The Brothers York: An English Tragedy by Thomas Penn

I don’t often get excited about non-fiction books, but having enjoyed Thomas Penn’s Winter King – a biography of Henry VII – a few years ago, I was really looking forward to reading this new one, particularly as it covers one of my favourite periods of English history: the Wars of the Roses. I’ve read about this period many times now, but it sounded as though this book had something different to offer, promising to focus on Edward IV, Richard III and George, Duke of Clarence – three of the sons of Richard, Duke of York and Cecily Neville.

The Wars of the Roses were a series of battles for control of the throne of England fought between two rival branches of the House of Plantagenet: the House of York and the House of Lancaster. The background to the conflict is quite complex, but Thomas Penn devotes the early chapters of the book to explaining how it came about and the efforts of first the Duke of York and then his eldest son, Edward – assisted by his cousin, the Earl of Warwick – to take the throne from the Lancastrian king, Henry VI. Penn then takes us through the whole of Edward’s reign until his death in 1483 when his youngest brother, Richard, claims the throne under controversial circumstances. A relatively short account of Richard’s reign follows, before the book comes to an end with Richard’s defeat at the Battle of Bosworth and the rise of a new dynasty: the Tudors.

The Brothers York is as well written and thoroughly researched as I would expect from a Thomas Penn book, yet I had mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it provides an excellent overview of a complicated, fascinating period of history written in a very readable and accessible style; on the other hand, if you’re already familiar with the period, as I am, there’s nothing new here that hasn’t been covered before in other books. I found The Hollow Crown by Dan Jones, for example, just as engaging and informative – and a more manageable length! I should mention that The Brothers York is a very long book that took me most of January to read; if you’re planning to read it, bear in mind that it’s going to be quite a commitment.

The majority of the book deals with Edward IV, which is understandable as his reign spanned more than twenty years (apart from a few months in 1470-71 when the crown was briefly reclaimed by Lancaster). I thought Penn’s portrayal of Edward seemed quite fair and unbiased, showing his transformation over the years from the brave, handsome, charismatic young man who succeeded so brilliantly on the battlefield to an increasingly overweight and unhealthy king, interested mainly in comfort and pleasure, accused of showing favouritism towards his wife’s Woodville relatives, something which caused resentment amongst his own loyal friends and supporters.

The portrayal of Richard, whose short and troubled reign is covered in the final section of the book, is less well balanced. It’s certainly not as negative as some I’ve read, but I definitely felt that Penn was selective about which sources he used and which aspects of Richard’s life he chose to focus on in order to show him in a bad light. That’s not really surprising though, as his sympathies are clearly with Henry Tudor, the subject of his previous book. What did surprise me was that the mystery of the Princes in the Tower is hardly mentioned at all. It’s implied that Richard was responsible, but it’s all passed over very quickly and none of the other theories for the princes’ disappearances are explored, which I thought was unusual (not that I particularly wanted to read about all of that again, but if this was the first time you’d read about it you wouldn’t realise it was actually one of history’s biggest unsolved mysteries).

As for the third York brother, George, Duke of Clarence, although he never becomes king himself he spends most of his adult life alternating between supporting Edward and conspiring against him, and in conflict with Richard over the inheritance of the Neville lands (George was married to Isabel Neville and Richard to her sister, Anne). The book is subtitled An English Tragedy and I think it’s obvious that the tragedy we are being shown here, as far as the House of York is concerned, is that the division within the family and the inability of the brothers to stay united and work together is what led to their downfall.

While the focus of the book is obviously on the situation in England, events taking place elsewhere in Europe are also discussed, including the succession to the Duchy of Burgundy and diplomatic relations between France and England. It’s all very interesting and all adds up to give a full and detailed portrait of the period. What I really wanted from a book with the title The Brothers York, though, was more analysis of the relationships between the three brothers and more insight into their characters, and there was just not enough of that for me. I think I learned almost as much about the Earl of Warwick as I did about Edward, George and Richard.

Overall, this is a very good book but I suppose I was slightly disappointed because I was hoping for something a little bit different and not just a straightforward retelling of the Wars of the Roses. For newcomers to the period, though, I’m sure you will find a wealth of information here and I would have no hesitation in recommending this book as a suitable place to start.

Thanks to Penguin Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

11 thoughts on “The Brothers York: An English Tragedy by Thomas Penn

  1. piningforthewest says:

    I really enjoyed reading Conn Iggulden’s fictional series on The Wars of the Roses, something I didn’t know too much about, but I think they are well researched too.

  2. www.rosesintherainmemoir.wordpress.com says:

    Thanks for your review. I don’t think I’ll read this book, now, having read several others that do delve into the relationships of the brothers. Jealousy, distrust, selfish ambition all combined to destroy this family. On the other hand, how much mischief did the Woodvilles stir up, themselves?

    • Helen says:

      It’s not a bad book, but if you’ve read about the brothers before I don’t think you would learn anything new from this one. And yes, the Woodvilles caused a lot of trouble too!

  3. Judy Krueger says:

    I am having a long books reading binge, myself. Books over 800 pages or that take me a week or more to read are ones I call long. There is something good about staying with a book for so long though it can feel a bit alarming when one is used to reading several books a week. I admire you for the depths of knowledge you seek in various times of history.

    • Helen says:

      I love reading about the same period from different perspectives and by different authors, although this particular book didn’t really offer anything new. It wasn’t just the length of this one, but also the detail and intensity that made it such a long read for me!

  4. FictionFan says:

    Excellent review! I just finished it a couple of days ago and you’ve confirmed what I thought. As a newcomer to the period, it was great for me because it’s a fairly straightforward overview of the period, but I felt it probably wasn’t bringing anything new to the table for people who knew about this time already. I was also surprised that he didn’t go into the Princes in the Tower story more, and while I appreciated that Edward’s reign deserved most coverage being by far the longest, I was surprised at how little space Richard’s reign rated. I must admit I also got very tired in the mid-section with all those France/Burgundy/England alliances and betrayals. Overall though, I think it sounds as if it worked better for me because of my lack of existing knowledge…

    • Helen says:

      I definitely think it’s a book that’s more suitable for newcomers, so I’ll be interested to see your review. I enjoyed it overall, but it didn’t really tell me anything new…and yes, I thought it was a bit strange that there was so much on the France and Burgundy alliances and so little on the Princes in the Tower!

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