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Richard III raises grave issues

08 February 2013


Royal bones: a skeleton, with a curvature to its spine, found under a car park on the site of Greyfriars Church in Leicester, has been identified as being that of King Richard III

Royal bones: a skeleton, with a curvature to its spine, found under a car park on the site of Greyfriars Church in Leicester, has been identified as...

THE remains of King Richard III, "a child of God" and "a representative figure with a mixture of high, honourable ideals and more fallen nature", would be buried at Leicester Cathedral, the Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Tim Stevens, said on Wednesday, as campaigns for alternative final resting places gathered momentum ( Comment, 4 January; Letters, 18 January and 1 February).

The news that the skeleton found at the site of Greyfriars Church in Leicester ( News, 14 September) was indeed that of the last Plantaganet king was delivered by experts from the University of Leicester on Monday. A "wealth of evidence", including DNA analysis, radiocarbon dating, and skeletal examination was produced to support the conclusion.

Dr Jo Appleby of the University's School of Archeology and Ancient History said that the skeleton's "unusual features: its slender build, the scoliosis and the battle-related trauma" provided a "highly convincing case".

DNA from the skeleton matches two of the king's maternal-line relatives, including Michael Ibsen, a Canadian furniture-maker living in London, who was traced through wills, baptism registers, and the passenger list for the RMS Mauretania, which carried Mr Ibsen's mother to Canada in 1948.

The request from the City Council and the University for the remains, buried beneath a council car park for 500 years, to be interred in Leicester Cathedral, was welcomed by Canon David Monteith, who said that preparations were under way to provide the king with a "lasting and dignified sanctuary". Bishop Stevens said that it was hoped that a service would take place in the spring of 2014 to coincide with the opening of a new visitors' centre, which would tell the story of Richard III and the discovery of his remains.

On Tuesday, Kersten England, chief executive of York City Council, confirmed that she would write a letter to the Queen to put forward the case for reburial in York. She said that it had been "inferred down the centuries that that is absolutely where he wished to be buried and remembered". An e-petition for reburial in York Minster had gathered 4359 signatures on Wednesday.

On Monday, The Times argued in a leader that "we are still a monarchy and this man was once our King. . . he must be reburied in Westminster Abbey." Meanwhile, the deputy editor of The Tablet, Elena Curti, argued that "the appropriate rites would surely be a Catholic funeral with a full Requiem Mass, and only a Catholic church will do for Richard's tomb." She argued that, had Richard III prevailed at the Battle of Bosworth, "there would have been no Henry VII, therefore no Henry VIII, and no Reformation. England today might still be a Catholic country."

The RC Bishop of Nottingham, the Rt Revd Malcolm McMahon OP, said that the decision lay with the Government and the Church of England. A statement on Leicester Cathedral's website argues that, although Richard III died before the Reformation, he was a "devout member of the Church of which the Church of England is the contemporary expression".

The licence to exhume the remains was issued by the Ministry of Justice to the University of Leicester, which made the request for re-interment to the Cathedral. 

On Thursday, the Chapter of York issued a statement to support the terms of the license and the wish of the Chapter of Leicester. The statement said that it "commends Richard to Leicester's care and to the cathedral community's prayers".

Monday's announcement followed, the Chapter of York said, "a significant period in which Leicester and Leicestershire gained a sense of Richard belonging there, at least in death." Leicester Franciscans had buried Richard III and the cathedral had a major memorial to his memory "at its heart". 

Addressing concerns that Richard III was not "good", Bishop Stevens said on Wednesday: "He won't be buried as a saint but . . . as a king, a reigning monarch at the time, who represents a significant part of our national story and who, in the eyes of the Church, is a child of God."

Although there are rumours that Richard III killed Edward V and his brother Richard ("the Princes in the Tower"), there is no conclusive evidence. Psychologists at the University of Leicester have argued that "the expedient execution of relatives was commonplace in medieval times and certainly not indicative of a murderous mania." A facial reconstruction of the king, funded by the Richard III Society and released on Tuesday, revealed, the Society said, "a warm face, young, earnest, and rather serious."

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