Edward IV: Glorious Son of York by Jeffrey James

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Edward IV: Glorious Son of York by Jeffrey James

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Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: This book is just as much a history of the Wars of the Roses and the years immediately before, as a biography of the Yorkist monarch. It is a colourful read which tells the story of his life well against the background of the conflicts which had such a decisive effect on the rise, fall and rise again of his personal fortunes.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: September 2015
Publisher: Amberley
ISBN: 978-1445646213

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Medieval England's own game of thrones, The Wars of the Roses, was at the centre of a turbulent age. In retrospect much of the history of medieval England, between the Norman conquest and the advent of the Tudors, seems to have been a chronicle of instability often verging on and sometimes erupting into rebellion or civil war. The fifteenth-century conflicts between the houses of Lancaster and York, lasting intermittently for thirty years, were more protracted and even more brutal than the rest, with several fierce battles and sudden changes of fortune for the two rival families, both descended from King Edward III. The rise, fall and rise again of King Edward IV was a constant theme of the wars.

It is inevitable that Jeffrey James's book is not merely a biography, but just as much a history of the age. One cannot separate the monarch from the conflict which was central to his entire life. Born in Rouen, he was aged thirteen when the dynastic strife between the pious and well-meaning but mentally unstable King Henry VI and his resolute consort, Queen Margaret on one hand and his father Richard, Duke of York, on the other, came to a head. The family had been forged in fire, with Richard's father executed for treason in 1415 after being accused of planning the assassination of King Henry V, shortly before the latter's departure from England for the campaign in France which culminated in the battle of Agincourt.

In some sections of this book Edward all but disappears, with the narrative taking over, as it traces the last inglorious years of the Hundred Years' War in France which ended in British defeat. The opening chapter, which traces the inter-family rivalry, gives us a brief glimpse of Edward and his closest brother in age Edmund, Duke of Rutland, spending their childhood probably in Normandy, Ireland and then at Ludlow Castle. It does however dwell more on the reign of Henry VI, soon to come to an end as a result of war. The ever-changing fortunes of Lancaster and York, with an apparently disastrous defeat on the battlefield for one side quickly followed by an equally ignominious rout for the other, make the fifteenth century arguably one of the most colourful eras of British history; as the old cliché goes, 'you couldn't make it up'. Within less than three months of the death of the Duke of York at the battle of Wakefield, his eldest son Edward was proclaimed King.

For the next nine years, Edward's hold on the throne was relatively secure but rarely comfortable. James makes the point that this giant of a man, well over six feet tall, was a capable and skilled military commander, but during peacetime became lazy and overfond of good living. At a time when the Yorkists' future should have been assured, he jeopardised his future by not just falling for the charms of Elizabeth Woodville, the widow of a Lancastrian supporter, Sir John Grey, but also taking her as his Queen. In doing so he antagonised his kinsman Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, 'the Kingmaker', who had been instrumental in placing him on the throne in place of King Henry. The Earl proved that Kings could be unmade just as easily, with the result that King Edward later found himself a deposed fugitive while the now hopelessly insane King Henry VI, having spent several years in captivity himself, was briefly restored to the throne. Within a few months, in another speedy reversal of dynastic fortunes and two more decisive Yorkist victories on the battlefield, Edward was King again, Henry was dead, probably murdered, his Queen was an exile in her native France and their only son and heir (another Edward) slain at the battle of Tewkesbury.

The remaining twelve years of King Edward's life were relatively untroubled, apart from a vicious spat with one of his surviving brothers George, Duke of Clarence, reputedly drowned in a butt of malmsey wine – though James informs us that this may be no more than colourful legend and that he was more probably strangled in captivity. But his last months were overshadowed by the ever-present shadow of war with France. A surfeit of good living, anger at apparent betrayal by King Louis XI of France whom he claimed had reneged on a former agreement, a chill and hypertension, were all cited by possible causes of the King's untimely death. A theory that his youngest and ever-loyal brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester and subsequently King Richard III might have had a hand in dispatching him is dismissed without question.

The book finishes with a brief account of the aftermath, the very short reign of King Edward V and the succession of King Richard III. Almost every historian or biographer dealing with the period has examined the pros and cons of Richard and the did-he didn't-he kill his nephews at great length. James mentions in his final paragraph that he might have done so on the urging of the Duke of Buckingham - and leaves it at that.

As a history of the Wars of the Roses, and a colourful life of the King who was involved more closely than any of his contemporary sovereigns in the ebb and flow of fortune, this is a fine read. There have been more weighty and detailed lives and times, but this one gives us all the facts we need to know, set in a crisp and entertaining narrative. I considered myself relatively well-informed on the period before I picked this one up, but I learnt from it and found it a very enjoyable refresher course, and I would unreservedly recommend it to any enthusiast of British medieval history.

If you enjoy this, may we also recommend an account of the controversy surrounding the fate of the King's sons, The Princes In The Tower by Alison Weir, or another Wars of the Roses-themed biography, The Kingmaker's Sisters: Six Powerful Women in the Wars of the Roses by David Baldwin. You might also appreciate On the Trail of the Yorks by Kristie Dean.

Booklists.jpg Edward IV: Glorious Son of York by Jeffrey James is in the Top Ten History Books 2015.

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