Richard III was not a “hunchback”

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Shakespeare’s Richard III is a villainous character with a hunchback who murders his two nephews because they pose a threat to his position as king of England. While debate still rages about whether or not he did have the princes killed (some claim Henry VII was the culprit), new evidence has emerged that he did have scoliosis. However, he did not have the severe “hunchback” that Shakespeare describes him as having.

Writing in The Lancet, Jo Appleby (School of Archaeology and Ancient History, University of Leicester, UK) and others report that they macrosopically analysed the skeleton of Richard III (which was excavated in 2012 from a car park in Leicester) using CT 3D reconstructions. They found that the 3D reconstruction “closely matched” the 2D images recorded at the time of excavation, which indicated that Richard III had a right-sided thoracic curve at T8-T9 with a Cobb angle of 75 degrees from the upper border of T6 to the lower border of T11.  

Appleby et al add: “Since this was measured supine, whereas clinical angles are taking standing, we estimate the Cobb angle to have been in the range of 70–90 degrees during life. The curve was well balanced with cervical and lumbar spines reasonably well aligned.” According to the investigators, as Richard III’s curve was well balanced, the physical deformity as a result of the scoliosis would have been slight. They note: “His trunk would have been short relative to the length of his limbs, and his right shoulder a little higher than the left. However, a good tailor and custom-made armour could have minimised the visual impact of this.” Appleby et al add that there is no evidence to support the idea that Richard III walked with an overt limp, and state that he was unlikely to have reduced lung capacity because of the scoliosis (and therefore, did not have impaired exercise intolerance).

The investigators were also able to determine, by examining the morphology of the vertebrae, the probable cause of Richard III’s scoliosis. They comment that subtle changes in vertebral anatomy suggest: “onset [of the curve] in the last few years of growth, which is compatible with adolescent onset idiopathic scoliosis, probably starting after 10 years of age.”

Study investigator Piers Mitchell (Division of Biological Anthropology, Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge, The Henry Wellcome Building, Fitzwilliam Street, Cambridge, UK) told Spinal News International: “This research is so interesting as it demonstrates that Richard III really did have a significant spinal deformity, and that it was not just made up later by the Tudors in order to portray him as an evil monster. Shakespeare wrote his play about Richard III around 1592, over a century after Richard died. In the circumstances, it is not surprising that Shakespeare’s description was not entirely accurate. Our reconstruction of his spine using a 3D model helps us to show the spiral nature of the deformity. This will make an important model for the Richard III museum in Leicester, to help educate the public as to what scoliosis is all about.”

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