The de Vere Star

The de Vere Reputation

A correspondent wrote of a friend, a novelist, who had created a character surnamed de Vere and now required that her father be an earl. Would there be a clash with some other earl in real life named de Vere? As the given dates placed the novel's action after the failure of the line of the Earls of Oxford, it seemed reasonable to deem the fictional de Vere family to be a branch of the historical one, stemming from before the time of Henry II (who confirmed the historic earldom), and to award a notional earldom a little later to the fictional de Vere ancestor.

This correspondence prompted thoughts about the popularity of the de Vere name with novelists, certainly from the time of Sir Walter Scott and Anne of Geierstein. It has always been an evocative name, immediately suggesting ancient lineage and deeds of distant chivalry. Some of this reputation is undoubtedly owed to that picturesque narrator and flawed historian, Lord Macaulay ~

"The noblest subject in England, and indeed, as Englishmen loved to say, the noblest subject in Europe, was Aubrey de Vere, twentieth and last of the old Earls of Oxford. He derived his title through an uninterrupted male descent, from a time when the families of Howard and Seymour were still obscure, when the Nevills and Percies enjoyed only a provincial celebrity, and when even the great name of Plantagenet had not yet been heard in England. One chief of the house of De Vere had held high command at Hastings; another had marched, with Godfrey and Tancred, over heaps of slaughtered Moslem, to the sepulchre of Christ. The first Earl of Oxford had been minister of Henry Beauclerc. The third Earl had been conspicuous among the Lords who extorted the Great Charter from John. The seventh Earl had fought bravely at Cressy and Poictiers. The thirteenth Earl had, through many vicissitudes of fortune, been the chief of the party of the Red Rose, and had led the van on the decisive day of Bosworth. The seventeenth Earl had shone at the court of Elizabeth, and had won for himself an honourable place among the early masters of English poetry. The nineteenth Earl had fallen in arms for the Protestant religion, and for the liberties of Europe, under the walls of Maestricht. His son, Aubrey, in whom closed the longest and most illustrious line of nobles that England has seen, a man of loose morals, but of inoffensive temper, and of courtly manners, was Lord Lieutenant of Essex and Colonel of the Blues."

This eloquent panegyric is not, in truth, wholly justified. The de Vere line was certainly long, but it was not so illustrious perhaps as the Howards, the Percys, the Mortimers and the Talbots, and in their antiquity they were equalled by the Beauchamps, the Bruces, the Courtenays, the Setons and the Stewarts among many others.

The de Vere Origins

The known origin of the family is quite clearly at Ver in the Cotentin, in Normandy and close to Brittany. (Many Flemish families were settled here, and the early adoption of their quartered coat, gules and or, hints at a de Vere connection with Boulogne.) Aubrey (or Alberic), the first of the family to settle in England, enjoyed high favour at the court of King William and by 1086, when the Domesday Book was completed, he held vast lands in the south. His son, Aubrey II, supported Maud in her war with Stephen and was rewarded by the grant of the Earldom of Cambridge "provided that that dignity was not vested in the King of Scots" (which it was) and her son, Henry II, confirmed him in the earldom of Oxford in its stead. Their subsequent history is worth a separate article and will be given one later in this series.

The Last of the de Vere, Earls of Oxford

The romance of the last Earls added to the effect of Macaulay's description. When the 18th Earl died without an heir of his body, the succession to the title was disputed by Robert, 11th Lord Willoughby de Eresby, a rich and influential peer, as heir general, and by Robert de Vere, a poor captain in the army of the United Provinces (in Holland), as heir male. It is worth noting that if the soldier should lose the case, the ancient name of de Vere would be separated from the title of Earl of Oxford and, without the means to support a family (for he was very poor), the soldier would be the end of the line. (He was killed at Maastricht a few years after succeeding to the title, and his only son, whose only son died an infant during his father's lifetime, was the last de Vere of the senior line.)

In their search for guidance on this dispute, the House of Lords called on Chief Justice Crew, who in support of the poor soldier delivered a memorable address that is now written indelibly in our history. He concluded ~

"I have laboured to make a covenant with myself that affection may not press upon judgement, for I suppose there is no man that hath any apprehension of gentry or nobleness, but his affections stands to the continuance of so noble a name and house, and would take hold of a twig or a twine thread to uphold it.. And yet, Time hath his revolutions; there must be a period and an end to all things temporal ~ finis rerum ~ an end of names and dignities and whatsoever is terrene, and why not of de Vere? For where is Bohun? Where is Mowbray? where is Mortimer? Nay, which is more and most of all, where is Plantagenet? They are entombed in the urns and sepulchres of mortality!

And yet let the name and dignity of de Vere stand so long as it pleaseth God."


The Star
The star, today blazoned as a mullet of five points argent (but in early times could have six points), was probably added as a difference, perhaps when someone more senior in the family crossed from the Cotentin, or from Greater Flanders, to join the English court. But in legend there is a different story.

Aubrey I, believed to have been on the first Crusade, was in battle on a dark night. Then ~

"God willing the safety of the Christians showed a white star ....... on the Christian host, which to every man's sight did light and arrest upon the standard of Aubrey de Vere, there shining excessively."

It was subsequently claimed that an angel leaned down and threw the star onto de Vere's standard.

If that angel had foreseen the future, the throw might have been hesitant and sorrowful. The de Vere family adopted the star as a badge in addition to a charge in the first quarter of their arms, and thus it appeared on their standards and was worn by their armies. It was worn also by the army of the Earl of Oxford at the Battle of Barnet in 1471, when, as he rode to join his ally, Warwick the Kingmaker, it was mistaken in the morning mists for the badge of their enemy, Edward IV, the white rose-en-soleil, the shining rose. The Earl of Warwick charged, the Earl of Oxford fled, the Kingmaker was killed, the battle was lost, Henry VI was murdered, and the House of Lancaster, so fervently supported by the de Vere family, was destroyed.

Mists of Antiquity ~ Volume II, No. 2
Mists of Antiquity ~ Volume I
Mists of Antiquity ~ Volume II, No. 3
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