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Vere, William delocked

(d. 1198)
  • Julia Barrow

Vere, William de (d. 1198), bishop of Hereford and literary patron, was one of the nine children of Aubrey (II) de Vere (d. 1141), Henry I's chamberlain, and his wife, Alice (d. 1163?), daughter of Gilbert de Clare; the order in which Aubrey's five sons appear in charter witness lists suggests that William was the fourth of them. The family's principal seat was Hedingham in Essex, but they also had a house at Great Bentley, not far from Colchester. William was probably born no later than 1120, since he was brought up at the court of Henry I and Queen Adeliza; it may have been thanks to Adeliza, a patron of French literature, that he developed the interest in Anglo-Norman verse that was to be a marked feature of his life. Other information about his education is lacking; he presumably received schooling appropriate for a cleric, and had been ordained in at least minor orders before his father's death. He appears not to have attended higher schools, unlike many other members of the higher clergy in England in the twelfth century. When in 1141 the Empress Matilda gave the earldom of Oxford to William's eldest brother, Aubrey (III) de Vere, she promised William the reversion of the chancellorship, but did not fulfil her obligation. Instead William entered the household of Theobald, archbishop of Canterbury, a nursery for future prelates. In 1153 William accompanied Theobald to Colchester when Matilda's son, Henry of Anjou, and Stephen's son William, Earl Warenne, made terms. By 1160 Theobald was employing William as an envoy to Henry, who was now king, sending him twice to France in that year with advice about an appropriate response to the disputed papal election.

Between 1160 and 1162 William became a canon of St Paul's, with the prebend of Neasden, but his time there seems to have been brief—his successor in the prebend, William of Northolt, later bishop of Worcester, may well have been installed as early as 1163. William de Vere then became an Augustinian canon at the priory of St Osyth at Chich in Essex, very near Great Bentley. St Osyth's was a house favoured by his mother, who had attached herself to it as a corrodian in her widowhood, in preference to the monasteries she and her husband had founded. It is possible that William joined St Osyth's on his mother's death. Leaving public life in the 1160s may have worked to his advantage, since he did not have to take a stand in the Becket dispute, nor in the dispute (1166–72) between his brother Aubrey and his diocesan, Gilbert Foliot, bishop of London, over the former's desire to end his marriage to Agnes, daughter of the disgraced Henry of Essex. It was probably while William was at Chich that he wrote a life of St Osyth, a work now surviving only in a summary made by John Leland, who seems to have found a manuscript of the work in or near Hereford in the sixteenth century. For this life, William used a life of Osyth written earlier in the twelfth century, now also lost, but reconstructed by Denis Bethell. In his own copy of his life William made notes about himself and his family, which Leland included in his Itineraries.

In 1177 William de Vere re-emerged into public life, entering the service of Henry II, who had decided to turn the collegiate church of Waltham into an Augustinian priory as part of his expiation for the death of Thomas Becket. The refoundation was staffed with Augustinian canons drawn from Cirencester, Osney, and St Osyth's. William must have been one of them, for, together with Walter of Ghent, who became the first abbot of Waltham when it was raised to abbatial status in 1184, he acted as clerk of works, and the two are recorded in pipe rolls as in charge of building work at Waltham between 1177 and 1182, Walter occurring on his own in 1178, and also after 1182.

It may well have been during the year 1178, or perhaps 1182–5, that William visited the Holy Land. In his summary of William's life of St Osyth, Leland notes 'Ver auctor huius libri fuit in terra sancta' ('Vere the author of this book was in the Holy Land'), and much fuller evidence for this trip comes in the epilogue to one of the copies (Yale U., Beinecke L., MS 395) of the earliest Anglo-Norman verse version of the Epistle of Prester John. Possibly William de Vere formed part of the doubtless large entourage that in 1177–8 accompanied his nephew William de Mandeville, third earl of Essex (the son of his sister Rohese, from her first marriage, to Geoffrey de Mandeville) to the Holy Land, in the company of Count Philippe of Flanders. Earl William was on a mission from Henry II to pay 1000 marks to the templars and the hospitallers, one of many payments that Henry made for the defence of the Latin kingdom. William de Vere, too, might well have been entrusted with business by King Henry, since the epilogue in Yale manuscript 395 says that he met the king of Jerusalem and the Latin patriarch and was warmly received by both: they invited him to make his home there, but he declined, because he loved England too much.

William de Vere was accompanied on his trip by a certain Gilbert li Butiliers (possibly to be identified with the Geoffrey pincerna who occurs with William in several charters for Waltham), and when the latter stopped in Constantinople on the return journey he acquired a copy of the Epistle of Prester John, again according to the Yale manuscript's epilogue. The Epistle had originally been written in the 1160s, probably in Germany, as a spoof to annoy the Byzantine emperor Manuel I Comnenus with stories of a Christian empire even greater than his own; it had a wide circulation and had already been adapted by the time Gilbert encountered it, since the copy he used was a representative of the Epistle's B recension. On William's return to England he was welcomed by the king and by his own family, described as 'de haute gent et de grant parage', and Gilbert, living in William's house ('hostel')—evidently William was given some freedom by Waltham—had the Epistle translated into Anglo-Norman verse by a poet called Roanz d'Arundel, possibly to be identified as the Reginald (Renault) of Arundel who occurs as a clerk of Archbishop Roger de Pont l'Évêque and then as a canon of York Minster in the later twelfth century.

William was employed by Henry II as a justice itinerant in 1185 and 1186, in both years on long circuits involving numerous cases. Then, after the death on 9 May 1186 of Robert Foliot, bishop of Hereford, the canons of Hereford elected William as Robert's successor, almost certainly at the council held at Oxford on 25 May and clearly at Henry's behest. He was consecrated on 10 August at Lambeth. As bishop, William continued to act as a justice, serving on eyres in the west midlands in 1192, 1193, and 1194; he also attended church councils and royal councils fairly frequently. More often, however, he occurs within his diocese. Hereford's position near the Welsh border meant that he was often called upon to give hospitality to high-ranking travellers from Wales to England or vice versa; in December 1186 he hosted negotiations between Ranulf de Glanville (sent by Henry II) and Rhys ap Gruffudd, prince of Deheubarth, in his episcopal palace, while in the spring of 1188 he must have twice accommodated Archbishop Baldwin when he preached the third crusade in Wales—Gerald of Wales remarks that the archbishop's tour began and ended at Hereford. For these visitors William could make use of the fine great hall, four bays long, built in timber by his predecessor Robert Foliot, which survives encased in the fabric of the episcopal palace at Hereford. Gerald, who owed a prebend at Hereford Cathedral to William, presents him as a generous and tactful host, though occasionally the tact wore thin; William viewed one guest, Bishop Peter de Leia of St David's, as a sponger.

William's episcopal acta show him as an administrative innovator. His clerks developed standardized forms for charters instituting clergy in benefices and also for charters of inspeximus, verbatim copies of older documents intended to replace originals. The clerks also improved the form of licences of appropriation, which enabled monastic houses to appropriate the revenues of parish churches, by insisting that such churches be served by perpetual vicars with a suitable income, thus protecting the status of the clergy concerned. In 1195 William granted the Norman abbey of Cormeilles the right to turn three churches and a chapel that it held in his diocese into a prebend of Hereford Cathedral; this made it easier for Cormeilles to preserve its control over these churches, while simultaneously benefiting the chapter of Hereford Cathedral, since the abbot of Cormeilles, as an honorary prebendary, had to be replaced in his absence by a vicar-choral (later two vicars). William was generous to his cathedral chapter in other ways too: he granted them land outside the bishop's gate, and also half of the two-storeyed episcopal chapel in Hereford, and he granted a church to the chapter's common fund. In collating to prebends, William had an eye to education and literary talent. Most of the canons appointed by him bore the title magister and had probably attended the schools; one of them, Gerald of Wales, was an author of considerable distinction, and another, Simund (Simon) de Freine, a friend of Gerald's, was an able writer of both Latin and Anglo-Norman verse. At Gerald's suggestion William recruited Robert Grosseteste into his household, probably about 1195, but had not given Robert any preferment by the time of his death.

Herefordshire in the 1180s was an important centre of literary activity, especially in Anglo-Norman French: Walter Map had been given a prebend at Hereford Cathedral by Bishop Foliot, and the poet Hue de Rotelande lived at Credenhill near Hereford. Bishop William seems to have acted as a patron to Simund de Freine, one of whose works was an Anglo-Norman Vie de Saint Georges making use of material brought from Lydda, for which William could have been the source. The Vie de Saint Georges adds anti-Muslim polemic to its account of the saint's life and martyrdom, suggesting that the work was intended as crusading propaganda, a cause that would have been close to William's heart. Simund's Roman de philosophie, a verse rendering of Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, cannot be securely dated to William's pontificate, but may still have been inspired by him. Devotional literature was especially prized by William. It was at the request of the canons of Hereford that about 1195 Gerald of Wales wrote a life of St Ethelbert, one of the patron saints of Hereford Cathedral, but William may well have given his encouragement; and it must have been William who arranged for the feast of St Osyth to be celebrated with nine lessons at Hereford. He was very probably also responsible for encouraging an anonymous author to compose an Anglo-Norman version of the life of St Osyth, which contains a miracle about a Hereford woman. Moreover, William commissioned Guy of Southwick, an Augustinian canon, to write a manual on confession and penitence, presumably to be circulated among the clergy of Hereford diocese.

William maintained his interest in St Osyth's and in Waltham after his elevation to the episcopate. He granted property in the parish of St Peter-the-Less in London to the former and visited the latter on 13 March 1188 to consecrate a chapel dedicated to St Thomas Becket, for which he issued an indulgence. He also granted a relic of St Osyth to Waltham, while his devotion to the cult of St Thomas probably inspired him to commission a superb Limoges reliquary for his cathedral, with enamels depicting the archbishop's martyrdom.

William de Vere died, probably at Hereford, on Christmas eve 1198 and was buried in Hereford Cathedral, where he is commemorated by a late-thirteenth-century tomb effigy.


  • J. Barrow, ‘A twelfth-century bishop and literary patron: William de Vere’, Viator, 18 (1987), 175–89
  • Fasti Angl., 1066–1300 [Hereford], xxiv, xxvii, 4–5, 21n., 36, 69, 74–5, 78–9, 94, 157
  • Fasti Angl., 1066–1300 [St Paul's, London], 64
  • J. Barrow, ed., Hereford, 1079–1234, English Episcopal Acta, 7 (1993), xliii–xlv, li, lvi–lix, lxxxi–c, ciii–cvii, cxii, 127–80 (nos. 178–242), 315–17
  • A. Saltman, Theobald, archbishop of Canterbury (1956), 165, 273, 321–2
  • The letters of Arnulf of Lisieux, ed. F. Barlow, CS, 3rd ser., 61 (1939), 36, no. 26
  • The itinerary of John Leland in or about the years 1535–1543, ed. L. Toulmin Smith, 11 pts in 5 vols. (1906–10), vol. 5, pp. 167–72
  • C. Hohler, ‘St Osyth and Aylesbury’, Records of Buckinghamshire, 18 (1966–70), 61–72
  • D. Bethell, ‘The lives of St Osyth of Essex and St Osyth of Aylesbury’, Analecta Bollandiana, 88 (1970), 75–127
  • W. H. Frere and L. E. G. Brown, eds., The Hereford breviary, 3 vols., HBS, 26, 40, 46 (1903–13), vol. 2, pp. 361–4
  • A. T. Baker, ‘An Anglo-French life of St Osyth’, Modern Language Review, 6 (1911), 476–502
  • R. Ransford, ed., The early charters of the Augustinian canons of Waltham Abbey, Essex, 1062–1230 (1989), nos. 85–6, 98–100, 102–3, 210, 277, 355, 395, 413n.
  • A. Hilka, ‘Die anglonormannische Versversion des Briefes des Presbiters Johannes’, Zeitschrift für Französische Sprache, 43 (1915), 82–112
  • M. Gosman, ed., La lettre du Prêtre Jean: les versions en ancien français et en ancien occitan, textes et commentaires (Groningen, 1982), 34, 141–3, 543–4
  • H. E. Mayer, ‘Henry II of England and the Holy Land’, EngHR, 97 (1982), 721–39
  • Gir. Camb. opera, 1.58, 104, 249, 307; 3.145–6; 4.210; 6.146
  • Les oeuvres de Simund de Freine, ed. J. E. Matzke (Paris, 1909)
  • M. R. James, ‘Two lives of St Ethelbert, king and martyr’, EngHR, 32 (1917), 214–44, esp. 222–36
  • R. Bartlett, Gerald of Wales, 1146–1223 (1982), 217
  • A. Wilmart, ‘Un opuscule sur la confession composé par Guy de Southwick vers la fin du XIIe siècle’, Recherches de Théologie Ancienne et Médiévale, 7 (1935), 337–52
  • J. Zatta, ‘The Vie Seinte Osith: hagiography and politics in Anglo-Norman England’, Studies in Philology, 96 (1999), 367–93


  • tomb effigy, late 13th cent., Hereford Cathedral

Wealth at Death


Camden Society
Giraldi Cambrensis, ed. J. S. Brewer, J. F. Dimock, & G. F. Warner, 8 vols., RS, 21 (1861–91)
English Historical Review
[J. Le Neve], , ed. D. E. Greenaway & J. S. Barrow, [8 vols] (1968–)