On this day, 18th February 1478, George, Duke of Clarence, younger brother of King Edward IV and older brother of Richard III, was executed for treason. Rumour persists that he was drowned in a butt of malmsey wine.
George was the fourth son of Richard, Duke of York, and Cecily Neville. He was born in Dublin in 1449, during the time that his father was lieutenant there.
After Richard, Duke of York, was killed at Wakefield in 1460, along with his second son Edmund, it was his eldest son, Edward, who managed to take the throne in 1461. This made George, as the next surviving brother, the heir to the throne. He was knighted and created a duke, taking the title of Clarence as a reminder of the hereditary claim of the house of York to the throne of England.
George wanted to marry Isabel Neville, the daughter of the Earl of Warwick, but King Edward objected, probably hoping to arrange a marriage for his brother that was diplomatically advantageous to himself. However, George went ahead and married Isabel anyway with the encouragement of her father who fomented a rebellion against the king and promised George that he could take the crown in his place. But the plot failed and the rebels were forced to flee abroad. Warwick allied himself with Queen Margaret of Anjou, the wife of the deposed king Henry VI who was locked up in the Tower of London. Their invasion was successful and Henry was put back on the throne. However, this left George without the promised crown and he decided that his best option was to make peace with his brother Edward. George fought for the Yorkists at the battles of Barnet and Tewksbury and helped his brother to be restored as King Edward IV. But now Edward had a son of his own and George was no longer next in line to the throne.
Arguments followed about the inheritance of the Neville lands, especially when his younger brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, expressed a wish to marry Anne Neville, the sister of George’s wife Isabel. George hid Anne, who was the widow of the defeated Prince of Wales, from Richard and the rows that the brothers had at court concerning their shares of the Neville inheritance became so volatile that in a letter to his wife John Paston remarked that men were threatening to wear their harness (armour) to court. He also writes in a letter to John Paston III ‘Yesterday the King, the Queen and my lords of Clarence and Gloucester went to the pardon at Sheen; men say they were not all in charity with one another. What will befall men cannot say. The king entreats my Lord of Clarence for my Lord of Gloucester; and, it is said, he answers that he (Gloucester) may have my Lady, his sister-in-law, but they will part with no livelode, as he says; so what will fall I cannot say…’
Eventually Richard did marry Anne and the Neville lands were shared between the brothers. George was appointed chamberlain of England and councillor of Edward, Prince of Wales, who had supplanted him as heir. He attended the council, parliament and state ceremonies and headed one of the largest retinues on Edward’s invasion of France in 1475.
He and Isabel had four children, two of whom lived. But when Isabel died shortly after giving birth to their last child, who also died, George accused her attendant, Ankarette Twynho, of poisoning her. He had the woman brought to him from her home in Dorset to his castle at Warwick, conducted a ‘trial’, found her guilty and had her hanged.
Following this, his relationship with the king deteriorated for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the main one was that when George asked to marry Mary, the daughter of the late Charles, Duke of Burgundy, Edward refused. Perhaps he feared that such an alliance would give George too much power. In response, George complained in private about his brother and became so hostile that the only contact between them was by angry notes sent via messengers.
When George’s retainer Thomas Burdet and two astrologers supposedly cast the king’s horoscope they were convicted of treason and executed. George questioned the justice of this and consequently found himself in court accused over the Twynho affair, of railing against the king and of claiming to be the Lancastrian heir. He was allowed no defence and was sentenced to death for treason.
Some historians blame the king’s wider family, the relatives of his queen, for plotting against Clarence. Others question the motives of his younger brother Richard who would never have become king had George lived. But Richard probably had no thought of ever becoming king at this point in time and other sources claim that he pleaded for his brother’s life.
George, Duke of Clarence, was executed privately in the Tower of London. There are no recorded details of his death but a story was told at the time that he had been drowned in malmsey.
A body, with the head intact, was later exhumed from the Tower of London and taken to lie with the remains of his wife, Isabel, at Tewkesbury Abbey. It would be interesting to see if any DNA could be extracted from those bones and compared with the DNA recently taken from the newly discovered remains of his younger brother Richard. If there was a match it would rule out a beheading, although it would not prove the truth of the story of the malmsey wine.
Further Reading: M.A. Hicks, False, Fleeting, Perjur’d Clarence: George Duke of Clarence 1449-78 (Gloucester, 1980)