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The Execution of George Plantagenet: Drowned in a Barrel of Malmsey Wine?

Updated on February 18, 2014
George Plantagenet was Edward IV's and Richard III's brother.
George Plantagenet was Edward IV's and Richard III's brother.

On February 18, 1478, George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence, was executed. According to some legends he was drowned in a barrel of malmsey wine. However, some historians believe he made never have actually been officially executed since it was done in private. Could Edward IV have decided not to end his brother’s life and chose to let him rot in jail and then bury him? When the body of the son of York was found, his head was definitely connected to his body, making it clear that he never suffered a traitor’s death.

So, how was the Duke of Clarence executed?

Watch the adaption of The White Queen, including George's Death

Why George, Duke of Clarence was Executed

George had been pushing his luck for some time. In 1469 he switched sides and joined Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, in the attempt to put Henry VI back on the throne. The arrange was that he would become the next heir after Henry’s son, Edward of Westminster. After a while, George realized that he would never become King of England that way and managed to patch things up with his brother. He returned to England with his wife, Isabel Neville after Edward IV reclaimed the throne in 1471.

However, George’s mental state was never quite perfect. Isabel has helped to keep her husband somewhat calm and collected, but then she died presumably of consumption or childbed fever on December 22, 1476. George believed that it was because of witchcraft and blamed one of Isabel’s ladies for this. The lady was executed without a proper trial, angering Edward IV.

The Duke of Clarence didn’t stop there! He then went on another attempt to take the throne away from his brother. He tried in vain to get people to believe that Edward IV was the illegitimate son of Cecily Neville and a soldier, not the son of the Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York. However, Edward had more people on his side and George was arrested.

There were so many opportunities for Edward to arrest his brother in the past, but it’s clear he really wanted to try to save him. George gave the king no choice but to try him as a traitor, and the court found in Edward’s favor. George was convicted and sentenced to death.

George Plantagenet married Isabel Neville and worked with the Earl of Warwick to remove his brother from power.
George Plantagenet married Isabel Neville and worked with the Earl of Warwick to remove his brother from power.

The Truth Behind Drowning in Malmsey Wine

Instead of a straight execution, George was apparently given the choice of his execution. He chose to be executed in a barrel of malmsey wine. At least, that’s what the legend states. There are some historians who believe this could be accurate due to a portrait of his eldest child, Margaret Pole. She is seen with a barrel charm, indicating the way her father died.

A barrel would have been big enough to drown a man. However, the fumes that would come off it would also have been enough to knock a grown man out before even getting there to drown him!

However, there are speculations about how this rumor started. The first is that it was a private execution. Most traitors would be executed in public, but Edward chose a private setting for his brother. Was this out of respect for the brother George once was or more out of respect for his mother, who would not want to see this? We will never know.

We do know that George was a liking for malmsey wine and was often considered a drunk. It is possible that the execution method was fabricated based on this. There is also a legend of his body being placed in a barrel of the wine to be sent to Tewksbury Abbey for burial. This does not seem as strange when you consider that Horatio Nelson was sent home in a barrel of brandy!

The rumor gained ground after William Shakespeare used it in his play Richard III. At the start, George is drowned in the wine and that causes Edward IV to suffer guilt for the rest of his years. The ghost of the Duke of Clarence then appears to Richard III and then Henry VII just before the Battle of Bosworth. George wants Henry to win and ascend to the throne.

Was George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence Even Executed?

As people wonder how he was executed, I’ve seen some people suggest that it never happened. George may have been left for dead and starved like previous convicts in the Tower of London, or he may have been smothered in the night similarly to the rumors of Henry VI. With it being a private affair, it is possible that Edward decided against the execution in the end and took care of it quickly and quietly instead.

This is something that can never be proven, though.

There were some rumors at the time that Richard, Duke of Gloucester was the real killer. This is another reasonable assumption considering he was rumored to be involved in the death of Henry VI and later the deaths of the Princes in the Tower. However, again, there is no proof that he did or wanted to have any part in the death of his brother. While they never saw eye-to-eye, it would take a lot for a man to want to kill his brother; especially when at the time there was no indication that either would become King of England.

A Fan Video of George Plantagenet and Isabel Neville

Could Richard III have been responsible for his brother's death?
Could Richard III have been responsible for his brother's death?

Was It Really George, Duke of Clarence’s Body?

When George’s body was exhumed, he was found to have his head intact with his body. It was a clear indication that he was never beheaded. But that doesn’t mean he was drowned. There are many other methods of execution.

However, some historians question whether the body was actually George’s. There is no way to tell for certain; and there definitely wasn’t at the time. If we jump forward to the finding of Richard III, there was always the question of whether the body was really is until DNA evidence proved it extremely likely (while it wasn’t a definite sign it was Richard, the link and the location removed the possibility of reasonable doubt.

There was never any testing done on George. His body was found where people expected and roughly matched his description based on height and age. It’s a similar way that Anne Boleyn, Jane Boleyn, Lady Jane Grey and many others found at Peter ad Vincula were determined. There is still some doubt that the bodies are really theirs.

The cause of George’s death will be forever unknown, but it is very unlikely that he was beheaded. His death on February 18, 1478 left his two surviving children orphaned. Luckily they had their Uncle Richard Plantagenet and Aunt Anne Neville there, who took them in for a short time but it wasn’t a happy life for Margaret Pole or Edward Plantagenet. They would both later face execution. The latter at the hands of Henry VII to protect the Tudor claim to the throne and the former at the hands of the tyrant Henry VIII of England in fear her family would steal the crown from his family.


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    • aingham86 profile imageAUTHOR

      Alexandria Ingham 

      6 years ago from Canada

      That's a very interesting point and one that I've never considered. Thanks for enlightening me, CMHypno.

    • CMHypno profile image


      6 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Interesting hub. I think poor old George played into the wrong people's hands after the death of his wife. His association with Robert Stillington, Bishop of Bath & Wells, would have made the Woodville faction very nervous if they thought that Clarence knew about the doubts surrounding the validity of the royal couples marriage.

    • aingham86 profile imageAUTHOR

      Alexandria Ingham 

      6 years ago from Canada

      I don't think anyone could stop me writing if they tried ;) A lot of it is therapeutic as well as about earning money.

    • cmoneyspinner1tf profile image

      Treathyl FOX 

      6 years ago from Austin, Texas

      You're welcome. I like the TV show Supernatural. It's a great work of fiction. Thank you for always writing about cool stuff! Your writing is always illuminating. Whatever you do, please don't stop writing. :)

    • aingham86 profile imageAUTHOR

      Alexandria Ingham 

      6 years ago from Canada

      I heard a very interesting twist on the Cain and Abel story thanks to the show Supernatural. It makes me wonder whether there is more to the bible story... :)


    • cmoneyspinner1tf profile image

      Treathyl FOX 

      6 years ago from Austin, Texas

      "it would take a lot for a man to want to kill his brother". You think? Because according to the story of Cain and Abel, all that was necessary was jealousy and envy, and a hope that the murderer would never be found out. "Am I my brother's keeper?"

      Excellent HUB!!! Voted Up!

    • aingham86 profile imageAUTHOR

      Alexandria Ingham 

      6 years ago from Canada

      Thank you!

    • aingham86 profile imageAUTHOR

      Alexandria Ingham 

      6 years ago from Canada

      Hehe, you spotted it then...Yes, I try to time them with the dates. I've missed a few at the start of this year because I covered them last year and still need to find a different angle to use ;) I used to have the title as "On This Day In History:" and then the name of the event but it works out better keeping that part out, since there isn't the confusion should I promote it on different days.

      Really glad you enjoyed another one! Thanks for your continued support and comments. I always look forward to them.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Excellent hub. Great facts!

    • amiebutchko profile image

      Amie Butchko 

      6 years ago from Warwick, NY

      I love how you time your hubs with the date: It is February 18 and that is when George died. I love this connectivity with history, as I love your hubs.


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