The man who will unmask Richard III
Emily Dugan meets the man whose DNA should confirm the identity of a body found in Leicester
Emily Dugan is social affairs correspondent for The Independent, i and Independent on Sunday. She was previously a news reporter for The Independent on Sunday. Her investigations into human trafficking have twice been awarded Best Investigative Article at the Anti-Slavery Day Media Awards and her human rights journalism was shortlisted for the Gaby Rado Memorial prize at the 2012 Amnesty Media Awards.
Sunday 03 February 2013
It took one saliva swab to turn Michael Ibsen from an unknown carpenter into the man at the centre of the century's biggest British archaeological discovery. Tomorrow he and the world will be told if his DNA confirms that the body of Richard III has indeed been found under a municipal car park in Leicester.
Sources close to the University of Leicester say they are expecting it to be confirmed that the body is the 15th-century monarch's, news that will be not altogether welcome to 55-year-old Mr Ibsen, who is unimpressed by his new-found celebrity.
For a man whose family tree goes back to one of history's most notoriously bloodthirsty kings, Mr Ibsen seems about as far from the tyrannical Plantagenet as it is possible to be.
"I definitely wouldn't make a good king," he says softly, perched on a workbench in his poky woodwork studio in north London. "I'm not a good decision-maker and I don't think I'd want to be in the public eye. It must be a difficult life."
It was Richard who was portrayed by Shakespeare shouting, "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!" when battling for his crown at the battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. But his descendant is a little less keen on the four-legged beasts. "They're just so big," says Mr Ibsen, recalling his wariness of the animals as a child.
The Canadian-born cabinet-maker believes Richard would be unimpressed by his 17th-generation nephew. "I would have thought someone like Richard looking down the centuries would expect someone similar: someone who was good in battle and a good leader. None of that applies to me. The closest I get to using a sword is a chisel."
The skeleton excavated in Leicester last September shows all the signs of being the king, including a curved spine, a skull that appears to have suffered a severe blow and an arrowhead embedded between vertebrae. Scientists are now pulling together the final results of radiocarbon dating, DNA tests and bone analysis ahead of tomorrow's announcement.
The Ibsen family first discovered their link to the king when genealogist John Ashdown Hill contacted Mr Ibsen's mother, Joy, in 2004.
She had moved from England to Canada in 1948 and her family tree was the only one that could be traced down the female line to the king, meaning their mitochondrial DNA could help identify Richard's body. She died in 2005, so when archaeologists came across a body in Leicester last summer they contacted her son for help.
According to genealogical records, Mr Ibsen is descended from Richard's sister, Anne of York, which means he should share the king's "haplotype" or genetic sub-group. If Mr Ibsen's haplotype is rare – and matches the skeleton's – it may confirm that the body is that of the king.
Before coming to the UK 25 years ago, Mr Ibsen was a classical musician in the Netherlands and Germany, playing the French horn with some of the world's greatest conductors, including Leonard Bernstein.
But no performing prepared him for this kind of attention. His hands shake with nerves as he discusses his new-found fame: "I prefer to be kept out of it," he says. "When they found the remains there was an avalanche of interest. It was overwhelming."
If the result is positive, will the descendant of the nation's most maligned king be called on to make a speech? "I certainly hope not," he says, looking horrified.
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