LONDON — Furniture maker Michael Ibsen is used to clients asking for custom-made pieces such as specially designed bookshelves or doors or cupboards.
But the call to construct a coffin for his royal ancestor, who was immortalized by William Shakespeare, is by far his most unusual commission yet. The public will see Ibsen’s hand-carved coffin carrying the 530-year-old remains of King Richard III for the first time on Sunday.
“I’ve had the opportunity, a couple of times, to stand next to the remains, and you think ‘How extraordinary. I am standing next to this figure from history,’ “ he said. “And then it filters through in your mind, and you think, ‘Wow, I’m related.’ “
Ibsen, a 58-year-old Canadian who moved to Britain 30 years ago, is a central figure in the remarkable discovery of the remains, which made worldwide headlines when they were unearthed in 2012 in a parking lot in Leicester. They will be reburied Thursday in a televised funeral led by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Ibsen, a 17th-generation nephew of Richard III, is both coffinmaker and kingmaker. His DNA helped to confirm that the skeleton excavated was indeed that of England’s last Plantagenet king.
Richard III died in the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, only two years after becoming king, and his burial at the time was a hasty affair. But five centuries on, the long-lost monarch will be given a modern-day funeral with a splash of British pomp.
Led by armor-suited knights on horseback, a funeral cortege on Sunday will tour local sites connected to Richard III’s final days, including the place he is presumed to have died and the church where some think he went to Mass on the eve of his fatal battle against the troops of Henry Tudor.
The procession will then return to Leicester for a Sunday evening service at Leicester Cathedral, the king’s final resting place.
Leicester, a city about a 100 miles northwest of London, seems fully aware that this is an incredible moment in its history. Over the next few days, there will be book launches, medieval-themed gallery exhibitions and talks by the genetics experts and archaeologists involved in the dig and identification of the remains. At University of Leicester’s “King Richard III Day” Saturday, visitors were invited to examine skeletal remains and snack on food eaten in Richard’s day, such as venison pie.
“We hoped there might be some interest in a medieval king, but I think we’ve all been taken aback by the global phenomena that it’s become,” said Philippa Langley, a screenwriter and member of the Richard III Society, a group that thinks the king was much maligned by the Shakespeare play that depicts a hunchback king who orders the murder of his young nephews in the Tower of London and dies in battle crying out for his horse.
Langley was the driving force – and fundraiser – behind the dig, convinced that Richard III’s remains had not been flung into the nearby river as some historians thought, but instead buried underneath a parking lot that was once the site of the former Greyfriars Church.
And there they were. But even after a skeleton with a curved spine was found, further genetic detective work was needed. Historians were able to trace Richard III’s eldest sister, Anne of York, to Ibsen’s mother, Joy. She died in 2008, but her son was able to provide a sample of his DNA that matched.
Before building a coffin for his royal ancestor, Ibsen spent a lot of time researching ancient burial techniques and discovered that kings at the time of Richard III were not buried in wooden coffins. They were “basically encased in lead and placed directly in vaults where they were buried,” he said.
But in the end, it was decided a lead-lined wooden coffin would be most appropriate. The design of the coffin, carved from English oak and yew over about three weeks, “is simple but elegant,” Ibsen said. Richard’s remains are wrapped in wool and placed inside a lead ossuary in the coffin.
The discovery of Richard III’s remains has triggered a national debate here about the king’s reputation as a murderous, power-hungry tyrant, and Ibsen says he has “lost count” of the number of people who approach him wanting to talk about his famous ancestor.
“They will say, ‘I was never interested in history before, but I got this book out, and did you know this, and know that,’ and start quoting facts, and I think, how wonderful if it’s stimulated people to look back,” he said.