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  Aubrey  de Vere (1627–1703), by Sir Godfrey Kneller, c.1690 Aubrey de Vere (1627–1703), by Sir Godfrey Kneller, c.1690
Vere, Aubrey de, twentieth earl of Oxford (1627–1703), nobleman, was born in London on 28 February 1627, the oldest son of Robert de Vere, the nineteenth earl (b. after 1575, d. 1632), and his wife, Beatrice (or Bauck; d. 1653/1657) , daughter of Sjerck van Hemmema, of Nufen, Friesland. His father, a descendant of John de Vere, fifteenth earl of Oxford, was accepted as nineteenth earl after a long debate in the House of Lords in April 1626. He possessed an inadequate estate in England and after securing his title returned to the Low Countries, where he had already made a career as a soldier in the Dutch army. On 7 August 1632 he was killed in the trenches before Maastricht, leaving his title, and very little else, to his five-year-old son.

Although Oxford had been born in London he was raised with his mother's family in Friesland. In 1638 he was granted £10 per annum in part-payment for his earldom's creation money, but his continuing poverty resulted in the appointment, in July 1641, of a committee of the House of Lords to consider his estate. His role in the first civil war is unclear; after the Restoration he claimed to have led a ‘regiment of scholars’ from Oxford for the king, but there is no hard evidence to prove this. By 1644 he was in the Low Countries serving as sergeant-major in Colonel Knightley's regiment in the Dutch service. On 10 December 1646 he was promoted colonel, commanding in Knightley's stead, a position he held until the treaty of Westphalia. Despite his continental duties, however, he did find time to visit the city of his birth. On 18 June 1647 he eased his financial difficulties by marrying, at St Martin-in-the-Fields, the ten-year-old Anne Bayning (1637–1659), daughter and coheir of Paul, second Viscount Bayning of Sudbury. Her considerable fortune must have helped sustain Oxford as he embarked upon his career as a royalist conspirator. He was still in London in April 1651 when he challenged Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Sidney to a duel, which was prevented by the intervention of his friends.

Oxford's estate was sequestered in 1651 and on 20 June 1654 he was gaoled in the Tower, suspected of conspiring against the protector. In September 1656 he was considered for the post of general of the royalist forces in England in connection with a planned uprising: ‘the Earl of Oxford appears to be a very fitting person as being free from any former engagement’ (Ogle and others, 3.167). He spent much of the rest of the interregnum in or near London, where, under his royalist codename, Mr Waller, he worked for the king and feuded with his fellow conspirators. While committed to the exiled king, he found it difficult to work harmoniously with many of his agents, particularly John, Lord Mordaunt. On 15 August 1659 he was again committed to the Tower, this time suspected of complicity in Sir George Booth's rising. His wife, who accompanied him, died there on 14 September, and he was released on 29 September.

Oxford remained in London in the confused months preceding the Restoration, and in early spring 1660 was prominent in the agitation among the so-called ‘new lords’—those who had never sat in the house during the civil wars—for their places in the chamber. He ultimately took his seat on 27 April and on 3 May was one of six peers nominated by the house to attend Charles II with an invitation to return to England. At the Restoration he was rewarded for his services. He was made knight of the Garter in May 1660 (and formally invested in April 1661), and bore the curtana at the king's coronation in April 1661, as well as at every subsequent coronation until his death. The king appointed him lord lieutenant of Essex, an office he held from August 1660 until February 1688 and again from October 1688 until 1703. As lord lieutenant he played a significant role in marshalling the militia of the home counties against the threat of Dutch invasion in 1667. In addition to his lieutenancy the king gave him command of the King's regiment of horse, or, as it was commonly known while he was its colonel, the Oxford Blues. As colonel of the Blues he participated in the suppression of Venner's rising in January 1661, and in 1678 the king promoted him lieutenant-general of horse and foot.

Charles II's favours bolstered Oxford's anaemic fortune; the king granted him several offices which provided the earl enough revenue to support—at times precariously—his title. He was a commissioner of claims at the coronation, and warden of the New Forest in 1667–8. More significantly he was chief justice in eyre of the forest south of Trent from June 1660 to January 1673. The office was, according to Roger North, of small use and great expense to the crown, but Charles II granted the place ‘purely to gratify the Earl of Oxford who was one that ever wanted Royal boons’ (North, 1.58). Oxford surrendered the office to the duke of Monmouth in 1673, in return for a gift of £5000 and an annuity of £2000. He was also the high steward of Colchester.

Evidently Oxford did not use the profits of office to cultivate civility. He lived riotously on the Piazza at Covent Garden in the 1660s. On one occasion in 1663 a brawl erupted among his guests, and was quelled only after the arrival of troops dispatched by the duke of Albemarle. One January morning in 1665 Samuel Pepys visited Oxford's house on business, and wrote ‘his lordship was in bed at past ten o'clock: and Lord help us, so rude a dirty family I never saw in my life’ (Pepys, 6.3). Some contemporaries were scandalized by Oxford's sham marriage to the well-known actress , who bore him a son, Aubrey (1664–1708), who later claimed, falsely, to be earl of Oxford. On 1 January 1673 he contracted a genuine marriage with Diana Kirke (d. 1719), daughter of George Kirke, groom of the bedchamber.

Through most of the 1660s and 1670s Oxford was a reliable supporter of the court. The king named him to the privy council in January 1670 and he protested against the passage of the Test Act in 1677. In 1678 he was made a gentleman of the bedchamber. He was dropped from the council in April 1679 during Shaftesbury's brief lord presidency, but returned following the earl's dismissal. In July 1680 he served as ambassador-extraordinary to Louis XIV, who was then touring near Calais. In 1684 he was one of Danby's sureties when the former lord treasurer was released from the Tower.

Oxford's position under James II was an ambivalent one. He supported James's accession, but lost his place in the bedchamber. In February 1688 he refused to push for the repeal of the penal laws and Test Act in his lieutenancy, defying the king's direct command. His example was important; Sir John Reresby wrote ‘My lord of Oxford, the first earl of the realm (but low in his fortune) … tould the King plainly he could not persuade that to others which he was avers to in his own concience’ (Memoirs of Sir John Reresby, 487). The consequence of this stance was his dismissal from his lieutenancy, regiment, and high stewardship of Colchester. James's desperate attempts to fend off the prince of Orange's invasion in late 1688 resulted in Oxford's restoration to the lieutenancy in October (replacing the ineffectual Catholic Lord Petre), and to his regiment in December. On 17 November he would not sign a petition calling for a free parliament, but by 8 December he had joined the prince, representing him at a meeting with the king's supporters at Hungerford.

Oxford's adroit change of sides secured William III's favour, and he continued in his places after the revolution. He served as lieutenant-general in the army and was present at the battle of the Boyne in 1690. In the House of Lords he generally allied himself with the whigs; in 1693 he attacked the tory secretary, Nottingham, over the bungled attack upon Brest, and defended the impeached whig Lord Somers in 1701. He served as speaker of the house from August 1700 to September 1701. By 1693 it was rumoured that he would give up command of his regiment ‘on account of his great age’ (Luttrell, 3.6) but he nevertheless continued in command for another decade.

After William III's death Oxford was reappointed to the privy council and, for the last time, bore the sword at a coronation—Queen Anne's in April 1702. He died at his house in Downing Street on 12 March 1703, aged seventy-six, and was buried in Westminster Abbey ten days later. His only surviving legitimate child was a daughter—Diana, duchess of St Albans—and so with him ended the de Vere earldom of Oxford, a title which stretched back to the reign of King Stephen.

Victor Stater

Sources  

GEC, Peerage · CSP dom., 1651; 1660–61; 1667; 1686–8 · Pepys, Diary · Calendar of the Clarendon state papers preserved in the Bodleian Library, ed. O. Ogle and others, 5 vols. (1869–1970) · N. Luttrell, A brief historical relation of state affairs from September 1678 to April 1714, 6 vols. (1857) · R. North, The lives of … Francis North … Dudley North … and … John North, ed. A. Jessopp, 3 vols. (1890) · Memoirs of Sir John Reresby, ed. A. Browning (1936) · D. Underdown, Royalist conspiracy in England, 1649–1660 (1960) · H. Horwitz, Parliament, policy and politics in the reign of William III (1977) · A. Swatland, The House of Lords in the reign of Charles II (1996)

Archives  

TNA: PRO, accounts, SP 46/87/176–227


Likenesses  

G. Kneller, oils, c.1690, NPG [see illus.] · G. Kneller, oils, Antony, Cornwall · attrib. G. Soest, oils, Dulwich College Gallery, London