“The Daughter of Time,” by Josephine Tey. Touchstone Publishing (1951) 208 pages.
“Truth is the daughter of time, not of authority” — Francis Bacon.
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.
Everyone knows 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 first to tell this story, and whose 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 William 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 book “Daughter of Time” provides a fascinating look at this part 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 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 a 500-year-old mystery.
As much history as mystery, “Daughter of Time” delves into the background of the Plantagenets 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 even 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. Most interesting 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. Men are sent to different parts of the country, and even to France, expressly to start rumors. Witnesses are paid off or silenced. Essential evidence–such as any contemporary accusations that Richard did away with the princes–is non-existent. Yet the rumors persist.
Even more interesting–and apropos of politics today–is how Henry VII (according to the book) mixed truth with rumor to create the impression of a lie. Richard’s accession to the throne hinged on proving that the little princes were little bastards. It seems that before marrying their mother, Elizabeth Woodville, Edward IV had already entered a marriage contract with 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 neatly 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 the benefit of marriage. She testified truthfully that she had slept with Edward, and just as truthfully that she had never married 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.
The book is filled with similar examples of political enemies deliberately manipulating public opinion. In addition to being an entertaining armchair detective story (or, in this case, bedside detective), “The Daughter of Time” sheds cynical light on a political process that spans 500 years and continues actively today. A successful politician has learned these truths: Be the first to tell the story, and tell it your own way. Tell enough truth to be convincing, and don’t back down. If your side is victorious, the story will stick. Remember: History is written by the victors, and Truth is the daughter of time.