The sorry saga of the Richard III reburial debate.
For many Ricardians, the first we knew of the attempt to discover his burial was on the day the dig started. It then became apparent that discussions had been taking place behind closed doors for some years, and that the Looking For Richard team had been forced into a corner by Leicester City Council. They would only give permission for the dig to take place if an undertaking was given that should he be found, he would be reburied in St Martin’s Cathedral. For some reason, this piece of blackmail was allowed: the LFR group, whilst instigating the project really had no authority to deliver such an undertaking, as, to Richard’s many supporters world-wide, this is something that should have been in the public domain from day one. Searching for the lost grave of a former king is not something that should have been concealed from the public, and those involved must have realised that there would be significant public interest.
That said, once the discovery was made, the University should not have applied for the exhumation licence in its own name, but as contractors, engaged by the LFR team. The true custodian of the remains should have been Philippa Langley. I accept that the University’s genetics department were required to establish that the remains could be confirmed to be those of the lost monarch by comparison with DNA from a known Mt DNA descendant, and that as such, ULAS needed to have temporary charge, but the agreement was always that once sufficient testing had been done to establish identity, they should be handed to Philippa for keeping in a place of sanctity. Only because of John Ashdown-Hill’s many years of genealogical research did the University have the genetic material to compare, and though they may have checked his research, they did not need to explore all the dead-ends that Dr Ashdown-Hill discovered: they could merely check that his research was correct. If they had had to start where he started, it would have taken years, as it did Dr Ashdown-Hill. Yet, on the day that the DNA results were released to the world’s media, Dr Ashdown-Hill was not even invited to attend!
From Mathew Morris, of ULAS I learned that they had, for years been trying to persuade the City Council to allow them to excavate the Greyfriars site, but not with the aim of finding the king, whose remains were widely believed to have been thrown in the River Soar following the dissolution of the monasteries. The people of Leicester, who knew in 1485 what had become of the body, had failed to pass on to subsequent generations, so their descendants went along with the tale, and even accepted a plaque on Bow Bridge stating this to be fact. Following the dissolution, the Greyfriars site was bought, and the site of the grave was marked by a three-foot high pillar. Some time after this, it came into the ownership of a school. Someone removed the pillar. Someone should have said something, but no, they were content to let him me forgotten & lost. This is the care that the people of Leicester had for the monarch whose mortal remains lay under their feet. They did not erect the statue, or commission the memorial stone in St Martin’s, that was done by the Richard III Society.
On to the licence itself. I have no problem that the University of Leicester has a licence to re-inter unidentified human remains. They are quite at liberty to reinter in St Martin’s the remains of the high-status lady who was found in a lead-lined stone coffin, but the licence specifically refers to unidentified remains.
As far as Richard is concerned, legal precedent was quite clearly set when Lord Mowbray, as a 15th or 16th generation collateral descendant, stepped in immediately the remains of Anne Mowbray, 8 year-old wife of Richard, Duke of York were discovered, and as a member of the House of Lords, his authority to claim her remains and have them re-interred in Westminster Abbey were never questioned. The University thought fit to ask Michael Ibsen, the provider of the DNA sample, who had no interest in Richard, and the Queen, who, quite frankly, regards Richard as a family embarrassment. But she is not more closely related to Richard than any member of the PA, so why should her lack of interest have any greater bearing on the decision than those who are proud to name Richard as a collateral ancestor? The answer lies in who has most influence & clout, and this goes against Richard’s own tenets, that everyone should be entitled to a fair hearing, irrespective of rank or means. Richard III established the Court of Appeal in his parliament of 1484, and from this has developed the principle of Legal Aid and Judicial Review, something that our present Minister of Justice seeks to abolish. Whilst this case may seem to many to be a waste of public money, what it actually seeks to do is to maintain the right of ordinary men & women to a fair hearing in the face of a state which is attempting to deny them that right.
The discovery of the body of a former king is of national importance, and his burial should have been debated openly, and the public consulted. Maybe only a small percentage would have bothered to register an opinion, but we have just sent people to the European Parliament on the basis of a 32% turn-out of the electorate. Not everyone has an opinion. Those who have should be listened to, and not dismissed as a bunch of nut-jobs with nothing better to do than argue about a man who’s been dead for 500+ years. Much more money is spent every year on bankers’ bonuses and footballer’s wages than has been expended on this. The Ministry of Justice can hardly complain when the matter could have been settled with far less expense by initiating a consultation. They chose to employ an extremely expensive QC to plead their case.