It happened today - February 18, 2016

There’s a French expression “boire la grande tasse” meaning to drown. I do not know if George Plantagenet would find it funny.

I say that because (a) I am pedantic and (b) it was on this date, February 19, that he was executed by being drowned in a butt of Malmsey wine. At any rate, that’s the story we got from Shakespeare who would never ever lie about historical events leading to the rise of his patrons, the Tudors, especially not in his play Richard III about the murdering hunchback.

Sorry. I digress. The point is, George Plantagenet, a.k.a. the 1st Duke of Clarence, was the brother of the Yorkist King Edward IV and Richard III and thus another uncle of the “Princes in the Tower” whose mysterious disappearance was so helpful to the Tudors in seizing the throne especially as it got pinned on Uncle Richard.

Mind you Clarence, as he was known, was not their uncle at the time, having been dispatched by Edward in 1478, five years before the Princes were imprisoned in the Tower of London never to be seen again. And you can see why.

Clarence had schemed to oust his own brother, siding with the rival Lancastrians in the Wars of the Roses at the urging of his father-in-law, the Earl of Warwick a.k.a. “Warwick the King-maker” and getting himself declared next in line to Henry VI’s son Edward who enjoys the unusual distinction of being the only heir apparent to the English throne to die in battle, at Tewkesbury in 1471.

If it sounds like a soap opera with unusually graphic violence, it is. History is so interesting I see no need to make anything up. By 1471, in fact, Clarence had changed sides again, and was pseudo-reconciled with his brother King Edward IV. (I can’t help it that there are so many Edwards rattling around, including by the way Edward V, the elder of the two vanished Princes in the Tower. It was a popular royal name going back to the days of Wessex; Alfred the Great’s son and successor was Edward the Elder, to distinguish him from Edward the Martyr and Edward the Confessor.)

It didn’t work out. Clarence was increasingly unstable, which is saying quite a bit given his previous history, and after he joined another revolt against his brother one of his close associates was arrested and under torture confessed to trying to murder the king using black magic. Which shows you how much use torture was in eliciting accurate testimony. I think most of us would confess to being King Edward IV, the Duke of Clarence or the butt of Malmsey wine to make it stop.

Anyway, Clarence didn’t get it, trying to rouse parliamentary opposition to Edward, and was himself arrested, tried for treason without being brought into court and with the king himself acting as chief prosecutor, which rarely ends well. So he was declared guilty of “unnatural, loathly treasons” by Parliament, which is a lovely phrase unless it’s about you, and privately executed, which I guess is better than being publicly drawn and quartered or something along those dreadful lines. But what of the wine, you say?

Well, we don’t know for sure whether they actually dunked him in the drink and if so why. Some say it’s a reference to his excessive fondness for tipple. Others say he chose it as better than the alternatives. Still others believe it may have arisen by mistake from his body being transported for burial in a barrel after he died (apparently this was also done with Nelson, not as a mark of disrespect but as a preservative). But we do know he wasn’t beheaded because someone dug him up and it was still attached.

At any rate, given the standards of the time and his own conduct, if he did go that relatively painless and pleasant-smelling way he probably caught a break he didn’t really deserve. And left us all with this strangely compelling image of a famous nobleman being drowned in a butt of wine and wondering why and what Malmsey is anyway. (It’s a sweet variant of Madeira wine which is itself already sometimes sweet, and fortified. But if I get into all the details it will last longer than the Wars of the Roses.)

By the way, Clarence had two children who survived into adulthood but neither survived the Tudors. His daughter Margaret was executed by Henry VIII and his son Edward, the last legitimate direct male Plantagenet heir, was executed by Henry VII for “trying to escape” or “being in the way” or some such thing.

Maybe George Plantagenet should have picked a side and stayed with it. Against the Tudors nothing was very safe. But what he did was so reckless he’s lucky he only wound up famously drowned in booze.

Just saying.