1460: Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury

Add comment December 31st, 2014 Headsman

On the 31st of December in 1460, the Earl of Salisbury was beheaded the day after the Lancastrians routed the Yorkists at the Battle of Wakefield.

Salisbury — Richard Neville by name — was brother-in-law to the Yorkist claimant (and namesake) Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, so you can guess which side Neville backed during these Wars of the Roses.

Actually, although your guess is spot on for the instance at hand, overlapping kin networks and cutthroat politicking made for an indistinct border between Lancastrians and Yorkists that some actors willingly crisscrossed. Richard Neville’s cousin Thomas Neville, for example, was a Lancastrian, who switched to the Yorkists, and then switched back to the Lancastrians. All this goes to show the treacherous environment for nobles who could go from the orbit of royal power themselves straight to the headsman’s block with each new battlefield reversal. And Salisbury, he was Team White Rose* right on down the line.

(The Neville family’s running feud with their fellow northern magnates, the Percys, helped to catalyze the York-Lancaster rivalry into open warfare.)

Salisbury led the Yorkist side to a notable early victory at the September 1459 Battle of Blore Heath, cunningly baiting the Lancastrians into a disadvantageous charge across a brook by feigning retreat. Then, runs Hall’s chronicle, “the Earl of Salisbury, which knew the sleights, strategies and policies of warlike affairs, suddenly returned, and shortly encountered with the Lord Audley and his chief captains, ere the residue of his army could pass the water … [and] so eagerly fought, that they slew the [Lancastrian commander] Lord Audley, and all his captains, and discomfited all the remnant of his people.”

The Yorkists didn’t do as well at the Battle of Ludford Bridge three weeks later and their leaders (Salisbury included) had to flee England to regroup.

This 1459-1461 period has especially rapid reversals of fortune for the contending parties in the Wars of the Roses, who seemed to alternate between them the results of the latest battle and with it the leadership of England.

As the most recent losers, Salisbury and his son, the Earl of Warwick — known as the “kingmaker”, this younger Richard Neville was one of the pivotal figures of the dynastic wars — had to flee England with many of the Yorkist leaders. But they mounted a re-invasion from Calais where Warwick was constable and the Nevilles pere and fils led separate columns that overran London, and captured the Lancastrian King Henry VI. Suddenly, the ex-fugitive York was the Lord Protector, England’s de facto ruler, and its de jure successor.

But as had been the case one year before, fickle Fortune abandoned the House of York almost immediately after raising it up. Two months later, their forces ventured battle with a much larger army of the regrouping Lancastrians; as night fell on December 30, 1460, York himself lay dead in his armor while his kinsman Salisbury was a prisoner with just hours left to live.

This was, of course, very far from the end for the Yorkist party, for both men left their causes to capable heirs. York’s 18-year-old son Edward inherited his father’s claims to the throne of England; together with Warwick, they counterattacked and crushed the Lancastrians at Towton on March 29, 1461** — finally deposing Henry VI and enthroning York’s eldest son as King Edward IV.

And they all lived happily ever after.

* The competing Rose devices used by the Yorkists, the Lancastrians, and the eventual Tudors, are one of the four suit markers we’ve used in our unique Executed Today playing card set. Pick up a pack or eight today why don’t you?

** The undercard fight to Towton was February’s Battle of Mortimer’s Cross, which also featured a crushing defeat of the Lancastrians — led on that occasion by a commander whom the Yorkists subsequently put to death, Owen Tudor.

Against any odds one could care to name, it was this Owen Tudor’s descendant who would eventually emerge from the Wars of the Roses as England’s legitimate-ish king, Henry VII — founder of the Tudor dynasty so very fruitful for this here execution blog.

On this day..

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1469: Humphrey and Charles Neville, Lancastrians

Add comment September 29th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1469, Lancastrian nobleman Sir Humphrey Neville and his brother Charles were beheaded at York under the eyes of King Edward IV.

These Nevilles — cousins to the Bastard of Faulconbridge, who we have met previously in these pages — lost their heads in the Lancastrian cause during England’s War(s) of the Roses over royal legitimacy.

For the Nevilles, as indeed for the House of Lancaster in general, everything had gone pear-shaped with the 1461 deposition of the feebleminded Lancastrian ruler Henry VI. That seated on Albion’s throne the Yorkist contender Edward IV; the imprisoned Henry’s queen, Margaret of Anjou — who had already been the effective sovereign in view of Henry’s mental incapacitation — retreated to Scotland. Humphrey Neville was among the irreconcilable Lancastrians who went with her; he would be captured raiding into England later that same year of 1461.

The House of Neville being one of the greatest in northern England (and having under its roof adherents to both white rose and red), Neville had his life secured by royal pardon and even received a knighthood from the usurping king — just the messy expediency of court politics.

The problem was that Neville just wouldn’t stay bought. 1464 finds him back in the field on the wrong team when the Lancastrians were routed at the Battle of Hexham; it is said that he hied himself thereafter to a cave on the banks of the Derwent and survived an outlaw, for five long years.

In 1469 Neville reappeared on the scene along with the shattered Lancastrian cause when the “Kingmaker” Earl of Warwick (yet another Neville) turned against King Edward and took him into custody — with the invaluable assistance of various northern disturbances in favor of the Lancastrian cause, a ruckus that Humphrey Neville probably helped to raise.

Warwick, however, found his own position as jailer of the king untenable. Neither could he himself quell the Lancastrian ultras who intended a proper restoration and not merely leveraging the royal prisoner — so to Warwick’s chagrin, he was forced to release King Edward in order to raise the army needed to move against the Lancastrian rebels who were supposed to be his allies.

Neville’s rising, and then Neville himself, were dispatched with ease — but the cost of doing so was the imminent failure of the entire Lancastrian movement.

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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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