One freezing february morning in 1461, a tall, charismatic, supremely intelligent, gimlet-eyed teenager with a fine mop of fair hair won a battle near a muddy crossroads in Herefordshire. At the outset of this fiercely fought encounter – later named the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross – an optical illusion made by the refraction of sunlight on ice crystals in the atmosphere, known today as a parhelion, briefly created the appearance of three suns. For those who were about to fight, the phenomenon portended divine intervention: already the teenager had cast himself as England’s ‘deliverer’. And sure enough, after a second, still more resounding victory at Towton in Yorkshire, fought that same year in a blizzard on Palm Sunday, he took the throne from the weak, ineffectual Henry VI and was crowned King Edward IV.
Usurpers were plentiful in the 15th century. Edward’s claim was by lineal descent from Edward III, and was a strong one if you ignored the deposition of Richard II in 1399. In the mid-1450s, Richard, Duke of York, Edward’s father and England’s pushiest peer, had twice attempted to sideline Henry VI, who suffered from lengthy spells of mental illness and was repelled by the idea of warfare. He was a pious, compassionate man who was shocked to see women and men taking the waters naked at Bath in 1449 and who sought to shelter the boys of Eton College, one of his foundations, from the corrupting influence of the courtiers in nearby Windsor Castle. In his often reckless manoeuvres, York claimed to be acting for ‘the common weal of the realm’, since Henry had lost all the possessions, with the exception of Calais, that England (and Henry’s father) had won in France during the Hundred Years’ War. The result was that the country endured a series of political, military and commercial crises for which the king was entirely ill-equipped. York successfully outmanoeuvred Margaret of Anjou, Henry’s wife and principal cheerleader, who attempted to secure the regency for herself, but his success came at a price: the nobility split into factions, provoking civil war. Power slipped into the hands of the nobles, whose alliances constantly shifted and who held the allegiance of the local retainers who provided the manpower for rival armies. York was killed at the Battle of Wakefield in 1460, but not before he’d marched into Parliament, announced his intention to ‘challenge his right’ to the crown and induced Henry to accept him as his heir and successor, paving the way for Edward’s successful attempt the following year.
The Yorkists are currently back in fashion, something that has much to do with the excavation of what are widely believed to be the skeletal remains of Richard III in a Leicester car park eight years ago. The drama and intrigue swirling round the protagonists can match anything in British history – the brothers provide impressive amounts of murderous ambition, paranoia and greed, and their story exemplifies the dangers of power gained too soon or too late. Such political and personal struggles are a gift to a historian like Thomas Penn, who believes that events are more often driven by strong characters than by impersonal forces. In 2012, Penn’s Winter King – a biography of Henry VII focusing on the last seven years of his life – brilliantly recreated the claustrophobia that tarnished the final years of the first Tudor’s regime.The Brothers York is a different sort of book – an epic life and times of Edward IV, followed by a racy, relatively brief survey of the reign of Richard III. The last complete Life and Reign of Edward the Fourth, by Cora Scofield, appeared in two volumes in 1923. It was the main account until the 1960s – but it was also deathly dull. Charles Ross’s Edward IV (1974) was, by contrast, highly readable. Ross, however, followed Scofield in corralling broad thematic concerns into discrete chapters at the end of his book. Such crucial topics as the crown’s relations with the nobility, governance, finance, trade and commerce, as well as chivalric and court life, were marginalised as a result, whereas Penn incorporates them into the story as he goes along. As in Winter King, he combines a keen sense of time, place, circumstance and anecdote with a firm grasp of human psychology, of the macabre, the comic and the tragic, and – perhaps as important as any of these – an instinct for the rhythm of a sentence.
Penn argues that it was not the usurping Henry Tudor (who took the throne from Richard III in 1485, bringing an end to the rule of the House of York) so much as the siblings’ own conflicts – chiefly those between Edward IV and his narcissistic nearest brother, George, Duke of Clarence, over marriage, land and inheritance – that shaped their dynastic tragedy. He takes his cue from the so-called Crowland Continuator, the best of the dozen or so chroniclers of the era. This well-informed insider describes a violent quarrel he witnessed in 1472 between Clarence and the youngest York brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester (later Richard III), and adds: ‘These three brothers possessed such surpassing talent that, if they had been able to avoid conflict, their triple bond could have been broken only with the utmost difficulty.’ Or, as Penn argues, the so-called Wars of the Roses were less a civil war between Yorkists and Lancastrians – as the Tudors asserted in a brazen effort to buttress their claim to lawful descent from Edward III – than a civil war within the victorious House of York.
Clarence was Edward IV’s heir until the birth of Edward’s son in 1470 (nine years was a long time in dynastic terms), and he never forgot it. Determined to possess the lands and wealth he regarded as his birthright, he campaigned to marry Isabel Neville, a rich heiress and the elder daughter of the rabble-rousing Earl of Warwick, Shakespeare’s ‘proud setter-up and puller-down of kings’. Unfortunately for Clarence, Edward’s relations with Warwick cooled as he began to assert himself as king ‘with the same intensity with which he partied’. Penn deftly shows how badly Edward mishandled Warwick, showering him with rewards early in the reign, delegating huge powers to him north of the Trent and in Calais, then clipping his wings. Warwick learned to tolerate the bluff William Hastings, a Leicestershire squire whom Edward made his principal fixer and chief pimp, but was then blindsided by the king’s clandestine marriage to the widowed commoner Elizabeth Woodville, after which Warwick and the Nevilles were frozen out at court.
The Woodville marriage was a tipping point. An anointed king of England hadn’t taken one of his own subjects for a wife since before the Norman Conquest, so why did Edward? Certainly, he was ‘wild with desire’ for Woodville, as Penn notes, and ‘used to getting what he wanted’. Penn opts for an Anne Boleyn theory of events – in Woodville, Edward ‘met his match’. If he wanted to sleep with her, ‘he needed to marry her first’. Marrying a commoner was a huge gamble for a usurper, however, and is the reason the ceremony was held in secret: the only way Edward could force members of his Great Council to accept his choice was to present them with a fait accompli. That he took the risk suggests he was genuinely besotted. Monogamy was never his intention – but he does seem to have loved her sincerely. Chroniclers griped about her family being ‘low born’, a reflection of the aristocracy’s dismay at such audacious upward social mobility. Wisely, Penn soft-pedals on the charge, pointing out that, even if Woodville’s first husband had only been a knight, her mother, Jaquetta of St Pol, was born into one of the noblest Luxembourg families.
Penn also points out that the allegations of greed so frequently levelled at the Woodvilles, and repeated by previous biographers, are probably part of the anti-Woodville propaganda later put out by Richard III. To view Edward’s in-laws as grasping parvenus is a mistake. What’s incontestable however is that Edward’s approach to political control after his marriage was too personal, concentrating patronage and regional power in the hands of his immediate family or court intimates to the exclusion of others, like Warwick and the Nevilles. The ascendancy of Edward’s in-laws also signalled a U-turn in foreign policy, from pro-French to pro-Burgundian. Even while Warwick was negotiating an accord with Louis XI of France, competing diplomacy largely overseen by Hastings produced the marriage of Edward’s sister Margaret to Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. (One of the great strengths of Penn’s narrative is that it constantly factors in the distorting effects of European rivalries on English domestic stability.)
By mid-1468, Edward was floundering, ‘unable’, as Penn convincingly argues, ‘to impose himself on the small group that, in the warmth of his favour, wielded his power with impunity’. What’s more, the battle at Towton hadn’t resulted in the capture of either Henry VI or Margaret of Anjou, meaning that the ousted king remained a focus for the disaffected. Even when finally run to ground and locked up in the Tower, Henry neither abdicated nor was deposed, but was instead left to rot. In a sudden effort to recover control, Edward targeted individuals for exemplary punishments, on one occasion personally interrogating a suspected conspirator while the soles of the man’s feet were burned with hot irons. In Ireland, the king’s apparatchik John Tiptoft condemned the Earl of Desmond to death for ‘horrible treasons’, then took custody of the victim’s two young sons, whom he summarily beheaded. Later, Tiptoft claimed everything he’d done had been ‘for the state’.
In such an age, prudence dictated opportunism rather than loyalty. Damaged by this resurgence of vendettas and settling of old scores, Edward was no longer a match even for Warwick and Clarence’s rickety coalition. Penn thrillingly relates how in 1469 the malcontents threw down the gauntlet. Defying the king, Clarence married Isabel Neville in a ceremony solemnised by Warwick’s brother, the archbishop of York. He and Warwick then made a pact with the exiled Margaret of Anjou, driving Edward from his kingdom with French backing and reinstating Henry VI. Guided by Hastings, Edward escaped to the Low Countries, then was brought back and reconciled to Clarence. Penn doesn’t explain how Clarence brought about the reconciliation, but he does explain why: quite simply, he came to realise that he’d be worse off under the new regime. In 1471, after a battle fought just north of Chipping Barnet in Hertfordshire (in which his youngest brother, Richard, commanded the vanguard), Edward recovered the throne. Warwick was killed as he attempted to flee, and Henry VI was murdered.
Edward’s second reign saw him leading the country firmly, if haphazardly. Increasingly decadent, he gorged himself on fine food and wine until he was barely able to walk, further taxing his strength with frequent bouts of debauchery; he also passed women on to his friends, who used them, a contemporary said, ‘much against their will’. Bent on winning himself a place in the pantheon beside Edward III and Henry V, the newly restored king charmed the Commons into granting him a massive subsidy and then shipped one of the largest English armies before 1914 across the Channel. Driven by sentiment rather than strategy, he marched his troops to Agincourt, ‘pitching camp on the battlefield for inspiration’, then settled in the negotiations for a pension instead of trying to take the French throne by force. Unashamedly acquisitive, he bailed out his treasury by wheeling and dealing in the City of London. He disingenuously milked – and finally broke – the London branch of the Medici bank while trading extensively in wool on his own account, outwitting the sharpest of his competitors. Here, and on the matter of Edward’s currency reforms (the most important since 1343), Penn breaks new ground: ‘alert to new business opportunities proposed to him’, Edward even dreamed of muscling in on the North African trade in ivory, gold and slaves. He needed the money: he spent jaw-dropping sums on clothes, jewellery, building works, gold and silver plate, fine Flemish tapestries, books and illuminated manuscripts.
When Clarence became restive once again in 1472, Edward’s younger sibling Richard – somewhat overshadowed for the first 300 pages of Penn’s narrative, probably because he posed no threat – stepped forward. The violent quarrel between Clarence and Gloucester described by the Crowland chronicler was prompted by Richard’s announcement that he intended to marry Warwick’s younger daughter, thus making his own claim on the vast Neville inheritance – and by Edward’s decision to back him to the hilt. Clarence sulked: the final showdown came after his wife, Isabel, died in childbirth and he sought a marriage that would line him up to become the next duke of Burgundy. When Edward forbade it, Clarence rounded on him. Amid rumours of a plot to murder the king and his young son and heir, Clarence was arrested, charged with high treason in a show trial and then drowned in a butt of sweet Greek wine. Why he was killed in this way was a puzzle even to contemporaries. Penn suggests it was Edward’s nod to Clarence’s drinking habits, and calls it ‘a gag of exquisite tastelessness’.
Richard was first in the queue for Clarence’s lands and offices. And when in 1483 Edward died a bloated and degraded hulk, his brother sprang into action, despite the scoliosis that was probably already causing him pain. Edward’s own plans for the succession are unclear: his will did not survive. Penn suggests he favoured the speedy coronation of his 12-year-old son as Edward V, with the council governing in the boy’s name until he was 16. But who was to be on the council and how would the regency work? When we come to consider what happened next Michael Hicks’s Richard III: The Self-Made King proves valuable. The great merit of Hicks’s academic study is that he anchors every known move in Richard’s career to the (often conflicting) sources, making it easier for readers to form their own judgments; Penn tends to iron out the wrinkles. Considering Richard’s place in Edward’s second reign, Hicks leaves us in no doubt. By 1475, Richard – the Neville heir in fact if not yet in law – controlled vast estates stretching into almost every county in England. Waking up to the danger, Edward took some properties away from him and Richard ‘bowed to the veiled threat, wisely recognising this as the price for the continued favour of his brother the king’. While ostensibly acquiescing, however, Richard carried on extending his possessions, his networks and his regional power. ‘Accruing more benefits step by step than Edward had initially intended’, Richard dabbled remorselessly in the land market, threw his energies into extensive building works and set about poaching the retainers of other nobles, taking quarrels to the verge of private war. Although concentrated almost entirely north of the Trent and never quite matching Warwick’s in his prime, Richard’s regional power amounted to the next best thing – only laziness accounts for Edward’s failure to see the risks to whatever succession settlement he might have been planning.
The argument that Richard, by Edward’s death, had consciously positioned himself as the new kingmaker is appealing. Penn is almost certainly correct that the title and role of protector that Richard sought during Edward V’s minority would have amounted to full regal powers. Since it was unprecedented, it was bound to be refused, and duly was. That said, the council meeting that set aside Richard’s claims did amount to a potential threat to him: with a crowned Edward V controlled by the Woodvilles, who knew what measures or proscriptions might not be laid before a compliant Parliament? Richard interpreted the rejection of his claims to the regency as a Woodville coup. His reaction, Hicks maintains, was far from merely defensive; Penn leaves the matter open. The facts are that Richard, conniving with an intimate friend of his youth, the Duke of Buckingham – also lineally descended from Edward III but humiliatingly sidelined by Edward IV – abducted Edward V at Stony Stratford, then seized power himself, backed by his northern retainers.
Ostentatiously professing his loyalty to the boy king, Richard set about demonising the Woodvilles before finalising his coup. As Penn and Hicks agree, Richard knew that unless he acted his Neville inheritance would quickly vanish. First of all carefully fabricating a Woodville plot to murder him so that he might ‘discover’ it – the Tudors called this sort of thing a ‘projection’ – Richard summoned a council meeting and then rounded on the five councillors most loyal to Edward V, and had his men arrest them. One of those arrested was Hastings, formerly on the best of terms with Richard and the one truly influential councillor who had argued for a lengthy official minority for Edward V and for Richard’s appointment as a fully empowered protector. The trouble was that Hastings – though a staunch critic of the Woodvilles – had morphed, in Richard’s eyes, from a supporter into a threat. He was led to Tower Green and beheaded simply because he was too loyal – to Edward V. In short, Richard could only have acted at the council meeting in the way he did because he’d already decided to depose Edward V and make himself king.
On the question of who murdered Edward V and his younger brother, the princes in the Tower, both Penn and Hicks play it safe. No one knows for certain – the evidence is too fragmentary. But as Hicks explains, the princes would have become increasingly dangerous as they grew up. Even while they were in the Tower, there was a plot to free them. If the questions are how they died, where they died, why and when, the ‘when’ is the easiest to answer, and the other answers follow from it. The date of their final disappearance, autumn 1483, ‘is the key’, Hicks says, ‘that unlocks their fate’. Or, as Penn puts it, ‘the boys had been killed, and on Richard’s watch: “the people,” wrote one chronicler, “laid the blame only on him.”’ I’d conjecture that, morally, Richard saw their deaths as no worse than Tiptoft’s beheading of the Earl of Desmond’s young sons. It was done ‘for the state’.
Perhaps determined by its title, Penn’s is a very masculine book: women of the calibre of Margaret of Anjou and Elizabeth Woodville surely deserved more space. Jane Shore, reputedly Edward IV’s favourite mistress, doesn’t make an entrance until the king is dead. In the 1450s, Margaret of Anjou made plans to resolve the crisis of Henry VI’s incapacity that weren’t factional and would have been seriously considered but for the Duke of York’s ambition. She could be an active and assertive leader, as the Paston Letters make clear. Penn rightly foregrounds the ideas of her protégé, John Fortescue, who pioneered a fresh approach to monarchy and government, notably in crown finance and estate management. Much of this template was developed after he fled with Margaret to France in the summer of 1463, and witnessed at first hand Louis XI’s centralising reforms. We need a better understanding of the extent of Margaret’s commitment to such proposals. Several were adopted in Edward IV’s second reign, and Fortescue’s ideas were taken up wholesale by the Tudors. Margaret’s very extensive European diplomacy while in exile – it involved Castile and Portugal as well as Burgundy and France – also deserves greater attention.
As for Elizabeth Woodville, it would appear that she acted a good deal more moderately and responsibly after Edward IV’s death than Richard III’s propaganda maintained: many of the charges levelled against her, including the theft of the king’s ‘immense treasure’, are highly dubious. She did expect to play a role in her son’s kingship, and the Crowland chronicler cites letters she received from Richard that suggest she had every reason to expect an easy relationship with him and the other councillors. In the light of Richard’s dealings at Stony Stratford, her rapid entry into sanctuary in Westminster Abbey is understandable. While there, her inspired handling of secret overtures from Henry Tudor’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, led to the most significant concordat of the century. A York-Tudor marriage had been mooted since the last days of Edward IV’s reign, but plans were soon made in earnest. Penn’s account is compressed, but the gist is there. He notes the historical irony: by marrying Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville’s daughter Elizabeth after the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, Henry Tudor reinvented himself as the true Yorkist heir. Or, as the Crowland chronicler put it, the ‘red rose’ of Lancaster became the avenger of the ‘white’.
Penn’s readers will find themselves often tempted to make comparisons between Edward IV and his grandson Henry VIII. Also coming to the crown as a teenager, Henry too cast himself in the role of England’s ‘deliverer’. The two kings looked uncannily like each other, both in youth and middle age. Like Edward, Henry could look at a map and instantly recall the names, details and wealth of men scattered across his kingdom ‘as if they were daily within his sight’. He too spent prodigiously on building works and the accoutrements of monarchy, and was equally self-absorbed – seeking the adulation of his subjects, always ready to blame others when things went wrong, well aware that a show trial and a quick beheading could work wonders. Unlike Edward though, Henry was something of a prude – he may have had six wives, but it’s hard to name more than a handful of his mistresses, and whereas Edward revelled in ribaldry, Henry largely stuck to chivalric masques and tales of the Knights of the Round Table.
At a political level, Henry VIII – unlike his grandfather – never took power for granted. His attention lapsed from time to time, but he rarely succumbed to complacency. Even on his deathbed, he could be found correcting, line by line, the legal charges against the Earl of Surrey, whom he suspected of plotting to win for his father, the Duke of Norfolk, the protectorship of Henry’s young son and heir, the soon-to-be Edward VI. As Penn argues, Edward IV pioneered many of the techniques of governance used by the early Tudors, notably the use of councils and the employment of middle-ranking officials. But whereas Edward’s approach to political control depended on the delegation of power to a coterie, the early Tudors offered opportunities to anyone who was willing to give them their unqualified allegiance – failing which, ‘exquisite means’ (or brutal coercion) would be applied. For the early Tudors, ‘service’ to the crown meant subordination, not partnership. The trick was to attack the nobility’s abuses of power, while not threatening that power overall. Whereas the Yorkists structured their councils, households and courtly rituals relatively loosely, the early Tudors used them instrumentally to showcase and enforce the duties and obligations of all the king’s subjects, high and low. You could say that the Yorkists failed to rise above aristocratic attitudes, never a short cut to kingship. Their methods were almost those of the Tudors – but not quite.