Duke of Clarence Drowned in a Butt of Malmsey Wine
The Middle Ages in England could be brutal, dynastic quarrels settled with the decisiveness of a gangster boss, the great dynasties being powerful armed gangs albeit with noble pretensions. The death in 1478 of George Duke of Clarence is an excellent case in point.
Clarence had made the error of betraying his elder brother, Edward IV , hoping that by allying himself with Warwick the Kingmaker (whose daughter Isabel he married) he would be put on the throne. Warwick had no such intentions. When Henry VI , previously deposed by Edward, was briefly restored to the throne in 1470 Clarence sided with his brother. Edward’s second reign, begun in 1471, at first saw the brothers at peace, but Clarence was hot-headed and a notorious drinker always capable of intemperate actions. He seems to have backed rumours that Edward was illegitimate (which would make Clarence the rightful king), and in what may have been a show of power had a poor servant tried and hanged on trumped-up charges of poisoning his wife, flouting all process.
Edward made a point by doing the same to one of Clarence’s household on a charge of witchcraft, and when Clarence reacted to this with a clearly disloyal show of petulance in London as a rising took place in Cambridgeshire, the king had his brother arrested and sent to The Tower.
Perhaps filial affection remained, as Edward delayed having his brother executed for his high treason until February 1478. That execution is the most fascinating part of this episode of our history. Normally a figure as close to the king as Clarence would have died by the executioner’s axe, but not Clarence (his body examined centuries later confirmed this). Legend has it that either by his own choice or as a very strange joke he was killed by being drowned in a butt (which at more than 100 gallons would do the job) of Malmsey wine, an episode used in Shakespeare ’s Richard III.
Malmsey by the way was probably then a wine made with fragrant Malvasia grapes, rather than anything like the fortified Madeira that goes by the name today.