Strange Deaths in History: The Duke who Died in a Barrel of Wine
George Plantagenet, 1 st Duke of Clarence, was a 15 th century English nobleman who was executed by allegedly being drowned in a vat of Malmsey wine. He was a member of the House of York and played an important role in the Wars of the Roses, a series of civil wars that was fought between the two rival branches of the House of Plantagenet.
George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence. On Right - Coat of Arms of George Plantagenet, 1st Duke of Clarence. Source: Left, Public Domain
George Plantagenet’s Early Life
George Plantagenet was born on the 21 st of October 1449 in Dublin, Ireland. He was the third surviving son of Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York and Cecily Neville, the daughter of Ralph Neville, 1 st Earl of Westmorland. George was also a cousin of the English king, Henry VI, who belonged to the House of Lancaster. When the latter was dethroned in 1461, Edward IV, the first English king from the rival House of York and George’s older brother came to power.
Once on the English throne, Edward IV appointed his brother George as the Duke of Clarence. In the following year, the adolescent George was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, in spite of his young age. Clarence was initially a staunch supporter of his brother and these appointments would have helped to secure his loyalty. Nevertheless, Clarence would later become influenced by Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick and turn against the king.
Edward IV Plantagenet. (PKM / Public Domain)
Clarence married Warwick’s Daughter and the Problems Begin
The Earl of Warwick had once been an important advisor to the king. It was thanks to his support that Edward IV was able to overthrow Henry VI. Nevertheless, the two eventually had a falling out, and by 1468, the earl was no longer able to exert the same kind of influence he once had on the king. Therefore, he began to look for a replacement and chose to back the Duke of Clarence. In 1469, Clarence married Warwick’s elder daughter, Isabel Neville, at Calais, against the wishes of the king. In 1470, a rebellion broke out in northern England and both Clarence and Warwick secretly supported the rebels. When their treacherous behavior was discovered by the king, the two men fled to France, where they remained for several months.
Isabela Nevillová. (Acoma / CC BY-SA 3.0)
In France, Warwick formed an alliance with Margaret of Anjou, the wife of Henry VI, and launched an invasion of England. Warwick was successful, Edward IV was deposed, and Henry VI was once again the king of England. By the end of the year, however, Clarence had grown disillusioned with the way Warwick was handling things and was not too happy with having to fight for the Lancastrian cause. Therefore, he decided to return to the side of his brother and to support him in regaining the English throne.
The Houses of York and Lancaster fought two important battles in 1471 – the Battle of Barnet in April, and the Battle of Tewkesbury in May. On both occasions, Clarence sided with the Yorkists who crushed the Lancastrians. As a result, Henry VI lost power and Edward IV became king once more. Although his favor with the king was restored, Clarence soon grew jealous of the influence that his other brother, the future Richard III, was enjoying at court. Relations between Clarence and the king got worse after Isabel’s death in 1476. The duke was hoping to marry the Duchess of Burgundy, but this was rejected by the king.
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Battle of Barnet - Artistic portrayal of the battle: Edward IV (left), wearing a circlet and mounted on a horse, leads the Yorkist charge and pierces the Earl of Warwick (right) with his lance; in reality, Warwick was not killed by Edward. (Jappalang / Public Domain)
Clarence Plots to Seize the Throne
Things got so bad between the brothers that Clarence was eventually accused of plotting to seize the throne for himself. One of the duke’s retainers, an astronomer at Oxford by the name of John Stacey was arrested in 1477 and confessed, under torture, that he along with two others were plotting to kill the king using ‘black arts’. As a consequence, Clarence was arrested and imprisoned. He was accused of slandering the king and preparing a rebellion and was convicted of high treason.
In 1478, Clarence was secretly executed in the Tower of London. Although it is unclear as to how Clarence was executed, the most popular version of the story is that he was drowned in a butt (a unit of measurement equivalent to 570 liters / 151 gallons) of Malmsey wine. When the duke’s body was exhumed it was found to be intact. In other words, he was not beheaded, which was the traditional method of executing members of the nobility at that time. Therefore, it is possible that Clarence was indeed drowned in wine.
The Duke of Clarence being drowned in a barrel of wine (public domain)
Another view is that the duke’s drowning in wine is merely a rumor. Some have traced the origins of this rumor to what was initially meant to be a joke. Clarence was notorious for being a heavy drinker and it was thought that this joke about his manner of execution would have been appropriate considering his fondness for drinking. Alternatively, it has been suggested that his body was preserved in wine while being transported to Tewkesbury Abbey for burial thus giving rise to this rumor.
Top image: A Medieval knight holding a glass of wine (diter / Adobe Stock)
By Wu Mingren
Howard, V. 2017. History’s strangest deaths – The Duke of Clarence drowned in a barrel of wine. [Online] Available at: https://www.thecrownchronicles.co.uk/history/history-posts/historys-strangest-deaths-george-duke-of-clarence-drowned-in-a-barrel-of-wine/
Millar, R. 2016. On This Day 1478…Death by Malmsey. [Online] Available at: https://www.thedrinksbusiness.com/2016/02/on-this-day-1478death-by-malmsey/
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2019. George Plantagenet, duke of Clarence. [Online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/George-Plantagenet-duke-of-Clarence
windsbird.com. 2013. George Duke of Clarence drowned in malmsey wine: Fact and Fiction. [Online] Available at: https://windsbird.com/2013/07/24/george-duke-of-clarence-drowned-in-malmsey-wine-fact-and-fiction/
www.englishmonarchs.co.uk. 2019. George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence. [Online] Available at: http://www.englishmonarchs.co.uk/plantagenet_21.htm