By JENNY GROSS
LEICESTER, England—Norma Benathan burst into tears the first time she laid eyes on the ruins of Penrith Castle, in northwest England. More than half a millennium before, her personal hero and the former king of England, Richard III, lived at the 14th century royal fortress before heading into battle.
Now, Ms. Benathan, a retired clerk who lives in Lancaster, is heading into battle herself—over where recently unearthed bones that may be Richard's should be buried.
Richard, who reigned from 1483 to 1485, is a hot topic again. One of the most controversial English royals—described as a murderer by some; an enlightened ruler by others—he was killed in the Battle of Bosworth Field, the climax of dynastic struggle known as "The Wars of the Roses."
Exactly where Richard was buried, however, has remained a mystery. Contemporary accounts say his body was taken to nearby Leicester, but until recently no one had tried to dig up the burial site.
Then in September, archaeologists unearthed bones buried under a parking lot in Leicester that raised hopes he had been found. The skeleton they found has a curved spine, just as Richard was reported to have, and a dented skull. That comports with the story that Richard was killed in battle by a sword or ax. Specialists are comparing DNA from the bones with that of a living descendant of the king's sister, and the University of Leicester will announce results the first week of February.
Yet even before his remains are properly identified, Richard III enthusiasts—Ricardians, as they are known—are in a civil war of their own over where the medieval king should be buried.
One faction, which says the remains should stay in Leicester, includes members of the U.K.'s Richard III Society, whose East Midlands and Scottish branches were closely connected to the dig that unearthed the remains. The society itself says it is neutral.
But two other groups—the Society of Friends of Richard III, in York, and a 1,400-member U.S. group, the Richard III Foundation—want the remains transported to York, a city he was particularly fond of.
Others say Richard should have a state burial at Westminster Abbey or Windsor Castle, where other monarchs are interred.
The U.K. Ministry of Justice has said the decision is up to the University of Leicester, which has the exhumation license, but that has only fueled the discord. Even online petitions calling for burials at different sites have sprung up.
Officials in Leicester would naturally like Richard to stay in town, and a proper burial site wouldn't be bad for tourism, either. "It's quite amusing that the location of the burial of an English king should be of such concern in the States," says Mayor Peter Soulsby. "I've never dealt with the Foundation. I do know the Richard III Society because they have been telling the story of Richard over decades."
Such parochialism has caused the rival Ricardians to unsheathe their swords.
"The lack of respect that's been shown to his remains has grated our membership," said Joe Ann Ricca, founder and president of the Richard III Foundation. Mrs. Ricca and some Ricardians have been so infuriated by the society's neutral stance that they switched to her group.
"It's not only insulting to the Foundation, but it's insulting to the Friends of Richard III Society that is based in York," said Mrs. Ricca, who lives in Las Vegas. "We're treated like the bastard children of the Ricardian community."
The groups have common cause in their devotion to Richard, who became king in 1483, usurping power from his brother's child, the 12-year-old Edward V; Richard said Edward was an illegitimate heir as the product of his father's second marriage. The story goes that Richard imprisoned his two nephews in the Tower of London. Within months of Richard's taking the throne, the two nephews disappeared, and some assumed Richard had murdered them.
Richard's reign ended when Henry Tudor's army killed him during the Wars of the Roses, a decadeslong series of battles between the Houses of Lancaster and York for the throne.
Richard's story stayed alive in the public imagination over the years. William Shakespeare's "Richard III" gave the world the line: "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse." Laurence Olivier gave an Oscar-nominated performance as Richard in a 1955 film adaptation.
Yet many Ricardians say Shakespeare, who was born about 80 years after Richard died, did his subject no favors by depicting the king as deformed and sinister, murdering his nephews to quicken his rise. Pro-Richard activists say records show Richard was one of England's most enlightened rulers, who had progressive views, encouraged foreign trade and promoted books.
The tale has enraptured Ricardians.
Ms. Benathan first became interested in Richard when she read a novel that contradicted accounts of Richard's villainous ways, taught in school history, and decided these were lies propagated by Henry Tudor, Richard's successor. "It was like being hit between the eyes," said Ms. Benathan, who wears a Richard III necklace at all times, has several portraits of him at home and even carries a tote bag with Richard's emblem sewn into it.
But bad blood has been brewing for years among the various groups. The Society of Friends of Richard III was formed as a breakaway group from the Richard III Society in 1978.
"Some of my members found them a bit cliquish; they didn't speak to you," says Sandra Wadley, chairman of the Friends group. "We are very friendly." The chairman of the Richard III Society, Philip Stone, said the group welcomes anyone interested in Richard.
Now, the king's final resting place is the battleground. The case for keeping Richard's remains in Leicester is simple. Philippa Langley, the secretary of the society's Scottish branch and originator of the dig in Leicester, said it is common to rebury bones close to where they are found. But others, including members of the U.S. group, say that plan is an affront to Richard's reputation and legacy, which they say has been through enough. They say Richard had a strong support base in York and reportedly wanted to be buried there. Reports show he put in motion plans to build a chapel at York Minster where some say he intended to be buried.
"Think about this being a member of your family," says Charles Brunner, a Kansas bank teller who says he is related to Richard III on both sides of his family. "Where would you want them to go? Where they wanted to go or the town they were taken to after they were killed, where they were stripped bare and put on public display?"
Amid the squabbling, some Ricardians are just happy Richard may finally have been found. Marion Hare, an 80-year-old retired schoolteacher, and member of the Leicester branch, would prefer a Leicester burial, but adds: "We don't have a monopoly on Richard. Let's do this shouting about where he's buried when we know it's him."
Write to Jenny Gross at email@example.com
A version of this article appeared January 19, 2013, on page A1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Bones of Contention: If the Skeleton Is Richard III, Where to Bury It?.