Wednesday, April 15, 2015

From King Maker to Coffin Maker

by Anita Mae Draper

In London, Ontario, Canada, Joy Ibsen, a British-born mother raised her children with stories of noble blood running through their veins. An amateur genealogist, she traced her family lineage back to Ann Spooner (1780-1873) before losing the trail.

But one evening in 2004, Joyce received a phone call from English historian John Ashdown-Hill who confirmed her lineage by saying she was a 15th generation descendant of King Richard III's sister, Anne of York, and they want to test her DNA to confirm the possibility that bones found in Belgium belong to another sister, Margaret.

At the time, Joyce thought it was a crank call, but later agreed to have a mouth swab taken for a DNA test. Under the auspicies of The Richard III Society and the genetics lab of the University of Leicester, the test confirmed that the bones found in Belgium do not belong to a sister of Anne of York and Richard III. On the other hand, it could mean that Joyce was not a direct descendant after all.

In 2008 in London, Ontario, the Ibsen family mourns the loss of Joy, their British-born wife and mother.

In 2009, Philippa Langley, a Scottish historian working on a script about the life of King Richard III has the ambitious idea to search for Richard's remains. An argument put forward in 1986 by a University of Leicester tutor David Baldwin and presented in the paper, King Richard’s Grave in Leicester suggested that Richard III was buried in the Grey Friars area. No one had seemed to take notice at the time.

Philippa Langley, Grey Friars
Credit - University of Leicester
But now, thanks to the DNA testing done with Joy Ibsen, a positive match might be made if they could only find the notorious king's remains.

Philippa's gut feeling is that David Baldwin is right and that Richard is buried in the Grey Friars complex. She's determined to prove it, except the location of the friary is beneath an urban parking lot. Better a parking lot than a building, though. She goes to check it out.

According to the Richard III Society website, Philippa says, "...The moment I walked into that car park in Leicester the hairs on the back of my neck stood up, and something told me this was where we must look. A year later I revisited the same place, not believing what I had first felt. And this time I saw a roughly painted letter 'R' on the ground (for 'reserved parking space', obviously!)."

But even with funding from the Universtiy of Leicester and the Richard III Society, it takes over three years and several hurdles before enough money is raised and the path is cleared for the project to go ahead.

Finally in Aug 2012, Joyce's son, Michael, is invited to attend a media promotion for the start of excavation of the Grey Friars complex. Michael is the 16th generation nephew and closest living relative of King Richard III, and so part of the media event is a new and very public cheek swab.

Michael Ibsen (genetic descendant of Richard III) and geneticist Dr. Turi King. CREDIT - University of Leicester

The next day excavation on the first of two trenches begins and soon halts when human bones are found. The team is amazed that the discovery is so quick, but what's really astonishing is that not only are they suspected of belonging to Richard III, but they are found in close proximity to where Philippa Langley had stared at the painted R on her first foray to the site.

If you want to see the excavation process that unearthed Richard III's bones, watch it below or check it out on YouTube at Richard III -The Archaeological Dig. 

A month later the team announced that circumstantial evidence of the bones showing curvature of the spine, battle wounds, and carbon dating all pointed to the remains being those of Richard III, but it wasn't until a press conference was held at the University of Leicester on Feb 4, 2013 when it was announced that together with the physical evidence, DNA testing of a living relative was a "perfect match" and proved "beyond reasonable doubt" that the human remains found at the Grey Friars site were indeed those of King Richard III.

Suddenly, Canadian-born Michael Ibsen had more interview invitations than he ever dreamed possible. And in his quiet, humble way, he accepted almost every one of them. He could have passed them off to his Canadian siblings, but according to a recent Maclean's article, "In doing so, he’s taken pressure off the others, who are, like him, very private."

When Michael moved to London in the mid-80's, he set aside his music and took up his second love, woodworking. Since then, he's become an accomplished cabinetmaker who takes pride in the old style of hands' on craftsmanship. Even so, it was a surprise when he received a call from a Leicester Cathedral official with a request to make the coffin that would enclose Richard III's remains in his memorial tomb.

Stunned and honoured, he set to work on designing a casket fit for a king. But after thinking it through, he realized dignified simplicity would have a more profound impact. In the aforementioned Maclean's article, Michael goes on to say,
“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 following video, Richard III's descendant makes a coffin fit for a king, shows Michael speaking his thoughts on this momentous task.

This past March 26th was the televised reburial of King Richard III, this time inside Leicester Cathedral. As part of the tomb team, Michael was there for each private and public event.

You can see Michael's handiwork in the following video, Richard III The King Laid To Rest - Reburial of Richard III Highlights which includes interviews with some of the team members. It's almost an hour long, but then how often do you see the burial of a king?

The following photo shows Michael and his 14th cousin Wendy Duldig, who along with his siblings, make up the only living descendants of King Richard III. They are placing a wreath of white roses on the oak and yew coffin finely crafted by Michael Ibsen.

Michael Ibsen  and Wendy Duldig place a wreath of white roses on Richard III's coffin

There are two side notes I want to end this post with. The first is a profound statement by Michael who has said in interviews, "They caught this particular link just in time," in reference to the fact that neither of his siblings, nor their cousin, Wendy Duldig, has any children. It really is the end of this royal line.

And finally, these words are also from the Macleans article written by Patricia Treble on Mar 22, 2015:
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.”

One more thing... if you have a hankering to learn about medieval life, you might be interested in this final video because in an effort to prove/disprove Richard's fighting skill with his scoliosis while wearing armour, we get to see all manner of medieval life including what they ate and drank. Fascinating stuff here.

Did you happen to see Richard's reburial? Any thoughts on the matter?


Anita Mae Draper is retired from the Canadian Armed Forces and lives on the prairie of southeast Saskatchewan, Canada with her hubby of 30 plus years and the youngest of their four kids. Anita's stories are set, but not limited to the western prairies. She is blessed to be included in Guideposts Books A Cup of Christmas Cheer collection. Anita is represented by Mary Keeley of Books & Such Literary Management. You can find Anita Mae at


  1. Anita, this is such an interesting story! I was amazed that they even thought of digging up a parking lot, because what were the odds that they wouldn't have found bones while excavating the lot, right? But clearly they didn't, and this is just amazing to me. What a great story, and thank you so much for offering it in detail. This is story fodder, for sure, on multiple levels! I love it!

    1. I know eh, Ruthy. The farther I dug into this story, the more ideas I got. Of course, my brain is trying to tell me that no one will ever believe it's plausible, but we all know that "fact is stranger than fiction", right?

      I mean, this was a million to one shot and the common word among the team was/is... amazement... every step of the way.

      And it all started with a writer. Yay!

      Thanks for popping in, Ruthy. Have a great day!

  2. I'm a part of a Medieval British History loop on facebook with like 15,000 members, and Richard III has been the hot topic for a while. Someone even attended the funeral.

    1. Dina, I thought of you and your 1st novel, Dance of the Dandelion as I watched that last video - the one about Dominic Shmee being Richard's body double. Like I said, fascinating stuff.

      My favourite part was hearing Dominic say that the experience showed him that he could do so much more, despite his scoliosis, than he'd ever thought possible. That was inspiring.

  3. That's fascinating. Richard II to Richard III (which compasses about 85 years) is my very favorite part of English history. Richard was a fascinating person, neither Shakespeare's devil nor The White Boar society's saint.

    But what family drama during that 85 years (and before and after, of course). Soap operas could learn something. ;)

    1. I'm glad you mentioned that, DeAnna, because he has such a bad reputation based on rumours and propaganda. I wish the Leicester team makes another one-in-a-million discovery and uncovers something to set the records straight - whichever way it happened.

  4. That's a cool story, Anita -- but my opinion of Richard III is prejudiced by Will Shakespeare and Alison Weir's The Princes in the Tower. Shakespeare because it's a rousing good story, and Weir because of the research. A heart and head kind of thing, you know :)

    1. Oh, and I didn't watch Richard III's burial, but I have seen the burial site of the two skeletons presumed to be his nephews's remains. (Found in the Tower and moved to Westminster Abbey.)

    2. CJ, I replied to DeAnna before I saw this, but it sounds like Shakespeare did more harm to English history than anyone else.

    3. Oh, those poor boys. I have no doubt that archaeology will someday prove who really murdered the young ones.

    4. Well, Anita, Shakespeare had to please the reigning monarch, so he would have skewed his stories to present the Tudors in the best possible light. Not that different from us trying to write stories that appeal to our audience.

      But I'm with DeAnna on the princes. I've just never read a convincing argument for anyone but Richard as responsible for the princes' disappearance and death. Even though he'd had them declared illegitimate (and thus, ineligible to inherit the throne), his claim on the throne was too shaky. There were too many powerful men who were willing to rally to their cause (including an attempted coup in 1483, about the time the princes were last seen). It would seem they were killed early (otherwise Richard could have just produced them to quell the growing rumors that he was a murderer), and the person who did it either did it on Richard's orders or knew he would approve.

      But we're far enough removed from it all that we get to enjoy the stories (and use them to spark ideas) while not having to live through the turbulence. Best of all worlds.

  5. I have never heard any evidence that makes me think Richard did not order the boys to be killed. If someone had done this without his knowledge, surely he would have spoken up and had the murder tried or killed. They were in his custody when they were last seen, two years before his own death. I doubt he personally murdered them, but he was in too precarious a position politically to not do something about them.

    I think many of the charges against him were made up to make Henry VII look good, and Shakespeare knew how to draw a great character and wasn't really that concerned with historical accuracy, but this is one charge I've never seen compelling evidence to dismiss.

    1. I haven't studied English history to the extent that CJ or Dina or you have, DeAnna, so I'm a fence-sitter on this one. I'm just saying that I'd like to see conclusive proof before I go accusing anyone. Especially when their is motive on both sides.

    2. You're absolutely right, Anita. Obviously, no one knows for sure what happened at this point. It just seems there would be a lot of extraordinary hurdle jumping to show that Richard wasn't responsible.

      But truth is stranger than fiction. :)

  6. Fabulous post on such an interesting story! I watched a documentary on Netflix about the discovery of Richard III under the parking lot--very cool. And sad.

  7. wow! I read a bunch of the news articles when the discovery of the bones were made and when confirmation happened - but I missed the funeral. All cool historical information Anita. I love the stuff you find and share - you're so good at it.
    The whole nephews thing is sad. I've got scenes in my head from a Richard III movie about when the littles were murdered. Don't know which movie (it was black and white). I just remember watching it some Saturday afternoon back when there were only three TV channels (plus the one VHF). I was young, so that probably colors my opinions on what is true and what isn't about Richard III. Would love to have the truth come out some way though. Very interesting.

    p.s. plus it's a little sad that the decendants haven't any children and the line will truly go away. things coming to an end tend to be a bummer.


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