Here's a scenario for you: You're a widow in your sixties, in ill health and living in a nunnery. Your husband and eldest son have been executed as traitors. Your second son is busy trying to overthrow the king. Your son's lands have been forfeit to the crown. A vigorous young man of twenty, a duke who happens also to be the king's favorite brother, barges into the room and demands that you give him your own lands. What do you do?
If you're Elizabeth de Vere, Countess of Oxford, the king is Edward IV, and the young man is Richard, Duke of Gloucester, later to be Richard III, you release your lands.
Born in about 1410 as Elizabeth Howard, the countess was married to John de Vere, the twelfth Earl of Oxford. The family was loyal to Henry VI, and after Edward IV became king, the pro-Lancastrian activities of the earl and his eldest son resulted in both being executed in 1462. Elizabeth herself was kept under house arrest for a short time before being released by the king. Edward IV then made overtures to Elizabeth's second son, twenty-year-old John, allowing him to assume the title of earl and to officiate as chamberlain at Elizabeth Woodville's coronation in 1465. John was also allowed to marry Margaret, a younger sister of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, known as Warwick the Kingmaker. This was perhaps a mistake, for when Warwick rebelled against Edward IV, his brother-in-law John de Vere, whose sympathies probably always had been with his dead father and brother and their cause, joined him. During Henry VI's brief resumption of the throne, the Earl of Oxford had the satisfaction of presiding over the trial and execution of John Tiptoft, Earl of Worcester, the man who had sentenced Oxford's father and brother to death.
Oxford was at the Battle of Barnet in 1471, where the Earl of Warwick died and the Yorkists scored a victory. John de Vere fled to Scotland and continued to plot against the Yorkist government. By 1473, he had turned to piracy. His luck ran out in 1474, when he was captured and imprisoned. (He finally escaped in 1484, hooked up with Henry Tudor, and was one of the commanders of the forces that defeated Richard III at Bosworth Field.) Edward IV granted the bulk of the Earl of Oxford's estates to Richard, Duke of Gloucester, in 1471. (Though Richard's loyalty to his brother the king during Edward IV's lifetime is often praised, the fact that it was also amply rewarded with real estate tends to be overlooked.)
In the meantime, in December 1472, the thirteenth Earl of Oxford's mother was living in a nunnery at Stratford le Bow. Whether she had been confined there because of her son's activities or whether she had gone there to be nursed, as aging or infirm ladies often did, is unclear. Though her son's estates had been forfeited by his treason, the Countess of Oxford still had a number of lands of her own inheritance. She had taken the precaution of enfeoffing them by use, so that she could devise them by will. In such an arrangement, the feoffees held the lands not for their own benefit and were required to convey them according to Elizabeth's wishes.
Richard, however, had considered his collection of Oxford estates and decided to complete it. Around Christmastime of 1472, he, along with what must have been a suitably intimidating number of retainers, barged into the countess's lodgings in the nunnery and told Elizabeth that he had been given custody of her and her lands. The old lady was made to hand over the keys to her coffers, which were searched by Gloucester's men.
Richard's men, having presumably met with little resistance by the nuns, then hauled the countess off to Stepney, where Gloucester's household was staying in the house of Thomas Vaughan. (Gloucester repaid Vaughan's hospitality ill in 1483 by executing him at the time he seized the throne.) There, Elizabeth was confined to a chamber until she agreed to sign over her lands to Gloucester. The countess sent for one of her feoffees, Henry Robson, and said that if she did not sign over her lands to Gloucester, he would send her to Middleham, a journey the old lady doubted she could survive considering her old age and "the grett colde which thenne was of Frost and snowe." She added that she was grateful to have the lands which now would save her life. Meanwhile, the countess's confessor, a Master Baxter, was being bullied by Gloucester's crony Thomas Howard, who called him a false priest and a hypocrite, evidently because Baxter, another feoffee of the countess's, appeared to be having misgivings about the proposed transaction.
The countess was next moved to Walbroke, where she was again placed among Richard's men. (In dragging the countess from hostile setting to hostile setting, young Gloucester demonstrated a sophisticated knowledge of interrogation techniques that is quite at odds with Paul Murray Kendall's picture of him during this period of his life as an idealistic youth longing only to escape from court to the moors of northern England.) There, she apparently signed the release. Robson added his seal out of "ferying the same duke." The releases were made in January 1473.
The countess, who had already told Robson that "she was sory that she for savying her lyff had disheritt her heires," returned eventually to the nunnery, where by early 1474 she had died. Before her death, she asked a former servant who came to visit to remind her son John that she had released her estates out of fear.
Not all of the feoffees, however, had cooperated in sealing the release. William Paston was one of the holdouts, despite Gloucester's attempt to bring pressure on him via Robson, who had been commanded to tell Paston that a refusal would "cost hym that he loved best." Despite this heavy-handed message, Gloucester resorted in 1473 to gentler tactics: a suit in chancery against the feoffees. Not surprisingly, the chancellor ordered Paston to make the release.
In the chancery suit, heard in 1474 after the countess's death, Richard claimed that Elizabeth had agreed to a release of the lands in return for an annuity of 500 marks (a mark was 2/3 of a pound), the payment of 240 pounds in debts, the promotion of a son studying at Cambridge to benefices, and "dyvers benefaites, costes, and charges" in aid of the countess, her children, and her grandchildren. Michael Hicks, who has looked at the whole sordid transaction thoroughly, found nothing to indicate that Richard actually carried out any of these promises. Even if he did keep his part of the bargain, he must have known at the time he entered into it that the elderly countess was unlikely to require the annuity for very long. For Richard's part, he received 28 manors, which James Ross in a study of the Oxford estates reported brought in an income of about 600 pounds per annum.
Richard's supporters have often praised his piety, but it was Elizabeth who was the hapless source of some of the duke's most notable gift-giving. Richard gave the countess's manor of Foulmere to Queen's College, Cambridge, in 1477, with the proviso that prayers be said for a number of people, living and dead. Gloucester was considerate enough to include Elizabeth's and her husband's in the list of those souls who were to receive prayers. Richard also gave some of the countess's manors to St. George's Chapel at Windsor and to his collegiate foundation at Middleham.
Following Richard III's death at Bosworth, Elizabeth's son Oxford, an ally of Henry VII, succeeded in having Parliament annul the releases made by the countess. In 1495, worried that his title to his mother's lands might someday be impugned, Oxford procured depositions from six witnesses, including William Paston and Henry Robson, who gave their recollection of the events of 1472-73. As Hicks and others have been careful to point out, the witnesses had been picked by Oxford and thus were not likely to give testimony hostile to his cause. Nonetheless, the depositions, which have been reproduced by Hicks, do not read as having been rehearsed; the deponents often state that they have forgotten names, places, times, or particulars, as would be expected after over twenty years had passed. And the undeniable fact that Richard was forced to resort to chancery proceedings to get some feoffees to release the lands (from which they did not personally benefit) is a strong indication that these men believed that their countess had been fleeced.
In his pro-Ricardian book Royal Blood, Bertram Fields, a lawyer, attempts to clear his client Richard of the charges of coercion. He argues that Edward IV had already turned over the countess's wealth to Richard, so that in effect Gloucester was doing the countess a service by compensating her for her loss. In fact, the lands Edward IV had turned over to his brother were those of the countess's son, not the countess herself. Richard would have hardly had to go to the trouble of getting the countess and her feoffees to release her lands if they had nothing to release in the first place. Fields also heaps scorn on the countess's "fear of the cold weather at Middleham," stating that the place was "hardly the equivalent of being put on the rack" and that it was "preferable to a return to the convent." This argument disregards the fact that the journey from London to Middleham in the north would have been a formidable one for an elderly, ailing lady in the winter. It also ignores the fact that the lady's threatened stay at Middleham would have been that of a prisoner, far away from her friends and retainers in the south.
Fields, however, does deserve credit for mentioning the episode of the countess and her lands, which is more than some other pro-Richard writers have done. Paul Murray Kendall, whose biography of Richard III is virtually holy writ for the most devoted followers of the king, omits the incident altogether. Perhaps because of this, Ricardian novelists, who tend to rely on Kendall's romanticized view of Richard instead of the more critical works of Charles Ross or A. J. Pollard, have overwhelmingly followed suit in ignoring this unseemly land-grabbing by their hero. The sole exception I've come across is Reay Tannahill in The Seventh Son, who also is one of the few novelists who depicts the dispossession of Richard's mother-in-law, Anne Beauchamp, from her estates by her sons-in-law Richard and George.
If you'd like to read more about this episode—where in relieving a widow of the burden of her lands, Richard seems to have taken some cues from his wife's fourteenth-century ancestor, Hugh le Despenser the younger—the most detailed account is in Michael Hicks' collection of his articles, Richard III and His Rivals: Magnates and Their Motives in the Wars of the Roses. A. J. Pollard also comments on it in his Richard III and the Princes in the Tower, as do Charles Ross in his biography of Richard III and Desmond Seward in The Wars of the Roses. James Ross discusses the estates themselves in "Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and the De Vere Estates, 1462-85," an essay published in the 2005 volume of The Ricardian, the scholarly journal of the Richard III Society. Reading these sources, it's difficult not to conclude that when Richard wanted something, he wasn't about to let anything—be it a defenseless old lady or his two young nephews—stand in his way.