Richard III: Dastardly Devil or Propaganda Victim?

Josephine Tey, Daughter of Time, published 1951.  Mystery novel.

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Josephine Tey was one of the pen names of Elizabeth MacKintosh.

 

“Truth is the daughter of time, not of authority.”  -Francis Bacon

I first learned of England’s King Richard III when I studied Shakespeare in college.  In Shakespeare’s play Richard III, readers learn that Richard, who ruled England from 1483-1485 was a nasty piece of work who reveled in villainy:  “And thus I cloth my naked villainy / With odd old ends stol’n out of holy writ; / And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.”

Shakespeare emphasizes the physical deformity of the hunch-backed Richard, suggesting that his moral deformity is a natural result of his abnormally curved spine:  “And therefore, — since I cannot prove a lover, / To entertain these fair well-spoken days, – / I am determined to prove a villain, / And hate the idle pleasures of these days.”   Since nobody could love a cripple such as himself, Richard mused that he might as well rejoice in evil deeds.

Richard III, I learned, deserved such opprobrium because he had ordered the murder of his two nephews, Edward and Richard, who were aged 12 and 9 at the time.  Twelve-year-old Edward was supposed to be protected by Richard until he was crowned as the King of England.  Instead, Richard declared himself as king and the two boys—Edward and Richard—disappeared forever.  It was believed by many that Richard had ordered the murder of the Princes in the Tower in order to assure his own reign.

Such dastardly deeds surely could not go unchecked, and Richard III did not reign for long.  There were two rebellions against him.  The second one, led by Henry Tudor, resulted in the death of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.  After his death, Henry Tudor became King Henry VII.   Richard III’s reputation as evil incarnate became as firmly entrenched as the Tudor dynasty.

Josephine Tey, however, who lived from 1896-1952 was suspicious of the prevailing belief that Richard was the murderer of the princes.  In her detective novel Daughter of Time, she set out to prove that Richard was innocent of the murder of his two nephews.

Daughter of Time is a fascinating hybrid; it is a detective novel but also a work of historical inquiry.  The main character of the novel is detective Alan Grant.  Grant is stuck in a hospital bed for an extended period of time, and he is bored out of his mind.  His friend Marta suggests that he might pass the time by investigating a historical mystery.  She brings him portraits of historical figures, knowing that he enjoys studying faces.  When she shows him a portrait of Richard III, Grant becomes intrigued.  He does not believe this to be the face of a person who could have murdered his nephews.

Grant then begins to investigate the historical record, trying to figure out how it was determined that Richard was the murderer.  Using the investigative skills that made him successful as a detective, Grant starts with easily available historical books and moves on to records found in the British Museum (thanks to his assistant Brent Carradine.)  The readers learn, along with Grant, how flimsy the evidence for Richard’s villainy actually is.  Instead, Grant believes, the evidence points much more strongly to Henry VII as the real murderer of the princes and the truly villainous king.  Tey makes a convincing case that the Tudors deliberately set out a vicious campaign of propaganda to smear Richard III’s reputation in order to solidify the Tudor dynasty.

I am not a historian and I am not equipped to make an informed verdict on what happened to the missing princes in the tower.  I did, however, find Tey’s novel fascinating for its investigation of how history is made.  She suggests that once a propaganda campaign succeeds in creating a historical “fact,” the “fact” is repeated throughout the generations with few people questioning its veracity.  Hundreds of years after the historical events occurred, it becomes extremely difficult to figure out what actually happened.

Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time, however, succeeded in undermining the established “truth” that Richard III was a villainous murderer of children.  According to this article in the New Yorker, Tey’s mystery novel “sparked mass interest in Richard’s redemption.”  Recently, in fact, Richard’s bones have been discovered and he has been given a proper burial (one he did not receive in his day.)  Click here for more information.

I highly recommend Daughter of Time to readers interested in English history and in how history is made.

If you have read the book or know more about Richard III, I’d love to hear your perspective.

This blog post is my Pre-1500 entry for the When Are You Reading Challenge?  

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