Edward is at the heart of Thomas Penn's gripping new history of what he calls a 'sequence of vendettas and turf wars', better known as the Wars of the Roses. Sharing the limelight with him are his two younger brothers. George, Duke of Clarence, was eventually executed for treason on Edward's orders, supposedly drowned in a butt of malmsey wine. Richard, Duke of Gloucester, succeeded his brother on the throne but was killed in battle at Bosworth, his body buried 'in a ditch like a dog' to await rediscovery in the 21st century underneath a Leicester car park.
Penn follows the fluctuating fortunes of his protagonists in vivid detail.
Perhaps determined by its title, Penn’s is a very masculine book: women of the calibre of Margaret of Anjou and Elizabeth Woodville surely deserved more space. Jane Shore, reputedly Edward IV’s favourite mistress, doesn’t make an entrance until the king is dead. In the 1450s, Margaret of Anjou made plans to resolve the crisis of Henry VI’s incapacity that weren’t factional and would have been seriously considered but for the Duke of York’s ambition. She could be an active and assertive leader, as the Paston Letters make clear. Penn rightly foregrounds the ideas of her protégé, John Fortescue, who pioneered a fresh approach to monarchy and government, notably in crown finance and estate management. Much of this template was developed after he fled with Margaret to France in the summer of 1463, and witnessed at first hand Louis XI’s centralising reforms. We need a better understanding of the extent of Margaret’s commitment to such proposals. Several were adopted in Edward IV’s second reign, and Fortescue’s ideas were taken up wholesale by the Tudors. Margaret’s very extensive European diplomacy while in exile – it involved Castile and Portugal as well as Burgundy and France – also deserves greater attention.
The Brothers York is a blow-by-blow narrative. It consists of a succession of murders, rebellions, plots, thefts and usurpations, embellished with much picturesque and atmospheric detail. It is all admirably done and at times gripping. But one is left wondering what it was all about. Greed and ambition probably require no special explanation. But how did these evil men acquire so many supporters? Why was the period so much more unstable than earlier and later ones? How did they get away with it in one of the most intensively administered countries of Europe, with powerful courts and representative institutions? And how did men like Richard of Gloucester reconcile their genuine and intense piety with their brutal way of life? Penn is so keen to tell us what happened next that he rarely pauses to address these questions. Analysis is not his strong suit.
Penn has interwoven the multiple strands of this story with great aplomb, ignoring the dead-ends of conspiracy theory in favour of sensible, balanced judgements. On the perennial question of the Princes in the Tower, for example, he contents himself with the simple but devastating point that if Richard III wanted to silence the proliferating gossip that he had murdered them, an increasingly existential threat to his support base, all he had to do was to produce the boys in public. But he could not, of course, because the gossip was true.
In calling this biographical study tragedy, Penn argues that there is ‘a tragic flaw in the Yorkist dynasty’ and that ‘the tragedy of the brothers York was that they destroyed themselves’. This is a useful corrective to those triumphalist accounts which see the Tudors as masters of historical destiny, with Lancastrians quashing Yorkists in the march towards modernity. Rather, in terms of the emblematic sign-system that gave the Wars of the Roses their name, what brings about the fall of the House of York is white-on-white violence or treachery.
Thomas Penn’s weighty new volume takes as its titular subject the lives of these three brothers. But The Brothers York is primarily a biography of the charismatic Edward — and a superb biography at that. Interwoven is the tale of three different brothers, the Yorks’ cousins through their mother Cecily Neville. Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, is known to history as the “kingmaker” and Edward’s most powerful political minister; here we also meet George Neville, the cultured and canny Archbishop of York, and his doughty warrior brother John, whose hold over the north of England played an essential role in securing Edward’s early reign.
Good history books appear to offer a refuge from the present; more meretricious ones claim to teach it unique lessons; but the best provide their readers with simultaneous relief and resonance. Penn’s Yorkist England, locked in protracted and fundamentally dishonest negotiations with France and Burgundy, stony broke but trying its hand with ever riskier loans from multinational bankers, periodically plague-struck, distantly apprised of menacing Turks, and ruled over by fratricidal chancers operating on boozy charm or scarcely sane martial reverie, is an excellent place to take an exciting, and instructive, holiday from 2019.
Penn’s first book, a biography of Henry VII – arguably the Tudor monarch with the lowest public profile – showed that he could craft pacy and convincing accounts out of 15th-century source materials. In The Brothers York, he succeeds again, smoothing the period’s interlocking alliances and multigenerational feuds into a narrative that is always readable and even thrilling... [I]t’s a measure of Penn’s skill as a narrator that he offers memorable sketches of even peripheral characters and brings a novelist’s verve to his telling of events. This doesn’t quite happen as convincingly with some of the book’s women... There are no simple analogies to be made between then and now, but Penn’s history of betrayal, backstabbing and paranoia strikes notes that still resonate today. On the brink of a new dispensation, England found itself desperately divided, its future far from certain.
Penn’s last book was Winter King, a well-received biography of the first Tudor monarch, Henry VII. That book was rightly praised for its fresh and lively narrative swagger, and Penn has brought all the same qualities to this new work on Edward. It is a long book, but is peppered with delightful, telling anecdotes and details. Some are comical and others grisly, but all breathe life into their subject, whose reign has proven too much for many less capable narrators to handle.