On this date in 1462, the 12th Earl of Oxford, John de Vere, was beheaded in the Tower of London during the Wars of the Roses.
The heir to one of the realm’s most ancient noble titles — one of the early Earls of Oxford was on hand for the Magna Carta — John de Vere was a Lancastrian during those treacherous years. He’d even been knighted as a young man with the (then-four-year-old, but already king) Henry Vi.
Despite due loyalty to his sovereign, however, he largely stayed out of the running contest for the throne. This neat trick served him well when the Lancastrian cause went pear-shaped.
Given his apolitical record, it’s a surprise to find Lord Oxford and his son Aubrey suddenly arrested in early February 1463, for treasonable correspondence with the deposed Lancastrian queen Margaret of Anjou. The precise nature of the “conspiracy” remains fuzzy,* as does the theretofore cautious Lord Oxford’s reason for involving himself in such a dangerous enterprise. (Aubrey might have been the moving spirit.) The verdict, however, was very sharp, for father and son alike, leaving the earldom to pass to Aubrey’s younger brother John de Vere.**
This man’s family is, of course, well known in literary fields. The 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, was an Elizabethan writer who’s been frequently hypothesized as the actual creator of the Shakespeare canon — the so-called Oxfordian theory of authorship. If so, perhaps he took a little special relish in writing into 3 Henry VI (Act 3, Scene 3) his predecessor’s brief against the Yorkists.
Can Oxford, that did ever fence the right,
Now buckler falsehood with a pedigree?
For shame! leave Henry, and call Edward king.
Call him my king by whose injurious doom
My elder brother, the Lord Aubrey Vere,
Was done to death? and more than so, my father,
Even in the downfall of his mellow’d years,
When nature brought him to the door of death?
No, Warwick, no; while life upholds this arm,
This arm upholds the house of Lancaster.
* This biography of the 13th earl rummages the sparse available evidence, but concludes that apart from a few basic facts the available accounts “agree on little else, and it is not easy to establish a coherent account of the episode, what form the conspiracy took, how it was betrayed, and above all, by what was it motivated.” Just those minor details.
** Several other conspirators besides the de Veres were also put to death in the affair. Minor consolation: the sentencing judge, John Tiptoft, was in 1470 executed himself.