Historical essay
Reclaiming Richard III’s Disability

Reclaiming Richard III’s Disability

Jeffrey R. Wilson

It’s been 10 years since archaeologists discovered Richard III’s skeleton under a parking lot in Leicester, England. But historians haven’t yet rewritten Richard’s biography to include this medieval English king’s experience with disability.[1]

The 2012 discovery of Richard III’s skeleton confirmed his physical disability as historical fact, upending the certainties of earlier scholars who thought it was fabricated by his political enemies. The Tudor historians of the sixteenth century did not invent Richard’s disability but did exaggerate it greatly: the exhumed skeleton shows signs of scoliosis, a sideways curvature of the spine, and perhaps uneven shoulders, but not kyphosis, the medical term for what Shakespeare called a “bunch-back.”[2] Shakespeare and his contemporaries also treated it as a congenital condition when in all likelihood Richard’s scoliosis did not surface until his adolescence.[3]

These findings carry the potential for authentic historical disability representation—disability visibility in history. With a little imagination, we can consider the experience of a privileged young Plantagenet noble becoming disabled, and its impact on his mind, emotions, family, and society.

Portrait of Richard III as a youngish man, wearing a fancy black hat, and holding his pinky finger
Portrait of Richard III. (Flickr)

Because of Richard’s nobility, many records of his life exist, including the prayer book dating his birth at Fotheringhay Castle to October 2, 1452. Unlike five of his siblings, Richard survived infancy. War was all around, but he lived a comfortable childhood, bouncing from one castle to another—private education from tutors, military training on horseback. At eight years old, he lost his father to the war. A year later, his older brother Edward became king, and Richard became Duke of Gloucester, aged nine.

If it was during his teenage years that Richard developed scoliosis, whom did he tell when his body started changing?[4] His mother? His brothers? His friends? A doctor? Many with scoliosis don’t experience pain during the early years. Did others at Middleham Castle in Yorkshire, where Richard spent his formative years, know about his condition? Did cruel kids tease him? If he did experience taunts or isolation, it didn’t stop Richard from fathering two children out of wedlock, probably during his late teen years.

Did scoliosis affect nineteen-year-old Richard’s mobility during his first combat experience at the Battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury in 1471? What conversations about his back did Richard have with his wife, Anne, whom he married in 1472?

His spine’s curvature would have increased as he aged to adulthood. Did his lower back start hurting during travels across England on horseback? Did he pass as able-bodied? Did those who knew pity Richard? Did they pray for him, whisper behind his back, stare, or look away? How much of Richard’s life can be approximated by way of analogy to modern accounts of the mental and social experiences of people with scoliosis?[5]

Richard would have had access to doctors that commoners did not. These doctors may have tried a brace or stretching his spine with ropes. And Richard would have needed to manage the pain of these medical procedures.[6]

As he gathered lands and alliances, building a stronghold of power in northern England during his twenties, did the adult Richard consider scoliosis to be a central feature of his identity, or was it no big deal? Did his impairment cause physical limitations—a disability? Did he encounter a society not built for people with lessened mobility—another level of disability? Did people who knew of his scoliosis mistreat him because of it—yet another layer? Maybe Anne would massage his back, a moment of intimacy that would have been missed if Richard hadn’t been disabled.

Perhaps his brothers and their wives made snide remarks during their frequent feuds. His disability could have contributed to Richard’s withdrawal from meetings at court, starting in 1478. As Richard became Lord Protector over his nephew, Edward V, how often did he think about his back—hardly ever, daily, once an hour, all the time? People with disabilities know that they’re never far from your mind, even if you never talk about them.

Maybe Richard dismissed concerns about his health when asked but managed the pain in private. Maybe he joked about his body to deflect attention. Did he adjust his saddle or combat style? Did he meet others with scoliosis and form bonds?

People probably read religious significance into his body. Disability may have informed Richard’s religious piety, which is thought to have been genuine. Did he seek miraculous healing through the Church? Was charity offered where not wanted? Well-intentioned gestures can be more of a burden than a blessing.

Perhaps he identified with physically disabled characters from the Bible (Mephibosheth, Herod, people healed in the Gospels). Or from classical literature (Hephaestus, Thersites, Oedipus, Aesop). Or English history and literature (from the Fisher King to the beggars in Piers Plowman). All of these characters would have been familiar to Richard, as they are represented in his personal library.[7]

There is no record of anyone during Richard’s lifetime suggesting his disability was socially or politically disqualifying. He became the richest and most powerful landowner in England and king in 1483. Did King Richard disrupt assumptions about disability and what disabled people could do? About royalty and who could be king? How did people read Richard in light of the king’s two bodies—a disabled “body natural” paired with an idealized “body politic”?[8]

He changed clothes several times on his coronation day, perhaps with others around. What did the archbishop of Canterbury think at the coronation, when Richard dropped his purple velvet gown to be anointed on the head, hands, and heart?

There was often music and dance in the York courts, and Richard joined in. During his twenty-six months on the throne, was he able to govern without people constantly thinking about his disability? Or was he questioned? Always wondering whether others were thinking about his body?

How often did he see a doctor? His royal physician, William Hobbes, likely consulted Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine. It may have taken Richard longer to dress, or travel, or catch his breath as he aged. Perhaps he took days off work, downtime allowing Richard to think, read, and talk with loved ones.

Richard’s scoliosis seems to have borne no significant relationship to his political crimes against his family or his legislative accomplishments on behalf of people living in poverty. His complexity of character, which historians have debated for centuries, is only deepened by the discovery of his scoliosis and questions about how or when it may have mattered in his daily life—or not. Richard III is a disability icon precisely because the fullness of his life is neither separable from nor reducible to disability.

Did Richard and Anne’s son, Edward, who lived to be ten years old, ask him questions about his body? When Anne died less than a year later, was Richard’s scoliosis one of the “tribulations, griefs and anguishes” he asked God to free him from in his prayer book? Did disability cause frustration? Resentment? Limited breathing during extended physical exertion, like that experienced by Dominic Smee, a twenty-first-century person with a scoliosis similar to Richard’s whom Channel 4 recruited to study Richard’s physicality? In his own recreation of Richard’s experience in battle, Smee found that his scoliosis wasn’t really a hindrance on the battlefield.

Richard’s ribs likely bulged up on one side of his back when, after his death in battle at thirty-two years old, he was stripped and tossed over a horse. As Richard’s corpse was stabbed and desecrated, some would have seen a disability they never knew about. Did they mock the body of their enemy? Stab around his spine on purpose? Express political hatred through violence upon disability?

The discovery of Richard’s disability creates questions that the historical record doesn’t answer. We are forced into guesswork that bridges emerging knowledge about disability in medieval England with the possible beliefs and behaviors of Richard’s friends and enemies. We are brought to question how much the lived experience of scoliosis in the twenty-first century might illuminate the daily life of a medieval king. The only certainty is that the years ahead will bring historians to confront the disability experience in Richard III’s life as much as he did himself.

  • Good biographies include Charles Ross, Richard III (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981); David Horspool, Richard III: A Ruler and His Reputation (London: Bloomsbury, 2015); and Michael Hicks, Richard III: The Self-Made King (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019).
  • The second edition of Shakespeare’s Richard III (1598) contains the first English instance of the word “hunch-backt,” a misprint for “bunch-bckt,” which appears in all other editions.
  • Jo Appleby, Piers D. Mitchell, Claire Robinson, Alison Brough, Guy Rutty, Russell A. Harris, David Thompson, et al., “The Scoliosis of Richard III, Last Plantagenet King of England: Diagnosis and Clinical Significance,” The Lancet 383, no. 9932 (May 2014): 1944.
  • Up to this point, the most historically informed recovery of Richard’s disability experience in medieval England is Mary Ann Lund, “Richard’s Back: Death, Scoliosis and Myth Making,” Medical Humanities 41, no. 2 (2015): 89–94.
  • See for example Elisabetta d’Agata, Enjoy Life with Idiopathic Scoliosis during Adolescence: Psychology for Professionals of Scoliosis (Barcelona: Junio, 2019).
  • Good guides to medieval medical and cultural conventions of disability come in two books from Irina Metzler, Disability in Medieval Europe: Thinking about Physical Impairment in the High Middle Ages, c.1100–c.1400 (Abingdon: Routledge, 2006) and A Social History of Disability in the Middle Ages: Cultural Considerations of Physical Impairment (Abingdon: Routledge, 2013).
  • See A. F. Sutton and L. Visser-Fuchs, Richard III’s Books: Ideal and Reality in the Life of a Medieval Prince (Stroud: Sutton, 1997).
  • See Ernst Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957).

Featured image caption: The complete skeleton of King Richard III. (Courtesy University of Leicester)