LONDON — The discovery of King Richard III under a parking lot in the English city of Leicester thrilled history buffs around the world. But the news meant a winter of discontent for the rival city of York, and now the two are doing battle over the royal bones.
Officials in Leicester say the monarch, who was unceremoniously buried without a coffin 528 years ago, will be reinterred with kingly dignity in the city’s cathedral.
“The decision has already been made,” said Mayor Peter Soulsby. “All the permissions have been granted and the various authorities involved have agreed that the interment will take place in Leicester.”
Not so fast, says York, a city 100 miles to the north that claims the late monarch as its own.
“Every taxi driver I talk to, every shopkeeper I talk to, they are very excited about it. They want Richard back in York,” said Michael Ormrod, professor of medieval history at the University of York. “There is a view that he is a king for York.”
York’s City Council said Wednesday that it is petitioning the government and Queen Elizabeth II, contending that “one of the city’s most famous and cherished sons,” who grew up in the region and was once known as Richard of York, should be in the northern city.
The two cities have launched rival petitions to the government. As of Wednesday, York had the edge, with more than 5,700 signatures on a petition calling for Richard to be reinterred there. Leicester’s petition had more than 2,000 names.
Yorkists hope the queen will intervene on behalf of her 15th-century predecessor, though Buckingham Palace said it is not getting involved.
Richard had few links to Leicester, apart from dying in battle nearby in 1485. Historians agree he had strong ties to York.
He belonged to the House of York, one of two branches of the ruling Plantagenet dynasty. William Shakespeare’s play “Richard III” opens with the lines: “Now is the winter of our discontent/ made glorious summer by this son of York” — a punning reference to Richard’s brother, King Edward IV.
Richard spent much of his childhood in the county of Yorkshire. As an adult, he ran northern England during his brother’s reign, and he is sometimes called the country’s last northern king.
Ormrod says there is evidence Richard wanted to be buried in York Minster, the city’s medieval cathedral.
York has not always made a noise about its ties to a king who for centuries was Britain’s most reviled monarch. Richard was defeated at the Battle of Bosworth Field by the forces of Henry Tudor, who took the throne as King Henry VII, ending a bloody tussle over the crown known as the Wars of the Roses.
Tudor historians painted Richard as a villainous usurper and accused him of multiple crimes, most famously, the murder of his two nephews, the “Princes in the Tower.”
Richard’s supporters hope the discovery of the king’s remains will lead to a reappraisal of his reputation.
For those in York who have been keeping Richard’s flame alive, this is a bittersweet time.
Mike Bennett, who runs York’s small Richard III Museum, said he had been circulating a petition for months, since the reports of the skeleton’s identity emerged, “but it’s only since the bones have been declared to be him that others have jumped on the bandwagon.”
Still, Bennett will be delighted if Richard comes home to York. It would give a boost to his small museum tucked into a gatehouse in the city walls, where visitors are invited to act as jury in an imaginary trial of Richard for the murder of the Princes in the Tower.
For now, the battle over the royal bones remains civilized. There’s no new outbreak of the Wars of the Roses — yet.
“I have many good friends in Leicester,” Ormrod emphasized.
The professor would not go so far as to call burial in Leicester an insult but he said it would, at least, be an irony.
“Leicester was a very big stronghold of the house of Lancaster, Richard’s rivals for the throne,” he said. “He was buried almost in enemy territory in Leicester.”