The Great Richard III Murder Mystery

Charles T. Wood, Dartmouth College

  • The pursuit of irrelevancytpav
  • Freshman seminar
  • To Prove a Villain as casebook
  • Start with Daughter of Time to encourage
    proper disrespect for “authorities”
  • Four papers:
    1. Analysis of sources (rank chronicles according to reliability)
    2. Analysis of ways historians have treated sources
    3. Who murdered the princes?
    4. Student’s choice

    A well-developed sense of whimsy brought Wood to the study of Richard III. In the late 1960s, he was tapped to teach an experimental freshman seminar at Dartmouth. These seminars were designed to serve as a replacement for the mandatory second semester of English composition, placing students as close to the frontiers of knowledge within a field as possible.As Wood tells it, “The late 60s were a crazy time to be an historian and especially a medieval historian. The counter-culture was in; history was out; and everything that had happened more than five minutes ago was deemed irrelevant. Being of a somewhat impish disposition, I was naturally curious to find out just how bad the situation was really becoming, so decided that I should teach my seminar on absolutely the most irrelevant topic I could think of.” [1]

    As it happened, irrelevancy was easy to come by. Recalling Helen Maude Cam’s exasperated remark, “I just do not understand how people can get so upset over the fate of a couple of sniveling brats. After all, what impact did they have on the constitution?”, Wood instinctively realized that he’d found his topic, and his first Freshman Seminar became “The Great Richard III Murder Mystery.”

    Wood used as his text To Prove a Villain, a casebook assembled by Taylor Littleton and Robert Rea. This casebook included the full texts of Shakespeare’s Richard III and Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, together with a number of excerpts from relevant primary and secondary sources. Wood had his students begin with The Daughter of Time to teach them “the proper disrespect for ‘authorities'” and then had students research and write the four papers noted above.

    “My assumption here was that students would of course recognize the hopeless irrelevance of the subject,” Wood explains. “At the same time, though, my bet was that they would find the whole notion of investigating crouch-back Dickon intriguing or ‘camp’ enough that adequate numbers would sign up, as indeed they did. Then, once in the course and familiar with the evidence, I anticipated that not a few would find themselves desperately anxious to pin down the truth of the matter, totally irrelevant though they knew that truth to be. Such a contradictory set of reactions struck me as not a bad introduction to the whole academic enterprise.”

    Reflecting on Richard III’s case some thirty years later, Wood noted the following characteristics that make it ideal for teaching:


    • The source material is available in English or in English translation; moreover, the body of material is small enough that students can be on close to an equal footing with the experts in a relatively short period of time;
    • Interpretively and factually, there are large differences in the sources. Resolving them raises just about every interpretive problem except the quantitative;
    • There is a rich body of literary and dramatic work, allowing the instructor to supplement historical sources with videos or novels

    Not only was The Great Richard III Murder Mystery a successful experiment in freshman seminars, it resulted in Wood being spotted by Dartmouth librarian and Richard III Society member Maude French. She recruited him as an Annual General Meeting speaker, the beginning of a relationship with the Society of some thirty years’ standing.


  • “In Medieval Studies, is ‘To Teach’ a Transitive Verb?” Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Teaching, Spring 1996.