Was Lionel of Antwerp Poisoned?

Lionel of Antwerp, 1st Duke of Clarence, was born on 29 November 1338, the second surviving son of King Edward III and Philippa of Hainault. Although he died at the age of 30 and had only one child – his daughter Philippa – he is the genetic precursor to the modern English monarchy. He was the great-great-grandfather of Kings Edward IV and Richard III,  and through Edward IV’s daughter, Elizabeth of York, direct ancestor of every English monarch since King Henry VIII.


Lionel was HUGE; he was nearly 7 feet tall in an era where the average guy was 5’6” or thereabouts. Imagine how he would have stood out in a crowd, whether amidst courtiers or on the battlefield! (To give a frame of reference, look at how the retired MBA basketball player in the middle of the picture below dwarfs the average sized men near him.)

imagine Lionel of Antwerp next to the average guy

Lionel wed Elizabeth de Burgh, 4th Countess of Ulster in 1352, and they appear to have had a reasonably good marriage. Elizabeth, heiress to a vast fortune, had been raised at court to be his bride since she was a little girl and she was 20 years old when they wed, so they would have known each other fairly well. The couple’s only surviving daughter, Philippa of Clarence, was born on 13 August 1355, and Elizabeth never bore another living child before her death in the winter of 1363.

Lionel grieved for several years, but as a royal prince he could not remain unmarried indefinitely. It was thus arranged that he would marry Violante Viscontithe richly dowered daughter of the Duke of Milan.


Violante’s father, Galeazzo II Visconti, had given his daughter several territories as well as a massive amount of gold and luxury goods as her dowry, so the 13 year girl was a good match for the Duke of Clarence. The couple married on 28 May 1368 in Milan amid grandiose celebrations that lasted for weeks. The newlyweds were feted everywhere they went during their honeymoon trip around the bride’s dower lands. However, while they were in at Alba five months after the wedding, Lionel became violently ill. The intestinal distress was acute, and he died soon after on 7 October 1368.

Immediately rumors flew that Galeazzo had poisoned his new son-in-law. Partly this was because Lionel’s illness seems to have come as a direct result of something he ate, and it was partly because the Italians were suspected of poisoning everyone. Poisoning one’s enemies was done everywhere, but it was considered to be almost an art form among the descendants of the Roman empire. Was Lionel poisoned? Or was it just international scuttlebutt based on the stereotype-based distrust of the Italian ruling class?

I doubt Lionel was murdered. While it can certainly be said that Galeazzo had the means and opportunity to poison Lionel, what was his motive? There was no better suitor waiting in the wings. His daughter wouldn’t remarry for nearly 10 years and then it would be to a man of lower rank than the Duke of Clarence. There is no sign that Lionel was mistreating the girl, and the marriage was probably still unconsummated given the moral customs of the era regarding the bride’s tender age. Galeazzo lost much and gained nothing by the death of his daughter’s husband.

I think that Lionel probably died of either food poisoning (the naturally occurring kind) or a water born pathogen like cholera. All of Lionel’s great size and hearty athleticism would have done no good against the ravages of dehydration and shock. It would have been a painful and messy death, and would have been so fast-acting and traumatic that his attendants could have easily suspected something evil was behind it.

Lionel of Antwerp’s 13 year old daughter was now the suo jure Countess of Ulster. A heiress and granddaughter of the king, Philippa was a notable reward for any of Edward III’s loyal courtiers. As such, she was married off in the summer of 1369 to a fellow teenager, Edmund Mortimer, 3rd Earl of March, whose father, Roger Mortimer, 2nd Earl of March, had helped overthrow King Edward II. Edmund Mortimer held important lands for Edward III in the territories adjoining Wales, and his marriage to Philippa was meant to bind the young man closer to the crown.

Philippa and Edmund Mortimer had four children who survived to adulthood, and their son Roger Mortimer, 4th Earl of March was the heir presumptive to the throne during the reign of his cousin, King Richard II, until Richard’s throne was usurped by King Henry IV. In turn, Philippa and Edmund’s great-grandson, Edward, 4th Duke of York, would overthrow Henry IV’s grandson to become King Edward IV.

4 thoughts on “Was Lionel of Antwerp Poisoned?

  1. Thank you for this great article. I had not really read about, or paid much attention to Lionel. Found him rather interesting along with the history. I am slowly learning!

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