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Richard III, Scoliosis and Me

The first half of the room is wooden floored but the second half is glass, allowing the viewer to look down into what appears to be the foundations of a previous building on the site. On the far left is a shallow depression that is quite clearly the imprint of a former grave. Upstairs, one can see a replica of the skeleton that was discovered lying in this grave – and what is immediately and painfully apparent is the remarkable serpentine curve of the spine. Surely the person in possession of such a abnormality would have been in constant, terrible pain and subject to an obvious physical deformity? Could the person with such a spine have conceivably lived a normal, healthy life?

I am, of course, describing the recently discovered remains of King Richard III, as displayed at the new and absorbing King Richard III Centre in the heart of Leicester, built directly above the site of the former Greyfriars Priory where the battered, mutilated body of Richard III was brought, slung unceremoniously over the back of a horse. I have long been fascinated by, and attracted to, the character and ‘legend’ of Richard III as I, too, was born with the same spinal curve, or scoliosis. Not only did we share a first name but we also shared the same vertebrae! This interest was galvanised when I studied Shakespeare’s famous play, the source of much of the negative modern image of Richard – a shuffling, scheming, murderous hunchback; an image given malevolent form in Laurence Olivier’s portrayal in the 1940’s film. As I surveyed this labyrinthine coil of bone, my memories flooded back to my experience of scoliosis.

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Laurence Olivier as Richard III

I was diagnosed with scoliosis when I was four years old, back in the early 1970’s. The treatment at that time involved virtually my entire body being encased in plaster, save for my face and fingers and toes. I vividly remember that two small iron bars supported the plaster on either side of my face, impinging constantly on my vision. This treatment was only available at a hospital for sick children in Liverpool, a considerable distance from my home in Derbyshire – to this day, the sound of a Liverpudlian accent instantly transports me back to that time.

Memory, as neuroscientists inform us, is a fickle, malleable entity. We tend not to remember actual multifaceted incidents, but instead just retain our singular last memory of the incident, and these are constantly reconfigured, remoulded, even reimagined throughout our lives. Experiments have shown that people can have very different memories of exactly the same event. With this caveat, I still possess certain specific and vividly haunting memories of that time. The strongest is of me crying and screaming for my parents not to leave me, not to abandon me to this strange and threatening environment, inhabited by people with strange costumes and even stranger accents. This is the earliest memory of my life and it is one of trauma and separation. Allied to this is the even more threatening memory of being subjected to numerous X-rays. I have in my mind’s eye, the imprinted image of me lying on a hard, cold bench surrounded by looming figures wearing masks, subjecting me to an alien and utterly mystifying procedure. Finally, there is the memory of the terrible itches and pricklings that afflicted my skin beneath the plaster shroud. When I finally left hospital after a period of roughly six months, I had to wear a brace around my neck and back which, weirdly, reminds me of the suit of armour Richard III would have worn on Bosworth field.

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Richard III’s skeleton

I have often wondered whether the seeds of my lifelong battle with depression were sown during those lonely, bewildering and frightening days and nights in a Liverpool hospital ward. I have certainly inherited an ineradicable feeling that I am somehow physically repellent – misshapen, deformed, unlovable, even a mutant. Shakespeare famously has his Richard III determine “to prove a villain” as he “cannot be a lover”. I know for certain that when I am in the depths of my mental troubles, I can feel like a small, abandoned and malformed child, crying out for warmth and protection from a overpoweringly hostile, irredeemably intimidating and downright sinister world. The fear and distress I felt when a child invades my adult brain and leaves me as helpless and as rejected as I felt then. This now seems such a part of my mental and emotional make-up that I find it impossible to imagine being free of this fear and dread. In some profound sense, I am psychologically frozen at that time, still a broken child.

The type of scoliosis Richard III suffered from, I learned, is known as idiopathic adolescent onset scoliosis, meaning in layman’s terms that unlike mine, it wasn’t present at birth but developed after the age of ten. No Liverpool hospital, X-rays and fearsome matrons for him. As I took my leave of the museum, though, I felt a definite affinity across the centuries with the defeated king. Perhaps the allegedly dark and suspicious aspects of his character were, quite simply, the outward expressions of a man battling with the psychological consequences of his disability in a world lacking sympathy and understanding, while still trying to exude the majesty of monarchy.

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One Response to this article

  1. As a person with a daughter. A grandson and a great niece with scoliosis. I was moved to read these observations and your experiences
    On reading of the condition in Richard the third and know understanding that this is a hereditary condition. I have been wondering if there is any evidence of the condition in his family members. Ancestors or descendants

    eileen 25th March 2015 at 10:57 pm

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