I, That am Rudely Stamp’d

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“Truth is the daughter of time, not of authority,” wrote Francis Bacon. His saying provides the title of a book that was published a long time ago but has never lost its freshness and relevance.

If we have learned one lesson from recent politics it is this: Be the first to tell the story, and tell it your own way. Then don’t back down. You can get away with just about anything.

Most people know the story of Richard III – the king who clumped around medieval England with a deformed back, lamenting the winter of his discontent and ending his life with the tragic cry, “My kingdom for a horse!” Many also remember him as the murderer of the princes in the tower, a man so evil that he killed his own young nephews to put himself on the throne. But who was the first to tell this story, and which way was it told?

Most of what “everyone knows” about Richard III comes from two sources: Thomas More’s “The History of King Richard III,” published in 1557, and Shakespeare’s play of the same .name, published in the 1590s and based on More’s account. Both men wrote their tales nearly 100 years after Richard died. More to the point, both men were loyal subjects of the Tudors, descendants of Henry VII, who dethroned Richard and ended the reign of the Plantagenets. If anyone had a reason to darken Richard’s reputation and brighten their own, the Tudors did.

Josephine Tey’s novel “Daughter of Time” provides a fascinating look at this period of English history through the eyes of a fictional detective. Though written in 1951, her story of political shenanigans and historical revision feels as timely as last month’s election.

The story begins with Scotland Yard Inspector Alan Grant recuperating from a broken leg. Confined to bed, he is bored and cranky. Knowing that Grant is proud of his ability to “read” a person’s guilt or innocence by looking at the person’s face (heaven save us from that kind of jury – or cop!), a friend brings him some pictures of famous defendants to keep him busy, including a portrait of Richard III. Grant is puzzled by Richard’s kind and noble face, which does not fit his expectation of a murderer. Engaging the help of a young researcher at the British Museum to do his library work, Grant begins to investigate the 500-year-old mysteries of Richard’s life.

As much history as mystery, “Daughter of Time” delves into the background of the Plantagenets (though “delves” may not be quite the right word for a book with a lively style and witty dialogue). Like any good detective, Grant focuses on motive and opportunity as he sets out to prove that Richard could not have murdered his nephews, the young princes who disappeared from the White Tower sometime during or even after Richard’s reign. He discovers that Richard’s successor, Henry VII, had more motive and opportunity for their deaths; after all, Richard had solved his accession problem simply by proving that the princes were illegitimate.

The story has a surprising number of twists and turns for a mystery that has been out in the open for 500 years. But the most interesting thing about this book is the author’s explanation of how rumors become history and how truth, “the daughter of time, not authority,” becomes deliberately obscured. In Tey’s story, men are sent to different parts of the country, and even to France, expressly to start rumors. Witnesses are paid off or silenced. Though essential evidence – such as any contemporary accusations that Richard did away with the princes – is nonexistent, the rumors develop a life of their own.

One of the most important ways of making sure that rumors propagate themselves is to mix them with truth. It’s a means of lying that we see in today’s politics, and that Tey finds in the politics of Henry VII. Here’s what happened, according to Tey’s book.

Richard’s accession to the throne hinged on proving that the little princes were bastards. It seems that before marrying theirmother, ElizabethWoodville, King Edward IV had entered a marriage contract with another woman, Lady Eleanor Talbot. This made the princes illegitimate, and the throne went to Edward’s brother Richard rather than to his sons. Our fictional detective, Alan Grant, uses this fact to prove that Richard had little motive for killing the boys. On the other hand, when Henry became king he needed to convince the masses that Richard had not been the legitimate heir after all, so they would willingly transfer their loyalty to him. Using the classic bait-and-switch method, Henry’s supporters found another Eleanor who had sported with King Edward, but without benefit of marriage. She testified truthfully that she had slept with Edward, and just as truthfully that she had never contracted to marry him. Those inside the court knew it was two different Eleanors, but the masses heard only “Eleanor” and were satisfied that Richard’s reign had never been legitimate. Elizabeth Woodville was the rightful queen, her sons (now conveniently missing) had been the rightful heirs, and voila! Long live King Henry.

Tey’s novel is filled with similar examples of political enemies deliberately manipulating public opinion – a process that continues today. Politicians still want to be the first to tell the story, they still aim at telling just enough truth to be convincing, and they still hope that their stories will stick if they don’t back down. And yes, if they are initially victorious, they do increase the chances that their stories will stick. It is said that history is written by the victors. It must also be said that truth is the daughter of time.

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