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1470: John Tiptoft, Butcher of England

October 18th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1470, cultured and bloodthirsty* English noble John Tiptoft, Earl of Worcester was beheaded at Tower Hill during the War of the Roses.

Tiptoft’s calling card says he’s one of England’s first Renaissance men — literally so, because after cutting his teeth at Oxford, he spent several years in Padua, Ferrara, Rome and Florence, brushing up on Latin and law.

Besides culture and erudition, Tiptoft is supposed to have picked up from his Italianate exposure a taste for that fragmented peninsula’s barbarous political jockeying.*

Back in Britain from the start of the 1460s, Worcester aligned with the Yorkists during the War of the Roses, and made liberal use in both England and Ireland of his continental savvy in matters of torture, earning that unflattering sobriquet Butcher.

Tiptoft gave them the material, exercising,” in his constabulary post, “more extreme crueltie (as the fame wet) then princely pity.” For instance, when putting down one revolt,

the Kynge Edwarde came to Southamptone, and commawndede the Erle of Worcetere to sitt and juge suche menne as were taken … and so xx. persones of gentylmen and yomenne were hangede, drawne, and quartered, and hedede; and after that thei hanged uppe by the leggys, and a stake made scharpe at bothe endes, whereof one ende was putt in att bottokys, and the other ende ther heddes were putt uppe one; for whiche the peple of the londe were gretely displesyd; and evere afterwarde the Erle of Worcestre was gretely behatede emonge the peple, for ther dysordinate dethe that he used, contrarye to the lawe of the londe.

Too bad for the gretely behatede Erle of Worcestre that this was an era when anyone‘s uppance could be coming at any time.

This last, well, butchery was effected against supporters of the Earl of Warwick, the “kingmaker” whose fluid alliances shaped the royal jostle in the mid-15th century.

And the trouble for Tiptoft was that Warwick’s 1470 revolt against Tiptoft’s ally and kin Edward IVworked. Okay, only temporarily, but it was long enough to do in John Tiptoft.

For a brief moment, the Yorkist cause waned and the Lancastrian waxed; during the brief moment, the Butcher of England was haled before the Lancastrian Earl of Oxford, a man who occupied that office because Tiptoft had executed his father and elder brother.

The wheel of fortune had turned. A massive, jeering crowd turned out to see Tiptoft de-topfed. He asked the executioner to do it in three strokes rather than one, in honor of the Trinity.


Prayerful: John Tiptoft’s tomb at Ely Cathedral. (He’s flanked by two of his three wives, one of whom is in the foreground.) Image used with permission.

Tiptoft [wrote Henry Pancoast] was the most learned man among the English nobility of his time … [he] reflects his age at its best and worst. He was set at a confluence of evil influences, when civil strife following the Hundred years War [sic] had debauched the English nobility. Abroad he came close to that Italy which Machiavelli called “the corrupter of the world.” Yet a new intellectual life was growing, and Tiptoft’s career alternates between scholarship and political intrigues. He shows us how early the new spirit was astir in England, and how it was retarded; is is the “butcher” and “the first fruits of the Italian Renaissance.”

You can explore a bit more about John Tiptoft in the first third of this BBC radio 4 program, with author Alison Weir. (Her Tudor books burn up the bestseller lists, but she’s also written about the War of the Roses.) Or, look up the Household of Worcester, a medieval re-enactment society that takes name and inspiration from our day’s butchered butcher.

* This supposed southern influence on our friend the Earl might well be true, but it also strikes this author as an answer in search of a question. It’s hardly necessary to posit foreign influence to explain brutality in 15th century England, nor to explain educated men with a taste for cruelty.

But Tiptoft’s “wanton ferocity,” says Pancoast, “brings to mind the Italian proverb, quoted by Ascham in proof of the brutalizing effect of Italy upon the English nature: Inglese Itilianato e un diabolo incarnato.”

Since oiled stakes up buttocks were no more characteristic of Italian jurisprudence than English, the obvious place one might inquire for an outside influence would be that better-known diabolo incarnato, Vlad the Impaler: stories of Vlad Dracula’s then-contemporary skewerings were even then circulating and magnifying in the 15th century’s fresh new media channel, the printing press.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Intellectuals,Judges,Nobility,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Treason,Wartime Executions

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4 thoughts on “1470: John Tiptoft, Butcher of England”

  1. 6d6d says:

    where could I go to find more information on this man?

  2. Fiz says:

    I took a US friend, who is an English History MA, to see Ely cathedral.I’m just a humble BA in the same subject. Neither of us knew he was there, but I felt the hairs on the back of my neck go up when we saw who was buried in that fine tomb and my friend, who is not given to profanity, said softly, ” So there you are, you b-d!”

  3. Silvia Laura says:

    Would you like a translation of Vespasiano’s tale of how Tiptoft explained his wild behaviour while on the scaffold? As far as I know it was the only one to wrote about that.

  4. Silvia Laura says:

    I somehow doubt that English politics at the time needed any external brutalizing influence. They were doing brutality exceedingly fine already.

    Tiptoft’s Italian friends, by the way, were aghast at his behaviour as anyone else: http://books.google.com/books?ei=-Ru8TN3OFYaX4AbQxZmcDg&ct=result&id=7PdAAAAAYAAJ&dq=vespasiano+bisticci+1926&q=tiptoft#search_anchor

    And Pancoast, whose Italian is atrocious, also translates it wrong, according to his prejudices.

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