James Ross, Project Director for the Chamber Books Project and Senior Lecturer at the University of Winchester, examines the two sales of the wardship of Elizabeth Trussell.

Elizabeth Trussell had a lasting impact on two comital families in the early sixteenth century. Yet, little of this impact was of her doing. As the heiress to a substantial inheritance, her person, her marriage and her estates were to be disposed of by her feudal lord as he saw fit. In Elizabeth’s case, several of the manors she owned were held directly of the king, so she became a ward of Henry VII. A lively trade in royal wardships can be discerned in the Chamber Books, as interested parties sought to purchase the custody of the estates of such wards and the right to marry them themselves or to family members and augment in the longer term the family estates and coffers, usually at the short-term cost of substantial cash payments to the king. Indeed entire sections of each of the main Chamber books are devoted to royal wards.


TNA, E101/414/6 f.131r

Elizabeth was the sister and heir of John Trussell, and daughter of Edward Trussell. The infant John died under age in 1499. Elizabeth, born in 1496, was just three years old at the time. Yet by the death of her brother she became a figure of some importance by virtue of the extensive landed estates she would inherit. An inquest into the lands her brother nominally held at his death recorded that she stood to inherit nineteen manors plus smaller parcels of land in eight counties in the midlands and East Anglia, worth according to this source just over £282, though in practice probably rather more (Calendar of Inquisitions Post Mortem Henry VII, iii, nos. 203, 228-233, 255). Indeed a note in one of the Chamber Books estimated her estates as being worth 500-600 marks per year (£333-400) per year (The National Archives [TNA], E101/414/16, f. 125r). If not one of the great heiresses of the period, she was nonetheless a very good catch; perfect for a younger son of a nobleman or as the wife of a man on the make.

Such a marriage was in fact what happened – or what was intended to happen. George Grey, second earl of Kent, purchased the wardship and marriage of Elizabeth for the large sum of £3,000, intending to marry her to a son, Henry, by his second wife, who was not destined to inherit the earldom. When Earl George died in December 1503, he still owed £1,800 of this sum, which, as was normal, was to be paid off in instalments. This was the point at which the trouble started, as George Bernard’s study of the Grey family has shown (and on which most of this paragraph is based). The new earl of Kent, Richard, apparently unimpressed that he inherited the substantial debt but not the lucrative wardship, seised Elizabeth by force from the custody of his stepmother and carried her off. For this crime (‘ravishment’ in the contemporary legal terminology, though it did not imply any sexual relationship in the modern sense), the earl of Kent was fined £1,666 by Henry VII. Thus Earl Richard stood in debt to the crown for the huge sum of £3,466 in regard to Elizabeth alone. This would have been a major financial headache for even a competent earl – the Greys’ landed income was around £1,400 a year – but Earl Richard was anything but competent. A wastrel and probably a gambler, within a few years he had granted away a huge proportion of his estates to try and cover his debts, mainly to a flock of Henry VII’s rapacious courtiers who descended on him like vultures, preying on his weakness. Henry VII himself, while he did benefit financially, seems to have attempted to protect the foolish earl from himself and some of the consequences of his actions (see Bernard, ‘Fortunes of the Greys’, pp. 676-7 but an alternative interpretation of Henry acting rapaciously is possible, see for example Condon, ‘Ruling Elites’, p. 123 and Penn, Winter King, pp. 291-2).

On 29 May 1505 Earl Richard surrendered the wardship of Elizabeth Trussell, still only nine, back to the king in return for being pardoned £1,000 of his fine of £1,666 imposed for his abduction of her. Thus, the bidding process for Elizabeth’s lands and hand in marriage began again. Far from being put off by the fact that her wardship had already (in part) broken one comital family, another became involved. John de Vere, thirteenth earl of Oxford, was one of the stalwarts of Henry VII’s regime having done much of the fighting for the fledgling dynasty at the battles of Bosworth, Stoke and Blackheath, and he was looking for an heiress for his cousin, also named John. The earl himself was childless, and his heir male in 1503 was his nephew, yet another John, the son of his deceased brother. This latter John succeeded his uncle and became fourteenth earl of Oxford. Yet the thirteenth earl was in many respects a far-sighted man – his last will and testament are documents of extraordinary length and complexity as he planned for the future – and he was well aware that one young boy was insufficient to ensure the future of the earldom. Thus, he had taken his cousin, John, the representative of a cadet line of the de Vere family, aged eight, into his household around 1490, clearly intending that he was to play a role as a supportive family member, but also as a possible successor to the earldom. The earl had already arranged one good marriage for his cousin John to an Essex heiress, Christian Doreward, but she had died young and childless by 1498. Therefore the earl was looking out for a suitable heiress for his cousin to marry, to bolster his estates and enable him to be a wealthy man in his own right, and to give him greater landed wealth should he succeed to the title and estates of the earldom.

In 1507, the earl came to an arrangement with the king for the wardship of Elizabeth Trussell, with the specific intention that she should marry the earl’s cousin, who was also by this date an esquire of the body to the King. While as influential as any nobleman with the king, even Earl John could not get a cheap bargain out of Henry VII at this date in the reign, when the king was clearly maximising every available source of revenue. Oxford agreed to pay a yearly rent of £387, less £20 for the maintenance of Elizabeth (Calendar of Patent Rolls, 1494-1509, p. 542), at least the annual value of the estates, and to pay the king £666 on 1 June 1510, if Elizabeth was still alive. This date is significant as Elizabeth would be 14 in this year – the earliest age she could legally inherit her estates if married. The payment was secured by obligations made by Oxford and four of his leading retainers, and was recorded both in the earliest of Henry VIII’s Chamber Books (TNA, E36/215, p. 648) and in the notebook of Edmund Dudley, Henry VII’s notorious agent and minister (British Library, Lansdowne MS 127, f. 41r). The arrangement must have been altered slightly as marginal notations to the Chamber Book note that half this sum was paid in June 1509 and the other in June 1511.


TNA E36/215, p.648


Elizabeth Trussell was married then, probably around 1509 or 1510, to John de Vere, a man about fourteen years older than her. By that stage she had already been the partial cause of the collapse of one comital family, and had cost another a considerable sum. She had had no say in the matter, as her future was bargained and arranged by powerful men before she became an adult. Nonetheless, she had been provided for in some comfort all her life and the resulting marriage may not have been unpleasant for her. She spent most of her adult life as the wife of a wealthy knight (he had his own inheritance to put alongside that of his wife), and she had borne him eight children by 1527. Indeed, by the end of her life she reached even greater heights. The thirteenth earl’s far-sightedness was proven correct in 1526, when the fourteenth earl of Oxford died childless, and Sir John de Vere became the fifteenth earl of Oxford, and Elizabeth Trussell his countess, providing her with wealth and status far beyond all but a tiny handful of contemporary women. However, she did not enjoy her new-found prosperity long. She died, probably before July 1527, aged only 31. Her husband did not remarry in the remaining thirteen years of his life – perhaps itself a sign that their marriage had been a happy one – and the elegant tomb of Elizabeth and John is still extant in Castle Hedingham church, Essex.


James Ross, Project Director

21 June 2017


Tomb of John, 15th Earl of Oxford, 1539 and Elizabeth, his wife. Castle Hedingham Church.


Further Reading:

G.W. Bernard, ‘The Fortunes of the Greys, Earls of Kent, in the Early Sixteenth Century’, The Historical Journal, 25 (1982), pp. 671-685.

M.M. Condon, ‘Ruling Elites in the Reign of Henry VII’, in Patronage, Pedigree and Power, ed. C.D. Ross (Gloucester, 1979), pp. 109–42.

T.D. Penn, Winter King (London, 2011)

J. Ross, John de Vere, Thirteenth Earl of Oxford, 1442-1513 (Woodbridge, 2011)