King's remains trigger court battle

Posted: 19th August 2013

King Richard III is proving almost as controversial in death as he was in life after the High Court opened the way for his descendants to mount a judicial review challenge to controversial plans to rebury the mortal remains of England’s last Plantagenet king in Leicester Cathedral.

Car ParkIn one of the most striking archaeological discoveries ever made, the body of the king, whose death at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 brought to an end the Wars of the Roses, was found under a municipal car park in Leicester in September 2012.The skeleton bore signs of scoliosis - echoing Shakespeare's 'hunch back' king - and DNA testing later established beyond reasonable doubt that the remains of King Richard, buried without ceremony under what was then a Franciscan church, had been unearthed.

The discovery was the result of 'inspired, determined and meticulous work' by members of the Richard III Society, the University of Leicester Archaeological Service and Leicester City Council.  At the university's behest, the Secretary of State for Justice granted a licence under the Burial Act 1857 for the king's body to be exhumed, scientifically examined and re-interred in Leicester Cathedral.

However, that decision brought a storm of public protest, not least from the king's 17th great-nephew, Stephen Nicolay, and other collateral descendants of the monarch who favoured the king’s re-interment in York Minster and formed campaign group, The Plantagenet Alliance Limited (PAL).

Granting PAL permission for a full judicial review, the High Court recognised that the resting place of an anointed king was a matter of 'general public importance' and ruled that it was ‘clearly arguable’ that King Richard’s descendants, ecclesiastical and civic bodies, the Queen and any citizen with an interest in the place of re-burial should have been consulted prior to the selection of Leicester Cathedral. It was also arguable that the wishes of the king himself, in so far as they could be ascertained or inferred, should have been taken into account.

However, in encouraging the parties to seek a compromise, Mr Justice Haddon-Cave noted: "I would urge the parties to avoid embarking on the (legal) Wars of the Roses Part 2. In my view it would be unseemly, undignified and unedifying to have a legal tussle over these royal remains. This would not be appropriate, or in the country's interests. The discovery of Richard III's remains engages interests beyond those of the immediate parties and touches on Sovereign, State and Church."

The judge strongly recommended that, instead of being fought out in court, the dispute be referred to an independent advisory panel made up of suitable experts and privy councillors who could consult all interested parties and act with reasonable speed.

More than 26,000 people had signed a petition in favour of the king's remains being interred in York Minster, as against just over 8,000 signatories favouring Leicester Cathedral as the site of his re-interment. The Court noted: "The benefit in terms of prestige and increased tourism to the city, or place, or institution which eventually secures these royal remains is obvious. It is said that foot-fall at Leicester Cathedral has increased 20-fold since the discovery".