His mitochondrial DNA was instrumental in proving that a heap of bones dug up in a neglected English car park two years ago were the long-lost remains of the 15th-century King Richard III.
And now Michael Ibsen, a 57-year-old Canadian cabinet-maker, is using more ancient techniques to build a coffin that will provide the final resting place for a royal ancestor cut down in a decisive battle for the English throne.
Earlier this week Mr. Ibsen, whose late British-born mother was discovered to be a direct descendant of the king’s older sister, was selected as a key member of the team that will build Richard’s tomb in Leicester Cathedral – just steps from the site of a medieval friary where the king was hastily buried after his fatal defeat in the Battle of Bosworth Field.
With genetic science having done its part to unlock the 500-year-old mystery of a lost monarch, the chisels and planes of Mr. Ibsen’s workshop in the London district of Hornsey will now give this unfinished Shakespearean history its simple and appropriate conclusion.
“For me, it has a wonderful resonance,” says Mr. Ibsen, whose accent causes puzzlement in people who don’t expect the 17th-generation collateral descendant of English king to sound like a Canadian. “It all started with my mother, then the archeological project arose, and now it’s come full circle with the coffin-making and the interment. We’ve been there at the beginning, in the middle and at the end.”
Nothing in his background prepared him for this moment – what are the odds that someone who grew up as the child of journalists in London, Ont., would carry in his body the clue to a missing king’s identity and also possess the rare skill to craft a fitting receptacle for his rediscovered remains?
Mr. Ibsen first came to London, England, in 1985, exactly five centuries after Richard’s death, as a French-horn player who felt like he needed a change. He found a job as a handyman in an 18th-century church, took a night-school class in woodworking, and began the career path that would connect him with a king’s burial. After a 3½-year apprenticeship, he set up on his own – mainly windows and doors at first and then fine furniture as he became more experienced.
Coffins and caskets are clearly not Mr. Ibsen’s usual line of work. He specializes in custom- made bookshelves, desks and cabinets: His most recent project was a small chest that he built for Turi King, a fellow-Canadian from the University of Leicester who led the genetic analysis of Richard’s remains and matched the DNA from one of the king’s molars with a cheek swab provided by Mr. Ibsen.
“She wanted somewhere to put all her Richard III mementos,” says Mr. Ibsen. “I told her there was some detailing on the chest that she might see again in the very short future.”
Designing a coffin for a 15th-century king in the 21st century is a much trickier public project – not least because the much-maligned Richard III has many modern supporters who are determined to overturn the image of a ruthless schemer presented in Shakespeare.
“There is no historical precedent attached to this,” says Mr. Ibsen, who has been busy studying English burial customs. “This is not a normal coffin because it’s not a normal burial. But I think it will be something simple and elegant – I hesitate to use the word regal because I’m not sure what that means when applied to a coffin.”
Kings in Richard’s time weren’t buried in coffins, which in the Middle Ages would have been makeshift affairs of unadorned timber and nails. In Mr. Ibsen’s timeless world, there’s room for more refinement – traditional wooden pegging, overlapping placement of wood components to create a layered shadowing, maybe a carved plaque with the king’s essential details.
But the guiding theme is still a quiet, dignified simplicity. “It all runs parallel to the overall design of the tomb itself – fairly modern, not totally minimalist but less decorative.”
In the end, all that thought and work will disappear into a tomb and begin the dust-to-dust transformation that the 2012 archeological dig interrupted and redirected.
The craftsman in Mr. Ibsen’s nature is fine with that. “I like the idea that we’ve got something physically there and tangible, yet it will still eventually decay. In a way it’s like our remains, and Richard’s – the flesh melts away, and yet someone can still dig up the bones and find DNA 500 years later.”