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.