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.

Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor England by Thomas Penn

Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor England is a biography of Henry VII, England’s first Tudor king – a king of whom Francis Bacon said, “he were a dark prince, and infinitely suspicious, and his times full of secret conspiracies and troubles”.

I previously knew very little about Henry VII and was drawn to this book in the hope that it would be a good introduction to the subject. The book opens with a prologue which details the years of unrest and uncertainty that accompanied the Wars of the Roses and explains how Henry VII came to the throne in 1485. Penn then takes us through all the important moments of Henry’s life and reign, including the marriage of his eldest son Arthur to Catherine of Aragon and Arthur’s subsequent death which led to Henry’s second son (the future Henry VIII) becoming his heir.

Henry VII himself is portrayed as a complex and secretive person, clever and shrewd, manipulative and controlling (especially where money and power are concerned). Something that is emphasised throughout the book is that Henry knew his claim to the throne had not been a strong one and that he went to great lengths to convince his subjects to accept him as a legitimate king of England and to prove to them that the rival houses of York and Lancaster had been reconciled under the Tudor name. Despite his efforts, though, he found himself the constant target of plots and conspiracies. The book goes into a lot of detail in recounting some of these planned rebellions and the reasons why they failed.

As someone who doesn’t read a lot of historical non-fiction and who is not an expert on the Tudors, I still had no problems understanding any part of this book. Although it does require some concentration, I found it a very interesting and absorbing read from beginning to end. For those of you who do already have a good knowledge of Henry’s reign, there might not be anything new here but I’m sure you’ll still find plenty to enjoy. Penn’s descriptions of royal weddings, funerals, court pageants etc are particularly well-written and vivid.

The book is very thorough and detailed, with all sources and references provided in the notes. It’s not what you could describe as a quick and easy read, but it’s still very enjoyable and I would highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in learning about the reign of Henry VII and the early life of his son, Henry VIII. Thomas Penn appears to have stayed objective and resisted the temptation to let his own opinions and theories get in the way of the facts, giving us a balanced and unbiased view of a fascinating period of history. I hope he goes on to write more books as he’s definitely a name to look out for.

I have to admit, before I started reading this book I already had a very negative impression of Henry VII due to the way he is portrayed in novels such as The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman and The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey. Winter King hasn’t done much to change my opinion of him, but I’m pleased that at least I’ve now had the chance to fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge.