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The DNA of Michael Ibsen, a Canadian a furniture maker now living in London, may determine whether bones found in England are that of Richard III. (Jim Ross for The Globe and Mail)
The DNA of Michael Ibsen, a Canadian a furniture maker now living in London, may determine whether bones found in England are that of Richard III. (Jim Ross for The Globe and Mail)

INTERVIEW

Are those the remains of Richard III? A Canadian’s DNA may tell the tale Add to ...

Every day, the social workers of Leicester, a small city in the centre of England, parked their cars in a dreary municipal lot, never dreaming that under their tires lay a 500-year-old royal mystery. Or that the key to unlocking the mystery rests with a Canadian family.

Last month, as archeologists from the local university dug in the confines of a medieval churchyard beneath the parking lot, they uncovered a leg bone, then the rest of a skeleton. It was that of an adult man, its skull bashed in, an arrowhead embedded in its spine – its twisted spine. The archeologists could scarcely believe their luck: They had been hoping to find these remains, but scarcely imagined they would find them almost immediately, or that they would so closely match the picture in their heads. Had they just found the body of Richard III, the most maligned, divisive, infamous king in British history?

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At the edge of the dig, surrounded by historians and onlookers costumed in medieval armour, stood the man who holds the key to one of England’s great historical puzzles. Michael Ibsen, a 55-year-old Canadian furniture maker who lives in London, felt the hairs on his neck stand on end. He had recently given a DNA sample to scientists from the University of Leicester, because he is one of just a handful of people able to help verify the remains. He and his brother and sister are the only known descendants of Richard III’s elder sister, Anne, who can be traced down a female branch of the family tree, and thus the only people who would carry the same mitochondrial DNA.

Standing on the edge of the crater a few days later was John Ashdown-Hill, the historian who traced the Ibsen family and whose book, The Last Days of Richard III, helped the archeologists locate the king’s possible burial site. The skeletal remains were carefully placed in a cardboard box, then handed to Dr. Ashdown-Hill to carry to a waiting van. He, too, felt a shiver. After 20 years of studying the controversial king, he thought: Now I may be carrying his body.

“I that am rudely stamp’d … deform’d, unfinish’d, sent before my time.” This is how Richard III introduces himself at the beginning of Shakespeare’s play. But his supporters, who have formed societies around the world to rehabilitate his image, will tell you that Shakespeare was an apologist for the Tudors, the family that defeated the last of the Plantagenets and ruled after him.

If you ask the Ricardians, he was not, as the Bard had it, “subtle, false, and treacherous,” but instead a fair and just king, who reigned for only 26 months. He was also a skilled military commander in some of the most famous battles of the War of the Roses, a 30-year struggle for the throne between the houses of York (including the Plantagenet kings Richard and Edward) and Lancaster (who were later allied in victory with the Tudors).

The grip that the king – crookback monster or righteous ruler – has held on the popular imagination is evident in the dozens of biographies, novels and mystery stories written about him. This weekend, the Richard III societies in Canada, the United States and Britain will gather to discuss their misunderstood icon. (The North Americans meet in Oakville, Ont., and the Brits in picturesque York, in northern England.)

A darker image has dominated over the centuries: Richard was a manipulator who seized power after his brother Edward IV died in 1483 and then had his two young nephews, rivals for the throne, killed in the Tower of London.

That version of events is controversial, but what is not in dispute is that Richard died at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, the last English monarch killed in combat. On the orders of the victor, soon to be Henry VII, his naked body was placed on a pack horse and taken to nearby Leicester, where it was put on display.

What then became of him is shrouded in mystery. He was reportedly buried at Leicester’s Greyfriars church, but it disappeared in the 16th century, destroyed during Henry VIII’s war on England’s monasteries. Rumour had his body disinterred during the Reformation and tossed in the nearby River Stour.

More than five centuries later, Dr. Ashdown-Hill was trying to trace female descendants of the Plantagenets; if Richard’s body were ever found, they would need mitochondrial DNA from a living relative to prove its identity (carried by the female line, it decays more slowly than normal DNA).

In 2004, having drawn a “family tree that looked like a spider’s web,” he came across Joy Ibsen, a retired journalist who had been born in London but emigrated in 1948, at the age of 22, to Ontario, starting a family and raising her three children in another London on the banks of another Thames.

“I was worried she might think I was a crackpot, a stranger asking for her DNA out of the blue,” he says from his office in England. But after consulting her sons and daughter, Mrs. Ibsen, a staunch monarchist who had had no idea there was a king hiding in her family tree, offered a sample of her genetic material.

She died in 2008. Two of her children still live in Canada, but Michael, a furniture maker, moved in 1985 from the smaller London to the larger one, where the team from Leicester found him this year, seeking a fresh DNA sample. Using Dr. Ashdown-Hill’s research, they had pinpointed where they believed Greyfriars lay buried, raised money and were about to dig.

“What I knew about Richard III was confined to what I’d learned in school, and my own interest in history,” Mr. Ibsen says by phone from London. “I knew about his black reputation. But when I found about this connection, I burrowed in the history books.”

On Aug. 24, the first day of the dig, he found himself standing next to the project’s lead geneticist, so he turned and asked, “How did two Canadians find themselves in a car park in Leicester looking for Richard III?”

Turi King happens to be from Vancouver (she applied to Cambridge while visiting relatives and has lived in Britain since), and it was her job, if remains were found, to extract mitochondrial DNA, and compare it to Mr. Ibsen’s. But her hopes, frankly, were low. “We didn’t really expect to find anything,” she says from her home in Leicester.

Almost immediately, though, the team made its astounding discovery, uncovering the leg and then the full skeleton, with its battle-scarred skull, arrow between the vertebrae and evidence of scoliosis, a congenital curvature of the spine. So, if it is Richard, he was not a hunchback, but would have had one shoulder higher than the other. Now, Dr. King will try to extract DNA, from the teeth and femur of the skeleton. She will not know until she begins to drill and test whether the sample has been contaminated after 500 years in the ground: “I’m hopeful, because it does seem to be in good condition, but, with ancient DNA, you never know.” If she does extract a usable sample, an exact match with Mr. Ibsen’s sequence is not required, she said, because mitochondrial DNA can mutate over generations. The tests could take three months.

In England, where Richard’s name still provokes strong reaction, and where Kevin Spacey recently played the title role in Shakespeare’s play to rave reviews, debate is raging over where the remains should be buried if they are verified.

He was a Yorkist king, northerners say, so he should rest in York Minster. But royal advisers are leaning toward Leicester Cathedral, a neutral choice that will offend neither south nor north. Whatever happens, Conservative MP Chris Skidmore has called for a state funeral. (He is also a historian with a book out next year – Bosworth: The Rise of the Tudors.)

Dr. Ashdown-Hill feels certain that the remains are Richard’s – and lucky to have found the Ibsens when he did. Mr. Ibsen’s sister has no children, so this generation will be the last to carry the mitochondrial DNA.

The timing isn’t lost on the Canadian contingent. “It struck me dumb at one point that this has all happened at once,” Mr. Ibsen says. “The DNA, the dig, finding the remains – if it had happened in 40 years, none of us would have been around.”

Follow on Twitter: @lizrenzetti

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