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King Richard III and the Exhumation Licence

(This is the new Chapter 10 added to the updated version in March 2014)

Anne Mowbray’s coffin was found in an ancient vault deep in the ground on a Friday afternoon a fortnight before Christmas 1964, taking the people who found it, and those subsequently charged with dealing with it, totally by surprise.  Why the London Museum failed to apply for an exhumation licence retrospectively has never been fully explained, but lessons would have been learned, so that in the twenty-first century there would, perhaps, be some sort of contingency plan should the remains of missing monarchs Henry I, Edward V and Richard III ever turn up.1

In February 2013, when I was writing the Preface to Lady Anne Mowbray, bones found the previous August under a Leicester City Council car park had just been confirmed ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ as being those of King Richard, her first-cousin-twice-removed and uncle-by-marriage. I therefore wrote:

Interest in that era has recently been invigorated by the discovery of the remains of King Richard III under a car park in Leicester, and comparisons will be made at some stage in the future, no doubt, between the current practices and procedures in dealing with human remains of exceptional historic interest that have been applied to him, and the unfortunate catalogue of errors associated with Anne Mowbray’s discovery.

Alas, it is now the end of March 2014 and the bones are, in modern parlance, stranded between a rock and a hard place, with controversy over an exhumation licence once again having taken centre-stage. So, what has gone so horribly wrong that the Anne Mowbray problems of half a century ago are beginning to pale into insignificance by comparison?

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Lady Anne Mowbray, Duchess of York and Norfolk, admittedly a little-known figure and of much less importance nationally than her kinsman Richard III, was reburied with quiet dignity in Westminster Abbey. In the light of current events, might it not be reasonable to think that, in spite of being found half a century before his, and their discovery having been followed by five months of heated controversy, the child’s remains did, after all, fare rather better?


23 May 2014

Richard III Judicial Review – the High Court Decision:

The Minister of Justice wins the case against the Plantagenet Alliance Limited

The High Court Judges announce their decision in favour of the terms of the exhumation licence of September 2012, that is, King Richard is to be interred in Leicester Cathedral. For the judges’ comments and findings see www.thelawyer.com/news/practice-areas/litigation-news/high-court-rules-that-richard-iii-must-be-buried-in-leicester-cathedral/

(Leicester Cathedral is now giving spring 2015 as the date for the ceremony and service to take place, requiring an extension of the original licence, which expires in August 2014.)

Secretary of State for Justice Chris Grayling expresses his ‘anger and frustration’ that the Plantagenet Alliance ‘a group with tenuous claims to being relatives of Richard III – have taken up so much time and public money’.

Matthew Howarth, lawyer for the Plantagenet Alliance, says his clients are considering a challenge to the decision.


The reinterment of Richard III will take place on 26 March 2015 (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-leicestershire-28687107)


August 1485: Richard III killed at the Battle of Bosworth and buried in the Grey Friars Church within the precincts of the Franciscan friary in Leicester. Later rumours suggest his remains were removed at the Dissolution and thrown into the River Soar. However, in 1612 Sir Christopher Wren’s father writes in his diary that the Mayor of Leicester showed him a stone pillar in his garden within the precincts of the old friary, with an inscription ‘here lies the body of Richard III, some time King of England’.
The Minoresses in London associated with Anne Mowbray had also followed the rules of the Franciscans, or grey friars.)

1986: University of Leicester tutor David Baldwin postulates that King Richard III probably still lies under the Grey Friars area of Leicester.

2004: John Ashdown-Hill identifies a Mrs Joy Ibsen living in Canada as being a female-line descendant of Richard’s sister Anne, Duchess of Bedford, so Mrs Ibsen’s mitochondrial DNA could possibly be used as a reference should his remains ever be found. Mrs Ibsen dies in 2008 but her son Michael, a cabinet-maker, lives in Paddington.2 (Later, Leicester University geneticists and other experts will verify Ashdown-Hill’s findings on Michael Ibsen and locate another suitable descendant, who agrees to take part but wishes to remain anonymous.)3

2010: Ashdown-Hill expands on Baldwin’s ideas in his book The Last Days of Richard III, suggesting the remains of the Grey Friars church could lie beneath a council car park.

2011 March: Philippa Langley approaches the University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS, a commercial service that is part of the University) about employing them to conduct an exploration of the Grey Friars area. They are interested in locating the friary but not very confident Richard will be found. Langley independently commissions ULAS, whose desk-based assessment through old documents and maps identifies possible locations under car parks. The Richard III Society, the University of Leicester and other sponsors contribute to the cost. A dig will take place in 2012 and Ms Langley sets about raising further funds.4


25 August: by the end of the first day of the dig it appears this could well be part of the friary site. Human bones are discovered almost immediately.

26-31 August: enough has been found to be able to confirm the Grey Friars buildings and work out the configuration of the site.

31 August: ULAS applies to the Ministry of Justice for permission under the 1857 Burials Act to exhume up to six sets of human remains buried within the church. It is made clear on the application that Richard III’s remains might be found, and if so, the intention would be to reinter in nearby St Martins Cathedral within four weeks of exhumation.5 (This is the same licence Anne Mowbray’s investigators should have secured retrospectively. The Ministry of Justice had replaced the old Home Office in 2007)

3 September: the licence granted under Section 25 stipulates that the remains shall, no later than 31 August 2014, be deposited at Jewry Wall Museum, or reinterred at St Martins Cathedral, or in a burial ground in which interments may legally take place.6 This is a standard licence, even though circumstances are unique in that there is a remote possibility the remains of one of our most controversial monarchs will be discovered. Before its issue there has been no wider consultation as to special considerations regarding where the remains should be reinterred and by whom, the nature of a tomb, the religious implications, parameters with regard to scientific investigation and so forth. It also allows up to two years before the remains are reinterred. All of this will soon create heated argument. (With Anne Mowbray’s exhumation licence not having been applied for, a location for reburial was not initially stipulated; a different licence was eventually issued for her reinterment in Westminster Abbey, where she had originally been laid to rest in 1481.)

5 September: back at the original trench in the car park, further excavation of the leg bones found on the first day reveals a skeleton in an almost sitting position crammed into a too-small grave, complete except for the feet, and with  the spine showing  the unmistakable characteristics of scoliosis. The remains are removed to Leicester University amid rumour that King Richard has been found.

25 October: although tests will not be completed for many weeks, the York versus Leicester battle has already begun. In the House of Commons it is agreed there will be heated arguments ahead over the remains, but confirmed that Richard, if this is he, will go to Leicester Cathedral.7


4 February: the University of Leicester announces tests have shown that the remains can be regarded as being those of Richard III.

5 February: the Secretary of State for Justice once more confirms the burial will be at Leicester Cathedral. (Secretary of State for Justice, Chris Grayling, is the modern counterpart of Home Secretary Sir Frank Soskice who was willing to issue a retrospective exhumation licence for Anne Mowbray.)

6 February: an article in the Telegraph calling for Richard to be given a Catholic burial in Westminster Cathedral elicits 571 online comments. It is already apparent the journey to the tomb will be neither quick nor easy.8

6 February: Celebrity historians waste no time in weighing in – the excitable Dan Cruickshank wants a full-blown state funeral at Westminster Abbey which will be ‘splendid’; without elaborating on whether it would be either financially or logistically feasible – or agreeable to the Queen and the Dean and Chapter – both Susannah Lipscombe and Andrew Roberts agree the Abbey is the proper choice; David Starkey, however, feels Richard doesn’t ‘make the grade’ and unless Westminster Abbey constructs a ‘Villains Corner’, Leicester is ‘appropriate’. Simon Schama thinks ‘The image of this zombie Plantagenet arising from the car park is sublime.’9

6 February: although Dr Turi King, who has carried out the DNA tests in Leicester, says it would be possible to compare with remains said to be those of the Princes in the Tower, a Westminster Abbey spokesperson says they will not be exhumed.10

7 February: York Minster ‘commends Richard to Leicester’s care’.

8 February: a small group of descendants announces the remains should be buried in York. Richard had no surviving heirs, so these are collateral descendants, that is, nieces and nephews 15x, 16x and 17x removed. There will be hundreds of thousands of collateral descendants alive today. (Compare with the action of ‘descendants’ of Anne Mowbray, led by the 16th Duke of Norfolk. The current 18th Duke of Norfolk, like his predecessor, is also Earl Marshal, and should Richard III eventually be granted a State Funeral, he will be responsible for overseeing the arrangements.)

25 February: 15 collateral descendants, now called the Plantagenet Alliance Limited, announce they intend to campaign for a burial at York.11

7 March: in  Parliament Sir Tony Baldry MP, representing the Church Commissioners,  says the Church believes that exhumed remains should be reburied in the nearest possible church, ‘which, as it happens, is Leicester Cathedral’.

12 March: York Minster reveals that its own police force, the Minster Police, is to investigate abusive letters received over the decision to support the reburial of Richard in Leicester.

12 March: in the Commons, Hugh Bayley MP (York Central) thinks it would be foolish to set in train arrangements for the burial of the remains of a king, if it is not certain that that is what has been found, and it should await completion and peer review of the scientific results. He feels that the career and reputation of lead archaeologist Richard Buckley depend on the identification being accepted: ‘If he is right, he will go down in history, like Howard Carter, who found Tutankhamun, although Carter had the advantage that Tutankhamun was found in a casket that had Egyptian hieroglyphics on the side saying, “This is the body of Pharaoh Tutankhamun.”12 (Professor Roger Warwick, even though Anne Mowbray’s casket had her name and titles on it, did not take it for granted that those were her remains. See page 59)

13 March: Leicester Cathedral reveals initial plans for the tomb. They are hoping for the reinterment to take place in May 2014.

17 March: Dr John Ashdown-Hill believes King Richard should have a Catholic burial. Leicester Cathedral replies it will be ‘happy’ to incorporate elements from Catholic tradition and perhaps a Latin plain chant in the services that take place. Michael Ibsen thinks Richard should be laid to rest in Leicester Cathedral.

26 March: although the actual window of time in which to apply has lapsed, the Plantagenet Alliance  announce they are to seek a Judicial Review into the decisions authorising reburial in Leicester without there having been prior discussion.

6 August: Dr John Ashdown-Hill says he feels he has been sidelined by the University. Philippa Langley says that but for his efforts, and hers, the dig would not have taken place.13

15 August: the Plantagenet Alliance is granted permission for a Judicial Review. Mr Justice Haddon-Cave says he will grant the review on all grounds, but warns the parties against beginning an ‘unseemly, undignified and unedifying’ legal tussle. Justice Secretary Chris Grayling intends to defend the original decision.14

19 September: Leicester Cathedral unveils a design for Richard II’s tomb.

23 September: the Richard III Society withdraws funding meant for the tomb because some members are unhappy with the design.

18 October: the Justice Secretary loses his High Court attempt to stop the Plantagenet Alliance from having their costs protected if they lose. A Ministry spokesman says it is unfair for taxpayers to have to fund the case being brought.

26 November: the Judicial Review hearing opens but is adjourned after Leicester City Council makes an unexpected claim that it should be involved in decisions over the burial and would be prepared to launch its own consultations. Lawyers for the Plantagenet Alliance successfully argue that the authority should, therefore, become a third defendant in the case (with the Secretary of State for Justice and the University). A local newspaper later reveals that ‘the Council and the University of Leicester were at loggerheads about who rightfully had control of King Richard’s remains. It was an argument that had bubbled beneath the surface for a long time, but only came out during the High Court review.’15

21 December: Leicester City Council retracts its decision and says it no longer considers itself the custodian of the remains, and has written to the University of Leicester confirming it supports the existing reinterment plans. The review, therefore, could have been concluded by a judgement in November without incurring the delay and considerable extra costs.


4 February: it is now one year since the remains were announced as being those of Richard III, and 17 months since the exhumation licence was issued.

11 February: it is announced that the DNA of Richard III is to be mapped, potentially revealing details like hair and eye colour. The project is to be led by the University of Leicester geneticist Dr Turi King; whose work helped identify the remains; again, Michael Ibsen will be involved.16

12 March: Father Andrew Cole, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Nottingham, which includes Leicester, says the fight over the bones ‘is deeply regrettable... it’s crazy’. He does not mind where Richard is laid to rest, but the Church would like him reburied as soon as possible. He points out that in 1485 Richard was buried with full Catholic rites in a marked grave. A local Leicester historian feels the public is losing interest, and a BBC survey in York city centre suggests ‘the dominant feeling was apathy’.17 (Anne Mowbray was reinterred with a very short service in 1965 because she had had a full Catholic funeral service in 1481.)

13 & 14 March: the Judicial Review is held at the Royal Courts of Justice in London. Philippa Langley interrupts proceedings from the public gallery, raising objections about how the facts of the case are being presented. She says she would never have striven to set the dig in motion had she realised the king would be treated as an ‘archaeological specimen’, and believes that the arrangement she had made with ULAS before the licence was issued that King Richard be taken to a place of sanctity pending reburial should still stand, but the University says the arrangement was not legally binding. Langley agrees the king should be buried in Leicester but wants wider consultation. ‘It’s the how which bothers me. If the university doesn’t give him over, then I’m going to prove that they broke our agreement and we’re going to end up in court again.’18 The proceedings are closed with the announcement by Lady Justice Hallett that she and the other judges will consider the submissions and would hope to reach a judgement in four to six weeks.

27 March: Michael Hicks, Professor of History at Winchester University, and Professor Martin Biddle, emeritus fellow of medieval archaeology at the University of Oxford, question whether Leicester University has proved beyond reasonable doubt that the remains are those of Richard III.19

The situation as at 31 March 2014: it is now 19 months since ULAS applied for the exhumation licence. If the Review judges decide in the next month or so that the current arrangements stand, Leicester University will be able to bury Richard in the Cathedral within the specified time span. However, unless prepared to do that in a much more understated manner than is currently proposed, an extension of the licence will be required.

Even if the Judicial Review does find in the University’s favour, there is still the prospect of further action being brought by Philippa Langley.

Other experts in the field are now questioning whether the remains really are those of King Richard III.

Discussion at the Judicial Review in March regarding who would  be consulted if  the claims of the Plantagenet Alliance are upheld, suggested, in no particular order, HM The Queen, the collateral descendants of King Richard, the Church of England, the Catholic Church, the citizens of Leicester and York and those members of the public who were interested.