Windsbird: Footprints around the world

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The White Queen

George Duke of Clarence drowned in malmsey wine: Fact and Fiction

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?

Elizabeth of York immortalised as Queen of Hearts?


As I was researching for my recent blog post on the relationship of Elizabeth and her uncle King Richard III, I came across a very interesting trivia about her being the Queen of Hearts on the playing card.

According to some sources, playing cards were invented during Henry VII’s reign and the portrait of his Queen, Elizabeth of York has appeared eight times on every pack of cards for nearly 500 years. (Another rumour has it that the Queen of Hearts represents Anne Boleyn, the second wife to Henry VIII).

I’m a big Tudor fanatic, and to know I have a piece of heritage from the Tudor era right in my living room is enough to get me all jittery with excitement. The head dress under the Queen of Hearts’ crown does look like it belongs to the early Tudor period, does it not?

So here it is, a short history of the English playing cards:

Playing cards first entered Europe in the late 14th century, and different countries employed a variety of suits such as swords, batons and coins.  The four suits used by today (spades, hearts, clubs and diamonds) have originated in about 1480 in France which were the cards England adopted. The first evidence of playing cards in England is from the mid 15th century in an Act of Parliament.

French card makers in the 16th century started to attribute mythological or biblical names to the court cards such as David for King of Spades, and Judith for Queen of Hearts. Despite the English adopting the designs from Rouen in France, there is no evidence naming English court cards after any certain personalities.

The unfortunate truth is, it is nearly impossible to see what the original English court cards would have looked like.  During the passage of time, the designs were copied with a number of errors. If there were any symbols or oddities attributed to the court cards, they became distorted and lost its meaning and significance. To make this worse, the total number of English cards surviving before 1590 does not exceed a dozen, due to paper’s easily perishable nature as well as destruction of thousands of playing cards in the 17th century under the Puritan regime.

As disappointing as it is to know that the Queen of Hearts is actually a nobody, there are court accounts during the reign of Henry VII referring to Elizabeth’s debt at playing cards. I guess this would be as close as cards get to a piece of Tudor history.

For more in-depth history on playing cards, try

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