There is something very poignant about the image of a little boy falling into a well and finding his heart’s desires, something that reminded historian Dr. John Ashdown-Hill of a young boy’s ambitions but also of his eventual tragic demise.
George Plantagenet, the Duke of Clarence, may have come from one of the most powerful families of the middle ages, but somewhere along the way, we have lost him. We know him as false fleeting perjur’d Clarence — always as a traitor, sometimes as a drunk and a madman. Edward IV may have been a notorious womaniser who seized the throne of England by trampling over the corpses of thousands and murdered his predecessor, the virtually helpless King Henry VI. But, we remember Edward for his glistening court, as a romantic hero who married for love and as a brilliant military general. King Richard III may have been maligned by history, but he has the benefit of his own historical society. Conveniently, some of Edward IV’s crimes have been attributed to Richard, but his devoted band of Ricardians and many historians have brought the real Richard III to light. But, what of George? He is lost in time. Even his remains have vanished.
The opening chapters of The Third Plantagenet introduce new readers to some of Ashdown-Hill’s more controversial theories about the houses of Lancaster, York and Tudor. However, these chapters also acquaint readers with the political climate of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and the constant twists and turns of fortune to which George and his family members were subjected. We watch George, a member of a close-knit large family, go from a privileged and comfortable childhood to very suddenly losing his father and older brother. We see his family torn asunder and his father branded a traitor. Instead of receiving comfort from the remaining members of his family, George was forced to flee to a foreign country with his younger brother Richard.
It was only a matter of weeks before his older brother Edward defeated the House of Lancaster and took the throne. As Ashdown-Hill writes, “George now found himself transformed from a virtually unknown child into a person of national importance.” Ashdown-Hill explores the lasting effect these events may have had on an eleven-year old boy, going on to speculate on the relationship between Edward IV and George, virtual strangers at this point. Is it not natural for a young boy to resent the sudden presence of an authority figure he hardly knows? When we consider that George was deprived of his father’s influence and mentoring at this crucial point in his life — when titles and power were thrust upon him — it is easy to see how a fifteen year-old boy would begrudge his brother’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, whom many considered a social upstart. And how the Earl of Warwick, perhaps the father-figure George had sorely lacked, could fan the flames of rebellion in the heart of a young and ambitious man.
Ashdown-Hill’s examination of contemporary accounts of George’s appearance raise several interesting questions. The study of George’s fall from grace, including his subsequent trial and execution, at his own brother’s hand, is particularly valuable. A transcript of the Act of Attainder against George is studied at length, along with some revealing research on George’s servant Thomas Burdet. The reason behind his attainder is not the only matter surrounding George’s death historians have wrestled with over time, the manner of his execution has long been considered a folk-tale because of the shocking nature of it. Ashdown-Hill presents some enlightening contemporary accounts of George’s execution.
The final chapters explore the remains in the Clarence Vault in Tewkesbury. An exhaustive account of how the remains of George and his wife Isabel disappeared over the centuries also emphasises just how George’s brothers have eclipsed his memory. While Richard III’s remains have been in the media spotlight for more than a year, the remains in Tewkesbury lie forgotten. A new examination of the remains provides some interesting results.
The closing chapter, “The Clarence Posterity,” gives us some rather touching statements from the descendants of George Duke of Clarence. After taking a journey through the tumultuous and sometimes tragic life of the most neglected of the York brothers, it is almost comforting to see that George is not forgotten. The Third Plantagenet breathes new life into the shadowy figure of George Duke of Clarence, presenting a complex and believable portrait of a man who deserves his own place in history.
By Olga Hughes. Olga runs the online magazine Nerdalicious with her partner C.S. Hughes. Nerdalicious is the best source of Game of Thrones and other nerd culture news, including history articles and popular culture.