Shakespeare portrays Richard III, who ruled England from 1483 to 1485, as a tragic villain. Now, after analyzing his remains and the surrounding sediment, researchers have discovered a possible root cause of his unhappiness and general meanness — the King had worms!

In September 2012, researchers excavated Richard's remains. Not only did they carefully remove his skeleton but they also took samples of sediment from the sacral area of his pelvis, as well as from the area near his skull and the soil outside the grave. Next, they performed various types of analysis and tests.

“The results showed the presence of multiple roundworm eggs (Ascaris lumbricoides) in the sacral sample, where the intestines would have been during life,” wrote the authors of a paper published in The Lancet.

Off With His Head

Because samples from near the skull showed no worm activity and those from outside the grave showed only scanty environmental soil contamination and little activity, researchers concluded that Richard must have had been infected with Ascaris lumbricoides.

Although currently uncommon in the U.S., Ascaris infects an estimated 807 million to 1,221 million people worldwide. Those infected often show no symptoms or very slight signs, such as abdominal discomfort. Ascarsis lives in the intestine where eggs are passed into the feces; if defecation occurs outside or feces are used as fertilizer, eggs may be deposited on soil where they mature into a form that is infective. Commonly, infection is transmitted by hands or fingers that have contaminated dirt on them or when vegetables or fruits that have not been carefully cooked, washed, or peeled are consumed.

“We would expect nobles of this period to have eaten meats such as beef, pork, and fish regularly,” wrote the authors. “This finding might suggest that his food was cooked thoroughly, which would have prevented the transmission of these parasites.”

Now is the winter of our discontent… indeed! The body of Richard III was buried in the church of the friars minor (Grey Friars) in Leicester after he died at the battle of Bosworth Field.

Source: Mitchell PD, Yeh H-Y, Appleby J, Buckely R. The intestinal parasites of King Richard III. The Lancet. 2013.