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Shakespeare was wrong, study says: Richard III was not a hunchback

New research uncovers the truth about King Richard III's spinal condition. The condition would today be called "adolescent onset idiopathic scoliosis," and is one of the commonest forms of scoliosis. (Courtesy of Lancet)

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

After the king’s bones were discovered under an English parking lot in 2012, scientists scanned the remains and created replicas of each bone to reconstruct his spine.

In a study published last week online in the Lancet, the researchers said that while Richard III had a severe case of scoliosis, a curvature of the spine, he was far from the limping “hunchbacked toad” depicted in 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, Mitchell also said it would be technically inaccurate to describe the king as a hunchback because his spine was bent sideways rather than forward.

“Unless you were pretty close to him, it’s unlikely you would have noticed anything very wrong with him,” Mitchell 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 with his limbs, Mitchell said.

“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.

Some historians say the finding confirms contemporary accounts suggesting that Richard III 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, who was not part of the new research.

Richard III enthusiasts hope the findings will prompt more people to reconsider the much-maligned king.

“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.”



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