By Tyler Parsons
George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence, was the middle brother of the Yorkist family, younger than Edward IV and older than Richard III. He has been written off as something of a historical footnote- an overambitious, inveterate traitor who plotted his way into an early grave.
Even in the most significant actions of his life, his involvement in the rebellions against his brother Edward IV in 1469-70 that briefly brought about the Lancastrian Readeption, he is cast as the junior party in comparison to his cousin and father-in-law Warwick the Kingmaker. That Clarence’s misadventures during this period ultimately brought him back to his brother’s side, and saw him fight to re-establish Edward’s rule at Barnet and Tewkesbury, only serves to demonstrate his inconstancy.
The aura of pathetic failure has also come to pervade his descendants, who are for the most part more noteworthy as victims of Tudor persecution than as individuals in their own right. Clarence’s son, Edward, Earl of Warwick, was consigned to the Tower of London as a ten-year old by Henry VII after his victory at Bosworth, and executed fourteen years later in 1499. Clarence’s daughter Margaret, Countess of Salisbury and her son Henry Pole, Marquess of Montagu were both executed by Henry VIII for their adherence to Catholicism and support for Princess Mary, whilst further descendants were condemned to the Tower under Elizabeth.
A different world, one where Clarence rose to kingship and perhaps even preserved the House of York for posterity, can easily be envisioned. First, this article will offer a brief biographical sketch of Clarence’s life as it transpired historically, before examining the possibilities this life offered for Clarence to become King.
Clarence: A Life
George was born in 1449, during his father Richard Duke of York’s sojourn in Ireland, becoming the third of four sons who would grow to adulthood. Edward, older by some seven years, cannot have been a familiar presence in George’s childhood, as he and York’s second son Edmund were installed in their father’s castle of Ludlow whilst George was still in the nursery.
Said childhood was a tumultuous time for the Yorkist family. By the close of 1460, Clarence’s father had been Lord Protector of the Realm multiple times, been attainted and fled into exile with his elder two sons and allies, returned from exile and been named heir to the throne, and killed at the disastrous Battle of Wakefield. The latter battle also claimed the life of a number of other prominent relatives- George’s elder brother Edmund Earl of Rutland, uncle Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury, and cousin Thomas Neville- and resulted in George and Richard being spirited away to safety in Burgundy in the early days of 1461. The two returned to England after their elder brother, the newly-styled Edward IV, had won the throne at the Battle of Towton in March. George, not yet twelve, was named Duke of Clarence and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. In due course, he would be granted substantial estates garnered from attainted Lancastrians.
For a time, it seemed that all was right in the world for the House of York. Another of their Beaufort enemies- Henry, Duke of Somerset- was captured and killed at the Battle of Hexham in May 1464, and the increasingly pitiful Henry VI was recovered from his northern bolthole and conveyed to the Tower in July 1465.
Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, had been instrumental in the campaigns of both Richard, Duke of York, and his son Edward IV, and dominated the government for the first few years of Edward’s reign. His brothers John and George were given significant positions in Edward’s government, with George becoming Archbishop of York and John granted the Earldom of Northumberland, the ancestral title of their hated Percy enemies.
As Edward grew into his kingship, however, disputes arose with his erstwhile cousin. Foreign policy was a major area of dispute. Edward favoured an alliance with Burgundy, which would eventually come to fruition when his sister Margaret wed Duke Charles of Burgundy in 1467, whilst Warwick was inclined to France. The issue was compounded in 1464 when Warwick’s attempts to organise a French match for the King were interrupted by the revelation that Edward had married the English widow Elizabeth Woodville.
Elizabeth brought an extensive family circle with her- two sons and a dozen siblings- who gradually came to dominate court and government offices. Elizabeth’s sisters, in particular, were blessed with marriages to the most eligible aristocratic bachelors in the realm. Whilst there is some debate in the historiography as to whether this represented the avaricious Woodvilles taking advantage of Edward, or Edward actively making use of his in-laws in an attempt to build up connections and strengthen his reign, it created a tightly-knit kinship network that left Warwick on the outer.
Even if Edward’s intentions with his in-laws were not actively directed at marginalising Warwick, initiatives such as the marriage of his nineteen year-old brother-in-law John Woodville to Warwick’s sixty-five year-old aunt Katherine, Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, suggest a carelessness with regard to both public opinion and Warwick’s feelings. The Woodvilles were not the only party crowding Warwick out of influence, however, because Edward also came to increasingly rely on new men such as Humphrey Stafford and William Herbert, whom he made Earls of Devon and Pembroke respectively.
The teenaged Clarence, who remained Edward’s heir until the match with Elizabeth produced issue, must have watched the growing tension with great interest. In any case, his interests gradually came to be aligned with those of Warwick in the later 1460s, particularly after Edward had rejected a proffered marriage between Clarence and Warwick’s daughter Isabel- such a marriage would, in time, have brought Clarence the lion’s share of the vast Neville patrimony, given Warwick’s lack of a male heir. Such an inheritance had great appeal to the impecunious Clarence. Clarence may, too, have come to share Warwick’s distaste for the parvenu Woodvilles.
It was in 1469 that George and Warwick definitively turned traitor, cementing their alliance with Clarence’s marriage to Isabel in Calais in July. Their rebellion was, initially, successful. Whilst the King was distracted by rebellions stirred by Neville retainers in the north the duo landed in Kent and disseminated a manifesto condemning the misgovernment of the King’s key councillors. Edward’s forces, led by Devon and Pembroke, were defeated by the northern rebels at Edgecote on 26th July 1469. Pembroke and his brother were executed the following day, whilst Devon was lynched a month later and the King was taken into custody by Warwick’s brother the Archbishop.
Warwick and Clarence attempted to rule in the King’s name for the following few months, with Woodville patriarch Richard, Earl Rivers, put to death alongside his son John in August, but this proved impracticable. Unable to suppress a Lancastrian revolt led by Sir Humphrey Neville, they were obliged to release the King in September.
In succeeding months Edward declined to move overtly against the duo, but the King’s move to deprive Warwick’s brother John of Northumberland and restore it to its traditional Percy owners perhaps presaged things to come. Warwick and Clarence proceeded to attempt another rebellion in Lincolnshire before fleeing to France by May 1470.
Warwick, ever flexible, reconciled with the Lancastrians by marrying his second daughter Anne to the Lancastrian heir Edward of Westminster. From there he returned to England, united with various Lancastrians and his disaffected brother, and liberated Henry VI from the Tower. Edward IV and his supporters were compelled to withdraw to Burgundy. Clarence duly followed his father-in-law in these endeavours, but his support was ambivalent- Clarence got little out of the new arrangement, whilst Warwick had a shiny new son-in-law. He may have been promised recognition as next in line to the throne after Edward of Westminster, but the likelihood of that coming to pass seemed slim, and in the interim his estates would be assailed by Lancastrians seeking restoration.
Ultimately, he was reconciled to his brother, and contributed significant troops to Edward’s army in April 1471. Thereafter, he fought with distinction at the Battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury, which together secured Edward’s reign- Warwick and his brother were slain at Barnet, whilst Tewkesbury saw the death of the Lancastrian heir Edward of Westminster, the last two male Beauforts, and many more Lancastrians besides. In the aftermath of this victory, Henry VI was also quietly disposed of in the Tower.
While outwardly reconciled to his brother’s regime, tensions quickly began to simmer under the surface. Clarence spent much of the early 1470s enmeshed in a bitter dispute with his younger brother over Richard’s desire to marry Warwick’s younger daughter Anne and claim a share of the vast Neville inheritance. Eventually made to surrender some of Warwick’s lands to his brother, Clarence largely retreated to his estates and seethed.
After his wife’s death from the aftereffects of childbirth on 22nd December 1476 his behaviour grew erratic. One of Isabel’s ladies-in-waiting, Ankarette Twynyho, was accused of poisoning the Duchess, and hastily put to death. Following this act of judicial murder, Clarence once again fell out with his brother over frustrated marital ambitions- in this case Clarence’s desire to marry the newly enthroned Mary, Duchess of Burgundy.
Simultaneously, Clarence came to the defence of his retainer Thomas Burdet, accused of encompassing the King’s death by necromancy. Subsequently, Clarence was put on trial for treason, and personally prosecuted by his brother. In addition to his defence of Burdet and outrageous murder of Twynyho, it has been suggested that his downfall came about in part because he had acquired compromising information challenging the legitimacy of Edward’s sons. Even if the precise cause is obscure, the result is beyond dispute- the mercurial career of George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence, came to a close with his execution, aged 28. Infamously, his death supposedly involved being drowned in a butt of malmsey wine.
Clarence: A King?
Despite his ignominious end and uninspiring character, Clarence was a major figure in the Wars of the Roses, and could easily have become King- he was, after all, one heartbeat away from the throne for a sizeable period of his life.
George as Heir to his Brother (1461-69).
That period- the 1460s, throughout which Clarence was his brother’s male heir- is undoubtedly the simplest way for Clarence to assume kingship. If Edward died here the accession of his eldest brother and acknowledged heir as King George would be relatively uncontroversial (to the Yorkists, at least). A Clarence coming to the throne at this stage would be an outwardly promising young king, given he was generally regarded as handsome, charming, and witty.
Warwick will, of course, be the dominant figure in such a reign. If Edward died in the early 1460s, Warwick would provide important continuity behind the scenes- merely transitioning from being chief minister to King Edward to chief minister of King George. If Edward died in the later 1460s, Clarence will assume the throne having already fallen under the influence of Warwick, whose scheme to marry Clarence to his daughter had been conceived by 1466 or 1467.
The main question, of course, is how long King George would stay on the throne. Here there is a major watershed moment situated in the middle of the decade, either side of which different considerations apply.
A Clarence who comes to the throne in the early 1460s will be the leader (or figurehead) of a relatively united Yorkist party, but one which has only recently come into power. The Lancastrians, only recently ousted, will be revitalised by Edward's premature death. Historically, Edward’s regime struggled to assert its authority on the north of England, facing resistance from men such as Sir Ralph Percy and Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset. The morale boost provided by Edward’s death, and the uncertain reign of young King George, may enervate their efforts.
Edward’s death may also favourably alter the diplomatic calculus of the foreign rulers Margaret of Anjou was appealing to for aid, she having spent the early 1460s in Scotland before travelling to France. On the other hand, Warwick is at the height of his powers at this time, situated firmly in the centre of government, with the command of a substantial affinity, a skill for public relations, and reliable commanders such as his uncle William Neville, Earl of Kent, and brother John Neville, Lord Montagu. The latter took the lead in the suppression of the Lancastrians in the north historically, culminating in his elevation to the Earldom of Northumberland after his defeat of Percy and Somerset in 1464.
In the later 1460s the atmosphere is different. The Lancastrians have long been out of power, Henry VI is locked up in the Tower, the House of York is more established, and Clarence has had several years to build up his own affinity. However, the Yorkist court has been riven by division over the matter of the King’s marriage. The Woodvilles and others promoted by Edward- such as Devon and Pembroke- who enjoyed Warwick’s antipathy, will be agitated at being forced out of influence in the new Georgian regime.
From 1466 there is also the existence of Edward IV’s daughter Elizabeth of York, with further sisters following in 1467 and 1469. An infant female seems unlikely to gain much support in this environment, especially with Lancastrians still lurking on the continent, but if the Woodvilles are treated too harshly plots could swirl around the princess. If nothing else, her hand in marriage could provide a significant boost to someone attempting to claim the throne, as was Elizabeth’s fate historically.
The Lancastrians can be expected to try and take advantage of any disjunction in the Yorkist regime, but they have been in exile for the better part of a decade. Without the extraordinary opportunity Warwick’s defection provided, the path back to power would surely not be an easy one.
If Lancastrian forays and internal dissensions can be headed off, a Clarence who comes to the throne in the 1460s, following the natural death of his brother, might have a reasonably successful reign. Less sexually voracious than Edward, King George would make a conventional diplomatic marriage- perhaps even to Bona Sforza, Warwick’s suggested bride for Edward. The difficulties created by Edward’s in-laws would be avoided, and the diplomatic benefits of such a marriage would be attainable.
The younger and more malleable Clarence seems unlikely to decisively break with Warwick in the same manner as his brother, and Warwick could conceivably be the major figure in Clarence’s government for a quarter-century- he was only 42 when he died at Barnet in 1471, and his father and several uncles made it into their 60s. By that stage, the Lancastrians- suppressed in England, exiled for 30 years, and perhaps outmanoeuvred diplomatically- will have withered on the vine. With luck, King George would also have an adult son capable of stepping into the void left by Warwick’s death.
That’s if things go smoothly- Warwick’s monopolisation of power could trigger similar complaints as those levelled at Henry VI’s favourites Suffolk and Somerset, or that directed at the Woodvilles historically. The regime could also fall apart if Clarence grows independent, or someone else captures his ear.
Clarence as a Fratricidal Usurper (1469)
There is speculation, both contemporary and in subsequent historiography, that the original intention of Warwick and Clarence’s revolt in 1469 was to place Clarence on the throne. Rumours that Edward was a bastard were supposedly disseminated as the prelude for this move. On the one hand, this theory seems to make sense- Clarence had done extremely well out of Edward’s reign, so it could be argued from a rational standpoint that the crown is the only prize Clarence could achieve that justified the risk of outright treason. Then again, it is possible Clarence was just a hot-headed, easily-manipulable idiot who wasn’t engaging in sophisticated risk-benefit analyses.
In any case, I can’t see how they could have pulled this off. Edward is unlikely to take his deposition and bastardisation with good grace. As an energetic and charismatic fellow, he will stir up resistance, aided by his furious mother denying the accusation of adultery. There is, of course, one way to ensure Edward can’t cause trouble- killing him whilst he’s in their custody. That, however, would generate widespread opprobrium as an act of fratricide and cause undying enmity in several influential figures- the Woodville clan (if their undying enmity hasn’t already been earned by the executions of Richard and John), Edward’s buddy William Hastings, and perhaps even his younger brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester.
Clarence will thus have to try and build a regime on people who both aren’t Lancastrian and aren’t outraged at his disposal of his brother. This is averyslender support base to lean on, especially given the likelihood that the Lancastrians will take advantage of Yorkist in-fighting to stage a comeback. Edward of Westminster, on the cusp of adulthood, would seem a preferable king to many than the fratricidal Clarence.
Clarence as Lancastrian Heir (1471-)
Theoretically, a certain sequence of events in 1471 could have resulted in Clarence becoming the Lancastrian heir to the throne. If Clarence had stuck with his father-in-law, and this had resulted in defeat or death of Edward IV, and the supposed promise to acknowledge Clarence as next-in-line after Edward of Westminster was formalised, and Westminster subsequently died without issue, then Clarence would become King upon Henry VI’s death. Theoretically.
In practice, the chances of such an eventuality are vanishingly slim. A restored Lancastrian regime in the 1470s would be a site of deep-seated mistrust between Warwick and his protégé Clarence (or, if you’re feeling uncomplimentary, patsy) and the hardcore Lancastrians. Margaret herself had only agreed to the alliance with Warwick with great reluctance, and at the urging of her cousin King Louis XI. Speculation abounds that she forbade her son from consummating his marriage to Anne Neville so they could secure an annulment at a later date.
Other members of the Lancastrian establishment returning to England would also be unrelentingly hostile. Men such as the surviving Beauforts, John and Edmund; John Courtenay, Earl of Devon; and John de Vere, Earl of Oxford; had all lost fathers and brothers in the wars against the House of York. Many had had family members executed in the early years of Edward’s reign, when Warwick held the reins of government. Warwick, for all his ingenuity, seems unlike to hold on to power in the face of such opposition. Margaret, for her part, seems likely to try and get rid of him at the earliest opportunity.
Even if they weren’t unrelentingly hostile, returning Lancastrians would definitely be seeking the restoration of estates they’d lost to attainder. Such restorations would chip away at Clarence’s powerbase, and leave him an increasingly irrelevant and friendless figure. If disaster strikes the Lancastrian cause and Westminster dies, few would turn to Clarence- the Beauforts, with their impeccable Lancastrian credentials, are more probable frontrunners. Even the erratic Henry Holland, Duke of Exeter, could be a more likely Lancastrian candidate, with his legitimate descent from John of Gaunt.
The lonely Clarence could try to metamorphosis back into a Yorkist and appeal to exiled supporters of his brother on the continent. Some might even be receptive- throwing in with the traitor Clarence being preferable to eternal exile on the continent, but this seems a high risk strategy- particularly given the Lancastrian regime would be keeping a vigilant eye on Clarence.
Clarence as an Evil Uncle (1471-)
Edward fought in both the battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury, and either could have resulted in his death. The trouble is having Edward die without his death causing a straight-up Lancastrian victory. A scenario where the battles transpire as they did historically, with the Lancastrians annihilated, and then Edward succumbing to infection from a minor wound would be the best way to bring this about.
The important distinction between the later 1460s and 1471 is, of course, that the Woodvilles have now provided Edward with a male heir, Elizabeth having given birth to a son whilst her husband was in exile on the continent. Clarence, as the newborn Edward V’s senior male relative, would expect the Regency. Given his recent display of disloyalty, and demonstrable antipathy for the Woodvilles, it seems unlikely this would be granted to him.
At best, he might gain a seat on some form of Regency council. Such a body would be the site of seething tensions between the Woodville party (likely led by Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers) and others of Edward’s loyal followers (Hastings, Gloucester), and the eminently untrustworthy Clarence. If Gloucester still sets his eyes on Anne Neville that will also initiate a brotherly feud over the Warwick inheritance, only here Edward IV will not be present to mediate and enforce a settlement. Indeed, if the Regency council view Clarence as a suspicious troublemaker, it’s conceivable that they push to give Gloucester a greater share of the inheritance than Edward did.
Having discredited himself with Edward’s inner circle on account of his treacheries, Clarence seems unlikely to get very far. He could scheme with other disaffected figures, such as Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham- who possessed a distaste for the Woodvilles and played an essential role in Gloucester’s usurpation in 1483, before turning on Gloucester and getting executed after a failed rebellion. Given his career, however, it seems doubtful Clarence has the finesse to plot his way to Kingship.
Similar considerations are likely to prevail if Edward dies later in the 1470s, with the added difficulty that Clarence has already initiated his inheritance dispute with Gloucester by this point.
Clarence as an Evil Uncle (1483)
A final possibility does present itself. Had Clarence kept his head down and lived for five more years- perhaps his wife does not die in childbirth, preventing his descent into increasingly erratic and foolhardy behaviour- he would have been able to participate in the power struggles following Edward IV’s death in 1483.
Clarence has little chance of executing a coup comparable to Gloucester. Richard’s was made possible by the fact that he was previously loyal and had an agreeable relationship with the Woodvilles. Indeed Hastings, who disliked the Woodvilles but was loyal to Edward IV and his children, played a major role in initiating Richard’s power grab- only to repent when the extent of Gloucester’s ambitions became clear. He is less likely to stir up trouble with the threat of Clarence on the horizon, and that same threat might lead the Woodville faction to come to some sort of accommodation with Gloucester, rather than trying to exclude him as they did historically.
At the very least, the Woodvilles likely to take more precautions than they did historically, thus precluding anything comparable to Gloucester’s seizure of Edward V and Earl Rivers at Stony Stratford. If anything, Clarence seems likely to impulsively and imprudently get himself executed in a comparable manner to Buckingham.
The pre-contract accusation, which held that Edward IV’s children were bastards by virtue of him entering into a pre-contract to marry another prior to wedding Elizabeth, will also be viewed even more dubiously coming from the mouth of the self-serving and disloyal Clarence. Given it wasn’t very convincing historically, essentially being trotted out when Gloucester’s seizure of power was a fait accompli, it seems unlikely the accusation will get very far in Clarence’s hands.
Getting George of Clarence onto the throne seems to be a case of the earlier the better. As the years go on, obstacles to Clarence’s kingship begin to pile up. Keeping him on the throne also provides difficulties, but if he did take the throne at that early stage his reign is by no means doomed to disaster. Dominated by Warwick certainly, and necessitating constant vigilance against the Lancastrians, but George could go down in history as a reasonably non-terrible ruler- or at least as something more than the joke who got drowned in a butt of malmsey wine.