The Wars of the Roses
A bitter civil war for control of the English throne, between the rival houses of York and Lancaster, fought over a series of encounters between 1455 and 1485. Both houses had a claim to the English throne via descendants from Edward III. The name is derived from the badges associated with the two houses - a red rose for Lancaster and a white rose for York, although the the term was not used at the time of the wars themselves.
The House of Lancaster drew most of its support from the north and west of the country and the Yorkists from the south and east. The wars were largely fought by the titled aristocracy who raised large numbers of retainers, or paid men, under their own banners. As a result, during the whole conflict, it was not unusual for Lords to change sides from one battle to the next, depending upon their current loyalties and their chances of personal gain.
John Tiptoft was unusual in his steadfast support of the Yorkist cause throughout the period. It was this dependability, and his intelectual ability, that led him to high office. He was to become the most powerful noble in the land, aside from the King himself.
The end of the wars heralded the beginning of a new order in England, the end of the middle ages and a reduction in the power of feudal Lords. Alongside this a strengthening of the merchant classes and a strong, centralized monarchy would change the face of English politics and pave the way for the coming Renaissance of the 16th century. Until 1485 the King had effectively been the most powerful noble, but all that was to change under Tudor rule.
The main protagonists were the Lancastrian king, Henry VI and the Yorkist king, Edward IV.
King Henry VI was a weak ruler, who lost almost all England's holdings on the continent, that had been so hard fought for by his father Henry V. Henry suffered numerous bouts of mental illness and the country was put under a protectorate led by Richard Duke of York. Many people thought Henry unfit to rule and Richard proceeded to press his own considerable claim to throne.
However, Henry's Queen - Margaret of Anjou - was an agressive and feisty woman and she determined to put her own son on the throne for the House of Lancaster. The ensuing struggle lasted 30 years and cost thousands of lives.
Edward, by contrast a brilliant tactical and political leader, deposed Henry in 1461 after the Battle of Towton tore the heart out of the Lancastrian nobility and left Henry and Margaret fleeing for their lives to exile in Sctoland. The crown was to change hands twice more before Edward's death after a peaceful and largely unopposed rule between 1471 and 1483.
For more detailed information please see the excellent article at Wikipedia.
So what kind of man was he really?
Born at Great Eversden in Cambridgeshire on 8th May 1427, he was the son of Sir John Baron Tiptoft and Joyce Baroness Tiptoft (Cherleton). His father was Speaker of the House of Commons around 1406, a much employed diplomat of Henry V and a member of the council during the minority of Henry VI.
Tiptoft was educated at University College Oxford.
He married Cecily Neville, daughter of Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury. A staunch Yorkist, Tiptoft was created Earl of Worcester in 1449. Cecily died in 1450, and he became Treasurer of the Exchequer shortly afterwards.
In 1467 Tiptoft was again appointed Deputy of Ireland. He had the Earl of Desmond attainted and put to death in a cruel manner, along with his sons, if we are to believe the accounts.
At the height of his notoriety John Tiptoft condemned and put to death twenty of Warwick's adherents. He had them beheaded, drawn, quartered, impaled and their remains put on public display. The act was seen as excessive, even in those troubled times, however it effectively ended the rebellion being stirred up by the tresonous Warwick, before it had chance to gain any momentum at all. These acts were to earn John Tiptoft the sobriquet of "Butcher of England" ( although this title does not appear until the Tudor vilification of him in the 16th century) and the permanent enmity of Lancastrian supporters.
On the readeption of Henry VI in 1470, Edward IV fled to France. Tiptoft was unfortunately unable to escape with his king and was caught whilst attempting to get money, taken from the Treasury, to Edward in order to help him raise forces to regain the throne. He and a small band of his retainers were found disguised as shepherds and taken prisoner. Brought before John de Vere, son of the Earl of Oxford whom Tiptoft had attainted and executed a few years earlier, he was found guilty of treason and beheaded at the Tower of London on 18th October 1470. He was accorded an elaborate execution, his scaffold being decked out with garlands and expensive cloths. Even though the Lancastrians hated Tiptoft, they still held him in awe and regarded him, rightfully, as an honourable and noble lord and dangerous and incorruptible adversary. At his execution he asked the executioner to take of his head with three blows for the sake of the Holy Trinity.
Although Tiptoft seems to have been an unecessarily cruel man, it is important to see and judge him in the context of the times in which he lived. He was clearly an extremely intelligent and highly educated man and the apparent vigour with which he carried out his duties was reminiscent of the combination of culture and cruelty shown by Italians of the early Renaissance. As a man who had spent much time in Italy it is likely he thought that the italian way was the way forward for England. I doubt if his ruthless nature arose from any personal sadistic trait - rather more from a sense of duty to his King and religion. He was clearly a man ahead of his time, even if his beliefs were misguided.
Detested by many, Tiptoft nevertheless earned praise from Thomas Caxton who said of him that he was superior to all temporal lords of the kingdom both in moral virtue and science. He was also incorruptibly loyal to Edward - an unusual and commendable quality at a time when allegiances were changing daily amongst almost all the nobles of the country. It was also said of him that.....
"The axe that slew him at one blow cut off more learning than was in the heads of all the surviving nobility.
It is also likely that Tiptoft's name has been deliberately tainted by Lancastrians in an attempt to slander him and provide focus for their anger against the House of York and the Wars of the Roses. After all history is written by the victors. We know, for example, how Shakespeare's shamefully inaccurate and slanderous portrayal of Richard III has led to a completely false representation of one of England's greatest and fairest rulers. In a similar way I suspect Tiptoft's crimes are greatly exaggerated, and certainly viewed out of context.
It is tantalizing to imagine how large a part such an influential and educated man would have played in English political development had he managed to evade the Lancastrians for a few months longer and still been alive when Edward regained the throne for the House of York in 1471.
In any case, we know little else of this controversial Earl, but we hope that raising his standards for the first time in 500 years on the battlefields of England (albeit in re-enactment) will add depth, discussion and interest to a fascinating and formative era of our history.
So, come and cheer for us, and our Yorkist allies, at an event soon.