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: “Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England” by Thomas Penn

Winter King book cover

I have to start off by saying Thomas Penn has written a rip roaring biography here. It is certainly easy to see how this book won the 2012 H.W. Fisher Best First Biography prize. If you are looking for an in depth survey of the reign of Henry VII, this is your answer.

Penn begins by reminding us how Henry’s reign is overlooked by many historians because of the notoriety of his son Henry VIII and grand-daughter Elizabeth I. He likens the beginning of Henry VIII’s reign to a metaphorical spring, a second coming of sorts because Henry VIII seemed to be the opposite of his father. This is why he named the book the “Winter King”.

Henry VII had a dubious claim to the throne of England based on ancestry alone. He had spent most of his early years in exile on the continent and essentially had no thought or chance of becoming King of England. But when dissent in England reared its head during the reign of Richard III, Henry’s horizon opened up to possibilities. Disenchanted nobles gathered by his side and an invasion was planned, executed and carried forth with worthy results for Henry. This part of the story is genuinely exceptional. After his victory at Bosworth Field, Henry married Edward IV’s daughter Elizabeth of York. Almost immediately she gave birth to a son, Arthur, and the Tudor dynasty was on its way to establishing its splendid reputation in history.

After Henry quelled a few rebellions and crushed the hopes of a few imposters to the throne, the reign became relatively quiet. But in 1501-2, Henry’s heir Prince Arthur and then his wife died. It was a time of crisis for Henry. All his hopes were placed in his second son, Prince Henry. This was when Henry became physically ill with the tuberculosis which would eventually be fatal. His paranoia became even more evident. He was cautious and secretive and began resorting to extra-judicial measures. He found men to carry out his rare and extraordinary methods for collecting money and keeping people under control.

Penn is masterful in setting the scene here. He tells us about the men Henry relied on. He talks about secret plots and behind the scenes diplomatic maneuvers. He gives us great insight into the personality of Henry and what his motives were. There are delicious descriptions of visits of ambassadors, Elizabeth of York’s funeral, the entry of Catherine of Aragon into London and her wedding to Arthur Tudor. Really the entire panoply of Henry’s reign is described in great detail.

For me, the best chapters are in the last third of the book. After the death of Arthur and Elizabeth, King Henry brings Prince Henry to court to give him every advantage and to make clear the hopes of the dynasty rested on his shoulders. The education of Prince Henry as well as a great awareness of how he spent his leisure time is recounted. Prince Henry was closely guarded by his father and not allowed much leeway in his behavior. But the descriptions of him and his pals and their military training and jousting antics are really fun to read about.

I found that reading S.B. Chrimes biography of Henry first laid the foundation for a better understanding of Penn’s book so I would recommend that course of action. But it’s not totally necessary. For me the book seemed to start off a little slow, however it certainly picks up after a few chapters and begins to read more like an enjoyable historical fiction book. Only it’s not fiction! Really I can’t recommend this book enough if you are interested in the Tudor era and this overlooked king.