Isabel Neville (1451–1476) was the eldest daughter of Richard Neville, the infamous and treacherous Kingmaker who shaped the course of the Wars of the Roses, and the elder sister of Anne Neville, Richard III’s wife and Queen.
Similar to her sister Anne, much about Isabel’s life remains shrouded in uncertainty. The Neville sisters lived in the shadows of their more famous contemporaries, yet their lives intersected with some of the most gripping events of the century: the ascendance of the Woodville family, the bitter feuds festering between the Yorkists and Lancastrian factions, the accession of Richard III to the throne, and the mysterious disappearances of their nephews, the Princes in the Tower – the blame for which has hung bleakly over Richard III for over five centuries.
For a woman who lived in such obscurity, it is wholly fitting that Isabel Neville’s remains should be “lost” to history.
Born at Warwick Castle, nestled along the bend of the River Avon, Isabel’s early life coincided with an intense period of political turmoil and dynastic conflict known to history as the Wars of the Roses. A pawn to be used and discarded by her ambitious father, Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick, on 11 July 1469 Isabel married the young and covetous brother of the Yorkist King Edward IV in a secret ceremony in Calais. This union with George Duke of Clarence produced two children to live into adulthood, including Margaret Pole, 8th Countess of Salisbury, who was later executed during the reign of the King Henry VIII.
But in the winter of 1476, Isabel Neville died shortly after giving birth to her fourth child, a boy named Richard. She was just twenty-five. While it is probable that Isabel’s death was the result of an infection, her husband, for reasons not entirely evident, was soon convinced that both Isabel and their infant son had fallen victim to poisoning.
Whatever the cause, Isabel’s frail, ravaged body was moved for burial to Tewkesbury Abbey in Gloucestershire, the mausoleum of her Despenser ancestors. After lying in state in the abbey’s choir for a period of thirty-five days, Isabel was finally interred in a below-ground vault specially constructed to accommodate her tomb, situated behind the abbey’s high altar.
Outwardly in morning for Isabel, the widowed Clarence wasted no time in schemeing his own return to power. Less than two months after her burial, Clarence accused one of her ladies-in-waiting, a Welsh woman by the name of Ankarette Twynyho, of murdering Isabel. Clarence proceeded to force an illegal trial, though he lacked the authority to do so, resulting in Twynyho’s execution.
The situation escalated further when several individuals connected to George were apprehended, leading the Duke to barge into one of his brother’s council meetings to protests his conspirator’s arrests. Frustrated, the King had no choice but to take decisive action and order his brother’s imprisonment.
‘False, fleeting, perjur’d Clarence’ was executed on the 18th February 1478 after being found guilty of “rebellion, slander, and allegiances with the enemy.” In the end, Isabel’s untimely death had unwittingly paved the way for her husband’s own fatal undoing. He was later laid to rest beside her in the Clarence vault at Tewkesbury Abbey.
The ill-fated Duke and Duchess of Clarence’s crypt was to be opened a number of times: first for the burial of Isabel Neville in 1477, and then again for Clarence’s internment a year later (the exact cause of George’s death is unknown – while likely beheaded before an intimate gathering, folklorist tradition states he met his end by being drowned in a vat of malmsey wine). After George’s burial, the Clarence vault was sealed and a ‘large blue flat stone’ was placed over the entrance, embellished with a funerary brass thought to have depicted George and Isabel.
Their tomb was been complete with a ‘magnificent monument incorporating their effigies which completed the ring of Despenser tombs around the abbey choir’ although that monument tragically does not survive today.
Records indicate that Clarence vault was opened three times in the mid-18th century in order to accommodate the remains of Samuel (sometimes named Alderman) Hawling in it. There is a possibility that the vault may have been disturbed during the period of Dissolution, and it was certainly accessed again in both 1729 and 1753 to place the bodies of the wife and son of Samuel Hawling alongside him.
For the following seventy years, the remains of the Clarences and the Hawlings lay undisturbed within the crypt. However, at the dawn of the 19th century, the vault was once again opened, and during this occasion, two skulls and various bones were discovered. In 1829, the remains of the Hawlings family were rightfully removed from the crypt and relocated to a new burial site. The bones believed to belong to the Clarences were carefully deposited in a separate stone coffin and left to rest in peace – for a time.
Nearly thirty years later, Tewkesbury, being susceptible to flooding, was inundated with riverwater from the nearby River Severn that damaged parts of the abbey. In order to lay new pavement in the ambulatory, the Clarence’s vault was re-opened for construction once more. During this process, it was discovered that George and Isabel’s coffins had been flooded. Their bones were then carefully extracted, assessed, and cleaned.
It is believed that their remains were eventually placed in a glass case, now housed in the crypt, though in surviving records there are no mentions of the remains of the King’s brother ever being interred elsewhere, leaving historians unable to conclusively ascertain the bones as definitively belonging to Clarence. The mystery surrounding the true identity of the remains discovered in the vault continues to intrigue and challenge scholars.
Furthermore, assessment of the remains reveals that they were unlikely to have belonged to either George or Isabel, based on both age and appearance. Researchers found the ‘separate partial skeletons in poor condition. The male skeleton consisted of most of the leg and hip bones, the upper left arm, left shoulder and the upper part of the skull. The man had what amounted to mild arthritic changes and a degree of cranial closure consistent with late middle age 40 to 60 years. His height was approximately 5 feet 3inches.’ George was around 28 at the time of his death.
The female remains, however, were described as as ‘almost the entire legs minus feet, hips, upper and half of lower right arm and the upper skull. Examination found advanced localised osteoarthritis and a degree of suture obliteration of the skull which suggests an age between 50-70 years. The height was approximately 5ft 4ins.’
George and Isabel’s bones were most likely disturbed by Henry VIII’s agents during the Dissolution, and are unlikely to be recovered. Whatever became of their earthly remains, museum workers at Tewkesbury later embellished the opening of Clarence vault with iron grates and a bass insert engraved “with two suns in splendour, the badge of the House of York.” The tragic couple’s epitaph now reads:
‘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.’