Part Eight: Richard III & Clarence’s Death

Isabel Neville

If you missed Part Seven, you can catch up here. Today we’re going to cover the downfall of George, Duke of Clarence, its implications, and the various theories around Richard’s involvement and reaction.

After the controversial French peace in 1475, Richard spent the majority of the next two years up north. I mention this mainly because part of the narrative (or at least one of the narratives) around George’s death is that Richard exiled himself from Edward IV’s court afterwards in protest. In fact, the trend for Richard spending most of his time out of London was well-established by then, and arguably had been since he had taken Anne Neville to Middleham in 1472. As the 1470s wore on and Richard’s grasp on the north and its people strengthened, he came invaluable to his brother and was in fact more effective securing borders and serving as eyes and ears.

Regardless, his attention was certainly pointed southward when George imploded slowly and spectacularly in 1477.

The crisis began in December 1476 when George’s wife and Anne’s sister, Isabel, died shortly after giving birth to the couple’s third child. Following a stillborn child born at sea in 1470, she had gone on to produce a daughter, Margaret, in 1473, and a son, Edward, in 1475. This third child was christened Richard, presumably in honor of George’s father (if not his brother), but he quickly followed his mother to the grave. We know very little about the marriage between George and Isabel, so it’s tricky to hypothesize about how and to what extent George mourned. We can, however, take a look at how he chose to behave within months of her demise.

Days later, news of a second death reached Edward’s court: that of Charles, Duke of Burgundy. His eight-year marriage to Edward and Richard’s sister, Margaret of York, was childless, but via an earlier wife he had produced one daughter, Mary, who now stood to inherit the duchy. Nineteen and unmarried, she became the most eligible heiress in Christendom.

Among the first suitors was Louis XI on behalf of his eldest son, however that posed a tricky situation given that the Dauphin was already betrothed to Edward’s eldest daughter, Princess Elizabeth. Even so, Louis considered the Burgundian match worth risking England’s wrath as it would have allowed him to absorb the duchy into France and dissolve a recurring frenemy in one fell swoop. Margaret and Mary were desperate to keep this from happening, and one solution raised was the possibility of Mary marrying the newly widowed George and/or Edward providing military assistance against France. But Edward was more interested in preserving his alliance with France thanks to his pension and his daughter’s engagement.

By all accounts, Margaret first sought Edward’s help and only turned to George when her elder brother proved unreliable, but Edward had little interest in letting his fickle younger brother become the de facto duke of Burgundy. Yet, Margaret was really using George as cover. He was a distraction while she secured a marriage to Archduke Maximilian of Austria (later Holy Roman Emperor) for her stepdaughter, and George once again found himself left out in the cold. It’s unclear who George blamed for this fiasco, but it stands to reason that he was likely displeased to have been embarrassed before Christendom…again.

To make matters worse, he expressed interest when James III of Scotland wrote to Edward suggesting a marriage between George and one of his sisters. Once again, Edward rejected the notion on George’s behalf. It’s not hard to see why – while relations with George and James were then friendly, the idea of the two off in Scotland raised the real possibility of them concocting some scheme that saw Edward deposed. But for George it underlined that while he had been forgiven for his actions in 1469-1471, they hadn’t been forgotten and there was a limit to how far he could reach.

Both of these events occurred between January and April 1477, at which point George emerged from the shadows and precipitated his own end. So, it begs the question, was George irrational from grief over his wife, or the knowledge that Edward was exercising his power to deprive George of things he wanted (like a lofty second marriage)? Maybe both. As with Richard, there’s no evidence of George womanizing during his marriage to Isabel, but there’s also consistent evidence to show that he was ruthless, ambitious, and clear-eyed. In those last three attributes, all three brothers were very much birds of a feather.

On April 12, 1477, one of Isabel’s former ladies-in-waiting, Ankarette Twynyho, was arrested in her home by two men on George’s orders. She was taken to Bath and then Warwick, where she was presented to George and accused of murdering Isabel by poison. She was tried by a makeshift jury, condemned to death, and executed. None of this was legal, and as such, George was guilty of murder.

So, why did he do this? The traditional narrative is that George went slightly mad with grief over his wife. Others believe that it was but one part of a larger campaign to poke at Edward and get his attention. But if the latter, it’s rather bizarre. Murdering a woman was certainly attention-seeking, but also riskier. The claim he made against Twynyho is also very specific and it stands to reason that linking this act to Isabel’s death was meaningful in some way – though whether it had anything to do with his feelings for Isabel herself is debatable.

It is almost certainly linked to rumors that were circulating around the same time that Isabel was “bewitched” by Edward’s wife, Elizabeth Woodville. And by “circulating” I  mean that George was circulating them. The House of York had a long history of slandering women to push forward their political agendas, and George was no different. Unfortunately, Queen Elizabeth was in the tricky position that her mother had been accused of witchcraft by the tenuous restoration government under Henry VI, so it wasn’t considered so outlandish in 1477 that Edward could laugh it off.

In fact, Edward didn’t laugh off any of this. When, in May, an astrologer named John Stacy confessed under torture that he had been practicing illegal sorcery he implicated two men in George’s household. Edward promptly had both men arrested, tried, and executed. George’s response was to crash a Council meeting with a Lancastrian named Dr. William Goddard who read aloud a defiant speech one of the men had given at his execution.

This was the last straw. George was summoned to appear before Edward at Westminster in June, publicly scolded, and arrested. He spent the next eight months languishing in the Tower of London. He was finally tried in January 1478, but there was little question that he wouldn’t be found guilty given that Edward presided over the trial himself.

Several charges of treason were laid at George’s feet, but the most relevant included that he was responsible for spreading a rumor that Edward was their mother’s bastard son (and therefore George was the true king) and George had secured an “exemplification” during Henry VI’s restoration. Per Richard’s biographer, Matthew Lewis, that exemplification named George king if he survived Henry VI and a childless Prince Edward. Given that both men were now dead, an argument could be made that George was now the true Lancastrian heir.

There is another charge included in the attainder that we’ll return to, which is that George spent time in the months in-between Isabel’s death and the Twynyho’s murder plotting to move his son, the two-year-old Edward, to Ireland or Flanders and replace him in the Clarence nursery with a “pretender.” The men charged with making the swap claimed that they hadn’t yet found an appropriate boy to take Edward’s place. Ireland and Flanders are notable hiding places – the House of York had strong ties to Ireland thanks to George’s father (George himself was born there in 1449) and Flanders, of course, afforded his sister’s protection.

Based on these crimes and, notably, George’s prior treason, Edward claimed that George was beyond saving and he hoped to spare the loss of more Christian blood via civil war. George was condemned to death and executed on February 18, 1878 in the Tower of London. His status afforded him a private execution, so the exact method of death is unknown, but legend has it he chose to be drowned in a butt of either his or Edward’s favorite malmsey.

Traditionally, George’s death is laid at the feet of either Richard or Elizabeth Woodville. Not the actual execution, of course, but one of them is usually pushed forward as goading Edward into meting out the final punishment. Elizabeth is perceived as still harboring a grudge against George for his rebellion with Warwick, which resulted in the death of her father and brother in 1469. And Richard, it can be argued, benefited financially from his brother’s death – not to mention, it made his eventual accession of the throne in 1483 possible.

Really, it’s yet another example of the blame for Edward’s actions being placed once again on people around him with less power. With the benefit of hindsight we are of course interested in how Richard and Elizabeth reacted to George’s death, and what part they may or may not have played, but the fact remains that it was Edward who drove his brother’s execution, and by 1478 he had a long enough track record for ruthlessness that I frankly don’t believe anyone was guiding him from behind the throne. What his reasons were are debatable, but there’s fair ground to say that George getting up to any mischief in 1477 was unpalatable given his prior behavior.

Some contemporary writers claim that Richard was opposed to George’s death and absented himself from Edward’s court as much as possible over the next five years. As I mentioned above, the trend of Richard spending more and more time up north was on the rise well before George’s death, and was dictated by his responsibilities. I would also note that many of those writers have the benefit of hindsight, knowing the events of 1483-1485, and claim Richard’s anger wasn’t directed at Edward, but at Elizabeth, believing George’s downfall was pushed by a Woodville agenda.

It’s an interesting theory, but an unknowable one given that Elizabeth’s motivations are just as – if not more – opaque than Richard’s. There’s not enough information to draw conclusions about Richard and Elizabeth’s relationship prior to 1483; in fact, the only reason Elizabeth’s role in George’s death carries any water is because we assume she was upset over her family members’ deaths. I’m not terribly inclined to give this trajectory much weight – if Elizabeth decided to try her hand at playing Lady Macbeth, it would have been the first time she did so during Edward’s reign. Indeed, part of what makes the events of 1483 so convoluted is that we are essentially trying to parse a series of reactions that seemingly come out of nowhere.

The only thing we can say for certain is that Richard didn’t publicly lobby Edward to spare George. He also benefited from the Act of Attainder against George, because it stripped him and his family of their titles, resulting in Richard’s son being named earl of Salisbury. Finally, he resumed his position as Great Chamberlain of England, an office forfeited to George in the negotiations over the Neville inheritance during the early 1470s.

There was another man arrested at the same time as George – Robert Stillington, Bishop of Bath and Wells. The implication is that he was somehow involved with George’s latest treasonous behavior, but his life was spared. He was released from the Tower after only a few weeks, perhaps in deference to his age – he was in his late 50s. He would later become a significant player in Richard’s reign, but we’ll return to him.

With that, we’ll pick up next time.

Image of Isabel Neville, Duchess of Clarence by: Wolfgang Sauber [Link]

2 thoughts on “Part Eight: Richard III & Clarence’s Death

  1. Very informative, I think George genuinely cared for his wife. Yes he had many flaws, but I do not think we can dismiss his grief over Isabel as nothing, he did lose it after her death. Isabel was a calming force. After Isabel’s death he wanted to remarry and was frustrated by Edward’s actions to deprive him from another marriage. But that does not mean he never cared for Isabel, he was broken by her death.
    I wonder how different things might have been if Isabel had lived longer especially for her children.

    1. Yeah, the real tragedy in all of this is definitely their children. When you remember Margaret of Clarence’s origin story, it makes her later Tudor career all the more remarkable, even if another sad tale.

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