Marriage and the Nevills – Margaret Nevill and John de Vere, earl of Oxford

Posted: February 5, 2011 in John de Vere, Earl of Oxford, Margaret Nevill, Countess of Oxford, Marriage & the Nevills

Margaret Nevill (c 1444 – 15 November 1506) was the youngest child of the countess and earl of Salisbury. John de Vere (8 Sept 1442 – 10 March 1512/3) was the second son of John de Vere, earl of Oxford, and Elizabeth Howard. By the time they married, in 1465, both families had had their share of triumph, tragedy and turmoil. In their forty one year marriage, Margaret and John were to face a good deal of their own.

In the ordinary course of events, it is unlikely that John would have succeeded to his father’s title. His older brother, Aubrey, was married to Anne Stafford (daughter of the duke of Buckingham). They had no children but, had his life been allowed to run its natural course, children would have been expected in the not too distant future. However, in February 1462, both he and his father were executed for treason. This did not endear young John to the new Yorkist regime. Despite this, Edward IV seemed to have had few questions about his loyalty as, on 18 January, he was allowed to succeed to his father’s title and, some time the following year, he and Margaret were married. Quite apart from winning a title for his sister, the earl of Warwick (along with the young king, Edward IV) may have seen this match as a means of encouraging, if not ensuring, young Oxford’s loyalty.

The young couple would have been based at Castle Hedingham in Essex, and were among the pre-eminent families in East Anglia. The only mention I have of any children is, in my view, rather dubious. In Kingmaker’s Sisters, David Baldwin says: “Margaret had a son, George, who was living in 1478 but who is said to have died in the Tower during his father’s exile.” He gives no source, and there is no mention of any offspring in either John or Margaret’s entry in A quick search has turned up no George de Vere (born between 1465 and 1471, dying after 1478) who Baldwin may have given to the Oxfords in error. If anyone out there does have a source for this child’s existence, I’d be most awfully pleased to see it!

In 1468, just three years into their marriage, Oxford took his first tentative steps into opposition. He was implicated in a plot to restore Henry VI and briefly consigned to the Tower. He confessed all that he knew and was quickly pardoned and released. Within three months, he’d joined his brother-in-law, the earl of Warwick, and the duke of Clarence in rebellion. He may even have been in Calais for the wedding of Clarence and Isobel Nevill on 11 July 1469. It he was there, it seems unlikely that his countess accompanied him.

He was with Warwick and Clarence when they returned to England and took a prominent role during the Readeption of Henry VI. As Constable of England, he had the satisfaction of pronouncing sentence of death on John Tiptoft, earl of Worcester – the man who had ordered the deaths of Oxford’s father and brother some nine years earlier.

Apart from a few tiny glimpses, we have no real clue as to the state of the Oxfords’ marriage. Twice in letters – one to Margaret and one to John Paston – Oxford indicates that he is prepared to rely on her to carry out his wishes. Margaret may have been involved in a (much later) attempt by her husband to escape from imprisonment in Hammes castle – she certainly sought, and received, a general pardon around this time. After Bosworth, the couple resettled into their old life at Hedingham. Margaret had suffered through years of straitened finances and made no attempt to end their marriage – despite her cousin Anne, duchess of Exeter’s, fine example. Even after an (albeit shortlived) second marriage after her death, Oxford chose to be buried with his first wife. While very scant and circumstantial, all this, to me, adds up to a couple who were, at the very least, determined to make the best of an increasingly bad situation and remain true to each other and to their union.

For a fuller exploration of Oxford’s career, I’d check this out.

While her husband was adventuring on the continent and in Scotland, menacing shipping in the channel and withstanding what started out to be a rather half-hearted siege at St Mary Mount in Cornwall, Margaret was (according to Fabyan) living without financial support “but as the people of their charites would gyue her, or what she myght get with her nedyll or other such conynge as she excersysed.” Help may have come from her sisters Katheryn and Alice (Alianor died in 1472), but it doesn’t seem she was as close to either of them as they were to each other. With Alice looking after the fortunes of her own family after the death of her husband, she may not have been in the position to support the wife of an unreconstructed traitor of Oxford’s calibre.

After Barnet, Oxford fled to Scotland and Margaret went into sanctuary in St Martin’s. She sought, and obtained, a general pardon for herself in March 1474, but just when, and under what circumstances, she emerged from sanctuary, I don’t know. I’ve also yet to establish just where she lived between this time and her husband’s return to England in 1485.

Despite the complete failure of the final Lancastrian push for the throne, the defeats at Barnet and Tewkesbury and the death of Henry VI, the nature of Oxford was irrepressible. He conspired with George Nevill, archbishop of Canterbury, some time Chancellor of England and sole surviving Nevill brother, which led to Nevill’s arrest and imprisonment in France.

A year later, Oxford was reported to be sailing for Scotland. John Paston II declared in a letter to his brother (16 April 1475) “I mystrust that werke”. Like his late brother-in-law, Warwick, for a time he turned to piracy then, suddenly, in company of his brothers George and Thomas and Viscount Beaumont, he took possession of St Mary Mount in Cornwall.

It has been speculated that this was somehow connected to the plots and plans of George duke of Clarence, and in anticipation of wider action. Margaret may well have been supporting him in some way. I would imagine that the two were in fairly regular communication throughout Oxford’s exile and subsequent imprisonment. Whatever the reason for the seizure of St Mary Mount, it failed and Oxford eventually surrendered, brokering the best deal he could for himself and his brothers – pardon of their lives. Oxford was sent to Hammes castle and the archbishop was allowed to come home.

In 1478, either in a suicide attempt (which to me seems doubtful) or a desperate bid to escape (far more in keep with Oxford’s character and previous actions), he jumped from the walls of Hammes castle into a water filled ditch. He was retrieved and returned to confinement. As Margaret was granted a further general pardon the following year, she may have been involved in a later stage of this escape attempt which, obviously, never came to pass.

Finally, in February 1481, she was granted an annuity of 100L for her husband’s lifetime. After his accession to the throne in 1483, Richard III renewed this.

In a bid to keep him away from the temptation to join in Henry Tudor’s plots to invade England, Richard intended to return Oxford to England. He was, however, too late and, Oxford having made friends with his long time gaoler (James Blount), the pair had already left the castle to join Tudor in France.

Oxford commanded Tudor’s van at Bosworth. After his victory, he was reunited with his wife after some sixteen years apart. They once more took up residence at Hedingham and slipped back into their old role as the dominant power in East Anglia.

Margaret died on 15 November 1506 – the last of the Nevill sisters. Oxford married Elizabeth Scrope, widow of William, viscount Beaumont, sometime 1508/9. He died in 1513 and was buried with Margaret.

Oxford seemed to be able to rely on his wife to carry out what must have been, at times, quite difficult requests. Or he at least had the confidence in her ability to carry such out as best she could. In either 1468 or 9 he wrote the following to John Paston, (my italics):

“RIGHT worshipfull, and my especiall true hertid frende, I commaunde me un to you, preying you to ordeyne me iij. horsse harneys as godely as ye and Genyn kan devyse, as it were for yourselfe; and that I may have thyme in all hast, ordere. Also Skerne saith ye wolde ordeyne ij. standarde stavys; this I pray you to remembre, and my wife shalle deliver you silver,—and yit she most borowed it; vj. or vij//. I wold be stowe on a horsse harneys, and so Skerne tolde me I might have. The Lord Hastings had for the same price, but I wolde not myne were lik his; and I trust to God we shalle do right welle, who preserve you. Wreten at Canterbury in hast, the xviij. day of Juyll.”

And, in the dark days immediately following the battle of Barnet, he sent this (in my view) quite extraordinary letter to her:

“Right reverend and worshipful lady, I recommend me to you, letting you weet that I am in great heaviness at the making of this letter, but thanked be God I am escaped myself, and suddenly departed from my men; for I understand my chaplain would have destrayed me; and if he come into the country let him be made sure &c.

Also ye shall give credence to the bringer of this letter, and I beseech you to reward him to his costs; for I was not in power at the making of this letter to give him, but as I was put in trust by favour of strange people &c.

Also ye shall send me in all haste all the ready money that ye can make; and so many of my men as can come well horsed, and that they come in divers parcels.

Also that my horse be sent, with my steel saddles, and bid the yeoman of the horse cover them with leather.

Also ye shall send to my mother, and let her weet of this letter and pray her of her blessing, and bid her send me my casket by this token; that she has the key thereof, but it is broken.

Also ye shall send to the Prior of Thetford and bid him send me the sum of gold that he said that I shoud have, also say to him by this token that I showed him the first privy seal, &c.

Also let Paston, Felbrig and Brews, come to me.

Also ye shall deliver the bringer of this letter an horse, saddle and bridle.

Also ye shall be of good cheer, and take no thought for I shall bring my purpose about now, by the grace of God, whom have you in keeping.”

As Baldwin says, “Oxford was clearly one of life’s optimists”.


Scofield, Clara L, The early life of John de Vere, 13th earl of Oxford
Baldwin, David, The Kingmaker’s Sisters, The History Press, 2009

  1. Oxford, one of my favorites! The Complete Peerage mentions a later story that he had a son John who died in the Tower, but notes that there is no other evidence of his existence.

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