A Pop Tribute to George, Duke of Clarence

In his recent book The Third Plantagenet, Dr. John Ashdown-Hill, the leading scholar on the House of York, proved beyond dispute that George, Duke of Clarence, was a short man. Indeed, as Dr. Ashdown-Hill brilliantly explained, Clarence’s small stature did much to mould his character.

George, Duke of Clarence, trying a bit too hard to compensate
George, Duke of Clarence, trying a bit too hard to compensate

Yet sometimes theories germinate in popular culture or in fiction before they find their way into the pages of academic history, and it appears that Clarence’s shortness is one of these theories. In making note of this, I do not mean at all to take away from Dr. Ashdown-Hill’s stellar achievement, for indeed, his theory is solidly based on the historical fact, while the source I am about to mention below relied, no doubt, on mere guesswork and instinct. Still, it is fascinating to note that two very different men, coming at the question from entirely different milieus and working in different genres, should arrive at the same conclusion: George, Duke of Clarence, was a runt.

The source I am referring to, of course, is Randy Newman’s popular song, ‘Short People’. Few who hummed along with this song in the 1970’s would have recognized it for what is is: a mocking tribute to the Duke of Clarence. But when one reads the lyrics in light of Dr. Ashdown-Hill’s book, all becomes clear.

Let us examine the lyrics. In his opening sequence, Newman warns us of the fate in store for Clarence: his execution at the hands of his brother Edward IV.

Short People got no reason
Short People got no reason
Short People got no reason
To live

The rest of the song explains the reasons leading up to this decision. We hear first of Clarence’s (false) protestations of loyalty:

They got little hands
Little eyes
They walk around
Tellin’ great big lies

The next lines, with their reference to ‘platform shoes’, likely allude to Clarence’s fleeing abroad to foppish France:

They got little noses
And tiny little teeth
They wear platform shoes
On their nasty little feet

Edward’s imprisonment of Clarence in the Tower is clearly the subject of the next lines:

Well, I don’t want no Short People
Don’t want no Short People
Don’t want no Short People
`Round here

The next verse is a poignant allusion to Richard, Duke of Gloucester’s desperate attempt to intervene with his brother Edward for the life of Clarence in order to spare the feelings of their mother, Cecily, Duchess of York.

Short People are just the same
As you and I
(A Fool Such As I)
All men are brothers
Until the day they die
(It’s A Wonderful World)

These following lines tell of Clarence’s immense selfishness, which prevented him from ever being a loyal brother (unlike his brother Richard) or a loving husband (unlike his brother Richard).

Short People got nobody
Short People got nobody
Short People got nobody
To love

Although the meaning of the following lines is somewhat obscure, I believe they likely refer not to Clarence himself, but to his almost obsessive anger at the low-born Wydevilles being raised to a high place at court:

They got little baby legs
That stand so low
You got to pick ’em up
Just to say hello

The reference to ‘cars’ below, of course, is not to an automobile, but to the carriage in which Clarence rode in conspicuous splendour between his estates. ‘Little voices going peep, peep, peep’ likely adverts to Clarence’s status as the middle brother and his desperate attempt to distinguish himself from his charming older brother, Edward, and his deeply loyal, serious-minded younger brother, Richard.

They got little cars
That go beep, beep, beep
They got little voices
Goin’ peep, peep, peep

I posit that the ‘grubby little fingers’ alludes to Clarence’s hands being soiled with blood from the innocents, Ankarette Twynho and John Thursby, whom he caused to be executed. ‘Dirty little minds’, of course, is a rather obvious reference to George’s spreading rumours of Edward IV’s illegitimacy.

They got grubby little fingers
And dirty little minds

In the closing lines, we see that Edward IV has at last realized that his brother, unlike Richard, Duke of Gloucester, would never be loyal to him. His decision to put him to death finds a voice in the song’s conclusion:

They’re gonna get you every time
Well, I don’t want no Short People
Don’t want no Short People
Don’t want no Short People
Round here

So here we have it–an early and hitherto tribute to the most overlooked of the brothers of York. Thanks to Dr. Ashdown-Hill’s work, Clarence–and the true meaning of the song ‘Short People’–is emerging from the shadows.

Sources:

Short People lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.

Some great ‘shrooms I had in the 1970’s.

The Third Plantagenet by John Ashdown-Hill

Jeff Borden stands a manly, but not excessive, five feet eleven inches tall. 

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