Unearthing Historical Truths: Richard III in Fiction and in the Flesh (Well, Bones)

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.

The_Daughter_of_Time_-_Josephine_TeyAfter 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.


  1. Fascinating post – I love reading historical fiction and will give The Daughter of Time a look. I was really struck by these lines – 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. This is so true. It’s a shame more people don’t apply such a lens to the evening news.

  2. Reblogged this on The Misfortune Of Knowing and commented:

    Remember when scientists unearthed the remains of Richard III, the notorious English ruler who died at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485?

    Now, a year after the discovery of those remains, researchers at the University of Leicester have announced plans to sequence Richard III’s entire genome (http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-richard-iii-genome-sequenced-20140211,0,7866516.story#axzz2t80ePoT6). The goal is to learn more about the last Plantagenet King’s health and ancestry.

    This scientific exploration won’t answer the real-life historical mystery at the heart of Josephine Tey’s novel, The Daughter of Time—whether Richard III was responsible for the deaths of his two nephews, the Princes in the Tower—but it’s still very exciting news.

    For those interested in finding out more about Tey’s 1951 novel, check out my review of it from last year:

  3. I love your blog, and I don’t think I post often enough for you to know how inspiring I find it to be!
    Just mentioning you in a blog-along award “Very Inspiring Bloggers Award”, (obviously it’s not compulsory to forward, it’t not going to become the “chain letter” of blogs!)
    Thank you for quality content to read and enjoy,

  4. It’s really interesting how archaeological discoveries are often tied to stories of “intuition.” This reminds me of the story Frederick Bligh Bond, an English archaeologist at the turn-of-the-century who claimed he uncovered Glastonbury Abbey after communicating with the spirits of dead monks! Bizarre!

  5. I too read the novel a thousand years ago, and wished that Josephine Tey had written more – she wrote only 3 or 4 books – am under correction on this point. But not many.

    1. This is the only one of her books I’ve read, but I’m interesting in reading more from her now. I believe she also wrote plays under a different pseudonym.

  6. This might turn out to be the discovery of the decade. It is so interesting. The Parking lot owner sure made a good investment on his land…Just think a King was right under his/her nose and not found out until now!

      1. That’s very interesting! He did have scoliosis, but it doesn’t sound like he had kyphosis (which I believe is more likely to look like a “hump”). He also didn’t have a withered arm.

        As an aside, my daughters had a radiological finding of kyphosis when they were 1 and a half (found while doing a chest x-ray because of potential pneumonia). There was never a clinical finding of it, though.

  7. I know how Grant felt with his broken leg. I was not in a hospital bed, but too was very bored, like out of my mind bored. At least he spent his time doing something very worthwhile. I do not know the history, so I would not be one to comment on his alternate theory.

    1. I can only imagine how boring it must be to be stuck indoors for so long! I would probably entertain myself with my books and the Internet, but at least point I would need more variety than that.

  8. Look at how we twist things now in order to show first one and then another politician in a favorable or unfavorable light.

    Makes on wonder just how much of “history” is anywhere near accurate.

    1. Yeah, there is no such thing as one “truth.” That’s why I use the trial analogy. We have to weigh historical evidence the way a jury weighs evidence and determine whether a stated version of events is “more likely than not” what happened (preponderance of the evidence) or “beyond a reasonable doubt” what happened.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s