Book Review: “The Brothers York: An English Tragedy” by Thomas Penn

Penns brothers york book cover

 

Thomas Penn’s “The Brothers York:  An English Tragedy” is chock full of revelations.  His book on King Henry VII “The Winter King”details Henry’s creative accounting and this book does the same with King Edward IV.  Penn breaks down the inventive financing Edward IV engaged in to raise funds for the government and for himself.  Much of the money garnered by these methods went straight to the king’s chamber rather than the Exchequer.  The raising of bonds from nobles in exchange for good behavior was started during Edward’s reign and Henry VII just continued the practice.

Penn explains over and over again how Edward IV manipulated the inheritance laws to confiscate property from the nobility and in turn, give it to his brothers and most loyal followers.  This practice obviously did not endear Edward IV to the nobility.  These transactions caused resentment and anger toward the king, perhaps more so than his favoritism of the Woodville family.  And Penn, rightfully so, emphasizes that any gains made by the Woodville family only occurred at Edward’s pleasure.

The manipulation of the inheritance laws greatly concerned King Edward’s brother George, Duke of Clarence.  Before Edward married Elizabeth Woodville and had children, George was the king’s heir.  This went to his head, giving him a sense of entitlement.  George was aggrieved and angry with Edward for giving and taking away property and for the loss of his position as heir to the throne.  Foolishly, George rebelled against Edward, and we all know how this ended.

But to me, there is one startling revelation.  Penn really only hints at this and never comes right out and says it point blank.  Richard III was an alcoholic.  He mentions Richard was seriously drinking large quantities of wine after he became king.  This was so intriguing to me.  In his footnotes, he cites an article in an academic journal titled:  “Multi-isotope analysis demonstrates significant lifestyle changes in King Richard III” written by four researchers from the British Geological Survey and from the University of Leicester.

They examined the bones of Richard III and concluded he was eating a diet of rich food and significantly increased his wine consumption during his years as king.  The scientific evidence suggests Richard was under great stress and drinking heavily.  In his case, it was easy to become king but not so easy to execute royal duties and remain king.  This goes a long way in explaining some of Richard’s behavior and decisions.

All the little intricacies and relationships between the three brothers and the courtiers and nobles of the court are examined intensely by Penn with extraordinary perception and discernment.  To me, studying the Wars of the Roses always made me uncomfortable because none of it made complete sense.  Penn’s insight into the character and machinations of Edward IV, George, Duke of Clarence and Richard III has really gone a long way toward explaining this decades long conflict.  It all becomes crystal clear and is pretty fascinating.  This is one of the best books I’ve read in the last ten years.  I highly recommend it.

 

Book Review: “A History of Portuguese Overseas Expansion, 1400-1668” by Malyn Newitt

I’ve been doing some research in Portuguese history and their seaborne empire and found this volume. Having just finished Charles R. Boxer’s book on the Portuguese Seaborne Empire, I was a little concerned this book might just be a rehash of Boxer’s. But I discovered there was no need to worry because this one is completely different. While Newitt covers the same topic, this is a more in-depth survey of the era.

Malyn Newitt is Charles Boxer Professor of History at King’s College, London, the same university where Boxer taught. In this book, he examines how the ideas and institutions of late medieval society, as well as Portugal’s rivalry with Castile, were utilized to expand into Africa, Asia, Southeast Asia and the Atlantic islands allowing the country to become a global commercial powerhouse. He scrutinizes the origins of Portuguese expansion up until 1469, Portuguese expansion from 1469-1500, expansion in the East and the Atlantic from 1500-1515, the Portuguese diaspora and the empire at its height in 1580.

At that point in time, the Portuguese empire faced a huge challenge to its dominance from the heavily armed and better resourced English and Dutch which lead to a steep decline. The empire was resilient and survived in a reduced capacity from 1620 until the end of this survey in 1668. Newitt’s last chapter is an overview of the entire era.

Newitt gives a chronological survey of each of the exploratory voyages made by the Portuguese pioneers. At first these journeys were sponsored by the Portuguese monarchy with any new lands discovered coming under the aegis of the king. Motives for this exploration were trade, scientific discovery and a great desire to spread Christianity through missionaries. In the beginning, the king managed to keep some control over the trade and profits but as the empire grew, an “unofficial” empire came into being.

Reading about this era gives some perspective to our current global economic situation. I enjoyed this account of Portuguese expansion. All areas are covered such as Africa, Brazil, India, Southeast Asia, Japan, China and Sri Lanka. The book includes a glossary, maps and a complete bibliography.

Book Review: “Philip of Spain” by Henry Kamen

Kamen’s seminal biography of King Philip II of Spain was published in 1997 and I remember when I read it then I enjoyed it very much. Since reading Geoffrey Parker’s new biography of Philip, I decided to read this book again. I’m glad I did as it gave me a new perspective.

Kamen’s book is not as detailed as Parker’s. Parker has a lot more information on Philip’s early life and the writing is based more on Philip’s actual words from existing and newly discovered documentation. However, Kamen’s book has a great overview of Philip’s reign. He breaks down Philip’s time in power into several sections by years with chapter titles such as The Formative Years, The Renaissance Prince, Soldier and King, Towards Total War and The Time of Thunder to name a few. For information on the man himself, the two chapters with the most interesting material are titled The World of Philip II and The Statesman. These cover the man himself, his wives and children, his foreign policy and other noteworthy tidbits of information about Philip as a person.

Because I had just read Parker’s biography, it was thought-provoking to note the differences in opinion between the two authors. Kamen mentions throughout this book how he disagrees with Parker on several points, some minor but with several major differences. For example, Kamen does not believe Philip II had anything to do with the murder of Juan Escobedo while Parker goes into great detail in an effort to prove Philip did. It is intriguing to consider the two points of view.

This book is enhanced with maps, a family tree and photo section. It appears in some ways that Kamen is an apologist for Philip but this does not detract from his perspective on the life and reign of this significant and in some ways remarkable king. I highly recommend this book and would suggest if the reader has the time and opportunity to read both this biography and Parker’s. Kamen’s book has definitely withstood the test of time since its publication 21 years ago.

Book Review: “Imprudent King: A New Life of Philip II” by Geoffrey Parker

While doing research on Queen Mary I of England, I happened to find this book about her husband King Philip II of Spain. It was published by the Yale University Press in 2014 and Geoffrey Parker is a known authority on the reign of this king. Parker states he began research and the writing of a biography of Philip in the 1960’s. He states in the introduction that his first effort is 1600 pages long and trusted editors worked on that volume to produce this shortened version of the book.

Parker gained access to some papers of Philip’s reign in 2012. These documents were part of a huge collection which were stored in a vault in the Hispanic Society of America in New York City. They remained unseen from the time Philip’s secretaries had filed them away until 2012 when they were identified and catalogued. This allowed Parker to update his biography even further with this new found information.

King Philip did not allow anyone to write about his life while he lived so there are no contemporary books about him. Parker states in his introduction that his intention was to tell Philip’s life story using only Philip’s words. Philip was known as “the paper king” and left mountains of paperwork either written in his own hand or with annotations on other people’s documents. Parker succeeds in his mission to do this. It is really fascinating to read these words, giving great insight into the mind of this man who ruled an empire upon which the sun never set.

I’ve never read a biography that goes into such great detail. While some might find the minutiae irritating or boring, I found it interesting. A couple of things that struck me were how Philip ate lunch every day and would mention “come see me after lunch” or “we will work on this during lunch”. Among other things, Philip began work on one of the greatest Renaissance royal residences: El Escorial. After hearing about the building of this massive project, I would really like to visit.

Another chapter discusses genetics and the intermarriage of the Hapsburgs and how this affected their health, especially Philip’s son Don Carlos. There is a graph showing Don Carlos’ family tree. Parker explains he was the great-grandson of Juana of Castile through both is father and his mother, giving him a double dose of mental instability. And, instead of having eight great-grandparents, he only had four. No wonder his physical and mental health were unstable.

The author gives his theory on the murder of Juan Escobedo, one of Philip’s principal secretaries. He believes Philip was culpable for this murder and goes to great lengths in explaining why. It’s almost like a detective story. Parker is very good at telling it like it is about King Philip, good and bad. This is a really good read and whether the reader has knowledge of Spanish history or not will find it worthwhile.

Book Review: “Richard III: Brother Protector King” by Chris Skidmore

A friend on Twitter alerted me that Chris Skidmore was looking for people interested in reading his new book. After contacting him, he was gracious enough to send me a copy of the book and I’m very glad he did. It is outstanding and thought-provoking.

This is the third biography I’ve read about Richard III and by far the best. Skidmore has managed to produce a methodical and accurate analysis of the chronicles of the time, providing significant insight into the many complexities of Richard’s life. He also gives us a unique perspective on the political climate of the Wars of the Roses. Every controversy is covered here. While he may not implicate or exonerate some of the major characters, he explains what would have been believed at the time and how this made a difference in the actions taken. This is how Richard’s contemporaries would have viewed him.

The book has already been released in the UK and will be available in the US in April of 2018. There are beautiful color illustrations in the book as well as several maps and family trees. This is a measured and unbiased account of Richard’s life. It is thoroughly engrossing, riveting and impeccably researched. I had a hard time putting this book down and highly recommend it. This should become the new definitive biography of this controversial monarch.

Book Review: “The Myth of Bloody Mary” by Linda Porter

This is the third biography I’ve read on my list in doing research. While they have all been good so far, this is the best for several reasons. It is clear that Mary has been much maligned by the vicissitudes of history. She is hated and misunderstood and is best remembered for the burning of heretics during her reign, mostly due to the work of John Foxe and his “Book of Martyrs”. Porter does a masterful job of cutting through all the myths and gives us incredible insight into the personality of Mary and the circumstances of her time as Queen of England.

Ms. Porter gives us a vision of what Mary was thinking from an early age and how she was treated by her parents. In the beginning, Mary was considered a sparkling princess, given a household of her own, the best classical education and music instruction, beautiful clothes and jewels. Even though she was not in the presence of her parents for any extended period of time, she adored them. This made it all that much harder for her to accept the high intensity treatment by her father when Henry VIII repudiated her mother and demoted Mary’s status. For a long time, Henry didn’t acknowledge Mary as his heir. He finally did and then withdrew the endorsement.

Mary never recovered from the stress of her complete and utter submission to her father. She then spent several years in relative peace, keeping her thoughts to herself and out of trouble. When her brother Edward VI reigned, Mary was under pressure again. When he died, Mary faced her greatest challenge. There were those who put forth Jane Grey as Edward’s successor and Mary risked all to take the throne from Jane. It was a great triumph and showed Mary’s courage and tenacity.

Once Queen, Mary had many issues to contend with. Her council was always at odds. Her choice of husband didn’t go down well and her phantom pregnancies were highly unusual. Philip did treat her appropriately and with complete respect but left England as soon as he could. There were several rebellions against her but she rose to the challenge and deflected the danger. Her efforts to return England to the Catholic Church didn’t make much headway. The kingdom suffered from famine and pestilence in the last year making things that much more difficult for Mary. In the end, Mary herself succumbed to the rampant influenza.

I loved this book for the insight into Mary’s personality and Mary’s vision for England. Of the three books so far, Porter gives the best explanation of Mary’s persecution and execution of the Protestant martyrs, putting it into the context of what was happening in Europe at the time. She also explains how Mary paved the way for her sister Elizabeth, giving her a template and good foundation for her long reign. Porter goes a long way toward restoring Mary’s reputation as the first English Queen Regnant. This is a really balanced reflection on her accomplishments.

Book Review: “Mary I: England’s Catholic Queen” by John Edwards

This book is one volume in the outstanding Yale English Monarchs series and was published in 2011. This series always delivers high quality and reliable historical research. This book is no exception.

Edwards is an expert in English as well as Spanish history, making him uniquely qualified to write a biography of Mary who married the Spanish King Philip II. A lot of material is covered here. Edwards illustrates Mary’s childhood and describes how she went from being the beloved princess and apple of her parent’s eye to tortured soul. The descriptions of how she was treated by Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell in getting her to acknowledge her parent’s marriage as null and void and her own bastardy are harrowing.

Mary’s valiant fight for the throne is portrayed. Her tortuous decision to marry Philip was made in secret and was announced as a surprise to her council and the kingdom. There is a great deal of unique insight into the personalities of Mary and Philip and nice details about their marriage and partnership in ruling England. There is a chapter in the book where Edward’s gives context and background information on how Calais was lost on Mary’s watch. The loss of this strategic enclave on the continent was the unfortunate a by-product of the Hapsburg and Valois infighting over control of Italy. As Edward’s depicts the history, it is a riveting read.

The greatest contribution of this book are the chapters dealing with Mary’s lifelong dream to return England to the bosom of the Catholic Church. There were many practical and complicated matters to resolve for which there really were no permanent solutions. In this battle, Mary worked with her cousin, the Papal Legate Cardinal Reginald Pole. He was her main advisor. Edwards gives his fair and balanced analysis of why Mary burned the alleged heretics.

At first, the transformation from Protestantism to Catholicism went relatively well Mary. But when Pope Paul IV was elected, the entire operation took a drastic turn. Paul had been a personal friend of Pole but after this election, he began to turn against King Philip II and eventually Queen Mary and Pole were drawn into the conflict. This totally hampered Mary’s dream for England to be Catholic again.

This book is really fascinating. I enjoyed Edwards’s insights into Mary’s personality. If anyone is looking for a complete and enthralling biography of Queen Mary I, I would recommend this one.