“Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this son of York.”
—Shakespeare’s Richard The Third
In historical research, you look at events from as many sides as possible, and place eyewitness accounts into context by being aware of the circumstances in which the events took place, and who is recording them. If you do not know the events leading up to the main event, the players or what is at stake, the reasons why it happened remain obscure.
Researching to write a novel about a historical figure led me to a dozen different biographies, all of which painted a large canvas and shed insight into the different interconnecting tales. Unfortunately, information about this or that historical figure was not always available in the book about them, and often turned up as side notes or incidents in other people’s stories. Had I not sought out secondary figures, I may have never learned the truth about the main players. Their biographers did not find it, as their scope was too small. Reading about one told me why another made certain decisions!
Understanding former cultures also requires researching the period; I can tell a biographer who has spent no time doing this, because their conclusions do not take into account how people thought during that particular period. We must also question where the information came from and what agenda formed it. Who said it, and why did they say it? Thus, many facts are no longer facts; they are opinions, passed down as facts.
This approach is frightening, because if you cannot trust a major source, everything built on it is untrue. Unraveling the source undoes years of study, research, college term papers, biographies, documentaries, and professional careers.
Let me give you one example of history thus tainted by “facts” that are not facts: King Richard III. He is known in popular culture as a hump-backed, withered-handed tyrant who likely murdered his nephews for the throne.
Or… did it happen that way?
Let us change the order of events.
With Edward’s death, his brother Richard took the throne as regent for his two underage nephews. They disappeared. Richard died in battle, sacrificing the throne to Henry Tudor. Within a decade, a boy claiming to be one of the Princes tried to claim the English throne. Henry caught and executed him. Another claimant fled abroad. Henry arrested one of his conspirators, Lord Tyrell. Before his death Tyrell confessed to killing the princes for Richard. His sentence was commuted to a less brutal execution. This put an end to any future pretenders claiming to be a lost prince. Sir Thomas More included the confession in his book on Richard, which was a source for Shakespeare’s research when he wrote the play during Elizabeth Tudor’s reign. Making Richard into a misshapen villain painted the Tudors in a positive light as having rescued England from the clutches of a tyrant, further validating their right to rule in a time of political and religious upheaval.
Knowing Tyrell received a less painful death as a result of his confession, can we trust it? It also validated Henry’s kingship (it is moral to seize the throne from a tyrant who would murder his own nephews) in a time of uncertainty, ended future claims of royal blood, and justified the pretender’s death. Thomas More had an interest in pleasing the Tudors, as did Shakespeare.
It is important to carry this over into the modern age as well, where facts are often obscured by personal opinion. Who said it and why? Who benefits from it, and in what way? What is the surrounding context? What are the motives and circumstances? Only then can we start to discern fact from myths, rumors, and lies. ♥