After the bones of the 15th-century king were discovered under a parking lot in central England in 2012, scientists scanned the remains of Richard III's back and created replicas of each bone to reconstruct his spine. The researchers said while Richard III had a severe case of scoliosis, he was far from the limping "hunchbacked toad" with a withered arm depicted in William 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. He said it was technically inaccurate to describe Richard III 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.
He 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 to his limbs.
"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.
By analyzing the king's remains, Mitchell and his colleagues also found that his scoliosis developed during adolescence and as a result he was a few inches shorter than he otherwise would have been.
Richard III died in 1485, the last English king killed on a battlefield. The new study was published online Thursday in the journal Lancet.
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.
Gunn added that Richard's uneven posture may have gone mostly unnoticed, because many people in the 15th century had physical imperfections such as bowed legs from rickets, prominent war injuries or scars from diseases.
These days, someone with a similar severe case of scoliosis would probably have surgery to correct it — as did Princess Eugenie, the daughter of Prince Andrew. In 2002, Eugenie, seventh in line to the British throne, had titanium rods inserted into her spine and screws put into her neck to fix her curved spine.
Richard III enthusiasts hope the new research will prompt more people to reconsider the much-maligned king. Some believe Richard III had his two young nephews murdered to keep his throne safe. But the king's supporters say his reputation was tarnished by the rival Tudor dynasty; portraits of Richard painted during his lifetime were later altered to include a deformed shoulder.
"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."