In 2004, as she sat down to dinner with her husband in a small town in Ontario, Canada, Michael Ibsen’s mother, Joy, received the most curious of phonecalls. At the other end of the line was British historian John Ashdown-Hill, who told her she might be related to Richard III’s sister.
Joy was informed she had been tracked down as part of a project to identify the possible remains of Margaret of York, sister of Richard III and Edward IV. Ashdown-Hill had traced an all-female line of descent from another sister, Anne of York, to the retired Canadian journalist, and wanted to know if she would consider giving a DNA sample.
This was how Joy’s son, Michael Ibsen, a cabinet-maker living in Paddington, came to later discover he was a descendant of Richard III. In 2012, following the death of his mother four years earlier, Michael provided a DNA sample to help the University of Leicester team with testing in the event that any remains were found at the Grey Friars church site. If researchers were to find remains, Michael’s mitochondrial DNA [which is traced through the maternal line from mother to child, and does not change over time], could help to determine their identity.
In Leicester on Wednesday, less than 24 hours before Richard III’s reinterment, we spoke to Michael about being related to such a divisive monarch, and found out what it was like to design and make the king’s coffin…
Q: What has this experience been like for you?
A: It’s been an interesting journey. Because it’s been spread out over such a long period of time [Michael’s mother was first contacted in 2004], there have been these bursts of activity in terms of interest from the media.
I’ve been asked a lot by people outside [Leicester] cathedral this week ‘how has this changed your life?’ It hasn’t really changed my life at all, but it’s fascinating to be part of history. It’s leapt out of the pages of a book – like something out of Indiana Jones, in a way! It’s a great privilege to be involved in something like this – it’s fascinating.
But the intensity of this week has taken me by surprise. On Sunday [when Richard III’s coffin was taken from the University of Leicester on an all-day procession, attended by tens of thousands of people], I found myself sat in front of this wall of media, half a metre from a coffin that I had made that contained the remains of Richard III. I just sat there thinking ‘how on earth did I come to be here? What a strange sequence of events’.
During the procession, a number of roads were closed so my brother and sister and I just had to get out and walk like everyone else. It was great because no one noticed us. People were following the cortege, moving towards the cathedral, and although my brother and sister and I are not particularly emotional people, we found ourselves caught up in this strange atmosphere of wonder.
The whole thing has been such a strange series of coincidences and things coming together, one after another – the science, the archaeology. It’s extraordinary.
Richard III's coffin in Leicester Cathedral, the day before his reinterment
Q: When did you first learn that you were related to Richard III?
A: Initially in 2004 my mother didn’t tell anyone other than my brother about John Ashdown-Hill’s phone call. My brother specialises in privacy issues associated with medical information, so he spent some time looking into it before my mother provided a DNA sample.
It wasn’t until a few months later, when we were all together as a family, that she announced that she was descended from Anne of York and related to Richard III. Of course, we as offspring, were similarly related.
You have to remember that at that point we didn’t know anything about the possible excavations to search for Richard III – he was just a figure in the distant past. And we knew that possibly millions of other people might be related to him in the same way. It wasn’t until the prospect of the dig became a reality, and the business of the mitochondrial DNA connection being a valid aspect of the story, that our ears pricked up and we became a lot more interested.
The Leicester team asked me to be present on the first day of the dig, but I went home afterwards thinking ‘good luck to them’, doubting that they would find anything. I had no idea at the time that they had unearthed Richard already [Richard III’s remains were discovered six hours, 33 minutes and 13 seconds in to the dig, at just after 3pm on Saturday 25 August 2012]. They were very good at keeping that quiet! Following the public announcement of the discovery of remains in October 2012, it all went from there.
Q: Did you know much about Richard III before all this?
A: I knew what probably everyone else knew: that he was a king of England with a bad reputation, largely because of the princes in the Tower. In my twenties I read The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey , which, of course, is about a modern detective, Alan Grant, trying to solve the mystery of the princes in the Tower.
The book stimulated an interest in the period for me, and I went to see for myself the portrait of Richard III that features in it, which is housed at the National Portrait Gallery [in the novel, Grant becomes engrossed in the portrait]. I used to go once a year just to have a look at the painting, for no particular reason. I now think ‘how odd that for 20 or so years I’ve been going to look at this portrait, and then suddenly Richard becomes a presence in my life’.
Q: What was it like to design and make Richard III’s coffin?
A: The team asked me more than a year ago whether I would consider doing it. It was all under the radar at first, so I couldn’t talk to anyone about it.
It was an interesting process – I wanted to first look into the history and find out what Richard’s coffin would have looked like, if he had had one. So I got in touch with an expert in burial customs and he very helpfully found out for me that at the time it was highly unusual for people to have had a coffin – certainly a wooden coffin. So it seemed to me that we had more of an open brief historically in terms of what we could do with the coffin.
I had at that point already designed something that really looked more like a piece of furniture [than a coffin], so I ripped up the design and came up with something much simpler. I wanted people to be able to identify with it in some basic way.
I thought, first of all, ‘if Richard III had had a coffin it would probably have been made with English oak’, which I understand was used for high status funerals. Oak is embedded in the British psyche in some curious way.
The inside of the coffin is made with yew, which was used to make longbows and has a sort of mystical sense to it – it’s found in churchyards, and was associated with funerals for centuries, I gather. I wanted people to see these materials used very simply but sourced from the best possible woodlands and of the best quality.
I was very fortunate because I was in touch with a sawmill that had contacts with the Duchy of Cornwall, so we were able to source the oak from one of the ancient woodlands that belonged to the Duchy of Cornwall in Herefordshire [the Duchy's Harewood End Estate].
This was a wonderful link, because the Duke of Cornwall was also the Prince of Wales, and guess who the Prince of Wales was during Richard’s reign? It was Richard’s young son [who was given the title before he died as a child, probably of tuberculosis]. Therefore, Richard’s son, as the Duke of Cornwall, would have inherited the Duchy of Cornwall estates when he came of age.
So you have this wonderful connection – Richard being buried in timber sourced from the Duchy of Cornwall woodlands. It honours Richard, I hope.
Richard III’s coffin was taken from the University of Leicester on an all-day procession on Sunday. (DARREN STAPLES/WPA Rota/Press Association Images)
Q: You earlier described Richard as a king with ‘a bad reputation’. Does it bother you that you are related to such a controversial king?
A: Obviously it would be nice to be related to a more benign monarch, as it were! But I sometimes say to people ‘who would you rather be related to: Henry VIII or Richard III?’ I mean, Henry VIII didn’t exactly have a great reputation either!
But I think one of the great things about this whole episode is that it’s forcing people to rethink what’s been written about Richard III, and about his reign and his life.
My own reading is that Richard was very much a product of his time. How do you look at medieval life through 21st-century eyes? What we would find utterly unacceptable was probably just part of everyday life for many people back then. And vice versa – medieval people looking at our society would certainly have questions: what place does the church have in people’s lives now compared to back then, for example? Over the past year-and-a-half I’ve warmed to Richard III in a way I perhaps hadn’t before.
Q: How do you feel about seeing this experience come to an end, now that Richard III is being reinterred?
A: Everything will quieten down and I’ll go back to my day-to-day life, which is fine, but I’ll have the memory of it. I’ll still be able to pop up to Leicester to see the many friends that I’ve made at the university, the council, and the cathedral.
And above all I like to think I can come and sit in a corner of the cathedral and look at the tomb and think ‘there, under the floor, is the coffin I made containing Richard III’.
To read what it was like to see Richard III's coffin, click here.
To find out what Leicester DNA expert Dr Turi King told us about the 6.7 million to one weight of evidence that the skeleton is Richard III, click here.
You can also read the social media reaction to the reinterment here.