18 February: On this day in history
What events happened on 18 February in history? Dominic Sandbrook rounds up the events, births and deaths…
18 February 1478: the Duke of Clarence meets a sticky end
Edward IV’s brother is apparently drowned in a barrel of wine
Even by the standards of medieval England, George, Duke of Clarence met a colourful end. “Take him on the costard with the hilts of thy sword,” says one of his two murderers in Shakespeare’s play Richard III, “and then throw him into the malmsey-butt in the next room.”
And so, for generations, the stage-Clarence has been stabbed repeatedly (“Take that, and that”) before being dragged away to the barrel of sweet wine. “I’ll drown you in the malmsey-butt within,” says the First Murderer.
So who was Clarence? The short answer is that he was the brother of the Yorkist king Edward IV, but that doesn’t convey his ambitious, slippery personality. During the 1460s he had been Edward’s heir, but then they fell out. First Clarence joined Warwick the Kingmaker’s rebellion; then he changed sides again and returned to Edward.
For the next six years or so, the two men managed to rub along. But by 1477 Edward’s wife had had two sons, and Clarence’s hopes of the succession were gone. He floated the idea of marrying the Duke of Burgundy’s daughter, but Edward vetoed it.
And then, that summer, their relationship broke down completely. Clarence was dragged into the Tower of London, charged with “unnatural, loathly treasons”. For months he lingered; then, on 18 February 1478, he was executed.
Was he really drowned in a butt of sweet wine? Writing only five years later, the Italian visitor Dominic Mancini said so. And who would invent such a bizarre story?