Researchers who dug up King Richard III's skeleton say they appear to have discovered another problem the hunchback monarch had during his brief and violent reign: parasitic worms in his guts that grew up to a foot long.
In those remains, dug up last year beneath a parking lot in Leicester, the researchers say they discovered numerous roundworm eggs in the soil around his pelvis, where his intestines would have been. They compared that to soil samples taken close to Richard's skull and surrounding his grave. There were no eggs near the skull and only traces of eggs in the soil near the grave.
In a study published online today in the journal Lancet, experts say that suggests the eggs near the skeleton's pelvis were from a genuine infection during the king's life, though it's unlikely the worms did him any serious damage. In children, roundworm can lead to stunted growth and a reduced IQ, but for a well-fed English king, the parasites were just a minor annoyance.
Infection typically occurs after someone eats the eggs in contaminated food.
Back in the 15th century, roundworm was very common due to poor hygiene practices, said Simon Brooker, a professor of epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who was not part of the study.
These days, he said, about 820 million people worldwide are infected with roundworm, which can be treated with a cheap, one-dose pill. "Worms are a remaining problem today, as they once were even for nobility," Brooker said.
One of the researchers, Piers Mitchell, a professor of biological anthropology at Cambridge University, said it was the first time any English monarch had been shown to have been infected with worms.
Mitchell said King Richard III would have felt some discomfort throughout his life as the worms hatched and matured in his intestines and migrated up to his lungs and throat, causing coughing or breathing problems. He said the king's doctors wouldn't have linked those symptoms to the worms and probably would have prescribed treatments including bloodletting.
Mitchell doubted the worms would have worsened Richard III's spinal deformity; William Shakespeare's play depicts him as a hunchback regent who had his two young nephews murdered so he could claim the English throne.
Richard III died on the battlefield in 1485, the last English king killed during a war, and he has long been one of the country's most reviled Kings. Some have blamed that reputation on the Tudor monarchs who succeeded him, and hope the discovery of his skeleton will spur scholarship that will correct the injustice they say has been done to the reputation of a goodly king.