Bones of contention...

In London, a court battle over the skeleton of an English King, Richard III, (1452 – 1485), has been adjourned.

King Richard III (credit: National Portrait Gallery)

The King in the Car Park

Richard III was the last of the Plantagenet Kings, the last King of the House of York and the last British King to die in battle.  He was immortalised (and arguably vilified) by Shakespeare’s “Richard III”, which portrayed him as a monstrous, hunchbacked, Machiavellian murderer. Richard was defeated and killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field, which ended the War of the Roses, the bloody conflict between the House of York and the House of Lancaster for the crown of England.  He was buried without pomp and circumstance at Greyfriars Church in Leicester, which was later demolished during Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. The exact location of Richard’s remains remained unknown until 2012, when the University of Leicester and a group of committed Ricardians began a concerted archaeological campaign to identify and excavate the lost site of Greyfriars. Painstaking research revealed that the foundations of the church lay beneath a car park, and a human skeleton was found during excavations. The physical characteristics of the skeleton were consistent with contemporary descriptions of Richard’s appearance, displaying severe curvature of the spine. The skeleton revealed the extreme violence of Richard’s death, showing multiple head wounds.  Part of the skull had been sliced away, which would have revealed the brain. All of this chimed with contemporary accounts of Richard’s death in battle, and analysis of mitochondrial DNA evidence confirmed ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ that the bones were those of Richard III.  It was a sensational find.

The War of the Roses Part Two

The discovery of Richard’s remains almost immediately sparked a controversy over where they should be buried.  With the permission of the Ministry of Justice, the Mayor of Leicester announced a plan to bury the bones at Leicester Cathedral early next year, and to open an adjacent museum, commemorating the King’s life and times.  These plans were swiftly challenged by a group of Richard III’s descendants, the Plantagenet Alliance, who argue that his final resting place should be York, according to his wishes. Richard had close associations with York.  He planned to establish a chantry in York that would be home to more than a hundred priests devoted to praying for him and his family.  He also established the Council of the North in York in 1472, to improve local government and promote economic growth.  The Plantagenet Alliance argues that he has the same right as any fallen soldier to be brought home for burial, with the “decency, dignity and honour” denied to him in 1485.

The Plantagenet Alliance succeeded in obtaining permission for an application for judicial review, as they had not been consulted as to the location of Richard’s reburial.  In August 2013, the Judge, the Hon. Mr. Justice Haddon-Cave ruled that their claim had legal standing, but suggesting that a legal contest over the King’s bones would be unseemly, he urged both parties to settle out of court, “to avoid embarking on the War of the Roses, Part Two”.  Nonetheless, this legal action progressed, and the Alliance and the Secretary of State for Justice were back in battle in court yesterday. Gerard Clarke, the barrister representing the Plantagenet Alliance, brought some levity to the otherwise grave proceedings, with an apparently accidental reference to the council making “no bones about” a particular point, but he then promised to eschew obvious gags about “skeleton arguments” and quotations from Shakespeare.   

There was neither victory nor defeat for the opponents in court yesterday, as after a relatively brief skirmish, the case was adjourned until the New Year, after it was ordered that Leicester City Council would join the University of Leicester and the Secretary of State for Justice as defendants.  The Council then made a surprise offer to involve the Plantagenet Alliance in out of court consultations.  Gerard Clarke welcomed this development, saying “There may be the possibility still of resolving this case without the further intervention of the court”.  In the meantime, the bones of the King remain in legal limbo.