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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Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor England by Thomas Penn

winter kingThe Hybrid Rose…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Like many people, I have always had an interest in perhaps the most famous of all the Kings, Henry VIII. However, prior to reading this book, I really knew nothing about the reign of his father, Henry VII, or indeed of Henry VIII’s early years. This book has helped fill much of that gap in my knowledge. As a non-historian, I wouldn’t pretend to be able to comment on the historical accuracy, but I found the book very well written, the arguments convincing and the whole a very interesting read.

Henry VII
Henry VII

Penn paints a picture of a monarch who spent his early years fighting first to gain and then to hold the throne at the tail end of the Wars of the Roses and who in his later years became obsessed with the need to consolidate his position and ensure an undisputed dynastic inheritance for his son. The author’s study of how Henry VII used bonds and fines as a method of exerting control over the aristocracy and of curtailing the power of any potential rivals was fascinating although, for my personal taste, a little over-detailed at times. I found it both interesting and unexpected that Henry VII chose to do this by financial control rather than by the axe later so beloved of Henry VIII.

Thomas Penn (photo: Justine Stoddart)
Thomas Penn
(photo: Justine Stoddart)

The most interesting parts of the book to me were those that dealt with the young Princes Arthur and Henry and with poor Catherine of Aragon, used for years as a pawn in a game of diplomatic chess. The author paints a sympathetic picture of how powerless Catherine was in influencing and determining her own fate – not unusual, of course, but often left undescribed. Penn also gives some great descriptions of state occasions: the marriage of Catherine to Arthur and later to Henry VIII, coronations, funerals, and the socially important jousting tournaments. We also learn who were the influences on Henry VIII’s education, both intellectual and chivalrous, and learn about the early careers of some of those who would be so significant in his later reign – More, Wolsey et al.


The Tudor Rose (wikimedia)
The Tudor Rose

The book is very much a biography rather than a social history and as such concentrates almost exclusively on royalty, aristocracy and the rich. Personally, I would have liked the author to shed a bit more light on how Henry VII’s reign impacted on the commoners. But that small criticism aside, I found this an entertaining and educational read, accessible to the non-historians amongst us, and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the Tudor period.

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

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