Opening Lines, Part III: Richard III and a Leicester car park

After I published the first two blogs in this series, I came under pressure from Felicity Gerry QC to include the opening lines of the Divisional Court’s recent judgment in the case involving the final resting place of the bones of King Richard III:

“Shame they missed Richard III”.

When I responded

“There isn’t a punchy single paragraph (or two) at the start, unlike the others”

I received this rejoinder:

“I disagree – it is one of my favourite opening lines ever and the rest is written beautifully.”

This plea is now supported by a tweet from His Honour Michael Stokes QC, until recently a judicial heavyweight in the East Midlands.

Who am I to ignore these pleas?

[One of our more imaginative family trees traces me back, like most of the country, to an illegitimate child of that great Lancastrian, John of Gaunt, and I must not show any bias as a blogmaster]

A useful compromise seemed to be to reproduce the first 27 paragraphs of this judgment, without making it part of a collection.

The authorship of the judgment was a joint affair. The court consisted of Lady Justice Hallett, Mr Justice Ouseley and Mr Justice Haddon-Cave.

The saga had a particular resonance for me, because for six weeks in early 1996 I stayed in the Judges’ Lodgings at Leicester, where a plaque records that King Richard left a dwelling at that place on his way to Bosworth field, where he met his death.

This latest twist in the tale tells how his dead body was brought back to Leicester after the battle.

Anyhow, here are paras 1-27:


  1. Richard III was the last King of England to die on the battlefield. His death marked the end of the Middle Ages. He has remained a significant and controversial historical figure ever since. Tudor propagandists in the 16th Century portrayed him in a negative light. Thomas More described Richard III as

“little of stature, ill-featured of limbs, crook-backed… hard-favoured of image”.

Polydore Vergil says Richard III was

“deformed of body… one shoulder higher than the other” (Ross, Richard III, pp. xxiixxiv).

Shakespeare famously characterised Richard III as a ruthless and scheming Machiavellian villain, albeit a man of wit and courage. There was, however, a revival of interest in Richard III’s reign and character in the 20th Century, championed by groups such as the Richard III Society.

2.The Richard III Society (“the Society”) was formed in 1924, over 400 years after his death. In 1980, HRH The Duke of Gloucester became its patron. The Royal Family is, however, not descended lineally from Richard III. No one is. The Society’s aim was to rehabilitate Richard III’s historical reputation, promulgating a more balanced picture of Richard III as a good and humane man who sought stability, peace, order and sound administration for a kingdom recently much troubled. The Society has an established reputation for its historical research. Its membership numbers several thousand around the world.

3.One of the Society’s leading members, Ms Philippa Langley, had a strong desire to find Richard III’s body. Initial research narrowed down the location of Richard III’s grave to an open-air municipal car-park in Leicester on the site of the Grey Friars Priory. The car park, owned by Leicester City Council (“the Council”) overlay part of the Priory’s former grounds.

4.Ms Langley worked in partnership with the University of Leicester Archaeological Services (“ULAS”). Necessary permissions for excavating the site and funding from, amongst others, Leicester University (“the University”) were obtained. On 24th August 2012, human bone was discovered and digging stopped. On 3rd September 2012, an exhumation licence was obtained from the Burials Team of the Ministry of Justice, which meant that the archaeological work could continue. On 5th September 2012, two human skeletons were unearthed, one of which bore the unmistakeable signs of scoliosis and traumatic injury. Steps were taken to trace descendants of Richard III’s sister, Anne of York, for mitochondrial DNA purposes. On 4th February 2013, the University of Leicester announced that DNA matching that of Anne of York had been taken from two descendants, the results confirmed beyond reasonable doubt that the remains were those of Richard III and it had been agreed they should be reinterred in Leicester Cathedral.

5.The Claimant, The Plantagenet Alliance Limited, objected. The Plantagenet Alliance is a not-for-profit entity set up by Mr Stephen Nicolay, the 16th great-nephew of Richard III. Mr Nicolay is the sole director and shareholder of the Claimant, which he incorporated to pursue the litigation brought on behalf of himself and a number of collateral descendants of Richard III (comprising 16th, 17th and 18th great-nephews and great-nieces). However, they represent but a tiny fraction of Richard III’s descendants. Calculations of the number of living collateral descendants of Richard III varies between one and well over ten million worldwide.

6.Mr Nicolay was not a member of the Society and not aware that he was probably related to Richard III until late 2011. In early 2012 he received confirmation that he is a 16th great-nephew. The Claimant’s stated aim, in challenging the licence to exhume what we now know are Richard III’s remains, is to bring about their re-interment in York Minster. Thus, Richard III has, once more, become the subject of keen debate.

  1. In the exceptional circumstances of this case, we shall set the scene with a short and, we hope, uncontentious summary of Richard’s life.



8.Richard Plantagenet was born in 1452 at Fotheringay Castle in Northamptonshire. He was the youngest son of Richard, 3rd Duke of York, and Cecily Neville, and twelfth of their thirteen children. He was born into a world dominated for the next 30 years by the complex dynastic and civil conflicts fought by rival branches of the Plantagenets, the Houses of Lancaster and York, which became known as the ‘Wars of the Roses’.

  1. In 1460, Richard’s father, a claimant to the throne of King Henry VI, was killed at the Battle of Wakefield, together with Richard’s elder brother Edmund, Earl of Rutland. Richard, then aged eight, and his elder brother George, later Duke of Clarence, were sent to the Low Countries.


  1. In 1461, Richard’s eldest brother, Edward, seized the English throne by defeating the Lancastrians at the Battle of Towton and was crowned King Edward IV. Richard attended the coronation and was named Duke of Gloucester, appointed a Knight of the Garter and a Knight of the Bath.


  1. Richard was then sent to Middleham Castle in Wensleydale, Yorkshire, for knightly training under the tutelage of his cousin Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick, who became known as ‘Warwick the Kingmaker’. Richard stayed at Middleham, and Warwick’s other estate at Sheriff Hutton, until early 1465. Richard developed idiopathic scoliosis during his adolescence, causing curvature of the spine.


  1. In 1464, Edward IV secretly married a Lancastrian widow, Elizabeth Woodville. This alienated Warwick, who sought a political match with a European princess.


  1. In 1470, Warwick defected to the side of Margaret of Anjou, who favoured the House of Lancaster. Richard and his brother Edward IV fled to Burgundy, where they were looked after by Richard’s sister Margaret, wife of Charles the Bold, the Duke of Burgundy.


  1. In 1471, Richard and Edward IV returned to England. Richard, although only 18 years old, was given command of the vanguard at the Battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury. These battles were resounding victories for the Yorkists. The Earl of Warwick and the Lancastrian heir, Prince Edward of Wales, were killed. Henry VI died shortly thereafter. Edward IV was restored to the throne of England in the spring of 1471.


  1. Edward IV granted Richard many of Warwick’s forfeited estates. In 1472, Richard married Warwick’s daughter, Anne Neville, the widow of Prince Edward of Wales. Richard became a powerful magnate in his own right, with particular influence in Yorkshire and elsewhere in the north of England. Richard served Edward IV as a military commander and Governor of the North. In 1475, Richard took part in the invasion of France. In 1476, Anne gave birth to their only child, Edward. In 1482, Richard attended Parliament for the attainder of his brother The Duke of Clarence for treason and his execution. In 1482, Richard invaded the Kingdom of Scotland at Edward IV’s behest.


  1. In 1483, Edward IV died shortly before his 41st birthday. His Queen, Elizabeth Woodville, had borne two male heirs, Edward V (aged twelve) and his younger brother Richard, Duke of York. Elizabeth sent for her elder son, Edward, to be brought to London from Ludlow for his coronation as Edward V. He was to be accompanied to London by his maternal uncle, Earl Rivers. Richard, who by this time had been appointed Lord Protector, travelled south towards London with Lord Hastings. En route, Richard encountered and arrested Earl Rivers at Northampton and escorted his nephew, Edward V, to London. They arrived on 4th May 1483. The young Edward V was placed in the Tower of London. Elizabeth had taken sanctuary in Westminster Abbey with her family. On 16th June 1483, Edward V’s younger brother Richard, Duke of York, left the sanctuary of Westminster Abbey and was said to have joined Edward V in the Tower. On 22nd June 1483, the marriage of Edward IV to Elizabeth Woodville was declared illegal because of its clandestine nature and a pre-existing contract of marriage between Edward IV and Lady Eleanor Butler. Edward IV’s children of that marriage were declared illegitimate. Richard III crowned on 6th July 1483


  1. On 6th July 1483, Richard III was crowned at Westminster Abbey, together with Anne. Their only son, Edward, was subsequently invested as Prince of Wales. Richard III’s supporters, such as Sir Robert Hildyard, were honoured and rewarded.

18. In the autumn of 1483, a rebellion broke out in the West Country led by the Duke of Buckingham and supported by the exiled Henry Tudor, a scion of the House of Lancaster and descendant of Edward III through his son, John of Gaunt. The rebellion was swiftly put down. However, Henry Tudor then began preparations for an invasion from France.

  1. Meanwhile, in the spring of 1484, Richard III suffered the loss of his son Edward, Prince of Wales. This was followed, in March 1485, by the death of his wife, Anne. Anne was subsequently buried in Westminster Abbey.

Battle of Bosworth 1485

  1. On 7th August 1485, Henry Tudor landed at Milford Haven in Wales with his French troops. Richard III mobilised his forces from Nottingham. Battle was joined at Bosworth Field in Leicestershire on 22nd August 1485. Lord Stanley, who had earlier pledged his support for Richard III, held back his troops and then launched them against Richard III. Richard III was overwhelmed and killed in battle. Richard III’s body was carried to Leicester by the victorious Tudor troops and put on public display in the town in order that Yorkist sympathisers could be in no doubt that the former ruler was slain. Richard III was then buried in the choir of the Franciscan Priory of the Grey Friars in Leicester. Henry VII’s Court Historian, Polydore Vergil, records that the dead King was


“…buryed two days after without any pompe or solemne funeral… in thabbay of monks Franciscanes at Leychester” (Three Books of Polydore Vergil’s English History, edited by Sir Henry Ellis, London, 1844, p. 447).


  1. Contemporaneous and historical accounts provide a striking record of events:


“Richard’s body was found among the other slain…. Many other insults were heaped on it, and, not very humanely, a halter was thrown round the neck, and it was carried to Leicester…” (Crowland Chronicle, c.1486).


“Richard’s naked body was slung over a horse, its head, arms and legs dangling” (Anglica Historia, c. 1503-13).

“And Richard late King as gloriously as he by the morning departed from that town, so as irreverently was he that afternoon brought into that town, for his body despoiled to the skin, and nought being left about him, so much as would cover his privy member, he was trussed behind the pursuivant called Norroy as an hog or another vile beast, and so all besprung with mire and filth was brought to a church in Leicester for all men to wonder upon, and there lastly irreverently buried.” (Fabyans Chronicle, c. 1533).


  1. The minutes of York Council on 23rd August 1485 recorded that


“King Richard, late mercifully reigning upon us … was piteously slain and murdered to the great heaviness of this city” (R. Davies, Extracts from the Municipal Records of the City of York, during the reigns of Edward IV, Edward V and Richard III, 1843, p, 218).


  1. Richard was declared a traitor and usurper, and subjected to an Act of Attainder after his death. The fate of ‘the Princes in the Tower’, Edward V and his younger brother, Richard, remained shrouded in mystery. The Battle of Bosworth Field ended the Wars of the Roses. The accession of Henry VII to the throne heralded the advent of the Tudor dynasty and the beginning of the Early Modern period of English history.


  1. In 1495, Henry VII evinced concern that the late King’s body should be enclosed in a suitable tomb. His motives are unclear. An official document dated 1st July, 11 Henry VII, records that the Royal Commissioners arranged for one Walter Hylton, a Nottingham alabasterman, to build a memorial over Richard III’s grave and to receive £50 for the task (Public Records Office Early Chancery Proceedings series, C1/206/69).


  1. In 1538, in the reign of Henry VIII, Grey Friars Priory was destroyed and razed to the ground during the Dissolution of the Monasteries and Richard III’s tomb broken up. Subsequently, in the early 1600s, Robert Herrick, the Mayor of Leicester, built a mansion with a large garden on the site of the former priory. In 1611, Christopher Wren, the future Dean of Windsor and father of the famous architect, whilst walking in the garden, was shown “a handsome Stone Pillar, three Foot high” bearing the inscription


“Here lies the Body of Richard III, some Time King of England” (Parentalia, or Memoirs of the Family of the Wrens, London, 1750, p. 725).

It was presumed that Richard III’s body had been removed from its coffin during the Dissolution and cast into the nearby River Soar. (See generally David Baldwin’s monograph, King Richard’s Grave in Leicester, 1986).


  1. In fact, Richard III remained buried in the same spot on the site of Grey Friars Priory in Leicester until his remains were discovered over 500 years after his death.


  1. We turn to consider in more detail the events that led up to the discovery of Richard III’s remains and the process that led to the issue of the exhumation licence under challenge in these proceedings.

One thought on “Opening Lines, Part III: Richard III and a Leicester car park

  1. When Haddon-Cave J handed down his judgment in the preliminary hearing in Plantagenet Alliance Ltd, R (o a o) v Secretary of State for Justice & Anor [2013] EWCA (Admin) (15 August), he ordered that skeletons be exchanged one week before the substantive hearing.


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