In 1478 George, 1st Duke of Clarence and brother to the King of England, was executed at the Tower of London. He was rumoured to have been drowned in a vat of malmsey wine. But how did his death come to pass? And was he really executed in the expensive wine by his own request, as some stories claim?
A Troubled Childhood
George was born on 21 October 1449 in Dublin. His father, Richard, 3rd Duke of York was then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland for King Henry VI. His mother Cecily came from the powerful Neville family based in the north of England. George was the couple’s ninth child in ten years, the seventh child and third son to survive infancy.
His family were soon caught up in the Wars of the Roses as tension built. In 1459, George was at Ludlow when his father and older brothers fled, leaving him behind with his mother, older sister Margaret and younger brother Richard, and a royal army sacked the town and castle. George was placed into his aunt’s custody.
His fortunes changed the next year when his father was appointed heir to the throne, but when York was killed at the Battle of Wakefield on 30 December 1460, George and his little brother Richard (later Richard III) were sent into exile in Burgundy alone. Kept at arm’s length by the Duke of Burgundy, they were left to worry about what was happening to their family at home.
Heir to the Throne
The wheel of fortune span again for George when his oldest brother took the throne to become Edward IV, the first Yorkist king. George and Richard were now warmly welcomed to the Duke of Burgundy’s court as royal princes and prepared to go home for their brother’s coronation. Edward was 18 and unmarried. Their other older brother Edmund had been killed with their father, so George, aged 11, was now the heir to the throne.
George was created Duke of Clarence on 29 June 1461, the day after his brother’s coronation. The Clarence title, centred on the Honour of Clare, had been held by Lionel, the second son of Edward III, and then by Thomas, second son of Henry IV. It was a piece of Yorkist propaganda to portray George as the second son of a rightful king, as York was now depicted. George would remain his brother’s heir for the next nine years.
Growing up while holding a position of such potential power but which might be whipped away at any moment made George a volatile and petulant man concerned about his rights.
Under Warwick’s Influence
Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick was a first cousin to George and his brothers. He had helped Edward win the throne, but through the 1460s their relationship soured. By the final years of the decade, Warwick was slipping into rebellion.
The earl lacked a male heir so wished to marry his oldest daughter Isabel to George, hoping that it might bring his family to the throne one day. Edward refused to allow the match. Warwick arranged a papal dispensation because George and Isabel were first cousins once removed and had them married on 11 July 1469 at Calais.
George joined Warwick in open rebellion. They managed to capture Edward and hold him prisoner for a while, but trouble on the Scots border forced them to release him. The tension continued, and in 1470, paperwork found among the baggage of a defeated rebel army confirmed George was still plotting with Warwick, now planning to replace Edward as king.
The defeat drove Warwick and George into exile in France, where the earl made a pact with the Lancastrians he had deposed to restore Henry VI, relegating George in his plans. When Henry was reinstated on the throne, George found life in Lancastrian England predictably hard and turned back to his brothers, helping them win back the crown for the House of York and appearing reconciled.
A Final Downfall
George’s wife Isabel died on 22 December 1476, almost three months after giving birth to a son who died shortly after his mother. The couple had a daughter, Margaret, and a son, Edward, and had lost their first child, Anne, born at sea when George had fled into exile.
Suddenly, on 12 April 1477, four months after Isabel’s death, George had one of her ladies arrested, tried, and executed for poisoning his wife. George did not have the authority to dole out justice in this way, and a spate of arrests in May included men associated with George. He burst into a council meeting to protest and, finally at his wit’s end, Edward ordered his brother arrested.
George was tried for treason by parliament in January 1478, though the outcome was a forgone conclusion. The trial heard that George had tried to smuggle his son to Ireland or Burgundy, and claimed he plotted against the king,
‘and against the persons of the blessed Princess our other Sovereign and Liege Lady the Queen, of my Lorde the Prince their Son and Heir, and of all the other of their most noble issue’.
He had also kept a document granted when Henry VI had been restored making George heir to the Lancastrian line if it failed, which it had by now. Edward, and, many suspected, the queen, had endured enough of George’s treachery, scheming and refusal to be satisfied.
The Execution of a Duke
On 18 February 1478, aged 28, George, Duke of Clarence, brother to the King of England, was executed. A tradition has grown up that George was drowned in a vat a malmsey, an expensive sweet wine. Some stories even claim this was at his own request, having been permitted to choose the manner of his execution.
The truth is that, as his rank allowed, George was executed in private. Having condemned his own brother, Edward had no intention of making a public spectacle of it and highlighting problems within his family.
Drowning was a form of execution used in Scotland until the 18th century, and some cultures were concerned about shedding royal blood. Edward may have opted for this method to prevent spilling blood, or George might have chosen it as a recognised method, with the selection of malmsey mocking Edward’s reputation for heavy drinking.
A portrait believed to be of Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, George’s daughter, intriguingly shows the lady wearing a barrel charm on a bracelet. Was this in remembrance of her father?