The Brothers York: A Royal Tragedy

Image of The Brothers York: A Royal Tragedy
Release Date: 
June 16, 2020
Simon & Schuster
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“Thomas Penn in A Royal Tragedy covers the three brothers of the House of York in ‘one of the most seductive and contested stories in English history . . .’”

The War of the Roses, a conflict that “dragged on for thirty years and more” engulfed England in “successive waves of violence,” has everything for the reader who likes history rough archers, armored knights., cannons, family feuds, flawed characters, intrigue, murder, and politics” that left “behind a wreckage of mutual mistrust, suspicion and profound instability.”

Most of this “destructive chain of rebellion, deposition, vendetta, infanticide, usurpation and regicide” occurred after the red rose House of York defeated their white rose Lancaster rivals for the throne of England in a cousin’s war in 1461. It then became a civil war “between two factions of the House of York: white on white” that led to the Tudors’ three bloody traumatic generations of rule.

Thomas Penn in A Royal Tragedy covers the three brothers of the House of York in “one of the most seductive and contested stories in English history,” “casting the War of the Roses in a new light” “as a sickness within the Yorkish family.” Sufficient documentation, aided by Penn’s entertaining, easy to follow narrative, makes their lives and times real.

“The three brothers themselves burned fiercely and died young”: Edward IV, George Duke of Clarence, and Richard III. Raised “in a landscape of murders and executions fueled through self-defense and hungry ambition,” they conspired to destroy each other.

The author discredits later Tudor historical propaganda by arguing that the York brothers “achieved a kind of greatness restoring the monarchy’s authority and reforming its finances, creating conditions for renewed peace and prosperity.” The hallmark of Lancaster rule had been “venality and corruption” “with the slow collapse of in public order; indifferent to even the most modest proposals of reform.”

The Yorks created controversy, dissention, and resistance. Edward IV of York came to rule after the decades of “the bankrupt broken regime” of Henry VI of Lancaster. His father, the Duke of York and heir to the throne, had been assassinated and years before that his grandfather was executed.

Edward IV was “tireless” “in imposing the rule of law, restoring peace and order to England,” and establishing a network of trade agreements with other nations. He never won the hearts of his people or of the House of Lancaster, however

It was endless instability. France and Scotland helped against Edward when possible. Even his brother George, Duke of Clarence, joined conspiracies to oust Edward. London changed hands several times, ruthless retribution and slaughter became common.

The victories at Barnet and Tewkesbury left Edward the restored, sole, and undisputed King of England. He “all but exterminated the House of Lancaster,” executed King Henry VI (his son Edward and sole heir had already died in battle), and reconciled with his brothers.

This moment did not become a happy ending to this mind numbingly complicated story of betrayal, blood, debt, English law, family, war in France, war in Scotland, and intrigue. Edward eventually executed his brother the Duke of Clarence, although Edward himself died of natural causes likely with his physical excesses contributing to his demise.

Richard “had a brutal assumption of power” following the mysterious disappearance of his two nephews while under his charge, to become king. He died at the battle of Bosworth in 1485 that made Henry Tudor, King Henry VII. As so with so much of this story, the Yorks proved their own worst enemy. Matters could easily have ended differently.

“For if the War of the Roses were a domestic concern, fought on English soil, they were inextricably entangled with European affairs.” It affected the Medici bank in Florence, the “great entrepȏts of Flanders, France, Scotland, and the Vatican.

Telling of those 24 years takes Penn 688 pages of scholarly, in-depth, but well-written text. A Royal Tragedy has annotations, bibliography, and color illustrations. It also has useful family charts and maps.