Straight up! Richard III wasn’t a hunchback after all

Gary Johnstone filming Piers Mitchell and Bruno Morgan discussing the 3D model of Richard III's spine for an upcoming Channel 4 programme. Credit:  Leicester University
Gary Johnstone filming Piers Mitchell and Bruno Morgan discussing the 3D model of Richard III's spine for an upcoming Channel 4 programme. Credit: Leicester University
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He was portrayed by Shakespeare as a hunchback but its seems the playwright was relying on fiction rather than fact in his portrayal of King Richard III.

Now scientists who carried out scans of the King’s kinked spine have found the monarch was hardly affected by his famous deformity, it had a “well balanced curve” that could have been concealed under clothes or armour.

The earliest surviving portrait of Richard III in Leicester Cathedral.

The earliest surviving portrait of Richard III in Leicester Cathedral.

Unlike the hunchback depictions seen on stage and screen, his head and neck would have been straight, not tilted to one side, and there was also no evidence that he had a limp.

The findings are supported by accounts written when Richard III was alive describing him as being “comely enough” and even “handsome.”

Scientists carried out a 3D reconstruction of the king’s spine which showed 65 to 85 degrees of “scoliosis”, or sideways bending, to the right. It was also twisted into a “spiral” shape.

But despite having one shoulder slightly higher than the other and a short trunk in comparison with his arms and legs, the defects would not have handicapped him too much.

Dr Phil Stone, chairman of the Richard III Society, said: “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.”

The world has been captivated by the story of Richard III whose skeleton was found beneath a car park in Leicester. Experts found DNA from the bones matched that of descendants of the monarch’s family “beyond reasonable doubt”.

For the new study, published in The Lancet medical journal, researchers conducted a detailed analysis of the skeleton’s spinal column. Information from computed tomography (CT) X-ray scans and a 3D printer were used to create a plastic replica of the spine, photographed from nine different directions.

The images were combined to produce an interactive picture that could be made accessible on websites.

Dr Jo Appleby, from the University of Leicester’s School of Archaeology and Ancient History, who led the research, said: “Obviously, the skeleton was flattened out when it was in the ground. We had a good idea of the sideways aspect of the curve, but we didn’t know the precise nature of the spiral aspect of the condition.

“Although the scoliosis looks dramatic, it probably did not cause a major physical deformity. This is because he had a well-balanced curve. The condition would have meant that his trunk was short in comparison to the length of his limbs, and his right shoulder would have been slightly higher than the left, but this could have been disguised by custom-made armour and by having a good tailor.

“A curve of 65-85 would not have prevented Richard from being an active individual, and there is no evidence that Richard had a limp as his curve was well balanced and his leg bones were normal and symmetric.”

People with similar levels of scoliosis today often undergo spine-straightening surgery. Previous research has shown the king would have been about 5ft 8in tall without his deformity, about average for a medieval man. But his condition meant he would have appeared shorter.