When King Richard III is celebrated and reinterred this week in Leicester Cathedral in England with the ritual and ceremony denied him 530 years ago, Michael Ibsen, his 17th-generation nephew from Canada, will be there. This past winter, the cabinetmaker handcrafted the wooden coffin holding King Richard’s bones in his workshop in London, England.
“To see him lowered into the vault and know he’s under that stone, in a coffin that I made, I’m still struggling to come to terms with what it means to me,” says Ibsen. To call their relationship uncommon is the epitome of understatement: Ibsen is one of four people in the world who shares the same mitochondrial DNA as that of the last English king slain in battle.
“It’s just weird,” exclaims Turi King, the geneticist (by happenstance, another Canadian) who linked Ibsen to the 15th-century monarch. “The chances are crazy.” It’s a tale that can only be described as a detective story, one with myriad coincidences, dead ends and false hopes.
In 2012, after a quixotic eight-year journey to find the lost king, a group of amateur sleuths and scientists gathered in downtown Leicester, standing on the crumbling asphalt of a drab government parking lot where they believed the ancient Grey Friars priory might have once stood. According to reports, the king had been hastily buried in its church. They found a body on the first day, but it was encased in soil. They got an exhumation licence. They brushed the dirt from the bones, looked at the twisted spine and skull marked with war wounds—and gulped.
Could it really be Richard? The story of the parking lot king would have ended there, with a badly scarred and anonymous skeleton, had it not been for Ibsen, the London, Ont.-born cabinetmaker who, until late in life, had no idea he was related to royalty. The quiet, plain-spoken man, 58, ultimately gave a name to the skeleton and fostered a newfound respect for a long-reviled king.
Monster in the making
History, it is said, is written by the victors. In 1485, the victor was Henry Tudor. When his forces killed 32-year-old Richard III on Bosworth Field, the death marked a savage end to a brutal civil war—the Wars of the Roses—that had torn families and the country apart for decades. Tudor, now bearing the title of Henry VII, laid claim to a kingdom. To justify overthrowing and slaying an anointed king, the new sovereign had Richard’s name blackened irrevocably. The dead monarch became a Machiavellian annihilator who usurped his late brother’s throne, murdered his two nephews—the famous princes in the Tower—and even poisoned his own wife.
Though contemporaries described Richard as, “of bodily shape comely enough, only of low stature,” Tudor dynastic propagandists turned him into a misshapen monster; Shakespeare described a “poisonous bunch-back’d toad,” complete with withered arm and limp. With no descendants and few relatives to fight for his name—the Tudors cold-bloodedly eliminated any threats, especially members of Richard’s family—the king was consigned to the dustbin of history, his reputation for evil and treachery entrenched in popular culture, etched into textbooks as fact.
Read more: Philippa Langley sheds more light on the discovery of Richard III
Never mind that he had loyally fought alongside his brother, Edward IV, for years as his trusted lieutenant. Or that while he ruled for only 777 days, he compiled an impressive list of legislative achievements, including the printing of the laws in English for the first time, and the banning of arbitrary taxes levied by a monarch that hadn’t been approved by Parliament. The notion of bail was created during his rule, to protect suspects from pre-trial custody.
And forget the fact that, far from being relieved that their king’s supposed tyrannical reign was over, the aldermen of York publicly declared their sorrow: “On this day was our good king Richard piteously slain and murdered to the great heaviness of the city.” None of that mattered.
Only in the past century has a sizable army of defenders rallied to the Ricardian cause. Interest exploded with the 1951 publication of a slim volume, The Daughter of Time—a title taken from Sir Francis Bacon’s aphorism that “truth is the daughter of time”—written by Josephine Tey. In the novel, a detective examines the case of Richard III and comes to see him not as a murderer but as “someone used to great responsibility, someone too conscientious.” The bestseller brought new respectability to the king. Such was the worldwide interest that the Richard III Society was created, focusing its research and scholarship on all things Richard.
And as in every good detective story, there are subplots in this story too. While Richard’s body lay undiscovered, other anonymous bones sent a historian on a search to Canada that ultimately provided the key to solving the bigger mystery.
The Canadian connection
One evening in 2004, while Joy Ibsen and her husband, Norm, were eating dinner at home in their bungalow in London, Ont., the phone rang. “My mother answered,” Michael Ibsen recounts. She found herself speaking to English historian John Ashdown-Hill, says Michael, “and she was informed that she was a descendant of Anne of York, Richard III’s sister, which I think was rather startling, to say the least.” Joy Ibsen was suspicious it was some sort of crank call. It wasn’t.
What Joy learned was this: Anne of York was the sister of Richard III and Margaret of Burgundy. This mattered because archaeologists had recently discovered three sets of bones in Belgium where Margaret’s tomb was assumed to be. Could one of them belong to Margaret?
That set Ashdown-Hill on a genealogical hunt. If the historian could find an all-female line extending to somebody alive today, then he hoped to obtain a DNA sample with a particular purpose. Maternal or mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is shared by siblings but is only passed down by females. That means any female descendants of Anne’s would match the mtDNA of Margaret, who died childless. After a year of extensive genealogical research he had a name: Joy Ibsen.
Joy, a retired journalist who died in 2008, had researched her family’s genealogy. The large hand-drawn family tree she made, extending back for centuries, hangs on the wall of her study in the family’s tidy house, where her husband still lives. At the very bottom of the bristol board is an all-female branch that Joy traced as far back as Ann Spooner (1780-1873). Had she tracked that branch further back, she would have found Anne of York.
After Joy was reassured by her younger son, Jeff, a Toronto-based privacy analyst in the field of health records, that there weren’t any significant privacy implications in giving an mtDNA sample, she did. Her mtDNA didn’t match that of the bones in Belgium. This dead end meant one of two things. “If Joy Ibsen’s DNA was the correct one, then the bones were presumably wrong [and not Margaret’s],” says Ashdown-Hill. Or perhaps the Ibsen line was the problem—maybe a daughter recorded on the family tree was adopted, thereby breaking the maternal DNA chain.
Around that time, Philippa Langley, a fellow member of the Richard III Society in Britain, asked Ashdown-Hill the mother of all questions: Where is Richard’s body anyway? No one knew.
Richard III is the only English monarch denied a known resting place or tomb. While Leicester has adopted Richard as one of its own—schools and statues are dedicated to the king—his likely burial spot, the Grey Friars complex, was one of hundreds of Catholic institutions demolished by Henry VIII. All that remains are medieval maps. After centuries of building and demolition, the area is filled with government buildings and backed by parking lots, including one belonging to the social services department.
Related: Richard III’s resting place will be one of peace—finally
In 2004, Langley went to Leicester. “Some Ricardian friends told me to go to this car park because they thought it might be part of the larger Grey Friars precinct,” she says. “I had goosebumps,” she later recounted, “so much so that even in the sunshine I felt cold to my bones. And I knew in my innermost being that Richard’s body lay here.” The Looking For Richard Project was born.
Recognizing she would never get permission to hunt for long-lost royal bones, a mission even she called “bonkers,” Langley tied it to something archaeologists and the city wanted to locate: Grey Friars. She worked hard to raise funds for the dig, much from the Richard III Society, including its Canadian branch (which had all of 68 members), and got officials and scientists to sign on for a two-week excavation of three trenches in that social services parking lot. Perhaps they’d find parts of the priory; maybe one trench would hit its church.
On Aug. 24, 2012, the day before the dig started, Michael Ibsen was invited to Leicester for the media launch. While cameras snapped, he swabbed the inside of a cheek to provide a fresh DNA sample, handing it to King, the University of Leicester geneticist. Then he returned to London. The next day, they found bones. The remains were lying a few feet from where Langley first stopped cold.
The scientists undertook the delicate work of uncovering the body, stuffed into a too-short grave without coffin or shroud. When the vertebrae of the skeleton’s twisted spine were revealed, Langley was speechless. She’d believed any spinal deformity was Tudor fiction. “This can’t be him,” she recalls thinking. “But when they showed me the battle trauma [on the skull], it was very clear this was Richard.”
Early on Sept. 10, five days after the remains were fully excavated, King and a few others met in the office of Kevin Schürer, pro-vice-chancellor for research at the University of Leicester. “It is quite high pressure because you realize that if you get this wrong, you’ll end your career pretty quickly,” King says. They decided to treat the identification project like a missing-person case: They had a man in his early 30s with numerous battle injuries and severe scoliosis.
Only by piling evidence on top of evidence in a logical manner would they prove their case. Schürer, a genealogical expert, advised finding another mtDNA sample in case Ibsen’s was a mismatch. As well, he believed they’d need more than a genealogical tree or secondary sources linking Joy and Michael Ibsen to Richard III. His team had to make the connection with historically provenanced documents.
At the same time, another researcher helped explore other female branches of Anne of York’s descendants. They found themselves trapped in multiple dead ends. “You might get fairly close to the present day, then suddenly it fizzles out. A woman has no daughters,” Schürer says. “So you look for another branch and start again.” After six weeks of digging through archives, they found only one other descendant: Australian-born Wendy Duldig, who was now living in London, England. She provided a DNA sample.
Related: Was King Richard III as malformed as Shakespeare claimed?
Meanwhile, King was busy. First, she compared the mtDNA from Michael Ibsen and Wendy Duldig. It matched. Finding and analyzing the skeleton’s mtDNA was more difficult. “Ancient DNA is highly fragmented,” King explains. Using samples from the remains, she found a small section, then another, and tacked them all together to create the full DNA sequences.
In December 2012, King was finally looking at the first sections of mtDNA from the skeleton. They matched Ibsen’s and Duldig’s. “I did a little dance around the lab,” she recalls. “Oh my word, this looked promising.” The next few weeks were a blur as she, as well as other scientists at two ancient-DNA labs, studied the findings and double-checked the results.
On Feb. 3, 2013, King invited Michael Ibsen to Leicester. In Schürer’s office, she told him that his mtDNA, and that of Duldig (a new cousin), matched the remains found in the parking lot. That could only mean one thing: the skeleton was Richard III. “I was stunned,” recalls Ibsen. “I was convinced that they would not be a match, utterly convinced.” At that point, he wasn’t even allowed to tell his two siblings or father.
Today, there are likely millions of descendants of the Plantagenet dynasty, whose rule over England ended with Richard in that muddy field at Bosworth. Yet these four—the three Ibsen siblings, Michael, Jeff and Leslie, as well as Wendy Duldig—are different. “We are at the end of an all-female line,” says Ibsen. However, since none of the four has children, the mtDNA link to Anne and Richard III will become extinct after this generation. The king’s bones might never have been definitively identified through DNA had he been found decades from now.
Before the next morning’s press conference, King took Ibsen to the university to see Richard’s bones. “In terms of emotional impact, it really began when standing next to the remains of Richard III, realizing your relationship with him, genealogically and in terms of the mitochondrial DNA, but also in terms of seeing the terrible injuries,” he says. “You can see the blade marks on the skull, the nicks on his face, and think ‘It’s a horrible way to die.'”
It was a singular experience. “This man was a king of England,” he says. “I’m related to him, I’m directly linked genetically to him. There is a part of him, a tangible physical part of him that is part of me.”
The scientific work didn’t end there. They needed to satisfy critics who had voiced concerns about the genetic identification, since the work hadn’t been peer-reviewed. Last December, an exhaustive paper was published in Nature Communications. King did a whole-genome sequence match on the two cousins. Ibsen was a perfect match to the maternal DNA of the king found in the parking lot. Duldig had mtDNA identical to that of the king except for one letter of some 16,569—”a typo” over the generations, explains King.
“There is, at its most conservative, a 99.999 per cent probability that these are indeed the remains of Richard III,” King announced.
A coffin fit for a king
Last year, Michael Ibsen rang up Will Bullough, yet another Canadian-born member of the Richard saga. Bullough is the owner of Whitney Sawmills, which he founded three decades ago on the English border with Wales, and a supplier of Ibsen’s. “You know this Richard III business?” Ibsen asked him. “Oh yes, yes, how’s it going?” Bullough responded. “They’ve asked me to make the coffin,” said the first-time coffin-maker. Great gales of laughter echoed down the line to Ibsen. “What a sweet idea,” Bullough finally said.
Michael Ibsen has worked in the same complex in north London for 25 years, where his tiny 275-sq.-foot workshop is filled with tools and “quite a lot of lumps of wood.” It is a community of like-minded craftsmen. On one side of his shop is a man who makes badges, while a harp maker works downstairs. Ibsen lives in an old vicarage a 15-minute bicycle ride from work—”Downhill to work, uphill to home.”
People were putting his name forward as a regal coffin builder even before the dig began. “I thought, ‘Absolutely! He’s a carpenter. If we find Richard, we’ll need a coffin,'” Langley says. She immediately rang Ibsen. “I’d be honoured,” she recalls him responding.
It may not have happened if Ibsen had kept to his first passion. Though he enjoyed industrial arts in the other London, the Ontario city where he grew up, he had to choose between that and music. He picked the latter, studying the French horn and cello at Western University and spent a few years freelancing as a musician in the Netherlands and Germany. By the mid-1980s, he was in London, England, reconsidering his options.
He eventually took a course in joinery, learning to make all the traditional woodworking joints by hand. It rekindled his love for the craft. Ibsen is a tall, slim man, whose contemplative manner seems suited to a life of such precise artistry. He has turned his hand to everything from bookcases and desks to kitchen cabinets.
The order for the coffin came from Leicester Cathedral. “It’s very special,” Ibsen says, “discovering that you are related to Richard III and then being able to use your natural abilities to be part of the whole reinterment.” The commission didn’t come with many guidelines. “I had all kinds of crazy ideas in terms of panelling,” he remembers. “At the end, I decided to keep it as simple as possible.”
Looking at the drawings for the coffin, laid out on the dining room table of his father’s house in London, Ont., Ibsen delicately traces the coffin’s outline with his finger. It’s an elegant design of straight lines and small angles. Ibsen points out how the sides taper out from the top to the bottom, with a 15-degree bevel on the edges of the lid and base. Since the vault was already dug, the dimensions were preordained.
“I’m not producing some sort of woodworking masterpiece, as much as I might be capable of it. Because I don’t think it’s about me,” the cabinetmaker explains. “It’s about Richard.” He’d decided early on the type of timber: “It really had to be English oak. Traditionally, oak would have been used for a high-status funeral if there was a coffin.” The internal framework is of yew, used for English longbows and often found in rural churchyards. “Those are the sorts of things that people can relate to, as opposed to some cabinetmaking bit of genius,” Ibsen says.
The oak also had to come from a fitting source. So Ibsen asked Bullough, the sawmill owner, “Do you think there is any way that I could buy timber from the Duchy [of Cornwall]?” The duchy loved the idea. Since its creation in 1337, it has had one primary purpose: to provide income to the prince of Wales. Today, its holdings are run on a commercial basis for the 24th duke, Prince Charles.
Last December, Ibsen made the trek to the sawmill, which saws and stores wood for the duchy. Bullough had picked boards from a duchy tree felled four winters before: six oak planks, each four metres long, half a metre wide and 1.5 inches thick. It took two men to budge one. For Ibsen, there is a symmetry in using duchy wood, and it extends five centuries. “The timber for Richard’s coffin is coming from the estate of the next king,” he says.
In January, after the wood was delivered, he spent a weekend sorting through the planks and making his rough cuts. Soon, his schedule was being pushed forward.
Jacquie Binns has worked since last summer on the ornately embroidered pall, or cover, that will drape over Richard III’s coffin. She needed a completed lid for the coffin to double-check her measurements. So Ibsen spent yet another weekend in his workshop, creating the top for Binns.
While Ibsen was confident he could make a coffin, he doesn’t carve. So he contacted Anna Louise Parker, whose workshop is a five-minute walk from his own. “I need 10 letters and eight numbers carved on some wood,” Parker recalls him asking with deliberate vagueness.
“I went for something that looks hand-drawn,” she explains. Able to carve only four to five hours each day because of the physical demands of the work, she took a week.
The business of the coffin (as ever with Richard, it too was contentious) wasn’t over. Originally, Richard III’s bones were to be put in a lead ossuary, a small box, placed within the wood coffin. After objections from Ricardians who believed he should be given the dignity in this reinterment that was so lacking in the first burial, it was finally agreed he would be laid out in a fully articulated manner. And that demanded a much bigger inner box.
The lead lining was built by Jonathan Castleman, a Leicester man. He is the seventh generation to run the family-owned Norman & Underwood Group Ltd., which has put lead roofs on St. Paul’s Cathedral in London as well as the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.
Castleman’s first concept topped 100 kilos. The undertakers, who will carry the coffin during the events in Leicester, nixed that idea. “We cannot lift over 100 kg,” he recalls one of them saying. “You what?” Castleman asked. “Health and safety,” he replied. So Castleman reduced the thickness of the lead to get it down to an acceptable 60 kg.
His creation, minus its lid, was delivered to Ibsen’s workshop in February, allowing the cabinetmaker to make sure it would fit inside the coffin. Ibsen didn’t want 60 kg of lead falling through the bottom, so he secured the base with 10 pegs and additional screws.
There the coffin sat, in Ibsen’s tiny workshop, camouflaged from prying eyes by a few blankets, topped with boxes and a load of timber. In mid-March, he and a friend loaded the lead lining and the coffin into a van for the final journey to Leicester.
Three days later, a small group including Michael Ibsen and Wendy Duldig gathered for a private event at the university. They were there “to witness that the university has fulfilled its obligation of putting everything into the coffin and sealing the lid,” Kevin Schürer says. The event was, Ibsen says, “rather quiet and peaceful.” Every bone that is Richard III was put into the coffin and laid out anatomically, protected by a thick padding of natural woollen fleece and unbleached linen. Small bits of bone were put into bags of linen, sewn by local students of the King Richard III Infant School. Finally, after Castleman sealed the lead lid shut with solder, the cabinetmaker screwed tight the wooden lid.
His final resting place
On Saturday, March 21, a week of Richard III-themed events began in Leicester. “With dignity and honour” is how the official King Richard in Leicester organization described its plans. Virtually everyone who took part in the project is in the city. After years of collaboration, “we are family,” says Kevin Schürer. For them, it’s a culmination of untold hours of effort. They were determined to get it right for a king denied this ceremony for 530 years.
Throughout the Richard saga, Michael Ibsen has calmly borne the lion’s share of media interest from around the world, though he doesn’t enjoy being the centre of attention. In Leicester, people regularly come up to him, asking to shake his hand. The cabinetmaker has found the focus “both wonderful and slightly terrifying.”
Early on, however, he decided to accept his public role. “I thought, who am I to be a curmudgeon and sit in a dark room and not say anything to anybody about it?” he says. Though Ibsen accepted almost every request for an interview, he did turn down one proposition that involved dressing up like his ancestor.
In doing so, he’s taken pressure off the others, who are, like him, very private. One is Jeff, Michael’s younger brother. (“But I’m taller than he is,” Jeff says, with a laugh.) When people in Canada learn of Jeff’s link to Richard III, there’s no recognition, though, he says, “They do call me ‘your highness’ in my local bar.” That courtesy doesn’t extend to a free beer, so he’s hoping for a few in Leicester.
Leslie Ibsen, Jeff and Michael’s sister, who lives near Nanaimo, B.C., will also be there. She’s not sure what awaits her. “Just you wait until you come over here, you’ll be mobbed,” Michael told her.
All three siblings and their father, Norm, who is in Leicester as well, keep mentioning the one person who would have most loved to be there: Joy Ibsen, who died four years before the king’s remains were discovered. Leslie recalls that when she heard that Richard III had been genetically identified, “My first thought was, ‘Oh, I wish she could have been here.’ It was bittersweet. It would have meant so much to her.” The coffin made by Michael is, Leslie says, “part of history, and part of our family. It’s kept my mom’s memory going. It’s a tribute to her.”
On Sunday, March 22, tens of thousands lined Leicester’s streets to see King Richard III’s coffin slowly pass by. Its journey ended at the cathedral, greeted by Bishop Tim Stevens and Dean David Monteith. When they rehearsed that moment earlier in March, both were struck by its poignancy and power. It took place at dusk, in candlelight; the air filled with incense as ancient Christian choral music filled the cathedral. “You begin to imagine the grief that must have been around in 1485,” Monteith says. “And not only for Richard’s death, but the grief of the hundreds and hundreds of families on both sides whose lives were completely torn up into chaos as a result of the battle and the real impact of those deaths on families in villages and towns up and down the land.”
After three days of public viewing—some 4,000 queued on the first day—the king’s remains were reinterred on March 26 in front of members of the current royal family, including Sophie, countess of Wessex, as well as Prince Richard, duke of Gloucester. Not only does the Queen’s cousin have the same name and ducal title as Richard III, he’s been royal patron of the Richard III Society for 35 years. Clergy from all faiths, including Justin Welby, the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury, were present.
To fit Richard III’s tomb inside a relatively small building whose origins go back 900 years, the cathedral has undergone a much-needed, long-postponed reordering of its interior. The tomb is located directly east of the high altar, which sits under the spire, in a newly arranged space called the ambulatory (a space you can walk around). “East of [the tomb] is a chapel dedicated to Christ the King. So you get divine kingship speaking to earthly kingship,” explains David Monteith, the dean.
A brick-lined vault has been dug into the floor of the ambulatory where Richard III’s coffin will be placed, sealed by an enormous rectangular slab of pale fossil stone, into which was cut a cross. The stone sits well above the floor, edged by thick, dark marble, on which is carved Richard’s name, as well as his motto in old French, Loyaulté me lie (Loyalty binds me).
The tomb and reordering of the cathedral, as well as the services commemorating Richard III, have cost the cathedral around $5 million. Now that Leicester is firmly planted on the tourist trail, Monteith is ready to play host and recover some of those costs. In 2012, only 30,000 tourists visited. The next year, after the king was found, 160,000 arrived.
A public space in front of the cathedral has been transformed with gardens and sculptures—dedicated to Richard III, of course. That project cost local authorities another $5 million. It’s a regeneration of the central core, partly in hope that the controversial king will draw in travellers. In a religiously diverse city, Bishop Stevens wants the renovated cathedral to “act as common ground. I think lots of opportunities will flow in the years ahead.”
As for the king himself, his once-tarnished reputation is being burnished. Shakespeare’s “bunch-back’d toad” had a twisted spine, scientists have confirmed, but he wasn’t a hunchback, and had no major physical deformity or limp. A smart tailor could have hidden his scoliosis, which didn’t seem to have hindered his ability to ride or fight. While his enemies have long been consigned to the dull back corners of history, his life and legacy are alive with debate and analysis.
Philippa Langley, whose “bonkers” idea paid off in extraordinarily spectacular fashion, believes that tucked away somewhere, perhaps in a private archive, is something big that will help the Ricardian cause. “It’s probably an old manuscript, or household account, or a will somewhere,” she suggests. “I think it will answer the princes in the Tower.”
Now, after so many centuries of anonymity, Richard III resides at the centre of life in Leicester. No longer under a parking lot, but near the high altar in a cathedral, inside a wooden coffin made by his 17th-generation nephew, under stone, all marked with his name. His tomb tilts toward the east, toward the Christ the King window. Toward the future that comes each morning with the new light.