This week, researchers announced that soil samples from the recently exhumed grave of Richard III revealed a significant number of roundworm eggs and that in addition to his infamous hunched back, the king also suffered from an intestinal infection capable of producing worms up to a foot long. The study, conducted by scientists from the University of Cambridge and University of Leicester, will be published this month in the journal Lancet.
The royal remains were first discovered in September 2012 in a municipal parking lot in the city of Leicester (a spot believed to have once been the site of the Grey Friars Church), and were positively identified as those of Richard III in February of this year. The last Yorkist king of England, Richard III met a grisly fate during the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, marking an end to both his brief, but brutal two-year reign and the three-decade-long Wars of the Roses.
Researchers began investigating this latest revelation about the king’s physical condition after discovering a significant number of roundworm eggs in the exhumed grave. The eggs, which can be preserved for centuries in ideal conditions, were found only near the king’s pelvis and not elsewhere in the grave itself or in the surrounding soil—a sign, researchers said, of intestinal infestation. It’s unknown when the king was infected with the parasitic condition, which was quite common in the medieval era due to poor hygiene and occurs after a person consumes food contaminated with roundworm eggs.
It’s also unclear how the king became infected, though the absence of any other parasites at the grave, including those that are typically found on meat and fish, led researchers to believe that the king’s condition may have been caused by eating soil-based food such as vegetables, as medieval farmers often used feces as fertilizer, spreading the roundworm contamination. The fact that the king’s diet was likely far more varied and expertly prepared than that of a typical medieval peasant may have saved the king (and other members of the upper classes) from additional digestive disorders.
Once hatched, the worms live off their host’s food, as they multiple within the intestines. While the parasites could easily wreck havoc on the digestive systems of malnourished medieval peasants, it’s unlikely to have caused severe problems for a well-fed king—even if the worms grew to disturbingly long, but not unusual, lengths of up to one foot. Piers Mitchell, a Cambridge professor of biological anthropology and a co-author of the study, said it was more likely that in Richard III’s case the infection was likely nothing more than a nuisance, causing frequent (but not very painful) discomfort as the roundworm eggs hatched, matured and made their way through his digestive system, helped along by the king himself as he coughed up and then re-swallowed the worms.
It’s also unlikely that royal physicians would have recognized the king’s symptoms as coming from a parasitic infection, and would have likely chalked them up to the ancient medical theory of the “four humors,” in which nearly every physical ailment could be attributed to an unbalance in four body fluids (phlegm, blood, yellow bile and black bile). Treatment, if any, would likely have included a change in diet or possibly bloodletting. In modern times, treatment for roundworm and other parasites is far more successful (often nothing more than a single-dose pill), but roundworm remains a worldwide scourge, with more than 800 million infected around the world.
While the team has few clues about what how Richard III’s roundworm infection affected his daily life, the news did provide some insight into how his condition may have been exposed, literally, upon his death. When it was exhumed, the king’s body showed evidence of at least 10 major, battle-related injuries, including a large gash to the back of the skull that is believed to have been the fatal blow. In similar traumatic injuries, roundworms are known to move quickly through the host’s system to escape harm and in some cases “pop” out of various orifices, including ears, noses and wounds. So it may not have been just Richard’s hunched back, immortalized by William Shakespeare and later writers, that horrified his opponents at Bosworth Field, but the sudden, frightening appearance of a gut full of worms.