• Brothers York

  • A Royal Tragedy
  • By: Thomas Penn
  • Narrated by: Roy McMillan
  • Length: 23 hrs and 13 mins
  • 4.7 out of 5 stars (189 ratings)

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Brothers York  By  cover art

Brothers York

By: Thomas Penn
Narrated by: Roy McMillan
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Publisher's Summary

In early 1461, a 17-year-old boy won a battle on a freezing morning in the Welsh marches, and claimed the crown of England as Edward IV, first king of the usurping house of York. It was a time when old certainties had been shredded: by popular insurgency, economic crisis, feuding, and a corrupt, bankrupt government presided over by the imbecilic, Lancastrian King Henry VI. The country was in need of a new hero. Magnetic, narcissistic, Edward found himself on the throne, and alongside him his two younger brothers: the unstable, petulant George, Duke of Clarence, and the boy who would emerge from his shadow, Richard, Duke of Gloucester.

Charismatic, able, and ambitious, the brothers would become the figureheads of a spectacular ruling dynasty, one that laid the foundations for a renewal of English royal power. Yet a web of grudges and resentments grew between them, generating a destructive sequence of conspiracy, rebellion, deposition, fratricide, usurpation, and regicide. The house of York’s brutal end came on August 22, 1485, at Bosworth Field, with the death of the youngest brother, now Richard III, at the hands of a new usurper, Henry Tudor.

The Brothers York is the story of three remarkable brothers, two of whom were crowned kings of England and the other an heir presumptive, whose antagonism was fueled by the mistrust and vendettas of the age that brought their family to power. The house of York should have been the dynasty that the Tudors became. Its tragedy was that it devoured itself.

©2019 Thomas Penn (P)2020 Blackstone Audio, Inc.

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Absorbing detail

Thomas Penn, who has already written the story of Henry Tudor, takes a step back in this one. He tells the story of Edward, George, and Richard, sons of Richard Duke of York, the “white rose” side in the Wars of the Roses. The oldest brother Edward became king and ruled for close to 25 years, but eventually the brothers destroyed their own lineage.

Penn begins the story with an energetic account of the Wars of the Roses that is remarkable for its pace and clarity. Starting at that point is by no means a stretch. Brothers George and Richard, still young children, had been packed off to the continent for safety, but Brother Edward was very much in the field. After their father Richard of York was killed at Wakefield, Brother Edward assumed the title of Duke of York and his father’s claim to the throne. He was finally able to make good on this claim after beating the Lancastrian army at the Battle of Towton. (It wasn't a clean break: Queen Margaret and the Lancastrians continued making trouble until they were finally destroyed altogether at the Battle of Tewkesbury.)

In his early days at least, Edward impressed the Commons with his willingness to tackle hard problems and his determination to impose order. London merchants responded generously in return for substantial trading privileges. An enormous debt at Calais was paid and the garrison received mountains of back pay, ending their flirtation with France. But the resources of the people were not endless, and repeated revolts by the Lancastrians, and the subsequent taxes raised to counter them — not to mention taxes raised to pay for pointless wars in France — began to sour the public on the Yorkist reign.

Edward created division in his own ranks by secretly marrying the commoner Elizabeth Woodville. She had a large family of siblings and children that overran the marriage market, creating dissension among the nobility and causing considerable embarrassment to the Earl of Warwick, who had been trying to arrange a marriage that would unite Edward with one of the royal houses on the continent.

It's probably tiresome to see everything about this period through the lens of Shakespeare. But one way to think about this book is that Penn has included everything Shakespeare left out. The third _Henry VI_ play covers much of the same period, but all it really tells us is that Edward impulsively married Elizabeth Woodville, and that his later life was marred by dissolution. The story told by Penn is indescribably more detailed and complex, including both domestic politics (the Neville family) and foreign affairs (shifting alliances with Burgundy, Normandy, and the Pope). Richard of Gloucester is not quite the same character who appears in Shakespeare's _Richard III_, but “false fleeting perjured Clarence” remains recognizable despite the mass of additional detail.

Penn keeps the narrative moving and the storyline clear. Clarity is the keyword throughout. At any given point in time you can put your finger down and know at that point who Warwick is supporting and why, who Clarence is angry at and why, and who Tiptoft is torturing and why. As I've often found in reading histories of this type, the additional detail actually simplifies the story, because it gives each participant a chance to breathe. We're moving at a good clip through Edward’s reign, but there's no sense of rush.

The dashing, handsome Edward — like his descendant Henry VIII — eventually became a grossly bloated Falstaffian figure felled by the physical effects of his own excesses. He left behind a young prince, the would-be Edward V, and an older daughter Elizabeth, who would later play a major role in uniting the houses of York and Lancaster. He also left behind a powerful, battle-hardened, ambitious brother who had his own agenda, and it didn't include bending the knee to a nephew. Penn’s immensely entertaining narrative continues on through the coup d’etat carried out by Brother Richard, the mysterious disappearance of the would-be Edward V, and the final destruction of dynasty of the Brothers York at Bosworth in 1485.

One surprising aspect of Penn’s narrative is his failure, in my view, to explain Brother Richard’s move to usurp the throne from his nephew. Richard seems to feel himself vaguely under threat from the Woodvilles, but that hardly seems enough for the murderous political campaign that followed. It may be that Penn thinks Richard’s naked ambition is obvious from his actions, and to some extent that's true; but the movements of so many people are so clearly accounted for throughout the book that the absence of clear cause and effect here is a little disappointing.

If Penn continues on this path, the next logical book for him to write would be one about the long and troubled reign of Henry VI; or perhaps to drop a step or two further back and tell the story of the warrior king Henry V, who conquered France, and his lackluster son Henry VI, who lost it. It will be interesting to see where he goes next. I plan to follow him, even if he lives the Middle Ages altogether.

Roy McMillan, as ever, is a master narrator, keeping the personalities and battle lines clear throughout.

25 people found this helpful

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Best Overall Explanation this Novice has Heard

I’ve been flirting on the edge of the Ricardian position for more than half a century, ever since I read Costain’s Last of the Plantagenets, and then Tey’s Daughter of Time. In particular the murder of his nephews did not seem to square with Richard’s character, so I was leery when I read on the Amazon reviews that Penn relied solely on More’s Tudor account. Nevertheless I suspected economic and geographical aspects of the thirty-year conflict and wanted to hear more of those. The first volume of Conn Iggulden’s tetralogy is excellent on the consequences of the failed imperial scheme in France, and I was looking for more of this type of background.

Still, the murder of the princes and the Ricardian defenses intrigued me, so I figured I’d keep an open mind and see what Penn might say, and sure enough, he hit the targets of geographical and economic tension right in the center. There was, he shows that cultural conflict between North and South, and West (Wales) too. More as well, between Northwest and Northeast, and even within the Northeast (between Richard and Percy). He’s just as good on commercial rivalries and its consequent economic warfare with England, France, Burgundy and the Low countries, even with German pirates and Italian bankers. So, my investment had paid big dividends .. but still, Richard’s character and the murder of the princes.

The really nice thing here is he says pretty much on the question of the princes, he does not know. The usual suspects have their motives and opportunities. I didn’t see Penn rule out even the survival hypothesis, though he dismisses Warbeck. What he does do though, and very convincingly, is address Richard’s character. How could so strictly moral a character commit or permit such a crime, but more intriguingly, given the lack of evidence in the case, what might there be in Richard’s character that might have evoked such a betrayal at Bosworth, such a double betrayal by Percy and Stanley. Turns out Richard’s character might simply explain not just geographical and personal betrayal, but his failed administration. It wasn’t that he was upright but rather he was uptight, too rigid, too unbendingly aggressive, right up to the final charge in the last battle.

So, a big win-win for me: got to hear the other side and got a great thirty-year summary, especially of Edward IV, whom you see I haven’t even mentioned (yet he, as you’d expect, and King Louis and the Duke of Burgundy, play more significant parts than does Richard).

Indeed, what a wonderful book, how fluent the narrative, what a pleasant listening experience. Most highly recommended.

8 people found this helpful

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A must read for English history buffs

I thought I knew a lot about the Wars of the Roses time period but this book really focuses on the three York brothers not the timeline and I learned so much and also filled in some of the reasons behind some of the decisions. This is not my favorite book about the Pre Tudor time period!

8 people found this helpful

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Great story

Such a superb writer the story comes alive and you feel like your there. It covers everything you would want to know about this time period and the brothers. Just 5 stars you will like this book

4 people found this helpful

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meticulous work & exquisite performance

Even though there's lots of publications out there about the War of the Roses and the Houses of York and Lancaster, this book is a complete detailed work about the three brothers (Edward, George and Richard).
Very enjoyable. I certainly recommend it!

4 people found this helpful

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Great Book. Great Narration.

Reads like a great story, not like a dry textbook. Kept my interest the entire book, and that's hard to do when it comes to history.

2 people found this helpful

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  • MD
  • 04-27-21

The Wars of the Roses Made Clear

This is the best account of the numerous I have read in explaining the very complex history of the Wars of the Roses and the equally complex characters and their relationships.

2 people found this helpful

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another great history book by Mr. Penn

I absolutely loved the Winter King and enjoyed this one even more. Even though this book was over 20 hours I finished it in a weekend and didn't want it to end. Was able to truly visualize the story in my mind with his superb descriptions and as someone who thought they knew all about this time period I was stunned at the behavior of Edward IV at times and came to realize he was a more deeply flawed King then I'd ever realized. Not a terrible King but extremely greedy and I can't help but feel his leadership led to the usurping of the throne by Richard.

1 person found this helpful

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Thorough and engaging

Some of these deep dive histories are replete with details that make them read more like novels to movie treatments than history. Some are just the opposite and have all the detail and minutiae you crave but tend to drag in parts and become monotonous. This is a rare book that combines both strengths and few of the weaknesses. Similar to The Crusades by Asbridge, it has great pacing and thorough research. You feel like you really knew the people by the end, and you even want to listen again. (I’ve listened the aforementioned book 3 times) I recommend this for those that really want to dig deep into the Time surrounding the Wars of Roses and their aftermath. It will take you from around the time of the Black Death in ‘48 up until the crowning of the Tudors and the turn of the 15th c. Definitely a good long read.

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All around beautiful audiobook.

Perfect in every way. It was worth my time. I plan to listen to it again in the future.