Friday, August 28, 2009
Sir Francis Vere dies in London
Sir Francis Vere (1560-1609) was a notable military officer who served for years leading English troops in the Netherlands in battles against the Spaniards. Sir Francis died in London on August 28, 1609. Born in Essex to a cadet branch of the Vere family, Francis was first cousin to Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.
While not a lot is known of Francis' childhood or early years, we know from documents that he traveled to Paris with another young Vere, on behalf of Edward de Vere. A letter from the English ambassador noted the two teenage Veres at Court in the summer of 1577, volunteering to fight in the religious wars. In Francis' journal, written many years later, he recalls that he served the Duke of Guise -- on the Catholic side ! -- until he was called in by command of Queen Elizabeth and persuaded to change his ways. Thereafter, Francis fought only for the Protestant armies. Francis' brother, Sir Horatio Vere, was the much more religious of the two. By all accounts, Horatio and his wife and family were ardent Calvinists. Francis wanted military glory and to be on the right side and the winning side. Around 1580 he traveled to Eastern Europe, visiting Poland, a rare adventure at the time.
Francis fist served in the Netherlands as a mercenary in 1581-'82. He is first noted under the command of the Earl of Leicester's forces in 1585 and was active in many skirmishes and battles after that. He showed courage and valor at the siege of Sluys where he served under Sir Roger Williams (1540-1595), the Welsh warrior who was also a friend to Edward de Vere. Williams has also been suggested as the likely model for the character of Fluellen, the Welsh soldier in Shakespeare's Henry V. How do we know that Oxford knew Sir Roger Williams? There’s a letter by Sir Francis Vere to Sir Robert Cecil of November, 160,5 in which he writes:
"I received the enclosed from Thomas Morgan this morning by an Englishman, a stranger to me, but as he says well known to Sir William Waad. It was delivered to him by Sir Robert Dormer. The contents are strange to me, for I never borrowed money of him, nor to my remembrance spake with him; but such a man I saw when I was very young at Paris, by reason of the company I kept with Sir Roger Williams and one Denys a Frenchman, followers of my Lord of Oxford's, to whom he sometimes resorted."
Francis Vere fought at Bergen op Zoom in 1588, where he was knighted on the battlefield by Peregrine Bertie, the 13th Lord Willoughby, who was Edward de Vere’s brother-in-law (by marriage to his sister, Mary). Sir Francis sailed with the Cadiz "mission" of the Earl of Essex' in 1596. In 1598 he negotiated on behalf of England with the Dutch to get them to provide more money materiel and men to the war against Spain being fought on their land. Vere's achievement with the Dutch led to him achieving the rank of general and became Governor of Brill.
Vere's moment of greatest military triumph came at the Battle of Neuport in July 1600. General Vere and his associates trounced the best of the Spanish armies. When Spain retaliated against Ostend in 1601-02, Vere bravely defended the city.
In 1604 King James' commission drafted a treaty of peace with the Spanish Empire. This was a marvelous breath of air in the international struggles --- but it shortly left Sir Francis Vere with nothing to do. There were negotiations to have him stay on in governance in the Netherlands, but there was a power struggle. As it worked out, the Dutch and English worked out a severance package to General Francis Vere of £300 per year, for life.
Thus, Sir Francis finally returned to England for good, wrote his military memoirs, and settled into several houses. Aching for more useful work, Sir Francis got himself appointed as Governor of Portsmouth. The years of naval warfare had severely run down England's coastal defenses and strongholds. With active warfare itself abated, much money formerly wasted on bloodshed could now be flowed into military and defense infrastructure spending at home. Vere's mission was to rebuild Portsmouth, a task he threw himself into wholeheartedly. And then, out of the blue, Sir Francis fell in love with a girl --- and got married to the very young Elizabeth Dent, step-daughter to Sir Julius Caesar, the jurist, a close friend to Sir Francis. Caesar opened his purse wide and paid for an elaborate wedding, held October 26, 1607. Elizabeth came with a dowry of £2,000. She was 16. General Vere was three times her age. The "age" issue will be treated below, but in 1607 Sir Francis was at least 47 and perhaps as old as 52! Their married bliss must have comforted the old soldier. But less than two years later, Sir Francis died rather suddenly, on August 28, 1609. Sir Francis was buried the next day. Over the next few years, his young widow arranged for a monument to Sir Francis to be designed and erected in Westminster Abbey where it stands today, in the chapel of St John the Evangelist, on the eastern side of the north transept. The alabaster and black marble monument shows Sir Francis lying recumbent wearing the clothes of a civilian magistrate. This likeness lies underneath a black-marble bier on which his suit of armour is arranged, in pieces: "a helmet with plumes, breastplate, a shield with eight quarterings, pouldrons, vantbraces, gauntlets, taces, and spurs, all carved in white marble." Sir Francis' feet are resting on a wild boar, the crest of the de Vere family. This bier is carried on the shoulders of four life-sized knights in armour seen kneeling at the four corners. The Latin inscription reads, around the outer edge, in gold lettering:
"Francisco Vero equiti aurato, Galfredi F. Joannis Comitis Oxoniae nepoti, Brieliae et Portsmuthae praefecto, Anglicarum copiarum in Belgia ductori summo. Elizabetha uxor vero charissima, quocum conjunxissime vixit, hoc supremum amicis et fidei conjugatis monumentum maestissima, et cum lacrymis gemens posuit. Obiit xxviii Die Augusti anno salutis MDCVIIII et anno aetatis suae LIIII."
I have translated this anew as it has never been done properly before.
To Francis Vere, Knight, son of Geoffrey and grandson of John [15th] Earl of Oxford, Governor of Brill and Portsmouth, chief leader of the English forces in Belgium. Elizabeth, his true beloved wife, with whom he lived, has in great sadness and sobbing with tears, placed this supreme monument to conjugal faith and love. He died 28 August, in the year of our savior 1609, and in the 54th year of his age.
According to The Fighting Veres, the age of Sir Francis, as recorded here, is incorrect. If born in 1560, he was 49 at death. Apparently his own letters suggest he was born in 1560 as does a document in the College of Heralds. The above mentioned annuity from service in the Dutch wars was not lost. The £300 annual payment continued to Henry de Vere, 18th Earl of Oxford (heir of Earl Edward). In addition to the monument inscription there is an additional inscription adjacent to the display:
"When Vere sought death, aim'd with his sword and shield,
Death was afraid to meet him in the field;
But when his weapons he had laid aside,
Death, like a coward, strooke him, and he died."