The Brothers York: An English Tragedy by Thomas Penn; Richard III: The Self-Made King by Michael Hicks - review by Jonathan Sumption

Jonathan Sumption

Bringing Up the Bodies

The Brothers York: An English Tragedy


Allen Lane 655pp £30 order from our bookshop

Richard III: The Self-Made King


Yale University Press 416pp £25 order from our bookshop

The reigns of the three Yorkist kings of England, from 1461 to 1485, are the darkest in the country’s history. It was a time of economic recession, widespread anarchy, gang violence, civil war and humiliation at the hands of a politically reborn France. Both of these books are histories of this grim period.

The Yorkist age was dominated by the brothers of Thomas Penn’s title: the sons of that enfant terrible of the mid-15th century, Richard, Duke of York. They were Edward IV, the charming, handsome and idle nobleman who seized the throne of England from the witless Henry VI in 1461; George, Duke of Clarence, a serial rebel against his brother’s authority who was finally condemned and executed for treason in 1478, supposedly drowned in a butt of Malmsey wine; and Richard, Duke of Gloucester, the future Richard III, who usurped the throne from Edward’s eldest son in 1483 and was killed at Bosworth Field two years later. These two books are based on a wide range of published and manuscript sources and a profound familiarity with the literature and culture of the period. Both are dominated by the fascinating, charismatic and appalling figure of Richard of Gloucester. He alone is the subject of Michael Hicks’s book, but his ruthless pursuit of wealth and power before and after his accession takes pride of place in Penn’s story from the moment that he emerges into the light of history in 1468. There, however, the resemblance between the two books ends.

The Brothers York is a blow-by-blow narrative. It consists of a succession of murders, rebellions, plots, thefts and usurpations, embellished with much picturesque and atmospheric detail. It is all admirably done and at times gripping. But one is left wondering what it was all about. Greed and ambition

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