The headsman does it, leaving his axe to one side but wearing his black mask over his face. He is a big man with strong big hands and he takes his apprentice with him. The two of them roll a barrel of malmsey wine into George’s room and George the fool makes a joke of it and laughs with his mouth open wide as if already gasping for air, as his face bleaches white with fear.
-From The White Queen, by Philippa Gregory
Born on 21 October 1449, George Plantagenet was the brother to kings Edward IV and Richard III.
In an attempt to seize the crown for himself, George sides with Earl of Warwick to make an insurrection against King Edward. However, the plot failed and Warwick allies with Margaret of Anjou, and after a successful invasion, the once-deposed King Henry VI is put back on the throne. At this outright bypassing of George’s chance for the crown, he then goes back to his brother Edward and fights at the battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury, helping him to be restored as the King of England.
Their reconciliation does not last, as George becomes embittered by his brother Richard’s growing influence at court and his wish to marry the Duchess of Burgundy is rejected by Edward. Accused of slandering against the king and preparing a rebellion, George is finally attainted in Parliament of high treason and is executed in the Tower of London in 1478. He was 28.
The circumstances of George’s death is shrouded in mystery. Some said that he was beheaded secretly, and some said he was murdered by his brother Richard. The most widely circulated belief is that he was drowned in a butt of malmsey wine, as it is chillingly portrayed in Shakespeare’s play Richard III and Philippa Gregory’s The Cousins’ War series.
Thanks to the exhumation of his body, we can rule out that George was beheaded. His head was found to be intact with his body confirming that he was not killed in the traditional method of execution of nobility at that time.
A butt of wine is an amount enough to drown a man, equaling 105 gallons, and the fumes from an open butt alone can knock someone unconscious. If George drowning in wine is nothing but a rumour, then a possible explanation of this would be that it had originated from a humourous reference to George’s reputation as a heavy drinker. Another possibility is that his dead body was sent to the Tewkebury Abbey in a barrel of wine for burial, similar to the case of Horatio Nelson’s body being sent home in a barrel of brandy.
The evidence to shed clearer light on the circumstances of George’s death is still to be found. Meanwhile, have a closer look at this portrait of Margaret Pole, the daughter of Duke of Clarence. Can you see a barrel on her charm bracelet on her right hand?