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No, Shakespeare, Richard III was not shaped like a ‘bunch-backed toad’

Portrait of Richard III of England, painted c. 1520
Society of Antiquaries, London
Portrait of Richard III, painted c. 1520

Despite what Shakespeare wanted us to believe (or thought was true), Richard III, the controversial 15th-century English king, did not have a hunched back.

Instead, he had scoliosis, a condition marked by a sideways curvature of the spine, which probably caused only a slight physical disfigurement.

That’s the conclusion of a team of British scientists who created a 3D model of Richard’s spine based on computer tomography (CT) scans of the monarch’s 500-year-old skeletal remains. The bones were discovered under a parking lot in the city of Leicester in 2012.

“His trunk would have been short relative to the length of his limbs, and his right shoulder a little higher than the left,” write the scientists in a “case report” paper published Friday in the British-based medical journal The Lancet. “However, a good tailor and custom-made armour could have minimized the visual impact of this.”

The scientists also found no evidence to support the ideas (propagated by Shakespeare) that Richard walked with a limp and had a withered arm. His leg bones, for example, were symmetrical and well formed. Shakespeare undoubtedly gave Richard these physical deformities, along with the hunched back, to support the anti-Richard “Tudor spin” of Elizabethan England, says Piers Mitchell, one of the study’s authors and an anthropologist at the University of Cambridge, in a video released with the study.

Acquired in adolescence

Richard’s scoliosis had a classic “spiral” shape and a pronounced right-sided curve, according to the report. But it’s unlikely the deformity was severe enough to have interfered with the king’s physical activity, the scientists stress. The condition, however, may have made him appear a couple of inches shorter than his full 5 feet and 8 inches (an average height for a man during medieval times, the report points out).

The bones also suggest, according to the scientists, that Richard had what today is called “adolescent idiopathic scoliosis,” which develops between the ages of 10 and 18, when children hit their adolescent growth spurt. It’s one of the most common forms of scoliosis, and its cause is unknown, although the condition is thought to have at least some genetic components.

“If Richard had lived today, the scoliosis would have been picked up as he went through his adolescence, and then, with his degree of curve, it’s highly likely he’d have had an operation to put some rods in his back, straighten out his spine, and then he would have had much less of a problem with his spinal deformity,” says Mitchell in the video.

New 3D representation of Richard III’s spine
© University of Leicester
New 3D representation of Richard III’s spine shows ‘spiral nature’ of his scoliosis.

Politically motivated?

Based on the structure of Richard’s spine and additional bones found in his grave, Mitchell and his colleagues were able to rule out other medical conditions that have been proposed over the years as causing the king’s reported hunched back, including cerebral palsy, Marfan syndrome and Chiari malformation.

Indeed, it’s likely that reports of Richard being “crook-backed” (as Shakespeare wrote) were an “invention of his enemies after death, with political motivations,” the scientists write.

Richard was only 32 years old when he was killed in battle in 1485. His body was buried on the grounds of a church in the center of Leicester, but the church was torn down during the Reformation of the 16th century, and its exact location was forgotten — that is, until scholars from the Richard III Society, a group that has been working since 1924 to “secure a more balanced assessment” of the king, tracked it down a few years ago.

“Examination of Richard III’s remains shows that he had a scoliosis, thus confirming that the Shakespearean description of a ‘bunch-backed toad’ is a complete fabrication — yet more proof that, while the plays are splendid dramas, they are also most certainly fiction not fact,” said Dr. Phil Stone, a radiologist and current chairman of the Richard III Society, in a statement released with the study.

“History tells us that Richard III was a great warrior,” he added. “Clearly, he was little inconvenienced by his spinal problem and accounts of his appearance, written when he was alive, tell that he was ‘of person and bodily shape comely enough’ and that he ‘was the most handsome man in the room after his brother, Edward IV.’”

You can also watch a video of Mitchell talking about the study on The Lancet’s website.

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