The Wars of the Roses were terrible years when armies swept back and forth across England and kings were the pawns of arrogant nobles. In these savage times, three royal brothers defeated all those who would rob them of the throne but then, from within, they faced a new enemy.
One brother, driven by envy and pride, staked everything on a desperate gamble and allied himself with the imperious Earl of Warwick.
With Warwick's army at his back.,, a king's brother planned to remove the king.
Could he carry it off and realise his dreams of wearing the crown himself, or had destiny made brutal and more tragic plans for George, Duke of Clarence?
George duke of Clarence was the third living son of Richard, duke of York and Cecily Neville. Their first two sons were Edward, earl of March, later Edward IV, and Edmund, earl of Rutland, murdered on the battlefield at Wakefield, December 1460, during which Richard duke of York was killed. George’s younger brother, Richard, became duke of Gloucester and later King Richard III.
The duke of Clarence lived at the time historians refer to as the Wars of the Roses, although it was not known by that name in the 15th century. This was actually internecine warfare between two major ‘houses’, Lancaster and York.
Henry VI, a Lancastrian, was king of England from 1422 to 1461. He had a son, Edward, Prince of Wales, by his wife Margaret of Anjou.
Edward IV was proclaimed king in 1461, after winning major battles against the Lancastrians, despite the fact that Henry VI still lived.
An uprising drove Edward IV into exile and Henry VI regained the throne for a year.
Edward IV returned to England and reclaimed the throne, sending Henry VI to the Tower, where he later died.
Despite further uprisings, Edward IV held the throne of England until his death in 1483. His son Edward, by his wife Elizabeth Woodville, was officially Edward V, until the allegations of a pre-contract of marriage rendered the marriage illegal and the offspring of that marriage illegitimate, thus disbarring Edward V from becoming King. Instead Parliament offered the throne to Richard of Gloucester, who was Lord Protector under King Edward’s will. He became Richard III.
This is a brief outline of the major players of the time. Within this framework, George duke of Clarence played his not insignificant part in English history.
Of being king.
Of being the owner of Fotheringhay.
Of having a wonderful marriage.
Of fathering many children.
Of having power.
Of being part of the York family.
Of living to an old age.
Where has Fortune taken my dreams? Here am I, a prisoner in the Tower of London, in luxurious apartments I will admit, but a prisoner for all that. I was brought here by order of King Edward IV, my own brother.
My liege ran out of patience with what he called a wayward, treasonable, unreasonable brother. My liege took a quill and signed his name on the warrant of execution with bold strokes – I know, they showed it to me, his men who came with mixed emotions to tell me of the decision – and in the bold strokes with which he signed his name, I knew there was no going back. No words would move him; no prayers could reach him.
The men came with eyes that said ‘poor man, ordered to die by writ signed by his own brother.’
Eyes that said ‘well, Clarence, you overstepped the invisible line. Much you should not have said, much you should not have done, but you said it and you did it. What kind of prize fool are you?’
Eyes that said, ‘so much for royalty and aristocracy, the end comes to us all at some time and who are you to think you could outwit it, foolish one?’
Then they left me alone with my thoughts, paper, ink, quills and a supply of malmsey wine. They left me to solitude and loneliness. I reflect on my dreams as the wine fails adequately to dull my senses and my thoughts, no matter how much I drink, for of a surety my very blood must be malmsey wine by now and it makes no difference to me. I pour it out as fast as I pour it in and somehow it passes through my body without affecting me. Too many drunken nights, Clarence, I say, catching myself staring at the jewelled mazer as if I had not seen it before, though it has been in my hand virtually the entire time I have been here. Too many drunken nights, days, weeks, months in the past and now. But hell and damnation, how else do I stop the pain in my head? The pressure that is like a blacksmith tightening his hold on a piece of metal and then hammering it endlessly, endlessly, endlessly until I want to shriek aloud to the heavens, in the name of all that is holy, end this and end it now!
No one knows of this. Pride stops me saying ‘I have this problem…’ for in all honesty, to whom can I turn? I know, deep inside, in the place where all truth is known and none can disguise it, that my physician could do nothing for me, nothing to take the pain from my head, nothing to prolong my life. I know it and accept it.
I could send a note to my brother the king to say he could hold his hand, he could delay the execution, for I will shortly leave this world of my own accord and thus take the taint of ordering my death from his mind and his reign. Why do I not do it? Why do I hesitate to write such a note? Is there still a part of my conscious mind which resents all that has happened? The way the Yorks acted as if I was not a York; as if I was not brother to both March and Gloucester; the arguments, the battles over land, the forbidding of my marriage, the lack of support at my trial; my complaints seem endless.
But what of my actions over the years, what of my treason? Was my brother the king not right in all he said and did against me? My thoughts endlessly charge at one another, knights in a joust, the one trying to knock the other from position. He was right – he was not right. In reality, it does not matter for it is too late. There is no going back. There is no undoing that which has been done, written, said aloud to the Court. My brother the king would not – could not - reverse his decision now. It would show weakness and he would never allow that.
Of my dreams - let me return to my dreams – I say this.
The dream of the crown was taken from me.
Fotheringhay waits. I will not go there again.
My marriage lasted just seven years.
Of my children, just two are left to the world.
He who supported me, the Kingmaker, was killed.
I always felt like an outsider within my own family.
As for old age, I am 28 but will not live to celebrate the occasion of my becoming 29.
So, do I regret anything? Yes, much. Spending so much time in dispute with my brother of Gloucester. Spending so much time away from my brother of March when he was so good to me. Arranging the demise of the unfortunate Ankarette Twynho for no other reason than she was the perfect scapegoat, she with her herbs and her potions and her shining covetous eyes. I needed a scapegoat, needed to blame someone for taking my wife from me. Too much to admit Isobel died of a natural condition, my distorted mind – I freely confess this now – would not accept a rational, sensible human answer. I sought a solution in witchcraft, in sorcery and alchemy. I regret those who died with her. I know now my son died because he was not strong enough to live, not because he had been poisoned. Fool, Clarence; perfect fool.
I could go on but the paper would soon be used and there is no one to call for a further supply. I also have to ask myself if I want to spend the rest of my life, short as it is likely to be, writing of regrets. No, I need not write of them; I can sit here before the fire – this February is bitterly cold, at least here in the Tower – and go back in memory instead.
Let me then ask the question; what do I most yearn for? Answer: a restoration of family life, that is, to be with my lady mother, my brother of March and my brother of Gloucester. My children? I know them not as people, I yearn right now to be with people I know and once loved. Did they in turn once love me? It is too late to ask. It is too late to seek their forgiveness, their understanding, their absolution for that which I have done. It is too late for many things.
It is not too late to be shriven. I pray the priest will come soon. There is much to confess and my knees will ache with cold from the floor and the pressure of my not unsubstantial weight long before I am through. I will not go to my Maker, my God, He who sees all, with the sins I carry right now on my soul.
Twenty eight years. It seems but a blink of an eyelid since I became aware of the castle of Fotheringhay, of my sister Margaret and the many servants who took care of us, of the child born after me who became at times what I perceived to be my bitterest enemy but I know not if that was all in my head.
Dear God, this pain! Will it not let me rest before I am sent to my eternal rest?
What have I achieved in my time? What will history make of me? How will I be perceived by those who are to come after me? How will my children remember me? How will my brothers remember me?
I have no answers. I have only questions – and now doubts, too. If there is a heaven, if there is Purgatory, then my pure Isobel is long since passed through it and is in the glory that is the domain of God. So I ask and will ask of my priest, when he comes - pray that it be soon and I unload this burden of sin! - how long will I spend in Purgatory, how long before I can be reunited with Isobel, how long before I see the glory of heaven? Or is it all a story given to keep us kneeling at the altar rail in the hope that partaking of the Body of Christ will help us be a little more pure in our thinking and in our hearts?
God forgive me for these thoughts! I will add them to my confession. Of a surety there are hours of confession to come. But Almighty God, look down on this sinner and know that he – I – am suffering much pain, much agony of body as well as mind. Knowing it is all to be ended is in itself a hurt, a pain that is hard to bear, that every minute that ticks by is a minute less for me to live.
How foolish are these thoughts! How foolish is it to think in this way! From the moment we take our first breath in this life the days are counting down to our death, whether it be on the battlefield with full honours of a soldier’s demise or trying to escape the battlefield and being hacked down, whether it be coughing up blood and expiring through inability to breathe any more or falling from a rearing horse and breaking a spine or as I am, under a double sentence of death, signed by my brother’s own bold hand with a fine freshly cut quill and from that which is in my head and even now pressing, pressing, pressing until I could scream aloud with the pressure that is grinding my skull into small pieces. They know not that I drop things, that my hands are unsure, that my balance is disturbed, that I cannot think straight any more, for these things happen when none are here. I make well sure of that. When they come, those who attend me, I do not attempt to stand unless it is with help, I do not attempt to hold things. I have no need of that when they are there to do it for me and I do not need to think when in their presence. I keep quiet for who would wish to willingly attend someone under sentence of death? None. My squires attend me by order of the Constable of the Tower and they go. They come because they must; they go as soon as they can. It is as if I have some contagious disease. If they knew the truth – that if left here I will die without my brother’s command – what would they say, how would they show their pity to me? Would they show their pity to me, or would embarrassment at being in the presence of someone who is dying cause them to leave even sooner than they do? Such questions have no answers.
From my viewpoint it is as well they do not know. My speech is affected now and they would not understand me. Even more foolish then is my desire to ask the priest how long I would spend in Purgatory for he would not understand a word I utter. Would it help to have the thoughts of someone who does not know? He would only guess and that would not help me. I will have to find out by going there myself, presenting myself to the Avenging Angel or whoever is in charge of Purgatory and saying ‘here I am, traitorous, deceiving, drunken Clarence, do with me as you will.’
As far as the squires are concerned, I pretend I cannot be bothered to speak. I gesture to them and they understand I wish to be bathed, dressed, fed – and wined, for it does dull if not kill the pain. Eventually.
How do I know my speech is affected? I have shouted my anger at my fate and heard the sounds that issued from the mouth which once spoke honeyed words, or so Isobel told me. Like honey, she said, my words of love were like honey. Now they are no more than pips and stones as in the fruit I devour as if there is nothing else to eat. The words stop, the words crash over one another, the words make no sense.
I will write this page and I will burn it, for the ink is smudged with tears. I have no control over my tears now, either. I will write it for it is in part helping me to release that which is within me, a huge stone, a boulder sitting somewhere behind my ribs, behind that which continues to pump the malmsey wine around my body. For how long is another guess, an hour, a day or a week? How long before that which eats my brain stops the process of living? Or will the men come at my brother the king’s command and stop the process of living before that happens?
And the final question, the unanswerable one, no matter how much I think on it: which would I prefer?