March 26, 2013 at 7:47 PM ET
Distant relatives of England's King Richard III have escalated their fight to have the much-maligned monarch's mortal remains buried in York rather than Leicester, claiming that the matter was a human rights issue.
The late king's skeleton was discovered beneath a parking lot near the present-day Leicester Cathedral last year, and identified "beyond reasonable doubt" through DNA analysis and other forensic tests. Historians say Richard III was buried at the cathedral because it was near where he fell in the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 — but it was only recently that archaeologists had enough information to know where to dig.
A century after his death, Richard was immortalized as the child-killing monster of William Shakespeare's play, "Richard III." Contemporary experts say that the king's reputation as an evildoer was undeserved, and that he was an enlightened ruler. Villain or victim, King Richard III has enjoyed a surge of popularity in recent times, so much so that his fans in two English cities are arguing over his final resting place.
Even before the bones were exhumed, the University of Leicester was granted a license from the British Ministry of Justice that gave university officials the power to decide the disposition of any remains that were found. The university and other officials in Leicester are now in the midst of preparations for a reburial at Leicester Cathedral next year.
Descendants of Richard III's siblings, however, are arguing that the remains of England's last Plantagenet king should be buried instead in York, where the monarch had family connections. A lawyer representing the pro-York group, known as the Plantagenet Alliance, said Tuesday that he was preparing a legal challenge to Leicester's plans.
"We have now written officially to the Ministry of Justice and University of Leicester, notifying them that we plan to issue these claims," Reuters quoted the lawyer, Matthew Howarth, as saying. "We will follow up by issuing the judicial review and other proceedings as soon as possible, but certainly within the next few weeks."
The group intends to argue that the Ministry of Justice failed to consult the relatives about the arrangements for the exhumation and reburial, and that this failure breached the European Convention on Human Rights.
"We have every hope that Matthew and his colleagues will succeed in these cases and help us significantly in our quest to have Richard's remains buried at the most appropriate site, York Minster," Stephen Nicolay, a 16th great-nephew of the king, was quoted as saying.
In response, the University of Leicester issued a statement rejecting the Plantagenet Alliance's claims.
"Richard III is believed to have no living descendants. Any distant relations are therefore descended from his siblings. Statistically speaking, many tens of thousands of individuals alive today are descended in this way," the university said. "There is no obligation to consult living relatives where remains are older than 100 years."
The university said that the group's reference to the European Convention on Human Rights, which recognizes the right to respect for private and family life, "seems particularly odd given the distance of any relations, the years that have passed and thus the lack of any personal relationship with the deceased."
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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.