Richard III the Sickly Child?

Of all the myths that modern writers have created about Richard III, one of the most pervasive is that he was a frail, sickly child who was lucky to have reached adolescence. It pops up in a number of older biographies of Richard, most memorably in that of Paul Murray Kendall, who writes poignantly and purply, “The sickly child who had become a thin, undersized lad drove himself to grow strong, to wield weapons skillfully. . . . His vitality was forced inward to feed his will.”

But what evidence does Kendall base his statement on? Upon one stray line of verse: “So precarious was his health that a versifier, rhyming the family of [Richard, Duke of York], could only report, ‘Richard liveth yet.'”

The verse, however, doesn’t bear this interpretation, as was pointed out way back in a June 1992 Ricardian article by Anne Sutton and Livia Visser-Fuchs entitled, “‘Richard Liveth Yet’: An Old Myth.” As they explain, the comment appears in the context of a 1456 listing of the descendants of Joan of Acre and Gilbert de Clare, known as the Clare Roll. It is a statement of genealogical fact, not a comment on Richard’s health. The Clare Roll, in the form of a dialogue between a friar and a secular visitor, ends with a listing of the various children of Richard, Duke of York, some of whom are described as having died:

“Sir, aftir the tyme of longe bareynesse,
God first sent Anne, which signifyeth grace,
In token that at her hertis hevynesse
He as for bareynesse would fro hem chace.
Harry, Edward, and Edmonde, eche is his place
Succcedid; and after tweyn doughters cam
Elizabeth and Margarete, and aftir William.

“John aftir William nexte borne was,
Whiche bothe he passid to Goddis grace:
George was next, and after Thomas
Borne was, which sone aftir did pace
By the pathe of dethe into the heavenly place.
Richard liveth yet; but the last of alle
Was Ursula, to him God list calle.”

As Sutton and Visser-Fuchs point out, earlier in the verse, Richard, Duke of York himself is spoken of as “Richard which yet liveth,” not as a comment on his health but simply to contrast him with his dead ancestors. The similar comment with regard to the future Richard III should be taken in the same spirit, as distinguishing him from his siblings who have died.

Later, the friar informs his visitor,

“To the duke of Excestre Anne married is
In her tender youth: But my lord Henry
God chosen hath to enherite heven blis,
And lefte Edward to succede temporally,
Now Erle of Marche; and Edmonde of Rutland sothly
Counte bothe fortunabil. To right high mariage
The othir foure stonde yit in their pupilage.

So Richard, along with his siblings Elizabeth, George, and Margaret, is not lying in bed fighting for his next breath, but is merely “yit in [his] pupilage.”

Despite this debunking by Sutton and Visser-Fuchs, the assertion that Richard was a sickly child continues to pop up, especially on the Internet and in historical fiction, probably due in part to the enduring popularity of Kendall’s biography. Given the romantic appeal to Richard’s admirers of the idea of the frail but determined young boy battling his way to adulthood against all odds and the rather Victorian notion that ill health somehow denotes nobility of spirit, the myth is likely to be around for a long time.

12 thoughts on “Richard III the Sickly Child?”

  1. Phew, thanks for clarifying. Don't need a sickly Richard anymore than the pure and saintly perfect one in most of today's historical fiction books on him. I was beginning to think he'd cut sugar if he bled.

  2. We certainly don't need a "sickly Richard", and it's nice that you clarified all of this about "Richard Liveth Yet". However, since Richard apparently didn't look much like his older brothers(certainly not like Edward IV), it's possible that some(possibly modern) comentators mistok his rather "different" appearance( he appears to have been more slende than his brothers, as far as I can tell), but decently muscled from exercise, etc. This wouldn't indicate "ill health" unless — and this is a possibility — he was sick for a while with complications of some childhood illness or the like. Even so, if he survived, it certainly wouldn't mean a "sickly child", just one who had survived an illness, and lived to grow up in apparent good health.
    Anne G

  3. I'm willing to cut Kendall some slack on that bit of purple prose and dramatic license since it was published in 1955. But you're right about Richard's supposed frail childhood reaching mythic proportions.

  4. Wow that's so interesting..I too read about Richard's sickly youth in so many places but certainly had my doubts. Thanks for clarifying- that does make so much more sense. Thanks:)

  5. I think that the tendency to romanticise the 'under-dog' (or sickly child who overcomes his weaknesses to be king) probably says alot about the psychology of the modern reader more than anything. And it is because of this appeal that the myth unfortunately tends to stick, even when evidence to the contrary is offered. I suppose, in newspaper parlance it offers a 'human interest' angle. Hence why so many erroneous stories about historical characters are repeatedly offered up as 'fact'.

  6. If the modern historians bothered to look at Richard’s boyhood and teenage years from the psychological rather than the physical aspect they might have a better understanding of how what happened then was to affect him in later life. Put it this way if it was happening now and I was the social worker involved I’d be removing him from his nearest if not so dearest prontissimo and advocating fostering.

    And don’t mention Paul Murray Kendall to me! He’s not quite the honest broker as advocated by the R3 lobby and if he were alive today I’d be advocating prosecution of what’s known this side of the pond as fraudulent misrepresentation. I’m sure we’d all agree that you cannot have a confrontation between two people if one of them is dead yet the way PMK puts it is to raise the implicit suggestion that it didn’t happen because somebody was afraid of what might happen if it did.

    He would also seem to be guilty of a certain amount of cherry-picking leaving out anything dastardly including what Sue has already mentioned the rather unsavoury episode involving the Dowager Countess of Oxford even going so far as to disinherit and displace his own cousin, George Neville. In the case of his partner’s mother – owing to the lack of a papal dispensation he and Anne were never legally married, so much for the notion of the romantic hero – Anne Beauchamp only received what was rightfully her due through his successor Henry VII. And Bertram Fields is another whose account has more holes in it than a wedge of Emmenthal cheese!

    I do wonder if we’ll ever have a balanced account of Richard’s life. There are times when I’m sitting in the British Library and feeling like the poor embedded reporter in the middle of a war zone. And that perhaps is the real tragedy.

  7. He couldn't have been sickly after being in his mother's womb for 2 years, then born with long hair and teeth:> Seriously, thanks for investigating this particular area of Richard's life.

  8. So, the sickly Richard is the historical fiction version of the farmboy becomes king trope so popular in Fantasy? *grin*

  9. I suppose it's an appealing image – either for the pro-Richard lobby (hero overcomes obstacles to achieve greatness) or the anti-Richard lobby (villainous nature displayed in physical deformity, or the pop psychology angle of a difficult childhood somehow creating a damaged and destructive adult). So both sides can get mileage out of the myth, which is saying something. I don't think it will disappear any time soon.

  10. It’s interesting to read all this in the light of the actual bones discovered, which did indeed show that Richard was very “slender, even gracile” and comparatively short of stature.

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