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Richard III’s back!

Despite clear explanations by a spinal expert, the exact nature of Richard III’s spinal curvature is still being misconstrued and misunderstood. As an osteopath, I feel I am in a position to shed some definitive light on it.

Richard was portrayed by Shakespeare as a hunchback (“Bunch-backed toad”), with a withered arm and a limp.

The detailed examination of his spine by the experts has proved that he did not have a withered arm, and there was no evidence of a limp, either. If you think the bones are unlikely to show whether or not he had a withered arm you would be wrong, because the pull of muscles on the skeleton actually causes changes in the bone. That is why new born babies have no mastoid process (the bony part of the skull behind the ear) – it only develops after the baby is able to hold up its own head, as the force of the muscles causes the mastoid to form. Muscles are stronger than bone. Therefore, if Richard had had a withered arm (i.e. one that was paralysed or weakened in some way) it would have shown in his bones.

Finally, Richard’s spinal curvature is clearly seen to be a sideways S-shaped curve, known as a scoliosis. A so-called ‘hunchbacked’ appearance is caused by a forward bending of the spine, as often occurs in the elderly who have osteoporosis, and is known as a kyphosis. You can see the difference in the picture below.

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But what would that mean as regards his appearance and gait? A scoliosis is quite a common spinal deformity, although the severity varies considerably. In fact, I myself have a mild scoliosis, caused by the spine’s natural compensation for a leg length discrepancy. It is so mild that it is barely noticeable, even without clothes (unless you’re an osteopath!)

Scoliosis can also be present at birth (congenital). Many people who have this degree of scoliosis are probably oblivious to it and it wouldn’t affect their gait or appearance much at all.

However, some types of scoliosis can be much more severe, impinging on the symmetry of the ribcage and even interfering with breathing. This type occurs more commonly in females and often begins in puberty when the body is going through a rapid growth spurt, but the complete cause is unknown. Richard appears to have had this type of scoliosis.

What would he have looked like? Because the curve in the spine was quite severe, it is likely that Richard would have held one shoulder higher than the other and one shoulder blade would be more prominent. One hip may also have been slightly higher than the other. His ribcage would also have been more prominent on one side than the other, but when clothed this would not have been obvious. This would show more on forward bending, when the more prominent side would be exaggerated.

Contemporary or near-contemporary accounts of his appearance do not mention a spinal deformity, although some say he held one shoulder higher than the other. So, if his condition was scarcely noticeable whilst wearing clothes, how did it become known to the ‘Tudors’, who exaggerated and added to it for their own ends? I am of the opinion that it was one of two events which revealed his condition. The most obvious would be the circumstances after his death at the Battle of Bosworth when it is reported that his naked body was taken from the field, slung over a horse, in other words bent forwards which, as mentioned above, exaggerates the deformity. The other event which could have revealed his scoliosis was his coronation. In mediaeval times, the king was anointed on his back, chest and head for which his body had to be bared to a certain extent. Although not visible to public gaze because a canopy was used to shield this part of the coronation from view, he would have been seen by the important participants in the ceremony, who might possibly have passed the information on to others.

So, no, Richard was most definitely NOT a ‘hunchback’!

NB:Drawing of spine with scoliosis and kyphosis
Image credit:   hfsimaging / 123RF Stock Photo

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11 thoughts on “Richard III’s back!

  1. Reblogged this on 4 Seasons Health – Blog and commented:

    A blog I wrote for a Richard III blog

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  2. Esther on said:

    Thanks for the post. I am curious as to why so much attention is being paid to Richard’s back, instead of concentrating on his arm. IIRC, both More and Shakespeare said that, at the council meeting where Richard claimed the throne, Richard accused both Jane Shore and Elizabeth Woodville of using witchcraft to injure his arm — not his back — and everyone present was shocked because Richard supposedly had the withered arm since childhood. Since it was the arm (not the back) that figures in this account, I thought it would get more attention.

    Esther

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    • Jasmine on said:

      Probably the withered arm does not get much attention because it was obviously something More made up, along with his supposed dialogues and his description of where the princes were buried etc.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Jasmine is right More was probably influenced by Morton, who was Richard’s enemy. If the accusation did actually happen, perhaps Richard had some temporary problem with his arm, which he blamed on Elizabeth if he thought she was plotting against him. Weakness in the arm as well as numbness, tingling and pain are quite commonly caused by neck problems and this would be quite plausible because of Richard’s scoliosis, which would have put more strain on his neck than the average person. The bones prove he did not have a withered arm. The fact of his prowess in the field of battle also shows he would have had full use of both arms, surely.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. hoodedman1 on said:

    I always wondered if he had some temporary malady like frozen shoulder which influenced the ‘withered arm’ story. I had the misfortune to have this once, and my right arm literally curled up across my chest; to straighten it caused horrific pain (to the point of being sick). It looked strange as well as hurt like heck! A few hundred years ago…witchcraft!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Eva Burian on said:

    I’m permanently nearly begging people to recognize at last what several writers (Matt Lewis ,myself and some others too) try to make the world see.Talking about Richard III,Shakespeare’s character of the same name either should not be mentioned,or it should be understood before mentioning.IT IS NOT ABOUT RICHARD.It is a grotesque parody of the calumnies against him.Consequently Shakespeare knew very well that rRichard hadn’t looked like the character.Shakespeare would be as desparate as I am to read and hear all the horrible things that are said about his work.
    Don’t analyse the real Richard’s looks on the basis of a grotesque character,please (in reality,he was a handsome young man with noble features and a little disability.
    Please,analyse Shakespeare’s oeuvre instead noticing that it is full of anti-Tudor allusions!

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  5. You miss my point Eva! I am trying precisely to distance the real Richard from Shakespeare’s version! So many so-called ‘experts’ even today are saying – “Well, at least the finding of Richard’s remains prove that Shakespeare was right – he WAS a hunchback!” Of course they conveniently forget about Shakespeare’s character having a withered arm and limp! But the general public believe them! I am always replying to erroneous posts on Facebook and on-line newspapers who misrepresent Richard.

    I am pointing out that Richard absolutely DID NOT have a hunchback (not that it would have meant he was evil, even if he had). I am saying that he would have had a perfectly normal appearance when wearing even light clothes – I have patients with scoliosis and you would never know. I am just trying to refute the ignorance of those who still insist on interpreting his scoliosis as vindicating Shakespeare!

    Of course it would be ideal if people discounted Shakespeare when they spoke of Richard, but they never do, unfortunately. The discovery of Richard disproved Shakespeare’s description of him, but still some people say the complete opposite. As an expert in spinal conditions, I am in a perfect position to argue this.

    I am not interested in analysing Shakespeare – he may well have been anti-Tudor – that is not the point! He is seen by the general public as anti-Richard. I have heard an argument also that he was satirising Cecil, a hated political figure of the times.

    And I agree, Richard was very handsome!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Eva Burian on said:

      No,no. I don’t miss your point.The mistake I may have made was not to make clear that I was not commenting your article,but those replies of folks who as you say still want to cling to the old lies,and in their replies to you,they discuss the withered arms as if it could have been ever taken seriously as Richard’s depiction.
      I suggested THEM to analyse Shakespeare instead of analysing a grotesque parody as if it was the portrayal of a real person.
      Of course,you don’t have to analyse Shakespeare,it is our work,that of people of literature.I am actually doing it writing articles about the totally misunderstood Shakespeare.Being a bit of an expert on grotesque drama,I discovered that The character of Richard’s name is a perfect grotesque character–and I also wrote to Matt who defends this interpretation of Cecil,because what he says fits very well into my theory.The play Richard III happens in Tudor’s (Richmond’s) mind,Richard is the Richard he invented,and Richmond is the way he wants the world to see him.Consequently the character Richard can be any villain–Richmond himself was the prototype,not physically,but his ill,mean mind (plots had he laid,inductions dangerous…and the secret mischiefs that he set abroach he laid unto the grievious charge of others ).And even physically,his features were distorted,repulsive:more similar to the character than Richard.
      I posted on your site because sadly,more people understand the physical things which are your special subject,than grotesque drama which is mine.But helping each other’s findings,we can dissipate more drakness,I hope

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  6. OK -I misunderstood your point then! Thank ;you for the explanation – I love that Richard III of Shakespeare could be based on Henry Tudor!

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    • Eva Burian on said:

      It was my fault,because the not too bright comments about the withered arm made me nervous–as these things always do.And I don’t even suggest that the people who post these comments are all stupid,their point of view is stupid,and the wicked and really stupid ones repeat these things so many times,that many otherwise not stupid or vile people who have so many other concerns,problems etc.on their minds, accept them.This is why I really almost beg :please everyone who wishes to stop and think about this,do it without the prejudice that the play Richard III is about the person of the same name.It is a grotesque drama,and grotesque drama always means the opposite of what it seems. It’s highly symbolic.The character Richard has nothing in common with the real one,only the names of the characters.The character is older,he ‘cannot prove a lover’,Richard died tragically young–and NOT like the character–but he already had several children–being so good-looking not surprisingly etc.
      Anyway,I already published some articles about this,and I’m setting up a website about it,on which I’ll mention your findings too.
      Richard is very important,his case shows how people let themselves be misled by victorious and unscrupulous power.

      Liked by 2 people

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