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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?

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Was there a romance between Richard III and Elizabeth of York?

Royalty - English Monarchs - King Richard IIIelizabeth_york

In Philippa Gregory’s The Cousins’ War series, Elizabeth of York falls in love with King Richard III while she is serving as a lady in waiting for Queen Anne Neville. So what? – You may ask. Did I mention that Richard III is her uncle who had declared his brother’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville invalid and made all their children (including Elizabeth of York) bastards? Did I mention that Elizabeth of York’s brothers (the heir to the throne) had gone mysteriously missing while under the guardianship of him?

It seemed extraordinary that out of all men, Elizabeth would fall for someone who had ousted her family out of their rightful place. And I was dying to know if Richard did flaunted their courtship in order to weaken her family’s alliance with the House of Lancaster who were continuous threat to his throne.

So how much of this is a creation of a novellist, and how much of it is a fact?

The speculation of their incestuous relationship actually dates back a long way – to their very own time.

After Richard’s wife Anne Neville’s death in March 1485, rumours spread that the King intended to marry his niece, Elizabeth. Although a marriage between uncle and niece was not strictly forbidden by the church, it had caused much revulsion among the councilors, and Richard’s most trusted men Ratcliffe and Catesbury warned him that such decision would lose support of Northerners as it would seem Richard had caused the death of his wife in order to marry Elizabeth. Twelve doctors of divinity were also summoned by Parliament to put forward their objections and Richard then publicly denied the accusation.

There is also an account by Sir George Buck, an antiquarian and Master of the Revels to King James I of England, claiming that he has seen a letter from Elizabeth to the 1st Duke of Norfolk asking him:

“to be a mediator for her in the cause of [the marriage] to the king who was her only joy and the maker in the world, and that she was his hart, in thought, and in all, and then she intimated that the better half of Feb was past, and that she feared the queen would never [die].”

Unfortunately the original letter failed to survive and his account cannot be validated.

It is also worth bearing in mind that Richard opened negotiations for himself to be marry Joanna, the sister of the King of Portugla, and Elizabeth to marry Joanna’s cousin, Duke of Beja. The negotiations came to a sudden halt with the news of the Battle of Bosworth.

From my research trudging through resources online, it seems that factual evidences to prove or disprove the speculation is too scarce to draw any assertive conclusion on Richard’s feeling for his niece. The air of unease and suspicion surrounding the supposed romance seems obvious, but again the evidence is only circumstantial. The supposed letter written by Elizabeth may or may not have existed, and Richard’s marriage negotiations with Portugal does not necessarily deny the feelings they may have shared together.

For those of you who would like to read deeper on evidences surrounding this supposed romance, try:

“Yorkists: The History of a Dynasty”  by Anne Crawford or “Elizabeth of York; The Forgotten Tudor Queen” by Amy Licence.

 

 

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