History, Royalty

From a Butt of Malmsey to a Bowl of Wonderdog: Where is the Bard When We Need Him?

February 18, 2023 is the 545th anniversary of the death of George Plantaganet, Duke of Clarence.  He was the middle child in a trio of brothers, the older and younger of which actually both made it to the throne, as Edward IV and Richard III respectively.

Shortly after his older brother Edward was crowned in 1461, George began a series of plots in concert with Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick (Warwick the Kingmaker).  He married the Earl’s daughter, instigated an insurrection in the North, and, in the chaotic aftermath, left for France with his wife. Shortly thereafter, Edward–the king of a now destabilized country–fled to Flanders as king-in-exile, and the former King Henry VI, who’d been deposed some years earlier, resumed the throne, but briefly, as Edward soon raised an army, invaded England, and retook the throne in the spring of 1471. (Richard Neville was killed in the fighting.)

Edward and George soon reconciled, and George himself became the Earl of Warwick the following year.

However, a sense of loyalty towards his elder brother the King apparently wasn’t George’s strong suit, and it wasn’t too many years later that he was conspiring against Edward again, presumably with the intention of bettering his own prospects as what one might call the lifelong “spare,” when it came to putting himself on the throne.  To forestall that event, Edward had his brother thrown into prison, and in January 1478 presented charges to Parliament.  Following the passage of a bill of attainder, George was sentenced to death.  The sentence was carried out privately on February 18, 1478, and shortly thereafter, the story began to circulate that he had been thrust, head-first, into a butt of Malmsey wine.  William Shakespeare, of course, attributes most of George’s woes to his archvillain Richard III, the “spare” spare (at least Charles and Diana avoided that additional complication) who frames poor George for treason and then arranges his death in the Tower.  After a lengthy scene in which George pleads for his life with the two murderers sent by Richard, one of them stabs him and drowns him in the conveniently placed full barrel of wine. (Since its availability apparently surprised no-one, a person can only conclude that such a thing was a common prop in English jail cells at the time).

Fast forward to 2023, and the latest royal spat between the “heir,” and the “spare.”  (Proving, once and for all, that the quote with multiple attributions: “Life isn’t one damn thing after another; it’s the same damn thing over and over again,” is quite accurate.)

As with most things these days, there’s little room for the pomp, ceremony, and grandeur of days gone by, and we’re left with what seems like a rather vindictive recounting of a banal and petty brotherly falling-out that doesn’t deserve either the ink it took to recount it, or the paper it’s printed on:

To set the scene:  William visits Harry at Nottingham Cottage the tiny, historic, home in which Harry and Meghan are enjoying the blissful early years of their married life. As Harry recounts it, William called Meghan “difficult, rude, and abrasive.”  Harry got William a glass of water, and attempted to defuse the situation.  And then:

“He set down the water, called me another name, then came at me. It all happened so fast. So very fast. He grabbed me by the collar, ripping my necklace, and he knocked me to the floor. I landed on the dog’s bowl, which cracked under my back, the pieces cutting into me. I lay there for a moment, dazed, then got to my feet and told him to get out.”

The mind boggles.  One can only wonder, had poor old George Plantagenet survived his ordeal, what a story he would have told.

Or what Shakespeare would have made of it, and whether even he could imbue the present situation, or any of its protagonists with any sense of dignity at all.

On second thought, probably not.  There are some situations that just cannot be saved, and some stories, that like sleeping dogs, should just be let lie.

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