George, Duke of Clarence

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, Duke of Clarence

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)

 *If you’re interested in stories about the Wars of the Roses, don’t miss my new novel: By Loyalty Bound – the story of the mistress of Richard III

8 thoughts on “George, Duke of Clarence

  1. Hasn’t it ever occurred to ANYONE that the whole “drowning in a butt of malmsey wine”, apparently his favorite, was simply a cliche? For instance, today we say someone who’s depressed and drinking a lot is “drowning his sorrows.” I didn’t even know that George of Clarence’s head had been discovered, but that makes my theory all the more realistic. Edward knew he had no choice but to execute his brother, because he knew the truth about the illegitimacy of Edward & Elizabeth’s marriage, and therefore their children’s illegitimacy. So when his mother, sister(s), and brother Richard begged him to spare George, perhaps he did what he could: sent him as much wine as he could drink, in the hopes that he’d be so drunk the execution would be that much less painful. Nowadays he might have snuck in a vial of cyanide, or a doctor with a big syringe filled with morphine, or heroin, or some drug that would either kill him or make him so drugged he’d barely notice.

    1. A body was discovered that was thought to be George with the head attached which gave credence to the story of his being drowned. Whether it was his body is debatable.

      1. Thanks for answering, but what do you think about my idea about the whole “drowned in a butt of Malmsey”? Doesn’t it sound like the statement was taken out of context and then became a sort of (not urban, but) execution legend?

      2. The death was private and the details kept secret. Where there are no facts conspiracy theories will abound and drowned in wine is such a good story it’s bound to be repeated. If the bones that are supposed to be George yielded DNA and it matched Richard’s then we would know he was not beheaded which would make drowning more likely. I think it may be that he was drowned and that the malmsey part grew from a joke.

  2. If you enjoy reading about this period of history don’t miss my latest novel By Loyalty Bound – out at the end of May.

  3. I love this period of history – not just because of the recent discoveries in Leicester, but also because I read ‘The Sunne in Splendour’ by Sharon Penman years ago! It seemed such a turbulent time with alliances changing constantly……. Thanks for sharing this 🙂

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