Richard III Had a Nasty Case of Roundworms

Perhaps the king’s cooks were not washing their hands, or forgetting to rinse the human waste-fertilized salad greens before serving them to their monarch

A sacral sample
A sacral sample (S) taken from Richard III revealed ancient roundworm eggs. Control samples from his skull (C1) and outside of the grave (C2) linked the infection to his body. Mitchell et al., The Lancet

Richard III, whose remains were recently recovered from a parking lot in Leicester, was not alone when the Grey Friars first laid him to rest. The king, a new study in The Lancet reveals, suffered from a heavy dose of roundworm infection.

As distant relatives battle over the Richard III’s final resting place, archaeologists and historians are trying to learn more about him from his exhumed body. In this study, researchers analyzed samples taken from the skeleton’s sacral area—the part of the body that once cradled the king’s intestines and the choice hang-out for parasites such as roundworms. The researchers found a number of ancient roundworm eggs, ranging in size from 55 to 70 micrometers long. To make sure the sample wasn’t contaminated from the surrounding dirt, they also analyzed soil taken from beside the skeleton and samples from the skull.

Somewhat surprisingly, they did not find evidence of other parasites that popularly plagued medieval citizens, including whipworms, tapeworms and flukes. The researchers write: 

We would expect nobles of this period to have eaten meats such as beef, pork, and fish regularly, but there was no evidence for the eggs of the beef, pork, or fish tapeworm. This finding might suggest that his food was cooked thoroughly, which would have prevented the transmission of these parasites.

Roundworms, on the other hand, are spread by food or fingers contaminated with feces. Perhaps the king’s cooks were not washing their hands, the researchers speculate, or forgetting to rinse the salad greens, fertilized with human waste, before serving them to their monarch.

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