02 March 2013

Rethinking historical "truths" eg Richard III

During 1st or 2nd year as an undergrad history student at Melbourne University, a lecturer put a historical novel in the reading list. I had read many historical novels before and since, but it was not clear at the time why reading this slim novel would make the students better historians.

The Daughter of Time is a 1951 detective novel by Josephine Tey (1896–1952) which concerned one of the novelist’s favourite fictional characters, Scotland Yard Inspector Alan Grant. The inspector was confined to bed in hospital with an unusable leg, and was going insane with boredom. One of his friends wanted to stimulate Grant’s mind so she proposed that the inspector should research and solve a cold case, a mystery that really did occur in hist­ory.

Grant was invited to use his best police officer's skills to investigate the murders believed to be committed by King Richard III in c1483. The questions Grant had to ask were: did King Richard kill his nephews, the princes in the tower? and if the king was innocent, why did everyone believe that he was a heartless murderer of small children?

The tragic young princes in the tower, 
painted by Sir John E Millais, 1878. 
Royal Holloway collection

It took Inspector Grant a long time to find and read the relevant historical documents because laptops had not yet been invented and library visits on his own leg(s) were impossible. But his detective skills were well honed, and he finally came to believe that King Richard III was nowhere near the Tower of London when the boys died, and had no motive to send someone else to do the deadly deed.

Far from being a cold-blooded monster, the 15th century king appeared to Inspector Grant to be a man torn by the very real issues in front of him -- sad, regretful, depressed, consumed by something that happ­ened in the past. Inspector Grant, who had expected to find a heart­less man driven by greed and the desire to rule, eventually under­stood how great myths were constructed; how the victorious Tudors ensured that their version of history would endure.

For Melbourne University students who were studying medieval history, and even for those who weren’t, the novel was important for thinking about hist­or­iography i.e the study of the methodology and develop­ment of history as a discipline. The book explored how history was con­st­ruc­ted, and how certain versions of events come to be widely accepted as the truth, despite a lack of evidence. 

Steve Weingartner as the hunchbacked, clubfooted King Richard III 
in Shakespeare's play of the same name.
Photo credit: Los Angeles Times

So how do I assess the impact of this novel about a modern policeman who uses his detective skills on an old, unchallenged bit of history? The inspector found that King Richard was not a child murderer, nor a monstrous hunchback; that so-called facts were fabrications of Tudor propaganda. Whether Inspector Grant was right or wrong about King Richard, the take-away message is all historical beliefs cannot be taken as the truth until challenged. History was written, or deliberately falsified by the winners, and there may well have been another story that was forgotten over the decades. Dwell In Possibility wrote it best: Our first question shouldn't be “what happened?”, but rather “who was telling us about what happened?” Anomalies that seem to have been ignored or explained away by generations of historians need to be re-examined.

One example. Both of the young princes were declared illegitimate in 1484 by an Act of Parliament known asTitulus Regius . The act stated that Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville's marriage was invalid, so their sons could never be in line to the throne. Since the princes were never going to be able to challenge Richard for the throne, there was absolutely no reason for Richard to have them killed.

One last thing. Investigative techniques improve with time, so hidden evidence from the late C15th may be discoverable only now. It is the modern historian’s task, based on reliable evidence, to analyse and rectify historical injustices.


This post was originally written in early 2012, before the body of King Richard III was located in an archaeological dig in Leicester. Scientists are now convinced beyond reasonable doubt that the skeleton was indeed that of the king who was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. So in Feb 2013 I went back to re-read my favourite Plantagenet historian, A.J.Pollard, to remind myself of his findings in Richard III and The Princes in the Tower,  published in 1991 by St Martin's Press. "The balance of probability is, therefore, that Richard III did indeed order the killing of his nephews before mid-September 1483. Other explanations of their deaths during his reign which have been offered are based on nothing but speculation".

Paul Lay wrote (History Today Dec 2012) that Richard's reign was brief, unsuccessful and sullied by blood. But Richard was truly the victim of Tudor propaganda, through the poison portrait of him painted by Shakespeare. This would be true if the body under the Leicester car park turned out to be Richard, or not.


For a reanalysis of a more modern historical event than King Richard, consider Florence Night­ingale historiography. Most people in the universe unquest­ion­ably believe that Florence Nightingale was a heroic, religious woman who sacrificed her personal life to mop the fevered brows of soldiers in the Crimean War. She alone, with a little backup from her 35 obedient helpers, saved the young soldiers from terrible post-battlefield deaths, in a hospital far from Britain.

Once she was back in Britain and saw the statistics, even Nightingale realised that the volunteer nurses saved no soldiers from death; that the lack of decent hospital conditions in the Crimea may have actually contributed to extra deaths. But the saintly reputation remains untouched.

Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands (published by Penguin Classics in 2005) is the 1857 autobiography of a Jamaican woman (with a Scottish soldier father) whose fame rivalled Florence Nightingale’s during the Crimean War. Seacole’s offer to volunteer as a nurse in the war was refused, but she wasn't daunted. She left for the Crim­ea where she acted as nurse and mother to wounded young soldiers. She also ran her business, the British Hotel.

Of course autobiographical material needs to be VERY carefully evaluated but why did we not know Seacole’s name until 10 years ago? Could Seacole’s Caribbean black­ness not compete with Nightingale’s background of staunchly Unitarian landed gentry? Was Seacole knowingly whitewashed out of mid-19th century history? 

Florence Nightingale (above)
Mary Seacole (below)


Andrew said...

And a little more recently, the not so saintly Mother Theresa.

Hels said...


a GREAT example, thank you!

I read “The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice,” by Christopher Hitchens when it was first published in 1995. I thought it was very well researched and very well documented, but that Hitchens would pay with his life.

Sometimes writing evidence-based history might not be worth destroying the vested interests who liked the old history.

Ginny Burton said...

What a wonderful post! Thank you!

Hels said...


Welcome aboard. What part of history are you most interested in?

ChrisJ said...

I wonder how revealing about "fibs" his body might be - and if there will even be the opportunity to investigate.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, This is an important post, and contains one of my new favorite quotes: "Anomalies that seem to have been ignored or explained away by generations of historians need to be re-examined."

This is what drives my interest in objects and history, the opportunity to investigate and decide for myself, and it is surprising how often my own findings are different from standard opinions.
--Road to Parnassus

Hels said...


I didn't think I would be interested in the story, when the body was first located. Now it is becoming more and more fascinating.

Hels said...


I think the simple fact is that we rarely have the opportunity to examine primary sources ourselves. So it is both difficult to ask subversive questions and it is far easier to accept long held views.

Occasionally new data will come to light or new investigative techniques will become available. Only then can we see who is brave enough to vary from received truths.

Hels said...


I have added another anomaly from the Richard III Society history page. I had never heard of Titulus Regius Act of Parliament before, the act that declared the two princes to be illegitimate. We have a lot to learn.

Hels said...

The Daughter of Time is a 1951 detective novel by Josephine Tey (1896–1952) which concerned a Scotland Yard Inspector who was confined to bed in hospital and was going insane with boredom. One of his friends wanted to stimulate Grant’s mind so she proposed that the inspector should research and solve a famous cold case.

The Wench Is Dead (1998) was an Inspector Morse episode, 47 years after the Tey book, that EXACTLY replicated the situation. Inspector Morse was bored witless in hospital when he came across a historical case that needed to be re-analysed. With his historically minded assistant PC Adrian Kershaw, they righted the wrongs of the 1859 case called Murder on the Oxford Canal. The hanged men could not be brought back to life, of course, but at least the history books would be corrected.

Fantastic writing!