlook in our search for the roots of Tudor despotism. Oxford was granted--or allowed to have--an unusual amount of independence and autonomy in the affairs and governance of East Anglia, including the mustering of troops. Furthermore, this control was handed over to him with few qualifications. In fact, Ross emphasizes that the young and newly-crowned Henry Tudor was not, or not yet, the penny-pinching micro-manager that we are used to seeing. An uncertain monarch, just learning how to rule and with whom to do it, was very pleased with all that Oxford had done and would continue to do to help stabilize his throne. It was only in the early sixteenth century, when few challenges to the throne were pressing and when Oxford was aging that the earl began to withdraw from court and to look mostly to his own passing and the disposition of his title and resources.

This study of a nobleman who has not been seriously treated before is a welcome addition to the shelf. One aspect of Ross's analysis of interest is his heavy reliance on the Paston Letters, often cited here to illustrate the way Oxford built, held, and rewarded his affinity (as in his dealings with John Paston III, d. 1503). We generally read the Paston Letters as a case study in the rise of a pushy family, as in the work of Colin Richmond. Or else we turn to them to examine the local scene during the Wars of the Roses, as in the work of Helen Castor. And sometimes we use them to exemplify lay piety in a lively corner of the kingdom, as David Knowles and Gillian Pritchard have done. But Ross uses the many letters that pass between John III and Oxford to show how a peer gave orders, distributed favors, and built the two-way relationships on which county government was built.

If this study falls short of those purported goals of biography about which I have expressed some skepticism, it does demonstrate the value of a study that focuses, perforce, on res gestae; "inner thoughts" are only revealed by the wording of official and private documents, letters, the last will of the earl, and other such sources. This is quite sufficient. We know of the tough minded side of a great nobleman. We also see a softer side, as when Oxford made overtures to the Howards after their "wrong side" choice at Bosworth cast them into the shade. We see the power of patriarchy and family affection, when Oxford twice reburied his father to remove the stigma of that hasty and dishonorable execution. When Ross moves to sum up the earl, with an eye on explaining his long years in the sun, he talks of "generosity, magnanimity, bravery and familial loyalty...[and] when such personal virtues were allied with more political ones, it goes some way to explaining his success..." (222). This seems a convincing guide to the role and power of a durable and capable figure at the end of our traditional periodization for medieval Europe.