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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We are heading for the next recession – it's crucial the right people are in charge

There is grave economic trouble ahead, and if the Tory right are in power, the consequences could be ghastly.

Well, we were warned. The governor of the Bank of England and the IMF, as well as much of the financial community, were very clear that Brexit would produce a damaging economic shock. It is happening.

Even if we discount George Osborne’s absurd and counterproductive attempts to predict the precise fall in house prices and threaten a deflationary emergency budget, there were sensible and dispassionate warnings of severe trouble ahead. We now need to think through how progressive opponents of this government should respond.

My starting point is a disagreement with my Tory former colleagues in the coalition – from both Remain and Leave – who argue that Britain has a “fundamentally strong economy”. It doesn’t. We have barely recovered from the 2008 crisis, are still on the life-support system of artificially cheap money and have a horribly unbalanced economy. Recovery was happening but fragile.

The first stage in the post-Brexit shock is the predictable turbulence in financial markets as liquid investors jump into safer assets and away from riskier holdings of sterling, UK banks and other shares. This is a very different situation from 2008, which was a financial crisis to which politicians had to respond; this is a political crisis, a huge escalation of political risk, to which markets are responding.

The fall in sterling should not exercise us too much. If devaluation is locked in, it would help rebalancing. The Monetary Policy Committee will surely be sensible and disregard the short-term inflationary consequences, as members did the spike in commodity prices five years ago. If investors move out of UK residential property and precipitate a sustained fall in house prices, that is also to be welcomed. The main casualties of the immediate turbulence are Brexit-voting pensioners whose annuity values crashed with the flight into gilts.

The gravest potential short-term risk was anticipated by the Bank of England when it pumped in £250bn to prevent a drying up of liquidity in the banking system and another credit crunch. The prompt action has clearly reassured markets. However, what may be more serious is the gradual reassessment of risk by bank credit committees leading to restrictions on lending to smaller businesses. That would be disastrous for growth. A pragmatic government should reach for some of the tools created by the coalition, such as the British Business Bank, for sources of business credit.

In the second stage the crisis will migrate from asset markets to the real economy and jobs. The new Tory leader will be praying the time before unemployment kicks in will be long enough to have a general election. By autumn, we shall have a clearer picture of the scale of any slowdown, but I find it difficult to see how we can avert a Brexit recession.

The issue is how to deal with a recession. Monetary stimuli are losing effectiveness. With interest rates close to zero, there isn’t much scope for further cuts and quantitative easing is becoming increasingly problematic. Some in the City will be urging more cuts, worried about Osborne’s plan to eliminate government borrowing by 2019.

There was never a better time for public investment to fill the gap in demand left by private investors. There is a long pipeline of coalition infrastructure projects, including Network Rail’s stalled investment plan, to get on with. But then we encounter the Treasury’s pathological aversion to borrowing to invest. Its deep conservative instincts will be reinforced by our deteriorating credit rating.

Yet the need to confront the structure and balance of the economy transcends the issues of short-term crisis and medium-term macroeconomic management. The financial sector may well take a bad hit with banks migrating to European centres. We should not minimise the costs to individuals and the Exchequer, but it may be no bad thing if the result is some rebalancing. The industrial strategy put in place under the coalition is an ideal vehicle for building confidence in long-term investment in manufacturing and creative industry. Of course, none of this will happen without a speedy confirmation of the UK’s continued role within the single market.

How the economics of this political crisis will be dealt with depends on the parliament that is returned when a new Tory leader calls an election. If the Tory right emerges triumphant, the consequences will be ghastly. If the parties of the centre and left – including disaffected Tory Remainers – can get themselves organised, however, we could see an altogether happier outcome.

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies