Robert de Vere, 9th Earl of Oxford KG, 1362-1392

AV 6 Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford, K.G..jpg
AV 6 Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford, K.G..jpg

Robert de Vere, 9th Earl of Oxford KG, 1362-1392

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Robert was the only son of Thomas, 8th earl of Oxford. He became 9th Earl in 1371, and married Philippa, daughter of the Earl of Bedford, a son-in-law of Edward III, quickly becoming close to Richard II. Already great chamberlain of England, he was made a member of the privy council and a Knight of the Garter. While castles and lands were bestowed upon him he was constantly in the company of the young king. In 1385 Richard asked his friend to govern Ireland, and he was given extensive rights and created Marquess of Dublin.  Meanwhile the discontent felt at Richard's incompetence and extravagance was increasing, one cause being the king's partiality for Oxford. His divorce from Philippa, and marriage to a Bohemian lady increased the ire of the nobles against him. The king, indifferent to the gathering storm, created Vere Duke of Ireland in October 1386, and gave him still more extensive powers there, and so matters reached a climax. Richard was deprived of his authority for a short time, and Oxford was ordered in vain to proceed to Ireland. He was then accused by the Duke of Gloucester. Robert sped north and gathered an army to defend his royal master and himself. At Radcot Bridge in Oxfordshire his men fled. Oxford escaped to Holland. He was found guilty of treason in absentia and condemned to death but, with another exile, the Duke of Suffolk, he lived in Paris until Anglo French treaty in June 1389, when he took refuge at Louvain. Killed by a boar whilst hunting he left no children. In 1395 the King ordered his body back to England, and he was buried in the priory at Earl's Colne, Essex.

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Robert de Vere is principally remembered as Richard II’s closest friend and favourite. The very name de Vere is a synonym for noble birth, and indeed Robert was of high, even royal birth. Through his grand­ mother, Maud de Ufford, a grand-daughter of Edmund 'Crouchback', Earl of Lancaster, he was a fourth cousin of his royal friend and patron.

Robert de Vere succeeded his father as Earl of Oxford and hereditary Chamberlain of England in 1371, when he was but nine years old. Six years later he was knighted, and although still a minor he executed the office of Chamberlain at Richard's coronation, Richard being eleven years old at the time. A year before Richard succeeded his grandfather Edward III, de Vere had married another grandchild of the old king, Philippe, daughter of Enguerrand de Courcy, Earl of Bedford, and Isabel, Edward's eldest daughter. Such a marriage naturally strengthened the royal connections of the house of de Vere.

Unfortunately, it was not a happy union, for in 1387 the pope declared the marriage null and de Vere married his mistress, whom he had previously abducted. There is more than a suggestion that de Vere was also a homosexual and that his relationship with the king was in fact as intimate as his enemies insinuated. He certainly was a man of fashion and pleasure and though not without physical courage made no pretensions of being a great soldier.

Richard loaded him with favours in such profusion that the jealousy and hatred of his peers knew no bounds. In 1385 when de Vere went on an expedition to Scotland he was granted the Castle and Lordship of Queenborough. On this occasion Richard invoked the curse of God, St Edward and the king 'on all who should do anything against this grant'. The Order of the Garter followed and then, in open parliament, the king girded him with a sword, crowned him with a gold circlet and, by letters patent, created him Marquess of Dublin for life, giving him the lordship of Ireland with almost regal powers.

At the same time Richard also by patent assigned him a special coat of arms which he might use as long as he held the lordship of Ireland. These arms can be seen on de Vere's effigy and are blazoned Azure[1] three open Crowns Or[2] within a Bordure[3] Argent[4] or three golden crowns on a blue shield within a silver border. These arms he was authorized to bear quarterly with his own arms, that is to say Quarterly Gules[5] and Or in the first quarter a Mullet[6] Argent.

The arms for the lordship of Ireland, but without the border, were those assigned many years later to St Edmund, King of East Anglia, who was slain by the Danes in 870. The early heralds delighted in attributing arms in this way to pre-heraldic notables such as the apostles, saints and early kings. Several of these coats have found their way into official heraldry, such as that attributed to St Edward the Confessor, consisting of a blue shield charged with a patonce cross[7] between five birds. These arms were adopted by Richard II and he impaled them with his royal arms out of affection for his Patron and ancestor. They can be seen on the Wilton Diptych. It may be that he wished his friend to adopt St Edmund ­ who was greatly venerated at the time, his feast being a holiday of obligation when all had to attend mass - as his patron and so assigned him this coat.

The de Vere arms are almost certainly derived from those of Geoffrey de Mandeville who died in 1144, Quarterly Or and Gules. De Mandeville, who lived during the formative period of armorial bearings, married Rohese de Vere, daughter of Aubrey de Vere, 1st Earl of Oxford.

The introduction of the new title of Marquess, with precedence above earls, was scarcely likely to win the approval of the baronial party, but the barons possessed themselves in patience as they imagined that de Vere would shortly leave for Ireland. In this belief they were mistaken, for although he prepared he eventually sent Sir John Stanley as his lieutenant. In 1386, as if to provoke the barons still further, Richard created him Duke of Ireland for life and extended the great powers and wide jurisdictional already bestowed on him. The chronicler Froissart sums up the king's infatuation when he writes that if de Vere 'had said black was white, Richard would not have contradicted him'.

No man, especially one who was regarded as useless and effeminate, could survive such royal liberality long and de Vere was no exception. The king's uncle Gloucester and other nobles, generally referred to as the 'Lords Appellant', by sheer force of arms constrained the king to come to terms. Richard, however, managed to arrange for many of his friends to escape and de Vere, disguised as an archer, fled to Cheshire where he raised an army in the king's defence.

If only the young Earl of Oxford had spent more time in the field and less in the closet he might have succeeded but he was easily out-generalled by the Lords Appellant and fled abroad. He died a few years later in Louvain. By a curious irony his death was caused by an injury sustained whilst hunting the boar, a blue boar being one of the principal badges of his house. He was buried in Louvain, but later, when the king had crushed his enemies, he was exhumed at Richard’s express request, brought to England and in the royal presence, reburied at Earl's Colne amongst his ancestors.

As de Vere was a contemporary of John of Gaunt their armour is naturally similar. In de Vere's effigy both the sword and misericord have guard-chains attached to the breast and the texture of the jupon[8], being almost unadorned, can be discerned. If the jupon of the Black Prince may be fairly cited as an example of how this garment was constructed - and it is about the only one of this period extant ­ then it was a padded and quilted coat, that of the Black Prince being made of velvet, mounted on linen, stuffed with wool and lined with satin. Over his camail[9] de Vere wears a scalloped shoulder cape, like that worn by men of fashion, with hood and liripipe[10]. Like John of Gaunt he wears spurs with revolving serrated rowels[11] rather than the earlier prick-spur shown in the first four effigies. The blue boar badge of the de Vere’s referred to above is shown at Earl Robert's feet.

[1] The blue colour in coats of arms,

[2] Gold.

[3] A Bearing that goes all round, and parallel to the boundary of the Escutcheon, in form of a hem, and always contains a fifth part of the Field in breadth.

[4] Silver.

[5] Red, as one of the heraldic colours.

[6] The rowel (wheel) of a spur.

[7] A cross with its arms usually expanding in a curved form from the centre, having ends somewhat like those of the cross fleury.

[8] A close-fitting tunic or doublet; esp. one worn by knights under the hauberk, sometimes of thick stuff and padded.

[9] A piece of chain-mail armour attached to the basinet or head-piece and protecting the neck and shoulders.

[10] In early academical costume: The long tail of a graduate's hood.

[11] A small stellar wheel or disk with sharp radial points and capable of rotation, forming the extremity of a spur.