The re-burial of Richard III

Prior to the confirmation “beyond reasonable doubt” that the remains exhumed from a Leicester car park were those of King Richard III, Leicester Cathedral issued a Press Release which 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.”

Other than determination of the identity of the remains, this  still holds for the present situation, the legal issues of which were clarified in a Westminster Hall debate on 12 March 2013.  The University of Leicester has “custody and possession” of the remains under a licence issued by the Ministry of Justice under section 25 Burial Act 1857.  However, the Plantagenet Alliance, “the living, collateral descendants of King Richard III [1]is seeking permission for a judicial review of the decisions of the Ministry of Justice and the University of Leicester in relation to consultations.

Leaving aside the possibility of a judicial review and an outcome that requires changes to be made to the current programme, Leicester Cathedral is progressing its long-planned reordering of the building, an important part of which involves the reburial of Richard III [2].  Many will welcome those aspects directed at “removing some of the features which have been added over the years – particularly associated with the attempt to impose a gothic cathedral topography on a parish church reality”. Movement of the pulpit and the installation of raised plinth are in progress in order to be ready for 22 August, the date of King Richard’s death at the Battle of Bosworth Field.

Leicester Cathedral’s burial plans

The Brief for Architects for the grave of Richard III was published in March, and included an indicative timetable leading to a “Procession and Reception of Remains” between 4 and 25 May 2014, and a Memorial Service between 8 and 29 May 2014 [3] .  The Brief indicates that the Cathedral Chapter is the commissioning body, and it “would be working in partnership with Leicester City Council, the Mayor’s Office, the University of Leicester (as the license holder) and consulting with the Richard III Society and other interested bodies regarding the placing and design of the grave within the context of the cathedral, cathedral gardens and the wider city.”

From the point of view of ecclesiastical law, the potential Architects are reminded that account must be taken of the general duties imposed by section 1 of the Care of Cathedrals Measure 2011, viz.

“Any body on which functions of care and conservation are conferred by this Measure shall in exercising those functions have due regard to the fact that the cathedral church is the seat of the bishop and a centre of worship and mission.”

More importantly, the Measure details the approvals required for alterations to Cathedrals, the bodies concerned, (Part 2), and the powers of the bishop to prevent or stop contraventions of these requirements and the reinstatement of the status quo, (Part 3). However, whilst section 2(1)(a)(iv) requires the appropriate consent for works which would materially affect any human remains in or under the cathedral church or within its precinct, as written this relates only to those remains which are in situ.

The Brief further notes that any design is subject to the recommendation of the Fabric Advisory Committee (FAC) and the approval Cathedral Fabric Commission for England (CFCE).  Although the initial Press Release intimated that Leicester Cathedral would be “working with the Royal Household”, it is unlikely that any such considerations will readily be placed in the public domain.

With regard to the burial of Richard’s remains at another Church of England Cathedral,  the same legal constraints would apply, and in the case of York Minster, on 11 March its Chapter issued a statement stating inter alia:

“The Chapter of York has maintained a neutral position regarding Richard III’s re-interment, based on the current legal position. The Ministry of Justice granted the University of Leicester the authority to determine the place where the body from Greyfriars would be reinterred”

Burial at Westminster Abbey would additionally require the permission of the monarch in view of its status as a royal peculiar, but this possibility is unlikely in view of space considerations: in 1769 George II became the last UK monarch to be buried there.

Alternatively, were the remains to be buried in a CofE church, the re-interment would then be subject to the legislation governing faculty jurisdiction.  Regardless of which regime the re-interment falls within, the views of all interested parties would be need to be taken into account, although it will be the application of Church of England legislation that determines whether re-interment is permitted or not.

The Dean of Leicester, the Very Reverend David Monteith, has confirmed that  the plans as outlined in the Brief were changed, influenced by feedback from several sources, including members of the general public who had visited the Cathedral and had made comments to the media.  It is now planned that the remains will be placed in a brick-lined vault, under the ground, surmounted by a raised tomb rather than a simpler floor level slab, initially favoured by church authorities.  The final submission will go to the Cathedrals Fabric Commission for England (CFCE) for final approval, due sometime in November.

Re-interment and memorial service

Some have argued that since Richard III was a Roman Catholic he should be buried in accordance with Roman Catholic funeral rites of the time.  However, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Nottingham, Rt Revd Malcolm McMahon OP has stated:

 “The Bishop is pleased that the body of King Richard III has been found under the site of Greyfriars Church in Leicester, in which it was buried following the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, and that it will be reinterred with dignity in the city where he has lain for over five hundred years. Richard III was one of the last Catholic monarchs of England and his death was a decisive moment in British history, but the ultimate decision as to what form the interment takes lies with the Government and the Church of England, since he will be buried in Leicester Cathedral.

 “In accordance with long-established ecumenical practice, Bishop Malcolm will be happy to take part in any form of ceremony which takes place to mark his final burial.”

The form of service will need to take into consideration the rites, if any, that were thought to be performed when Richard III was first buried, and some indication of these is included in a recent publication by the team of archaeologists and others involved in the excavation of the site and exhumation of Richard’s remains [4].  The article notes that there was no evidence of a shroud or coffin, and states

“[a]ccording to contemporary accounts, Richard III was buried without any pomp or solemn funeral . . .  The archaeology of the grave, and the position of the body in it, reflect this.

The body appears to have been placed in the grave with minimal reverence. Although the lower limbs are fully extended and the hands lay on the pelvis, the torso is twisted to the north and the head, abnormally, is propped up against the north-west corner of the grave . . . . . . Irregular in construction, the grave is noticeably too short for the body”, [emphasis added], [at 531]


“The hands were crossed at the wrists, most likely right over left, and placed above the right pelvis. This is unusual for burials in medieval Leicester, although it is common elsewhere . . . . . . . .It is therefore possible that Richard III was buried with his hands bound”, [at 535]

It therefore appears that the initial burial was accompanied by few if any burial rites, and this will need to be taken into consideration when planning the re-interment.

[1] Dr Lucy Worsley notes in her blog, “Plantagenet Alliance members are “relatives” of the king, no less. And no more, either. As he had no children, they can’t claim to be his descendants.” The Guardian article in which these comments first appeared was subsequently corrected and now states: “This article was amended on 9 April 2013. The original said Richard III had no children. He had one legitimate son, who died as a child, and acknowledged two illegitimate children.”

[2] Identified in the Information Pack (February 2013) provided to candidates for the post of Dean.

[3] The MoJ licence stipulates an end date of “no later than 31 August 2014” for their re-interment in “St Martins Cathedral or in a burial ground in which interments may legally take place” or their “deposit at Jewry Wall Museum”.  The timings in the Brief take account of the date of Ash Wed 5 March 2014 and Easter 20 April 2014, noting “it would be possible, but not preferable for the memorial service to take place during Lent”.

[4] R Buckley, Mathew Morris, J Appleby, T King, D O’Sullivan and L Foxhall, “‘The king in the car park’: new light on the death and burial of Richard III in the Grey Friars church, Leicester, in 1485”, (2013) 87 Antiquity, 519–538, < >, accessed 1 August 2013.

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "The re-burial of Richard III" in Law & Religion UK, 5 August 2013,