Earl of Oxford is a dormant title in the Peerage of England, first created for Edgar the Atheling and held by him from 1066 to 1068, and later offered to Aubrey III de Vere by the Empress Matilda in 1141, one of four counties he could choose if Cambridgeshire was held by the King of Scotland. On Aubrey's acceptance, his family was to hold the title for more than five and a half centuries, until the death of the 20th Earl in 1703. The de Veres were also hereditary holders of the office of Master Chamberlain of England from 1133 until the death of the 18th Earl in 1625. Their primary seat was Hedingham Castle in Essex, but they held lands in southern England and the Midlands, particularly in eastern England. The actual earldom was called 'Oxenford' until at least the end of the 17th century. Medieval sources thus refer to 'my lord of Oxenford' when speaking of the earl.
Soon after his father's death in 1141, Aubrey III de Vere was recruited by Empress Matilda. Aubrey's brother-in-law, Geoffrey de Mandeville first earl of Essex, apparently negotiated the offer of the earldom of Cambridge, with a secondary offer of one of four counties if Cambridgeshire was claimed by her kinsman. Aubrey held no land in Oxfordshire at the time, but his eldest son Aubrey IV was to marry an heiress with manors in that county. Aubrey IV was supposedly an ally of King John, while his brother Robert, the 3rd Earl was one of the 25 barons of Magna Carta. His descendant, another Robert, the 9th Earl, was a favourite of King Richard II who created him Duke of Ireland. John the 13th Earl was a Lancastrian during the War of the Roses and Henry Tudor's commander at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. The 17th Earl has become the most famous of the line because of his emergence as a popular alternative candidate as the actual author of the works of William Shakespeare (see Oxfordian theory of Shakespeare authorship). The 17th Earl was a ward and later son-in-law of Lord Burghley, Queen Elizabeth I's Secretary of State. On the death of the 20th Earl, without identifiable heirs male, the title became dormant.
The Earls of Oxford held no subsidiary titles, and so their heirs apparent were styled by invented courtesy titles: initially Lord Vere, and later Viscount Bolebec (sometimes spelled Viscount Bulbeck).
The principal Oxford coat of arms or shield was quarterly gules and or (red and yellow) with an argent (white) five-pointed star called a mullet or molet in the first canton. By De Vere family tradition this molet is said to refer to a reappearance of the Star of Bethlehem which showed itself to an earlier De Vere while on a Crusade and thus led him to victory. In the 14th and 15th centuries the family livery worn by their retainers was orange/tawney decorated with a white molet. A later badge associated with the De Veres is a blue boar. A later shield variation of the De Vere white molet has a smaller blue molet located within the white one but this may be a simple cadency mark - in heraldry the molet is also used in any family to indicate the third son of a title holder. The third son bears his father's arms differenced with a molet.
A confusion between the De Vere white molet and Edward IV's sunburst and white rose is said to have led to the friendly fire incident between Neville men and De Vere's men at the Battle of Barnet in 1471. Fighting in fog, the Nevilles (former Yorkists) fired on their De Vere (staunch Lancastrian) allies and thus brought about the collapse of the Lancastrian centre and right. Both contingents began to rout crying 'treachery'.
After the extinction of the Earls of Oxford and Earls Mortimer, former Prime Minister H. H. Asquith was keen to choose "Earl of Oxford" for his own title. As an earldom was then traditional for former Prime Ministers, and Asquith had a number of connections with the city of Oxford, it seemed a logical choice and had the King's support. The proposal greatly offended the relatives of the dormant Earldom, however, and, in the face of their opposition, another title had to be chosen - "Earl of Oxford and Asquith". For information on this creation, see Earl of Oxford and Asquith.
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