1506: James Tyrrell, Princes in the Tower murderer?

Add comment May 6th, 2020 Thomas More

(Thanks to Sir Thomas More, himself an eventual Executed Today client, for the guest post on the knight Sir James Tyr(r)ell — originally from More’s The History of King Richard the Third. Tyrrell was executed on May 6, 1506, for treason, for supporting the exiled royal pretender Edmund de la Pole; according to More, Tyrrell had previously proved his loyalty to the Yorkist house to the extent of orchestrating the murder of the Princes in the Tower. All-in-the-family detail for House Tyrell: the man’s father had been executed in 1462 with John de Vere, Earl of Oxford. -ed.)

I shall rehearse you the dolorous end of those babes, not after every way that I have heard, but after that way thay I have so hard by such men & by such meanes, as me thinketh it wer hard but it should be true. King Richarde after his coronacion, takyng his way to Gloucester to visit in his newe honor, the towne of which he bare the name of his old, devised as he roode, to fulfil that thing which he before had intended. And forasmuch as his minde gave him, that his nephewes living, men woulde not recken that hee could have right to the realm, he thought therfore without delay to rid them, as though the killing of his kinsmen, could amend his cause, and make him a kindly king. Whereuppon he sent one John Grene whom he specially trusted, unto sir Robert Brakenbury constable of the Tower, with a letter and credence also, that the same sir Robert shoulde in any wise put the two children to death. This John Grene did his errande unto Brakenbery kneling before our Lady in the Tower, who plainely answered that he would never putte them to death to dye therfore, with which answer Jhon Grene returning recounted the same to Kynge Richarde at Warwick yet in his way. Wherwith he toke such displeasure and thought, that the same night, he said unto a secret page of his: Ah whome shall a man trust? those that I have brought up my selfe, those that I had went would most surely serve me, even those fayle me, and at my commaundemente wyll do nothyng for me. Sir quod his page there lyeth one on your paylet without, that I dare well say to do your grace pleasure, the thyng were right harde that he wold refuse, meaning this by sir James Tyrell, which was a man of right goodlye parsonage, and for natures gyftes, woorthy to have served a muche better prince, if he had well served god, and by grace obtayned asmuche trouthe & good will as he had strength and witte. The man had an high heart, and sore longed upwarde, not rising yet so fast as he had hoped, being hindered and kept under by the meanes of sir Richard Ratcliffe and sir William Catesby, which longing for no moo parteners of the princes favour, and namely not for hym, whose pride thei wist would beare no pere, kept him by secrete driftes out of all secrete trust. Whiche thyng this page wel had marked and knowen. Wherefore thys occasion offered, of very speciall frendship he toke his time to put him forward, & by such wise doe him good, that al the enemies he had except the devil, could never have done him so muche hurte. For upon this pages wordes king Richard arose. (For this communicacion had he sitting at the draught, a convenient carpet for such a counsaile) and came out in to the pailet chamber, on which he found in bed sir James and sir Thomas Tyrels, of parson like and brethren of blood, but nothing of kin in condicions. Then said the king merely to them: What sirs be ye in bed so soone, and calling up syr James, brake to him secretely his mind in this mischievous matter. In whiche he founde him nothing strange. Wherfore on the morrow he sente him to Brakenbury with a letter, by which he was commaunded to deliver sir James all the kayes of the Tower for one nyght, to the ende he might there accomplish the kinges pleasure, in such thing as he had geuen him commaundement. After which letter delivered and the kayes received, sir James appointed the night nexte ensuing to destroy them, devysing before and preparing the meanes. The prince as soone as the protector left that name and toke himself as king, had it shewed unto him, that he should not reigne, but his uncle should have the crowne. At which worde the prince sore abashed, began to sigh and said: Alas I woulde my uncle woulde lette me have my lyfe yet, though I lese my kingdome. Then he that tolde him the tale, used him with good wordes, and put him in the best comfort he could. But forthwith was the prince and his brother bothe shet up, and all other removed from them, onely one called black wil or William slaughter except, set to serve them and see them sure. After whiche time the prince never tyed his pointes, nor ought rought of himselfe, but with that young babe hys brother, lingered in thought and heavines til this tratorous death, delivered them of that wretchednes. For Sir James Tirel devised that thei shold be murthered in their beddes. To the execucion wherof, he appointed Miles Forest one of the foure that kept them, a felowe fleshed in murther before time. To him he joyned one John Dighton his own horsekeper, a big brode square strong knave. Then al the other beeing removed from them, thys Miles Forest and John Dighton, about midnight (the sely children lying in their beddes) came into the chamber, and sodainly lapped them up among the clothes so be wrapped them and entangled them keping down by force the fetherbed and pillowes hard unto their mouthes, that within a while smored and stifled, theyr breath failing, thei gave up to god their innocent soules into the joyes of heaven, leaving to the tormentors their bodyes dead in the bed.

Whiche after that the wretches parceived, first by the strugling with the paines of death, and after long lying styll, to be throughly dead: they laide their bodies naked out uppon the bed, and fetched sir James to see them. Which upon the sight of them, caused those murtherers to burye them at the stayre foote, metely depe in the grounde under a great heape of stones. Than rode sir James in geat haste to king Richarde, and shewed him al the maner of the murther, who gave hym gret thanks, and as som say there made him knight. But he allowed not as I have heard, the burying in so vile a corner, saying that he woulde have them buried in a better place, because thei wer a kinges sonnes. Wherupon thei say that a prieste of syr Robert Brakenbury toke up the bodyes again, and secretely entered them in such place, as by the occasion of his deathe, whiche onely knew it could never synce come to light. Very trouthe is it & well knowen, that at such time as syr James Tirell was in the Tower, for Treason committed agaynste the moste famous prince king Henry the seventh, bothe Dighton an he were examined, & confessed the murther in maner above writen, but whither the bodies were removed thei could nothing tel. And thus as I have learned of them that much knew and litle cause had to lye, wer these two noble princes, these innocent tender children, borne of moste royall bloode, brought up in great wealth, likely long to live to reigne and rule in the realme, by traitorous tiranny taken, depryved of their estate, shortly shitte up in prison, and privily slaine and murthered, theyr bodies cast god wote where by the cruel ambicion of their unnaturall uncle and his dispiteous tormentors. Which thinges on every part wel pondered: god never gave this world a more notable example, neither in what unsuretie standeth this worldy wel, or what mischief worketh the prowde enterprise of an hyghe heart, or finally what wretched end ensueth such dispiteous crueltie. For first to beginne with the ministers, Miles Forest at sainct Martens pecemele rotted away. Dighton in ded walketh on a live in good possibilitie to bee hanged ere he dye. But sir James Tirel dyed at Tower hill, beheaded for treason.


Although the veracity of More’s account cannot be proven — the purported original confessions do not survive and are not attested elsewhere — Tyrrell’s reputation as the agent of this notorious outrage earned him a bit part in Shakespeare’s Richard III.

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1499: Edward, Earl of Warwick, the last Plantagenet claimant

Add comment November 28th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1499, the Plantagenet prince Edward, Earl of Warwick lost his head — and his once-mighty house lost its last direct male successor to its claim upon kingship.

A lagging casualty of the Wars of the Roses, little Ted was only three when he lost his old man to a treason charge and a butt of malmsey. The same blade dangled close to Edward’s neck throughout his few years, for he became a potential royal claimant after his young cousins, the Princes in the Tower, were killed off in 1483.

Warwick was all of eight years old at that moment. When he was 10, he was shut up in the Tower of London by Henry VII, never really to leave it again.* “Being kept in the Tower from his tender age, that is to say from his first year of the king [i.e., of Henry VII’s reign] to this fifteenth year, out of all company of men and sight of beasts, in so much that he could not discern a goose from a capon,” in the words of chronicler Edward Hall. Some historians have taken that to mean that Edward was was mentally disabled, but under the circumstances, who wouldn’t be?*

It was cold and eminently practical mistreatment, for this boy however innocent in his own person was the potential champion of the Yorkists. In 1487, an abortive rebellion arose in Warwick’s name, with a 10-year-old kid named Lambert Simnel presented as a faux-Edward. Henry crushed the rebellion and was obliged to make his proofs to the populace by parading the real Edward around London which was at least a rare excursion outside the Tower walls for the tween hostage.**

Pretenders tossed the boy prisoner hither and yon on the currents of fortune. The next one to have a go at Henry, a Low Countries twerp named Perkin Warbeck who claimed to be one of the lost Princes in the Tower, mounted landings in the mid-1490s, vainly hoping to spark a general revolt. After he was finally captured in 1497, he wound up in the Tower with poor Warwick. Warbeck persuaded the desperate youth upon a desperate course — or was it by the intentional policy of that scheming king to dispose of a threat and thereby cinch that famously ill-fated Spanish marriage so productive of clientele for our grim annals? A century-plus later, Francis Bacon described in History of the Reign of King Henry VII the popular suspicion that had attached to this convenient tying up of loose ends:

it was ordained, that this winding-ivy of a Plantagenet should kill the true tree itself. For Perkin, after he had been a while in the Tower, began to insinuate himself into the favour and kindness of his keepers, servants to the lieutenant of the Tower Sir John Digby, being four in number; Strangeways, Blewet, Astwood, and Long Roger. These varlets, with mountains of promises, he sought to corrupt, to obtain his escape; but knowing well, that his own fortunes were made so contemptible, as he could feed no man’s hopes, and by hopes he must work, for rewards he had none, he had contrived with himself a vast and tragical plot; which was, to draw into his company Edward Plantagenet earl of Warwick, then prisoner in the Tower; whom the weary life of a long imprisonment, and the often and renewing fears of being put to death, had softened to take any impression of counsel for his liberty. This young Prince he thought these servants would look upon, though not upon himself: and therefore, after that by some message by one or two of them, he had tasted of the earl’s consent; it was agreed that these four should murder their master the lieutenant secretly in the night, and make their best of such money and portable goods of his, as they should find ready at hand, and get the keys of the Tower, and presently let forth Perkin and the earl. But this conspiracy was revealed in time, before it could be executed. And in this again the opinion of the King’s great wisdom did surcharge him with a sinister fame, that Perkin was but his bait, to entrap the earl of Warwick.

… Howsoever it were, hereupon Perkin, that had offended against grace now the third time, was at the last proceeded with, and by commissioners of oyer and terminer arraigned at Westminster, upon divers treasons committed and perpetrated after his coming on land within this kingdom, for so the judges advised, for that he was a foreigner, and condemned, and a few days after executed at Tyburn; where he did again openly read his confession, and take it upon his death to be true. This was the end of this little cockatrice of a King, that was able to destroy those that did not espy him first. It was one of the longest plays of that kind that hath been in memory, and might perhaps have had another end, if he had not met with a King both wise, stout, and fortunate.

And immediately after was arraigned before the Earl of Oxford, then for the time high steward of England, the poor Prince, the Earl of Warwick; not for the attempt to escape simply, for that was not acted; and besides, the imprisonment not being for treason, the escape by law could not be treason, but for conspiring with Perkin to raise sedition, and to destroy the King: and the earl confessing the indictment, had judgment, and was shortly after beheaded on Tower-hill.

This was also the end, not only of this noble and commiserable person Edward the earl of Warwick, eldest son to the duke of Clarence: but likewise of the line male of the Plantagenets, which had flourished in great royalty and renown, from the time of the famous King of England, King Henry the second. Howbeit it was a race often dipped in their own blood. It hath remained since only transplanted into other names, as well of the imperial line, as of other noble houses. But it was neither guilt of crime, nor treason of state, that could quench the envy that was upon the King for this execution: so that he thought good to export it out of the land, and to lay it upon his new ally, Ferdinando King of Spain. For these two Kings understanding one another at half a word, so it was that there were letters shewed out of Spain, whereby in the passages concerning the treaty of marriage, Ferdinando had written to the King in plain terms, that he saw no assurance of his succession, as long as the earl of Warwick lived; and that he was loth to send his daughter to troubles and dangers. But hereby, as the King did in some part remove the envy from himself; so he did not observe, that he did withal bring a kind of malediction and infausting upon the marriage, as an ill prognostic: which in event so far proved true, as both Prince Arthur enjoyed a very small time after the marriage, and the lady Catharine herself, a sad and a religious woman, long after, when King Henry the eighth his resolution of a divorce from her was first made known to her, used some words, that she had not offended, but it was a judgment of God, for that her former marriage was made in blood; meaning that of the earl of Warwick.

* The situation reminds of little Tsar Ivan VI in the 18th century, although that Russian prince was held from an even younger age, under even more oppressive conditions.

** Being only a figurehead, the pretend Warwick ironically enjoyed great mercy compared to the real one. Simnel was installed in Henry’s kitchens instead and lived out a comfortable life in the royal household.

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1483: Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham

Add comment November 2nd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1483, the Duke of Buckingham was beheaded at Salisbury for rebelling against Richard III.


Shakespeare’s treatment of Buckingham’s death in Richard III:

“Why, then All-Souls’ day is my body’s doomsday.
This is the day that, in King Edward’s time,
I wish’t might fall on me, when I was found
False to his children or his wife’s allies

Come, sirs, convey me to the block of shame;
Wrong hath but wrong, and blame the due of blame.”

Buckingham — Henry Stafford by name — resided firmly in the 1% of the 1% for 15th century England: a dangerous neighborhood since the War of the Roses was afoot, felling noblemen hither and yon. (Henry Stafford became the Duke of Buckingham as a toddler when his father was mortally wounded at the Battle of St. Albans.)

Our Buckingham could count five Kings of England among his close relations; he himself was married right into Edward IV‘s household when he was wed at age 10 to Catherine Woodville, the seven-year-old sister of the commoner-queen Elizabeth Woodville. That made Buckingham uncle to the two sons and possible heirs of Edward IV.

But every family has its black sheep. Buckingham wasn’t keen on the Woodvilles despite his presence on their Christmas card list, and when King Edward died relatively young in 1483, Buckingham backed the succession in power not of the Woodvilles, but of Edward’s brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester — the man who indeed became king as Richard III.

Technically, Richard started out as Lord Protector on behalf of the boy-king Edward V and his little brother Richard, before he had the twerps declared illegitimate and disappeared them in 1483 into the Tower of London. Buckingham himself is one of the lead suspects for the man who urged or even carried out the murder of these Princes in the Tower.

The prospect that Buckingham’s alliance with Richard III extended all the way to regicide makes quite curious the former’s turn later that same year to rebellion — for as Thomas More would write, “hereupon sone after [the murder of the princes] began the conspiracy or rather good confederacion, between ye Duke of Buckingham and many other gentlemen against [Richard III]. Thoccasion wheruppon the king and the Duke fell out, is of divers folks diverse wyse pretended.”

Buckingham’s right to the marquee of the autumn 1483 “Buckingham’s Rebellion” has been doubted, for leadership of the various uprisings in southern England and Wales appears to belong to those “other gentlemen” of the gentry.

“Buckingham’s” rebellion was easily defeated but it augured a much deeper threat to Richard’s crown than one peer’s enmity — for the rebellion declared in favor of Henry Tudor, a last-gasp, exiled Lancastrian claimant descended from a Welsh courtier.

Buckingham himself was captured, condemned as a traitor, and publicly beheaded at Salisbury on November 2, 1483. He was one of numerous principals in the rising to go to the scaffold, but Henry’s cause continued to accumulate adherents — until not two years later, Henry defeated Richard at the Battle of Bosworth Field.

In Shakespeare’s treatment, the ghost of the executed Buckingham aptly appears to Richard III on the eve of this climactic moment of English history to prophesy his former ally’s defeat:

The last was I that helped thee to the crown;
The last was I that felt thy tyranny:
O, in the battle think on Buckingham,
And die in terror of thy guiltiness!
Dream on, dream on, of bloody deeds and death:
Fainting, despair; despairing, yield thy breath!

Buckingham left a five-year-old heir, Edward Stafford, who was spirited into hiding, away from the vengeful King Richard. This third Duke of Buckingham would in the fullness of time grow to to be executed by Henry Tudor’s son, Henry VIII.

The History of England podcast covers this gentleman in detail in episode 189.

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1469: Richard Woodville, father of the queen

6 comments August 12th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1469, Richard Woodville, the father of the queen, lost his head.

Though he died as Earl Rivers, Woodville started life as a commoner.

As a retainer to the Duke of Bedford, Woodville drew escort duty for the mistress of the house when the master died suddenly. Not one to waste an opportunity, Woodville soon made the merry widow his merry wife: at the time, he was around 30 and she around 20, while the late husband had kicked off at age 46.

For this impertinent and unauthorized union, the couple paid a fine … and their descendants enjoyed royal power. Well-behaved women and knights-errant seldom make history, right?

Marrying nobility put Woodville into the War of Roses game of throne, where he again proved a deft hand with sneaky conjugation.

In 1464, he secretly married his widowed daughter Elizabeth to the young king Edward IV. Elizabeth Woodville became thereby the first commoner in history to marry an English king.

She also became a lightning-rod.

The Earl of Warwick, so powerful that he was known in this era of uneasy-resting crowns as “The Kingmaker”, was embarrassingly undercut by the Woodville match in his own machinations to pair Edward with a French princess. A stunned Privy Council castigated Edward when it found out — “however good and however fair she might be,” they grumbled “she was no wife for a prince such as himself; for she was not the daughter of a duke or earl” — but the young king stood by his lady.

A love match? We leave that question for the poets and the novelists.

From left to right, Philippa Gregory‘s books about Richard Woodville’s wife, daughter, and granddaughter. Gregory also wrote a nonfiction companion to this bestselling series, The Women of the Cousins’ War: The Duchess, the Queen, and the King’s Mother.

But politically, the Woodville marriage certainly upset the game board. Richard Woodville got promoted to Earl Rivers and others of the tribe profited likewise: this made good sense for Edward because these people would owe their positions, and loyalty, to him.

Contrast with the independent, arrogant aristocrat set like Warwick, who soon proceeded — and what part l’affaire Woodville plazed in his defection is up for speculation, although it was part of his own publicly asserted justification — to desert Edward’s Yorkist cause for the Lancastrian claimant.

Warwick’s rebellion succeeded in overthrowing Edward in 1469, and it was in the glow of this victory that Warwick had the obnoxious arriviste Richard Woodville beheaded as a traitor, together with the man’s son John.

Unfortunately for Warwick, it was but a moment.

Unable to govern, Warwick had to release his royal prisoner, and the sides slid back into open conflict. Edward decisively crushed the Lancastrians at the Battle of Tewkesbury, conveniently killing Warwick in the process.

Duly returned to her station, Elizabeth Woodville produced two sons for her husband, the boys history remembers as the Princes in the Tower — which is where the last LancastrianYorkist king Richard III is thought to have murdered them. In Shakespeare’s Richard III, Queen Elizabeth is quite the bummer.

Ay me, I see the ruin of my house!
The tiger now hath seiz’d the gentle hind;
Insulting tyranny begins to jet
Upon the innocent and aweless throne.
Welcome, destruction, blood, and massacre!
I see, as in a map, the end of all.

But her house wasn’t quite ruined after all: Elizabeth Woodville also produced a daughter, also named Elizabeth. This latter “Elizabeth of York” married another descendant of a commoner, who carried the Lancaster standard: this fellow of doubtful lineage would finally resolve the War of the Roses and reign as Henry VII. (Father, namesake, and predecessor, of course, to this site’s patron head-chopping monarch Henry VIII: Richard Woodville’s great-grandson.)

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