In 2012, the skeleton of King Richard III – the king of England from 1483-1485 – was discovered beneath a parking lot in the city of Leicester in the UK. Early analysis of the bones confirmed that the king had scoliosis – a condition that causes the spine to curve to the side. Now, a case study published in The Lancet reveals how the condition would have affected the king’s appearance and mobility.

The mystery surrounding Richard III’s spinal condition had plagued researchers for years. Many historical references describe the King as a “crook-backed” or “hunch-back’d.” William Shakespeare even used such terminology in his 1593 play about the king.

However, it was unclear as to whether such descriptions were accurate or whether they had been conceived by enemies in order to harm his reputation.

Therefore, the discovery of his skeleton was largely significant, allowing researchers to finally put the mystery to rest. And it seems a team led by the researchers from the University of Leicester in the UK may have done just that.

It was archeologists from the University of Leicester, in collaboration with Leicester City Council and the Richard III Society, who uncovered the King’s bones in 2012.

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Researchers created a 3D model of Richard III’s spine in order to determine how he may have been affected by scoliosis.
Image credit: University of Leicester.

On initial analysis, researchers confirmed that the King had scoliosis. But it was unknown as to what extent the condition may have affected his appearance, how it may have impacted his mobility and whether it was inherited.

The University of Leicester team, alongside researchers from the University of Cambridge, Loughborough University and the University Hospitals of Leicester, all in the UK, set out to answer these questions.

Prof. Bruno Morgan and the forensic imaging team from the University of Leicester closely analyzed Richard III’s remains by creating computer-generated and physical replicas of his spine.

They did this by carrying out computed tomography (CT) scans, and researchers from Loughborough University used these scans to create 3D prints of the bones.

“We analyzed the skeleton macroscopically for evidence of spinal curvature and related lesions. From CT 3D reconstructions of each bone, we created polymer replicas and built a model of the spine to recreate its alignment in life,” the researchers explain.

From their analysis, the team were able to determine that Richard III was unlikely to have inherited scoliosis. Instead, they believe he had adolescent onset idiopathic scoliosis – a common form of the condition in which onset primarily occurs between the ages of 10 and 12 years.

In terms of the King’s physical appearance, they found that his spinal curve was well-balanced at around a 70-90 degree angle, meaning any physical disfigurement would have been small, but noticeable, “particularly from the rear if bending forward and bare backed,” Prof. Morgan told us.

Co-author Dr. Piers Mitchell, of the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, explains:

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 armor could have minimized the visual impact of this.”

If left untreated, scoliosis can cause severe damage to the spine, pelvis, chest, heart and lung. But based on their findings, the researchers say it is unlikely that Richard III’s scoliosis would have affected his lung capacity, meaning he would have been able to exercise normally.

In addition, the researchers say his leg bones were well formed and symmetrical, so there is no evidence to suggest he walked with a limp.

Prof. Morgan told Medical News Today that the type of scoliosis that Richard III had would have probably caused him back pain, and if he had survived, the pain would have worsened. But he doubts the condition would have affected his ability to fight.

“Scoliosis of this degree is limiting and leads to loss of mobility and osteoarthritic back pain. However, I would not classify him as disabled. With good armor and a horse he could have fought effectively,” he added.

“A well-trained fighter with this scoliosis would probably be better than a badly trained fighter without. However, we probably would not recommend a modern scoliosis patient to go into battle!”

Prof. Morgan told us that another case study will follow that will provide a detailed forensic analysis of Richard III’s battle injuries.

Late last year, Medical News Today reported on other research led by Dr. Mitchell, which revealed that Richard III may have suffered from a roundworm infection.