Anyone with a passing interest in the study of the fifteenth century has heard of Josephine Tey’s book ‘A Daughter of Time’, a mystery novel from 1951 often mentioned in heated discussions regarding the guilt, or otherwise, of Richard III in the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower. We are often told, in a most-determined manner, that Richard could not have committed the deed, with the facts outlined in Tey’s book providing the basis of any argument. It is not unlike the recent phenomenon we see with the work of Philippa Gregory, where some use the work of fiction to bolster their verdict, a case in point being the recent belief that Margaret Beaufort plotted her entire life to place her son on the throne, against any known historical evidence. Fictional accounts are, it seems, heavily influential in forming the opinions of some people in how history unravelled.
I have always been mildly amused by how much influence this particular fiction book has had on Ricardians. Many of these subscribers to the belief that Richard III was a good man undone by Tudor treachery and propaganda proudly note that their views originated with Tey’s book. By its very nature, however, a fictional book surely can’t be used as supporting evidence in an historical debate. It is not ‘real history’, after all, but make-believe fashioned in the mind of an author able to manipulate known-fact to put forward their opinion.
The premise of ‘A Daughter of Time’ is simple. Inspector Grant of Scotland Yard is hospitalised, and understandably bored, is brought several portraits by a friend to muse over, being an acknowledged expert in the study of faces through his profession. Upon being presented with an image of Richard III, whose identity is not instantly apparent to the policeman, Grant’s assessment of the man is that he was conscientious, a perfectionist, a worrier, presumably a man of great responsibility such as a judge or a soldier. The inspector is astonished when he discovers the man he made this positive judgement of was in fact Richard III, ‘the monster of nursery rhymes’ and the ‘destroyer of innocence’. Grant, however, fails to see any ‘villainy’ in the face of history’s most notorious royal criminal, and sets out to seek the ‘real Richard’ with the help of a young American research assistant. The result is a gradual realisation that Richard was, in fact, a good and kind king, unfairly maligned by the Tudors, in particular Sir Thomas More, who becomes something of a villain during the piece.
Now, the book is a fantastic read, an impressively gripping work that I finished in little over two days. I couldn’t put the book down. Nonetheless, for a book that has come to be regarded as the ‘bible’ of modern Ricardianism, it must be assessed for the quality of its argument, which I sadly feel is lacking, and one-dimensional at best.
As mentioned, Grant’s initial belief of Richard’s innocence stems from the portrait itself, bolstered oddly by a fictional account in a book he reads called the Rose of Raby. The inspector simply doesn’t believe the man in the portrait, a mere painting remember, was capable of the crimes he was accused of, which seems a worryingly generous, and simplistic, deducted by an apparently celebrated police inspector. At one point, the face is even considered to be saintly! I somehow fail to see a real-life inspector acting in such a manner.
By chapter 6, Grant encounter’s Thomas More and his exaggerated and embellished work on Richard III, much of which provided the basis for Shakespeare’s ridiculous caricature of the king. Here, Grant reacts with particular distaste to the discovery that More was only a boy during Richard’s life and therefore his work was based on second-hand gossip. Yes, More’s work was reliant on the testimony of other men, not least John Morton, but it seems churlish that this fact alone renders the entire work a fraud, and as a consequence redeems Richard. Basically, a nice face in the portrait and the fact that More was a child during the reign of Richard III turn Grant into a rabid Ricardian. From here on in, the inspector is determined to absolve Richard of any wrongdoing, something which, as the book is a fictional account and NOT academic, feels inevitable.
The more Grant learns about Richard, the more the case builds. It is not possible, the inspector muses, for such a popular duke to have become such a rash king, as the historical accounts state. They must all be wrong. How can this man, who was a good administrator and excellent military general, also be capable of such unscrupulous and villainous behaviour. Again, this apparently highly capable police inspector is being very generous to his subject. Humans are not inflexible; they are not one or the other. They are no binary. Humans are complex, and react to the world they live in. There is nothing to suggest that Richard III could have been a good administrator, a loyal brother, an excellent military man whilst also committing disastrous mistakes as king as the pressure of rule affected his decision-making.
Of course, to restore Richard’s attention, attention soon finds its way to Henry VII. The Henry portrayed in the book doesn’t have a single, redeeming quality. The financial policy known as ‘Morton’s Fork’ is brought up at length, ignoring the fact that Yorkist England had a similar policy under Edward IV, whilst the conclusion is reached that the Princes in the Tower must have survived into Henry’s reign simply because the Tudor king made no political capital from the disappearance. Furthermore, Richard couldn’t have done it because he had many other Yorkist nieces and nephews still living, and would therefore have had to kill them all to take the throne, again conveniently overlooking the reality of the situation in favour of genealogical theorising.
We also see it noted that as Elizabeth Woodville came out of sanctuary and reconciled somewhat with Richard III, then he couldn’t have killed her sons. This theory, of course, overlooks the fact that Richard had already, in fact, killed one of her sons from her first marriage, Richard Grey, in usurping the throne. Was his life irrelevant because he wasn’t a prince? All things considered, the evidence for Richard’s innocence in the book is flimsy, and doesn’t stand up to any in-depth analysis. There is a delicious irony in Inspector Grant bemoaning the two-dimensional thinking of historians when that’s basically what this very book is.
Other evidence is easily dismissed, or even fabricated. The Croyland Chronicler’s rumour of the princes’ deaths in 1483, during Richard’s reign, is dismissed off-hand as being because Morton was lurking in the vicinity at the time and was therefore clearly the source, whilst Henry VII is accused of murdering Richard’s illegitimate son John, something for which there is no contemporary evidence.
In summary, Grant’s (or should that be Tey’s?) argument for Richard’s innocence, with no alternative theories put forward, can be summed up as follows;
- Richard’s face in a portrait doesn’t fit the face of a killer.
- Richard had nothing to gain from the princes’ death.
- Thomas More was only a boy during Richard’s reign, therefore everything he wrote must be discounted as nothing more than gossip
- Henry VII never made any political capital from their disappearance, therefore he must have killed them
- Elizabeth Woodville forgave Richard and therefore couldn’t have killed her sons
- There was no contemporary reports of the princes’ death during Richard’s reign.
Each of the above points can be directly counter-argued, and in some cases completely dispelled. The portrait is just that, a portrait, and not particularly contemporary either therefore it’s irrelevant. Richard DID have something to benefit from the princes’ death, as they would have become the source of later disaffection and were hardly likely to roll over and allow their inheritance to be taken. More’s account was written many decades after Richard’s death, and certainly embellished, but that doesn’t alone render the entire work a lie. Henry VII may not have made political capital because he quite simply did not know what became of the princes when he finally secured the realm. And, of course, Elizabeth Woodville did forgive Richard, even though he had already killed one of her sons from her first marriage.
Of course, as this book isn’t a true work of history, it doesn’t take such counter-arguments into account. We only receive a selective, one-sided version, albeit dressed up as a policeman applying logic and reasoning, with results which any respectable historian would question. There is great merit in how the protagonists pull apart the work of Thomas More, and question the veracity of later sources like Hall and Holinshed, something all respectable historians must do, but the deductions the book comes too are based on circumstantial evidence. There is nothing solid that suggests Richard’s innocence, and the book doesn’t stand up to any real scrutiny.
That all being said, I did enjoy the book but the reader must always be careful in being suckered by the content of a fictional book. This isn’t an unbiased, impartial account, irregardless of how well-researched the book may be; its heavily prejudiced, with facts bended or even omitted to ensure the story reaches a conclusion the author undoubtedly endorses. A fantastic novel, but very questionable as a genuine historical account.