Book Review: Thomas Penn’s “The Brothers York: A Royal Tragedy”
The new book from historian Thomas Penn focuses on one of the two sides in England’s bloody Wars of the Roses.
At first glance, it might seem that it’s impossible to say anything new about the Wars of the Roses, England’s infamous and destructive civil conflict between the rival houses of Lancaster and York. However, Thomas Penn’s The Brothers York: A Royal Tragedy comes as close as I’ve seen in recent years. In contrast to other accounts of the period, which tend to focus on the battles or on the minutiae of dynastic relations — which are, of course, vital to understanding the period — Penn focuses on the strife within the House of York itself, as well as on its relationships with the other great powers of Europe, particularly the Duchy of Burgundy and the Kingdom of France. In that sense, it is much more of a biography of the three royal brothers at the center of that house — Edward, George, and Richard — than it is a chronicle of the Wars.
The book follows the fortunes of the House of York as it slowly finds itself drawn into a conflict with that of Lancaster, particularly the woefully ineffectual (and eventually rather mad) King Henry VI and his belligerent and ruthless queen Margaret of Anjou. The bulk of the book is devoted to the reign of Edward IV, who emerges as a vibrant yet contradictory figure. He was an oft-affable monarch who could also be incredibly spiteful and destructive when the mood struck him (a trait that was clearly inherited by his grandson, Henry VIII). He was a brilliant military leader who, time and again, managed to claw victory out of the jaw of defeat. Edward was, in Penn’s telling, a bit of a glutton, a man clearly stricken by an almost pathological desire to control every aspect of his personal body, even while sometimes becoming quite lazy and dilatory in the maintenance of his kingdom.
Throughout the book, Penn gives us a detailed look at the ways in which Edward’s rule took shape. Though I’m fairly knowledgeable about this particular period of English history, I have to admit that prior to reading this book I didn’t know a lot about the inner workings of royal administration. While it would be very easy for these parts of the book to get dragged down in the granular detail of the household accounts (I’m looking at you, Alison Weir), Penn keeps it moving quickly, never losing sight of the larger story that he’s trying to tell.
What is especially notable about this book is that it focuses less on battle and more on the many twists and turns that Yorkist diplomacy took as first Edward and then his brother Richard sought to keep England in the main current of European events. Louis XI of France looms especially large here, as he was to prove a thorn in the side of Edward for most of his reign. As Penn reminds us, the Wars of the Roses emerged in the shadow of the Hundred Years War and the efforts of several English monarchs — most notably Edward III and Henry V — to seize control of the French crown.
Anyone who is familiar with the Wars of the Roses knows that this was a period in which first one side and then the other managed to rise to prominence, only to plunge downward once again (the wheel of fortune is an apt metaphor). When one reads accounts of this period, it is very easy to lose track of events and characters, but that isn’t the case with The Brothers York. Penn has a strong grasp of the story that he’s trying to tell and, while he devotes a lot of attention to Edward, George also gets his fair shake. Unfortunately for George, he’s not a very easy person to like. Lacking either his elder brother’s innate charm and charisma nor his brother’s political skill and ruthlessness, he seems to swing somewhere in the middle. Small wonder that, inept plotter that he was, he ultimately ended up being executed on his elder brother’s orders (supposedly by being drowned in a vat of wine).
Now, on to Richard. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Penn is an anti-Riccardian, his analysis doesn’t shed a very positive light on the last ruling member of the House of York. In Penn’s telling, Richard was a bit of an arrogant man, always determined to hold people up to rigorous moral standards, even if he wasn’t able (or willing) to adhere to them himself. While he doesn’t go so far as to assert that Richard murdered the famous Princes in the Tower (his two nephews that he had declared illegitimate), he doesn’t make any secret of the fact that Richard had both motive and opportunity to order the deed done.
However, Penn also makes it clear that Richard was, in some ways, a master politician and stood poised to become a strong king, had he not met with disastrous defeat at the Battle of Bosworth Field. The unfortunate thing about Richard was that he was more than a little ruthless. He wasn’t afraid to destroy those that he felt had betrayed him, no matter the political consequences of such an action (his summary execution of William Hastings is a case in point). Unfortunately, he didn’t seem to have his elder brother’s charisma. While Edward could also be vicious in reprisal, he had the sort of charm that could work magic. People might have respected Richard, in Penn’s telling, but they rarely truly loved him.
Still, it’s hard not to feel a bit of sadness at the fall of this dynasty at Bosworth. In the end, the House of York was unable to really overcome its own squabbles and internecine conflicts to focus on the bigger picture. And, unfortunately, none of them really planned well enough for the future to allow their dynasty to survive. Though Edward’s sons might not have inherited the throne, he could at least take comfort that his line continued through his daughter Elizabeth who, as we all know, married Henry Tudor and was the mother of Henry VIII.
The Brothers York is a fascinating and gripping narrative history one of the bloodiest and most compelling periods of English history. Those who loved Game of Thrones will find much to enjoy here, as well those who love to learn about the backroom dealings and political machinations of royal dynasties.