24 September 2013

Special Guest Post by Leanda de Lisle ~ Writing the Past: The Best Advice I Ever Had

For many of us our love of history began with a work of the imagination. For me it was the Viking novels of Henry Treece. Sue Doran, a research fellow at Jesus, Oxford, was gripped by the English Civil War-inspired TV series, Children of the New Forest. My three sons, who all studied history at university, played the video game Medieval: Total War.

Most TV viewers and gamers will not go on to become professional historians or even history graduates. But, spurred on by curiosity, many adults do swap fiction for popular history. Publishers, anxious to play up the entertainment aspect, frequently give such books the same covers as novels. The rose on the cover of my dynastic history Tudor: The Family Story was used earlier for Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall. But what readers want from books like mine is the true story of the real people they first discovered outside a history book.

There is in fact no ‘true’ story, not in my book or that of anyone else. With history it is the quest that is important. The quest for the truth that never ends, but is passionately fought for as each generation engages with the past, trying to understand it anew. In the process we understand ourselves better, for historians have to question their own assumptions and be aware of the prejudices of their predecessors and ancestors. One mark of a failure to do so is the appearance of fictional versions of once living people in works of non-fiction, and this is more common than many people realise.

The power of fiction

The power of fiction is evident in the new celebrity status of Richard III. Plans for his new tomb at Leicester Cathedral have been unveiled with as much reverence as if he had died in 1985, rather than 1485. In Shakespeare’s Richard III we had a biblical Herod, killer of his young nephews the Princes in the Tower, his hunchback an outward sign of a disfigured soul. But this black portrait of Richard provoked a reaction.

Perhaps the most influential modern work in Richard’s rehabilitation is Josephine Tey’s detective story, Daughter of Time. Written not long after Stalin’s show trials, which strongly influenced Tey’s viewpoint, the novel ‘proves’ that that Richard, who was in many respects an excellent king, was in fact innocent of the deaths of the Princes. It is to Tey’s novel and that we owe much of the passion behind the Richard III society and those who paid for the dig that raised Richard out from under a Leicester car park. It also provides literary origins of the doe eyes hero we saw in the BBC White Queen drama.

The Richard III character in the White Queen acknowledges that he had a clear motive for murdering his nephews.  After he had overthrown the twelve-year old Edward V and imprisoned him with his little brother, claiming they were illegitimate, the boys had remained a focus of opposition. But while previous usurpers had always claimed their captive predecessors had died of natural causes, lain out the bodies to prove they were dead, and so encouraged former enemies to unite around their rule, the princes simply vanished.

In the White Queen we are told that Henry Tudor’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, had ordered the killings, hoping to cast the blame on Richard and clear the way for her son to marry the princes’ sister, Elizabeth of York and become King. When BBC History Magazine conducted a poll this autumn on who had killed the princes, Margaret Beaufort was the top choice. I fear it is only a matter of time before we see this fictional Margaret emerge in history books. I have seen this sort of thing before.

Frances Brandon, the mother of Lady Jane Grey, has been demonised in the both fiction and history. As with Margaret Beaufort it began with novelists picking up a dubious claim made in the past. With Margaret it was the seventeenth century claim of the historian Sir George Buck, that she had killed the princes with sorcery and poison. In Frances Brandon’s case it was Elizabeth Tudor’s former tutor Roger Ascham, writing, after Frances and Jane were both dead, that Jane had once complained to him that her parents were overly strict. In due course fiction and then history turned Frances into an outrageous child abuser, who also bullied her husband (for which there is no evidence at all).

Authentic Characters

We want our characters to be authentic, not just in history however, but also in historical fiction. Details, conversations and so forth may be invented in a novel, but we want a sense of a person from a given time. I disproved many of the invented stories about Frances by going back to the original sources. But when writing about the past I would always begin by taking the advice I once had from the great travel writer and novelist Colin Thubron: understand the beliefs of the people you are writing about.

As the novelist Leslie Hartley wrote: 'The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there'. Understanding how and why they did things in the past allowed me to understand that Frances being strict did not make her a child abuser, and it also helped me appreciate why Richard III might have chosen to ‘disappear’ the princes in the Tower. It has to do with the power of the cult of saints during this period  – a power that has been overlooked since the reformation. And if I am right or wrong making that effort to think about how they thought is something I found deeply rewarding.

Many of the reviews of ‘Tudor’ have said, kindly, that I have fresh things to say despite the fact the Tudor period is such well-trodden ground. If that is true, it is thanks to Colin Thubron’s excellent advice.  It helped me engage with past anew.

Leanda de Lisle

# # #

About the Author

Leanda de Lisle was Born in London and loved to write stories and poetry as a child. She went on to read History at Somerville College, Oxford University, and began a career in journalism on the Hackney Gazette in what was then Britain’s poorest borough. Leanda had three sons in five years then returned to journalism as Country Life magazine’s first columnist and as a weekly columnist for the Daily Express. She later transferred her Country Life column to The Spectator magazine and began a bi monthly opinion and editorial column for The Guardian newspaper, while also writing regularly for other national papers. Leanda writes on matters historical and reviews books for a number of publications including BBC History Magazine, History Today, the Literary Review, the New Criterion and the Spectator, as well as several national newspapers. She now lives with her husband and dog (a large brown Labrador) near Bosworth battlefield where the Tudor crown was won.

Tudor: Passion. Manipulation. Murder.

The Story of England's

Most Notorious Royal Family

The Tudors are England’s most notorious royal family. But, as Leanda de Lisle’s gripping new history reveals, they are a family still more extraordinary than the one we thought we knew. 

Leanda de Lisle's first solo book, After Elizabeth: The Death of Elizabeth & the Coming of King James, was published in 2005 and was runner up for the Saltire Society’s First Book of the Year award. Her next book, the top ten best selling biography, The Sisters Who Would be Queen; The tragedy of Mary, Katherine & Lady Jane Grey was described by the historian John Guy as ‘ground breaking’.  Her latest book, Tudor; The Family Story (1437-1603), published by Chatto on 29 August 2013 has been highly praised by historians such as Helen Castor (She Wolves and Dan Jones (Plantagenets) and is a top ten Sunday Times best seller.

It is published in the United States by Public Affairs on 8 October 2013 under the title Tudor: Passion, Manipulation, Murder; The Story of England's Most Notorious Royal Family. These books are also available in other formats, including kindle and audio.

Preview Now on Amazon UK and Amazon US

Visit Leanda's website http://www.leandadelisle.com/ 
and follow her on twitter @LeandadeLisle


  1. Great post! All this time I had thought of the wonderful things The White Queen has done for Richard III's reputation, but didn't even think to consider how it would affect Margaret Beauforts.

  2. Thank you! You may enjoyed an article I did on her for the Daily Express. It is on my website leandadelisle.com under 'articles'.


Thank you for commenting