Thomas Penn subtitles The Brothers York, an exceptionally detailed and absorbing narrative history of the three sons of Richard, Duke of York, who together fought, won and lost the Wars of the Roses, “an English tragedy”. He thus quietly acknowledges that many of his readers will be aware of Edward IV, George, Duke of Clarence and Richard III primarily as Shakespearean characters.
Penn puts Shakespeare firmly in his place by the elegant strategy of almost total omission; he can hardly be accused, however, of leaving out anyone else. So vast is the canvas, so lovingly frenetic the incident, that The Brothers York certainly comes down, as is in the circumstances suitable, on the side of history rather than biography: history with a gallantly sustained human touch. But the titular brothers do contrive, in different ways, to emerge from the frenzy of the goings-on around them, shady portraits of steely people.
Edward, Earl of March before his self-made accession in 1461, was not a man to be drowned out by anyone but himself. In Penn’s tautly evocative first chapter, Edward charges into the consciousness of readers much as he did into that of the English people – young, gigantic, golden, invincible, a chivalric hero with a slain father and a righteous family legacy. “He was a teenager who had never led an army. Nonetheless, there was something about him that was irresistible; his certainty that cold winter morning, faced by his own frightened troops, was total.”
A decade later, Edward’s continuing physical magnetism moved his age’s most sophisticated and cynical commentator, the Burgundian diplomat Philippe de Commynes, to pour out in apparent rapture that the English king was “the most beautiful prince my eyes ever beheld”.
But the underside was as extreme as the legend. Edward'’s private life comfortably outstripped any excesses of his grandson Henry VIII; here was no sentimental serial monogamist, but an insatiable, indiscriminate sex maniac. Once discarded, his concubines could expect to be bedded “much against their will” by his courtiers.
Penn produces abundant evidence that Edward was also a trailblazer in substance abuse and body dysmorphia; the hardworking royal physicians prepared a particular kind of theriac or “treacle” (“whose active ingredient was roasted viper flesh”) for Edward’s ingestion, along with regular emetics that would allow him to cleanse his huge body before feasting afresh. A chronicler who refers to the king’s “elegant frame” in his later years – Edward was to perish after a “massive cerebral haemorrhage” at 40 – is glossed by Penn as a bad flatterer or a good satirist.
The young king’s “violent” propensity for pleasure had its most dramatic political consequence in his unorthodox 1464 love-match with a widow unsuitable in every regard, Elizabeth Grey, and the ensuing ascendancy of her large and ambitious family, the Woodvilles. But on the whole, both the king’s strengths and his limitations originated in his mind and not his body.
Penn handles the mixed bag of Edward’s ability as king with nuance and grip that never fail to tantalise. At his regal best, Edward IV could outwit on occasion even the devious “Spider-King” of France, Louis XI (described by Penn as both “antic” and “absurdist”). At worst, Edward was a “more-or-less functioning” monarch whose government’s chronic problems bore an uncomfortable resemblance to those of the comatose Lancastrian reign he had supplanted. In either incarnation, he was an utter stranger to integrity.
The Crowland Chronicle remarks of the brothers of York that they “possessed such surpassing talent” that “if they had been able to avoid conflict” they would have represented an all-but-unstoppable combination. The brother in whom, on Penn’s showing, such talent is least conspicuous is the frustrated heir presumptive, George, Duke of Clarence. Where Penn is both admiring and (increasingly often) aghast at Edward, he views Clarence, seven years Edward’s junior, with straitened pity and consistent irritation. Poor Clarence, not having even briefly acquired the kingly rank, is referred to by his title throughout, whereas readers are admitted into the intimacy of “Edward” and “Richard” (never “Gloucester”) with his brothers.
Clarence held enormous estates by his elder brother’s whim, but never won for himself any truly independent sphere. His sister Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy, apparently liked him, and initiated a brief, doomed but interesting wheeze to make him Duke of Burgundy and so one of the most powerful rulers in Europe.
Throughout a wavering trajectory of ineffectual treason, “false, fleeting, perjured Clarence” never really seemed to be acting on his own initiative. The Malmsey wine in which Edward is said to have had him drowned in 1478 is described by Penn as “malvasia, sweet Greek white wine” and interpreted as a somewhat rich dig, coming from the thoroughly sodden Edward, at Clarence’s tippling – “one of [Edward’s] typical bad jokes… a gag of exquisite tastelessness”. I wondered if it might actually have been a rather more erudite reference to Clarence’s title, which was said by Robert Byron to originate from Glarentza in the south-west of Greece.
Where Edward is the rock-star anti-hero and Clarence the underwhelming if slightly poignant antagonist – the Draco Malfoy of the House of York – Richard, Duke of Gloucester, later King Richard III, late of the Leicester car park, is, as succeeding generations have irresistibly felt, something else altogether. An unquestionably dubious usurper and probable child-murderer who reigned for two chaotic years, 1483-85, Richard yet commands a perverse and profoundly English following; Penn accomplishes the empathetic feat both of conveying Richard’s genuine, peculiar quality and his accompanying depths of hypocrisy and paranoia.
Penn refers in passing to Richard’s “passionate intensity”, his esteem for his crusading forebear and namesake the Lionheart, and his conventional, but somehow obsessive, literary and religious tastes. He favoured among his advisers not only doughty northerners from his estates but Cambridge dons. Edward always bothered to cobble together some kind of due process when he desired the execution of an enemy or close relative; Richard, apparently, regarded such scruples as a waste of precious time.
His exceptional prowess in hand-to-hand combat, well in the tradition of his mighty brother despite his far shorter stature and agonising scoliosis, was demonstrated at the battle that destroyed him, Bosworth Field, where Richard unhorsed Sir John Cheyne, a tournament hero 6ft 8in tall (this measurement attested by a 19th-century exhumation, not a garrulous monk).
Cheyne is one among crowds of bit-parts adroitly deployed and followed through by our author. Beyond the Yorks, every Penn-portrait impresses. The brothers’ most high-vaunting cousin, Warwick the Kingmaker, is reappraised as a poker-faced master of disinformation, but a cowardly martinet in the field and a self-regarding Icarus of diplomacy. Reprieves from high politics arrive in the form of cheerily cultural cameos, including the pioneering printer William Caxton and his most famous author, Sir Thomas Malory.
Good history books appear to offer a refuge from the present; more meretricious ones claim to teach it unique lessons; but the best provide their readers with simultaneous relief and resonance. Penn’s Yorkist England, locked in protracted and fundamentally dishonest negotiations with France and Burgundy, stony broke but trying its hand with ever riskier loans from multinational bankers, periodically plague-struck, distantly apprised of menacing Turks, and ruled over by fratricidal chancers operating on boozy charm or scarcely sane martial reverie, is an excellent place to take an exciting, and instructive, holiday from 2019.
Minoo Dinshaw is the author of Outlandish Knight: The Byzantine Life of Steven Runciman (Penguin). To order your copy of The Brothers York for £25, call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop