February 18, 2015

February 18, 1478: George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence Privately Executed

Stained glass portrait of George, Duke of Clarence, and his wife Isabelle Neville, at Cardiff Castle, Wales. Photograph is by Wolfgang Sauber and has been licensed by its creator under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License. 

In Shakespeare's Richard III Clarence is drowned by his wicked brother Richard in a butt of Malmsey. Truth? Or legend?

George was the brother of two kings -- Edward IV and Richard III. He seems to have had somewhat of a problem with loyalty. He was supportive of Edward in the beginning, but when his father-in-law, Richard Neville, the Duke of Warwick (known as the "Kingmaker") changed his allegiance to support Henry VI, George went with him. In gratitude, Henry put George in line for the throne, right after his son.

Then Neville married another daughter to that son of Henry's and George began to rethink the whole proposition. George went back to support his brother. All was forgiven -- at least for the time being.

Then George either changed his mind again, or Edward grew just a little too suspicious of his brother. At any rate, he was tried for treason and "privately executed." But was there really wine involved?

It may have been a joke -- George had quite a reputation as a drinker. It could also have been true: a butt was about 477 liters, and that's plenty big enough to drown in. Or, he may have been executed, and then put into the alcohol for preservation. We don't really know.

What we do know, however, is that the usual method of execution in cases like this was beheading, and George wasn't beheaded. A body believed to be his was exhumed, and his head was still on his shoulders. So the story could be true.

Shakespeare got a lot of history wrong, either intentionally or not, but he may have been accurate about George's death. As for his characterization of the evil brother Richard -- well, that's an entirely different matter.

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