'Startling and shocking'
The discovery of a skeleton by the University of Leicester Archaeological Services at the site of King Richard III’s burial place in Leicester sent waves of excitement around the world.
But for those who had been closely associated with the dig since its inception, the news was particularly striking.
“It was a huge shock,” said Michael Ibsen, believed to be a descendant of Richard III's eldest sister. “In the nicest possible way, it was startling and shocking in equal measure.”
Michael, who was born in Canada and works as a furniture maker in London, first learned of his potential connection to the monarch in 2005. His mother Joy received a call from historian Dr John Ashdown-Hill to say she was a direct female line descendent of the King’s eldest sister Anne of York.
Michael was excited to hear earlier this year that Philippa Langley of the Richard III society had originated a dig at the site of Grey Friars church in Leicester – where Richard was believed to have buried. Joy Ibsen died four years ago, but Michael was happy to help the team with DNA testing should any remains be found at the site.
“When Dr Ashdown-Hill called us to tell us about the dig, I sat up and thought ‘now I understand the reason for tracking down my mother’. If they find something, our mtDNA could be useful in determining the identity of the remains.”
The 55-year-old said the family connection took on a new level of meaning once the bones had been found.
“It took a while for the idea that we were related to Richard III to sink in,” said Michael. “It was something that took a while to get used to. To come to Leicester and look at the grave itself was fascinating and spine tingling.”
Michael and his siblings will now play a key role in the DNA tests being undertaken at the University of Leicester to determine whether the bones found at the site are in fact those of Richard III.
“It is exciting to be able to play a small part in something that is potentially so historically important, but also nerve-wracking because it still remains to be seen whether the DNA tests will be conclusive.”
Dr Ashdown-Hill, whose interest in Richard III began more than 15 years ago, shares Michael’s enthusiasm.
“The Grey Friars dig gave me a great sense of personal triumph, because without my prior research, it might never have happened,” Dr Ashdown-Hill said.
The historian disputed a widely-accepted 17th Century myth that Richard III had been thrown into the River Soar after his defeat at the Battle of Bosworth in his book The Last Days of Richard III. He also published new evidence to suggest that Richard had indeed been buried at the Grey Friars church.
Together with Philippa Langley of the Richard III Society, the originator of the quest for the king, Dr Ashdown-Hill's research was instrumental in organizing the dig in Leicester which began in August.
“When the dig started, I fully expected that we would find the church, because we were looking in the right place and the site was largely undisturbed. But I had never really expected that we would discover a burial which had so much circumstantial evidence to support the belief that it could be Richard. I had thought we would need to plan for further excavation in subsequent years.
“When I looked into the grave and saw the skeleton, I was deeply moved. I feel that the case for the identity of the body is already pretty strong: male; right age group and social class; died a violent death; had a twisted spine; found in the right place.”
Dr Ashdown-Hill’s discovery of a potential mtDNA sequence for Richard III and his siblings will now come into play in the genetic tests – and he hopes that it may also be possible to use Y-DNA from a Plantagenet male line which he identified several years ago.
He is also compiling a new edition of his book – which will contain evidence from the grave at Grey Friars as well as a new chapter containing fuller details of Joy Ibsen’s descent from Anne of York.