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A Royal Execution: George, the Duke of Clarence

The War of the Roses was a period marked by the deep-set and bitter hatred that burned between the Houses of Lancaster and York. After the overthrow of Richard II by his cousin King Henry IV, the House of Plantagenet gave way to the House of Lancaster and the Kingdom of England began to stutter and fall. After the premature death of Henry V, who briefly brought England back to a zenith during his campaigns in France, the English monarchy fell prey to internal feuds, bickering, and exchanges of the throne between dissident factions.

The disagreement over who should be king following Henry V’s death, especially in light of his son and successor’s insanity later in life, quickly broke out into civil war, between the House of Lancaster and the House of York, both of whom claimed the English throne through ancestral ties to Edward III, the last great Plantagenet monarch.

A Royal Turncoat

During this conflict House Plantagenet survived through a series of grandsons and great-grandsons of Edward III, many of whom retained positions of influence and power throughout the Kingdom. One such descendant, George Plantagenet, the Duke of Clarence (b. 21st October 1449), actually managed to do very well for himself, for a time. Brother to Edward IV, Clarence was initially a supporter of the House of York. Clarence abandoned his brother’s campaign for the English throne after he gave support to Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick and Clarence’s father-in-law, after he threw in his lot with Margaret of Anjou, the consort of the deposed Henry VI. Clarence as consequence declared for the Lancastrians. For this he was stripped of his position as Lord Lieutenant by Edward IV, but was in turn made Henry VI’s successor after his own son in the event that the young Prince of Wales died too young.

However he soon came to regret his switch of loyalties. Not long afterwards, his father-in-law married his young daughter Anne Neville to Edward, the Prince of Wales, and it quickly became apparent that Warwick had no interest in seeing Clarence made King or pursuing his son-in-law’s interests. The duke subsequently returned to his brother, and they reconciled.

After Edward, the Prince of Wales, was killed in the Battle of Tewkesbury, it became obvious that Warwick’s attempts at keeping Henry VI on the throne had failed, and Edward IV was reinstated as the King of England. After Warwick’s death, Clarence was made the next Earl of Warwick and inherited half of his father-in-law’s estates, as well as seeing a return to royal favour.

The Wheel of Fortune Turns

After the death of his wife, Isabel Neville, in 1476, it became apparent that Clarence’s mental state had suffered. He became convinced she had been poisoned — historians believe she actually died of either consumption or childbed fever — and order one of her handmaidens arrested and summarily executed, along with another defendant: John Thursby.

He then sought to marry Mary, the Duchess of Burgundy, but after being denied permission by Edward IV angrily left the Royal Court. Edward IV shortly afterwards had three of Clarence’s retainers arrested, made to confess under torture to high treason, and quickly executed. It was to serve as a warning to Clarence to be careful where he trod, a warning he either missed or chose to ignore.

Clarence arranged to have another retainer, a Dr John Goddard, burst into court and proclaim a sudden recantation by the condemned at the final hour. Unfortunately Goddard was a former Lancastrian, and Edward IV was in no mood for games. He summoned Clarence to court, upbraided him, accused him of treason, and then ordered his execution. He was tried in absence by his brother, who accused him of “unnatural, loathly treasons”, and convinced the court that Clarence intended to make himself king. The English Parliament passed a bill of attainder, and the Duke was privately executed in 18th of February 1478 in the Tower of London. Legends say he was he was forcibly drowned in a barrel of Malmsey wine.

It was another nail in the Plantagenet coffin, and another noble who fell foul of the fratricide of the War of the Roses.