1462: John de Vere, Earl of Oxford

1 comment February 26th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1462, the 12th Earl of Oxford, John de Vere, was beheaded in the Tower of London during the Wars of the Roses.

The heir to one of the realm’s most ancient noble titles — one of the early Earls of Oxford was on hand for the Magna Carta — John de Vere was a Lancastrian during those treacherous years. He’d even been knighted as a young man with the (then-four-year-old, but already king) Henry Vi.

Despite due loyalty to his sovereign, however, he largely stayed out of the running contest for the throne. This neat trick served him well when the Lancastrian cause went pear-shaped.

Given his apolitical record, it’s a surprise to find Lord Oxford and his son Aubrey suddenly arrested in early February 1463, for treasonable correspondence with the deposed Lancastrian queen Margaret of Anjou. The precise nature of the “conspiracy” remains fuzzy,* as does the theretofore cautious Lord Oxford’s reason for involving himself in such a dangerous enterprise. (Aubrey might have been the moving spirit.) The verdict, however, was very sharp, for father and son alike, leaving the earldom to pass to Aubrey’s younger brother John de Vere.**

This man’s family is, of course, well known in literary fields. The 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, was an Elizabethan writer who’s been frequently hypothesized as the actual creator of the Shakespeare canon — the so-called Oxfordian theory of authorship. If so, perhaps he took a little special relish in writing into 3 Henry VI (Act 3, Scene 3) his predecessor’s brief against the Yorkists.

WARWICK
Can Oxford, that did ever fence the right,
Now buckler falsehood with a pedigree?
For shame! leave Henry, and call Edward king.

OXFORD
Call him my king by whose injurious doom
My elder brother, the Lord Aubrey Vere,
Was done to death? and more than so, my father,
Even in the downfall of his mellow’d years,
When nature brought him to the door of death?
No, Warwick, no; while life upholds this arm,
This arm upholds the house of Lancaster.

* This biography of the 13th earl rummages the sparse available evidence, but concludes that apart from a few basic facts the available accounts “agree on little else, and it is not easy to establish a coherent account of the episode, what form the conspiracy took, how it was betrayed, and above all, by what was it motivated.” Just those minor details.

** Several other conspirators besides the de Veres were also put to death in the affair. Minor consolation: the sentencing judge, John Tiptoft, was in 1470 executed himself.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Nobility,Treason

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1470: John Tiptoft, Butcher of England

5 comments 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.

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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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