Wednesday, February 6, 2013

"A Bloody Tyrant and a Homicide"

            KING RICHARD III



The latest news in medieval history appears on the front pages of our daily newspapers so infrequently that I can hardly let pass without comment this week’s truly sensational bulletin that a team of medieval archaeologists at the University of Leicester in England have convincingly identified the skeletal remains of King Richard III buried beneath a municipal parking lot.  This is an extraordinary historical discovery, and a stunning illustration of the powers of modern scholarly methods to achieve results beyond the reach of earlier generations.  So, let’s hear it for the Leicester medievalists!

            From this medievalist what you will hear is his usual eccentric meditation, which involves the vagaries of history and literature.  In the first place I am deeply gratified, as an historian of Franciscan culture, that the bones were found in conjunction with the rediscovery of the actual foundations of the long obliterated Minorite friary in Leicester.  The neighborhood was called “Gray Friars” from time immemorial, but nobody knew exactly where the buildings had been.   Nothing can have been much more politically unpopular than the mutilated body of a deposed monarch; but ever faithful in their exercise of the “corporal works of mercy” (the last of which is the burial of the dead) the friars at Leicester did not shrink from the task.  So the Order of Friars Minor, too, deserves its “shout out,” as the latest vulgarity puts it.

            The literary history of King Richard III is yet more fascinating.  Richard died in the bloody finale of the Wars of the Roses, the Battle of Bosworth Field on August 22, 1485.  He was the last of the Plantagenet monarchs of England.  Henry Tudor, who defeated him and who ascended to the throne as King Henry VII, though he had cobbled together a wobbly dynastic claim, was actually a usurper.  But history is generally written by the winners, and the winners did a real number on poor old Richard III.  Some of the main outlines of the Black Legend of King Richard had been sketched by his enemies even in his lifetime.  A physical abnormality (curvature of the spine, or scoliosis), which left him with the unflattering nickname “Crookback”, is glaringly evident in the skeletal remains.  But it was his supposed moral degeneracy that William Shakespeare has made forever vivid.

            Since the Immortal Bard is, well, the Immortal Bard, it may seem churlish of me to point out that he was also a Tudor propagandist.   I say this without suggestion of censure.  If you were not a Tudor propagandist in the reign of the Virgin Queen, you would have been most foolhardy to write a play on an English historical subject.  Still, one of the most salient features of Shakespeare’s Tragedy of King Richard III is the gusto with which it incorporates the Tudor libels about the unfortunate king.  Shakespeare has them all, and then adds a couple of his own invention.  From the popular point of view Richard’s crowning crime was arranging the murder of his two juvenile nephews, aged nine and twelve, in the tower of London.  Famous actors have loved playing this role.  In addition to getting to utter an immortal line (“A horse!  A horse!  My kingdom for a horse!”) they have been able to vie one with another in what might be called an Ugliness Pageant.  Ordinarily making fun of cripples has been regarded as poor form, but Shakespeare’s treatment of the infanticide Crookback has given a plenary license to the make-up artists to do their direst thing.

 An authorized anthology of grotesques
 Thing is, Richard didn’t do it.  That is the argument of a still insufficiently known masterpiece of modern fiction, Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time (1951).  This wonderful book has been called “the greatest mystery story of all time”,  and not by me but by the Crime Writers’ Association gathered in solemn conclave in 1990.  Josephine Tey was the pseudonym of a very proper and unassuming Scottish lady named Elizabeth Mackintosh.  She took her title from one of the pithier sayings of old Francis Bacon: “Truth is the daughter of time, not of authority.”  I would say that you can take my word for it, but it seems inappropriate to do so.

            Like many great detective writers Josephine Tey has a master detective who moves from book to book: one Inspector Grant.  But true artistic genius usually combines honored tradition with striking invention.  Part of the brilliance of The Daughter of Time is its bold upending of the conventions of the detective novel.  The classic detective novel ingeniously reveals the guilt of a perpetrator who began the book enjoying the reader’s natural assumption of innocence.  The Daughter of Time ingeniously reveals the innocence of a man universally loathed as one of history’s moral monsters.  The great detective must be a man of daring, whose bold initiatives in pursuing his investigation land him in life-threatening scrapes—a minimum of three scrapes per caper--in abandoned tunnels, spooky warehouses, and elevator shafts.  Inspector Grant cracks the case of Richard III while laid up in a hospital with a broken leg.  The greatest physical danger faced by his right hand man (an American graduate student!) is the risk of dropping a heavy folio volume on his foot.  Ms. Tey’s book carries no such dangers, and if you haven’t read it, you should read it soon.