GEORGE DUKE OF CLARENCE, ISOBEL NEVILLE AND THE CLARENCE VAULT

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This is thought to be a portrait of Isobel from the Luton Guild Book.  See  The Dragonhound’s  interesting post here

After the death of Isobel Duchess of Clarence on the 22 December 1476 aged 25, her coffin lay in repose on a hearse for 35 days in the midst of the  choir of Tewkesbury Abbey while a vault was constructed, ‘artificialiter’, behind the high altar facing the entrance to the eastern Lady Chapel (1).  Hicks, George’s biographer wrote how the widower  ‘… took  great pains over her exequies’  and Isobel was finally laid to rest on the 8 February 1477.  Just over a year later  following his execution on the 18 February 1478, her husband, aged 28, was to join her in their tomb.image-3

George Duke Clarence.  Rous Roll. Motto ex Honore de Clare.

Untitled Could this be a portrait of George, in blue, and Richard the figure in green?  Luton Guild Book.  See here for the Dragonhounds interesting theory.  

Much has been written on George and his life and death, not quite so much about Isobel. Isobel daughter of Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick who became  known as  the Kingmaker and Anne Beauchamp, sister to Anne, then Duchess of Gloucester, later Queen to Richard III,  never recovered after  giving birth to a son at the infirmary of Tewkesbury Abbey on the 5 October 1476.  Puzzlingly its not known why Isobel would have given birth in the Abbey infirmary.   Could this indicate that she was ill prior to going into labour?  The next day the  baby, a boy named Richard, was baptised in the nave  of the Abbey.  Whether or no Isobel was ill prior to giving  birth, she never recovered fully afterwards and was taken home to Warwick Castle on November 12th where she died on the 22nd December, her baby son dying around the same time. It has been presumed that her death was brought about by childbirth and/or consumption.  There are indications that George loved and mourned Isobel and Hicks suggests it may be taken as a ‘sign of his continuing sense of loss’  that six months later Isobel was enrolled posthumously when George and their two surviving children were admitted to the Guild of the Holy Cross at Stratford on Avon (2 ). Unusually for the times there  is no evidence he was ever unfaithful to Isobel with no known mistresses or illegitimate children.  This was rare for a man of the nobility in the 15th century.  George was adamant that  both she and their son had both died of poisoning.  So convinced was George that he attempted to send his surviving son, Edward, out of the country to somewhere he would be safe.   Whether he was successful or not is a moot point.  Some theorise he did but it is generally accepted that it was his son who was placed in the Tower of London  after Bosworth and stayed there until his execution on the 28 November 1499.     The rest is history, and George was laid to rest beside his Isobel.  

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Isobel and George Duke and Duchess of Clarence.  The Rous Roll.  British Library.

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Isobel Neville, Duchess of Clarence.  Rous Roll.  The British Library.

 I will not go into the rows, accusations, counter accusations and shenanigans that led to the great falling out between the royal brothers.  Its documented elsewhere and I would recommend Hicks’  False, Fleeting, Perjur’d Clarence 1449-78 for anyone who would like to delve  deeper into George’s story.  The end came when George bravely but rashly had Thomas Burdett’s declaration of innocence, which had been made on the scaffold before his execution,  read out to the royal council.  John Stacey, Burdett’s co-defendant also proclaimed his innocence on the scaffold, his voice weaker  probably because of the torture that he had endured.   Is it likely that a medieval man in those pious times would have been prepared to go to meet his Maker with a lie upon his lips?   I think not. Thomas  Penn in his book The Brothers York notes a similar case in 1441 when two astrologers, Bolingbroke and Southwell had been arrested on much the same charges, that  time  predicting Henry VIs death.  Pen suggests this case could have been the blue print for the Burdett and Stacey case.   George’s goose was cooked and an enraged King Edward summoned George and before  a parliament ‘stage-managed’ and  thronged with sycophants and a trial ‘very carefully prepared apparently by the  Wydevilles’ with witnesses doubling as prosecutors it was ensured George stood not a  cat’s chance in Hell.  His prediction that Edward ‘entended to consume hym in like wyse as a Candell consumeth in brennyng’  proved corect.    The most reliable narrative, that of the Croyland Chronicler, who appears to have been an eyewitness at the trial and was clearly shocked, indicates that it  was not ‘conducted in a manner conducive to justice’  and that George was offered inadequate opportunity for defence(3). Hick writes that the Act of Attainder ‘although long is insubstantial and imprecise and it is questionable whether many of the charges were treasonable, some were covered by earlier pardons, some seem improbable, none is substantiated and certainly no accomplishes were named or tried’.  The sentence was of course that of  death and a vacillating Edward was finally  pushed into proceeding with his brother’s execution.    After the deed was accomplished Edward  ‘provided for an expensive funeral, monument, and Chantry foundation at Tewkesbury Abbey’ and ‘is alleged to have bewailed Clarences death’ …  well it was the least he could do under the circumstances.      There are indications that Edward regretted his brother’s death.  As well as Sir Thomas More and Holinshed’s Chronicle remarking on it  Virgil also wrote ‘yt ys very lykly that king Edward right soone repentyd that dede; for, as men say, whan so ever any sewyd for saving a mans lyfe, he was woont to cry owt in a rage ‘O infortunate broother, for whose lyfe no man in this world wold once make request’ (4).  Edward, presumably filled with guilt floundered around blaming everyone else for what was the judicial murder of his brother except those truly responsible, himself and his Wydeville wife,   One can only imagine the pain of their mother, Cicely Neville.  The third brother, Richard Duke of Gloucester, later King Richard III was said by Mancini to be so. ‘overcome with grief that he could not dissimulate so well, but that he was overheard to say that he would one day avenge his brother’s death’ (5).

 After the burial of George, the vault was sealed and a large blue flat stone was laid over the entrance with an  inlaid funerary brass which, no doubt, would have depicted George and Isobel. This blue stone was still in place in 1826 although the brass itself had long since disappeared.  Besides the vault  there was also once a magnificent monument incorporating their effigies which completed the ring of Despenser tombs around the abbey choir (6).  Nothing remains of that monument today.

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The entrance to the Clarence Vault, Tewkesbury Abbey.  Photo with thanks to the Wars of the Roses Catalogue.

A glass box in the Tewkesbury Abbey was long thought to have contained the remaining bones of George and Isobel but does it?    Confusingly the vault had been  opened, desecrated and pillaged several times over the centuries perhaps  at the Dissolution and in 1509 when the Lady Chapel was demolished but  definitely three times in the 18th century when in 1709, in the most contemptible outrage,   the royal remains were displaced to make room for the coffin of a “periwig-pated alderman” by name of Samuel Hawling  and later on, in 1729 and 1753, his wife and son who were also interred there ( 7). This situation was belatedly put right in 1829 when the Hawlings were in their turn ejected from the vault and rightfully so.    On that occasion some bones unconnected to the Hawlings that remained in the vault were presumed to be those of the Clarences and placed in a small ancient stone coffin that had been discovered elsewhere in the Abbey.   

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The Glass Box containing the bones from the Clarence Vault. Photo The Wars of the Roses Catalogue 

In 1876 the vault was opened again to enable the laying of a new pavement in the  ambulatory.  The stone coffin in which the bones that had been supposed to be those of the Clarences had been placed  was found to be filled with water, Tewkesbury being prone to flooding.  It seems the bones were cleaned and then placed in a  glass box.  It is unclear if this is the same box where they remain to this day.     The opening to the vault was then fitted with iron gates, and in the pavement over the vault a brass inserted engraved with two suns in splendour, the badge of the House of York. with the inscription, composed by a Mr. J.T.D. Niblett:

 Dominus Georgius Plantagenet dux Clarencius et Domina Isabelle Neville, uxor ejus qui obierunt haec 12 Decembris, A.D. 1476, ille 18 Feb., 1477.

    Macte veni sicut sol in splendore, Mox subito mersus in cruore.

Which translates thus..

 ‘Lord George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence, and Lady Isabelle Neville, his wife, who died, she on Dec. 12, 1476, he on Feb. 18, 1477.

I came in my might like a sun in splendour, Soon suddenly bathed in my own blood’

 ….. a fitting epitaph for a man I always think lived his life like a dazzling firework, zooming through the air before finally falling  to the earth spent and dying.  His ‘comeliness’  Virgil wrote alarmed an angst ridden Elizabeth Wydeville who feared it made him appear worthy of the  crown. Another reason George had to go! Its both annoying and frustrating George is too often seen as a one dimensional character,  almost bordering on a pantomime villain, accused of being a traitor, drunkard, turncoat etc etc. even a lunatic.    In fiction he has regularly been depicted as a nasty piece of work and even in one very popular novel bashing his young sister in law  Anne Neville and giving her a cut lip.    But I digress.  Certainly the Ankarette Twynhoe affair is  a blot on his copy book, a strange story lacking clarity and which so far has never been explained satisfactorily.    No historian has ever come up with  a plausible reason why George acted in the way he did preferring in the main to go down the well trodden route  that he was a bad man and not wired up right.  Give Me Strength!  Could it be possible that Isobel and her baby were indeed poisoned which would explain something which otherwise makes little sense, totally irrational plus making George’s rage understandable.  If a link between Ankarette, the Twynhoes and  Elizabeth Wydeville could be discovered the whole scenario would then fall nicely into place.   It would also  be an explanation as to why Isobel was in the Infirmary at Tewkesbury prior to going into labour when surely the most comfortable place for her to have given birth would have been at home at Warwick?  Clearly she was ailing from something but what?    I think we should at the very least keep an open mind on what is a very puzzling episode rather than leaving it that George threw simply threw a wobbly,  arrested an innocent, elderly lady and had her executed just to prove he could and to wind Edward up. Yeah right..as they say in South London.  

Another thing I find baffling is the umbrage and ill feeling that  George and  Warwick’s rebellion has invoked particularly  in Warwick’s case  who was clearly provoked beyond endurance by the rise and rise of the grasping, popinjay Wydevilles coupled with Edward’s rather foolish cavalier attitude towards him.   Indeed I cannot blame them for it and I think their actions to rid the world of these odious people should be praised.    The Wydeville marriage was after all  the rock that the House of York foundered upon.   Regarding the drunkenness charge,  the late historian John Ashdown Hill pointed out there is nothing in contemporary records that suggest George was a drunk and it’s merely a silly myth on the same lines as Richard IIIs hump and withered arm.    Bravo John!  Unfortunately the winner gets to write history.  

But back to the vault.  in 1982 the bones were give the first modern examination by Dr Michael Donmall. They consisted, it would seem,  of parts of two skulls, an assortment of long bones, pelvic and shoulder fragments , parts of a spinal column and some foot bones.  The age of the skull deemed to be that of  a male was estimated to be in the range of 40-60 years and the female 50-70 years.  Both individuals were described by Dr Donmall  as showing age related arthritic changes.  This would, alas,  rule out they were the remains of George and Isobel.

In 2013 the bones were re-examined by Doctor Joyce Filyer who muddied the waters further by suggesting that the bones were those of more than two individuals.   Doctor Filyer however agreed with the 1982 findings that the two individuals were too old to be the Clarences.   However Dr John Ashdown Hill suggested that the damaged skull may  not not have belonged to the male’s bones  and it is just possible this may be what remains of George’s skull.  John bases this on the fact that some years prior to death the individual had suffered a cut to the front of the skull which had healed.  This would be consistent with the ‘report that George suffered an injury at the Battle of Barnet six years prior to his death’.   However it should be remembered that the nature of George’s injury is unknown.  Dr Ashdown-Hill goes on to mention that there are also some very fragmentary bones included  which are the remains of a ‘very slender woman who appears to have died in her twenties and that these may comprise surviving fragments of the body of Isobel Neville, Duchess of Clarence’. So does the glass box indeed hold at least some of the remains of the Clarences or is it just wishful thinking?  

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A further view of the Clarence Vault.  Photo @ The Wars of the Roses catalogue.

Like his brother Richard, George has suffered from the brilliant pen of  William Shakespeare, who described him as ‘False, Fleeting, Perjur’d‘.  Shakespeare also lay the responsibility of George’s death at the door of his brother Richard, then Duke of Gloucester.  Perhaps he had not read Mancini’s comments although it probably would not have made any difference.  It should be remembered that  George was a man of his times,  who had flaws but his good points are regularly overlooked.  As Hicks wrote the Croyland Chronicler paid tribute to his ability and dangerous popularity, ‘an idol of the multitude‘.   The Salisbury Cathedral chapter act book observed ‘Thanks be to God who has given such a benevolent and devout prince into the tutelage of the church’.  Lets leave the final word with John Rous who would have met him and described him thus..‘…a myghty prince, femly of perfon and ryght witty and wel visaged.  a gret almys geuer and a grete bylder as showis at tutbure (Tutbury) warrewik (Warwick) and odre placis and there was he purposed to have doone many grete thinges as wallyng the town..and at Gypclyf (Guy’s Cliffe) to have performyd the wil and purpos of hys fadre in law (Richard Neville Earl of Warwick) and to have gete privilages to his burges of Warrewik but froward forteon maligned foor a geyn him and leyd al a parte’. 

  1. The Abbey Church of Tewkesbury H J L J Massé
  2. False, Fleeting, Perjur’d Clarence M A Hicks
  3. Ibid p141
  4. Virgil 168
  5. The Usurpation og Richard III p.63 Dominic Mancini
  6. The Third Plantagent John Ashdown-Hill
  7. The Abbey Church of Tewkesbury H J L J Massé

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One thought on “GEORGE DUKE OF CLARENCE, ISOBEL NEVILLE AND THE CLARENCE VAULT

  1. I have often though Isobel WAS poisoned. Two months seems a long time between birth and child bed fever…. but perhaps she was taken ill before their baby’s birth as you say.
    I have also wondered about whether George DID take his son to Ireland and if so, was it the real Edward who Tudor incarcerated in the Tower? This would lend weight to the Battle of Stoke being about putting the real Edward of Warwick on the throne as he would be next in line after the illegitimate Edward V.
    I doubt this though as E of W lived at Sheriff Hutton, under the protection of Richard between George’s execution and Richard’s death at Bosworth…. I think he would have known if it wasn’t his real nephew? Wouldn’t he?

    Liked by 1 person

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