Shame on Shakespeare: England’s King Richard III was no hunchback, bone scan shows

Bone scan shows English king had twisted spine, butwasn't the hideous specimen of literary fame

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 May, 2014, 9:47pm
UPDATED : Friday, 30 May, 2014, 9:47pm


He may have had a twisted spine, but England's King Richard III was no hunchback, according to a new analysis of his skeleton.

After the bones of the 15th-century king were discovered under a car park in central England in 2012, scientists scanned the remains of his back and created replicas of each bone to reconstruct his spine. They said that while Richard had severe scoliosis, he was far from the limping "hunchbacked toad" with a withered arm depicted in William Shakespeare's play.

"Richard had a very squishy spine but it wouldn't have stuck out that obviously," said Piers Mitchell of the University of Cambridge, one of the study's authors. He said it was technically inaccurate to describe Richard as a hunchback, as his spine was bent sideways, not forward.

"Unless you were pretty close to him, it's unlikely you would have noticed anything very wrong with him," Mitchell said.

He said the king's head and neck were straight, but his right shoulder was higher than his left and his upper body was relatively short compared to his limbs.

"With some padded shoulders or if the height of his trousers was adjusted, a sympathetic tailor could have hidden Richard's twisted back," Mitchell said.

The study also found that Richard's scoliosis - curvature of the spine - developed in adolescence and as a result he was a few centimetres shorter than he otherwise would have been.

Richard died in 1485, the last English king killed on a battlefield. The new study was published online on Thursday by medical journal The Lancet.

Some historians say the finding confirms contemporary accounts suggesting that Richard had only a slight deformity.

"There are some people who referred to Richard's 'crooked back' but others are polite enough to ignore it," said Steven Gunn, an associate professor of history at Oxford University.

He said Richard's uneven posture may have gone mostly unnoticed, because many 15th-century people had physical imperfections such as bowed legs from rickets, prominent war injuries or scars from diseases.

Today someone with similarly severe scoliosis would probably have corrective surgery - as did the British queen's grandddaugher Princess Eugenie. In 2002, surgeons put titanium rods in her spine and screws in her neck to fix her curved spine.

Richard enthusiasts hope the new research will prompt more people to reconsider the much-maligned king. Some believe Richard had his two young nephews murdered to keep his throne safe. But the king's supporters say his reputation was tarnished by the rival Tudor dynasty; portraits of Richard painted during his lifetime were later altered to include a deformed shoulder.

"There just isn't any evidence that Richard was the villain that he has been made out to be," said Phil Stone, chairman of the Richard III Society. "He had a curved back, but so what? That doesn't mean he was a monster."