The Brothers York by Thomas Penn

I blame the parents…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Penn starts this history of the three York brothers with the background story of the weak King Henry VI, surrounded by venal lords and constantly threatened by Richard, Duke of York, father of the three brothers, who had a competing claim to the throne through the female line. He then takes us in a linear fashion through the downfall of Henry, and the reigns of Edward IV and Richard III, ending with Richard’s downfall and the rise to power of Henry VII, the first of the Tudors.

Penn writes very well, avoiding academic jargon and taking plenty of time to fill in the characters of the people he’s discussing. He assumes no prior knowledge, which as a newcomer to the period I found extremely helpful since it meant I never found myself floundering over unexplained references, as can often happen with history books.

Edward IV

The bulk of the book concentrates on the reign of Edward IV, which makes sense since he ruled for over twenty years whereas the middle brother George, Duke of Clarence, never got to be king and the youngest brother, Richard III, managed a mere two years before he lost his crown, and his life along with it. Unfortunately, Richard is by far the more interesting king (in my opinion), so I’d have been happier to spend more time in his company and rather less on Edward’s interminable taxes and squabbles with France and Burgundy. I have a feeling this says far more about my dilettante approach to history than it does about the book, however! But after an excellent start with all the intrigue and fighting leading up to Edward’s final power grab, I found my interest dipped for quite a long period in the middle of the book as Penn laid out the detail of his long reign.

George, Duke of Clarence

It picks up again when Edward finally dies, and the nefarious Richard usurps the throne from his nephew. Richard’s reign might have been short but it’s full of incident and Penn tells it excellently. Intriguingly, although of course he relates the story of the Princes in the Tower, Penn doesn’t tell us his own opinion as to whether Richard was guilty of their murder or not. I suppose this makes sense, since (weirdly) there are still strong factions on either side of that question and he’d have been bound to alienate half his readership whichever position he took. He gives enough detail of the event and the contemporaneous rumours around it for the reader to make up her own mind, if she hasn’t already. (Yes, of course Richard was guilty, if you’re wondering… 😉 )

Richard III

Penn finishes as Richard’s reign comes to its tragic/well-deserved* end, rounding the story off with an uber-quick résumé of Henry VII and the Tudors, explaining how the Yorkist divide gradually diminished over time.

Thomas Penn
(photo: Justine Stoddart)

Overall, this is an excellent history, plainly but well told. I’d say it’s aimed more at the general reader than an academic audience, and is particularly good as an introduction to the period – I’m not sure that there’s much new in it for people who already have a solid understanding of the time of the York kings. It’s clearly well researched, with plenty of detail, and it covers all the major personalities of the time, not just the brothers. I came out of it feeling much clearer about how all the various well known names – Warwick, Elizabeth Woodville, Margaret of Anjou, etc. – fitted together, and what parts they played in the Yorkist story. I did struggle with the long middle section of Edward’s rather dull reign, but a historian really can’t be expected to make something exciting if it isn’t. But the first and last sections had more than enough treachery, betrayal and general skulduggery to satisfy even me! Recommended.

*delete according to preference

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Allen Lane.

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32 thoughts on “The Brothers York by Thomas Penn

    • Penn left it open, a bit like the Princes – he told the story and the competing versions and left it up to the reader. I choose to believe it since it’s such fun… though maybe not so much for poor Clarence! 😉

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    • Ha! All I knew about them came from Shakespeare too, and I was actually quite surprised by how closely he’d stuck to the facts – I’d always believed Shakespeare distorted things pretty badly. Richard would have been in serious trouble if he’d had to face a jury of bloggers, it seems… 😀

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    • To be honest, nor me, this far back when it was all just about power-hungry men (usually) fighting over territory. Once it gets to the Tudors and after, when religious and social changes come into play, I’m far more interested. But I felt I really ought to know at least the basics of the Yorks just because…

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  1. My knowledge of this period of history is pretty basic, so I would probably gain a fair amount of information from reading this book. I’m becoming increasingly drawn to nonfiction at the moment for some reason, so I might consider reading it.

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    • I do think this one is ideal for beginners – I felt much clearer about the whole period, which has always been a big hole in my grasp of history. Yes, I’m finding non-fiction easier too at the moment – not sure why. I seem to be able to take it in better, whereas fiction just isn’t holding my concentration the way it usually does.

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  2. I don’t know enough about this period, FictionFan, except for the major stuff, so this would be right up my street in terms of how academic it is. And what a fascinating topic, too! See, that’s the thing I’ve always thought about history. It really is fascinating if it’s told in an interesting way – through people’s stories. I’m glad you were really drawn into this one.

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    • I always like history told as biography, especially this far back before social movements were really a thing. And the Yorks have always been a huge hole in my grasp of English history, so this was a very good way to fill it. I’d previously enjoyed his biography of Henry VII too – another hole filled!

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    • Haha, yes, I only knew the Shakespeare version too and was pleasantly surprised to find it’s not as far from the facts as I’d always assumed. Poor old Richard wouldn’t have stood a chance with a jury of bloggers, it seems… 😀

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  3. I know little about this period of history, so it’s probably one I ought to read. Maybe one day. Certainly not now, when I’m pampering myself by reading what I *want* to read. Yeah, I know, but I’m starting to climb the walls being stuck inside, ha!!

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    • Haha! I think it’s beginning to get to us all now, even people like me who are actually hermits by choice most of the time! A bit of pampering sounds very wise – I’m still struggling to concentrate on any book, and am abandoning books all over the place! Oh well, it all helps get the TBR down… 😉

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  4. I enjoy this time period and loved Philippa Gregory’s novels about the various players. I’ve read far more historical fiction than outright history, so I think I could benefit from this one. It’s on my wishlist. 🙂

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    • I’ve actually tended to avoid historical fiction about this time period because I knew I didn’t have a good enough grasp of the history, and that always irritates me when reading fiction. Now just think how many historical fictions I’ll be able to add to the TBR! 😉 Hope you enjoy this one if you get to it sometime. 😀

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  5. Not really my kind of read, but it does sound like a good introduction to the period and it certainly helps that it’s written for the general reader rather than for academics. Glad you enjoyed it! 🙂

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    • I enjoy the occasional history book and am always grateful when the author manages to write it in a non-academic style. And at least I finally have a grasp on that period of history – I’ve always been a bit ashamed not to know about the Yorks! 😉

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  6. This is one of my favourite periods of history and I enjoyed this book, although it didn’t really offer anything new. I’m glad it worked as an introduction to the period for you. Richard’s reign is definitely the most interesting, so I agree that the section on Edward went on for too long. As for who murdered the princes, I always assumed it was Richard too until I started to read more about it and now I can’t make up my mind!

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    • It definitely works as an introduction, but I suspected it wasn’t adding much new to people who were familiar with the Yorks already. I couldn’t help wishing Richard had usurped the throne about fifteen years earlier so I didn’t have to read any more about Edward and his never-ending continental alliances! Interesting – I don’t know enough about the competing theories over the Princes to really have an educated opinion, but I’m still convinced it was Richard whodunit… 😉

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  7. History is muddled for me, my knowledge so limited, but! I am familiar with that story of the two princes in the tower because I toured the Tower of London when I visited the UK three years ago, what an intriguing story! And yes good point, historians can’t make mountains out of molehills or they should be writing fiction instead 🙂

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    • My own knowledge of history doesn’t go as far as this either so it was good to get a better feel for who all these people were, and to actually understand at last why the princes in the Tower were murdered! Isn’t the Tower of London a brilliant place to visit? So much history… 😀

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