Richard III: a maligned king's reburial becomes a sordid affair

The discovery of King Richard III's bones in a shallow grave started a tug-of-war over where he should be buried. And some now say the design for his tomb is not fit for a monarch.

Darren Staples/Reuters
The Dean of Leicester, the Very Reverend David Monteith (c.) and The Bishop of Leicester Tim Stevens (r.) pose with plans for the tomb of King Richard III in Leicester Cathedral, central England, last week.

The shallow dirt grave into which King Richard III's body was hurriedly tossed, and centuries later covered up by a concrete parking lot, must top the list of ignominious royal burials.

It was inevitable, perhaps, that its discovery last September would be followed by calls for the 15th-century monarch, immortalized by Shakespeare as a miserable, murderous wretch, to finally receive a proper interment, with the tomb, ceremony, and dignity usually afforded a king.
However, what’s happened so far has been short on dignity.

 “It has got a bit grubby,” says David Grummitt, a specialist in late medieval and early Tudor history at the University of Kent. “I don't know if anyone has really thought about what Richard III himself would have wanted.”
In the year since the bones were exhumed in Leicester by archaeologists at the city's university, a series of bitter disputes has complicated the process of laying the king to rest in a new grave.
A demand by relatives of the king that he be buried in the northern city of York rather than Leicester, in the middle of England, has led to the courts. A judge has warned of a looming “War of the Roses 2.”
“The whole point of finding Richard was to honor him,” says Phil Stone, chairman of the Richard III Society, which has long sought to restore the good name of England's most maligned monarch. “And to do whatever is done with dignity and sanctity.”

Last week, a plan for Richard III's new tomb was unveiled by Leicester Cathedral, a magnificent Gothic building whose spires shadows Richard III's grave. Members of the Richard III Society were so appalled by the design, however, that they asked for the money they had donated to the project— around £40,000, or $64,500 – to be returned.
Meanwhile, anonymous blog posts have thrown medieval-sounding insults at some players in the drama, accusing them of lunacy.

Richard III was killed near Leicester in 1485, when the armies of the House of Lancaster – led by Henry Tudor, who became Henry VII – and the House of York – led by Richard – fought the last battle in the War of the Roses, a decades-long civil conflict. Richard’s death ushered in the rule of the Tudors, which lasted until Elizabeth’s death in 1603.

His body was buried in Grey Friars, a Franciscan priory in Leicester. Less than a century later, when Henry VIII created the Anglican church, ending England's loyalty to the Vatican, the priory was demolished. In the centuries that followed, a mansion, a road, a school and then a municipal parking lot were built by turns above Richard's grave.
With the help of William Shakespeare, Richard III came to be remembered as the Tudors wanted him to be: a villainous wretch who murdered his nephews, known as the “Princes in the Tower.”

Since 1924, the Richard III Society has worked to keep alive what it says is a truer memory of the king as a fair and decent ruler, who brought in special courts to hear the grievances of the poor. Since the discovery of his bones, the society's membership has swelled by nearly half, and it's now host to 4,000 members across the world.

Richard III's followers are now waiting to see what happens in the drama's next installment.

The new Plantagenet

Before it started digging, the University of Leicester obtained permission from the Ministry of Justice to exhume – and later re-inter – the king's remains at the city's cathedral.
A group of distant relatives had a different idea, however. In March, they established the Plantagenet Alliance – named after the royal dynasty of the Middle Ages – to lobby for Richard III to be buried in York, a northern city where he spent much of his youth.

In August, a high court judge gave the Plantagenet Alliance permission to initiate a judicial review – effectively a court case -- because, he said, the ministry had been wrong to give the license without wider consultation on a matter of public interest.

The Plantagenet Alliance's lawyer, Matthew Howarth, says the first hearing is likely to take place in November.

“We've been forced into this position,” says Stephen Nicolay, a 16th great-nephew of Richard III and former archaeologist who believes Richard wanted to be buried in York. “We had thought we would get some sort of say in where he would be buried.”

No evidence exists to prove this and many have dismissed Richard's relatives' right to any kind of say in the matter. The most basic math suggests that Richard III could have millions of relations alive today.

The current royal family, who belong to the House of Windsor, have stayed out of the fray. However, one member, the Duke of Gloucester, who is a grandson of George V and a cousin of the current Queen Elizabeth, is a patron of the Richard III Society.

The University of Leicester, which did not want to comment for this story, put out a statement saying, “the plan for re-interment in Leicester Cathedral was clearly stated and unambiguous at the start of the project”.
Re-interment on the nearest consecrated ground was good archaeological practice, the university added.
But Canon Pete Hobson, a cleric at the cathedral, says that “in Leicester there is a feeling that people are jumping on bandwagons and trying to take something that belongs in Leicester.”

The Richard III Society, which has no connection to the Plantagenet Alliance, is taking no side over where the bones should be buried.

“Whatever we say we will upset someone,” Dr. Stone says.
He points out that in addition to Leicester and York, Fotheringay in Northamptonshire, where Richard III was born, could argue it has a claim. And, because Richard III was Roman Catholic, strong arguments could be made for a Catholic burial.
Stone's personal choice would have been Westminster Abbey, in London, where Richard III's wife Anne is buried, “but I have spoken to the dean and there is unfortunately no room."

Modern tomb for a medieval king

Last week, the cathedral unveiled its design for a simple, modernist tomb carved in York limestone. Inscribed with a deeply cut cross, it lies on a limestone floor decorated with a large Yorkist white rose. The king’s personal motto, “Loyalty Binds Me,” would be carved into a dark circle around the rose.

Many members of the Richard III Society dislike the design, Stone says, especially the depth of the cross cut into it: “and no one has said they love it.”
Philippa Langley, a screenwriter who was closely involved in last September's discovery, says the design lacks royal magnificence.
“He was the last warrior king of England," says Ms. Langley, who is also secretary of the Scottish branch of the Richard III Society, “and the design doesn't have any essence of that."
The cathedral is also planning a £1 million ($1.6 million) refit of the cathedral to accommodate the tomb, while city authorities are to build a glossy new visitors center, in the hopes that a new tomb would become a revenue-generating tourist attraction.

No buildings will be built, tomb carved, nor any bones buried, however, until Richard III's resting place is determined. That could be a long drawn out process. For now, the skeleton of a man who died 528 years ago remains in the care of the university, in carefully controlled conditions – and behind a well-locked door.

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