On This Day: A Royal Duke Drowned in Wine

On this day, 18th February in 1478, a royal duke was executed for treason at the Tower of London. George, duke of Clarence was the brother of King Edward IV, but the relationship between the royal siblings had been fraught with friction for years. Their problems were probably intensified by the turbulence and uncertainty of the Wars of the Roses, a time when no relationship was hallowed and no head was safe on its shoulders. Worse still, treason against a brother was shocking enough during the Middle Ages, but George was guilty twice over. Clarence’s story is one of frustrated ambitions, twisted loyalties and dicey power grabs that played out against a backdrop of bitter civil war. Little wonder, then, that the way he met his end is cloaked in mystery. What is known, however, is that he was neither beheaded nor hanged, the usual methods of dispatching the condemned. Instead it’s believed that – possibly by his own choice – he was drowned in a butt of Malmsey wine.

George, duke of Clarence, troubled brother to Edward IV and Richard III

George was born on 21st October 1449, the third surviving son of Richard Plantagenet, duke of York (1411-1460) and Cecily Neville (d.1495), daughter to the earl of Westmorland. This put him among the highest nobility, but as a younger son he had no great hereditary expectations. Although he was charming and clever, described as ‘right witty and well visaged’, he was also jealous, unstable and ruthlessly ambitious, and it was the combination of these dark and dangerous traits that was ultimately to be his undoing.

Cecily Neville, daughter of the earl of Westmorland, and Mum to George, Edward IV and Richard III

…and Dad – Richard Plantagenet, duke of York

Despite being handsomely endowed with lands and title by the king, George refused to marry the continental princess that Edward had worked hard to secure for him, setting his cap instead at the English heiress Isabel Neville, the eldest daughter of Richard Neville, the ‘Kingmaker’ earl of Warwick and the most powerful noble in the land. But the former close relations between Warwick and the king were deteriorating fast over Edward’s own choice of wife and in-laws, so the king vetoed the match. Undeterred, George defied his brother and married Isabel in Calais in July 1469 before returning to England with Warwick to link up with the shadowy northern rebel, Robin of Redesdale, who was denouncing Edward’s ‘evil’ government and his favourites. The rebel and royal armies clashed at the Battle of Edgcote near Banbury, and following the rebels’ victory Warwick caught Edward and threw him into prison. However, Warwick’s attempt to declare Edward a bastard and put George on the throne floundered without support from the nobility, and by 1470 Edward was released and back in power. Unsurprisingly, Warwick and George beat a hasty retreat into exile in France, but the following year in a gesture of magnanimity Edward forgave George’s treachery and the pair were reconciled. Sadly, though, the rekindled brotherly love wasn’t to last.

Warwick Castle, looking across to Caesar’s Tower, where Warwick held Edward IV prisoner while he tried to hand the crown to George.

In 1471, following the death of Warwick at the Battle of Barnet a blazing row blew up between the York brothers over the Warwick inheritance. The youngest brother Richard, duke of Gloucester (later Richard III), wanted to marry his childhood sweetheart, the recently widowed Anne Neville, Isabel’s younger sister. George, however, had been determined to keep the vast Warwick estates to himself by ensuring he had custody and control of Anne, but after a debate before the royal council Richard won Anne’s hand and Edward’s consent. Flouted in his acquisitive ambition, the enraged George soon set his sights on the crown again.

Richard Neville, earl of Warwick, ‘The Kingmaker’

Following Isabel’s death in 1476 things went from bad to worse for George, duke of Clarence. The following year he overstepped his authority by abducting, indicting and executing in one day a woman who he was convinced had poisoned Isabel, who had in fact died of the after effects of childbirth. The same year he asked Edward if he could marry Mary of Burgundy, ‘the greatest heiress of her time’, but the king, probably distrusting George with such power, dismissed the idea out of hand. Soon rumours of Edward’s illegitimacy were circulating again, most likely nurtured by George, and he and the king complained vociferously about one another, compounding their mutual hostility. The last straw came when a member of George’s household, Thomas Burdet was found guilty and executed for ‘having imagined and compassed’ the death of the king, a crime of high treason. The furious George had Burdet’s declaration of innocence given on the scaffold read to the royal council, and when the king heard his brother had supported a convicted traitor he summoned him to Westminster where he was denounced for serious misconduct and later imprisoned in the Tower. In January 1478 George was put on trial for ‘heinous unnatural and loathly treason’, with the king leading the prosecution in person. George was found guilty and sentenced to death.

It seems that Edward may have regretted condemning his brother to an early grave. He was reluctant to proceed with the execution and dithered over the matter for weeks. Eventually parliament forced his hand and on 18th February 1478 George was quietly executed at the Tower. Edward is said to have grieved the loss of his brother, funding an expensive funeral, a monument and a chantry foundation in his name at Tewksbury, one of George’s main residences. Some historians believe that Clarence’s trial and death were orchestrated by Edward’s queen, Elizabeth Woodville, fearful that the unhinged duke posed a threat to the succession of her son, and many feel that Edward was pushed into killing his brother against his will.

The Tower of London, where George met his wine-soaked end

Whatever the truth, George has certainly divided opinion over the centuries. Some hail him as a great alms-giver, a generous benefactor of the church and a skilled arbitrator in disputes between his retainers, while others accuse him of incompetence and even insanity. His actions are, indeed, often hard to explain and tend to suggest a decline in his mental health. As to his death, some say he was stabbed and then drowned, while others believe the duke was allowed to choose the manner of his own death and his choice reflected his fondness for drinking. What a way to go. But with his record of fluid loyalties, treacherous plots and over-mighty ambitions, George, duke of Clarence certainly proved to be an intriguing and enigmatic figure, right to the very end.