Last week, three high court judges dismissed an application for judicial review and thus paved the way for Richard III’s remains to be buried at Leicester Cathedral.
There are three key things that strike me about this whole process.
The Authorized Heritage Discourse at work
The basis for the applicant’s claim (that they are relatives of Richard III) was portrayed in the media as ‘tenuous’, and thus often, I feel, ridiculed. The reality is of course that this was the only way their – or anyone else’s – views would even be considered: they had to prove what’s called ‘locus standi’, or ‘sufficient interest’ . Why? Because the decision on where Richard III’s body would be buried had already been made even before anyone knew they had found him. This was in the Exhumation License, and the decision was ultimately that of the University of Leicester.
That the university should have the decision-making power on this is in itself a result of the AHD: although it was the Richard III Society who initiated the whole excavation journey, it was the university that applied for the exhumation license, because (so the judgment) ‘an application for an archaeological license such as this would normally be made by an archaeologist who could satisfy the MoJ [Ministry of Justice] that he had the skills necessary to meet the terms of the licence’ (paragraph 43). In other words, the structures put in place are such that from the start experts are privileged in the process and given decision-making powers. Leicester Council, who was of course also involved, would have wanted a public consultation, but withdrew the suggestion upon objection from the university (paragraph 57). Why the university should object to the public having a say is anyone’s guess.
The inconvenience and challenge of public consultation
The desire for a public consultation was the core of the application, and a key reason why it was rejected. The applicants couldn’t define the limits to this public consultation: who would be consulted? Everyone? According to the court, this is ‘entirely open-ended and not capable of sensible limit or specificity’ (paragraph 156). Now that raises real issues for the idea of ‘public value of heritage’, which features so heavily in national and international policy. I quite agree that we may not already have the procedures and methods in place to capture this value properly, and this case has highlighted that. In fact, the judgment also considered various guidelines on human remains published by English Heritage (experts), the Department of Media, Culture and Sport (experts/bureaucrats), and the Church. Neither, apparently, indicates a practice of consultation. Other policies and guidelines, such as English Heritage’s Conservation Principles, at least in theory rely heavily on public consultation, for example on communal value. If practices are not embedded or well understood, then the sector really needs to start thinking about this properly. At the moment, it looks a bit like lip-service, and reduces ‘the public’ to prove locus standi, which clearly, as this ruling has shown, is difficult and can easily be dismissed as tenuous.
This, then, brings me to my final point.
We care because it’s Richard III
The one thing that not one single article that I’ve read about this has mentioned is what the wishes of Richard III himself might have been. He is truly being talked about like an object, or as Hewison in his book The Heritage Industry described it, a product and commodity. Quite openly there is mention of the ‘tourism income’ that having his body will bring, to the point where Leicester’s tourist promotion company apparently agreed to pay for part of the excavation costs (paragraph 38 of the judgment). I find that very troubling. Without wishing to cause offense, I see no difference in this than if a soldier who fell in Afghanistan today were buried there. I know that many will refer to the distance in time. But to this I respond that the reason we even care about these remains is because, well, they’re Richard III. And that makes him a specific human being, to whose life we owe respect. Would he have wanted to be buried in the place where he was killed in battle? Or would he have preferred to be buried where he spent his life, was happy and loved, wherever that place might be ? What we do know is that the only time Richard III spent in Leicester, according to the council’s webpage (accessed today), was once after his coronation as king, and then for the battle in which he was killed.
This raises another issue that must be considered even if you don’t agree with my moral argument above. By burying Richard III’s remains in Leicester they will become completely de-contextualized. Yes, you can talk about the Battle of Bosworth, and of course, the battlefield already has a visitor centre. There is nothing else in Leicester that illustrates the story of Richard III’s life and his historical time, one of the most important periods in English history. Indeed, you are left with that Richard III short break that Leicester now offers, and a self-guided walking leaflet around sites that have only the most tenuous links to the man himself, relating only to the last days of his life. Even with the forthcoming Richard III visitor centre, in terms of interpretation and heritage, that seems a missed opportunity .
 For this and the following see the full text of the ruling here.
 I’m not an expert, but according to Wikipedia and other sources, he grew up in Yorkshire, ruled in the North of England for most of his life, his son is buried in Yorkshire, the people of York loved him, and his wife is buried in Westminster.
 Of course people will still travel to Leicester Cathedral, and they’ll probably visit the Richard III visitor centre as well. Where else can they go now to pay their respects if that’s how they’re connecting to him? Quite many will also simply enjoy the sensationalist story of the discovery of ‘the king in the car park’. Will it be sustainable once the novelty has worn off? We’ll see. I daresay most people will still nip up to Yorkshire, where the whole of the story is rooted and comes alive through buildings and sites.