Third Plantagenet: George, Duke of Clarence, Richard III's Brother

Third Plantagenet: George, Duke of Clarence, Richard III's Brother

by John Ashdown-Hill

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Less well-known than his brothers, Edward IV and Richard III, little has been written about George, Duke of Clarence and we are faced with a series of questions. Where was he born? What was he really like? Was it his unpredictable behaviour that set him against his brother Edward IV? George played a central role in the Wars of the Roses played out by his brothers. But was he for York or Lancaster? Who was really responsible for his execution? Is the story of his drowning in a barrel of wine really true? And was ‘false, fleeting, perjur’d Clarence’ in some ways the role model behind the sixteenth-century defamation of Richard III? Finally, where was he buried and what became of his body? Can the DNA used recently to test the remains of his younger brother, Richard III, also reveal the truth about the supposed ‘Clarence bones’ in Tewkesbury? John Ashdown Hill exposes the myths surrounding this pivotal and central Plantagenet, with remarkable results.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780750955393
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 03/03/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 536,621
File size: 8 MB

About the Author

John Ashdown-Hill is a historian and the author of The Last Days of Richard III. He has appeared on NPR and the Smithsonian Channel as an expert on Richard III.

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The Third Plantagenet

George, Duke of Clarence, Richard III's Brother

By John Ashdown-Hill

The History Press

Copyright © 2015 John Ashdown-Hill
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7509-5539-3


Family Background

The fourteenth-century king Edward III had several sons. Subsequent rivalry amongst his descendants was one of the factors that led to disputes over the crown in the fifteenth century. These disputes are traditionally characterised as York versus Lancaster, but this is an oversimplification. The real dynastic contest – in which George, Duke of Clarence was to play a varied and vacillating role – was more complex, more nuanced.

Edward III's direct heirs were his son and grandson Edward, Prince of Wales ('the Black Prince') and King Richard II. But the Black Prince predeceased his father and, in spite of two marriages, Richard II produced no direct heirs. Richard was ultimately dethroned by one of his cousins, who then claimed the crown for himself, thereby founding the royal House of Lancaster. That cousin was King Henry IV, whose claim was by no means beyond dispute, as the family tree overleaf clearly shows.

Henry IV was the son of Edward III's third surviving son, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. After Richard II, Henry was the senior male-line descendant of Edward III. But if female lines of descent also offered valid claims to the English throne, then Richard II's heirs were not the descendants of John of Gaunt, but the descendants of John's elder brother, Lionel of Antwerp, Duke of Clarence. Since the founder of the Plantagenet dynasty, King Henry II, and his erstwhile rival, King Stephen, had both claimed the English throne on the basis of their maternal descent, and since Edward III himself had later laid claim to the throne of France through his mother, it is evident that in England female-line descent was widely regarded as offering a valid claim.

Within the royal family, attitudes to female-line claims varied at different times in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and there was no consistent official ruling on the matter. In fact, it is evident that the attitudes of individual princes at any given moment depended entirely upon the outcome they wished to achieve. As we shall see, when it suited them, Henry VI, Richard, Duke of York, and the latter's son George, Duke of Clarence, would all assert the primacy of male-line claims.

In the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, however, it had suited the leaders of the House of Lancaster (John of Gaunt and his son, Henry IV) to accept the capacity of female members of the royal family to transmit rights to the crown. Thus the initial Lancastrian claim was explicitly based upon Henry IV's descent from Henry III, as Henry IV himself said in Parliament:

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, I, Henry of Lancaster, claim this realm of England, and the crown with all its members and its appurtenances, inasmuch as I am descended by right line of the blood from the good lord King Henry the third.

Since Henry IV was Edward III's grandson on his father's side, the only possible reason for stating that he was claiming the throne based upon his descent from his much more remote ancestor, Henry III, has to be that his claim was based upon his maternal line descent.

In the late fourteenth century, England saw the genesis of the dispute later – and inaccurately – called the 'Wars of the Roses'. It was during the reign of the childless Richard II that the first signs of this dispute were discernible. Richard is said to have accepted the senior living (but female-line) descendant of Lionel, Duke of Clarence as his rightful heir in October 1385, for in that year, 'when Richard II was still a youth, Parliament had attempted to forestall trouble by declaring that his heir was his young cousin, Roger Mortimer, Earl of March'.

How far Parliament, or the king himself, really went on this point is a matter of some dispute. Nevertheless, it is clear from the subsequent conduct of Richard II's uncle, John of Gaunt, that the latter did fear that Roger, his great nephew, might inherit the throne. Thus John of Gaunt attempted to assert not his own male-line claim to the throne, but the claim of his son, the future Henry IV. When referencing the male line of succession from Edward III, John took precedence over his son. Why, then, did he advance his son's claim rather than his own? Because his son enjoyed a different line of royal descent via Henry's mother, John's first wife, Blanche of Lancaster.

Blanche's father, Henry, Duke of Lancaster, had been the direct male-line descendant and heir of the 1st Earl of Lancaster, Edmund, known as 'Crouchback', a son of King Henry III. For lack of male heirs, following the death of Duke Henry in 1361, Blanche became her father's co-heir (together with her elder sister, Maud). It was via Blanche, iure uxoris, that John of Gaunt acquired Lancastrian lands. Subsequently, in 1362, following the death of Maud, John's father, Edward III, named him 1st Duke of Lancaster of the second creation. The inherited lands, the re-granted title and the toponym 'of Lancaster', which all came to John as a direct or indirect result of his marriage to Blanche, were subsequently inherited by John and Blanche's son Henry, and by the ruling dynasty he founded. From the assertions made by John during his lifetime and later repeated by Henry's supporters, it is evident that the first Lancaster line, of which Blanche was ultimately the sole heir, harboured an independent claim to the throne of England, which treated the then king, Richard II, and his three predecessors (Edward I, II and III) as usurpers.

This was spelled out in an argument in Parliament on the subject in 1394 between John of Gaunt and the Earl of March. The Lancastrian claim was that Edmund Crouchback had actually been the elder son of Henry III, but that his younger brother had been crowned as Edward I. Reputedly, Edmund had been unfairly excluded from the succession because of his disability. In reality, this was a lie. But the fact that Henry's claim was advanced in this form by John of Gaunt – and also later by Henry IV himself (or, at least, by his party in its formal representations on his behalf) – shows clearly that they themselves were only too well aware of the weakness of any attempt to use a male-line claim through John of Gaunt to supersede the succession rights of living descendants of John's elder brother.

The Lancastrian usurpation in 1399 did not resolve the underlying conflict. Henry IV always viewed the Mortimer descendants of Lionel, Duke of Clarence as a potential threat. The marriage of Roger Mortimer's daughter, Anne, to her cousin Richard of York, Earl of Cambridge was almost certainly one of the factors which led to the latter's involvement in the Southampton plot, which aimed to depose the second Lancastrian king, Henry V, and to replace him with the then Mortimer heir – the Earl of Cambridge's brother-in-law, Edmund. However, the nervous Edmund revealed the conspiracy to Henry V. Thus the Earl of Cambridge was beheaded on 5 August 1415, and given a less-than-royal burial in the Church of St Julien, Southampton (then the chapel of the Leper Hospital of St Julien – or 'God's House').

The executed Richard, Earl of Cambridge, and his wife, Anne Mortimer, were the parents of Richard, Duke of York, and it was this little boy, born in 1411, who ultimately fell heir to the Mortimer/Clarence claim to the throne – a claim which, because of the little boy's title, has, rather misleadingly, become known to history as the 'Yorkist' claim. Of course, Richard, Duke of York was also (through his paternal line) the grandson of Edmund, 1st Duke of York, Edward III's fourth surviving son. However, in its final form, the so-called 'Yorkist' claim to the throne was not based upon that descent, any more than the original Lancastrian claim had been based on descent from John of Gaunt.

It is true that, as we shall see, from 1447 until 1453, Richard, Duke of York, accepting the status quo and the Lancastrian kingship of Henry VI, would seek recognition as heir presumptive to the throne, based on his male-line descent from Edmund of Langley. On the same basis, during the Readeption of Henry VI (1470–71), George, Duke of Clarence would establish himself in the restored Lancastrian hierarchy as second-in-line to the throne (after Edward of Westminster, Prince of Wales). Nevertheless, the ultimate 'Yorkist' claim to replace the House of Lancaster, as asserted by Duke Richard in 1460 and as subsequently defended by his sons, Edward IV and Richard III, depended on their female-line descent from Edward III's second surviving son, Lionel, Duke of Clarence. Thus, the rivalry popularly perceived as York versus Lancaster might be more accurately described as the rivalry of the houses of Clarence and Lancaster. In that context, the Southampton plot – the first attempt to oust the usurping House of Lancaster and replace it with the descendants of Lionel, Duke of Clarence – was the first act of the so-called 'Wars of the Roses'.

The execution of his father following this plot left the almost 4-year-old Richard of Cambridge an orphan. He had never known his mother, for Anne Mortimer had died on 22 September 1411 – the day after she gave birth to her son. The boy's closest surviving male relatives after his father's execution were his two childless uncles, Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March and Edward, 2nd Duke of York. But his paternal uncle was killed fighting for Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt on 25 October 1415, only two and a half months after the Earl of Cambridge had been executed. As a result, the 4-year-old orphan Richard then inherited his uncle's title, and became the youngest Duke of York so far.

Following his father's execution, Richard was made a royal ward and placed initially in the charge of Sir Robert Waterton, 'the Lancastrians' leading gaoler'. In 1422, soon after the death of Henry V in France, Richard's wardship and marriage were sold to a trusted Lancastrian, Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmorland, whose second wife, Joan Beaufort, was half-sister to Henry IV – the founder of the Lancastrian dynasty. We shall have more to say about the Beaufort relatives of the House of Lancaster presently. Richard's wardship and marriage were costly acquisitions for Ralph Neville, but the little boy was a wealthy heir, offering good prospects of future profit. To ensure that the benefits of this inheritance accrued to Neville descendants, Richard was married to Ralph Neville's youngest daughter, Cecily, in 1424. Subsequently, when his last surviving uncle, Edmund Mortimer, died childless, on 18 January 1424/5, the young Duke of York inherited the latter's property and claim to the throne, making him an even more interesting candidate than he had been previously for the hand of his guardian's daughter.

When Ralph Neville died in 1425, the wardship of the young Duke of York was inherited by his widow, Joan Beaufort, youngest daughter of John of Gaunt, and half-sister of the dead King Henry IV. Through Joan, Richard's bride was also his second cousin, and shared his descent from Edward III (see pp.208–9).

The potential clash between the Lancastrian claim to the throne of the reigning dynasty in the first half of the fifteenth century, and the Clarence/Mortimer/Yorkist claim to the throne of the young Richard, Duke of York was only part of the national conflict that affected England from the 1430s. There was another aspect to the dynastic conflict, which is often overlooked, but which was very significant. Indeed, in the long run, it was to prove of prime importance. This second dynastic conflict embroiled the heirs of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster.

As we have already seen, John of Gaunt's son by his first wife, Blanche of Lancaster, had assumed the crown in 1399 as King Henry IV. Henry's publicly expressed claim to the throne was not based on his paternal descent but his maternal descent. When Henry IV died in 1413 this claim passed to his sons: Henry V (d. 1422), Thomas, Duke of Clarence (d. 1421), John, Duke of Bedford (d. 1435) and Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester (d. 1447). On the death of Henry V, leaving an infant son to succeed him, the most important of his brothers proved to be the Duke of Gloucester. Though not the most senior brother, Gloucester was assigned the office of Protector of England by the will of Henry V. However, this king's bequest was complicated by the fact that Henry V's will had also created a council comprising the Dukes of Bedford, Gloucester and Exeter and the Bishop of Winchester, while the Duke of Exeter (Thomas Beaufort) had been given the personal guardianship of the young king. The council, the last two members of which were Beauforts (see below), was not inclined to allow Gloucester to wield unimpeded power as regent. The result was continuous wrangling between the council and the protector, a 'blunt if fatuous soldier ... [and] an ambitious politician'.

Unlike Henry V, Henry IV had no brothers. But he had several half-brothers – sons of John of Gaunt by his third wife and former mistress, Catherine de Roët. These were John Beaufort, Earl of Somerset, Henry Beaufort, Cardinal Bishop of Winchester and Thomas Beaufort, Duke of Exeter. Their sister was Joan Beaufort, Countess of Westmorland – the mother of Cecily Neville. Originally born as bastards, the Beauforts had been declared legitimate by King Richard II, and subsequently also by Henry IV himself. However, the latter had specifically ruled that they had no right of succession to the throne. Indeed, since these half-siblings did not share Henry IV's mother, strictly speaking they were incapable of inheriting his officially asserted Lancastrian claim to the throne, which depended upon the fact that Henry IV was the son of Blanche of Lancaster. Initially, although this may have rankled a little with the Beauforts, it was probably considered of small significance, given the number of Henry IV's living sons. Later, however, as all but one of Henry IV's sons died without leaving legitimate heirs, the Beaufort exclusion came to seem much more important. The effective leader of the Beaufort family was Henry Beaufort, Cardinal Bishop of Winchester, Chancellor of England and a very canny financier to whom the crown eventually found itself owing thousands of pounds.

After the death of John, Duke of Bedford in 1435, the only living Lancastrian male heirs were the young King Henry VI and his uncle, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. A rivalry for power had grown up between the Duke of Gloucester and his half-uncle, the Bishop of Winchester. Amongst his many ambitions, the bishop wished to advance the prospects of his own Beaufort family. In particular, he sponsored his nephew, Edmund Beaufort (later 2nd Duke of Somerset). Edmund had earlier – and with considerable success – paid court to Catherine of France, the widow of Henry V and mother of Henry VI. In fact, he had aspired to marry the young queen mother. In this aim he had been supported in Parliament by his uncle the bishop. Edmund's high aspirations had ultimately been thwarted by the legitimate Lancastrian princes. Nevertheless, his relationship with the queen mother had lasting consequences, which we shall explore later.

Of course, the legitimate heirs to the throne of the childless young Henry VI were not the Beauforts, but the young king's surviving uncles. After them, in terms of blood right, the direct Lancastrian heir was the senior living descendant of the elder of Henry IV's two sisters – Philippa of Lancaster, Queen of Portugal. Initially, this would have been Philippa's son King Edward (Duarte) of Portugal (d. 1438). After 1438, Philippa's grandson King Alfonso V was the rightful claimant. The Portuguese royal family was certainly aware of its Lancastrian claim, and Philippa's daughter Isabel of Portugal, Duchess of Burgundy, later asserted her own claim to the English throne, as did her son, Charles the Bold.

An alternative to the Portuguese and Burgundian descendants of Philippa of Lancaster was provided by Henry IV's younger sister, Elizabeth of Lancaster, and the advantage of her line of descent was that it had remained in England. Until his death in 1447, the Lancastrian claimant in this line was Elizabeth's son, John Holland, 2nd (or 1st) Duke of Exeter – the first cousin of Henry V and his brothers. When he died, his claim passed to his son, Henry Holland, 3rd Duke of Exeter (d. 1475) who was married to the Duke of York's eldest daughter, Anne. However, Henry Holland has been described as 'cruel, savagely temperamental and unpredictable'. As a result, he was unpopular and enjoyed little support as a potential heir to the throne.


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Table of Contents


1. Family Background,
2. Irish Beginnings,
3. English Childhood,
4. The Loss of a Father,
5. Life in the Low Countries,
6. Heir to the Throne,
7. Matrimonial Problems, Part 1,
8. Matrimonial Problems, Part 2,
9. High Rivers,
10. Yorkist or Lancastrian?,
11. Matrimonial Problems, Part 3,
12. Thomas Burdet's Secrets,
13. The Act of Attainder,
14. An Unusual Execution,
15. Burial at Tewkesbury,
16. The Clarence Vault,
17. The Surviving Bones,
18. The Clarence Posterity,
Appendix 1: Children of the Duke and Duchess of York,
Appendix 2: Mottos of the Family of George, Duke of Clarence,
Appendix 3: George, Duke of Clarence Family Trees,

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