Research led by the University of Leicester, working with the University of Cambridge, Loughborough University and University Hospitals of Leicester, has finally uncovered the truth about Richard III’s spinal condition.

The physical deformity produced by Richard’s scoliosis was probably slight as he had a well-balanced curve of the spine

Dr Piers Mitchell

Historical and literary references to the physical deformities of Richard III, who ruled England from 1483-1485, are well-known, but debate has raged for centuries over the extent to which these descriptions are true. Various historical and literary references refer to Richard III as “crook-backed” or “hunch-back’d” , but until now, it was unknown whether these descriptions were based on Richard’s actual appearance, or were an invention of later writers to damage his reputation.

Early examinations of the remains of Richard III, discovered in 2012 by archaeologists at the University of Leicester, showed that the king had a condition called scoliosis, where the spine curves to the side. The latest analysis, published in The Lancet, reveals that the king’s condition would have had a noticeable, but small, effect on his appearance, and is unlikely to have affected his ability to exercise.

Professor Bruno Morgan, and the forensic imaging team at the University of Leicester, created both physical and computer-generated replicas of the king’s spine by performing CT scans at the Leicester Royal Infirmary, and using 3D prints of the bones created by the Loughborough University from the CT image data. This allowed the study authors to carefully analyse the remains of Richard III’s skeleton to accurately determine the nature of his spinal condition and the extent to which it would have affected his appearance.

The results show that Richard’s scoliosis was unlikely to have been inherited, and that it probably appeared sometime after he was 10 years old. The condition would today be called ‘adolescent onset idiopathic scoliosis’, and is one of the commonest forms of scoliosis.

According to study author Dr Piers Mitchell, of the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology: “The physical deformity produced by Richard’s scoliosis was probably slight as he had a well-balanced curve of the spine. 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 to adjust his clothing and custom-made armour could have minimised the visual impact of this.”

“The moderate extent of Richard’s scoliosis is unlikely to have resulted in any impaired tolerance to exercise from reduced lung capacity,” says study co-author Dr Jo Appleby, Lecturer in Human Bioarchaeology at the University of Leicester, “Moreover, there is no evidence to suggest Richard would have walked with an overt limp, as his curve was well balanced and the bones of the lower limbs symmetric and well formed.”

The Dig for Richard III was led by the University of Leicester, working with Leicester City Council and in association with the Richard III Society. The originator of the Search project was Philippa Langley of the Richard III Society.


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