VERE, Sir Francis (c.1560-1609), of Kirby Hall and Tilbury Lodge, Essex.
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Family and Education
b. c.1560,1 2nd s. of Geoffrey Vere of Crepping Hall, by Elizabeth, da. of Richard Hardekyn of Wotton House, Castle Hedingham. m. 26 Oct. 1607 (with £2,000) Elizabeth (b.1591), da. of John Dent of London by his 2nd w. Alice Grant of Manchester. Kntd. 25 Oct. 1588 at Bergen.
Capt. of ft. soldiers in Netherlands 1586; sergeant-major-gen. of English forces Feb. 1589; gen. of English troops in pay of States 1594; high marshal, Cadiz expedition 1596; gen. of Queen’s forces in Netherlands and gov. Brill 1598; envoy to States 1598; capt. of Portsmouth June 1606-d.2
‘Perhaps the most competent English soldier of the time’, Vere shattered the myth of Spanish invincibility. From the autumn of 1586, when he received his first independent command in the Netherlands, until after the accession of James I, he rarely saw his own country, and enjoyed, through his professional skill, a record of almost unqualified success. How he first became acquainted with the Earl of Essex is not clear: probably like other young contemporaries Vere was attracted by the Earl’s youthful vigour and engaging personality, though they could have had few opportunities to meet. By the early 1590s Vere was probably committed to the Earl’s cause, and it was Essex, as high steward of the borough, who secured him a parliamentary seat at Leominster in 1593. This, his only appearance in the House, was squeezed into a hurried visit home. He sat on committees concerned with the subsidy (26 Feb.), recusancy (28 Feb.) and rogues (12 Mar.). No contributions to discussions have been recorded. Though in a letter dated February 1595 Vere wrote
To your summons no man living shall more willingly give ear than I, who must acknowledge my chief good from you and have vowed myself wholly to your service,
and though he played a conspicuous part in the capture of Cadiz in 1596, Vere’s attitude to Essex was becoming cooler, and he may have been surprised to receive an invitation to join the forthcoming expedition to the Netherlands. Before sailing, Vere, hearing that Mountjoy was to command the soldiers, had an interview with Essex and told him that he did not wish to serve with him again when once this voyage had been completed. He had perhaps been asked because his popularity with the Dutch would help secure the release of troops from the Netherlands. The expedition, known as the Islands voyage, was a costly failure, but Vere, though no longer one of Essex’s close supporters, was annoyed by the unjustified attacks made on the Earl on their return, and defended him before the Queen, whom he approached as she took her accustomed stroll in the garden, speaking in such a plain manner that her anger towards Essex was temporarily abated.3
Vere was loyal to his commander on this occasion and he sought his support to gain the governorship of Brill, but a breach had occurred. In 1599 Essex was annoyed by Vere’s reluctance to send his best troops to France. Two strongly worded letters, purporting to come from the Privy Council as a whole but clearly written by Essex, rebuked him for not obeying his instructions:
All circumstances do prove that you little regarded either the directions given you or the furtherance of the service in any other sort than might best serve ... your own end.
Later, Sir Thomas Knollys, writing from Holland, told Essex that ‘he [Vere] is so great and so addicted unto the States that he maketh small account of anything set down by your lordship in England’.4
The implication, that Essex had raised Vere to the eminent position he enjoyed by 1600 and that he now regarded himself as sufficiently strong to ignore his benefactor, is absurd. There is nothing to indicate that Vere ever received any material awards or advancement at Essex’s hand: his reputation was established before he became attached to Essex. In any case, as a scion of one of the noblest houses in England, he would not have needed to look far for influential friends. His father was a younger brother of John de Vere, 16th Earl of Oxford, and Francis grew up in the shadow of Hedingham castle, the family’s Norman stronghold. His mother, who had to bring up a large family after her husband’s early death, was the daughter of a prosperous local merchant. According to his own account, written some 30 years later, he spent some time in Paris with friends of his cousin, the 17th Earl, and then saw action in the service of the Guises, for which he was rebuked by the Queen. Next, he served in the Polish army, and joined the Earl of Leicester’s expeditionary force to the Netherlands in December 1585. This was the start of 20 years of almost continuous campaigning. Even allowing for the help he received from a relative, Lord Willoughby, who succeeded to Leicester’s command in 1587, Vere’s promotion was rapid. By 1589 he was already in command of all the English forces outside the garrison towns and from that date, in conjunction with the Dutch leaders, particularly Maurice of Nassau, he played a major part in the conduct of the war.5
Opportunities to return home were few, but he corresponded regularly with leading figures at court, especially Walsingham. On a visit to England in 1588, he was introduced by Lord Burghley to the Queen, who appears to have been favourably impressed. Still, Vere never acquired the skills of a courtier. Once, when answering a letter of criticism from Elizabeth, he sent his reply, which took a week to compose, to Burghley asking if it met the situation adequately. If the treasurer approved, he was to deliver it to the Queen. Though annoyed from time to time, as when he was slow to transfer some of his troops to France, she knew his worth. When, towards the end of her life, she was asked to make him a peer, she is said to have replied that he was above a peerage already: it would entomb ‘the spirit of a brave soldier in the corpse of a less sightly courtier’. By then, his main advocate at court was Sir Robert Cecil whose nephew, Edward, was one of his junior officers. The only suggestion that Vere had any political ambitions occurs in a letter, dated October 1599, from Roland White to his master, Sir Robert Sidney:
It was told me that [Vere] did expect a Councillor’s place and marvels he goes without it; he hath purchased £400 a year land; he had an opinion he should have grown great in court, and looked to have had a lodging appointed for him ... He was much respected here, having the happiness of their favour that her Majesty most trusts.6
Vere’s campaigns refer constantly to his rash disregard for his own safety and he was wounded at least nine times, often seriously. In July 1602, at the siege of Grave, a bullet entered his head beneath his eye and became embedded in his skull. His life was despaired of, but the bullet was removed and by the end of the year he had taken up his command again. The cavalry charge at the battle of Turnhout in 1597 and his defence of the crumbling walls of Ostend provide further instances of his bravery. ‘He would rather be killed ten times in a breach than once in a house’, a companion wrote. His fine example endeared him to his men, any early promise among whom he was quick to recognise, and to most of his fellow officers. Captain Edward Cecil thought after the victory at Nieuport that he ‘hath gotten as much honour as a man can get on earth’, and Thomas Bodley recorded the great reputation he had acquired with ‘governors and statesmen’ and with the ‘common captains and soldiers of both nations’. But he had his enemies, whose voices became stronger as the years went by. He was a cheerless man, spoke little, showed touches of vanity and was tactless. John Chamberlain, the letter writer, reported that Vere was recovering from an injury in 1602, ‘but it is said [he] will have an impediment in his tongue, which some think no great harm’. He offended the Earl of Northumberland during the siege of Ostend, probably judging him more on his abilities as a soldier than on his station in life. Northumberland, when they were back in England, challenged him to a duel, but the Queen intervened and the matter went no further. It gave Chamberlain the opportunity for another critical remark: ‘For my part, I am very indifferent and respect neither of them greatly’.7
The peace treaty which James I signed with Spain in 1604 virtually ended Vere’s career, and he retired from the service of the States. For the first time he had the leisure to enjoy the peace of his Essex home, but soon became restive. He offered his services to the government on hearing of the Gunpowder Plot, and took on the office of governor or captain of Portsmouth. In 1605 he returned to the Netherlands, Sir William Browne commenting: ‘He is much changed from his melancholic disposition, for now he loves company and mirth; and in truth for two meals which I was with him drunk divers carouses usque ad hilaritatem’. But his services were not really needed and after a few months’ inactivity he left for home for the last time with a pension of £500 a year from a grateful Dutch nation.8
Vere’s last few years were spent in Essex or at Portsmouth where he carried out in person the duties of his new command. In 1607 he married a 16 year-old girl, with a good dowry. He also wrote his memoirs. These Commentaries provide an account of his campaigns, adding details not to be found in his official reports. He died suddenly and intestate in London 28 Aug. 1609, not yet 50, and was buried next day in Westminster abbey, where his wife erected a black marble monument. He had lived to see the Netherlands conclude the truce with which they virtually gained their independence.9