Post-classical history

The Downfall of a Duke

Book title

George, Duke of Clarence, had allied with the Earl of Warwick against Edward IV, the duke’s brother, in 1469. Before the Battle of Barnet, Edward IV had won his brother back to his side, but their relationship had been an uneasy one since then.

Clarence had married Warwick’s daughter, Isabel, whose sister, Anne, married Henry VI’s son, Edward of Lancaster. The death of Warwick at Barnet, and the death of Edward at Tewkesbury, plunged Clarence and his brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, into a nasty dispute regarding the lands of Warwick and those of his widowed countess, who had fled into sanctuary at Beaulieu.1 As Isabel’s husband, Clarence naturally wanted the lands for himself, while the unmarried Gloucester just as naturally wanted to take the widowed Anne for his bride and thereby lay claim to her share of his inheritance. The feelings of Anne, who was just a few weeks away from her 15th birthday when she was widowed, are not recorded, but after the debacle at Tewkesbury, marriage to the king’s loyal brother, Gloucester, offered her security, wealth, and a powerful protector, advantages of which she could have hardly been unconscious. No one seemed at all interested in protecting the rights of the Countess of Warwick, an heiress in her own right, to her own inheritance and to her dower and jointure lands.

While the countess remained immured at Beaulieu, frantically writing petitions to the queen and other great ladies in hopes of gaining their sympathy,2 Clarence went so far as to hide Anne from Gloucester in order to avoid sharing the Warwick inheritance. He was no match for Gloucester, however; the Crowland Chronicler, tells us, so bizarrely the story could well be true, that he discovered the earl’s daughter ‘dressed as a kitchen-maid in London’, whereupon he took her to sanctuary at St Martin’s, no doubt having provided her with a change of clothing first.3 No later than 6 June 1474, when records first refer to them as a married couple, and probably soon after the pair received a papal dispensation on 22 April 1472, Gloucester and Anne had married.4 The dispute about the sisters’ inheritance dragged on, however, and was finally settled by Parliament in successive acts in 1474 and 1475, in a division that satisfied neither brother entirely. The Countess of Warwick, stripped of her rights by a provision that declared her to be as if one naturally dead, left sanctuary and went to live with Gloucester. With his share of the Warwick inheritance, Gloucester set off to establish himself in the north, where much of his share of the spoils were concentrated.

The Woodvilles took little part in this quarrel, which did not concern them. On 17 February 1472, John Paston II wrote that the king, the queen, Clarence, and Gloucester had gone to the manor of Sheen, ‘not all in charity’, and that when the king spoke to Clarence in favour of Gloucester’s marriage to Anne, Clarence replied that ‘he may well have my lady his sister-in-law, but they shall part no livelihood’ – in other words, Clarence was quite happy to concede Anne’s person, but not her property.5 What role, if any, the queen took during this conference is not stated, but Michael Hicks has pointed out that a few days later, she renewed a grant to Gloucester of a stewardship carrying a fee of £100. This may mean that she sided with Gloucester in his quarrel with Clarence, as Hicks suggests;6 alternatively, Elizabeth may have simply been following her husband’s wishes or continuing the status quo. Hicks also posits that the Woodvilles supported Gloucester’s bid to remove the Countess of Warwick from sanctuary in June 1473, a move that John Paston II noted met with Clarence’s disapproval. The evidence that the Woodvilles got involved in this fraternal dispute at this point rests mainly on their physical proximity to the king at the time, however, and seems rather tenuous.7

With the matter of his estates wrapped up, Clarence dutifully joined the expedition to France in 1475, but otherwise was at the margins of political life, especially compared to his younger brother Gloucester, who was becoming a powerful and popular figure in the north. Yet that was soon to be the least of his problems, for on 22 December 1476, Clarence’s wife, Isabel, died. Her infant son, Richard, followed her to the grave on 1 January 1477. Four days later, yet another death occurred, but this one had political, not personal consequences: Charles, Duke of Burgundy, was killed in battle at Nancy, leaving his unmarried daughter, Mary, as his heir.8

With the death of her father, the question of a marital alliance for Mary suddenly became a question of the greatest importance. For the widowed Duchess of Burgundy, there was an obvious solution: to wed Mary to her favourite brother George, Duke of Clarence. Unfortunately, this solution did not appeal to Edward, who had not forgotten his brother’s rebellion a few years earlier. Twenty-year-old Mary herself preferred Maximilian of Austria, while Louis XI of France offered her the 6-year-old Dauphin of France. The prospect of the latter match was equally distasteful to Edward, who sent an embassy to his sister’s court. The ambassadors, Dr John Coke and Louis de Bretaylle, Anthony Woodville’s friend, put forth Edward’s own offer of a husband: Anthony Woodville. That it was a serious offer is indicated by the fact that Edward offered military support if Mary agreed to make a Woodville marriage. Anthony had indeed come a long way since Edward had ‘rated’ him at Calais years before! Mary, however, was unlikely to have been enthusiastic about such a match, for, as Philippe de Commynes pointed out, ‘he was only an earl, and she the greatest heiress of her time’. In any case, she had already decided upon Maxmilian by the time the English proposal arrived.9

None of this could have been gratifying to Clarence, especially when, during the same year, Edward refused yet another potential match for his brother: this time between Clarence and a sister of James III of Scotland. He explained piously that Clarence and the Duchess of Burgundy, who had been offered the hand of James’s brother, the Duke of Albany, could not consider any offers during their year of mourning for their spouses.10

Edward’s reservations about allowing Clarence to marry outside England would prove to be well justified, for Clarence began to act erratically – and murderously. On 12 April 1477, his men seized Ankarette Tywnho, who had served the Duchess of Clarence, on the grounds that she had given her mistress poisoned ale at Warwick on 10 October 1476 – more than two months before the duchess actually died. John Thursby, in turn, was accused of poisoning Clarence’s young son, Richard, with ale administered on 21 December 1476, while Sir Roger Tocotes was accused of aiding, abetting, and harbouring the other two defendants. Ankarette Twynho and John Thursby were hauled to Warwick Castle, where a jury, thoroughly intimidated by the Duke of Clarence, found them guilty. They were executed that same day. Roger Tocotes was indicted but evaded capture; later, when it was safe for him to do so, he surrendered himself and was later acquitted. The charges seem unlikely at best: the Tewkesbury Chronicle, which attributed Isabel’s death at age 25 to complications from her recent childbirth, places Isabel at Tewkesbury at the time she was supposedly being poisoned at Warwick, and there seems little point in murdering Clarence’s younger son while leaving his older son, Edward, unharmed.11

Meanwhile, an astronomer at Oxford named John Stacy, accused of using sorcery to procure the death of a cuckolded husband, implicated Thomas Burdett, who was a member of Clarence’s household. As the details emerged, the allegations became even more serious: the men, along with a Thomas Blake, were accused of using astronomy to predict the deaths of the king and his eldest son – the most frightening charge that could be levelled against an astronomer of the day. The men were tried on 19 May 1477. Blake was pardoned due to the intervention of the Bishop of Norwich, but Burdett and Stacy were hanged the next day at Tyburn.

A day or so after the hangings, the Duke of Clarence, with Dr William Goddard, a Franciscan friar, in tow, barged into a council meeting at Westminster. There, Goddard read Burdett’s and Stacy’s declarations to the council, after which he and Clarence abruptly departed. The king, who was at Windsor, missed this show, but when he returned to Westminster, he summoned Clarence, who appeared before him around 10 June 1477, when Edward charged him with having violated the laws of England and threatening the security of judges and jurors – the latter, as Charles Ross points out, probably a reference to the Ankarette Twynho incident. Clarence was sent to the Tower, where he would remain a prisoner for months.12

On 19 January 1478, after the wedding of Edward’s young son, Parliament opened with Bishop Rotherham setting the tone with St Paul’s words, ‘For he beareth not the sword in vain’. The chief business of the Parliament was to try Clarence. His attainder, introduced by the king himself, read:

    The king is mindful of the many conspiracies against him which he has repressed in the past, and although many of the rebels and traitors have been punished as an example to others yet, as a merciful prince, he spared not only the rank and file but also some of the movers and stirrers of such treasons. Notwithstanding, a conspiracy against him, the queen, their son and heir and a great part of the nobility of the land has recently come to his knowledge, which treason is more heinous and unnatural than any previous one because it originates from the king’s brother the duke of Clarence, whom the king had always loved and generously rewarded. In spite of this, the duke grievously offended the king in the past, procuring his exile from the realm and labouring parliament to exclude him and his heirs from the crown. All of which the king forgave, but the duke continued to conspire against him, intending his destruction by both internal and external forces. He sought to turn his subjects against him by saying that Thomas Burdet was falsely put to death and that the king resorted to necromancy. He also said that the king was a bastard, not fit to reign, and made men take oaths of allegiance to him without excepting their loyalty to the king. He accused the king of taking his livelihood from him, and intending his destruction. He secured an exemplification under the great seal of an agreement made between him and Queen Margaret promising him the crown if Henry VI’s line failed. He planned to send his son and heir abroad to win support, bringing a false child to Warwick castle in his place. He planned to raise war against the king within England and made men promise to be ready at an hour’s notice. The duke has thus shown himself incorrigible and to pardon him would threaten the common weal, which the king is bound to maintain.13

For the Crowland Chronicler, this brotherly strife was almost too painful to write about:

    The mind recoils from describing what followed in the next Parliament – so sad was the dispute between two brothers of such noble character. No-one argued against the duke except the king; no-one answered the king except the duke. Some persons, however, were introduced concerning whom many people wondered whether they performed the offices of accuses or witnesses. […] The duke swept aside all charges with a disclaimer offering, if it were acceptable, to uphold his case by personal combat. Why make a long story of it?14

Parliament condemned the Duke of Clarence to death on 7 February 1478. Edward, however, delayed carrying out the sentence until the Speaker of the Commons asked that it be carried out. On 18 February 1478, the Duke of Clarence was executed privately, quite possibly through drowning in a vat of Malmsey wine or in a bath made from a Malmsey barrel – a curious method of death indeed, but the only one specified by the English and foreign chronicles. Before his death, Clarence asked that certain land be given to Anthony Woodville ‘in consideration of the injuries perpetrated on him and his parents’ by the duke. Edward IV carried out this wish.15

Where do the Woodvilles fit into all this? In 1483, Dominic Mancini, an Italian observer who had been visiting in England earlier that year, wrote:

    The queen then remembered the insults to her family and the calumnies with which she was reproached, namely that according to established usage she was not the legitimate wife of the king. Thus she concluded that her offspring to the throne would never come to the throne, unless the duke of Clarence was removed; and of this she easily persuaded the king. […] At that time [of Clarence’s execution] Richard duke of Gloucester was so overcome with grief for his brother, that he could not dissimulate so well, but that he was overheard to say that he would one day avenge his brother’s death. Thenceforth he came very rarely to court […] After the execution of the duke of Clarence, and while Richard, as we have said, kept himself to his own lands, the queen ennobled many of her family. Besides, she attracted to her party many strangers and introduced them to court, so that they alone should manage the public and private businesses of the crown, surround the king, and have bands of retainers, give or sell offices, and finally rule the very king himself.16

As a contemporary observer of the events leading up to Richard III’s taking the crown, Mancini is an invaluable source, whose account is often consistent with English accounts. When Mancini speaks of events occurring several years before his visit to England, however, he is less reliable, and there are several reasons why his claim that Elizabeth procured the death of Clarence should be regarded with scepticism. Mancini’s statements about Elizabeth ennobling her family after Clarence’s demise are demonstrably wrong, nor is there evidence of ‘strangers’ being introduced to court by the queen. As for Gloucester’s brooding Hamlet-like in the north, there is nothing to suggest that he avoided court because of the Woodvilles; rather, he stayed in the north because of his enormous responsibilities there, which demanded his full attention. He came to court when family ties demanded it, as when his sister Margaret visited in 1480, or when his responsibilities as a great lord required it, as when Parliament met early in 1483. As A.J. Pollard points out, these slurs by Mancini likely have their origins in the propaganda being put forth by Richard, Duke of Gloucester in the spring and summer of 1483, when he was in the process of seizing the crown and was intent on destroying the Woodvilles.17

But what of Mancini’s claims that Elizabeth feared Clarence because she believed that her children would never come to the throne if he survived? Mancini’s explanation is that in 1483, Richard claimed that Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth was invalid because before Edward married Elizabeth, Edward had been married by proxy to a continental bride, the betrothal having been arranged by the Earl of Warwick.18 In fact, Gloucester’s official claim, as enshrined in the 1484 Act of Parliament spelling out Richard’s claim to the throne, was not that Edward IV had been betrothed to a foreign princess, but that he had been precontracted to an Eleanor Butler, a widowed daughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury.19 One source, the Burgundian Chronicler, Philippe de Commynes, would claim that Robert Stillington, Bishop of Bath and Wells, who had been appointed keeper of Edward IV’s privy seal in 1460, actually married Edward to Eleanor, although he adds that Edward’s promise was made to the lady only to delude her so that he could enjoy her body.20From this, and from the arrest of Stillington for obscure reasons in 1478, it has been suggested, chiefly by Paul Murray Kendall, that Clarence had learned about Edward’s previous marriage from Stillington and was killed at the instigation of the Woodvilles because they could not risk the truth being known.21

Kendall’s theory has attracted a great deal of support, yet there are sound reasons to doubt it. Prior to 1483, no trace of any rumour that Edward IV’s marriage was invalid can be found, though such an allegation would have been of immeasurable value to the king’s and queen’s enemies. Kendall’s suggestion that Clarence knew of the precontract but dared not to reveal it makes little sense, as Mortimer Levine points out, since he apparently had no fear of making the even more explosive accusation that Edward IV himself was illegitimate.22 Moreover, if Clarence or anyone else had been raising uncomfortable questions about the validity of Edward’s marriage, the solution lay in Edward’s hands via an application to the pope to smooth out any irregularities: Eleanor Butler, having died in 1468, was in no position to complain.

As for Stillington, his arrest, which was noted in passing by Elizabeth Stonor on 6 March 1478, may or may not have some connection with Clarence; he was pardoned in June 1478 for the offence of uttering words prejudicial to the king and his state. No more specific information is given to us.23 Even before his pardon, however, he was appointed to a commission of the peace on 14 April 1478, suggesting a short imprisonment and perhaps an equally short royal displeasure.24 Moreover, having released Stillington, Edward IV did not treat him as a person with dangerous knowledge; indeed, on 21 January 1479, he was appointed (along with the Earl of Essex, the Bishop of Ely, and Anthony Woodville) to treat with the Bishop of Elne, Louis XI’s ambassador in England.25Surely a man ruthless enough to murder his own brother in order to keep his marital escapades from coming to light would have not risked the possibility that a disgruntled Stillington might gossip to the French. Following this assignment, life went on smoothly enough for Stillington, who continued to be named to commissions of the peace by Edward IV.26 As for Kendall’s claim that Stillington ‘was held in intense enmity by the Woodvilles’ after Clarence’s death, there is simply no evidence to support this; whatever the Woodvilles’ thoughts about Stillington were, no one took the trouble to record them.

In the end, attempts to deflect responsibility for Clarence’s death off the shoulders of Edward IV and onto those of the Woodvilles are unconvincing. Regardless of his motives for proceeding against his brother, Edward IV was no one’s puppet, as Warwick had found out in the 1460s. He took the leading role in the prosecution of Clarence: as Crowland puts it with stark simplicity, ‘No-one argued against the duke except the king’.

There is no reason to assume that the Woodvilles did anything to dissuade Edward from his purpose; indeed, given the deaths of the queen’s father and of John Woodville at Warwick’s and Clarence’s hands, they might well have approved and applauded the king’s actions. They might well have done their part in making certain that Parliament was complaisant. But the evidence does not point to more than this. The simple fact is that Clarence’s record of disloyalty, his coldblooded destruction of his wife’s old servants, and his association with men who had committed the treasonous act of forecasting the king’s death in itself made him a volatile and dangerous subject. In a ruthless age, such a man was courting death, and no help in the wooing would have been required from the Woodvilles or from anyone else.

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