March 12, 2013 at 9:37 PM ET
The fight over the final disposition of King Richard III's 528-year-old remains has escalated to the point that people are sending hate mail to York's cathedral, the police are being called in to investigate, and a member of Parliament is pleading with the rivals to avoid sparking another "War of the Roses."
On strictly legal grounds, the matter was resolved even before the remains were unearthed in a parking lot near Leicester Cathedral last year. Britain's Justice Ministry granted researchers from the University of Leicester a license to conduct the excavation there and to determine the disposition of any human remains found there.
Last month, the researchers announced that a skeleton found at the site belonged to Richard III, based on DNA tests. The discovery resolved a longstanding mystery over what happened to Richard's remains after his death in the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. That battle marked a turning point in the Wars of the Roses, a decades-long contest between the houses of Lancaster and York for the English throne.
Richard III has gotten a bad rap through the centuries — in part because William Shakespeare's play about the monarch cast him as a hunchbacked villain. But historians say he wasn't that terrible of a guy, and since last month's announcement, Richard III's fans have been arguing over whether he should be reburied in Leicester, where he was found; in York, where he had family ties; or in London's Westminster Abbey, the resting place for many of England's kings.
The University of Leicester is already working to arrange a burial at Leicester Cathedral next year, but some of the opponents of that plan — including nine descendants of Richard III's siblings — have taken up York's case. The arguments are apparently getting uglier: Hugh Bayley, a member of Parliament representing York Central, said that York Minster's dean, Vivienne Faull, has received some letters "so extreme that she has referred the correspondence to the police."
Faull was dean of Leicester Cathedral before coming to York, and she has shied away from contesting Leicester's claim to the remains. "It has been suggested that opponents have accused her of bias because of her previous links to Leicester Cathedral," The Telegraph reported.
The Yorkshire Post quoted a spokesman for the Dean and Chapter of York as confirming that "a small number" of the letters relating to the fuss over Richard III's remains have been abusive. "These have been passed to the Minster Police, and they continue to monitor the situation closely," the spokesman was quoted as saying.
The British government's current view is that Richard III's final disposition is up to the University of Leicester, but during Tuesday's speech in the House of Commons, Bayley urged the government to establish an independent commission to decide the matter. In the meantime, he called for what Shakespeare might have termed "some little pause" in the battle.
“I would say to everybody — calm down," Bayley said. "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.”
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Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.