Historical fiction – more than pure entertainment

We all appreciate the solving of a mystery and this week’s historical and pagent-like reinterment of King Richard III at Leicester Cathedral finally puts to rest all the legends and stories regarding his death and the disposal of his remains. However, his association with ‘The Princes in the Tower’, their disappearance and possible murder is still an ongoing affair. Most famously William Shakespeare’s play ‘Richard the Third’ presents the Plantagenet king as a deformed, treacherous, manipulative monarch who has the princes murdered.

“Shall I be plain? I wish the bastards dead.” Richard III, act 4 scene 2

Of course, the play, a history play even at the time of writing, is a work of fiction with a good helping of Tudor propaganda added to no doubt entertain and flatter Shakespeare’s patron, Elizabeth I. But there are other stories and versions of Richard III that attempt to redress the balance. And, it is interesting that it is in historical fiction we find a different complex, but less villainous account of Richard. As with Hilary Mantel’s recent rehabilitation of Thomas Cromwell in ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring up the Bodies’, so the 1951 book ‘The Daughter of Time’, by Josephine Tey attempts to give us a more favourable view of Richard III.

richard III reconstructed
Face of a King.
Facial depiction of King Richard III, created by Professor Caroline Wilkinson and the forensic art team of the University of Dundee, Scotland.
Exhibited at the British Museum by kind permission of the Richard III Society as part of a national tour organised by Leicester Arts and Museum Services.

I have read virulent criticism of both Mantel’s portrayal of Cromwell and Tey’s version of Richard III, but historians and other interested parties seem to forget that history if often a blanket of conjecture enveloping a grain of fact. If the writers of historical fiction work their magic on the surviving meagre facts to entertain us hopefully it encourages us to investigate history further. And, at the very least, well-researched historical fiction should prompt us to consider the extent of historical ‘imagination’ that has been applied to the forging of our received, textbook histories.

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