Trying to describe the outcome of the Wars of the Roses — the fall of the House of York — in genre terms has long been an uncertain business. When Shakespeare completed his first tetralogy with Richard III, which ends with the collapse of Yorkist hopes at Bosworth Field, the printers of the earliest quarto editions of the play were confident that the work they were hawking was The Tragedy of King Richard the Third. After Shakespeare’s death, however, his friends and colleagues from the King’s Men weren’t so sure; while the play they printed in the first folio of 1623 had an individual title page that still referred to it as a ‘tragedy’, the main contents page and running heads of this most authoritative edition of Shakespeare’s collected works gave it a much more neutral billing — The Life and Death of Richard the Third — and placed it not alongside the tragedies but among the histories.
This conflicted re-description was due to the fact that when he first started writing, Shakespeare could use ‘tragedy’ to mean ‘fall’, since this was the dominant meaning of the term, derived from a medieval European de casibus tradition (which told stories of the decline of princes and their dynasties); but by the end of his career, Shakespeare had so expanded the possibilities of tragedy in English — with flawed heroes who fell, but who also demanded intimate, affective connection with audiences — that the established meaning of the term was destabilised and altered for ever.
Thomas Penn’s gripping new study tries to reclaim the idea that the fall of the House of York is not just history, but ‘An English Tragedy’. There’s plenty to recommend this since much of the narrative resembles a de casibus chronicle of an eminent family falling from grace and power. But there’s a different kind of genre difficulty in play in the book too, since while professing to offer a triptych analysis of the three enigmatic brothers at the heart of this dynasty — Edward IV, George, Duke of Clarence and Richard III — Penn has largely written a richly contextualised and meticulously researched biography of just the first of these figures: Edward IV is the focus of 450 pages of the book’s narrative.
In calling this biographical study tragedy, Penn argues that there is ‘a tragic flaw in the Yorkist dynasty’ and that ‘the tragedy of the brothers York was that they destroyed themselves’. This is a useful corrective to those triumphalist accounts which see the Tudors as masters of historical destiny, with Lancastrians quashing Yorkists in the march towards modernity. Rather, in terms of the emblematic sign-system that gave the Wars of the Roses their name, what brings about the fall of the House of York is white-on-white violence or treachery.
Penn shows — perhaps nodding towards the current occupants of the White House — how it was Edward IV’s family-first policies, his repeated concentration of power in blood, that helped drive the destruction of his dynasty. It was Edward who first advanced his brother and presumptive heir Clarence’s sense of self-importance at court, his ‘neuralgic sensitivity to any perceived slight’, which caused him to tilt at Edward’s throne himself. (It was also Edward who, long before Richard began inventing ingenious ways to clothe his naked villainy, probably had Clarence drowned in a vat of sweet Greek wine for his rebelliousness.)
And it was Edward who allowed his apparently steadfast younger brother Richard to become the nation’s effective war leader in the latter years of his reign. In the meantime, he pursued his appetites for food, wine and, as one contemporary put it, ‘festivities of ladies’, transforming himself from a beautiful ‘fresh-faced giant’ (he was 6’4’) into a 15th-century forerunner of a 1970s Elvis. (Where Elvis made it to 42, Edward died at 40 from the effects of a cerebral haemorrhage brought on by years of overindulgence.)
The wages of Edward IV, Penn implies throughout, was Richard III. Richard would certainly have learned much about the methods and merits of extreme violence from his brother’s reign. Edward repeatedly employed the services of John Tiptoft, 1st Earl of Worcester, in the interrogation of rebels. While deputy Lieutenant of Ireland, Tiptoft executed the young sons of the Earl of Desmond; despite the public outcry — the gauche eldest boy, just 13, asked his executioner to avoid a sore on his neck when he swung the axe — Edward kept Tiptoft close. And it was Tiptoft who, as Edward’s Constable of England, later condemned 20 of the Earl of Warwick’s rebel soldiers to death. Determining that a standard traitor’s death — hanging, drawing and beheading — was too good for these men, he added impalement to their list of necessary punishments. This involved stringing up their headless bodies, inserting sharpened wooden stakes ‘at buttocks’ until they emerged from the necks, and re-attaching the decapitated heads to the stake tips.
While Penn’s book is only passingly about Richard III, it is a vital corrective to the ongoing, polarising battle over his legacy that has raged since 2012, after his remains were unearthed in Leicester. Recently, David Starkey unveiled at Hever Castle a newly discovered 16th-century portrait of Richard, and described the king as a ‘murderous thug’, a ‘loser’, and ‘the real founder of the House of Tudor’.
This book refuses to airbrush Richard’s violent reputation but, in its careful excavation of the court and politics of Edward IV, it does show that the seeds of the destruction of the House of York were sown well before he took to the throne.
Sam Leith talks to Thomas Penn in this week’s books podcast www.spectator.co.uk/bookspodcast