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Court of Arches refuses leave to exhume

02 November 2006

THE COURT OF ARCHES of Canterbury upheld a decision of Chancellor Goodman in the Rochester Consistory Court in November 2002 refusing a petition by George Nicholas Donald Locock for a faculty to exhume the remains of his grandfather, Henry Frederick Leicester Locock (“the deceased”).

The purpose of the exhumation was to extract enough bone from the remains in order to enable DNA testing to be carried out on it to establish whether there was any scientific support for the firmly held Locock-family belief that they were descended from Princess Louise (1849-1939), a daughter of Queen Victoria.

The deceased was an adopted son of Frederick and Mary Locock, and was buried in a family vault in the churchyard of St Nicholas’s, Sevenoaks, in December 1907. The vault was reopened in June 1910 for the burial of Henry’s adopted father. Since then it had been left undisturbed, and the vault and surrounding part of the churchyard had become overgrown.

The petitioner and his family wished to have their belief that Princess Louise was the deceased’s mother confirmed or disproved. He argued that confirmation that she gave birth to an illegitimate child at that time would be of interest in various areas of 19th-century history.

The murdered Russian Tsarina Alexandra, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria, was identified  by a comparison of the mitochondrial DNA taken from her remains with a sample of blood supplied by Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, who is descended from another daughter of Queen Victoria, Princess Victoria of Hesse. The petitioner contended that because there was now in the public domain a record of the mitochondrial DNA of descendants from the female line of Queen Victoria, then, if a DNA sample were to be obtained from the remains of the deceased and compared with that mitochondrial DNA, it would be likely that the truth or otherwise of the family belief would be ascertained.

The Court of Arches, consisting of the Rt Worshipful Sheila Cameron QC, Dean of the Arches, Chancellor Peter Collier QC, and Judge Samuel Wiggs, said that there was no direct evidence to support the subjective premise that Princess Louise was indeed the mother of the deceased. The petitioner’s evidence was that at the time of King George V’s Silver Jubilee in 1935, when the petitioner was aged six, his father told him that his grandfather had been adopted into the Locock family and that he was the illegitimate son of Princess Louise. Neither the petitioner nor any of his cousins, who apparently were told the same thing by their parents, asked any questions about the source of that information.

It was not known when or in what circumstances or on the basis of what facts the deceased came to make such a statement to his children, if indeed he did so. In a settlement made some five months after the death of the deceased, he was described as the “adopted son”, but what, if anything, he was told about his adoption (which would have been informal in those days) was entirely unknown.

The basic principle was that it was only when special circumstances had been proved to the satisfaction of the court that a faculty would be granted permitting exhumation of remains from consecrated land as an exception from the norm that Christian burial was final. There might be circumstances when a large number of remains might be exhumed at the same time and subsequently re-buried, in order to make way for something of public benefit.

The petitioner was aggrieved that, some years previously, Chancellor Goodman had granted a faculty permitting the removal of a large number of remains from the crypt of St Nicholas’s, Sevenoaks, to enable an undercroft to be constructed to accommodate the needs of a growing congregation at the church. The remains were subjected to scientific research over a period of seven years before re-interment in the churchyard. The petitioner argued that his petition sought only to make a minimal intrusion into the remains of the deceased in comparison with the extensive investigation of the remains removed from the crypt and left unburied for so long, and that that demonstrated an inconsistency of approach.

The Court of Arches said that a crucial point that needed to be emphasised at the outset was that the test of special circumstances for exhumation was not the scale of what was proposed, but the credibility of reasons put forward for exhumation. The evaluation of the evidence which had to be carried out in determining whether special circumstances had been established was not to be any less rigorous because the proposed interference would be small. There was no inconsistency between the court’s approach when considering a petition to exhume a number of  remains to achieve an objective of public benefit, and that adopted when considering a petition to exhume individual remains for some private purpose. To succeed, each needed to be based on a sound factual base, providing convincing reasons for the exhumation proposed.

Nowadays, in reaching a decision in the consistory courts, the Chancellor had to balance the need to preserve remains against the case for allowing a parish to alter the church for sound pastoral or missionary reasons, which in turn could lead to a request for archaeological investigation before any authorised alterations were carried out. In the course of decision-making, regard had to be had to the secular planning system, where there was no greater presumption against disturbance of human burials than against other classes of archaeological remains. That had potential for friction between consistory courts, which had to apply the presumption against disturbance of human remains, and the secular system.

Nevertheless, it was accepted within the Church that human osteology (the scientific study of human skeletal remains) was capable of benefiting the public by contributing to medical history and forensic science.

The church-archaeology and human-remains working group’s report, released in April 2004 and produced jointly by English Heritage and the Church of England, stated that, in theological terms, “there may be every justification for arguing that a corpse has no more eternal significance than an empty shell, but it continues to be the vestiges of a once-loved and loving human being.” Consistent with that approach was the essential requirement that skeletons made available for investigation were treated with respect and reburied in a dignified manner at the conclusion of the investigation. “A society that cares for its dead demonstrates that it values life,” the report stated.

There was an element of curiosity, but far from idle, in all requests to carry out a scientific experiment on human remains, the Court of Arches said. The police might be curious to discover whether a person died of unnatural causes, and the coroner or consistory court might be asked for permission to exhume remains so that they could be scientifically tested and re-interred.

The court’s attention was drawn to the investigation of the disease of porphyria in the descendants of King George III, for which purpose material was removed from the coffin of Princess Feodora, the eldest great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria, who died in the 1920s. Attention was also drawn to the successful DNA testing that took place to identify the heart believed to be that of the son of Louis XVI of France and his wife Marie Antoinette. The common feature in all those examples was that
the  curiosity  was  well  founded,  so that there was a strong factual basis justifying exhumation.

Genealogical interest alone could not justify exhumation for what might simply be a speculative exploratory expedition, the Court of Arches said. Moreover, the desire, in the absence of any records, to investigate by means of DNA a possibility of the parentage of a grandfather did not engage the right to respect for private and family life which was contained in Article 8 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

The petitioner had spent many years trying to make a connection between various pieces of information gleaned within his family in support of the “long-held belief” that the deceased’s mother was Princess Louise. The only original documentary evidence of the deceased’s date of birth was an entry in the family birthday book giving it as 30 December 1867. The petitioner placed before the court a file of documents suggesting that Princess Louise gave birth to the baby later named Henry Locock at Osborne House, Queen Victoria’s residence on the Isle of Wight.

The petitioner suggested that secrecy in relation to the birth was emphasised by the presence of special military protection round Osborne House at the relevant period. He relied on a report in The Isle of Wight Observer of 28 December 1867 of “the extra precautions that are being taken to guard HM against any harm being done by the Fenians and others — 150 Scots fusiliers are on guard”. The same paper stated in its edition of 25 January 1868 that “82 Scots fusiliers were withdrawn, much to local surprise.” The petitioner suggested that “Since the Fenian threat still existed, the question must be asked, Was the extra security from mid-December to mid-January for another purpose?”

The court stated that it regarded the petitioner’s “scenario as highly improbable and lacking in any substance”. The withdrawal of some of the troops could have been for a number of reasons, the court said, and there “was no basis whatsoever for inferring that [it] . . . was connected with secrecy necessitated by the birth of a child to Princess Louise”.

The court’s attention was also drawn to two books, “Darling Loosy”, Letters to Princess Louise 1856-1939, edited by Elizabeth Longford, and Prince Leopold by Charlotte Zeepvat. The court had considered both books together with additional comments and correspondence produced by the petitioner.

Neither author had discovered, however, anything by way of evidence in support of the Locock belief, although according to “Darling Loosy”, Princess Louise seemed to have been the subject of several rumours about an illegitimate child. Moreover the letters in “Darling Loosy” showed that in late 1867 Princess Louise was very active and acting as hostess on behalf of the Queen, having to “dance the perpetual jig”. The court said that that was “hardly consistent with an advanced state of pregnancy”.

In view of the content of the two books, the petitioner suggested that the child might have been born in the spring of 1867 and only handed over for adoption on 30 December 1867. Having considered all the arguments and written material placed before it, the Court of Arches ruled, however, that the petitioner had not shown that there was a real likelihood of a connection between the deceased and Princess Louise. Much of the argument he relied upon, “when analysed, demonstrated improbability, and that has defeated his argument,” the court said. The petitioner had failed to prove on a balance of probabilities that an exception should be made to the presumption that a body once interred should remain undisturbed.

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