Richard III’s Scoliosis Revealed: Twisted Spine, Not Hunchback

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View of Skeleton of Richard III showing spinal deformity Copyright : University of Leicester.

The remains of King Richard III, found in a trench on one of the Grey Friar’s digs. Copyright image courtesy of the University of Leicester, used with permission. All rights reserved.

A new academic paper published in The Lancet on the 30th May 2014 reveals a fascinating insight into the exact nature of Richard III’s spinal deformity.

When Leicester University confirmed the identity of the king in February 2013, archaeologists revealed that the last Plantagenet did indeed suffer from a spinal deformity as suggested by popular legend. However, this was not the hunchback of Shakespearean fame, but scoliosis.

The new report, illustrated by a 3D image of the king’s spine as it was in life, is the work of the universities of Leicester, Cambridge, Loughborough and the University Hospitals of Leicester. The report reveals details of how scoliosis would have affected the king’s life — and finally lays to rest Shakespeare’s image of Richard as a ‘foule hunch-backt toade.’

What is Scoliosis?

Scoliosis is a deformity caused by a twist in the spine. Dr. Piers Mitchell of the University of Cambridge describes its difference from a ‘normal’ spine in a Leicester University podcast:

‘The normal spine will look straight from the front and from the side will have four curves to it and that helps cushion impact as we walk along and helps with the movements that our spines need to make,’ explained Dr. Mitchell,A scoliosis gives an extra twist to that, so that if you were to look from above, it would look like a corkscrew shape and if you were to look from the front, it would look like an “s” shape.’

King Richard III’s Spine Analysis

To discover the exact nature of Richard III’s scoliosis, the team headed by Dr. Jo Appleby of Leicester University and including Professor Bruno Morgan, forensic radiologist in the University of Leicester’s Department of Cancer Studies and Molecular Medicine; Professor Guy Rutty and Alison Brough, of the East Midlands Forensic Pathology Unit; Dr. Piers Mitchell, University of Cambridge; Claire Robinson, University Hospitals of Leicester; and Professor Russell Harris and David Thompson of Loughborough University; subjected the bones to various tests.

The team first analyzed the skeleton macroscopically for evidence of spinal curvature and related lesions in the tissues caused by the scoliosis, to help discern when the condition began to affect the King. Then, the team scanned each bone of the spine using (CT) computer tomography so that polymer replicas could be created and the alignment of the King’s spine in life recreated in the form of a model.

You can clearly see the spiraling of King RIchard's spine in these three-dimensional models. Images courtesy of the University of Leicester

You can clearly see the spiraling of King RIchard’s spine in these three-dimensional models. Copyright image courtesy of the University of Leicester, used with permission. All rights reserved.

King Richard’s Spine: 3D Model

Nineteen photographs taken of the polymer reconstruction were ‘stitched’ together to allow viewers to see the spine from all angles, creating a 3D model.

This recreated the King’s spine as it was in life — crucial because of the condition of the skeletal remains.

‘Obviously, the skeleton was flattened out when it was in the ground,’ explained Dr. Appleby. We had a good idea of the sideways aspect of the curve, but we didn’t know the precise nature of the spiral aspect of the condition.’

The recreation of the spine has addressed this problem.

‘Bearing in mind the degenerative change in the facet joints around the curve and the fact that many levels of the vertebrae could only fit together at one possible angle, coupled with the anatomical changes we can see in the vertebrae themselves – they have asymmetric facet joints for example – all these things fit together with us being as confident as we can, that we’ve done a pretty fair representation of Richard’s scoliosis,’ said Dr. Mitchell. 

The Development of Richard’s Scoliosis

The model and accompanying analysis have allowed the team to piece together a picture of King Richard’s scoliosis including the age he began to suffer from the condition, which seems to have been at around the age of 10.

‘The majority of idiopathic scoliosis does happen in adolescence during the pubertal growth spurt,’ explained Dr. Mitchell.It seems to be that what happens is that the spine grows sufficiently fast that the body can’t quite control the alignment of that growth, and so in a proportion of children over the age of ten, as they go through their growth spurt, the spine grows slightly too fast and they develop this corkscrew, “s” shaped deformity as opposed to the straight spine that most of us are lucky enough to have, and it looks like that’s the type Richard suffered with.’

What King Richard III’s Back Looked Like

The analysis has also ‘fleshed out’ the initial details of how scoliosis affected the King’s appearance.

The scoliosis twisted the King’s spine into a spiral shape that curved to the right, raising his right shoulder slightly above that on the left. This is unlike Shakespeare’s hunchback — but very similar to the fifteenth century accounts of Roux and Polydore Vergil which describe the King as having  ”’unequal” shoulders, the right higher and the left lower’ and ‘altero humero eminentiore’ –– one shoulder higher than the other.

While this meant that the king’s natural 5 feet 8 inch stature was considerably shortened and his upper body would have appeared comparatively shorter than his lower, it did not mean his deformity was immediately obvious.

‘This is because he had a well-balanced curve,’ explained Dr. Jo Appleby.

As a result, Richard’s head and neck would have been mercifully straight, and he could largely disguise his condition with cleverly designed clothes and armour.

Again, this ties in with the historical record.

‘Accounts of his appearance, written when he was alive, tell that he was “of person and bodily shape comely enough,”’ said Dr. Phil Stone, Chairman of the Richard III Society, ‘he “was the most handsome man in the room after his brother, Edward IV.”‘

Scoliosis, But A Good Quality of Life

ILMS4950 - Credit- University of Leicester copy

3D Model of Richard III’s Spine. Copyright image courtesy of the University of Leicester, used with permission. All rights reserved.

The curvature of King Richard’s scoliosis was large by today’s standards. The team measured the Cobb Angle of the spine to identify the degree of deformity. This was between 65-85 degrees — serious enough to require surgery today. But despite this, the scoliosis would not have impeded Richard’s life.

‘Modern understanding of people with a similar degree of curvature, show that he would’ve had fairly good function,’ said Dr. Mitchell. ‘He would’ve had fairly good exercise tolerance and physical ability to do exercise and other activities.’

‘A curve of 65-85 would not have prevented Richard from being an active individual, and there is no evidence that Richard had a limp as his curve was well balanced and his leg bones were normal and symmetric,” added Dr. Appleby.

‘History tells us that Richard III was a great warrior. Clearly, he was little inconvenienced by his spinal problem,’ concluded Dr. Stone.

Shakespeare Debunked?

The details of the King’s spinal condition are good news for those seeking to restore the last Plantagenet’s historical reputation.

‘Examination of Richard III’s remains shows that he had a scoliosis, thus confirming that the Shakespearean description of a “hunch-backed toad” is a complete fabrication,’ said Dr. Stone, ‘yet more proof that, while the plays are splendid dramas, they are also most certainly fiction not fact.’

© Copyright 2014 Natasha Sheldon, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

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  1. Richard III Society Of Canada says:

    It is good to see the coverage this is getting. The Richard III Society’s aim to to discover the truth about Richard, recognizing that much of what was said about him after his death, was written to justify the actions of Henry VII- the victor at the battle of Bosworth.

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