Apparently, a woman’s intuition in a parking lot in Leicester, England — a strange feeling she was standing on top of King Richard III’s grave (after historical research suggested she was in the correct area) — was right. Mitochondrial DNA tests have confirmed that the remains found at that spot are those of Richard III, the last Plantagenet King. He had been buried unceremoniously after defeat at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.
This discovery piqued my interest in Richard III. My knowledge of British history is limited to two courses I took in college, both focused on time periods after Richard’s reign (my professor’s lectures for a later version of one of the courses I took — “Early Modern England” — are available here). My view of Richard III comes mostly from Shakespeare, who portrays him as a villain. In particular, history remembers Richard as the man responsible for the deaths of his two nephews, the Princes in the Tower.
But there are some who claim that such an unfavorable description of the last Plantagenet King is merely spiteful defamation, the result of the victors (the Tudors) framing history to their advantage. That’s the position of Inspector Alan Grant, the fictional detective in Josephine Tey’s 1951 historical mystery, The Daughter of Time, a novel a colleague of mine remembered from her childhood and recommended highly to me.
After breaking his leg, Grant is stuck in a hospital bed and bored out of his mind. He exchanges counting the ceiling tiles for examining famous faces, including Richard III, whose portrait becomes a fixture in the room. Being the only patient with a king as a pinup, Grant spends hours gazing at the disgraced ruler, and he wonders: How could “the author of the most revolting crime in history” (the murder of the princes) have “the face of a great judge, a great administrator”? He decides that the face doesn’t “fit” the historical facts, and resolves to use his detective skills to clear Richard’s name. What unfolds from this fictional hunch — not unlike the real hunch associated with the unearthing of Richard’s bones in Leicester — is a major historical discovery.
This story is an interesting tale of deceit, murder, and propaganda that warns us to read everything with a critical eye, whether it’s a novel or a history textbook. Grant starts his analysis of the problem, which he has framed as the case of the “disappearance of two boys (Edward, Prince of Wales; Richard, Duke of York) from the Tower of London, 1485 or thereabouts,” with the accounts of Richard in school textbooks. Concluding that these books are misleading, Grant enlists a friend to help him research the historical events from scratch, saying: “Give me the research. After all, the truth of anything at all doesn’t lie in someone’s account of it. It lies in all the small facts of the time. An advertisement in a paper. The sale of a house. The price of a ring.”
Whether or not you agree with Grant’s alternate theory of what happened to the princes, it is hard to dismiss his application of the historical method. It reminds me of my college days as a history major when my papers were built upon the details contained in diaries, personal letters, and other primary sources. Each is a piece of evidence, which a historian, like a juror in a trial, must weigh for credibility to reach a verdict on “the truth.” It’s the only way to root out “Tonypandy,” Grant’s term for historical bullshit.