New evidence suggests that England’s infamous King Richard III may have been infected with parasites throughout his short and tumultuous reign. According to a new study published in the Lancet, the former monarch, once demonized as a usurper by William Shakespeare in “Richard III,” likely suffered from parasitic roundworms inhabiting his intestines.
For hundreds of years, scholars were unsure of where England’s much-maligned monarch was laid to rest. Richard III was known to have been in a Leicester monastery following his death at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, but the church was later demolished and its location was lost to history. In 2012, however, a team of archeologists discovered the king's remains under a parking lot in Leicester.
After examining the soil around Richard III’s skeleton, Dr. Piers Mitchell, professor of biological anthropology at Cambridge, found several roundworm eggs in the soil near his pelvis. By contrast, Mitchell found no such eggs in the soil near Richard III’s skull. No other parasites were found in the area. This leads Mitchell to believe that Richard III suffered a genuine case of roundworms in his intestines, making him the first and only known King of England with such a disease.
Roundworms are primarily spread through contact with fecal matter containing roundworm eggs, meaning that if a human consumed food or water that came into contact with such feces, they would likely become infected. Once the eggs are ingested, the larvae make their way to the human host’s lungs, maturing inside the respiratory organ. Then, they crawl up the throat and are once again swallowed into the intestines, where they feed off of the host.
Mitchell tells the Associated Press that the worms would not have posed a life-threatening health risk to Richard III, but would likely inflict him with discomfort, respiratory problems, and possible malnutrition. He claims that English doctors at the time would have likely prescribed bloodletting as a means of relieving symptoms.
It’s also unlikely that such a roundworm infection would have affected Richard III’s spinal deformity. The monarch’s spinal problems have become one of his most remembered traits after Shakespeare infamously described him as a hunchback who murdered his nephews to take England’s throne.
While the evidence points towards a roundworm infection, some medical professionals, however, are quick to point out that this is not definitive proof. Dr. Philip Mackowiak, infectious disease specialist at the University of Maryland, tells the Los Angeles Times that the soil may have been contaminated due to lacking hygiene practices across England at the time.
“There’s no way to tell for sure whether the eggs they saw were present in [Richard III’s] body at the time he was buried or in the soil,” he told the LA Times. To get a more accurate picture, Mackowiak insists, researchers must take samples from the soil in several nearby areas.
Mackowiak enthusiastically agrees with one finding of the survey, however: medieval England had abysmal sanitation practices.
“The presence of roundworms in a king who should be living in the best possible conditions suggests that even under the best of circumstances, sanitation during that time was horrible,” he said.