Why digging up Richard III tells us more about the present than the past

The body of the last Plantagenet king has been exhumed – but what have we learned?

“Burying people in multi-storey car parks,” the recently exhumed Richard III quipped on Twitter this morning, “that’s wrong on so many levels.” Today’s sensational post-mortem had everything: a press conference, a Guardian live blog, nerdy Twitter storms aplenty and a juicy royal connection. But does it add anything to our knowledge of the man, his times, and the circumstances of his death?

Richard Buckley’s team at the University of Leicester have confirmed “beyond reasonable doubt” that the skeletal remains found underneath a council-owned car park in Leicester do indeed belong to the last Plantagenet king, Richard III. The positive identification was based on DNA evidence, matching genetic materials taken from the bones with that of Michael Ibsen, a Canadian believed to be descended from Richard’s sister, Anne of York, along with one other who has chosen to remain anonymous. The team also took note of contemporary accounts and battle scars. The death-blow appears to have been dealt by a blade along the base of the skull, though the remains (complete with iconic spinal curvature) bear evidence of further damage, possibly inflicted posthumously.

But is the discovery of Britain’s most grotesquely caricatured king likely to shift attention back from the canonical high Tudors to the late-medieval world of Richard of York? Does such a discovery, for all its apparent gravitas, really tell us anything we didn’t already know, or does it simply tread upon the quiet, curiosity-led research being driven from our universities by marketisation and the need to provide students with "value for money". Are these celebrated findings the kind of astonishing but contextually thin results funding bodies like to herald as a legitimate use of taxpayers' money? The Guardian's chief arts writer Charlotte Higgins has voiced her concern that the triumph of "impact" may be overshadowing the diminishment of real learning:

I'm just suggesting that it's rather a limited avenue of historical research that seems to have much to do with the dread word "impact" – in which academics are supposed to show that their work has "real-world" effects, whatever that might mean, though often interpreted to include public recognition and media coverage.

Cambridge classicist and broadcaster Mary Beard had this to say:

It’s probably too soon to tell. No doubt the real insights this discovery will yield, are likely to trickle out without fanfare over the next few years. And yet one can hardly blame the University of Leicester and its School of Archeology and Ancient History for making a little noise. They, like so many other departments in the humanities, are faced with a financial situation that makes them far more vulnerable than Professor Beard's employers in Cambridge. Perhaps today's news is less a boon for the university than for the city; less a triumph for the study of history, than for the Goveite vision of the kings and queens of England. Really, today's discussion says a great deal more about our own times than Richard's.

Canon David Monteith has announced that the king's bones will be interred in Leicester Cathedral in a solemn multi-faith ceremony (to which live television coverage and royal attention will no doubt be devoted). As if wished into reality by the assumptions forming in the back of my head, the Telegraph’s Ed West posted this little beauty earlier today: “Richard III’s burial could be as poignant and beautiful as the royal wedding.” The victory, so far as I can tell, lies with the House of Windsor.

West has argued that Richard should be buried in either London or York, but the announcement made by Canon Monteith makes this accident of history seem much less accidental. Over the last few years, Leicester Cathedral has held ecumenical commemorations of 9/11 and the 7/7 bombings, as well as lead vigils against racial hatred. West writes, "Identity is hard to articulate and attempts to do so always lead people to effectively confuse their own beliefs with the values of the country." I couldn't agree more. And while my own vision, unlike his, looks nothing like last summer's royal nuptials, a morally bankrupt king (name me one who wasn't), buried with a thorough understanding of his life and times by local community members from all faiths and none, certainly does.

Richard III perished in 1485, as was implied by the Welsh soldier bard Guto'r Glyn, from a blow to the head on Bosworth field. Many will have first encountered the story when reading Shakespeare at school, turning from the literary text to their history teachers, bursting with questions. Riding beside the loyal John Howard, Duke of Norfolk, Richard arrives as Bosworth and raises his arm:

“Up with my tent there! here I will lie tonight; / But where to-morrow?”

A television screen displays the skull that is believed to be that of King Richard III. Photograph: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Scot of the South Seas: Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa

Story of author's time with his family in the island nation details a political awakening.

A contemporary once saw Louis and Fanny Stevenson, with Fanny’s son Lloyd, strolling barefoot along a Samoan beach. With their shawls and shells, floppy hats, pyjama suits and banjo, they could have been 1960s hippies. Indeed, the writer mistook the trio for wandering players. But Stevenson was already the famous author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He was wealthy, too. An only child, he had recently inherited from his father, despite the elder Stevenson’s alarm at his son’s lifestyle and choice of spouse: the older, divorced mother of three, Frances Van de Grift Osbourne.

As is well known, Stevenson settled in Samoa, surrounded by what we might now call a “blended” family. Even his mother joined in, travelling from the douce Victorian Edinburgh, tolerating the Samoan sun in her heavy skirts and widow’s cap.

That was in 1890. Samoa was in the midst of a grievous colonial push and shove. Because of its strategic position in the South Pacific, the UK, Germany and the US all maintained an aggressive interest in the archipelago. Joseph Farrell writes in his account of the writer’s four years on the island:

The 1880s were a decade of war and rumours of war, the raising of banners, the gathering of forces, the issuing of indignant notes, the summoning of assemblies and councils on Samoa, and of exchanges of diplomatic missives between Washington, London and Berlin.

In 1885, Samoan chiefs asked to become part of the British empire, to the Germans’ annoyance, but the request was declined. Gunboats were a common sight in Samoan harbours. Sometimes they fired at villages. Despite, or because of pressures from without, Samoan society was descending into inter-clan war.

As a rich white man, Stevenson surely benefited from the imperial adventure. Sailing by, he liked what he saw and decided to return, buy land, build a home and hire servants. Having done that, he could have remained aloof, but instead he soon came to identify with the Samoan people and their cause. He became a champion and activist. It is this change that primarily interests Farrell, and his book examines the effect that Samoa had on Stevenson the writer in the few short years he had left to live. Farrell explores how he responded to the politics of empire-building, as he witnessed it at the sharp end.

To their colonial meddlers, the Samoans were backward savages, inhabiting an imagined utopia of fruitful nudity and ease. But Stevenson soon felt his way into Samoan culture. Even his acknowledgement that they had a culture at all set him at an angle to the imperialists. He found the Samoan people admirable. He wrote, “They are easy, merry, and pleasure-loving” – but also given to warfare.

Having decided to integrate, Stevenson set about learning the Samoan language and, as a way of understanding the situation he encountered on the island, he identified parallels with Scotland. Stevenson may have been a Lowlander and a conservative but, like many Scots, he was seduced by the romance of the Jacobites, and the Scottish Highlands fuelled his imagination. He could feel for the situation in Samoa by referring to the Highlands after the failure of the Jacobite Risings. Both societies had clan systems. In both cases, the indigenous people faced the occupation of their land and suppression of their culture. But the Jacobite times were over and romanticised, not least by Stevenson, and the Samoan situation was happening in front of his eyes.

Taking the Samoan name “Tusitala” – “writer of tales” – Stevenson sought out local stories (chieftains and their families became guests at his house), but he could give as good as he got. He not only recorded Samoan legends, as an anthropologist might, but he offered Scottish stories in return. Farrell writes that he used weird tales of brownies, kelpies and the like to win Samoan friends. The story that became “The Bottle Imp” was told to him in the South Seas.

As Stevenson’s knowledge of Samoa and its problems grew, Farrell identifies in him a new frustration as a writer. It was no longer sufficient to be a romancer. He experienced a desire to address and influence political issues, right from the hot spot. He quickly became the annoying activist, lecturer, reporter and agitator, firing off letters to the Times, ambivalent about missionaries, a friend to Samoan chieftains. As well as championing the islanders abroad, he apparently felt himself “entitled to plunge head-first on arrival into the political affairs of Samoa”.

Farrell clearly believes that the writer’s interventions were right, even heroic. “Injustices casually perpetrated in Samoa, like similar acts of oppression on native peoples in far-off lands, would have passed unobserved… had they not aroused the indignation of this man.” Stevenson’s A Footnote to History appeared in 1892. It’s a poor title, but the subtitle – “Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa” – sets out its intention. In today’s parlance, it is a micro-history. Though the book is little known now, Farrell believes that Footnote can take its place alongside Heart of Darkness as “a radical, deeply felt critique of foreign intrusion and dominance”.

Farrell believes that had Stevenson known the term “racist”, he would have employed it, as it was “an attitude RLS abominated instinctively”. Nonetheless, he felt able to lecture the Samoans, too. Pyjama suits notwithstanding, Stevenson was a Calvinist to the last. Although Samoa had been settled for 3,000 years, at a public meeting he told the Samoans that he deplored their “indolence” and that the remedy to the loss of their land and dignity lay in “hard work”.

Stevenson wrote an estimated 700,000 words during his years on Samoa. He may have become engagé (Farrell’s word) but his imagination still resided in Scotland: it was there he wrote Catriona and began Weir of Hermiston. Although his routine was constantly disrupted by visitors, events and ill health (his own and Fanny’s), his mornings were spent writing in bed, with afternoons and evenings a never-ending round of parties, visits, horse rides, dressing for dinner and good wines. Farrell is careful to explain Samoan political complexities that Stevenson despaired of expressing; the glimpses of domestic life at
Vailima offer light relief.

It came to a sudden end. A note on the effect of Stevenson’s early death on his family and household, especially Fanny, would have been welcome, but these topics are well covered in other books. As it is, the book closes with the cerebral haemorrhage that killed him and the bearing of his body to its hilltop grave.

Farrell declines to speculate how Stevenson might have developed had he lived another 20 years on Samoa. We might remember a different kind of writer: fewer tales and old-time romances, more investigative journalism. Or perhaps he might have combined both by developing a more realistic fiction. He had embarked on that direction by completing “The Beach of Falesà”, which, Farrell writes, “exposes exploitative behaviour… The villains are white, their behaviour towards the islanders reprehensible and contemptible.” Stevenson called it “the first realistic South Sea story”, the first to tell it like it was.

Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa
Joseph Farrell
MacLehose Press, 352pp, £20

Kathleen Jamie’s poetry collections include “The Bonniest Companie” (Picador)

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear