King Richard III’s gut was infected with roundworm at the time of his death, according to the first study describing the state of the monarch’s health when he met his end more than 500 years ago.
Scientists examining soil around his remains, which were dug up last year in a car park in England, found fertilized roundworm eggs near his pelvis, where the intestines would have been. The findings by researchers from the universities of Cambridge and Leicester were published today in The Lancet.
Richard III was probably killed by one of two injuries to the skull according to a study of his skeleton by researchers who are also investigating whether he suffered from disease. The results of an investigation of the cause of the hunchbacked ruler’s scoliosis, to be published in the coming months, may shed light on whether his spine was twisted due to illness or genetics, said Piers Mitchell, a trained surgeon who lectures at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Archeology and Anthropology.
“We’re looking at all aspects of his health and not just how he died,” Mitchell, who led the research team that looked at the soil samples, said in an interview.
Richard III, branded as a villain by William Shakespeare, ruled England from 1483 until 1485. He died at age 32 at the Battle of Bosworth Field in Leicestershire, about 100 miles north of London.
Roundworms, which can grow as long as a foot in the intestine, wouldn’t have killed the king, though they could have caused pain if fully grown, Mitchell said. Once roundworm eggs are ingested, they hatch and travel to the lungs where they grow. They then crawl up the wind pipe to the back of the throat where they are swallowed into the intestines.
In the medieval period, people didn’t realize worms were parasites, Mitchell said. They thought any ailment was an imbalance of the “humors,” four body fluids that physicians and philosophers believed affected health and mood. Doctors would study urine samples to determine whether any of the fluids -- yellow bile, black bile, phlegm and blood -- were off kilter and then prescribe a remedy. Treatments included blood-letting into a bowl, medicines made from herbs and spices or a warmer, drier diet to combat cold and dampness.
“If he did pass any worms through his bottom then that’s how they might have treated him,” Mitchell said,
Roundworm infection is still common globally, though is rare in the U.K., Mitchell said. The parasite is spread by fecal contamination, which means the king probably got it from crops from a field fertilized with dung or from people who prepared his food and didn’t wash their hands properly.
Researchers didn’t find any evidence of other parasites related to pork, beef or fish, which means his food had been cooked thoroughly, Mitchell said.