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Reburial of King Richard III

Volume 560: debated on Tuesday 12 March 2013

We now come to a most interesting debate on the licensing of the reburial of King Richard III. I am sure that hon. Members will not be guilty of lèse-majesté in their comments.

An interesting debate indeed.

I pay tribute to Richard Buckley, from university of Leicester archaeological services, who led the dig in the car park in Leicester which found the remains of King Richard III. It was a pleasure to talk to him last week, when preparing for this debate. I also pay tribute to the Yorkist Richard III Society, which proposed the dig to Leicester university and made some funding available to enable it to take place.

It is 527 and a half years since the end of the wars of the roses, a nasty, bloody civil war that tore our country apart. Although people think of it as a war between the white rose of York and the red rose of Lancaster, it was in fact a war between the north and the south and it was as horrible as any of the more recent civil wars of the 20th and 21st centuries. In this debate I do not want to set York against Leicester. Rather, I want to use the stupendous discovery of King Richard’s remains to bring our cities closer together, perhaps as a metaphor for the one-nation politics that all our parties nowadays stand for.

I do not hide the fact that I believe that King Richard III’s mortal remains should be buried in York. However, that is not the purpose of today’s debate. I want the Government to create a fair, independent process for arbitrating between the claims of York and Leicester, and other places, such as Westminster abbey, just across the road, where Anne Neville, King Richard’s wife, is buried. I want the Government, having created such a process, to come to decisions in a dignified way, based on historical advice, and after considering the views of all interested parties. It is the responsibility of the state to decide where, how and when King Richard, former King and head of state for our country, is buried. It is not a decision that should be delegated to a group of academics at Leicester university, as is currently specified in the licence for the dig, issued by the Ministry of Justice.

How could I not give way to the hon. Member for Bosworth (David Tredinnick) on such an occasion?

I am deeply grateful to the hon. Gentleman, whom I called my hon. Friend in a slip of the tongue. I have known him for many years. The overwhelming opinion in the county of Leicestershire is that King Richard III should be buried close to where he has lain for more than 500 years. I hope that, in the end, he finds himself at peace in Leicester cathedral.

I do not for a minute disbelieve that that is the sentiment in Leicester. Indeed, an e-petition with 7,500 signatures supports the proposition that the King’s remains should be laid to rest in Leicester cathedral. There is also an e-petition with 24,000 signatures supporting the proposition that the mortal remains should be buried in York minster, which is where Richard, during his life, gave notice that he would like to be buried. The Government must find some fair, independent process for arbitrating between parties on this question.

I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman believes that this should be a decision for the state—that is, in some ways, correct—but does he not think that there should be some consideration and weight given to the views of the late King’s family and descendants?

The late King’s descendants—17 of them—published a statement recently supporting the proposition that their ancestor should be buried in York minster. Their voices ought most certainly to be heard in the process that I propose, as should those of the royal family, the Church of England and the Catholic Church, which I mention in deference to a question asked by the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh), who is chairing our proceedings, on the Floor of the House last week. The voices of many people with interests should be considered before a final decision is made.

In preparing for this debate, I consulted a number of people. I have mentioned Richard Buckley, but I also consulted Dr Sebastian Payne, former chief scientist for English Heritage, who is a member of the advisory panel on the archaeology of burials in England. I spoke to Simon Mays, the scientist responsible for human remains at English Heritage; to Wendy Moorhen, deputy chairman of the Richard III Society; to Paul Toy, curator of the Richard III museum in York; to Vivienne Faull, Dean of York minster, and to others.

The licence issued by the Ministry of Justice to Leicester archaeological services unit to excavate the car park permitted

“the removal of the remains of persons unknown”.

Richard Buckley told me that the prospects for finding King Richard were remote and that that was known by the Ministry of Justice when the licence was issued. Indeed, the licence application contained the phrase,

“in the unlikely event of finding the remains of Richard”,

so it is no surprise that the decision was taken in relation to persons unknown, rather than in relation to a former king.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He mentions the licence granted by the Ministry of Justice, which I would argue was granted in the fair and independent way that he has been calling for, but the application for the licence was explicit about Richard. It said that a licence was wanted for an

“excavation to investigate the remains of Leicester’s Franciscan Friary and also potentially locate the burial place of Richard III, whose remains were interred here in 1485”.

The application explicitly asked for a licence to find Richard III. The licence was clear that any remains should be deposited at the Jewry Wall museum in Leicester or else reinterred at St Martin’s cathedral in Leicester. The reason for that, presumably, is that it is archaeological good practice that remains are reinterred at the nearest consecrated ground, which is Leicester cathedral.

I am advised by various people, whose opinions and good advice I sought before this debate, that each case must be considered on its merits. There are many archaeological investigations in my constituency. The licence issued to the Leicester archaeologists contained broadly the same terms as a licence that would normally be issued to any archaeological society or group with a decent reason to dig. It mentioned “persons unknown”. If a mediaeval tailor had been found, it might have been appropriate to keep his remains in the county archaeological museum in Leicester or to rebury them nearby. In the case of a king’s remains, reburial is absolutely necessary. The remains should not be kept in a museum in Leicester or anywhere else. The state has a decision to make about what is the appropriate way to deal with the remains of a former king.

I will give way to the hon. Gentleman and then I will try to make some progress with my argument.

I want to declare my interest. I am a member of the Richard III Society and I have written a book on the battle of Bosworth. My standpoint is neutral, being a Member of Parliament for Bristol, neither from Leicestershire nor Yorkshire. I am interested in the hon. Gentleman’s discussion about an independent solution. Would he consider my compromise, whereby even if Richard is buried in Leicester his body might lie in state at York for a week? However, regardless of where Richard is buried—perhaps the Minister could respond to this point—the Richard III Society has raised £30,000 for a tomb for him to be encased in. I am keen to see whether there is support in the House for an appropriate burial in such a tomb, whether it is in Leicester or York. I am also keen for that to be privately financed so that it is not a great cost to the taxpayer.

Once again, I pay tribute to the role the Richard III Society has played in this whole event. It proposed the investigation based on its own research, and the excavations were expertly carried out by the archaeologists from the university of Leicester. It is too early to agree the compromise solution the hon. Gentleman suggests, but it is a constructive idea, and it is entirely consistent with my view that we should look at ways to bring together people from York and Leicester, rather than set them against each other. The idea has been considered by the Church, and the Dean of York mentioned it to me last week. It is the sort of proposition that could be considered under the process I am asking the Government to set in train.

As I say, the licence refers to persons unknown. Now that the identity of the remains has been established, it is right to reconsider the terms of the licence. Indeed, Sebastian Payne, the former chief scientist at English Heritage, described the discovery to me as a game changer. He is a member of the Advisory Panel on the Archaeology of Burials in England. The panel has representatives from the Church of England, English Heritage and the Ministry of Justice. It met last Friday, and I asked Dr Payne to seek its advice on this case. Yesterday, I received a reply from Professor Holger Schutkowski, the chair of the panel. He wrote to me, saying that

“since the exhumation was carried out under Ministry of Justice licence, it is APABE’s understanding that the final decision on re-interment rests with the MoJ and that it is open to the MoJ to vary the terms of the licence. Therefore, APABE advises that your detailed questions should be addressed to them. APABE has no views about where the remains should be re-interred or how the place of burial should be marked. APABE recommends, however, that the views of those that have justifiable close links with the deceased, be they historical, cultural or religions, require balanced consideration as, for instance, set out in recent DCMS Guidance. Consideration should also be given to the rights, Canon Law and responsibilities of the Church of England as the legal successor of the Church into whose keeping the body was given at burial.”

The Government have the power to amend the licence; indeed, they frequently amend licences. Back in the 1980s, when the York Archaeological Trust was excavating at Jewbury, in York, the plans were changed as a result of representations from orthodox Jews, who took the view that the Jewish skeletons that were discovered should be reburied quickly, in line with Jewish practice. Four years ago, the Ministry, under the previous Administration, issued advice that, generally speaking, human remains should be reburied quickly. However, that has been found to be impractical in some cases, because it impedes archaeologists’ scientific examination of the remains. The Ministry has therefore amended quite a few licences in recent years to permit scientific examinations.

I have two proposals for the Minister. First, he should appoint an independent committee of experts to examine the historical record; the scientific analysis arising out of the dig; good archaeological practice; and the ethical and religious issues. The committee should advise him on where, how and when reburial takes place. Secondly, he and his Department should give the university of Leicester notice that it may be necessary, having taken advice from independent experts, for the Government to amend the licence and that preparations for reburial should therefore temporarily cease.

There are two other issues I would like to mention. First, the scientific tests to establish the identity of the remains are not yet complete, and archaeologists have not yet published their findings from the dig in peer-reviewed journals. In its letter to me yesterday, the advisory committee said:

“APABE understands that there is evidence ascertained through various scientific approaches that the human remains exhumed from the site of the former Leicester Greyfriars may be those of the late King Richard III. Due to the potential significance suggested by recent media presentation of preliminary scientific results, APABE believes it is in the national interest that decisions about the future deposition of these remains should await completion and peer review of the scientific results.”

I am emotionally inclined to believe the remains are those of King Richard, but the Government would clearly be foolish to set in train arrangements for the burial of the remains of a king—a head of state—if it is not certain that that is what has been found.

Richard Buckley is, of course, certain that he is right, but he has a vested interest in being certain: his reputation and legacy as an archaeologist 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.” Unfortunately, King Richard—buried in haste after the battle, naked and with his hands tied by his captors—was found in neither a coffin nor even a shroud, and no evidence was found of coffin nails or of the pins that would have pinned a shroud together.

I mentioned that public opinion is split, with thousands of people supporting Leicester, and three times as many supporting burial in York. I have received many letters and e-mails from members of the public supporting burial in York. Most are thoughtful, well argued and based on scientific facts, but some are, frankly, inflammatory. I talked to the Dean of York yesterday, and some of the letters she has received at the minster are so extreme that she has referred the correspondence to the police. I would say to everybody: calm down. Let us all respect the memory of a former king of our country, and let us discuss, in a dignified and sober way, where his remains should finally be put to rest; we do not want to reignite the wars of the roses.

I provoked some laughter in the main Chamber in October when I said that King Richard is still well regarded in York. His reputation was trashed by that pesky playwright from Stratford-upon-Avon. History is always written by the victor, and the Tudor dynasty had a vested interest in undermining King Richard’s reputation. Of course, Shakespeare would not have got a licence from the Government of the day to perform his plays if he had told the truth about good King Richard. Long may the BBC remain free from Government licensing!

I do not have time to make the case for Richard’s burial in York, except to say it was what he requested in his lifetime. Weighed against that is the case for burying him where his remains were found, which was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth). However, the decision should be taken on independent national advice, not delegated to archaeologists from Leicester, who clearly support the Leicester cause, and who would have found it outrageous if the decision had been delegated to a group of people from York. We need this decision to be taken nationally, in the national interests and by people who are independent of the vested interests of York or Leicester. I hope the Minister will agree.

If I may, Mr Leigh, I will now give the Floor to the hon. Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy).

Order. It is my job to arbitrate this modern war of the roses. We must give the Minister a decent amount of time, and I would be grateful if the hon. Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) kept his remarks brief.

I will certainly try to keep my remarks brief. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Leigh. I congratulate the hon. Member for York Central (Hugh Bayley) on securing an undoubtedly important debate, not only for hon. Members here from the great county of Yorkshire, but for those from across the country as well.

The controversy surrounding the decision to bury Richard III at Leicester cathedral, as the hon. Member for York Central said, stems from the fact that there has been little public consultation on the issue. The people of York are profoundly grateful to the university of Leicester and its archaeologists for their efforts in recovering and identifying the body of Richard III, but they remain frustrated that they were not able to put forward their views on where he should be interred.

What is even more frustrating for them is that Richard III’s own views have not been consulted either. Historians widely believe that while he was alive he expressed a desire to be buried in York. Indeed, he spent the best part of his childhood at Middleham castle in the Yorkshire dales. Richard also spent some of the best years of his life as his elder brother’s lieutenant in Yorkshire, and he clearly identified himself with the city of York and its minster. He drew much of his support and power base from York and Yorkshire. In return, York clearly held a very special position in his heart, and that was reflected in his plans for a chantry of 100 priests in York minster, where he wished to be buried.

I will be brief, Mr Leigh. It is certainly true that Richard planned the extension to York minster that the hon. Gentleman referred to, but there is no evidence that he said he wanted to be buried there, is there?

The evidence comes from the city of York and Richard’s living descendants, who were mentioned by the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams). The call is strong from the great county of Yorkshire that Richard III wanted to be buried where he was loved and supported.

The decision to allow the university of Leicester to have a free rein over King Richard’s final resting place flies in the face of the wishes of tens of thousands of people who have added their support to the campaign for him to be buried in York, as well as those of his remaining descendants, as I have said. It is true that Westminster abbey, Leicester cathedral and York minster all have claims as suitable locations to bury Richard III—I do not doubt that at all—but instead of allowing campaigners on all three sides to debate this issue in a democratic fashion, the Government and the university of Leicester have hashed out an important decision behind closed doors and concluded a finders and keepers agreement. I will finish on this point: I entirely back the call from the hon. Member for York Central for an independent body to make the final decision over the resting place of Richard III.

I congratulate the hon. Member for York Central (Hugh Bayley) on securing this debate on licensing for the reburial of King Richard III. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) for his remarks. I thank both of them not just for what they have said, but for how they said it. I entirely agree with the hon. Member for York Central that it is appropriate that we conduct this debate with the dignity that the subject matter deserves.

I am well aware—if I was not before, I certainly am now—of the level of interest in Yorkshire and Leicestershire, as well as the general public interest across the whole country, about what should happen. The project that we are discussing and the identification of the king’s remains have created a sense of national pride and excitement and have generated renewed interest in English history and archaeology. I am sure we can all agree that that is very welcome.

It is only right that I should start, as the hon. Member for York Central did, by congratulating the university of Leicester, the city of Leicester and the Richard III Society on an outstanding research project that has brought history alive to so many. I note that the archaeology journal Current Archaeology has hailed the search for Richard III as its archaeological project of the year. I therefore congratulate all those who have been directly or indirectly involved in the project on the remarkable results that their work has achieved.

The debate has concentrated on the licence. By way of background, the Ministry of Justice has responsibility for burial law and policy. The law is old and well established. Under section 25 of the Burial Act 1857, exhumation of human remains is permitted only with a licence from the Secretary of State. In this case the project was a joint venture between the university of Leicester, Leicester city council and the Richard III Society and all three parties contributed towards the excavation. All have, as I understand it, been involved in the application for the licence. The director of the university of Leicester archaeological services applied for a licence on 31 August last year and it was granted on 3 September. I emphasise that the application was treated in the same way as any other archaeological application would be. Such applications do not require the consent of the next of kin as they are invariably for unnamed remains buried a long time ago. The Secretary of State has a broad discretion to issue exhumation licences and may attach any conditions considered appropriate. Those invariably include conditions on where the remains should be reinterred, as well as that the remains should be treated with due care and attention to decency. In this case, as the hon. Member for York Central made clear, the licence gave permission to exhume up to six sets of remains, one of which could be those of King Richard III.

A project of this nature clearly required a significant degree of contingency planning. The director of the project thought that it was unlikely that the king’s remains would be found. Nevertheless, the application carefully considered the various possibilities and what would happen in the unlikely event that the remains were uncovered. It therefore indicated various options for reburial, which were dependent on what was eventually found.

The hon. Member for York Central made reference to the tests that were carried out. On 4 February, the announcement was made that the remains were indeed those of King Richard III, as it was put beyond reasonable doubt. In its application to the Secretary of State, the university indicated that it intended to reinter the remains in Leicester cathedral, which is one of the possible locations the licence mentions. The licence actually states that the remains are to be deposited

“at Jewry Wall Museum or else be reinterred at St Martins Cathedral or in a burial ground in which interments may legally take place”.

The conditions attached to the licence were therefore very broad, envisaging both that the remains might be those of Richard III but also, as was thought last summer, that they might not be. Now that the exhumation has been completed, it is the university of Leicester’s responsibility as holder of the licence to decide where the remains are finally laid to rest. That is the law.

Much has been made, not least today, of the fact that the people of York want Richard III’s remains to be buried in York, and I understand the strength of feeling in York and in Yorkshire more widely. However, I should make it clear that York minster has openly supported the reinterment of the remains in Leicester cathedral. It is also right to point out that the default position of the Church of England—the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) made this point—is that the remains should be interred at the nearest Christian church, which in this case is Leicester cathedral.

As I have said, the conditions of the licence were widely drawn. They gave a wide discretion on where the remains could be reinterred. The licence stated that

“the remains shall be reinterred in a burial ground in which interments may legally take place”.

Conditions of a licence can be amended, but that is unusual. The university of Leicester could apply to vary the terms of the licence if it wanted to. However, the broad terms of the licence allow it to reinter the remains effectively where it wants, with due regard to decency and the dignity of the deceased. It is right that the state has an interest in that, but our interest must surely be that there is a suitable location for the remains. I do not think that the hon. Member for York Central is arguing that Leicester cathedral would be unsuitable. He is simply arguing that there may be a preferable site, which I entirely understand.

The key point is that Leicester university has made it clear that it is happy to receive representations on this issue. Many of the hon. Gentleman’s points deserve further consideration, and I hope and expect that those at Leicester university with that responsibility will take into account what he has said. We would be happy to facilitate a meeting between the people he identifies and the university to enable that to happen. I am sure that we would all agree that wherever the king’s remains are finally laid to rest, they will belong not only to the location, but to the whole nation.

Order. It seems that poor Richard III is as controversial in death as in life. I thank hon. Members for the dignified way they have dealt with this difficult subject.

Sitting suspended.