UPDATED POST AT sparkypus.com A Medieval Potpourri https://sparkypus.com/2020/05/14/elizabeth-wydeville-john-tiptoft-and-the-earl-of-desmond/256417-1330622773.jpg
Elizabeth Wydeville. British School 16th century artist unknown. Did pillow talk between her and Edward IV seal the Earl Of Desmond’s fate?.

I like to be fair.   I really do.   Even when I find it hard.  Take Elizabeth Wydeville ..or not if you prefer. Although I am not and never will be a fan of this lady… ‘wife’  to Edward IV, illustrious Son of York, a golden warrior but a man prone to  keeping  his brains in his pants..I try to remain open minded.  Of course the fact that Elizabeth swiftly skedaddled  across the road from the Palace of Westminster into the sanctuary of Westminster Abbey upon hearing of the approach of Richard Duke of Gloucester, after he had taken her son, the uncrowned Edward V into his care following a failed assassination plot on the Duke’s life, looks extremely suspect.  Taking her younger son, Richard of Shrewsbury, his sisters and Thomas Grey, her oldest surviving son , plus the royal treasure, Elizabeth prepared herself for a long stay.  

The outcome of all that is well known and I won’t go into it here. Later,  Elizabeth, sent into ‘retirement’ into Bermondsey Abbey, by an unforgiving son in law, paid a very high price for her propensity for plotting. But are other stories about her true..as they say give a dog a bad name..and one I have often wondered about is the story that Elizabeth was behind the judicial murder of Thomas Fitzerald,   Earl of Desmond..and not only that ..his two small sons.  The story goes, which is oft repeated in both fact and fictional accounts, is  that she was mightily  offended by a casual comment made by  Desmond to Edward, which Edward foolishly and naively repeated to her (this was in the early days of their marriage and would imply he was not yet fully aware of the nastier and vindictive side to her nature)  that he believed Edward had made a ‘mèsalliance‘ and that ‘he should have chosen a more suitable bride‘ and thus consumed by  malicious spite, she misappropriated her husband’s privy seal, removing it from Edwards ‘purche’ while he slept, and sent instructions to John Tiptoft, first earl of Worcester, then Chancellor and Lord Deputy of Ireland, to have Desmond executed on trumped up charges including a ‘ridiculous and groundless allegation that he sought to make himself king of Ireland’.

Later Edward on finding out the terrible truth was not best pleased..as Rosemary Hawley Jarman put it  so succinctly in her novel The King’s Grey Mare …‘I fear Madam,  he said very slowly,  I very much fear Bessy,  that you have become unkind’  and set out to pour oil on troubled waters for the execution caused much uproar, turmoil and rebellion in Ireland.  Surely this story is too horrid to be true even for those violent times.  I was thus pleased to discover an excellent article by Annette Carson and the late John Ashdown-Hill which they co-wrote for the Ricardian back in June 2005.  For surely these two know their onions and would be able to discern truth from fiction.  After reading the article I came away a little shocked for  their in-depth investigation did not put this story to rest but rather made it seem more probable that Elizabeth Wydeville, with the connivance of Tiptoft,  did indeed bring about the execution of a man merely because of words spoken that she took umbrage to.

The article can be found here for those of you who wish to explore more fully this unedifying story of Edward’s queen and a man who would be known as the Butcher of England and who himself was executed in 1470 by Desmond’s friend, Warwick the Kingmaker, Tiptoft’s former brother-in-law, and good riddance to him. Perhaps Warwick had another, more personal “axe to grind” – could it be that Tiptoft treated his first wife Cicely, Warwick’s sister, coldly for he requested in a letter to Henry Cranebroke, monk of Christchurch, Canterbury,  following the death of  his 2nd wife, Elizabeth Greyndour,  prayers ‘with special remembraunce of her soul whom I loved best'(1) surely an unnecessarily slight to the memory of his first Neville wife.  Tiptoft has been described as a man of culture, erudite and a reader and lover of books! Whoopi doo dah!  More specifically he was a man who thought it perfectly acceptable to have impalement added to the already awful sentence of hanging, drawing and quartering.  This was the fate 20 of Warwick’s men suffered at Southampton on Tiptoft’s command  and  which caused much revulsion in an already cruel age.  No wonder he was described by a contemporary chronicler as ‘that fierce executioner and horrible beheader of men’ (2).  


John Tiptoft’s memorial, Ely Cathedral.  Effigy of Tiptoft with two of his wives probably Cicely Neville and Elizabeth Greyndour..

Nevertheless it would appear that Elizabeth Wydeville may have asked Tiptoft to aid and abet her undaunted by his reputation for harshness. The most appalling part of this story is the accusation that Tiptoft also executed  Desmond’s two young sons. Another possibility is that Tiptoft was fooled by the forged letter. But in any event ‘this yeare the Earle of Desmond and his two sonnes were executed by ye Earle of Worcester in Drogheda'(3) the youngest one asking the executioner to take care as he had a boil on his neck.IMG_5765.JPG


And so dear reader, do take time to read this most interesting article if you would like to explore the matter and draw your own conclusions.   The authors of the article in-depth examination of the sources, some of which have been ignored by previous writers on the subject is compelling and persuasive.  Among the somewhat damning points made are that Desmond was in fact in England, to give Edward his account of the  coin and leverage accusation being made against him, at the precise time that the Wydeville marriage became public. Edward found in Desmond’s favour and gave him a grant of manors.  Furthermore the other two men accused along with Desmond, including Kildare, his brother, only escaped execution because they managed to evade Tiptoft long enough until the matter reached the ears of Edward, who extended clemency to the pair, which implies that Tiptoft had acted without the ‘knowledge or consent of the king’. Edward went on to quell the rebellion begun by Desmond’s oldest sons who ‘raised their standards and drew their swords , resolved to avenge their father’s murder’ by promising them pardon if they lay their swords down ‘protesting at the same time Desmond had been put to death, without his order, nay his consent’. The king would later go on to ‘clearly acknowledge’ Thomas’ son, James’, title to the earldom despite Tiptoft’s act of attainder against his father.


The nave of Holy Trinity Cathedral, Dublin..Thomas Fitzgerald Earl of Desmond was finally laid to rest somewhere in the Cathedral (now known as Christ Church Cathedral).

Later Richard III wrote a conciliatory  letter,  which has survived,  to Desmond’s son, James,  followed up with instructions that his messenger, Bishop Thomas Barrett, was to ‘amplify’ the message that Richard’s brother, Clarence, had suffered a similar  fate as Desmond in that his death had been brought about by ‘certain persons’.  It must be concluded that the ‘certain person’ alluded to was Elizabeth Wydeville for according to Mancini writing in 1483  contemporary opinion at the time held her responsible for the death of Clarence… ‘the queen concluded that her offspring by the king would never come to the throne unless the duke of Clarence was removed and of this she easily persuaded the king..’


King Richard III sent a conciliatory message to Desmond’s son, James 8th Earl of Desmond comparing the judicial murder of his brother Clarence to that of Desmond ..

And so there we have it dear reader..if this indeed be the case, its very hard to feel pity for Elizabeth when fate’s fickle finger finally gave her the prodding she so richly deserved.

(1) W A Pantin, ( 3.103-4)

(2) Gairdner, (183)

(3) The Register of the Mayors of Dublin records (erroneously under the date 1469)









  1. 1. I don’t think the evidence of a Woodville plot to murder the Duke of Gloucester is strong.
    2. Desmond makes his comment in 1464, is executed in 1468. That’s a long time to retaliate.


    1. 1. Elizabeth would not have been in a position to strike back at Desmond until Tiptoft’s arrival in Ireland.

      2. Regarding the time lapse in her retaliating..its not known the exact date Edward let the cat out of the bag and informed her of Desmond’s remark. He maybe held his tongue, wisely, and then blurted it out when they were having an argument at a later time. Such is married life. In an argument one says things you normally would not to score points. These are human peoples we are talking about here with their failings.

      3. The evidence of a Wydeville plot is not strong? We shall have to agree to disagree on that. Why did Elizabeth rush into sanctuary? When Richard and Buckingham, on their arrival in London, produced the weapons that they had confiscated from the plotters and their retainers do you say they were lying? If this is the case why did Richard write his letter to York requesting urgent aid from the Queen and her adherents?

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      1. Timing argument-you may be right. In fact, I think you are. Now that you make me think on it, I don’t think Edward would mention Desmond’s comment in a regular conversation with his wife.
        As to the plot of the Woodvilles-they tried bypassing Gloucester and got caught out. Elizabeth would have been “restrained” as a matter of course after trying that, guilt about murder plot needn’t have been needed to induce her to go to sanctuary.


  2. Although it is some decades later, I think the oral evidence of the grandson in 1541 that his family had permission from Edw IV to conduct business in absentio because of the “danger” that had come up the Earl, is quite convincing.

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  3. For those who are interested in a recent biography of John Tiptoft, I would refer them to Peter Spring’s 2018 “Sir John Tiptoft, Earl of Worcester: Butcher of England, Edward IV’s Enforcer, and Humanist Scholar”. On the subject of the Earl of Desmond’s execution, Spring discusses the same primary and secondary sources that are thoroughly analyzed by Annette Carson and John Ashdown-Hill in their 2005 Ricardian article linked in this blog. He doesn’t exclude the possibility that Elizabeth Woodville was an instigator behind Desmond’s execution. But he does look at the activities of another possible instigator, Bishop of Meath William Sherwood, a notorious enemy of the Earl of Desmond and someone who was not reluctant to forge documents and make slanderous allegations of tyranny against his foes.

    Spring’s theory is based on a document in Archbishop John Bole’s Register, dating from 1469, in which Sherwood is reported to have deliberately influenced Tiptoft with false documents and malicious accusations to ruin the Archbishop. Spring theorizes that Sherwood would have found the attainder of Desmond (pronounced by the Commons of the Irish Parliament) to have been a perfect opportunity to see Desmond put down permanently. So, it may have been a combination of influences, rather than one central personality (whether that be Woodville, Tiptoft, or Sherwood) that led to the execution. In his Oxford National Dictionary of Biography entry for William Sherwood, Stephen G. Ellis says that it was Sherwood’s renewed opposition to Desmond’s rule that apparently helped to secure the earl’s supersession and attainder in 1467–8.

    Spring does try to redeem Tiptoft’s reputation in this biography, by examining his entire life and re-assessing some of the negativity surrounding his reputation, much in the vein of early Ricardians who first engaged in the process of sifting through the muck of propaganda against historical fact. After reading it, I came away with a much more nuanced impression of this very fascinating man, and I am reluctant to see him as a loose canon, and someone who enjoyed killing people in debased ways. The “impalement” of the Kingmaker’s retainers at Southampton in 1470 is completely open to question. They certainly deserved the unpleasant English sentence for traitors, and there are serious questions about whether the “impalement” actually occurred. It would have, of course, suited the Lancastrian effort to restore Henry VI against the Yorkist regime.

    One thing that is puzzling. If Woodville was, indeed, the instigator behind Desmond’s “extrajudicial” execution, then why didn’t Richard III have this included in the 1484 Parliamentary act of settlement to the throne? She was already being accused of witchcraft and sorcery, and an illegal secret marriage, that it would seem bizarre for Richard not to have mentioned such an outrageous and spiteful act. Was it because he was trying to make peace with her in 1484?

    Liked by 1 person

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