Robert de Vere (1362-1392) Earl of Oxford, found great favour with Richard II and was elevated first to the title of Marquess of Dublin and then in October 1386 to the dukedom of Ireland. This was the very first dukedom awarded outside the immediate royal family, and was, in effect, a “fingers up” to Richard’s many critics and opponents, the great majority of whom resented what they saw as the excessive influence de Vere had over the King.
Richard was often criticised at this time for the youth and low birth of his closest advisers, but really this was a canard. As will be seen from the bare facts of the matter, de Vere was neither young (by medieval standards) nor low born; indeed his was one of the oldest earldoms in the kingdom, albeit one of the least well endowed.
In addition, de Vere was married to the King’s first cousin, Philippa de Coucy, who was the daughter of the King’s late aunt, Isabel of England. Unfortunately, de Vere, for whatever reason, was not happy with Philippa, possibly because her inheritance had never been properly secured or perhaps for more personal reasons. At any rate, he decided to annul their marriage. This was seen as a great affront by the lady’s uncles, the dukes of York and Gloucester, who quite probably had concerns for the futures of their own daughters. The Duke of Lancaster would probably have been equally offended had he been in the country.
To make matters worse, de Vere proposed to replace Philippa with the Queen’s Czech (or possibly German) waiting-woman, Agnes Lancecrona. This was clearly a love match (at least on de Vere’s side) as Agnes had no money or land and no prospect of getting any. Agnes’ social status is obscure. One chronicler described her as the daughter of a saddler, another as a washerwoman, but she appears to have been a Lady of the Bedchamber, with the responsibility for caring for Queen Anne’s jewels. It is highly unlikely that the daughter of a saddler could have risen to such eminence, while the very idea of a washerwoman doubling up as a lady-in-waiting is too absurd to contemplate. Having said that, we really do not know who her parents were. To the English of the time, even more xenophobic than their descendants, it was probably bad enough that she was a foreigner and an immigrant.
It appears that de Vere, by giving false evidence to the Pope secured a dissolution of his marriage. He certainly gained possession of Agnes, but whether with her consent is less clear. Two of his retainers were later accused of abducting her and taking her to Chester, where de Vere was residing in the summer of 1387. They may or may not have undergone a form of marriage.
De Vere was defeated by his King’s enemies at the Battle of Radcot Bridge (20 December 1387) he fled abroad and was never able to return during his life. It is not clear whether Agnes followed him, or what happened to her. She simply disappears from the record. De Vere died in a hunting accident in 1392 before Richard could recall him.
In 1389 the dissolution of the marriage was revoked. Duchess Philippa seems never to have lost her status in practice, though for a time she was sheltered by de Vere’s rather formidable mother, who took Philippa’s side against her son. She had an annuity of 300 marks a year after her husband’s death, and was granted dower in 1398. She lived on until 1411, but chose to remain single.