Amazing photo of King Richard III’s tiny, curved spine proves Shakespeare was wrong

February 4, 2013

The skeleton of King Richard III, who ruled for 26 months in the mid-15th century, was recently discovered. (REUTERS/University of Leicester/Handout)

Richard Plantagenet's first son was born in 1452, before the printing press had been invented or the Americas discovered. Machu Picchu, the Korean alphabet, protestantism and the nation of Spain did not yet exist. Neither did treatment for scoliosis, a condition that causes the spine to curve to one side, as it did for Richard's son, who became king of England in 1483.

King Richard III's 26-month reign, which ended when he was killed at a battle in England's War of the Roses*, was famous for two things: for its brutality and for the twisted back of the king. Historians have long debated whether King Richard III was really as deformed as he is said to be, or if that physical description was exaggerated over time to match his similarly ugly reign.

Now, archaeologists have uncovered Richard's long-missing corpse, buried beneath a parking lot 20 miles from the battle that killed him. A comparison of the DNA in the bones to those of his living relatives (another reminder of how seriously the U.K. takes its history) appears to confirm it. The curve in his spine, long discussed by historians but now visible to anyone with a Web browser, is a fascinating story in itself. Our centuries-old portrayal of King Richard III, the hunchback king, the mental image you probably have of him, turns out to be him.

Neither scoliosis nor a sideways-curved spine causes a hunchback. As a post at Current Archaeology pointed out when the skeleton was first uncovered in September, the curved back we associate with hunchbacks actually comes from kyphosis, which Richard III did not have. So where did that idea come from?

Blame William Shakespeare. His famous play about Richard III's brief but bloody tenure,  portrayed the king as a hunchback, probably as a dramatic device to emphasize his physical deformities as a reflection of his inner crookedness, a common literary device of the era. Before Shakespeare, contemporary historians had described – accurately, it now seems – Richard's appearance as consistent with severe scoliosis. Vergil said he had "one shoulder higher than the right"; Thomas More described him as "little of stature, ill-featured of limbs, crook-backed." Those certainly sound like the bearer of the bones just discovered in Leicester.

Shakespeare's play "Richard III" was written in 1592, 107 years after the king's death, a time when no one alive had seen him or, obviously, a photograph of him. For comparison's sake, President Theodore Roosevelt's tenure ended 103 years ago. Imagine if a popular film today re-wrote, for example, the incident that earned Roosevelt his famous association with bears, portraying him as saving a black bear from death rather than ordering it to be put out of its misery. Now imagine it's a time before mass communication, the Internet, fact checkers or widespread literacy and you can see how one play might have warped our collective understanding of Richard III as sharply as his world-famous spine.


* – Update: An earlier version of this post described the Wars of the Roses as a civil war. While it was a domestic conflict over who would rule England, it is distinct from the 17th century conflict that is more commonly described as the English civil war. Thanks to Time's Ishaan Tharoor for pointing this out.
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