Friday 23 May 2014

Pandora’s Box of Richard III’s Bones Closed

 High Court judge rules against Richard III reburial challenge.

One of the most familiar images of 2013 was the bones of Richard III. Exhumed, cleaned and analysed, they appeared on our screens, in books and newspapers, in all their medieval glory, the focus of a fascinating tale of loss and dicscovery. For twenty months, those bones have awaited reburial. Initially scheduled to take place in Leicester's St Martin’s Cathedral this May, the ceremony was delayed by challenges mounted in the courts earlier this year. Finally, following months of speculation and argument, the High Courts of Justice have today rejected the Plantagenet Alliance’s objections to the exhumation licence of the University of Leicester.

The remains of the controversial King, discovered in a city centre car park back in September 2012, have ignited dispute since their identity was revealed to the public last February. In the euphoria that followed, with the curved spine and the reconstructions of Richard’s face making news headlines, few could have predicted the acrimonious lengths to which some of his supporters would resort over the following year. Yet some were dissatisfied with the Leicester association, preferring him to be buried elsewhere. While Westminster Abbey and Windsor were ruled out, the main alternative emerged as York Minster. Richard was certainly of the house of York and his main adult residence was in Yorkshire, but these were not the only considerations.

The Plantagenet Alliance, a group of collateral descendants of the King, was established by Stephen Nicolay, who discovered he was Richard’s 16th great nephew in 2011. They presented the case that Leicester University lacked “sufficient interest” in the King’s reinterment, in comparison with their own, as his relatives. The courts ruled today that the relation of Mr Nicolay and others had been “attenuated in terms of time and lineage.” Thus, the span of over five centuries was deemed to be significant. Whilst the court recognised the descent and wishes of the Plantagenet Alliance, they established that this group only represented a very small percentage, a “tiny fraction” of those people possibly related to him and their report included the estimate that today, between “one and well over ten million” people might legitimately claim a similar degree of relation. The Alliance added that they had been denied a period of consultation regarding the arrangements prior to the investigation. Today, the court ruled that this would have been “premature and unnecessary.”

The question remained of Richard’s intentions and the nature of his death. The simple fact is, there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest where the King hoped to be buried. None of his actions can be interpreted in that light and no will survives. It is most likely that as an anointed King, he anticipated lying alongside his wife in Westminster Abbey. After all, he chose to bury her there in March 1485. While his affinity with the city is undisputed, the questions raised in court over the correct procedure for the respectful burial of his skeleton were primarily concerned with the legality of the original paperwork, regarding the intention of the dig and suitable provision for a King’s remains.

Back in 2011, when the excavations at Leicester were being planned by Ricardian Philippa Langley, who sourced the funding and saw the dig through, The Ministry of Justice advised that there was no “statutory criteria for deciding licence applications” and that each was considered on their own merits, although they acknowledged that this was an unusual case. From before that point though, the project had already been named “Looking for Richard,” so the possibility of discovering the King was clear, even if it was considered unlikely. Press conferences in Leicester on 24 and 31 August 2012 announced the dig’s purpose. There was never any doubt that Leicester University were hoping to find the missing King.

Still, no one really anticipated the actual discovery of his skeleton in situ on September 5. It had always been considered an outside chance, a brief dream that seemed too unlikely to come to pass. The University had a series of objectives, including establishing the location of the Grey Friars Church and finding the stalls within the choir; Richard’s final resting place was the last of their five aims. But, with the exposure of his spine, the careful excavation and a series of rigorous tests, including mitochondrial DNA, it was established beyond reasonable doubt what the University of Leicester had achieved. Provision had made for Richard’s reburial in St Martin’s Cathedral, Leicester, within four weeks, “in the unlikely event of” him being found. Plans were made for his tomb and the details of his reinterment, all within the remit of the original legal paperwork.

The High Court ruled that the challenge made by the Alliance was not to the exhumation, or to a Cathedral burial. It was only a question of location. According to today’s announcement, the Justices believed that quashing the original licence in response to this would render the University’s dig illegal, making it a retrospective criminal offense. They were not prepared to do this. Equally, no fresh exhumation licence could be issued, as the bones had been exhumed already. Nor did they uphold the challenge that the original licence should have been revisited in 2013, once Richard’s identity had been established, suggesting a consultation “by the back door.”

Richard’s remains were always going to be controversial. In a statement issued on May 23, the court confirmed they had taken into account the long-standing cultural representations of the King and the establishment of the Richard III Society in 1924, with the intention of reassessing his character and reign. However, its ultimate decision rested on the need for the law to proceed on a “principled basis” rather than making a special case for a historical figure. The three Justices involved, Lady Justice Hallett, Mr Justice Ouseley and Mr Justice Haddon-Cave, clarified that the present royal family are not descended lineally from Richard. In fact, “no one is.” The Queen and Royal Family were consulted and expressed no concerns regarding the intention to rebury Richard at Leicester. The debate was also raised in Parliament, where the same statement was made. From February 2013, the position of York Minster regarding Richard’s remains has also been neutral.

The Court concluded there were no grounds for its intervention in the case and the Alliance’s call for a Judicial Review was rejected. It recognised the considerable investiture of Leicester Cathedral in preparing a suitable resting place for an anointed King. Now, it only remains for the date to be named. Hopefully, today’s ruling will open the door for England’s last Plantagenet King to be lain to rest in a respectful and fitting manner in St Martin’s Cathedral, Leicester. Initial reports suggest this will take place in the Spring of 2015.


  1. Do you have an opinion on what the outcome should have been?Or is this answered in your book about Richard?

  2. Hi Michael, I didn't really mind in terms of York or Leicester, I think either would be fitting. However, I do think that it is an important case in terms of the legality of the licence, which was issued legally in accordance to the best archaeological practise guidelines of English Heritage, set out in 2005. As such, there were no legal grounds to overturn the licence and that would have set a problematic precedent. There is no evidence that Richard wanted to be buried at York and certain facts have been overlooked, such as the fact his father and brother's heads were displayed there. I think now, along with a lot of people, I'm just looking forward to him having a respectful and suitable funeral. And yes, I do explore the arguments on both sides in my Richard book.

  3. I think he should be buried with his wife at Westminster. Richard fell Leicester I 'm sure if it were me I would not want to be buried there. But i'm only a Yank so my opinion doesn't hold a lot of water.