Can We Trust History?

“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. ♥

17 thoughts on “Can We Trust History?

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  1. Excellent post!

    As you are already fully aware, Caitlin does her fair amount of research when digging through historic tomes, searching for context related to the era in which something happened. And she expresses a great deal of empathy with Richard III and thinks him a much maligned historic figure. For pretty much the same reasons that you stated.

    Shakespeare did have patrons and in order to keep his biggest patron, the Queen, happy, of course he’s going to make it seem as though the Tudors came into power by dethroning a tyrant. It doesn’t change the brilliance of the play, because it is brilliant, but it is still fiction. Something that Shakespeareans need to remember about every single one of his plays. Based loosely in fact, but still with a political agenda behind it.

    1. Thank you. =)

      It warms my heart that Caitlin does broad research outside the figure she is interested in; she will be much more informed of the greater worldview of the period that way. (Next time she comes out, she can watch the biography about discovering his bones in the car park, if she is interested… I thought about her while watching it on Netflix the other morning.)

      (Would she be interested in watching an edited version of “The White Queen” the next time she visits? I’m not a huge fan of what Gregory does with Margaret Beaufort, but I really loved the series’ take on Richard III and Anne Neville.)

      Though I have not yet studied Richard III a great deal, I’m on the fence about his innocence or guilt in certain matters. There are things that are untrue and unproven about him, but other actions that do seem to be true. Still, I like to give everyone the benefit of the doubt until evidence dictates otherwise. And even then, judging historical figures by modern moral standards always casts them in a negative light. Living in that time, forced to contend with decisions they had, the choices made are rarely moral but usually can be understood.

      Remember “Anonymous”? I may not believe the theory that Shakespeare’s plays were written by a nobleman, but it raised interesting points in how Richard III was an attack on the hunchbacked Robert Cecil…

  2. Excellent post.

    (THIS is why I love Richard III and hate Henry VII. You know. 😉 )

    Have you ever read “Royal Blood” by Bertram Fields? It’s a fascinating book about the whole Richard III mystery; and it goes into detail on the subject you were just talking about–how do we know which sources to trust, and which to discard.

    1. Why, just because Richard got maligned more?

      Personally, whether Richard had them killed or not is meaningless to me; anyone is capable of anything under the right circumstances. Killing the Princes to secure the throne is a distasteful but logical decision to make — whether he did it, or Henry VII did it, or someone else did it for reasons of their own.

      Looks like the library has it, so I’ll give it a read. Though the amount of online complaints about the author giving zero footnotes or citing his sources gives me pause. That tends to undermine scholarly works.

      I lacked the space for exploration, but I would note that “Bloody” Mary is another victim of rewritten history. Elizabeth’s spin-doctors really did a number on her sister’s reputation, so much so that we probably cannot trust ANYTHING written about her dated after her reign, or from biased Protestant sources. 😛

      1. No. Because Henry VII, in my considered judgment, is guilty of worse crimes than Richard, and thus, I do not admire him.

        Yes, from what I remember it wasn’t so much of a scholarly work as an amateur (‘amateur’ in a neutral sense) exploration of the topic, from a lawyer’s point of view. But I learned a lot from it.

        GUUURRRLLLLLLLL. I KNOW. I’m Catholic myself and I HATE the way Mary Tudor is treated by “historians.”

        1. Careful, picking on my ancestor like that. You never know when some of that ruthless intellect may have passed on down the family line. 😉

          I’ve been writing Henry’s chapters. He may be one of the most challenging, complex, most heart-wrenchingly human characters I have ever taken from history and placed in the pages of a book.

          1. Yeah? Well, the Tudors picked on MY ancestors, so. 😉

            Seriously, though–are you related to the Tudors? That’s really cool! I don’t have any royal blood of any sort, as far as I know; and certainly not English royal blood. Most of my ancestry is Eastern European and German, with some Scottish/Irish thrown in.

            That’s kind of how I felt about Richard, actually, back when I was doing my research on this topic for European History in high school. (Yes, I actually got to research the “Princes in the Tower” case and call it history homework. HOMESCHOOLING FOR THE WIN.) He wasn’t perfect by any means, but he was HUMAN, not a monster. And he had a lot of admirable qualities . . . I felt really sorry for him, and I hated thinking about how tragic his end was. Not to mention

            I know Henry was human too, of course; and no human is perfect. (Certainly not me.) He just struck me as quite ruthless, however, which is something I never admire. (Remember, I don’t use Te. At all.)

          2. Which ones were your ancestors? 🙂

            Yes. My brother followed my mother’s line all the way back through Mary, Queen of Scotts — a descendant of Henry VII. We didn’t realize how truly “English” we actually were until he did the research project — mostly English ancestors, a hint of Swede and German.

            So, what is it you like about Richard? I’m an open book ready to be written in, where he is concerned. (I actually cringed the other day when doing research — I found out the person I was writing about had killed Richard at Bosworth, and the weapon he used. Ouch.) I know “they say” he was very unpopular during his brief reign, but as this article states, I can’t altogether trust that, since were the sources contemporary or from Henry’s reign?! So, chat away. I’d love to hear your views. I know there’s a lot of “Richardians” around.

            Homeschooling really is great. I wound up writing short stories as my history homework sometimes; I’d do research and learn things, then translate it into stories. It was fun. Not that I want to go back. Ugh, school. Voluntary learning? Absolutely! Enforced learning? NOPE.

            Henry was indeed ruthless. I agree. In part, though, because he had to be. I do know that he felt regret in his later years and guilt over some of his actions. I think it troubled him to execute Warbeck and Margaret Pole’s brother. I know that he pardoned the earlier Pretender, who wound up living to a decent age as a falconer in Henry’s court. In a sense, it’s almost as if — you bow to his authority, he lets you off; if you continue to cause trouble, he gets rid of you.

            I fear I admire intelligence, no matter if it accompanies morality or not. I have a literary harem of ruthless villains whose brilliant minds I much admire. 😉

          3. The Irish. Elizabeth was HORRIBLE to them. I don’t have a whole lot of Irish blood, but it’s enough. *insert a few bars of “Wild Colonial Boy” for good measure*

            I like Richard because of how loyal he was, to his brothers and his friends–even when they didn’t necessarily deserve it. I also admire his decisiveness and, in a way, his rashness–I know this sounds funny, but I have a slight weakness for rash and impulsive characters. (Probably because they’re the exact opposite of me, haha.) I admire the way that he seems to have provided pretty sound government for England during the few years he ruled (at least, if my sources are to be trusted). I also appreciate his good relationship with his wife (traditionally, the story was that they hated each other, but that doesn’t seem to be true at all); and I feel really sorry for him because he lost both his son and his wife in quick succession. And then Henry VII came after him. Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.

            But at least he went down fighting. He was a fighter. I think that’s really what attracts me to his story.

            “Literary harem of ruthless villains”–that’s HILARIOUS 🙂

            Unfortunately, I myself am slightly, shall we say, egotistical about my own intelligence; and I almost always find myself turning up my nose at brainy villains. As in, “You’re not anywhere NEAR as smart as me. HA.” It’s probably very prideful (as well as false, because seriously? I’m as smart as Henry VII? Um, NO); and I should probably try to quit . . . but yeah. That’s how I feel about it 🙂

          4. One of my friends has Irish blood as well, and carries a vendetta against the English in general. I… have never understood that. People have been awful to one another since the beginning.

            Richard was indeed loyal (from what I know of him), which is an admirable trait; and I like to hope that he had a loving relationship with his wife. It is sad that he lost his wife and son within months of one another. And yes, he really was the last “warrior king” of England, wasn’t he?

            Yes, you may want to check your ego at the door. There is always someone smarter than you in existence — and in fiction. 😉

            PS: Go to YouTube and type in “centuries the sons of york.” It’s a fantastic music video about the York brothers using clips from “The White Queen.” I watch it nearly every day, I love it so much.

          5. Yes, I know what you mean . . . I wouldn’t say I have a vendetta against the English as a whole; but I can’t help feeling angry and resentful towards those individual English (and there were many) who are responsible for crimes against the Irish–Elizabeth, William Cecil, Oliver Cromwell, and others.

            I know it isn’t necessarily logical, in a strict sense, to feel that way–because, after all, these weren’t crimes against ME or my family, just my ethnic group. But I still get really mad about them . . . Possibly it’s partly an Fe thing (you know, group loyalty as opposed to individual loyalty?) I don’t really know.

            Yep 🙂 Although I don’t have the same reaction to good characters/historical figures, as opposed to villains–I’m quite happy to admit that, for example, Hercule Poirot is FAR smarter than I am. But I’m not as candid when it comes to villains . . . I think that’s because I’m one of those people who just doesn’t LIKE villains. That is, I really can’t think of a single literary or historical villain that I have any sort of fondness for . . . It’s not like it’s exactly a “moral standards” thing, because you can like a character without condoning their actions. But when it comes to villains, I just don’t like any of them. I can do anti-heroes, but not villains. So, I guess the thing of denying that they’re smarter than me is a sort of “defensive measure,” since I dislike them? I don’t know.

            I can be pretty choosy with even characters that most everybody agrees are “good.” Like, for example, I’ve caused great consternation among my circle of fellow-Jane-Austen-lovers by announcing loud and clear that I DO NOT LIKE HENRY TILNEY. I don’t like him. I’m sorry. He gets on my nerves. Also, I don’t really trust him. So . . . yeah.

            By the way, do you know Henry VII’s personality type? I was trying to think about what Richard’s must have been, just for fun. Just going off what I know, I would guess ISxP, but I could be completely wrong.

            Awesome music video, by the way! Where are the clips coming from–is it a movie or a TV show?

          6. I can’t even stay mad at people who mess with my close family. It ebbs for awhile and then it wanes. 500+ years pretty much kills my resentment dead. (Elizabeth may be my favorite Queen… and she chopped off my ancestor’s head! Oops.)

            I love villains. Many of them are complex, emotionally dynamic, tortured, dark souls. The potential there for redemption is strong, but many deny the light in favor of sinking deeper into darkness. I can find some element of them to fascinate me, no matter who they are — their twisted morality, their hypocrisy, their desperation. Ben Solo is tragic and full of fear. Loki is deeply hurt, so he tries to hurt others. Michael Corleone will do anything to protect his family, and has no other choice. There is so much… Life in villains. Yet, it is a twisted, decaying form of Life… a Life that is not as it Should Be.

            Henry VII was an IXTJ of some sort. I waver. His incredible skills at maneuvering and his foresight indicate Ni; his detailed ledgers, account books, and penny pinching indicate Si.

            I’m not sure about the real Richard, but I typed him ISTP in “The White Queen,” which is what that music video is based off of. It takes the three York books by Philippa Gregory (… no comment, but her Richard IS great) and combines them into a narrative covering the rise of the Yorks and ending with Richard’s death. It IS Starz, though, so the content can be pretty slutty at times. 😛

          7. Ugh . . . I just wrote a really long comment and it all DISAPPEARED. I’ll have to try again.

            Isn’t it fascinating, how different peoples’ tastes are? I really don’t tend to care very much for complex and dark characters in any case, whether they’re villains or not. On the other hand, I often develop passionate attachments to simple, straightforward figures who are often (falsely) labelled as “boring.” When I tell you my two all-time-favorite Jane Austen characters are Fanny Price and Colonel Brandon, I think you’ll get a good sense of what I mean 😉

            Just based on my personal experience, I think Henry VII could well be an INTJ–one of my close family members, a confirmed INTJ, excels at managing money and keeping accounts, and even seems to ENJOY it. (Horrors! says the INFJ.) I guess it’s the Te?

            The more I think about the historical Richard III, the more he strikes me as an ISFP. He was deeply loyal to the people closest to him, but was a pretty poor judge of their character and motivations (Clarence, Hastings, Buckingham . . .) Even after Clarence had betrayed his brother Edward over and over and over again, Richard STILL didn’t want Clarence killed, solely on account of his personal loyalty to him as a family member. He was furious with Edward once the execution took place. He was an active, physical type, able to think on his feet and make quick, in-the-moment decisions with great ease–but those decisions weren’t always prudent in the long term. He was no match for Henry VII in terms of plotting, planning and maneuvering. All that, to me, seems a lot like Fi/Se/Ni/Te. What do you think?

          8. I hate it when that happens. Once in awhile I remember to copy my text before I hit send, but not always!

            To each their own, I suppose. I find a lot of characters “boring.” (I’m very fond of Brandon, though; he is not boring, but emotionally intense internally and like Marianne, I find that alluded-to passion exciting.)

            Being an INTJ could explain why Henry was so careful in all his decisions; not only would he be calculating to see the inevitable outcome, he’s also detached from sensory awareness and not eager to go into physical combat if he can avoid it. Inferior Se might even explain some of his illnesses.

            Though thinkers are just as capable of profound and deep loyalty to their families, sometimes even more so than high F, a dedication to it over tactical advantage does usually indicate a feeler type, so based on what you have told me, yes, I’d say ISFP is a possibility.

          9. Which of the movie version of Colonel Brandon do you prefer? I really, really, REALLY loved David Morrissey’s performance in the ’08 version–honestly, though, I love basically everything about that movie. It’s my favorite Jane Austen film adaptation.

            That all sounds very INTJ-like to me . . . I can definitely relate to the inferior-Se stuff, as my own Se is very inferior indeed. It’s hard to deal with sometimes–I get overwhelmed really easily by loud noises, crowds of people, etc.

            Oh, I love my Thinker types, too–my mom and sister are both INTJs and they’re extremely kind, caring people. I was just speculating that Richard might be Fi-dom because, like you said, choosing feelings over logic even when it’s NOT in your best interests to do so is more of a Feeler thing. (Especially for somebody like Richard, who’d been brought up in a world where violence and death were just everyday facts of life.)

          10. Alan Rickman. He and Kate Winslet are my favorite Brandon/Marianne pairing, although I prefer Elinor and Edward in the version you mentioned. (Dan Stephens trumps Hugh Grant every time.)

          11. Dan Stevens most indubitably trumps Hugh Grant every time. 😉 And I love Hattie Morahan as Elinor, too.

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