LEICESTER (AFP) - Dug out of a municipal carpark five centuries after his battlefield death, England's Richard III began his final journey Sunday before finally receiving a burial fit for a king this week.
Some 530 years after he was killed in 1485, the last English monarch to die in battle will be laid to rest on Thursday in Leicester Cathedral, central England, across the street from where his remains were found in 2012.
In an unprecedented event, the medieval king will be reinterred in the presence of royalty in a service broadcast live on national television.
Five days of events leading up to the burial got under way on Sunday when his coffin was seen in public for the first time before being taken by hearse to a spot near where he was killed during the Battle of Bosworth.
Archaeologists who worked on excavating Richard III's remains and his descendants laid white roses - the symbol of his royal house - on the coffin before it set off.
The Bishop of Leicester, Tim Stevens, said Richard's death marked an "extraordinary moment" in English history.
"It was a change of dynasty, an end of a period of violent civil war, the beginning of the period in which Shakespeare was to write his great tragedies, including Richard III, and a different way of governing the country," he said.
Richard, the last of the Plantagenet dynasty, ruled England from 1483 until he was killed near Leicester by soldiers loyal to Henry Tudor, later Henry VII.
It was the last major conflict in the Wars of the Roses and Richard's defeat saw the crown pass from his House of York to the House of Tudor.
The slain 32-year-old was swiftly buried without fanfare at Greyfriars monastery in Leicester.
Greyfriars was demolished in the 1530s during Tudor king Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries and Richard's remains were thought to be lost.
But members of the Richard III Society teamed up with Leicester University archaeologists to excavate the site, rightly predicting where in the old church he would have been buried.
They found a skeleton consistent with contemporary descriptions of the king, notably his curved spine, and battle injuries. Radiocarbon dating showed the man died between 1455 and 1540.
Their discovery was confirmed by a DNA match with Richard's closest living relative - Canadian carpenter Michael Ibsen, who fittingly has now made the monarch's English oak coffin.
By coincidence, the remains were beneath a letter R indicating a reserved space in the carpark.
"Skeleton 1" had eight head wounds, including a brutal slash to the base of skull which cleaved away bone. Another blow had pierced his skull.
DNA testing on Ibsen and Wendy Duldig, both descendants of Richard's eldest sister Anne of York, confirmed they were both related to "Skeleton 1".
With no precedent to consult, finding Richard's remains triggered impassioned wrangling over what to do next.
Following a judicial review, his bones are being reinterred in Leicester rather than York, his northern stronghold.
Cynics said the rival cities had one eye on creating a visitor attraction. London's Westminster Abbey was also sidelined.
After visiting the battlefield, the cortege returns to Leicester later on Sunday for a horse-drawn procession to the cathedral, where Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the leader of England's Catholics, will preach a sermon.
Richard was a Catholic but will be reburied in the traditions of the Church of England, although there will be Catholic elements in services throughout the week.
The public can view the coffin from Monday, when Nichols, the archbishop of Westminster, will also celebrate a requiem mass in Leicester's main Catholic church.
On Thursday, Richard's remains will be reinterred in the presence of the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, the spiritual head of the Church of England.
Queen Elizabeth II's daughter-in-law Sophie, the Countess of Wessex, will attend, as will her cousin Prince Richard the Duke of Gloucester, patron of the Richard III Society and a blood relative.
The discovery of his skeleton has encouraged scholars to look again at Richard's record of social reform, rather than rely on Shakespeare's Tudor-era portrayal of him as a villainous tyrant murderer.
The chairman of the Richard III Society, Phil Stone, said this week's events would attempt to restore his reputation.
"Our work will continue, in perhaps convincing the doubters Richard wasn't as black as he was once thought to be," he said.