Canadians' DNA solves King Richard III mystery
The Canadian Press
Published Monday, February 4, 2013 7:06AM EST
Last Updated Monday, February 4, 2013 4:18PM EST
TORONTO -- The privilege of helping to unravel a historical mystery is surpassed only by the prospect of rehabilitating the image of one of Britain's most maligned monarchs, a Canadian-born descendant of King Richard III said Monday.
Michael Ibsen said he's still trying to process the emotions that surfaced after researchers at the University of Leicester confirmed his DNA had been used to help identify the 15th-century ruler's remains.
Researchers believed they had stumbled on the king's remains last September when an archaeological dig unearthed a skeleton that bore evidence of battle wounds and signs of Richard's famed spinal curvature, but they said genetic tests would be necessary to confirm their theory.
That test was completed with help from Ibsen, who is a direct descendant of the king's older sister, Anne of York, and is therefore a 17th-generation nephew of the late ruler.
Geneticists said Ibsen shares a rare strain of mitochondrial DNA with the historic skeleton, proving "beyond reasonable doubt" that the king's body had been found after centuries of speculation.
Ibsen, 55, said playing even a small role in British history left him feeling overwhelmed.
"The geneticists and I, we'd been in the room with the remains of Richard III, which would be extraordinary under any circumstances, but to stand there and realize you have a tangible connection with this king of England, it does play with your mind a bit," Ibsen said in a telephone interview.
Ibsen, who only learned of his family connection to Richard about a decade ago, said he had long taken an interest in a king whose historical legacy has been dwarfed by his depiction in popular culture.
The man who William Shakespeare described as a "deformed monster" was not treated any more kindly by historians, who frequently depicted him as a devious schemer who would resort to murder to retain the throne.
He ruled England between 1483 and 1485 during the decades-long battle over the throne known as the Wars of the Roses, which pitted two wings of the ruling Plantagenet dynasty -- York and Lancaster -- against one another.
His brief reign saw liberal reforms, including the introduction of the right to bail and the lifting of restrictions on books and printing presses.
But his rule was challenged and he was defeated and killed by the army of Henry Tudor, who took the throne as King Henry VII and ended the Plantagenet line.
After his death, historians writing under the victorious Tudors comprehensively trashed Richard's reputation, accusing him of myriad crimes -- most famously, the murder of his two young nephews.
Ibsen said his own research suggests a whole other side to Richard -- that of a thoughtful and just administrator -- has gone overlooked.
Ibsen said he hopes renewed interest in Richard's death may provoke some more balanced discussions about his life.
"He was actually, it seems, quite well regarded," Ibsen said. "I don't think enough research has been done into his life before he was king, which I think might be an interesting consequence of the announcement today."
That hope is shared by Philippa Langley of the Richard III Society, which backed the search for his grave.
Archaeological evidence of Richard's violent end and subsequent mistreatment after death may help restore the late king's reputation, she speculated.
"A wind of change is blowing, one that will seek out the truth about the real Richard III," she said.
Archaeological bone specialist Jo Appleby, a lecturer in human bioarchaeology at Leicester, revealed some previously unknown details about the king's gruesome death in 1485.
Appleby said the 10 injuries to the body were inflicted by weapons such as swords, daggers and halberds and were consistent with accounts of Richard being struck down in battle -- his helmet knocked from his head -- before his body was stripped naked and flung over the back of a horse in disgrace.
Appleby said two of the blows to the head could have been fatal. Other scars, including a knife wound to the buttock, bore the hallmarks of "humiliation injuries" inflicted after death.
The remains also displayed signs of scoliosis, a form of spinal curvature, consistent with contemporary accounts of the monarch's appearance, though not the withered arm Shakespeare describes in his play "Richard III."
Ibsen said his relative's body had been haphazardly tossed into its final resting place without a coffin or a shroud.
Even the site of Richard's burial was degraded after the church where he was originally laid to rest was destroyed in the 16th century. The remains were ultimately discovered lying under a parking lot.
Despite the controversy surrounding his most infamous relative, Ibsen said he has nothing but pride in his connection to British royalty.
"Even though we have this whole business with the reputation, I have to say that I'm proud to be associated with the connection until such time as I'm proved to be mistaken in my pride," he said.