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Sexual Exploits of John de Vere, 16th earl of Oxford

The facts related below are set out in Huntington Library MS EL5870, a record of a series of depositions taken in 1585.

Approximately two years before her death in 1548, Dorothy nee Nevill, who married John de Vere in 1536, had separated herself from the 16th earl on the grounds of "the vnkynde dealing of the earl." Richard Enowes testifies that the duke of Norfolk had attempted a reconciliation, but that Countess Dorothy "said she wold never goe home agayne amongst such a bad companye as were about the Earle of Oxforde at that tyme". This "bad companye" may have included evil male companions, but it also evidently included Joan Jockey, whom earl John had bigamously married "about Corpus Christi tyde at Whit Colne Churche," that is, about 31 May 1546; when the countess received confirmation of the bigamous marriage, she took it "verey grevouslie". Indeed, after her departure from the earl, "the lady Dorothy wrott to Mr Tyrrell then the same Earles Comptroller to knowe yf it were true, that the said Iohan were marryed to the same Earle."

During some part of these same two years the earl also kept a woman named Anne at Tilbury Hall near Tilbury-juxta-Clare. Rooke Green deposes (in 1585) that "about fortie yeares past he sawe a woman nere Tylbery Hall of whom it was then reported to this Examinant that the said Iohn Earle of Oxforde kept her." If we take the dating literally, this would have been January 1545, about the time of Dorothy's voluntary separation from earl John. None of the examinants knew Anne's surname, but Knollis and Walforth agreed that she had been a servant to Mr Cratherode, evidently the tenant of Tilbury Hall, while several examinants agree that she subsequently married one Phillips.

The examinants agreed that the earl's relationships with both Joan and Anne were fully terminated prior to Dorothy's death and at the earl's instigation: "all theise women were shaken of[f] by the same Earle of Oxforde by the aduise & workinge of his Counsell before the said lady Dorothie dyed." Presumably the earl was in a position simply to abandon Anne, who eventually found refuge in her marriage to Phillips. By contrast, his separation from Joan Jockey, a more dangerous alliance because sanctified by a ceremony of marriage, however irregular, was forced by an act of horrific violence.

One day, when the earl had left Joan Jockey by herself, a gang consisting of at least five men approached her residence in Earl's Colne. This gang consisted of Sir Thomas Darcy, Lord Sheffield, John Smith, Richard Enowes, and another servant unnamed. The gang broke down Joan Jockey's door; then several of the gang pinned her down while John Smith "spoyled" or "disfigured" her: in the words of Enowes, "this examinantes fellowe Iohn Smyth cutt her nose." Presumably Smith either cut her nose clean off, or cut the skin at the base of the nostrils to give her a permanently grotesque appearance. Though Joan Jockey apparently survived the attack and outlived Dorothy, the earl's ardor for Joan Jockey cooled and he "put her away." Walforthe thought that Joan Jockey was still alive in 1585, but none of the examinants could depose as to her current whereabouts.

The mutilation of Joan Jockey was very much a family matter. The leaders of the gang, Sir Thomas Darcy and Lord Sheffield, were both brothers-in-law to the 16th earl. Thomas Darcy, later baron Darcy of Chiche, Essex, was born in 1506, and was thus about forty at the time of the attack. His mother was Elizabeth, daughter of Sir Henry Wentworth of Nettlestead, Suffolk. He married Elizabeth Vere, daughter of the fifteenth earl of Oxford and sister of the sixteenth earl. After countess Dorothy's death, Sir Thomas Darcy urged a marriage between the 16th earl and one of the daughters of the current lord Wentworth, that is, with one of his first cousins on his mother's side.

Edmund Sheffield, born 1521 and thus about five years younger than the 16th earl, was the son of Sir Robert Sheffield and of Jane, daughter of Sir George Stanley lord Strange of Knockyn. After the death of Sir Robert in 1531, Edmund became a ward of Lord Rochford, but on 2 January 1538 the wardship came under the control of the fifteenth earl of Oxford. A gentleman of Lord Cromwell, Edmund became notorious for his unruliness: he dispatched an "undutiful" letter to the earl, dated July 1538, from prison. At some unknown time he married Anne, one of his guardian's daughters. By the will of Henry VIII he was elevated to the rank of baron at the beginning of the reign of Edward VI. As Baron Sheffield of Butterwick he accompanied the earl of Northampton on an expedition to quell Ket's Rebellion in Norfolk, and was killed at Norwich in August 1549. Sheffield was a poet of the same generation as the earl of Surrey, praised thus by Fuller: "Great his skill in music, who wrote a book of sonnetts according to the Italian fashion." His poems have not survived.

John Smith was a loyal servant of the 16th earl, remaining with him until his death in 1562, and was remembered in his will.

Richard Enowes testifies on his own behalf that he had been a servant to the 16th earl, though he had apparently left his service by 1562.

It seems almost certain that Joan Jockey was disfigured with the complicity of the 16th earl. It is barely conceivable that the disfigurement was procured by Darcy and Sheffield to force their brother-in-law against his will to abandon his irregular marriage with a woman of no rank or position. As the attack was carried out by the earl's own men and by two of his own brothers-in-law, however, it is hard to believe that it was not done on his orders. Perhaps he had tired of Joan Jockey, and conspired in her disfigurement as a way of forcing her out of his life and into seclusion. Earl John seems to have continued on a good footing with his relations, and retained both Enowes and Smith in his service.

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