We have seen so far how Shakespeare has collated various rumours and fabrications to construct a villain in his King Richard III who is a murderer, cold blooded and willing to admit his vicious deeds. We have seen how the foundations were laid for a man capable of killing a young prince in Edward of Westminster. Add to this the killing of a king, Henry VI and there remains only one piece of the jigsaw missing before those foundations are prepared to bear the full weight of the greatest, most foul charge to be laid at his feet.
The final part of this intricately woven tapestry is sewn into place by the death of George, Duke of Clarence, the brother of King Edward IV and Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Richard speaks to Clarence at the opening of the play, discovering that George is condemned by a prophecy that ‘G’ would unseat King Edward’s heir. Clearly the ‘G’ refers to Gloucester, but George is assumed to be the threat. When Clarence has left for the Tower, Richard tells his audience (and they are very much his audience during the play);
‘Go, tread the path that thou shalt ne’er return.
Simple, plain Clarence! I do love thee so,
That I will shortly send thy soul to heaven,’
To ensure that we understand him fully, Richard postscripts a brief conversation with Lord Hastings by following him, telling us;
‘I’ll in, to urge his hatred more to Clarence,
With lies well steel’d with weighty arguments;
And, if I fall not in my deep intent,
Clarence hath not another day to live’
If we return to the sources and trace this story, like others it bears little close examination. Sir Thomas More appears to have first reported rumours that Richard helped his brother George to his death. Contemporary sources, though, tell a very, very different story. George had been a perennial pain in Edward’s royal rear for many years. In 1469, he had joined the Earl of Warwick in rebellion, seeking the crown for himself. When Warwick allied himself to Margaret of Anjou to force a Lancastrian restoration, George initially stayed with his father-in-law Warwick but quickly found his position unbearably awkward. He had betrayed the House of York and made enemies of his two brothers. Lancastrians looked upon him with deeply suspicious, narrowed eyes. He was the brother of their enemy and a proven betrayer. So, excluded by both sides, George seems to have decided that his best hope lay in throwing his lot back in with his brother, hoping that blood would prove thicker than water.
Having aided his brother’s return to the throne in 1471, George was still unsatisfied with his lot. He quarrelled with Richard about the settlement of Warwick’s estate, believing that he should have the lion’s share because he was married to the elder daughter. Edward effectively halved the estates, giving Richard those in the north and Clarence those in the midlands. Far from leaving him destitute, George was very wealthy. He established a kind of rival court, living in luxury and able to raise a large force of men if he wished. Yet this was never enough.
When George’s wife Isabel died on 22nd December 1476, the Duke flew into a rage and claimed that she had been poisoned by a servant. Clarence had Ankarette Twynyho, the servant in question, tried and executed at Warwick. Ankarette’s grandson would later successfully petition Edward IV to overturn the charges against her, stating that Clarence had seized all of her jewels and property and had caused the jury to be so afraid that they found her guilty in spite of the lack of evidence. She was then almost immediately taken to the gallows and hanged with a co-defendant, John Thursby. Acting in this high handed, kingly fashion was intolerable and began the final decline in the relationship between Edward and George.
Following a confession by one of Clarence’s retainers, astronomer Dr John Stacey, George was arrested for treason and placed in the Tower. He was tried before Parliament by the king himself. The Crowland Chronicle, a politically astute contemporary source, gives a full account of the matter; ‘The circumstances that happened in [the] ensuing Parliament my mind quite shudders to enlarge upon, for then was to be witnessed a sad strife carried on before these two brethren of such high estate’. The Chronicle continues that ‘not a single person uttered a word against the duke, except the king; and not one individual made answer to the king except the duke.’ The trial was little more than a show and the outcome a foregone conclusion. ‘Parliament, being of opinion that the informations which they had heard were established, passed sentence upon him of condemnation, the same being pronounced by the mouth of Henry, duke of Buckingham, who was appointed Seneschal of England for the occasion.’ On the legend that Clarence elected to be drowned in a vat of malmsey wine, the Crowland Chronicle is silent as are most sources, lamenting only that ‘the execution, whatever its nature may have been, took place (and would that it had ended these troubles!) in the Tower of London, it being the year of our Lord, 1478, and the eighteenth of the reign of king Edward.’ The execution was carried out in private and no account of it remains.
Contrary to More’s assertion and Shakespeare’s confident re-invention, there is no evidence to link Richard to Clarence’s downfall and execution. It seems clear that Clarence was the architect of his own demise, having exhausted his brother the king’s forgiveness and patience. If anything, contemporary evidence hints at Richard’s dislike of the execution of one brother by another. Dominic Mancini wrote that Richard ‘was so overcome with grief for his brother … that he was overheard to say he would one day avenge his brother’s death’. George was only a few years older than Richard and the pair had been raised together. Edward was a decade older than Richard and the two spent little time together when Richard was younger, so it would seem natural that Richard and George might be close. It has been noted that after 1478, Richard spent less time at court and there is speculation that his disapproval of George’s execution was to blame, though it may simply have been that the business of running the north kept him in the north. Some believe Richard blamed the queen, Elizabeth Woodville, for George’s death and that this added to the problems of 1483, with Richard wary and suspicious of the Woodvilles’ perceived plots against him and looking for an opportunity to avenge George.
It is hard to see that any crime was committed here. Clarence pushed his luck and Edward’s patience too far and paid the price for continued treason. He was tried and executed in accordance with the law. No one appears guilty of conspiring to bring Clarence to his end but Clarence himself. As for Richard, this is another charge of which he is clearly innocent.
Why did Shakespeare wish his Richard III to be guilty of this crime? He is presenting us with a murderer, whose victims include a young prince, barely more than a boy, a King of England slain in his prison in his childlike innocence and a brother, a close family member. All of the components are in place for the murder of a closely related child king, and with the weight of Shakespeare’s ‘evidence’ behind the charge, how could we fail to believe that he perpetrated this most dastardly of deeds?