Royal exhumation, reburial and s25 Burial Act 1857

While recent concern regarding section 25 of the Burial Act 1857 has focused on the exhumation and reburial of the remains of Richard III and the applicability of Rudewicz, R (on the application of) v Secretary of State for Justice & Ors [2012] EWCA Civ 499, a present-day example of a royal exhumation and reburial has passed by almost unnoticed. However, the case of Queen Maria of Yugoslavia contains several fascinating elements (to canon lawyers, at least): direct involvement of Queen Elizabeth II, the remains of a relatively recently deceased monarch with direct relatives, re-interment at a place consecrated under Orthodox rites, involvement of the UK and Serbian governments, legal interpretation guided by a 1901 ruling of Dr Tristram and, inevitably, section 25 of the Burial Act 1857.

Details of the ceremonial associated with the exhumation, memorial service and re-interment of Queen Maria are to be found here and here. The legal issues are summarized in the judgment of HHJ Bursell QC, Chancellor of the Diocese of Oxford, in Re The Royal Burial Ground, Frogmore, Windsor; Re Exhumation of HM Queen Maria of Yugoslavia [2013] Oxford CCt. This concerns:

“[a faculty] granted for the exhumation of the remains of Queen Maria of Yugoslavia from the Royal Burial Ground at Frogmore and re-interment in the family crypt in St. George’s Church, Oplenac, in the city of Topola, Serbia”.

HM Queen Maria of Yugoslavia, (6 January 1900 – 22 June 1961)

Queen Maria, otherwise known as Marie Karadjordjevich, was a great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria, and as the wife of King Alexander I, was Queen of Yugoslavia. She died in exile in London on 22 June 1961 and was interred at the Royal Burial Ground at Frogmore, Windsor Castle. An earlier exhumation could not be undertaken since the family “had necessarily to await a favourable decision by the Government of Serbia”. In the event, the decision to seek exhumation and re-interment in the royal mausoleum was made by the Government of the Republic of Serbia.

Queen Maria’s State Funeral on 26 May 2013 took place along with those of King Peter II of Yugoslavia, his brother Prince Andrew and his wife Queen Alexandra. For each it was necessary to exhume their remains from countries in which they had been exiled [1].


Statutory Legislation

Both the Burial Act 1857 and ecclesiastical legislation are concerned with the protection of bodily remains, and whilst neither can impose conditions on their re-interment in countries other than in the UK or England, respectively, they can refuse permission to exhume where the conditions for re-interment are deemed to be inadequate. In the case of Queen Maria, both the Ministry of Justice and the Oxford Consistory Court considered that the Oplenac Royal Mausoleum satisfied their respective requirements. Furthermore, the consent of close surviving relatives and others was obtained before exhumation: HRH Queen Elizabeth II, [who with Prince Philip was the second cousin once removed of Maria], HRH Crown Prince Alexander of Yugoslavia, [her grandson], and the other surviving relatives of the deceased. The Dean of Windsor also expressed his agreement to the proposed disinterment.

Ecclesiastical Legislation

In view of the above consents, public notice of the petition was dispensed with pursuant to rule 13(9)(a) of the Faculty Jurisdiction Rules 2000, viz.

“In the case of petition for a faculty for exhumation, the chancellor shall have the following powers that is to say:

(a) if the chancellor is satisfied that any near relatives of the deceased person still living and any other persons who in the opinion of the chancellor it is reasonable to regard as being concerned with the matter are the petitioners or that they consent to the proposed faculty being granted, then the chancellor may dispense with the issue of a public notice and decree the issue of the faculty immediately.”

The Royal Burial Ground at Frogmore was consecrated on 23 October 1928, but although it was presumed that St George’s Church, Oplenac had been consecrated according to the Orthodox rites, this consecration fell outwith the requirements of the Burial Act 1857, and following Dr Tristram’s reasoning in Re Talbot [1901] P 1,

“the remains of Queen Maria are in law to be regarded as being transferred from one place consecrated according to the laws of England to another place which is not so consecrated.”

As such, a section 25 licence would be required, but as Chancellor Bursell noted, even when a licence has been granted, the provisions of the ecclesiastical law must also be applied [1], the relevant authority being Re Blagdon Cemetery [2002] Fam 299.  However,

“[w]hilst the court should not permit an exhumation unless it is satisfied that those remains will thereafter be interred, or preserved, in a place of real permanence. In the present case [Chancellor Bursell was] satisfied that all these requirements will be more than adequately met by the re-interment in the royal mausoleum.”

Relevance to the remains Richard III

Other than demonstrating the operation of section 25 of the 1857 Burial Act where remains are to be removed from consecrated to unconsecrated ground, there is relatively little of relevance the circumstances surrounding Richard III. The judgement itself is primarily concerned with the relevant ecclesiastical law in relation to exhumation, although it notes [at paras. 4 and 6],

“[a] licence from the Secretary of State is therefore required in the present case and this was granted on behalf of the Secretary of State for Justice on the 11th April 2013. The licence specifically requires that the remains ‘be transported to the Republic of Serbia to be re-interred in the Oplenac Royal Mausoleum’.”

” . . . there are very special reasons why her remains should be re-interred in the royal mausoleum as may be inferred from the fact that the decision to seek exhumation was made by the Government of the Republic of Serbia itself”.

As noted above, in relation to securing permission from those involved, consent had been given prior to exhumation. Furthermore, it is implicit that the Royal Burial Ground at Frogmore falls entirely within the Church of England’s faculty jurisdiction whereas the burial of Richard III at the Grey Friars site in Leicester does not.

[1] Edes v Bishop of Oxford (1667) Vaugh 18 at page 21; Mackonochie v Lord Penzance (1881) 6 App Cas 424 at page 446).

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