Truth is the Daughter of Time

Richard III (2 October 1452 – 22 August 1485) was King of England and Lord of Ireland from 26 June 1483 until his death in 1485.

I’ve been reading Josephine Tay’s novel The Daughter of Time. Tay (aka Elizabeth MacKintosh 1896-1952) wrote some of the finest detective novels from the Golden Age of Crime Fiction. She is up there with Agatha Christie. The Daughter of Time is not a conventional mystery novel. It is a tale of how a sick detective from his hospital bed applies his reasoning and professional skills to solve a notorious, centuries old historical whodunnit – whether or not Richard III (king of England 1483-1485) was really responsible for the murder of ‘The Princes in the Tower’, the young Edward V and his brother, Richard Duke of York.

The underlying premise in Tay’s novel is that once an idea, however false, has become accepted in a culture, few people will bother to challenge it and learn the truth. Tay’s detective, reading and analysing the sources available at the time, concludes, despite the common perception persisting to the modern day that Richard III murdered his nephews, that Henry VII (who defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in August 1485) had the means, motive, and opportunity to bump off ‘The Princes in the Tower’ and wrote the subsequent history of Richard III in a successful attempt to shore up the narrative and shaky justification for the Tudor regime. Henry VII’s claim to the English throne was tenuous at best in terms of hereditary blood line. Richard III is still a disputed historical figure and Tay’s novel is very much a revisionist version of that period of English history, but there is a big lesson learned from reading her novel: we should question not only the work of historians, contemporary sources, and modern, but also the very nature of historical evidence. Revisionism is a good thing, providing it is used carefully.

It is certainly true that some of the sources for Richard III were written after his death by those working for Henry VII, including Thomas More. The novel is of course a work of fiction, and much that can be criticised about the selective presentation of evidence about Richard III, or the absence of sources and historical work that has become available since Tay published her book in 1951. However, it is certainly a book that helped start a re-evaluation and debate about Richard III and Henry VII – something that we would perhaps recognise as revisionism and a reminder that history is not static; new evidence and theories can come to light that can legitimately challenge previous narratives. I’m certainly more sympathetic to Richard III than Henry Tudor (VII) and the Tudors certainly sent England in particular down a troublesome road over the next 100 years or so causing conflict, rebellion and religious strife through the Reformation. Would the English Reformation have happened without the Tudors is an interesting thought experiment.

Tey’s illustration essentially offered a criticism of what she regarded as sensational and simplistic popular impressions of the Tonypandy riots near the start of The Daughter of Time, which she uses as a plot device. Did Churchill really send in the army when he was Home Secretary in 1911 following a miners’ strike? The popular view Tay uses is that Churchill did use troops to crush rioters, when there was evidence that the army was in fact held in reserve and Metropolitan Police officers were used instead. (There’s a good discussion of Churchill’s role at Tonypandy here: Tonypandy and Llanelli: Myth or Reality ( ) Throughout the book thereafter, several inaccurate (though popular) ideas on various other subjects are described as ‘Tonypandy’. The term ‘Tonypandy’ has since been used by other authors, such as Susan Jane Buck Cox to describe depictions of history which are easily disproven as false but continue to be repeated, sometimes even by experts who know better, because of their illustrative value as a moral or force as a cultural idea.

How is this medieval and literary history relevant to the modern period we live in? Politicians do this all the time, constantly repeating a slogan, or criticism, or a deliberate lie until it comes part of the political and popular narrative which becomes hard to challenge with the truth. Britain ‘sending £350million a week to the EU’ was the most high-profile slogan in the 2016 referendum campaign on whether the UK should remain or leave the European Union. The figure was easily disproven, much of that money came back to the UK in the form of a rebate, grants and regional funding and the ‘net’ figure was lower at around £250million. But even the ‘net’ figure sounded like a lot of money to most voters and once you’re debating figures that are both huge sums of money is it any wonder why voters were still influenced negatively by such high ‘net’ numbers as well? The £350million was a clear distortion of the truth but which entered the historical narrative much like Richard III murdering his nephews even though the facts could be disputed and have been revisited regularly after the event. The Brexit arguments continue to rumble on of course with talk of the ‘Brexit dividend’ and the benefits of leaving the EU to the UK, ignoring the more complicated calculations that the impact on the economy, over time, from changes to trade after leaving the EU is likely to be far bigger than the savings from the UK’s 2016 membership fee.

Much like Richard III, the facts and motives of that recent British political history will continue to be debated, but like the other characters in Tay’s book, people believe what they first heard, or heard repeated often as part of the discourse and culture of normal life, or indeed what they were taught in school, or these days what they read in the newspapers or on social media. Simple slogans and answers outweigh nuance, context and complex explanations, which exploit the lazy, the unthinking and the unquestioning.


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