Royal Requiem for Richard III’s bones?

Within a week of Parliament’s 371 to 38 rejection of the amendment of Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con) to the Succession to the Crown Bill which would have removed a barrier to Roman Catholics acceding to the Throne, the UK is now faced with the dilemma of how, when and where to reinter the bones of the former Catholic monarch Richard III.  At a Press Conference on Monday 4 February at the University of Leicester, it was revealed that a skeleton discovered in a car park in the city was indeed that of Richard III, but while this ended months of speculation on the identity of the bones, it signalled renewed interest in their treatment.

The University, Leicester City Council and the Richard III Society initiated a search for the remains of Richard III on 25 August 2012 with an archaeological excavation of the site of former church of the Grey Friars, and shortly after applied to the Ministry of Justice for a “section 25 licence” under the 1857 Burials Act for permission to the remains – a fully articulated skeleton (male) found in the Choir of the church; and a disarticulated set of human remains (female) in what is believed to be the Presbytery.

By 12 September, it was possible to confirm that the fully articulated skeleton was that of an adult male with battle wounds: peri-mortem trauma to the skull consistent a battle injury by a bladed implement which cleaved part of the rear of the skull; and a barbed metal arrowhead between vertebrae of the skeleton’s upper back.  Subsequent analysis revealed a total of 10 wounds, 8 of which were to the skull.  The skeleton also had spinal abnormalities, possibly severe scoliosis (a form of spinal curvature), and whilst not a hunchback nor with a withered arm, this is consistent with contemporary accounts of Richard’s appearance.

Subsequently, samples from the teeth and a femur were subject to radiocarbon dating, DNA tests and bone analysis, and a three-dimensional reconstruction of the head and face was made.  The mitochondrial DNA comparison was made with that of Michael Ibsen, a Canadian-born cabinet-maker living in London, who is related to Anne of York, the sister of Richard III, through 16 maternal generations. A second comparison with an unnamed person was also made.


A Press Release issued by Leicester Cathedral on 12  September stated

“If the identity of the remains is confirmed, Leicester Cathedral will continue to work with the Royal Household, and with the Richard III Society, to ensure that his remains are treated with dignity and respect and are reburied with the appropriate rites and ceremonies of the church.”[emphasis added]

Since then, a number of “claims” to the final resting place of Richard III have been advanced.  Within Parliament concerns have been raised regarding the re-interment: an Early Day Motion in the UK Parliament called for a ‘full state funeral”; and there were questions to the Second Church Estates Commissioner and Hon. Member for Banbury, (Sir Tony Baldry), and to the Minister, here and here.  With regard to the latter, Helen Grant, Under-Secretary of State for Justice, stated:

This is a matter for the university of Leicester archaeologists who were granted the licence to exhume remains which may be those of Richard III. Should the remains be found to be those of Richard III, the archaeologists’ current plan is to reinter in Leicester Cathedral”, [25 October 2012, emphasis added].

This implicitly recognizes the legal position under the 1857 Burial Act, and the University of Leicester’s possession of the bones, on which the Minister later stated.

“My Department issued a licence to exhume human remains which could be those of Richard III.  Remains have now been exhumed and archaeologists are currently carrying out tests to determine the identity of the remains.  Should they be found to be those of Richard III, the current plan is for them to be reinterred in Leicester Cathedral,” [19 November 2012].

As we noted in an earlier post, under ‘normal circumstances’ (i.e. in relation to a commoner and without the intervention of over 500 years), the treatment of a body prior to its final disposal is subject to a quasi-hierarchy of rights, based upon its ‘custody and possession’. In ‘Property in body parts and products of the human body’, (2009) 30 Liverpool Law Review, 35, Pawlowski notes:

‘the deceased’s executors or administrators (or other persons charged by law with the duty of interring the body) have a right to the custody and possession of the body until it is properly buried, that any violation of that right to possession constitutes a trespass for which a civil action will lie’,

although it is debatable whether this right extends after burial to subsequent disinterment and reburial. However, there is no legal obligation to take the religious beliefs of the deceased into consideration, and following Williams v. Williams (1882) 20 Ch. D. 659, an executor is not obliged to follow the directions within a will in this respect.

Although the bones have been identified as those of Richard III, in view of the unique nature of the situation, a definitive legal solution is not apparent.  However, the salient facts are:

  • The University of Leicester has custody and possession of the bones, which must be reburied after their archaeological examination;
  • Michael Ibsen is clearly a descendant of Richard III as the DNA evidence has demonstrated;
  • None of the other parties that have expressed an interest is likely to have locus standi if the matter were reviewed by an English court.
  • It would be unusual if the present monarch were not, on advice, to determine the “appropriate rites and ceremonies” and location of the final burial.

There is no single location for the burial of pre-Reformation English Catholic monarchs, although since 1603 most monarchs of: England, and Scotland (1603–1707); of Great Britain (1707–1801); of United Kingdom (1801–present) have been buried in either Westminster Abbey or Windsor Castle.

Since Greyfriars was a Franciscan monastic community, a further option would be to reinter the bones at another of the Order’s monasteries.  Following the exhumation of 647 burials from the former Cistercian Abbey of St Mary, Stratford Langthorne, during the extension of the Underground’s Jubilee Line, the remains were reinterred at the Order’s Mount St. Bernard Abbey in Leicestershire, following archaeological examination.  However, the majority of these were members of the Order.

With regard to “appropriate rites and ceremonies”, Frank Cranmer notes that a Requiem was held for the sailors of Henry VIII’s ship, Mary Rose, which sank in the Solent in 1545. The Mary Rose sank post-Reformation but before the introduction of the Book of Common Prayer, at a time when the liturgy consisted of having lessons and some prayers read in English. The Catholic Herald reports of the ecumenical approach to the Requiem held in Portsmouth’s Anglican Cathedral, details of which were discussed between the administrator of the Catholic Cathedral, Canon Peter Doyle and the Provost of Portsmouth, the Very Rev David Stancliffe.

It was decided to use the Sarum rite, which is very similar to the Tridentine rite of the Mass, and music by the contemporary composer John Tavener, who died in the year that the Mary Rose sank. However, it was necessary to seek the assistance of the Cathedral of the Advent, Alabama, US, to secure vestments similar to those used at funerals in the 16th century. Of the 700 who drowned, the remains of 200 were recovered. Only one skeleton was buried in the Cathedral and the others were buried at the Royal Naval Hospital, Haslar.


Confirmation of the bones as those of Richard III will probably renew calls for DNA testing on the children’s bones that were found in the Tower in 1674 and have been thought to be those of Richard’s two nephews, the “princes in the Tower”,  whom he is alleged to have murdered. Those bones are in a white marble sarcophagus in Westminster Abbey which is inscribed

“These brothers being confined in the Tower of London, and there stifled with pillows, were privately and meanly buried, by the order of their perfidious uncle Richard the Usurper.”

However, the Abbey is a Royal Peculiar and the Queen’s permission would be necessary for any investigation to be undertaken.

Since   our first post on Richard III “The   Bones of Richard III – Leicester, York, or Worksop?” we have followed   developments on the associated legislation.    Although comment is now closed, for those with interests in  this area the relevant articles are listed below.