ELIZABETH WYDEVILLE, JOHN TIPTOFT AND THE EARL OF DESMOND
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.
MAGDALENE TOWER – ALL THAT REMAINS OF THE DOMINICAN FRIARY AT DROGHEDA. DESMOND WAS REMOVED FROM THE FRIARY AND SUMMARILY EXECUTED.
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)