Revisionism Revealed

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I recently posted an article on LRC called Who Writes History? that describes a book which recounts the history of a dam project in Alberta, Canada. My point was that typically history, the recent (journalism) or the far past, is usually written by the court historians who whitewash government crimes and essentially are propaganda tools; but there are some histories, no matter what the conclusions might be, that do honestly convey the facts.  Attempting to follow those facts and come to true conclusions about historical situations and actors is known as historical revisionism. As can be inferred from what I wrote above about who writes the history, historical revisionism is inherently anti-state; thus the wealth of historical revisionism posted by Lew Rockwell on his site.  I would like to introduce LRC readers to a wonderful gem of a mystery novel that explains historical revisionism in a very entertaining manner.  This is critically important because most people get their history from entertainment as will be documented in this particular case.

The book I will describe is The Daughter of Time (1951), written by Josephine Tey (1896-1952). It was voted the greatest mystery novel of all time by the Crime Writers’ Association in 1990. The story revolves around her literary creation, Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard, who is laid up in the hospital for several weeks after injuring his back in pursuit of a suspect. He is very bored and therefore annoyed with everything including his nurses.  Simply reading to pass the time cannot quench his tedium.  The therapy for his mental state is provided through his friend the actress Marta Hallard.  She brings him pictures, reproductions of paintings from the National Portrait Gallery, including one of Richard III (1452-1485, reigned 1483-5) the last of the Plantagenet dynasty in England. Richard died in the Battle of Bosworth Field; the victory of the new Tudor king Henry VII ended the Wars of the Roses.

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Painting of Richard III by an unknown artist

Richard has gone down in conventional history as the evil usurper of the throne of England who had his nephews, his brother the former king’s sons, imprisoned and then murdered (the Princes in the Tower). Grant is intrigued by the portrait brought to him because he believes he can know much about a person’s personality by their face.  He cannot believe that this is the face of a murderer.  So he doubts this historical verdict and begins in search of the evidence from which it was made.  Here is historical revisionism on the character of Richard and the murders as a whodunit.  He begins to question his nurses and visitors. He now is interested in reading but only history books relating to Richard. He is especially aided by an American student Brent Carradine who does original historical research for him.

The research begins with determining the provenance of the popular history.  Here entertainment comes into play as Shakespeare’s play Richard III (1592) is the source of knowledge for most people. In the play Richard is depicted as a deformed hunchback physically and a deformed and evil personality psychologically. The character recites two of the most famous lines from Shakespeare or of all English literature. To begin the play Richard words are “Now is the winter of our discontent, Made glorious summer by this sun of York.” And during the final climatic battle he says “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!”

Note that Shakespeare was writing over 100 years after the events in the play. What were his sources?  Primarily it seems that he used the history of Richard written by Sir Thomas More (Lord Chancellor for Henry VIII, the second Tudor monarch); but Grant finds that this text was really the work of Sir Thomas’ mentor John Morton, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor during the reign of the first Tudor monarch Henry VII.  And of course Shakespeare was writing in the Elizabethan era at the height of the Tudor Dynasty. So how does a struggling young playwright get a break?, Richard III was one of his first plays; toady to the powers that be by promoting the Tudor Myth that legitimized the power of the state.

Contemporaneous information is a key ingredient to historical revisionism.  As Grant follows the historical action he finds evidence that Richard was considered a vigorous leader in battle, a reformer in government, and a well-liked brother to the late king and friend to many others, even his political competitors.  Furthermore, there were no charges brought against him regarding the princes, or that they were even missing.

An important aspect of a criminal investigation that Grant follows is Cui bono?, or who benefits?  Parliament had confirmed Richard’s title by the act Titulus Regius, he did not need to fear the princes even if he had evil designs on them.  On the other hand Henry Tudor was only a very distant relation to the dead King through a bastard son. There were 11 other descendants, including the princes, with a better claim to the throne according to Grant. All of them were summarily executed or driven into exile.

Personally I am not totally convinced in the English history as unearthed by Grant in Tey’s book.  But the point made so well is how to read history. The title of the novel comes from the line by Sir Francis Bacon: “Truth is the daughter of time, not of authority.”  Certainly this could be the revisionists’ credo.  At the end of the story the young American states the clearly prudent policy for any person who believes in truth, “I’ll never again believe anything I read in a history book, as long as I live, so help me.” But do read and believe what you read at LRC.

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