John Tiptoft, Earl of Worcester

John Tiptoft, Earl of Worcester was born c1427 and executed in 1470. He gained notoriety as Constable of England earning him the moniker of “Butcher of England”. Having inherited the titles of Lord Tiptoft and Powys he was elevated to Earl of Worcester in 1449. His career saw him holding a series of administrative posts, a position on the privy council, and ambassador. 

Early career of Sir John Tiptoft

Though the Earl of Worcester was closely allied to the Duke of York, he was not involved in the military events of 1459-61. In this period he is believed to have been on a tour of Europe, in which time he met with the Pope and acted on England’s behalf as a diplomat. He returned to England as the Yorkists were establishing the administration of King Edward IV’s reign.

Having been trusted by Richard Duke of York, Tiptoft was an ideal candidate for senior positions. His ties with Wales led to his appointment as the Chief Justice of Northern Wales, he was then appointed Constable of the Tower of London, before being appointed to an office of State, that of Constable of England.

Earl of Worcester, Constable of England

The Earl of Worcester’s work as Constable of England soon saw him making decisions that would lead to him being a hated man amongst Lancastrian sympathisers. One of his first tasks was to try John de Vere, 12th Earl of Oxford, and his son, among others, on charges of treason. He found the men guilty and ordered their executions. It was an act that the new Earl of Oxford would not forget.

John Tiptoft in Ireland

In 1467 Tiptoft, the Earl of Worcester, was appointed as a justice in Ireland under the Lieutenancy of the Duke of Clarence. This was in place of Thomas Fitzgerald, eighth earl of Desmond. The Earl of Desmond, along with the Earl of Kildaire, was then attained, with Desmond being executed. It sparked a revolt by the Fitzgerald’s in Munster and Kildaire amid rumours that the Earl of Worcester had also murdered the infant heirs of the Earl of Desmond. The affair was ended with Worcester making arrangements with the Earl of Kildaire that led to the parliament of Ireland granting Tiptoft the right to fortify the Isle of Lambay, giving him considerable control over the Irish coast.

‘Butcher of England’

Whilst the execution of leading Lancastrian nobles may be understandable in the context of the battlefield slaughters committed by both sides in the early phases of the wars, some of his acts later in the conflict shocked some observers. When the Earl of Warwick and Duke of Clarence fled to France, Tiptoft managed to prevent some of their supporters from joining them. Having prevented ships from embarking from Southampton, the suspected rebels were given quick trials and summarily executed. Their heads were then displayed on the gates of Southampton.

1470. The capture, trial, and execution of the Earl of Worcester

When the Yorkist leadership was forced into exile, the Earl of Worcester had to go into hiding. His record of executing the family and supporters of the Lancastrian elite made him a despised man whom the Earls of Warwick and Oxford, along with the Duke of Clarence, wanted to see captured and dealt with. Having been unable to get to the coast and flee to Burgundy with King Edward, Tiptoft had gone into hiding. He was soon discovered and taken to the Tower of London.

His trial was conducted by John de Vere, 13th Earl of Oxford, son of the Earl whom had been executed on Tiptoft’s orders in 1462. The outcome was in no doubt, he was found guilty and sentenced to death by beheading. The Earl of Worcester’s final act was to request of the executioner that he be dispatched with three strikes, to represent the Holy Trinity. He was beheaded at Tower Hill.

John Tiptoft, 1st Earl of Worcester was buried at St. Ann, Blackfriars. A cenotaph for the Earl can be found in Ely Cathedral.

John Tiptoft, 1st Earl of Worcester. Cenotaph, Ely Cathedral
John Tiptoft, 1st Earl of Worcester. Cenotaph, Ely Cathedral.

John Tiptoft, 1st Earl of Worcester, biography from the Dictionary of National Biography

Note: the Dictionary of National Biography is Public Domain in the United Kingdom. A more recent version is available that takes into account research from the past hundred years. It can be found here.

TIPTOFT or TIBETOT, JOHN, Earl of Worcester (1427?–1470), son of John, baron Tiptoft [q.v.] , and his second wife Joyce, was born at Everton in Bedfordshire in or about 1427, for he is said to have been sixteen at his father’s death in 1443 (Dugdale). He was educated, according to information received by Leland (ut ego accepi), at Balliol College, Oxford. On 27 Jan. 1443 he succeeded to his father’s honours and large estates, being styled Lord Tiptoft and Powys, and on 1 July 1449 he was created Earl of Worcester by patent. He was appointed a commissioner for oyer and terminer for Surrey and other counties in 1451. Being one of the party of Richard, duke of York [q. v.], whose duchess, Cicely, was aunt of Tiptoft’s first wife, Cicely, daughter of Richard Neville, earl of Salisbury [q.v.] , and widow of Henry de Beauchamp, duke of Warwick [q. v.], he was on 15 April 1452, immediately after the pacification between the court and the Duke of York, appointed treasurer of the exchequer, and, as one of the privy council, on 24 Oct. 1453 signed the minutes for the attendance of York at the great council for the settlement of the regency. During York’s protectorate, on 3 April 1454, Worcester was appointed a joint-commissioner to keep guard by sea for three years, the expenses of the commissioners being provided for from the receipts of tonnage and poundage (Rot. Parl. v. 244). In 1456–7 he was deputy of Ireland. On 5 Aug. 1457 he was nominated to carry the king’s profession of obedience to Calixtus III (Fœdera, xi. 403), and in 1459 as ambassador to Pius II and to the council of Mantua (Acts of Privy Council, vi. 302). It seems probable that Worcester’s journey to Jerusalem and his residence in Italy, noticed later, took place about this time. Of the embassy of 1457 no further notice has been found, and he does not appear to have visited Rome twice. No English embassy appeared at the council of Mantua, save two priests sent by Henry VI, bearing his excuses (Pius, Commentarii, p. 88). Worcester, however, did go to Rome, and made an oration before Pius II, then apparently pope, who was crowned on 3 Sept. 1458, and he was in Italy some time before the death of Guarino da Verona in 1460. This is contrary to the assertion of Vespasiano da Bisticci that the earl’s tour, which is said to have lasted three years, took place after the cessation of the civil war in England, though the assertion would be fairly correct if Worcester did not return to England until the spring of 1461.

The accession of Edward IV opened Worcester’s way to high offices. On 25 Nov. 1461 he was appointed chief justice for life of North Wales, a little later constable of the Tower of London, and on 7 Feb. 1462 constable of England, which office he held until 24 Aug. 1467. A few days after his appointment as constable he tried and sentenced to death in his court at Westminster John de Vere, earl of Oxford, his eldest son Aubrey, Sir Thomas Tuddenham, and others. Their sentences are said by Warkworth (p. 5) to have been ‘by law padowe,’ which seems an angry reference to the constable’s late residence at Padua. He was rewarded by the Garter on 21 March, and was appointed treasurer on 14 April, which office he held for fourteen months. He accompanied the king on his expedition to the north in November, and was present at the sieges of Bamborough and Dunstanborough. In 1463 he was appointed lord steward of the king’s household, and in August received a commission to keep guard by sea in order to prevent the escape of Queen Margaret, whom Edward designed to crush by a fresh campaign. The queen escaped, the money spent on Worcester’s ships was wasted, and his operations are described as a lamentable failure (Three Fifteenth-Century Chronicles, p. 177; Gregory, p. 221). On 31 Jan. 1464 he was appointed chancellor of Ireland. He was with the king in Yorkshire in the spring and summer, and as constable tried and condemned to death Sir Ralph Grey, and doubtless also the rest of the large number of the Lancastrian party executed at that time (Ramsay, ii. 304). At the serjeants’ feast in that year the earl was given precedence of the mayor of London, though the dinner was held within the city; the mayor in consequence left the hall with his officers, and an apology was made to him (Gregory, p. 222). On 12 Aug. he was appointed commissioner to treat with the Duke of Brittany (Fœdera, xi. 531). In 1467, during the lieutenancy of the Duke of Clarence, he was appointed deputy of Ireland in place of Thomas Fitzgerald, eighth earl of Desmond [q. v.] He held a parliament at Drogheda in which Desmond and Thomas Fitzgerald, seventh earl of Kildare [q. v.], were attainted. Desmond was executed, and Worcester is accused of having cruelly put to death two of his infant sons; though this has, with some reason, been doubted [see Fitzgerald, Thomas, eighth Earl of Desmond], the truth of the charge seems established by the reference to it in the account of Worcester’s death given by his contemporary, Vespasiano. In revenge for Desmond’s death the Fitzgeralds of Munster ravaged Meath and Kildare. The Earl of Kildare was respited, and his pardon was ratified by Worcester’s second parliament. In return Kildare joined Worcester and his countess in founding a chantry in the church of St. Secundinus at Dunslaughlin, Meath. Worcester received the island of Lambay by vote of the Irish parliament, to fortify it against Breton, French, and Spanish plunderers (Gilbert). He returned to England before the end of 1468.

The Lincolnshire rising of 1470 brought a fresh crop of executions. Worcester, who was with the king in his campaign, was again appointed constable on 14 March at Stamford (Fœdera, xi. 654), and at once resumed his old work of carrying out the royal vengeance. On the 23rd he received the lieutenancy of Ireland, of which Clarence was deprived. He marched south with the king, and twenty of the party of Clarence and the Earl of Warwick, who were then escaping to France, having been taken in a naval engagement at Southampton, Worcester, at the king’s command, judged and condemned them, and after they were hanged, drawn, and quartered, caused their heads and bodies to be impaled, ‘for the whiche the peple of the londe were gretely displesyd, and evere afterwarde the Erle of Wurcestre was gretely behatede emonge the peple, for ther dysordinate deth that he used contrarye to the lawe of the lond’ (Warkeworth, p. 9). On 30 April he was appointed chamberlain of the exchequer. In October Edward fled from England, and Henry was restored. It is said that Worcester took refuge among some herdsmen in the forest of Weybridge, Huntingdonshire, and disguised himself as one of them; that he sent a countryman to buy him food with a larger piece of money than such a man would generally have, and that this led to the discovery of his hiding-place (Vespasiano). The soldiers sent after him found him concealed in a high tree. He was lodged in the Tower, and taken thence to Westminster, where on the 15th he was tried in the constable’s court, John de Vere, thirteenth earl of Oxford [q. v.], whose father and brother he had sentenced to death, being appointed constable specially for his trial. His execution was to take place on Monday the 17th, but as he was being led from Westminster to Tower Hill so great a crowd pressed round to see him that the sheriffs were forced to lodge him in the Fleet prison until the next day (Fabyan). Several ecclesiastics are said to have accompanied him to his death in the afternoon of the 18th, and among them an Italian friar, who reproached him for his cruelties, and specially for the deaths of two youths, evidently the young Fitzgeralds. He met his death with patience and dignity, and is said to have bidden the headsman strike him three blows in honour of the Trinity. He was buried in the Blackfriars church, and, according to Fabyan, in a chapel that he had himself built, though Leland, probably more correctly, says that the chapel was built by one of his sisters, between two columns on the south side. Hated for his cruelty, he was called ‘the butcher of England,’ and is described as ‘the fierce executioner and beheader of men.’ Though his master was primarily responsible for most of his cruelties, Worcester was evidently a willing instrument of Edward’s bloodthirsty vengeance; it is said that the king disapproved of the execution of Desmond; the slaughter of Desmond’s two sons, and the impalements, which specially shocked public sentiment, were probably his unprompted acts. Some part of the popular hatred of him may have arisen from an abhorrence of the abuses of the constable’s court over which he presided; for he seems to have been regarded as the introducer of a foreign and tyrannical system contrary to the laws and liberties of the kingdom, which was bitterly called Paduan law (Warkworth; Vespasiano). The remembrance of his cruelties long remained fresh in the minds of his fellow-countrymen (Mirror for Magistrates, ii. 199, ed. Haslewood).

Along with his cruelties, Worcester is famous for his scholarship and his interest in learning (on the combination of cruelty with culture among the Italians of the Renaissance see Symonds, Renaissance in Italy, i. 413–14; Worcester may perhaps be regarded as an early specimen of the Italianised Englishman who, according to a later proverb, was un diavolo incarnato). He was an accomplished latinist, an eager student, a friend and patron of learned men, and a traveller of cultivated taste. He sailed to Italy probably about 1457 or 1458 with a large company of attendants, landed at Venice, and apparently at once took ship again for Palestine, where he visited Jerusalem and other holy places. Returning to Venice, he went thence to Padua, where he resided for some time studying Latin. There he met with John Free or Phreas [q. v.] and other students and men of learning. He became a friend of Guarino, the most famous teacher in Italy, then residing at the court of Ferrara, and of Lodovico Carbo, who both esteemed him highly, and he seems to have been regarded by the Italian humanists as a kind of Mæcenas. Being anxious when at Florence to see the city thoroughly, he walked about unattended and examined everything carefully. He heard the lectures of John Argyropoulos, who began to teach Greek in Florence in 1456. He visited Rome, where he made an oration before Pius II and the cardinals, and the pope is said to have been moved to tears by his eloquence and the beauty of his latinity. He bought so many books that he was said to have spoiled the libraries of Italy to enrich England, and the famous bookseller Vespasiano, who probably knew him when at Florence, speaks of the largeness of his purchases. Worcester is said to have written ‘Orationes ad Pium II, ad Cardinales, et ad Patavinos,’ though this is perhaps merely a deduction from the facts of his life. Of his letters, four exist in the Lincoln Cathedral library. He translated Cicero’s ‘De Amicitia,’ and the ‘Declaration of Nobleness’ by Buonaccorso. These were printed by Caxton in 1481, along with a translation of the ‘De Senectute,’ wrongly ascribed by Leland to Worcester (Blades). He is also said to have been the author of Cæsar’s ‘Commentaryes newly translated owte of latin in to Englyshe as much as concernyth thys realm of England,’ printed 1530 (Brit. Mus.; Dibdin). The ‘ordinances for justes of peace royal’ noted by Warton (iii. 337) are his ‘ordinances for justes and triumphes’ made by him as constable in 8 Edward IV, 1466, to be found in Cottonian MS., Tib. E. viii. f. 126 [258]; they were commanded to be observed in 1562, and are printed in Harington’s ‘Nugæ Antiquæ,’ i. l, with a heading of that date. In the same Cottonian MS., f. 117 [149], are ‘Orders for the placing of nobility’ by Tiptoft, also made in 1466. Dibdin erroneously follows Fuller in attributing to Worcester a petition against the lollards; Fuller confuses the earl with his father. Caxton wrote an impassioned lament for and high eulogy of him as an epilogue to the ‘Declamation’ (Blades; see also the prologue to the translation of the ‘De Amicitia’); he says that from the earl’s death all might learn to die, and as he speaks of him as superior to all the other temporal lords of the kingdom in moral virtue, as well as in science, we may believe that he had some good qualities besides his love of learning; he seems at least to have been faithful to the Yorkist party. He gave books of the value of 500 marks to the university of Oxford, which had not received his gift at his death; but the suggestion that it never obtained the books is mistaken, for Hearne recognised one of them in the university library, a ‘Commentarius Latinus in Juvenalem.’ He is said to have intended to present books to Cambridge also. He founded a fraternity in All Hallows’ church, Barking.

Worcester was thrice married: (1) to Cicely, widow of Henry de Beauchamp, earl of Warwick, who died on 28 July 1450; (2) to Elizabeth, daughter of Robert Greyndour, by whom he had a son who died in infancy; and (3) to Elizabeth, daughter of Thomas Hopton, and widow of Sir Roger Corbet of Moreton-Corbet, Shropshire, by whom he had a son Edward. As the earl was not attainted, this Edward succeeded de jure to the earldom at his father’s death, being then two years of age. On his death, without issue, on 12 Aug. 1485, this earldom became extinct; his heirs were his three aunts, the sisters of his father [see under Tiptoft, John, Baron Tiptoft]. There is an effigy of John, earl of Worcester, on a tomb in Ely Cathedral, probably erected by him for himself and his wives; an engraving from it is given in Doyle’s ‘Official Baronage.’

[Three Fifteenth-Cent. Chron. pp. 157, 159, 177, 182–3; Gregory’s Chron. pp. 221–2; Warkworth’s Chron. pp. 5, 9, 13, 38 (all Camden Soc.); Worcester Ann. pp. 476, 492, 495, ed. Hearne; Fabyan’s Chron. p. 659, ed. 1811; Stow’s Ann. p. 423, and Survey of London, p. 374, ed. 1633; Hall’s Chron. p. 286, ed. 1809; Paston Letters, ii. 121, 412, ed. Gairdner; Fœdera, xi. 403 post, ed. 1710; Cal. Rot. Pat. ii. 301 post; Rot. Parl. v. 244; Acts of P. Council, vi. 165; Leland’s Collect. iii. 60, ed. 1770, and Itin. vi. 81, ed. 1745; Ramsay’s Lanc. and York, ii. 152, 167, 292, 334, 352, 361; Gilbert’s Viceroys of Ireland, pp. 385–91; Dugdale’s Baronage, ii. 38; Doyle’s Off. Baronage, iii. 718; Nicolas’s Hist. Peerage, p. 519, ed. Courthope; Bentham’s Hist. of Ely, p. 287, and Stevenson’s Supplement, p. 140. For Tiptoft as a humanist and traveller see Vespasiano da Bisticci’s Vite di Uomini Illustri del sec. xv. ‘Duca di Worcestri,’ i. 322–6, with an account of the earl’s capture and death, ap. Opere inedite o rare nella prov. dell’ Emilia, Bologna; Leland’s De Scriptt. p. 475; Bale’s Scriptt. Cat. Cent. viii. 46; Savage’s Balliofergus, p. 103; Blades’s Caxton, i. 79, ii. 93; Ames’s Typogr. Antiq. i. 124–9, ed. Dibdin; Warton’s Hist. of Engl. Poetry, iii. 337, 555; Maxwell-Lyte’s Univ. of Oxford, pp. 322, 385–6; Wood’s Antiq. of Oxford, ii. 917–18, ed. Gutch; Fuller’s Worthies, p. 155, ed. 1662; Hearne’s Collect. iii. 211, ed. Doble (Oxford Hist. Soc.)]

Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 56
Tiptoft, John (1427?-1470) by William Hunt


Image Credits

Monumental effigy of John Tiptoft, Earl of Worcester at Ely Cathedral. 1911. Dasent, Arthur Irwin (1911). The Speakers of the House of Commons. London. p. 70

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