Richard III struggled against his two brothers for the crown

English history recounts many tales of bloody battles, but the infighting among “The Brothers York” was legendary for its ferocity.

Courtesy of Simon & Schuster
“The Brothers York: A Royal Tragedy” by Thomas Penn, Simon & Schuster, 688 pp.

Thomas Penn’s 2011 book, “Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor England” was a biography of Henry VII and the founding of the Tudor dynasty that rose from the wreckage of the ruinous Wars of the Roses between the houses of York and Lancaster. Aided by the tireless machinations of his mother, the Lady Margaret Beaufort (subject of “Uncrowned Queen: The Fateful Life of Margaret Beaufort, Tudor Matriarch,” a terrific biography by Nicola Tallis), Henry was able to maneuver events to the Battle of Bosworth Field, where he wrested the crown from Richard III, the last Yorkist king.

In his new book, “The Brothers York: A Royal Tragedy,” Penn turns away from the victor and toward the war itself, recounting the York/Lancaster clash by focusing on the three York brothers: Edward, George, and Richard. “Contemporaries acknowledged that these were three men of unusual gifts: shoulder to shoulder, they were practically invincible,” writes Penn. As readers familiar with the Wars of the Roses (or with Shakespeare’s relevant history plays) will know, the “royal tragedy” in this case was the fact that these brothers were only rarely willing to stand shoulder to shoulder. 

Some readers will perhaps be startled to be reminded that there were three York brothers instead of two. Tall, resplendent, roisterous King Edward IV has a strong legacy; stooped, scheming Richard III is infamous; but who exactly is that George guy? Much of his popular fame springs from the manner of his death. For his part in a plot against Edward’s reign, George was drowned in what Penn clarifies as a sweet Greek wine called malvasia. “Even at the last, Edward had been unable to resist indulging in one of his typical poor jokes,” Penn writes. “It was a gag of exquisite tastelessness.”

The horror of fratricide is merely the price of admission to the family drama Penn here relates. By the time Edward has George murdered, readers have already watched these two and Richard plot against and brood about each other for hundreds of pages, and Penn’s superb gifts as a storyteller make those pages as enjoyable an account of this chaotic period in English history as anything since Thomas Costain’s “The Last Plantagenets” nearly 60 years ago. 

And despite George’s sociopathic cowardice and Edward’s fratricidal callousness, the villain of any volume like “The Brothers York” will always be Richard. In the book’s first half, he’s an undoubtedly brave but somewhat slippery figure, and like most biographers, Penn can scarcely disguise his fascination with this most infamous of Shakespeare’s villains. But as the narrative moves forward, as Richard steadily accumulates wealth and influence under his brother’s watchful tutelage, the intensity of the drama increases. 

When Edward dies in April 1483 (aged only 40, but Penn raises no shadow of suspicion over his brother, who appeared to have a solid alibi), that drama reaches something of a climax. Richard is regarded by all as the steady hand who will guide his little nephew, now King Edward V, until the boy comes of age. As Penn narrates, William Hastings, a powerful Edward supporter, marveled at this peaceful transfer of power, commenting that it had been achieved with as little bloodshed “as might have come from a cut finger.” Richard soon compensated for this lack of blood by having Hastings unceremoniously decapitated. Penn remarks that Richard found Hastings’ lack of loyalty confusing and overwhelming – a level of annoyance that does not seem to merit resorting to the broadsword, but the story quickly moves on to the main event of Richard’s villainy: the murder of the princes in the Tower. 

By the summer of 1483, the two young princes were widely feared to be dead; according to one contemporary witness, Londoners would “burst forth into tears and lamentations” when the young king's name was mentioned. Sentiment had never been particularly warm toward Richard; now it turned completely against him. “Having lived through the violent upheavals of recent years, people weren’t easily shocked,” Penn writes. “But if, following Richard's brutal assumption of power that spring, many in the Yorkist establishment had shuffled hesitatingly into line, widespread reports that the two blameless royal children had been killed while in his care convinced them that their initial misgivings had been right.”

The story of “The Brothers York” is of course destined to end where that of “Winter King” begins: at Bosworth Field, when Richard is defeated and hacked to death by Henry’s forces. Thomas Penn has told that story with such sweep and enthusiasm that his book easily takes its place alongside similar volumes by Dan Jones and Desmond Seward. The central hypothetical – how might history have changed if these three brothers had been at all fraternal – remains unanswerable, but Penn’s book makes it enormously enjoyable to ponder.

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