Part One: The Birth of Richard III

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By now I hope most of you have read Thursday’s post that covers how I’m approaching Richard III. If you haven’t, I recommend starting there. Going forward, while I will be providing some basic context on people and events, my aim is to keep these relatively tight biographical posts so the links I include in the text will direct you to older posts that delve more deeply into various topics.

Cool? Great, let’s get started.

One Richard fact not up for debate is his birthday. He was born on October 2, 1452 at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire, England. He was named for his father, the Duke of York, cousin to Henry VI, while his mother was Cecily Neville, daughter of the deceased Earl of Westmoreland and Joan Beaufort. Richard was the eleventh of twelve children born to the York family, however he was the last born to survive to adulthood, while another four had already pre-deceased him.

So, he had a good number of siblings, remote though most of them would have been. The most famous was his eldest brother, Edward, then titled the Earl of March, but who would later become Edward IV. At the time of Richard’s birth, Edward (b. 1442) and their brother, Edmund, Earl of Rutland (b. 1443) were living in Ludlow Castle in Shropshire, close to the Welsh border.

The Yorks’ eldest daughters, Anne (b. 1439) and Elizabeth (b. 1444), had also already left home by 1452. Anne by this time was already married to Henry Holland, Duke of Exeter, however she probably hadn’t joined his household yet and, like Elizabeth, was completing her education in another noble household.

Instead, Richard joined a nursery that included only two of his siblings – Margaret (b. 1446) and George (b. 1449). These would be his peers for the next few years, and due to the age gap between them and their elder siblings, they would experience the coming civil war very differently.

At the time of Richard’s birth, York was Henry VI’s presumed heir thanks to the latter’s then-childless marriage to Marguerite of Anjou. York was thus politically powerful, and his estate left him enormously wealthy. He was also disenfranchised, at least to his mind, and resented that Henry’s favor of other councilors left him out in the cold. Earlier in 1452 , he had very nearly come to blows with the King’s army while demanding that his political rivals, particularly Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, be dismissed, but in the end, he was brought to heel, earning himself renewed enmity from not only Somerset, but Queen Marguerite herself. By October that unpleasantness was ostensibly behind them.

But even Richard’s birth has developed its own cult of legend. Historical tradition points to it as being difficult and Richard himself as a sickly child who was lucky to survive infancy. John Rous wrote in his Historia Regum Angliae that Cecily was pregnant with Richard for two years, while Thomas More later wrote, “It is […] reported that the Duchess his mother had so much ado in her travail that she could not be delivered of him uncut, and that he came into the world with the feet forward.”

Then there’s a poem written in 1456 that mentions all of the York children and includes a line on Richard that says: “Richard liveth yet.” Later writers have taken this to mean his survival was a surprise.

Finally, historian Matthew Lewis notes in his recent biography on Richard that another problematic hint comes from a letter written by Cecily in early 1453 that includes the line: “Encomerus labour, to me full paynfull and unesy.”

Taken together, a narrative formed, but as with much about Richard, it’s not that simple. Of course, yes, it’s very possible that Richard’s birth was a difficult one and that he was in fact a sickly child. Nor would any of that have any bearing on his character. But it’s worth picking apart because this particular narrative has been woven into a much larger one that depicts Richard as a near monster, and of course monsters can’t come into the world easily.

So, to start with the third point and move backwards – Cecily’s letter uses the word “labor,” but was written months after Richard’s birth. “Labor” doesn’t necessarily mean childbirth in this context, and could very well have been in reference to illness.

The poem from 1456 could indicate surprise, but it could also be pointing out the more mundane fact that Richard literally lived in a time when general infant mortality was high. The son born a year or two before Richard died in the cradle, while another York daughter born in 1455 met a similar end. Thus, Richard living was remarkable enough without him surviving any abnormalities.

Finally, Rous and More. They’re both Tudors. Rous’s work, written between 1485 and 1491, was in fact dedicated to Henry VII, the king who deposed Richard, while More’s motivation would have been along similar lines – it behooved them to depict Richard as weak and abnormal. (And, as should go without saying, a two-year pregnancy is of course a biological impossibility.)

Thus, you’re not left with much to go on, save that history builds on history and now here we are.

When Richard’s skeleton was discovered in a Leicester car park in 2012, examination showed that he suffered from scoliosis, a curvature of the spine that would have made much physical activity painful, and in fact raised one shoulder above the other. We’re going to delve into this later, but it’s tempting to point to this in reference to rumors Richard was sickly. At least it would be if the particular type of scoliosis Richard had didn’t develop until he was going through puberty, rendering it a separate issue from his birth.

As for Richard himself, he spent the next six years primarily at Fotheringhay. His daily companions would have been Margaret, George, and the servants running the nursery. His parents would have been distant figures to him, particularly his father, while his four eldest siblings would have been acquaintances at best.

A month after Richard’s birth, Henry VI welcomed his Tudor half-brothers to court and elevated them to the peerage, prompting rumors that he meant to name the eldest, Edmund, his heir in place of York. The point was moot by October 1453 when Queen Marguerite finally gave birth to the long-awaited Lancastrian heir, but even that was made complicated by persistent rumors – started by York and his followers – that the child was her bastard son by Somerset. In the meantime, triggered by the loss of French territory, Henry succumbed to mental illness, York was named Lord Protector, and when Henry revived his senses and took back power, civil war was all but a foregone conclusion.

Our next real glimpse of Richard comes in 1459 when he was seven, so we’ll pick up there tomorrow. In the meantime, if you are so inclined you can catch up on the rest of the 1450s for additional background in the following posts:

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