Interview with Historian John Ashdown-Hill about George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence

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Historian John Ashdown-Hill with his latest book, The Third Plantagenet.

History Behind Game of Thrones is delighted to welcome Dr. John Ashdown-Hill today. John Ashdown-Hill is a renowned historian who played a crucial role in finding Richard III’s remains. John recently released a remarkable book on George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence — The Third Plantagenet. In this fascinating book, John explores not only George’s life, but also the duke’s remarkable discovery about Edward IV’s children plus the most recent archaeological findings about George’s tomb.

As the brother of Edward IV and Richard III, George was the only one of the three York brothers who did not become king. He suffered a mysterious end, widely believed to be an execution by drowning in a butt of malmsey wine. George’s death remains a central mystery in the reign of Edward IV.

1. In spite of George’s pivotal role in the course of Edward IV’s reign – he collaborated to successfully unseat a king – until your book was released there was only one biography about him. Why has George been such a neglected historical figure?

First, I think the sad fact is that many, many historians have seemed to feel that they have to follow a kind of ‘official line’. In George’s case that official line produced a simplistic picture of him, which most writers have simply repeated, instead of trying to look behind it and get at new evidence.

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George Plantagenet

But we have to be very careful about George’s role in Edward’s reign, because one of the traditional ‘official lines’ depicts George as continually trying to depose Edward. Actually there is no evidence whatever that George himself wanted to dethrone his brother. What he wanted to do was bring Edward IV back on to what he saw as the proper Yorkist path. That included ending Edward’s association with the Woodville family. I think there is really no evidence that George personally ever wanted to take the crown from Edward IV. When Edward was deposed, in 1470, it was George’s father-in-law, Warwick, who was behind it, not George himself. And of course, it wasn’t George who became king! Although George went along with Warwick’s new plan for a while (because actually he had very little choice), later he deserted Warwick and went back to the Edward’s side. As for the evidence against George in the Act of Attainder, that shows that George had almost certainly been trying to change the succession (so that, once again, HE would be the heir to the throne, rather than his brother’s Woodville children). But it doesn’t show that he had been trying to oust his brother as king.

2. After his father’s death, George became the second highest-ranking person in the kingdom and yet, as you point out, after he was eleven, he lacked a full-time guardian. How did this lack of parenting and mentorship affect George?

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Marie Antoinette, age 13

I think his young age and a number of other factors all combined to push George into a position for which he had not really been prepared. The way in which he handled this situation was self-assertive, proud, and probably rather difficult not to notice – but also sometimes tactless and ill-advised. But what could one expect? It’s rather similar in some ways to the situation of Marie-Antoinette, that little Austrian Archduchess who was separated from her family and thrust into the role of first lady of France in her early teens. Of course, she was too young and inexperienced for the position in which she found herself, and of course, she got things wrong sometimes.

3. With Edward IV, Richard Neville (Earl of Warwick) seemed like an avuncular figure. In addition to being George’s father-in-law, was the Earl of Warwick in some ways George’s “spiritual” father and is there any record of Warwick being any type of mentor for George?
Richard Neville never had an official guardianship role in respect of George (as he did for a time in respect of the future Richard III). But he was their older cousin, and seems to have cultivated relationships with both George and Richard. In the 1460s he promoted the idea that they should marry his daughters (as, in the end, both of them did), and he was probably one of the initial inspirations for George’s hostile response to the Woodvilles – though another may well have been George’s mother (and Warwick’s aunt), Cecily Neville. Later George certainly followed the Earl of Warwick’s lead in respect of the Lancastrian Readeption. I don’t think that George himself would ever have thought of restoring Henry VI to the throne.

4. The world of medieval kinship relationships is often confusing to our modern eyes. Independently of his brother being king, would George have traditionally felt more of a pull to support a brother or a father-in-law, or did he simply have a closer relationship with the Earl of Warwick?

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Edward IV

As I said before, I don’t think there is any evidence that George tried to bring his brother down. Rather, he wanted to force him to ‘toe the Yorkist line’. In this context, he saw Edward’s Woodville relationship as a move in totally the wrong direction. But on a personal level I think George did, perhaps, feel close to the Earl of Warwick – at least until 1471. On the other hand I don’t think he felt close to Edward. Because of their age gap and the way they had been brought up, he viewed Edward as a kind of rival.

5. There has been a lot of controversy about the nature of medieval childhood, and some historians have even argued that medieval childhood did not exist. Why would George be expected to assume power from such a young age as, for example, 12 years old?
When Edward IV seized the throne, not everyone was on his side. He needed lords to support him. His own brother – who at that stage was the heir to the throne – was inevitably a key figure in this. So, in spite of his age, George had to start playing a role which he had never been expected to fill, and for which he had not been prepared. I’m not sure that what was expected of George was exclusively medieval. One finds similar situations close to thrones at other periods of history.shakespeare-clarence

6. Do you think George’s reputation has been maligned the way in which Richard III’s has been?
It has been ‘doctored’, but not always maligned. For example, Shakespeare’s image of George in the play Richard III, is actually somewhat whitewashed!

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Elizabeth Woodville

7. Do you think George’s death was just?
The curious thing is that in 1471, after George had deserted his own York family and supported the restoration of Henry VI, he was forgiven and reinstated by Edward IV. Yet when he was attainted and executed, according to the act passed against him, the only things he had done were to try to smuggle his son and heir to safely, and to have politically incorrect poems published about Edward IV and his family. Therefore his execution at THAT point seems unjust and rather bizarre. The poems themselves don’t survive so we don’t know exactly what they said – but we do know (from Domenico Mancini) that they upset and alarmed Elizabeth Woodville, and I think it’s clear that SHE was the force behind the throne which brought about George’s death, and that she did so in order to protect her children by Edward IV, and their rights to the throne. I don’t think that was just. But given the reality of politics, and the fact that Elizabeth Woodville was in a more powerful position than George, perhaps it was inevitable.

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Richard III

8. Is George’s death a key aspect in understanding the relationship between Richard III and the Woodvilles? Is it possible that Richard III genuinely feared for his life because of their possible role in George’s death?
I think Richard certainly knew that Elizabeth Woodville was behind his brother’s death – based on what he said later, in a message to the Earl of Desmond. Therefore when he heard that Edward IV had died, and that Elizabeth Woodville and her family were trying, illegally, to seize power, he must have known that if they succeeded he would probably find himself in a dangerous position. But all he did on his own initiative was to prevent the Woodvilles’ illegal power-seizure and make himself Protector for his nephew, Edward V. The initiative for what happened after that – the ruling that Edward V was illegitimate and that he himself should be king – came not from Richard but from other sources.

9. As the saying goes, history is often written by the winners. Has George’s reputation suffered unjustly as a result of getting on the wrong side of a king?
Clarence-george-plantagenet-bookDefinitely it has in some ways. For example the story of George being a drunkard is just as much a myth as the story of Richard being a serial killer. I think the images of both George and Richard which have come down to us are the products of ‘Tudor’ propaganda. What we see happening in the world today, when a government is violently overthrown and displaced, should warn us that those who replace the overthrown regime always produce a slanted image of it – and of course the same thing happened in the fifteenth century.

10. You touched on something I found very interesting when you wrote, in question seven, “The curious thing is that in 1471, after George had deserted his own York family and supported the restoration of Henry VI, he was forgiven and reinstated by Edward IV. Yet when he was attainted …. the only things he had done were to try to smuggle his son and heir to safely, and to have politically incorrect poems…” The second offenses were so much smaller than the first. Do you think Edward ever really truly forgave Clarence for his role in the Readeption?

In 1470-71 Edward needed support, and wanted to get Clarence back on his side. That’s why he sent his mysterious lady to France, and why the women of the house of York worked to bring the two brothers back together. After 1471 Edward was in a much stronger position. Nevertheless, when Edward was in France (treaty of Picquigny, 1475) Clarence was at one with him, both physically and ideologically (unlike Richard). So I don’t think one can say that Clarence hadn’t been forgiven. But later, of course, what he had done in 1470 was recalled in the Act of Attainder. In particular the Attainder stressed the fact that Clarence had been recognised as the LANCASTRIAN heir to the throne after Edward of Westminster, and that Clarence had kept the relevant document. As I see it, that links up with the accusation that Clarence was trying to smuggle his son abroad. You will see how I interpret this when The Dublin King is published next year!

Dr. Ashdown-Hill, thank you so much for taking time out from your busy schedule to speak with all of us today. It has been a pleasure.

For anyone interested in George Plantagenet and the fascinating mystery behind his death, definitely check out Dr. Ashdown-Hill’s riveting Eleanor the Secret Queen. History Behind Game of Thrones strongly recommends this book to anyone interested in the causes of George Plantagenet’s death as well as The Third Plantagenet for insight into his life.

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Dr. John Ashdown Hill
John Ashdown-Hill was the leader of genealogical research and historical adviser on the “Looking for Richard” project, which led to the rediscovery of the remains of Richard III in August 2012. John Ashdown-Hill, author of six books and numerous articles, specializes in the late Middle Ages and the Wars of the Roses. His seventh book — The Dublin King, the true story of Edward, Earl of Warwick, Lambert Simnel and the Princes in the Tower — is due out in 2015.

As a result of John’s work on the Richard III project, he participated in British, European, and Canadian TV documentaries on the search for Richard III. You can visit John at johnashdownhill.com and learn more about the Richard III project at the Looking for Richard website.

Jamie Adair is the editor of History Behind Game of Thrones, a website about the history behind George RR Martin's "Songs of Ice and Fire" novels and the hit TV show, "Game of Thrones."

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