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?

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

“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?”