The Case Against George, Duke of Clarence


Let’s talk about George, Duke of Clarence. And why wouldn’t we? Talking about him gives us the first and second parts of the Wars of the Roses, Henry VI, Edward IV, Richard III, the Neville family, the Woodville family, the Princes in the Tower, a dramatic (if not suspicious) execution and the fate of his York children well into the reigns of the Tudors. Today, of course, marks the anniversary of George’s execution in 1478, a death ordered by his older brother, King Edward, when he was only 29 years old. Did he deserve it? Yes, absolutely. To be honest, it’s shocking that George lived as long as he did given his propensity for treason.

Wars of the Roses Part One: 1449-1461

George was born to his parents, Richard, Duke of York and Cecily Neville, Duchess of York at Dublin Castle in Ireland on October 21, 1449. His family was emphatically not Irish, their location the result of some combination of royal disfavor and the politicking of the Beaufort family. His father had been Lieutenant of France and stationed in Rouen until 1445, at which point he had been recalled to England and replaced by Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, his political rival. His father’s cousin, King Henry VI, had recently married the French Marguerite of Anjou, a woman who would make no secret of her favoritism for York’s enemies and, over the years, would slowly become convinced of York’s disloyalty.

Richard, Duke of York

George joined two old brothers, Edward and Edmund, and three sisters, Anne, Elizabeth and Margaret. There would be a smattering of other children that came and left the York nursery, dying young, but those five siblings would live until adulthood and be joined in 1452 by a final brother, Richard.

When George was nine months old, his parents returned to England and his two older brothers were sent to Ludlow Castle on the Welsh border. This move was for the benefit of the York heir, Edward, while Edmund, only a year younger, was sent along to be his companion. George, six years younger than Edmund and still in the nursery, remained behind with his mother and sisters. This is noteworthy only in that George did not “grow up” with Edward; his primary male companion during his formative years would be Richard.

In 1455 the First Battle of St. Albans took place and by 1459, war was in full swing. What had ostensibly begun as George’s father, the Duke of York, demanding government reforms had evolved into a call to depose Henry VI. Privately at least, for in October 1460 when York formally claimed the throne for himself, Parliament and his own followers were dismayed by the optics, if not the act. By this time Edward and Edmund were in their late teens and had joined their father in fighting Lancaster, which, so long as King Henry remained on the throne, meant committing treason.

By December 1460 York and Edmund were killed at the Battle of Wakefield and York’s claim to the throne was inherited by Edward. Cecily, for her part, sent George and Richard, then aged 11 and eight, to the friendly Burgundian court in the hopes of sparing them the coming upheaval, and perhaps also preserving the Yorkist line if it came to that.

It wouldn’t. By March 1461 the 18-year-old Edward had defeated Lancaster, sent King Henry and Queen Marguerite into exile and been declared King Edward IV.

Enter Warwick: 1461 – 1469

George and Richard were quickly summoned back to England, at which point their lives would forever be altered by their brother’s accession. Edward was crowned king in June 1461, while George and Richard were named the Dukes of Clarence and Gloucester, respectively. The following year George would be granted the Honour of Richmond and named Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, a normal position for a king’s younger brother, but perhaps also a nod to his birth in Dublin when their father had held the title.

Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick

Meanwhile Richard entered the household of their cousin, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. Warwick was their mother’s nephew, the eldest son of her brother, Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury. He had married the heiress to the Warwick title and estates, Anne Beauchamp, in 1449 and had two daughters, Isabel and Anne. Warwick, alongside his father and brothers, had been instrumental in supporting the Yorkist claim to the throne, so much so that he was known as the “Kingmaker.” Indeed, for the first years of Edward’s reign he held a Wolsey-esque position, drawing commentary from European visitors that it was he who ruled England through his adolescent cousin.

The arrangement wouldn’t last long. Warwick was adamant that Edward needed to make peace with France given Marguerite of Anjou’s familial ties to the House of Valois and her presence, with her son, in the French countryside. If Yorkist England made peace with King Louis XI, then Marguerite’s best financial source was cut off, putting her in the position of begging Burgundy, Brittany and/or Scotland, all of whom had less resources and reasons to be altruistically generous.

But instead of marrying a Frenchwoman, Edward secretly married the Lancastrian widow, Elizabeth Woodville. She arrived at court in September 1464 with her parents, brothers and unmarried sisters, all of whom needed to be accorded honors befitting the family of a queen. Warwick was less than pleased – not only did the marriage embarrass him on the continental stage, making him appear to not have the ear or control of his king, but it flew in the face of the diplomatic efforts he had been working on for three and a half years. It also meant that money, titles and honors he had been hoping to secure for his own Neville relations began going to Woodvilles. Most notably, his elderly aunt, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, was married to the 20-year-old John Woodville, giving him access to her fortune as he began  his political career.

Elizabeth Woodville

George was on hand for Elizabeth’s debut at court in Reading in September 1464. It’s likely he was privy to Warwick’s unhappiness with the Woodville match, but less clear what he himself thought of it. Warwick desired that George and Richard would marry his two daughters, making the girls royal duchesses and giving the boys their inheritance. Edward was less enthused by the match, perhaps by now not trusting Warwick’s motives, but apparently also wishing to keep his brothers unmarried for diplomatic reasons in the hopes of securing the sort of marriage alliance he himself would no longer be able to undertake. He would eventually refuse it outright, incensing Warwick.

By 1469 Warwick had not only decided he had had enough, but he had convinced George to join him in an uprising against Edward. George’s thought process in all of this is unclear, though certainly his actions give us some idea. What we don’t know is how intelligent he was, how easily manipulated he was, the nature of his relationship with Warwick, or the nature of his relationship with his mother and siblings. What he got out of an alliance with Warwick is simple – Warwick had helped topple one sitting king already, this time he would do it to put George on the throne. George had been well-looked after by his brother during his reign, and there is no sign of personal animosity between the two, though it’s safe to say they weren’t particularly close given a simple lack of proximity. But George would have had every expectation that he would be a wealthy and powerful man under Edward’s rule, and given that in 1469 he was 20, he had long left Warwick’s household and would have been exposed to Edward, his court and his government.

Apparently George thought he could do better. Warwick, for his part, wanted a king that he could control and George, younger and willing to marry his daughter, was a seemingly safer bet. Rebellions in the north took Edward out of London in the spring of 1469, at which point Warwick and George disseminated rumors through the capitol that Edward was a bastard of his mother, Cecily, and George was his father’s true heir. George, meanwhile, accompanied Warwick and his family to France where he married 17-year-old Isabel Neville on July 11th. On the 12th, Warwick and George openly declared their support for a new uprising started by one of Warwick’s captains. The two sides came to blows on July 26th at the Battle of Edgecote Moor, Warwick and George won and Edward became their prisoner.

Outright Rebellion: 1469 – 1471 

For about two months Warwick and George appeared victorious. Edward was shuttled between Warwick’s homes of Middleham and Warwick Castle in the north, while they attempted to take control of the government. On August 12th, they executed Queen Elizabeth’s father and brother (the one married to Warwick’s aunt), a move which did nothing to endear them to her. But England had just had eight years of relative peace and lacked the appetite for more war, particularly one that would have deposed a king largely popular with his people. Indeed, had Warwick and George been successful in making George king, it would have been the first time in history two deposed kings remained alive and in England (Henry VI had been being held as a prisoner in the Tower of London since 1465).

Edward was released in September after a light taste of anarchy in London and quickly resumed control. He forgave Warwick and George, ensuring they were at court three months later for Christmas festivities and forcing them to make peace with Queen Elizabeth and the rest of the Woodville clan.

Edward IV

The reconciliation wouldn’t last long, but here’s where it gets a bit bizarre. Warwick’s clear fury over having been boxed out makes sense, as does George’s ambitions. Their next actions, though, wouldn’t be as clearly supportive of those feelings for they aligned themselves with their former enemies, the House of Lancaster. Marguerite of Anjou had been biding her time in France for nearly a decade, raising her son and relying on the charity of her Valois relatives and Lancastrian supporters. Warwick, tapping into his relationship with Louis XI, allowed the French king to facilitate a rapprochement between him and Marguerite, who loathed him.

In March 1470 Warwick and George goaded yet another uprising and supported it, however this time they were less successful. The rebellion ended in the disastrous Battle of Losecoat Field and Warwick and Clarence were forced to flee England in a hurry. By this point, Isabel Neville was heavily pregnant. On the ship crossing the Channel she went into labor and, aided only by her mother and younger sister, gave birth to a stillborn child whose corpse was thrown overboard.

Warwick and his party began shadowing the French court, eventually meeting with Louis XI and submitting to the authority of Marguerite of Anjou, essentially disavowing the very existence of the House of York. So, what did George get out of this? On the face of it, nothing. Had the spring of 1470 uprising been successful, it’s possible there would have been another opportunity to be made king, but by the time he and the Nevilles landed in France, his chance had passed. Warwick’s best shot at victory was having the support of the disenfranchized Lancastrian magnates who already hated the Yorkist king, but in order to access them he needed to make peace with Marguerite of Anjou. And Marguerite was certainly never going to support George for king when she had a husband sitting in the Tower and a beloved 17-year-old son poised in the wings.

At what point George realized he had bet on the wrong horse is unclear, but it’s likely that whenever he did there was nothing he could do about it. Warwick, Louis and Marguerite negotiated through the spring and early summer and the final result included the betrothal of Marguerite’s son, Prince Edward, to Warwick’s younger daughter, Anne Neville.

In September, Warwick and George returned to England where their cause was supported by Warwick’s younger brother, John Neville, Marquess of Montagu. Montagu’s betrayal of Edward came as a surprise to the King, who was forced to flee England in a hurry for the Netherlands, finally ending up in Burgundy. Henry VI was brought out of the Tower and reinstated as king. Queen Elizabeth, for her part, had fled for sanctuary in Westminster Abbey with her children when Edward left the country – that November she gave birth to her first son, named for his father.

Meanwhile, back in France where George’s wife, Isabel, still remained, Prince Edward and Anne were married in December in recognition of Warwick’s success. And in Burgundy, King Edward was hard at work trying to persuade the Duke to supply him with men and money. In 1468, Edward and George’s sister, Margaret, had been married to Duke Charles and it was her influence with her husband that finally prompted him to take the meeting and agree to support the Yorkist cause. This move also led to a fun triangle of England, France and Burgundy all declaring war on each other in the midst of England’s civil war, because what else?

George was less than thrilled with his life choices. In the span of a year he had publicly accused his mother of being a whore, betrayed his brother, alienated his entire family, married into another family that had given up on him, lost his eldest child and likely supported the reinstatement of a government that would never fully trust or honor him. Even if he was named Prince Edward’s heir, he had no reason to believe Anne Neville wouldn’t subsequently give birth to healthy sons, displacing him in the succession. By January 1471, George had begun meeting with his mother and eldest sister, Anne, both of whom convinced him to desert Warwick.

He did just that. In March, Edward and the rest of the Yorkist army (supported by Burgundians) landed in England and instead of joining Warwick to meet them, George returned to his brothers. What George thought would happen next is anyone’s guess, but he appealed to Warwick to follow his suit and help Edward oust the Lancastrians…brought in by Warwick. Likely, they were far past the point of return and Warwick knew this. He refused to speak to George and stuck to his cause. The two armies would meet at the Battle of Barnet on April 14, 1471 in a fight that Edward resoundingly won and which ended in Warwick’s death.

Making Enemies of Everyone Else: 1471 – 1478

Edward’s victory would be complete by May when Lancaster was defeated at the Battle of Tewkesbury and Prince Edward was killed. Henry VI was quietly executed within the Tower and Marguerite of Anjou placed under arrest until 1475 when Louis XI paid her ransom to bring her back to France to live out her days in poverty.

George’s wife, Isabel, had left the Lancastrian party when they arrived in England and learned Warwick had been killed. Her sister, Anne, married to Prince Edward, was not so lucky. She remained with Marguerite until Tewkesbury, at which point she was escorted back to London and placed in George and Isabel’s household. Warwick’s widow, the Countess, had similarly fled the Lancastrians when she learned of her husband’s death, but she had less options than Isabel and she chose to seek sanctuary.

Anne Neville

With the Countess and Anne were the widows of attainted traitors, George found himself in the position of controlling the bulk of the Neville/Beauchamp inheritance through Isabel, a surprising spot for a man with his track record for poor judgment and regular treason. But in the clear pattern of George’s luck, he wouldn’t remain that way for long and his younger brother, Richard, expressed a desire to marry Anne, essentially splitting the inheritance in half.

Whether George knew that his ability to access and hold this inheritance was his last shot of providing for himself while Edward remained on the throne, or whether he was just an idiot is unclear, but George decided to fight back against Richard. The two brothers sparred throughout the rest of 1471, resulting, at some point, in Anne’s rumored “disappearance.” It’s been reported that George either hid Anne deep inside London or that she, seeking to escape her brother-in-law, fled there for Richard to find her. In any event, by the end of 1471 Anne had been removed from George’s household and lived in a religious house until the spring of 1472 when she finally married Richard.

The long and short of the inheritance drama was that George received the lion’s share (which remains baffling to me, but Edward appears to have been a rather forgiving brother). What Isabel and Anne made of this unknown – we have no idea whether either wanted to marry George and Richard, whether their marriages were happy or how they felt about Warwick and George’s treason. The one factor that should be considered, however, is that they had known the brothers since girlhood, the boys having been brought up in their parents’ household.

For that matter, nor is it known when or how George and Richard mended their relationship after the showdown over the Neville fortune, or if they ever truly did.

Isabel Neville

The next summer, on August 14, 1473, Isabel gave birth to a daughter, christened Margaret. She would be followed in the nursery on February 25, 1475 by a son, Edward, who was given the title of Earl of Warwick at birth. She would give birth to a short-lived second son, Richard (at least one sign that George and Richard did make up) , on October 6, 1476, however the birth apparently took a toll on her health. She would die on December 22nd, prompting George’s downfall.

For reasons not entirely clear, George became convinced that Isabel was murdered. Specifically, that she was poisoned by her lady-in-waiting, Ankarette Twynyho. George had her arrested in April 1477, forced an illegal trial and verdict and then had her hanged, essentially murdering her. Simultaneously, George was pursuing the new Duchess of Burgundy, stepdaughter of his sister, Margaret. While Margaret was enthused, the new Duchess was less so and even less still was Edward who in no way wanted his treasonous younger brother running a crucial and wealthy European duchy. Clarence, once more, seemed to feel his that his rise to greatness was being thwarted by his older brother.

The”why” of what happened next is debatable, but soon after Twynyho’s death one of George’s retainers was arrested, where, under torture, he confessed to using “black arts” to imagine Edward’s death, leading to the conclusion that George was hoping and preparing for his own accession to the throne (despite the presence, at this point, of Edward’s young sons). George responded by  bidding a former Lancastrian, Dr. John Goddard, to enter Parliament and declare George and his retainer’s innocence. George was then hauled before Edward who ordered his arrest.

George was held in the Tower of London and put on trial, at which point he was found guilty of treason and privately executed on February 18, 1478. Privately is key here, and a morbid show of familial loyalty, for unlike most executions of traitors, George wasn’t paraded before a crowd to be executed. Rumor has it that Edward allowed George to select the mode and George, partial to malmsey wine, requested to be drowned in a butt of it.

Now, why did he die? Of all the things that George did, what he was actually arrested for seems to be the least of it. But what is left out of this are reports that George had been re-surfacing the rumors of Edward’s illegitimacy (once again slandering his mother, Cecily, who begged Edward not to execute him). George had done this effectively less than a decade before when he rebelled with Warwick, so it’s unclear why this would grossly offend Edward now. Then there is the question of whether or not George impugned the legitimacy of Edward’s children via his wife, Queen Elizabeth. And this where the conspiracies get really fun, with some Ricardians alleging that George knew about the alleged pre-contract between Edward and Eleanor Talbot, which, if it occurred, made his marriage to Elizabeth null and void. And if that was true, then an argument could be made that all the York princes and princesses were bastards. It could be made because it very well was made five years later by Richard of Gloucester when he deposed his nephew and named himself Richard III.

Weight to this theory is given by the arrest and imprisonment of Robert Stillington, Bishop of Bath and Wells, for a few weeks in 1478, leading to the possibility that Stillington had knowledge of or had been involved in some way with Edward’s pre-contract and told George. It was Stillington, after all, who “broke the news” to Richard in 1483 that he, and not Edward V, was the rightful king because of this very pre-contract.

The power of this theory only works if you believe that Edward was truly already married before he secretly wed Elizabeth Woodville. But to do so is to ignore the various, imaginative ways that the House of York had regularly slandered their rivals by questioning their legitimacy. Marguerite of Anjou’s son, Prince Edward, was called the bastard offspring of the Queen’s affair with the Duke of Somerset, while Cecily Neville’s own sons tarnished her name repeatedly in their mud-slinging against one another. It was politically effective, with historians to this day debating these various women’s fidelity.

Is it possible that this is why George died? Sure. Any number of theories about who killed the Princes in the Tower are possible, and it is certainly possible, if unlikely, that George was an early victim of the 1483 rebellion.

More likely, though, is that Edward was older, more cautious and had no political reason to keep his brother around. In 1469 and 1471 he had been 27 and 29, respectively. By 1477/1478, he was 35-36, middle-aged by 15th century standards, and he had his son’s inheritance to protect. Faced with his own mortality and the possibility that he would die when his son was a minor or a young man, it was less benign to leave around a younger brother who had made his own ambitions for the throne so public. Richard, at this point, had never appeared to be anything but loyal.

And, by now, Edward probably actively disliked George. The 1469 rebellion was short-lived enough to be stomached. The 1471 reconciliation was brought about by political necessity and the overwhelming pressure of their mother and sisters. Had George kept his mouth shut, it’s possible Edward would have let him live as a courtesy to their female relatives.

There is also the distinct possibility that George was mentally ill, a theory that has gained traction given similar rumors that surrounded his son, Edward of Warwick. This is also a possibility, though I don’t find the arguments particularly compelling. To attribute madness to George due to a lack of comprehension of his motives feels premature, as does not acknowledging that Edward of Warwick’s mental health (if poor) may have been undermined by spending the vast majority of his life isolated under lock and key.

The Aftermath: Margaret and Edward of Clarence

Which brings us to George’s children, Margaret and Edward, who, upon their father’s execution, were orphans.There is evidence that Edward was given as a ward to Queen Elizabeth’s eldest son by her first marriage, Thomas Grey, Marquess of Dorset, who promptly placed him in the Tower of London until he was “liberated” by his uncle, Richard III, in 1483. At this point he joined the household of his aunt, Queen Anne, where  Margaret had probably been since 1478.

Richard III

Intriguingly, when Richard and Anne’s only son, Edward of Middleham, died in 1484, they did not look to make Edward of Warwick Richard’s heir, but rather his cousin, John de la Pole, the eldest son of Richard and George’s sister, Elizabeth. This has sometimes been taken by those who believe Edward to have been mad as a sign of his incompetence, but that ignores the fact that Edward was barred from the succession when his father was attainted. Had Richard prompted Parliament to remove it, which wouldn’t have been difficult, then Edward would have actually had a better claim to the throne than Richard, George having been the older son.

The fact that Edward wasn’t executed or, rather, didn’t “disappear” during Richard’s reign has been seen by Ricardians as further evidence that Richard didn’t murder the Princes in the Tower. After all, rebellions could have started in the young Earl of Warwick’s name (and later did). And sure, that’s true. But realistically, Edward’s son were a by far more potent threat than George’s, who had already been legally displaced. Had Richard defeated Henry Tudor at Bosworth and attention eventually turned to Edward, we have no reason to disbelieve that he, too, would eventually have been killed, legally or not.

In any event, Richard was defeated by Henry Tudor and the new Henry VII was not having the presence of Plantagenet men at his court. Though, “men” is really overstating it, because poor Edward was only 10. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London, separated once more from his sister, who, at this point, was the only family he had left beyond cousins of varying loyalties. Henry made no move against him, acknowledging his youth and his lack of wrongdoing, but his first priority was ensuring the end of civil war.

As the 1490s came to a close and Edward had been under lock and key for nearly 15 years, England was preparing to marry their new heir, Prince Arthur, to Spain’s Katherine of Aragon. Her parents, Ferdinand and Isabella, reasonably concerned by the level of assassination and rebellion in England, demanded a certain level of safety for their daughter and Henry had Edward executed on November 28, 1499 at age 24, removing any potential figurehead for the opposition. Katherine of Aragon didn’t find out about the execution until after she had arrived in England and was reported to be wracked with guilt over it, later believing that her misfortunes in the 1520s and 1530s were God’s punishment.

Margaret, being a woman, had a slightly easier go of it only  because she was viewed as a less serious political threat. When Henry Tudor ascended the throne in 1485, Margaret was 12 and allowed to remain with her female Yorkist relations, particularly her cousin, Elizabeth of York, who became queen in January 1486. In November 1487, the King arranged a marriage between Margaret and Sir Richard Pole, whose mother was a half-sister of his own mother, Margaret Beaufort.

Margaret of Clarence

Margaret and Richard would have five children, nearly all of which would be significant to Tudor history, but especially Reginald Pole, who ended up Archbishop of Canterbury in the reign of his cousin, Mary Tudor. Margaret was widowed in 1504 and went through a few years of relative poverty before Henry VIII ascended the throne in 1509 and married Katherine of Aragon. Margaret and Katherine had struck up a friendship during Katherine’s short-lived marriage to Prince Arthur, and Margaret would be given a place in her household as queen, and later become a trusted attendant of her only living child, Mary.

Margaret would remain loyal to Katherine even after Henry VIII finally divorced her in 1533. She would be executed on May 27, 1541 at the Tower of London on the orders of the King, who had grown fed up with the Pole family’s refusal to fall in line with the Church of England. An argument could be made that Margaret was the “last Plantagenet” to be killed by the Tudors and, certainly, with the exception of Edward IV’s children, she would the last of her generation of Yorkists to survive.

For more, see From Normandy to Windsor

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