Richard III: Why the rows are likely to rumble on

Richard III reconstructed head and excavated skull Doubts over the identity of the bones are just one of several disputes

Richard III's bones will be laid to rest in Leicester Cathedral after judges rejected a legal bid by campaigners who want him buried in York. But if you thought that was the end of the saga, you are in for a surprise.

When archaeologists began excavating the former Greyfriars church in Leicester, few would have imagined how events would turn out.

Most saw it as a chance to explore the city's medieval past, spiced with a million-to-one shot of finding the lost grave of Richard III. But every day of the excavation left the archaeologists, then the authorities and eventually the world, increasingly agog at what was being discovered.

Now, 20 months, one (famous) skeleton, tens of thousands of pounds and lots of stress, effort and lawyers later, surprisingly little about the king under the car park has been resolved.

Despite the result of the judicial review, the row over the fate of Shakespeare's villain is set to continue.

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Is it really him?
Dr Turi King presenting DNA evidence Phew, science. The University of Leicester had a lot of pictures and tables to back up its claims

Without Richard III, the dig would not have happened and the arguments would not have raged - so it's ironic not all experts are certain it is even him.

The University of Leicester presented a February 2013 press conference with a bucketful of facts and figures which convinced most people the bones were of the last Plantagenet king.

The Identification Evidence

Magazine story
  • Location - the grave was in the right part of the right church, as described by Tudor historians
  • Physical - The bones were of a man, aged 25-35 (Richard was 32), showing battle injuries, with a misshapen spine.
  • Date - Carbon dating indicated the bones were from 1450 - 1540
  • DNA - The bones' DNA matched two people descended from Richard's wider family
  • Grave - Rough cut and too small, this also matches historical accounts
  • Status - Chemical analysis showed the individual had an expensive diet

But now Michael Hicks, head of history at the University of Winchester, and archaeological grandee Martin Biddle, have voiced doubts.

Professor Hicks said: "It is the difference between possibility, probability and certainty.

"People are behaving as if we have certainties from which we can make firm conclusions, about his physical make up and even his psychological make up, and I don't think we can do that.

"Some of the bits of evidence used (for the identification) could be shared by several million people, some by much smaller numbers but they are all shared, potentially.

"What is really needed to firmly establish the identity is a DNA link to someone much, much closer.

"Perhaps they could disinter Edward IV, his brother, from St George's Chapel at Windsor - though of course doubts about his paternity might complicate even that."

Archaeologist Richard Buckley, who led the excavation and delivered the official announcement which declared Richard's identity "beyond reasonable doubt", insisted the conclusion was right.

"The identification is based on so many elements. Yes you can argue that the carbon dating covers an 80-year-period but look at all the other elements: the battle injuries, the age of the individual, the DNA.

"Even if you say 'It could be another high status person killed in the Wars of the Roses', you then have to look at the fact he had a curved spine, and was buried where Tudor historians said Richard III was buried, in the way they said he was buried - 'without pomp and ceremony'".

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Treated with respect?
Jo Appleby with Richard's skeleton Archaeologists rarely study bones with a name - could they learn something about sensitivity?

Let's accept it really, really is him. Surely the two organisations who found him - the Looking for Richard (LoR) project and University of Leicester - will be slapping each others' backs for year to come? Alas no.

Instead, the intensely personal involvement of the LoR members have led them to question how the king's remains are being handled.

On excavation, the bones were bagged and boxed in line with normal archaeological techniques. This memorably prompted the project's leader Philippa Langley and researcher Dr John Ashdown-Hill to drape the container in Richard's banner.

Dr Ashdown-Hill said project members were unhappy with the continuing scientific scrutiny of the bones.

"We believed that once the identity of the bones had been established, they would be handed over to Philippa and placed in a house of prayer," he said.

Modern reburial of WWI casualties Should Richard be treated like World War One dead, with study and photography kept to a minimum?

"Part of the ethos of the project was to rectify the way Richard's body was treated, being denied a royal funeral and then being forgotten.

"It is therefore very distressing, having been responsible for getting the whole thing in motion, we don't have any say in how the remains are treated.

"The continued, destructive, testing of the bones to get Richard's full DNA sequence is going too far. I want him out of the hands of the University of Leicester."

Mr Buckley insisted the royal remains were being treated appropriately.

"Richard's remains are in a secure location at the University of Leicester - this is a lot better than under a Victorian outhouse under council tarmac," he said.

"We cannot rewrite history and give him some kind of medieval lying in state. He was killed in battle and the new king of England, Henry VII, decided where and how he should be buried.

"The intention is for the studying of the remains to be of a limited time and for the reinterment to be final. He will not be put on a tray to be pulled out whenever someone asks."

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Where does the body go?
Modern re-enactment of Richard's death Hauled off the battlefield like baggage, Richard's journey may not be over

The results of the judicial review are unlikely to end the debate over where the king's remains should be buried.

Initially a fleeting, even ridiculed, distraction, the calls to take Richard III's bones to York snowballed to dominate the story.

Claims made by his distant relatives that they knew Richard's wishes for where he should be buried were scorned by some as being, at best, poor history and at worst simply "bonkers".

Leicester versus York

York Minster
  • Born in 1452, Richard was the fourth son of Richard, Duke of York
  • Though born at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire, he spent much of his youth in Yorkshire
  • Richard governed the north for his brother Edward IV
  • There are claims he planned to build a chapel at York Minster where he intended to be buried
  • While a member of the House of York, his title from the age of eight was Richard of Gloucester
  • Richard gathered his army at Leicester to meet Henry Tudor
  • He was buried in Leicester after his death at the nearby Battle of Bosworth in 1485
  • Henry VII later paid for the grave to be marked
  • Burial in the nearest consecrated ground would be in keeping with archaeological practice

So, imagine the surprise when a small, newly-formed group called the Plantagenet Alliance, most of whom claim descent from the king's wider family, secured a judicial review - an examination of how legal control of the bones was decided.

Treated with exasperation by many archaeologists, the members insisted it was about doing the right thing.

Speaking before the judgement Vanessa Roe, from the alliance, said: "It's not fair that one academic body was given the power to decide this.

"It is a unique case without precedent. It is wrong to treat it like everything else.

"We were happy with how the review went. We felt we were listened to and taken seriously."

But Mike Pitts, editor of British Archaeology magazine and author of a new book about the dig, believed allowing such interference was dangerous.

"You can say this finding someone as important as a king is not going to happen again, but who is to say who is important?

"There may be a person, or group of people, that are regarded by some as more important than a medieval king.

"There have been protests about the display of bones from Stonehenge. Should that be put out to consultation?

"If every set of bones found is liable to spark a debate, the system to investigate them, part of the wider planning and building system, could collapse," he said.

Neil Parpworth, Principal Law Lecturer at De Montfort University, said an appeal was possible, but unlikely.

"There is a three week window to lodge an appeal," he said.

"You would have to show good grounds and a point of law and my feeling is the courts will feel all the arguments have been heard."

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The Tomb
Philippa Langley's design and the cathedral's concept Clashing stones: Two groups have different ideas about how Richard's tomb should be marked

With Leicester confirmed as the location for Richard's remains, another issue rears its head. How should his resting place be marked? Again it's the problem of uniqueness. People with experience of burying medieval kings are few and far between.Richard III rows set to rumble on

With impressive foresight, Ms Langley commissioned a tomb design as early as 2010. The resulting raised stone block, with heraldic and gold decoration, was backed by some opinion polls.

The cathedral's more modern design has faced more opposition.

"The crudely incised featureless block of stone is viewed as insensitive and disrespectful, and the accompanying dark stone with his name and details seemingly reflecting Shakespeare's Black Legend," Ms Langley said.

Richard III's epitaph on his original, now lost, tomb (excerpt)

Artist's reconstruction of Richard's tomb in Greyfriars

I, here, whom the earth encloses under various coloured marble,

Was justly called Richard the Third.

I was Protector of my country, an uncle ruling on behalf of his nephew.

I held the British kingdoms by broken faith.

Then for just sixty days less two,

And two summers, I held my sceptres.

Fighting bravely in war, deserted by the English,

I succumbed to you, King Henry VII.

(trans John Ashdown-Hill)

"This would not be a timeless memorial to anyone - certainly not a King of England.

"Visitors from around the world would be profoundly disappointed to see such an inappropriate memorial to the last Plantagenet monarch."

Cathedral authorities have faced questions from not only Richard III enthusiasts but also from the Church of England's own planning authority. The latest version of the design is now expected to be revealed in three or four weeks time.

"It is a public memorial to a king who has been dead for 500 years - and people are always going to have an opinion," Liz Hudson, from Leicester Cathedral, said.

"We have been in close discussion, not only with church authorities but also with the Richard III Society, other interested groups, the wider public. All have been consulted and those views taken into consideration for the design."

Richard Buckley added: "His tomb is for me the biggest unanswered question - but I wonder what happened to the alabaster tomb which was put over his original grave?

"It's not surprising it disappeared when the friary was dissolved then demolished, but so many of the building materials were taken away and reused, I can't help thinking it might be tucked away somewhere - perhaps upturned and used for something else?"

More on This Story

Richard III: Return of the King

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