The murder of George of Clarence

The ‘Crimes’ of Richard III: the murder of George of Clarence
That Richard of Gloucester had any real responsibility for the death of his brother was always a very unlikely proposition, let alone that he killed him personally. However the traditional method of Clarence’s execution, that he was executed by drowning in a barrel of malmsey, could possibly be true. It is first mentioned by Dominic Mancini in 1483, (only five years after the execution) in The Usurpation of Richard III, 1969, p. 63, although Mancini actually says a cask of ‘sweet wine’ (mollissimi faterni) interpreted by several writers as cretan wine or malmsey. The story was repeated first by several foreign writers and then by the Great Chronicle, Polydore Vergil and all native chroniclers. There is virtually no evidence for this bizarre event, although there is no reason why death by drowning should not have been chosen as the method of execution, even if it would (probably) have been unprecedented. Because it would have been so unusual it may have been remembered for this reason. The only small piece of supporting evidence may lie in the portrait in the National Portrait Gallery which could be of Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, daughter of Clarence. The person in this portrait wears around one wrist a barrel of gold suspended from a black ribbon, perhaps in commemoration of the death of her father. Although scientific examination has shown this barrel to be part of the original picture and not a later addition and the painting itself probably dates from the 1530s the identification of the picture as a portrait of Margaret Pole depends largely on the presence of the barrel. The argument is thus rather circular. There is a discussion of the portrait in Roy Strong, Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, 1969, volume 1, pp.272-273, with some updated information in an unpublished paper by John Ballard in the Society Library, (the book is not in the Library). The story of the barrel of malmsey is discussed by Michael Hicks in Appendix 1 of False, Fleeting, Perjur’d Clarence, (1980).

None of the sources before More doubt that Edward IV was solely responsible for the death of Clarence, even if they were in some doubt as to why he was executed. More hints, in very obscure language, (quoted by Gairdner in his Life of Richard III [1898, pp.34-35] with the remark that More was obviously not sure himself) that Richard of Gloucester may have encouraged Edward to execute his brother, but goes no further. He was not followed in this by any other chronicler, who mostly quote Vergil. Vergil in turn says more or less the same as Mancini. Shakespeare, in a major contribution to the legend, seems to be solely responsible for making Richard of Gloucester the prime mover in the death of Clarence and he was followed by some subsequent writers. Richard has however never been seriously regarded by historians as responsible for the death of his brother.

The reason for the execution of Clarence has been much debated. It is most unlikely to be because of the alleged prophecy that Edward would be succeeded by someone whose name began with a ‘G’ as said by Rous and Vergil and subsequent authors (see ‘The Prophecy of G’, Anne F. Sutton and Livia Visser-Fuchs, The Ricardian, vol. 8, no. 110, [1990] pp.449-450). The official reason for his execution was that Clarence had committed treason by keeping an exemplification of the Act of the 1470-71 readeption Parliament making him the heir to the throne after Henry VI and his son. There is no eviidence that such an Act ever existed, the Roll of this Parliament has disappeared and Professor Lander argued that the charge was a fabrication (J.R. Lander, ‘Treason and Death of the Duke of Clarence: a Re-interpretation’ Canadian Journal of History, vol. 2, [1967] pp.1-28), an argument disputed by Hicks (False, Fleeting, Perjur’d Clarence, pp. 159-169). Hicks discusses the Act of Attainder and other evidence and concludes that Edward IV probably had a mixture of reasons (mostly involving treasonable acts) for condemning his brother. Other recent work on Clarence is as a local magnate (Christine Carpenter, ‘The Duke of Clarence and the Midlands: a study in the interplay of local and national politics’, Midland History, vol. 11, [1986] pp. 23-48, a theme further discussed in Carpenter’sLocality and polity: A study of Warwickshire and landed society, 1401-1499, [1992] and as ‘good lord’ to his followers (M.A. Hicks, ‘Restraint, Mediation and Private Justice: George Duke of Clarence as ‘Good Lord’, J. Legal History,vol. 4, [1983] pp.56-71). PWH