The King In The Lab – The Unsanitary Lifestyle Of Richard III

Today’s blog focuses on another widely-reported discovery from Richard III’s skeletal remains: the presence of roundworms in his gravesite and the scientific theory that he suffered from an intestinal infection prior to death. We’ve previously reported on how the scoliosis of his spine was literally twisted out of proportion by mass media and some historians to arrive at dubious conclusions, so it would seem a worthy endeavor to take a closer look at this issue to see if a similar dynamic is playing out, and whether certain myths and misconceptions are being created even as others have been solidly debunked.

A quick internet search for the topic of Richard III and roundworms immediately leads to headlines and stories suggesting that the king’s body was “riddled” and “crawling” with parasites, that his infection produced symptoms that limited him physically and mentally, and that his lifestyle was dissolute with luxuries yet simultaneously unsanitary and hazardous. Richard III has the unique attribute of being both too kingly and too banal: a regal monarch on the outside yet rife with disease on the inside. But do the scientific findings support these conclusions?

Riddled With Parasites

Let’s begin with the actual study, reported by the British medical journal The Lancet, in September 2013. There, the scientists reported that they collected soil samples from the area where they discovered the king’s skeleton, from the dirt near the pelvis and head. They also collected soil from outside the grave cut for comparison. After putting the soil samples through a series of fine mesh sieves and the application of chemicals, they examined the residue with powerful microscopes and saw the presence of multiple roundworm eggs (Ascaris lumbricoides) in the pelvic sample, where the intestines would have been during life. The sample from the skull was negative for parasite eggs, and the control sample from outside the grave cut showed only scanty environmental soil contamination with parasite eggs. This led them to conclude that Richard III’s intestines were infected with roundworms at the time of his death, and it was this finding that prompted the flurry of media reports that he was “riddled” and “crawling” with parasites.

Richard III Roundworms

A sacral sample (S) taken from Richard III revealed ancient roundworm eggs. Control samples from his skull (C1) and outside of the grave (C2) linked the infection to his body. Photo: Mitchell et al., The Lancet.

What was not reported as widely, however, was the very critical finding that the king’s remains did not have many of the parasites they would expect to see from someone who lived in the 15th century and who had a nobleman’s diet:

“Past research into human intestinal parasites in Britain has shown several species to have been present prior to the medieval period, including roundworm, whipworm (Trichuris trichiura), beef/pork tapeworm (Taenia saginata/solium), fish tapeworm (Fasciola hepatica). We would expect nobles of this period to have eaten meats such as beef, pork, and fish regularly, but there was no evidence for the eggs of the beef, pork, or fish tapeworm. This finding might suggest that his food was cooked thoroughly, which would have prevented the transmission of these parasites.”

So, there was evidence of only one type of common parasite, but not three others that would have been expected of a man who ate meat and fish regularly. Richard III was known to have eaten a “high protein” diet rich in these foods; this was reported here. Of course, no journalist would have written a headline saying “Richard III was remarkably free from common parasites of his day”. That wouldn’t be as attention-grabbing, right?

Ironically enough, not long after the report of Richard III’s roundworm infection had hit the news cycle, another study was published showing that parasitic infections of the gut were more widespread than previously known. This time it was the Vikings who lived hundreds of years earlier than Richard, but had the reputation of being “robust types, feared throughout much of Europe” and who “enjoyed excellent living conditions”. The study showed that the soil samples from Viking latrines contained parasite eggs from roundworm and human whipworm, along with liver fluke from cattle or sheep.  “You can’t tell if they come from parasites that infected humans or animals by simply looking at the eggs,” said one of the scientists. “But by examining their DNA, we are able to confirm what we until now have only believed to be the case: that a thousand years ago, humans carried these parasites around.” It certainly puts Richard III’s infection into perspective: not as shocking or even really that unexpected given that roundworms and other parasites had been carried around by humans for generations.

Another feature of Richard III’s infection that went under the radar screen was the very circumstantial nature of the evidence. According to the lead investigator of the The Lancet article, 15 roundworm eggs were located in the king’s gravesite, and one was found from outside it. This disparity in number only circumstantially suggests Richard III had the infection. But it’s also possible that the control sample collected from outside the grave was not representative. That the gravesite was later penetrated by a Victorian latrine might explain the presence of roundworms.  Dr. Philip Mackowiack, an infectious disease specialist, has observed that the samples from the soil surrounding the grave might have contained fewer eggs than usual just by chance; the researchers might have seen much more if they had taken additional samples from neighboring areas. If they had, then there might have been no basis to say the parasites were contained in Richard III’s body. They could have been part of the background environment in which the king’s remains were deposited.

Suffering An Infection At The Battle Of Bosworth

Another narrative that has crept into the finding of roundworms in Richard III’s grave emerges from the impact an intestinal infection might have had on his mental and physical health during his last year of life. Some people find it just too tempting; he must have been very sick at the Battle of Bosworth or very frightened by what he saw when he relieved himself in the privy or garderobe. Some seek to use the roundworm infection to explain what they see in retrospect as irrational behavior, such as his last cavalry charge at the Battle of Bosworth. Science, however, does not support these speculations.

The symptoms of a roundworm infection depend largely on the type of roundworm that infects a person. Roundworms, like all living organisms and parasites, come in many different types; some are more “virulent” than others and make the human host sicker. Others are less so, and create no symptoms at all. Since no DNA testing was done by the scientists on the roundworms found in Richard III’s grave, no one knows exactly which strain they were. They could have been the virulent type or the non-virulent type.

The scientists who reported on their findings in The Lancet have concluded that they were probably the most common strain that has been observed in English and European archeological sites.   Assuming this to be the case, what are the symptoms? It turns out they are relatively minimal. What would have happened is that Richard, as duke or king, would have eaten something that had traces of human feces on it; probably from a cook who just used the privy and then went to the kitchen to prepare food. Or it could have come from vegetables that were raised with fertilizer that had been mixed with human waste. In either case, no one would have noticed this contamination, roundworms being invisible to the naked eye, and since the Germ Theory of Disease was not yet discovered, no one would have thought to thoroughly wash the food or their hands before it was prepared. Most of the food would be cooked, but sometimes it was served without being cooked to the temperatures that would have killed off any bacteria or parasites. Neither Richard nor his contemporaries would have known that they were eating something contaminated and he would have gone for weeks without noticing anything at all.

It is only after an incubation period that the roundworm eggs ingested by human hosts begin to infect them. The eggs hatch miniscule larvae, which then migrate to the lungs from the gut, and travel up the “wind pipe” or trachea. This causes a mild tickling sensation in the airway, and the human host coughs. And, just like everyone who has a very mild cold or some phlegm upon coughing, they swallow the sputum into their stomach. From there, the roundworm larvae develop into long worms, which live in the intestines and create new roundworm eggs to be excreted. The intestinal worms themselves cannot survive burial conditions and cannot be examined by archeologists; so the “crawling” with roundworms headline is really not accurate. Moreover, the scientists who wrote The Lancet article cannot say how many intestinal worms Richard III had; if he had only a few, then they probably would have done him no harm and would have had no impact on his robusticity. Treatment for intestinal worms in the 15th century included a change in diet, ingesting wormwood or other abortifacients, or blood letting. Whether Richard III ever had these treatments is unknown but, if he had submitted to extensive blood letting, it’s possible that the treatment was worse than the infection.

The NHS says that most people do not even know that they are infected with roundworms, and that at most, one will experience a passing low grade fever, mild abdominal discomfort, nausea, and in the most extreme cases they will pass a worm the size of an earthworm in their feces or have intestinal obstruction leading to malnutrition. People who have a good diet and plenty of food usually experience no problems at all, as they will not lose nutrition and will not suffer weight loss or other vitamin deficiencies.

monty python king

Anyone who has studied Richard III’s last years of life will be very disappointed to see any references to the king being sick or lacking in nutrition. As shown by John Ashdown-Hill in his book THE LAST DAYS OF RICHARD III, he went about his business without any disruption. There were no contemporary reports of him being ill or in extremis from an intestinal blockage – the symptoms of which would have been very obvious and difficult to suppress or disguise. Stories sprung up in the Tudor era saying that Richard suffered from a restless, fevered night before Bosworth; but that would have not been caused by roundworms since Richard III’s infection had gone past the initial incubation stage. Most historians have rejected this tale and, if they give it any credence at all, they tend to attribute it to the “sweating sickness”. In any case, it is difficult if not impossible to reach any conclusion as to how Richard III’s roundworm infection affected his life. The scientists who have commented on it have described it as being mildly annoying or a mere nuisance.

A Filthy Medieval Age

Aside from being riddled with parasites and made irrational in mind, the last myth that has arisen from the finding of roundworms in Richard III’s gravesite is the notion that medieval society was filthy and extraordinarily unhygienic. The Lancet article actually shows that Richard III had fewer parasites than the scientists expected, leading them to conclude that the technical preparation of his food had reduced the transmission of intestinal parasites. Of course, he was from society’s elite class, so his hygienic standards would have been much better than those in the lower economic strata.

Nevertheless, people in the medieval day did take baths, wash their hands, clean their teeth, and change their undergarments regularly. I was visiting The Cloisters in New York City and was struck by their collection of medieval aquamanile – vessels that were used to wash hands in liturgical and secular settings.


Collection of aquamanile vessels at The Cloisters, NYC

A nobleman always washed his hands before and after eating a meal — to not do so would have been considered bad manners. During banquets, people would take their food from shared platters, but care was taken to minimize touching it. Most food was thoroughly cooked, as there was a preference for roasts and highly flavored/spiced dishes, and the sale of reheated cooked food was outlawed by the City of London. Eating raw vegetables and salads was not as common as it is today.

Roundworms continue to infect humans despite our improved personal hygiene, public sanitation, antibacterial soaps and knowledge of germs. Estimates of roundworm infection in the 21st century range from affecting between 800 million to one billion people, including millions of people living in the United States. The persistence of this parasite shows that it cannot be eradicated even in first-world countries.


Although the 2012 discovery of Richard III’s skeletal remains is an archeological feat of our modern age, we must remember that no other medieval monarch’s skeleton has been subjected to such a rigorous scientific analysis using today’s cutting-edge laboratory tests and forensic tools. It makes Richard III’s skeleton a novelty and novelties have a way of exaggerating their significance because we have no others to compare it to. One wonders what scientists would find today if they exhumed the remains of other monarchs from the 15th century such as Henry V who is believed to have died of an intestinal infection (dysentery), or Edward IV who suddenly died from an unknown cause. We might then be able to put Richard III’s physical condition into a much more accurate context, but until then, the narratives which continue to shape him as diseased in body say more about the way we tell his story rather than the way he actually lived it.

Book Sources:

John Ashdown-Hill, THE LAST DAYS OF RICHARD III (2013)


Charlotte Roberts & Keith Manchester, THE ARCHEOLOGY OF DISEASE (3d ed.) (2010), pp. 217-220.


Peter Barnet & Nancy Wu, THE CLOISTERS: MEDIEVAL ART AND ARCHITECTURE (75th anniversary ed., rev’d and expanded)

Journal Sources:

F. E. G. Cox, “History of Human Parasitology”, Clinical Microbiology Reviews, October 2002, vol. 15, no 4, pp. 595-612 [doi:  10.1128/CMR.15.4.595-612.2002]

Michael O. Harhay, John Horton, and Piero L Olliaro. “Epidemiology and Control of Human Gastrointestinal Parasites in Children”, Expert review of anti-infective therapy 8.2 (2010): 219–234. PMC. Web. 18 Apr. 2016.

Piers D. Mitchell, Hui-Yuan Yeh, Jo Appleby, Richard Buckley, “The intestinal parasites of King Richard III”, The Lancet, Vol. 382, September 7, 2013.

Martin Jensen Søe, Peter Nejsum, Brian Lund Fredensborg, and Christian Moliin Outzen Kapel “DNA Typing of Ancient Parasite Eggs from Environmental Samples Identifies Human and Animal Worm Infections in Viking-Age Settlement”, Journal of Parasitology: February 2015, Vol. 101, No. 1, pp. 57-63.

Internet Sources:

Parasites – Ascariasis FAQs, Centers for Disease Control (USA),

Roundworm, NHS Choices (UK),

Was Richard III Riddled With Roundworms?

Soil samples show Richard III suffered from roundworm,

Infected and Hunched: King Richard III Was Crawling With Roundworms,

Into the bowels: Richard III’s remains riddled with roundworms,

King Richard III suffered from roundworm infection, scientists say,

Did People in the Middle Ages Take Baths?

Ancient Toilet: Parasites Seen in Crusaders’ Feces Puts Spotlight on Medieval Hygiene,

What was Dental Hygiene Like During the Middle Ages?

Video Sources:

Richard III ‘Had Roundworms’, The Telegraph,

Richard III – The New Evidence, BBC4,

Blog Sources:

Bathing in the Middle Ages,

The King In The Lab – Richard III’s Dissolute Diet

I recently had the opportunity to attend a talk by Professor Jane Evans of the British Geological Survey, co-author of the multi-isotope analysis which explored what the last Plantagenet king of England ate and drank. As I mentioned in a previous science post, this study formed the basis for the widely reported claim that, although he was a capable soldier, he overindulged on food and drink and that this “dissolute” diet was the reason for his unexpected defeat at the battle of Bosworth. As this seemed to be at odds with both historical sources and also the study itself, I was hoping to finally get to the bottom of the facts. I wasn’t disappointed.

What Isotopes Can Tell Us

Professor Evans began her talk by explaining that isotopes are particles which transmit information from geology to us via our food chain. Basically:

Rock > soil > plants > herbivores > carnivores

Specifically, strontium isotopes indicate where we lived as children while oxygen, nitrogen and carbon isotopes indicate what we ate and drank during our life. This information is recorded in our teeth and bones as they form or regenerate. Since different parts of our bodies regenerate at different rates, they record information from different stages of our life.

In order to plot Richard’s life history as completely as possible, samples were taken from two of his teeth, a thigh bone and a rib. Teeth mineralise between age 0-15, depending on the tooth, and don’t regenerate, so their composition remains fixed for the rest of a person’s life. Leg bones regenerate slowly, recording the last 10-15 years of our life, while ribs turn over relatively quickly and record the last 2-5 years.

Professor Evans discussed the results of the analysis in sequence, starting with Richard’s childhood. The strontium and oxygen isotopes in his tooth enamel confirmed that he spent the first years of his life in his birthplace of Fotheringhay. However, they also indicated that from age 7-8 onwards he lived in western England, so not in York, as the team had expected, but possibly at Ludlow Castle in the Welsh Marches.

A Hard Drinker?

Moving on to Richard’s adult life, Professor Evans focused on the change in oxygen and nitrogen values in his rib compared to his leg bone. She explained that the oxygen isotope in Richard’s leg, which is usually associated with drinking the local water, is consistent with water from eastern England while the isotope in his rib is consistent with water from western England. The conventional interpretation of this would be that in the last 2-5 years of his life he moved from eastern to western England, but we know from historical records that this wasn’t the case. Since medieval people didn’t only drink water the team also tested beer but, because beer is made from water, the isotope signature was very similar. In fact, the signatures of water and beer are so similar that it’s impossible to tell how much water Richard drank compared to beer.

Next, the team tested French wine and found that its isotope signature was very different because wine is not made from water, but from fruit juice. They calculated that, if 20-25% of what Richard drank was wine, it would explain the oxygen value of the rib. This wouldn’t have been unusual for a high status individual: as mentioned in the study, wine accounted for 21% of food expenditure by the Duke of Buckingham’s estate in 1452-1453. The team therefore concluded that Richard’s wine consumption increased along with his social status, particularly as he introduced himself to his subjects on his royal progress. As Professor Evans pointed out, he wouldn’t have been offered a cup of water by his hosts, but good wine! However, this may have become less pronounced as he settled down as king. Professor Evans also cautioned that medieval wine probably only contained around 10-11% of alcohol, just enough to act as preservative, rather than the 12-16% typical of modern wine, and that a 20-25% rate of consumption at age 30-32 wouldn’t have been debilitating.

At this point, Professor Evans emphasised that she and her colleague, Dr Angela Lamb, had agonised over the wording of the study to prevent its findings from being sensationalised by the media. Specifically, she stressed that they never said Richard drank a bottle of wine a day, as was claimed in the newspaper clippings she showed. This misinformation came about because people looked at the 3-5 litres of daily water intake that are recommended in the 21st century and calculated that, if he drank 3 litres, then 1/5 of that – just under a bottle – would be wine.

Although Professor Evans didn’t mention it, the bottle-a-day claim was first made in the TV documentary “Richard III – The New Evidence”, on which many of the media reports were based. One of the historians on the programme, Dr Ian Mortimer, a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and the Society of Antiquaries of London, then further elaborated that “when it comes to liquids the great dividing line is status. Rich people drink wine, as much as they can through the day, huge amounts of wine were consumed by the wealthy. Some wealthy people also drank beer, they didn’t drink water.” Based on this, the programme speculated that “if he didn’t drink water he would have consumed 2-3 litres of alcohol every day.”

Ruddy outdoor cheeks or spider veins and broken capillaries?

Ruddy outdoor cheeks or spider veins and broken capillaries?

As a result, the media reported that Richard was a drunk who downed up to 3 litres of alcohol a day. Some even knew that it was pressures that made him hit the booze while others saw telltale signs of alcoholism in the facial reconstruction! Since Richard is now a global celebrity, the news that the hunchbacked king who murdered children was also a heavy-drinking glutton soon traveled around the world.

A Big Eater?

Turning to the question what Richard ate, Professor Evans explained that nitrogen indicates our place in the food chain and that medieval delicacies, such as game animals and freshwater fish, happen to have long food chains as a small fish is eaten by a medium-sized fish, which is eaten by a larger fish and so on. Each link in the food chain pushes the person who eventually eats the largest fish, which has eaten all the smaller fish, higher up the nitrogen scale. As king, Richard would have been served more of these delicacies than before, so the nitrogen value in his rib, which only recorded the last 2-5 years of his life, is significantly higher than that of his leg bone, which recorded his diet all the way back to his late teens. Crucially, Professor Evans clarified that isotopes can only tell us what a person ate, not how much, so the change in Richard’s diet doesn’t mean that he suddenly ate more; it just means that he ate more animals with long food chains.

Unfortunately, the TV documentary “Richard III: The New Evidence” overlooked this important detail. Describing Richard’s coronation banquet as a “catalogue of excess”, it not only claimed that his food consumption “went off the scale” when he became king, but that “greed ran in the family, proving an irresistible urge for his brother Edward IV”. Finally it concluded that “the evidence suggests that when Richard took to the battlefield in 1485 his body was in no shape for fighting” and that this was the reason for his defeat at Bosworth, noting that subsequent kings no longer tried to combine “the conflicting customs of fighting and feasting”.

Again, the newspapers faithfully reported the programme’s claims, with particular focus on medieval delicacies that sound exotic to 21st century readers, such as swan, peacock, egret and heron. The Independent actually consulted the Richard III Foundation about medieval food, but decided to ignore their input and proclaimed that the king lead a “debauched lifestyle”, which saw him embark on an “orgy” of feasting and heavy drinking. The Foundation complained and their letter was published, but all criticism was edited out. Thanks to the internet and social media the news about Richard’s supposed vices quickly spread into public consciousness.

This article appears to have been removed from the internet, possibly as a result of the Foundation's complaint

This article appears to have been removed from the internet, possibly as a result of the Foundation’s complaint

More concerning is that it has also spread into academia. The historians in the TV documentary, Dr Mortimer and Dr David Grummitt, formerly of the University of Kent and now Head of the School of Humanities at Canterbury Christchurch University, not only accepted the claims, but went on to speculate that they were the reason why Richard decided to charge Henry Tudor on horseback, rather than fight on foot. It’s unclear to what extent Dr Mortimer was aware of the experiments that medical and combat experts had been conducting with Richard’s body double, Dominic Smee, which showed that his scoliosis didn’t affect his ability to fight, when he conceded that “it is certainly possible that Richard’s downfall was coming off his horse. As soon as he was off his horse he was going to tire very quickly and was not going to be able to defend himself”, adding that his condition made him “especially vulnerable”.

Dr Grummitt, however, clearly disregarded a primary source he should have been familiar with since it contains a rare eye witness account that was widely cited as supporting evidence for the identification of the king’s remains. Niclas von Popplau, a German knight who had dined with Richard only a year before Bosworth, described him as “very slender” and more interested in conversation than food, which he “barely touched”, yet Dr Grummitt suspected that his eating habits resembled those of his brother: “Edward IV was reputed as a glutton throughout Europe by the time of his death and there were indications that Edward’s prowess, his ability on the battlefield, had been compromised by his love for food and it is really interesting to think that Richard too had access to this incredibly sumptuous, incredibly lavish royal diet.” Based on this he agreed that “Richard’s choice then to try and win the battle by cavalry may have been affected by his physical condition, his scoliosis and the ability of the saddle and the armour to support him while in battle.”

Interestingly, the health and fitness experts at The Examiner took a very different view. They praised Richard’s high protein, low carb regime as a medieval Atkins diet and suggested that, far from making him unfit, it could have led to weight loss and improved athletic performance!

A Myth In The Making?

Isotope analysis is a very technical subject, but Professor Evans made it easy to understand and even fun. Her talk once again highlighted the important role science can play in adding new details to our understanding of Richard III. However, it also highlighted the tendency of journalists to exaggerate and distort these details and the readiness of historians to accept claims without verifying the underlying facts, make assumptions based on these unverified claims and brush aside primary sources that don’t fit into the resulting picture. It’s precisely this knee-jerk copy-and-paste history which is at the heart of many myths about Richard III, not least the one that he was dug up at the dissolution of the monasteries and dumped into the river Soar, which was only debunked when his undisturbed remains were found exactly where he had been buried 527 years earlier. Will the claim that the last warrior king of England was too unfit to fight become another one of those myths? Time will tell.

Related Posts:

“The King In The Lab – Bones Don’t Lie”
“The King In The Lab – Body Of Evidence”
“The King In The Lab – The Unsanitary Lifestyle Of Richard III”

Sources And Further Reading:

Lamb, A.L., et al: “Multi-isotope analysis demonstrates significant lifestyle changes in King Richard III”, JOURNAL OF ARCHAEOLOGICAL SCIENCE (2014)

Channel 4: “Richard III: The New Evidence” (2014)

The King In The Lab – Bones Don’t Lie

We may jokingly call ourselves Ricardian Loons, but we’re serious about our research. Consequently, science will be a key area of focus for our blog. Since the discovery of Richard’s lost grave in 2012, the scientific examination of his remains has revealed – and continues to reveal – a wealth of new information. Some people insist that these insights have no bearing on history, but we disagree. In our opinion, they’re casting doubts on many popular theories about England’s most controversial King.

I’d like to kick off our science series with a paper I wrote for the University of Oxford’s “The Wars of the Roses: Power, Politics and Personalities” course, which asked how far the analysis of Richard’s remains changes our understanding of his life and reign. So, what can his bones tell us about the man? As it turns out, quite a lot.

More than meets the eye: 3D model of Richard’s spine © University of Leicester

Starting with his childhood, they put his relationship with the north into perspective. Much has been written about Richard’s childhood home at Middleham Castle and his wardship in the Earl of Warwick’s household. According to wide-spread belief, he lived in Yorkshire for most of his formative years and it has been suggested that the happy time spent amid its purple moors and rolling hills shaped his personality. Others have argued that, having lost his father at an early age, the ambitious Kingmaker became his mentor and served as role model for his more controversial actions, such as the executions of Hastings and Rivers and the deposition of Edward V.

By carrying out a multi-isotope analysis of Richard’s teeth, which would have formed during his childhood and early adolescence, and bone samples from parts of his skeleton which would have regenerated at slower rates, scientists were able to plot his life history geographically. The results indicate that from age 7 he lived in southwest Britain, possibly Ludlow in the Welsh Marches, part of the duchy of York. Only during his adolescence did he move back into eastern England.

This ties in with the view held by a number of historians that Richard was only in Warwick’s custody for about 3 years, from age 13 to 16. Although his name was added to charters and commissions before 1465, these were most likely nominal appointments, similar to the office of Admiral of England, Ireland and Aquitaine to which he was appointed around the same time. As AJ Pollard has pointed out, “a child of 9 cannot be a commissioner, any more than he could preside over admiralty courts.”

Moreover, Richard may have only seen Warwick at special occasions, such as the enthronement feast of George Neville as Archbishop of York, as the Earl’s commitments required him to travel and it is unlikely that he personally tutored his ward in lessons as diverse as horsemanship, weapons training, hawking, languages, music and dancing. It is therefore doubtful that Richard saw him as a mentor or that his wardship had a significant influence on his personality.

Moving on to his adult life, the analysis of Richard’s spine has shown that he was not a “hunchback”, but suffered from adolescent onset idiopathic scoliosis. The condition typically associated with the word hunchback, which is not a medical term, is kyphosis, a forward curvature of the spine that causes the upper part of the back to appear more rounded than normal. By contrast, scoliosis is a sideways curvature which results in uneven shoulders or hips. Based on a 3D reconstruction of Richard’s spinal column, scientists concluded that his scoliosis was spiral shaped with a Cobb angle of 70-90 degrees during life. While this is classed as severe, the curve was well balanced and abnormalities of individual vertebrae were restricted to the chest region, which means that the physical disfigurement was slight and could be easily disguised with custom-made clothing. Aside from this, his bones were symmetric and well formed. He did not have a withered arm nor did he walk with a limp.

This explains why Tudor sources describe Richard as deformed while contemporary accounts do not: his contemporaries weren’t afraid to speak the truth; they simply couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary. It wasn’t until after his death at the battle of Bosworth, when his naked body was thrown over a horse to transport it back to Leicester, that his condition became public knowledge. Indeed, one way of diagnosing scoliosis is to ask the patient to bend forward as this causes the curve to protrude. Unfortunately for Richard, in the Middle Ages an imperfect body was seen as indication of a corrupt mind, so his condition was seized upon and further embellished by the Tudors to justify the usurpation of Henry VII. We should therefore be wary of the logic that, if the Tudors were right about his deformity, they were probably also right about his character: not only did they attribute deformities to him that he did not have, but in the age of Paralympics and equal opportunity employment we hopefully no longer see physical imperfection as a sign of mental corruption.

According to the scientists, Richard’s scoliosis was not disabling as back pain and breathing or heart problems are rare, even in severe cases. This was vividly demonstrated in the TV documentary “Richard III: The new evidence”, which saw a young man – Dominic Smee – with Richard’s gracile bone structure and the same degree of scoliosis explore the king’s ability to wield medieval weapons and fight on horseback. To the surprise of medical experts and combat instructors, he mastered every challenge, even though he had no prior experience and led a sedentary lifestyle. The experiments revealed that, far from reducing his physical ability, the plate armour and medieval saddle actually improved it by supporting his back. Richard would have trained for combat since childhood and therefore grown up to be considerably more athletic than his body double, so his scoliosis would have affected him even less.

The programme also confirmed that a 70-90 degree Cobb angle can be easily disguised. In a loose fitting t-shirt Dominic’s scoliosis was barely noticeable and under armour it was completely invisible. Like that of his body double, Richard’s armour would have been custom-made to accommodate his uneven shoulders and hips, but there is no reason to doubt his well-documented military reputation based on his physicality. Consequently the reverse argument that, if he managed to overcome his disability, this indicates a powerful personality capable of great ambition and potentially evil, is also no longer credible.

The conclusion that his scoliosis was not disabling is further supported by the analysis of the perimortem trauma on his remains, which identified 11 injuries from bladed weapons inflicted around the time of death, 9 to the skull and 2 to his ribs and pelvis, indicating that he really was killed “fighting manfully in the thickest press of his enemies”. The absence of defensive wounds on arms and hands suggests that, although he had lost his helmet, he was indeed wearing armour. Since this would have protected his body, the cuts to his ribs and pelvis are thought to be humiliation injuries, inflicted post mortem when his naked corpse was thrown over a horse.

The treatment Richard’s body received in death is sometimes cited as evidence for his unpopularity, but this overlooks the fact that Henry Tudor’s army consisted largely of foreign mercenaries, who wouldn’t have seen him as their anointed king, but as an enemy they were paid to defeat. Richard’s remains show fewer post mortem injuries than those of the men who died at Towton, another battle fought with the help of mercenaries, and while he was buried with minimal effort, his grave was located in a place of honour. James IV of Scotland, who historians describe as a wise and charismatic ruler, fared far worse at the hands of his brother-in-law, Henry VIII. After his death at the battle of Flodden his unburied corpse was allowed to rot until his head became detached from his body and eventually both parts were lost. Seen in this context, Richard’s fate was not unusual.

The assumption that he was hated or feared was also at the heart of the belief that his remains had been dug up at the dissolution of the monasteries, carried through the streets by a jeering mob and then thrown into the river Soar. This story was so widely accepted that it was even cited by ULAS, the archeologists commissioned to dig for Richard’s grave under the now famous Leicester car park, on the application for the license to exhume the remains suspected to be his. The positive identification of the undisturbed remains has since shown that it had no basis at all.

Unfortunately, as old myths are debunked, new ones are being created. Much was made in the TV documentary of the fact that Richard suffered from roundworm infection and osteoarthritis and that, according to the multi-isotope analysis, his diet became more fancy in the last 2-5 years of his life and contained a higher proportion of wine compared to water and beer. The programme concluded that his “ill health” and “dissolute” lifestyle were responsible for his defeat at Bosworth and even suggested that he charged Henry Tudor on horseback because he was too unfit to fight on foot. This contradicts both historical records, which show that this diet was normal for a medieval king and that only a year before Bosworth he was described as very slender and more interested in conversation than food, as well as scientific research which indicates that he had fewer parasites than the average medieval person and that arthritis was common in the Middle Ages. The authors of the multi-isotope analysis have since dismissed the allegations as unfounded and Dominic Smee has revealed that he spent 20 minutes on a treadmill before running out of breath, so again there’s no reason to assume that Richard, who reportedly killed or unhorsed several opponents at Bosworth, was significantly physically disadvantaged.

Since Richard’s scoliosis was not visible and not disabling, it is also unlikely that it caused self-loathing or other psychological or emotional defects. This explains a contradiction in his psychological portrait which puzzled its authors. The psychological analysis predates that of his spine and assumes that the scoliosis would have been very visible and difficult to disguise. The psychologists therefore expected Richard to have struggled with interpersonal relationships in his adult life as he would have found it hard to establish trust, but couldn’t find any evidence for this in historical accounts. On the contrary, they concluded that “he seemed remarkably able to engender and build trust with the people with whom he worked.”

Indeed, it is difficult to see how he could have established himself as Edward IV’s Lieutenant of the North if he suffered from serious psychological defects. Given the bitter divide between the Yorkist south and the Lancastrian north, this was not an easy task. Only 10 years earlier, Yorkist propaganda had accused northerners of “slaying and maiming liegeman in such detestable cruelness as has not been heard done among Saracens and Turks to Christian men” and as late at 1471, when Edward returned from exile to reclaim his throne from Henry VI, the city of York closed its gates to him. 19-year old Richard moved to Yorkshire that same year and adolescent onset scoliosis sets in between age 10 and 13, so it would have already been present. As the multi-isotope analysis shows, it is unlikely that he developed strong emotional or social ties during his wardship, so far from enjoying a nostalgic homecoming he was planted into hostile territory and, as AJ Pollard pointed out, “had to win round the political elites in the aftermath of Warwick the Kingmaker’s downfall. He had not been then the expected or natural heir”. Nevertheless, Rosemary Horrox concluded that he managed to build “one of the great affinities of the Middle Ages, both in scale and cohesion.” To accomplish this he would have needed all his wits and it is highly improbable that he suddenly lost them when he became king.

Combining all of the above, the picture that emerges of Richard is that of an able-bodied and psychologically stable young man, who was as competent on the battlefield as he was in the council chamber and who wasn’t any more feared or hated than other rulers of his time. Some may find this hard to accept, but bones don’t lie. Richard is talking to us and after 500 years of questioning his every word and action it’s time we started listening to him.

2 Parking Spots

Related Posts:

“The King In The Lab – Body Of Evidence”
“The King In The Lab – Richard III’s Dissolute Diet”
“The King In The Lab – The Unsanitary Lifestyle Of Richard III”

Sources And Further Reading:

Angela Lamb et al: “Multi-isotope analysis demonstrates significant lifestyle changes in King Richard III” (JOURNAL OF ARCHAEOLOGICAL SCIENCE)

Jo Appleby et al: “The scoliosis of Richard III, last Plantagenet King of England: diagnosis and clinical significance” (THE LANCET)

Jo Appleby et al: “Perimortem trauma in King Richard III: a skeletal analysis” (THE LANCET)

Piers Mitchell et al: “The intestinal parasites of King Richard III” (THE LANCET)

Mark Lansdale and Julian Boon: “Richard III – A Psychological Portrait” (THE RICARDIAN BULLETIN)

Channel 4: “Richard III: The New Evidence”

History Extra: “What does the discovery of Richard III’s remains mean for history?”

Alex David: “Alison Weir on the Real Richard III” (endorsed and linked on WWW.ALISONWEIR.ORG.UK)