About 100 years after the death of King Richard III, William Shakespeare wrote his great historical play, Richard III. In it, he depicts the king as disfigured and ugly — a "bunch-backed toad."
Now, scientists in England say the Bard was invoking some poetic license. After studying the exhumed body of the 15th century monarch, they have created a 3D image of Richard III's spine. Although he did have scoliosis that curled his spine into a slight spiral shape, the researchers say he was probably able to conceal the deformity pretty well.
"Although the scoliosis looks dramatic, it probably did not cause a major physical deformity," said Jo Appleby, an archeologist at the University of Leicester, in a press release. "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."
The announcement about the king's back comes two years after officials in Leicester went searching underneath a municipal parking lot for His Majesty's bones. They excavated the site and conducted DNA tests to confirm the remains. It had long been known that Richard III was killed in battle in Leicestershire, but until 2012 his whereabouts were a centuries-old mystery. Just a few days ago, a British court ruled Richard III should be re-buried in Leicester, not York as some argued.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the bones — aside from their banal gravesite — was the crooked spine. Historians suspected the king had a bad back from descriptions of him, but no one knew for sure. Piers Mitchell, a co-author from the University of Cambridge, told New Scientist that scoliosis "tends to happen when people go through their adolescent growth spurt."
Appleby, who calls herself an osteoarcheologist, says that although the curve was severe — even twisting in a shallow spiral shape — it would not have been obvious to others. "A curve of 65-85 would not have prevented Richard from being an active individual," she said. "And there is no evidence that Richard had a limp as his curve was well balanced and his leg bones were normal and symmetric."
Yet some continue to question whether the bones are really Richard's. Two British scientists point out that the University of Leicester has not released its notes from the excavation and that mitochondrial DNA testing isn't the most precise form of genetic evidence. Whoever they belong to, the crooked bones will be buried as Richard III at Leicester Cathedral likely by next spring.