Living like a king

By measuring the different isotopes of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and strontium (13C/12C and 15N/14N, 18O, 87Sr/86Sr) preserved in Richard III’s skeleton, we can find out about the types of food and drink he consumed, as well as where he lived.

Different parts of the skeleton can provide information about particular stages of a person’s life. Samples were taken from Richard’s teeth (which formed during his childhood and early adolescence), a femur (which averages his adulthood) and a rib (which represents the last few years of his life).

Results suggests that Richard moved out of eastern England, where he was born, by the age of seven, residing further west; but moved back into eastern England as an adolescent or young adult. Data also shows that Richard had a protein-rich diet, perhaps a quarter of which derived from seafood.

Such a diet is typical of a late medieval nobleman who could afford to consume plenty of expensive foods like meat and fish. Differences in the values obtained from his femur and rib bone, however, suggest an increase in feasting and in the consumption of imported wine in the last few years of Richard’s life. Kingship had evidently brought about a significant change in lifestyle.

As part of the investigation of his diet and health, soil samples were taken from within the gut area of Richard III’s skeleton, to see if any food residues (e.g. pollen grains, seeds or fragments of plant tissue) or the remains of gut parasites (typically their egg casings) in the gut at time of death were preserved.

The results show that Richard had intestinal roundworms. Roundworm is spread when food is prepared or eaten with dirty hands or when human faeces are used to fertilise crops. In medieval England the parasite would have been fairly widespread. In high-status medieval households, hand washing before meals was routinely carried out, but in Richard III’s case this appears to have been inadequate, or was not followed during food preparation. In serious cases intestinal parasites can lead to severe bowel problems, malnutrition and stunted growth. However, minor infestations may be asymptomatic and have had little adverse effect on Richard’s health.

There was no evidence of other intestinal parasites such as tapeworm, which is transmitted by the consumption of infected meat; this suggests that Richard III’s food was being cooked thoroughly, which would have prevented the transmission of this parasite.

More information on Richard III’s diet is freely available online in these peer-reviewed academic papers, The intestinal parasites of King Richard III and Multi-isotope analysis demonstrates significant lifestyle changes in King Richard III.

  • Carbon and nitrogen isotope data from tooth and bone analysis among rural villagers from Warren Percy (Yorkshire), clergy from Fishergate Priory (York), townsfolk from St Peter's Parish (Leicester) and other burials in the Grey Friars church. Carbon and nitrogen tell us about the sources of protein being eaten - whether it was predominately terrestrial (land) or marine based (fish) and whether it was mainly from plants or animals. The axis from bottom left to top right is thought to represent a growing amount of fish protein in the diet. The differences between the king's rib, teeth and femur are taken to indicate changes in his diet through his life. Diagram modified after Lamb et al. 2014.
  • Decorticated roundworm egg (Ascaris lumbricoides) from sacral sample of Richard III. Dimensions 64.1 x 45.6 µm.

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