Royal row over Richard's bones

2012-11-04 19:23

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London - A skeleton dug up in a car park has triggered a tug-of-war between two English cities, with the royals, the government and the Church involved - because the bones are thought to be those of king Richard III.

In September, archaeologists acting on historical records unearthed a skeleton which has clear similarities to descriptions of Richard, who ruled England from 1483 until his death at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.

It has a curved spine, with an arrowhead embedded in it, and a wound to the back of the skull.

While everyone must wait till at least December for DNA evidence, the discovery has had officials everywhere scratching their heads - what exactly should one do when you find a crowned monarch under a provincial car park?

The debate is raging as to whether he should be reburied nearby, reinterred in his northern stronghold or placed among the other kings and queens of England.

Killed on the battlefield aged 32, Richard was swiftly buried at Greyfriars monastery in nearby Leicester, central England. Bosworth was the last major battle in the Wars of the Roses and Richard's defeat saw the crown pass from the Plantagenets to the Tudors.

Greyfriars was demolished in the 1530s during Tudor king Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries.

Richard was the last king of the house of York and there is a campaign rumbling to have him reburied in the northern English city.

However, Leicester's local authority and university put in the work to find him and the city is voicing its claim to keep him where he has been for more than 500 years.

Some lawmakers have called for Richard to be afforded a state funeral, given his status.

Various petitions to the government call for Richard to be reinterred in York Minster, Leicester Cathedral, Windsor Castle, Westminster Abbey in London where his wife queen Anne is, and for him to be reburied in line with his Catholic faith.

'Warring factions'

Richard Van Allen, spokesperson for the Richard III Society which has more than 2 500 members, told AFP that the discovery had opened up "an awful lot of possibilities".

"Once the remains have been identified, then the real discussions will start," he said, warning that this was just the pre-show entertainment.

He said anything approaching precedent may get thrown out the window in such a unique case.

The society had a hand in locating the bones, but takes no position on where their final resting place should be.

A house of commons debate saw lawmakers from York and Leicester branded "warring factions" as MPs from both cities made their pitch.

York Central lawmaker Hugh Bayley said that arguing in parliament "like medieval cathedrals fighting over saints' relics" was downright inappropriate.

The ministry of justice issued the licence to dig, and Minister Helen Grant told MPs that if the remains are Richard's, "the current plan is for them to be reinterred in Leicester Cathedral".

However, a ministry spokesperson confirmed to AFP that the decision is not rigid, saying: "We will await the [DNA] results before any burial arrangements are made."

A spokesperson from the Church of England told AFP that with human remains from any Christian site, "the normal practice is to reinter remains in the nearest consecrated ground or parish church".

That would be Leicester Cathedral, across the way.

However, "Given the potential for the remains to be of a former king of England, the palace may wish to express a preference for interment."

Buckingham Palace declined to comment.

State funeral

The Richard III Foundation educational organisation says he should be interred in York Minster.

Spokesperson Andy Smith said that was Richard's clear intention and it would be "the most appropriate place".

"I can't see any compelling arguments for it to be Leicester, or where their argument is other than the general proximity of the battlefield," he told AFP.

"It certainly should be a state funeral: he's a former king of England," he added.

Smith said the whole situation was "a bit of a mess".

"What's bad is that it looks as if it's a squabble between Leicester and York about tourism and creating a visitor attraction.

"Trading his body in this way leaves a slightly bad feeling. This is not the way to treat a former king of England."

He hopes the whole debate will at least encourage people to look again at Richard's record of social reform, rather than rely on William Shakespeare's Tudor-era portrayal of him as a villainous murderer.

Once the row about where the remains end up is resolved, the next headache begins over what to do with them then: has he already had his funeral service, and should any service in an Anglican cathedral reflect his Catholic faith?

DNA from the remains is being compared with that of Michael Ibsen, a Canadian-born carpenter thought to be a descendent of Anne of York, Richard's eldest sister.

The experts may yet have the last laugh by proving the two are not related at all.

In which case, the right royal row rumbles on.

Read more on:    uk  |  archaeology
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