by Lillian Stewart Carl
Did you hear that when Henry Tudor announced he was going to build a car park in Leicester, King Richard III replied, “Over my dead body!”
The historian in me loves to see contemporary jokes based on five-hundred-year-old events. In fact, the story of the recent discovery of the bones of King Richard III reminds me of one of my own novels. I’m boggled it’s all for real.
The back-story of the discovery dates to the War of the Roses, an immensely complex and dramatic time period during which the house of Lancaster and the house of York (all descended from King Edward III) merrily back-stabbed, front-stabbed, betrayed, and married each other, with the prize being the crown of England.
All the thud and blunder seemed to have reached a conclusion (never mind various factions still disgruntling in the background) when Yorkist Edward IV became king. Then, in 1483, he died at the age of forty.
The crown should have passed to his older son, a boy of twelve—except a respected bishop stepped forward to say that Edward had been married before he married the mother of his children, which made them illegitimate and put his younger brother Richard on the throne.
Speed through the next two years—and past events that still rouse passions among historian and hobbyist alike—and Richard was defeated and killed in the battle of Bosworth by a sprig of the Lancastrians named Henry Tudor.
Yes, the progenitor of those Tudors.
King Henry VII went on to spawn Henry VIII and another spate of palace intrigue and death most bloody, all of which culminated in Elizabeth I.
It was during her reign that a certain playwright wrote a series of plays based on the lives of the previous monarchs. Funny how Shakespeare’s Richard III portrayed him as Old Crouchback, who murdered people right and left, including his own nephews, in order to gain the throne, only to be vanquished at last by knight-in-shining-armor Henry VII.
Shakespeare might be literature, not history, but his play and the sources he used set the traditional view of Richard for centuries to come.
After his victory, Henry’s men threw Richard’s despoiled body into an unmarked grave at Greyfriars Church in Leicester. The building was destroyed during Henry’s son’s reign and supposedly Richard’s bones were tossed into a nearby river. In any event, the location of the church, never mind the grave, was lost.
Fast-forward to the present. A member of a Ricardian Society (someone who does not subscribe to the traditional view and wants to see Richard’s reputation rehabilitated) financed a search for the church, and then excavation of its foundations, now located beneath a municipal parking lot or, in Britspeak, a car park.
Lo and behold, glory and trumpets, the archaeologists found a body with the twisted spine of a scoliosis victim, as Tudor historians claimed Richard had, although without the withered arm they also claimed he had. The body had been hacked and cut in battle and buried without grave goods or even a shroud, let alone a coffin. A DNA comparison with a descendent of Richard’s sister has confirmed the bones are indeed those of Richard III.
See above about bogglement.
A computer reconstruction of the skull added the long dark hair and flat cap of Richard’s portraits (none of which, by the way, is from life). Gee, one researcher opined, that’s not the face of an evil man…
Well, no, it doesn’t look like Sir Laurence Olivier’s version of Shakespeare’s Richard, but evil is in the actions of the living being, not in the physical remains.
While the mystery of the king’s physical remains has been solved, the mystery of his character—including whether he had his nephews murdered—remains unsolved, despite centuries of writers from historians to mystery authors speculating on its truth.
Josephine Tey’s version, The Daughter of Time (1951) is a contemporary classic. (At least, it was contemporary when it was written.)
Tey had the brilliant notion of examining the historical mystery within a fictional context. She begins by saddling her detective, Alan Grant, with a hospital stay and a case of acute boredom.
(Colin Dexter used a similar ploy in his Inspector Morse novel, The Wench is Dead, except the cold case Morse solves from his hospital bed is an entirely fictional one.)
After wittily commenting on the best-sellers Grant’s friends bring him to read, and which he rejects, Tey has another friend bring him several prints of portraits of historical figures. He’s struck by one of a man.
Grant’s own reputation is for accurately assessing the criminality of faces. He intuits that the man in the portrait belongs on the bench rather than in the dock—so is quite surprised to see that the portrait is of Richard III.
Grant interacts with a sparkling cast of characters (some of whom diagnose illness and pain in the face in the portrait) to obtain both original and not-so-original sources. He considers them in his professional capacity, working through the evidence, assessing means, motive, and opportunity as well as the veracity of witnesses.
He at last concludes that with the young princes declared illegitimate, they were no danger to Richard III. They were, however, a danger to Henry VII, whose queen was their sister, Elizabeth of York. His finagling to restore her legitimacy restored that of the boys, too, meaning young Edward was the legal king, not Henry himself. Since Henry had no qualms about eliminating rivals for the throne, Grant fingers him as the murderer of the princes.
The story is not only worked out as intricately and entertainingly as an entirely fictional mystery, Tey, through Grant, gets in a few digs at historians who would rather tell a good tale than an accurate one, and at politicians who turn events into propaganda.
Certainly Tey herself can be accused of admitting only the evidence that supports her case. But we can never know what really happened in the 1480s. If nothing else (and there’s considerable else), The Daughter of Time works beautifully as a novel.
A lesser-known novel, Elizabeth Peters’ The Murders of Richard III (1974) is almost a spin-off of Tey’s, but is less “faction” than straightforward fiction.
This is one of Peters’ Jacqueline Kirby novels, mysteries starring a librarian with a steel-trap mind and a huge handbag. The point-of-view character isn’t Jacqueline, though, but Thomas Carter, another American academic.
Hoping for a romantic tryst with Jacqueline, Thomas invites her to join him at a weekend at a country house owned by Sir Richard Weldon, a wealthy Ricardian who claims to have found a letter exonerating Richard of killing the princes.
This novel could have benefited from a cast of characters at the beginning. Each member of the house party has his or her original identity, and is also acting the part of one of Richard’s family or associates, with Weldon as Richard III himself.
Peters always has a take-no-prisoners sense of humor. In this novel, she gets a lot of mileage out of the Christie-esque British “types” playing historical characters that contrast with their public personalities—the mild-mannered vicar, for example, pretending to be lusty Edward IV.
Soon characters are embarrassed and even injured by nasty tricks based on their historical counterparts’ fates, tricks that become more and more dangerous. With her knowledge of not only the motives and relationships of Richard’s time period but also the present-day motives and relationships of the suspects—plus one of those clever deductions the reader should make for herself, but doesn’t—Jacqueline very neatly ferrets out the perpetrator.
The Murders of Richard III isn’t Peters’ best work, but it’s entertaining, especially as a sequel to The Daughter of Time, which is mentioned along with other works on Richard and his circle.
So where do we go from here? Will another Tey or another Peters (or Peters herself) use, for example, the debate about whether Leicester or York gets to bury Richard’s bones as the springboard for another novel?
And what about the now centuries-old controversies over Richard the wicked uncle versus Richard the gallant young king, controversies that livened up considerably since the discovery of the king beneath the car park?
I’ll give Tey the last word:
“It’s an odd thing but when you tell someone the true facts of a mythical tale they are indignant not with the teller but with you. They don’t want to have their ideas upset. It rouses some vague uneasiness in them. So they reject it and refuse to think about it. If they were merely indifferent, it would be natural and understandable. But it is much stronger than that, much more positive. They are annoyed.”
Order any of these books from Amazon using this link and a portion goes to help support KRL:
Check out more mystery interviews/reviews by subscribing to the All Mystery e-Newsletter: